Egyptian Mystery Tradition

The discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 led to the decipherment of hieroglyphic writing for the first time1822 by the French scholar Jean-François Champollion. This led to great interest in Egyptian religion and culture in the occultism of the Nineteenth Century.

This esoteric interest in Egypt found its greatest expression in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn built elements of Egyptian religion into its rites, ritual implements, and magical system. Numerous elements of the Book of the Dead were incorporated into the Neophyte rituazl and the death and resurrection of Osiris became the central motif for the cycle of initiations of the Second Order, the R.R. et A.C. The use of the assumption of Egyptian God Forms, a technique which uses the plasiticity of the energetic body to awaken the forces of the Egyptian Deities, became a most potent element of Golden Dawn magic.

Egyptian Mystery Schools

For more than 3,000 years, the mystery schools of Egypt have epitomized the ultimate in secret wisdom and knowledge. Even many conservative scholars of the history of religion have a sense that the mystery schools of Egypt contain within their teachings a particular knowledge that came, if not from prehistoric times, from ancient times. The earliest human records legible, the Pyramid Texts of Egypt (c. 3000 B.C.E.), contain many prayers that are quoted from a far more ancient period, and it is apparent that the prayers were used in the texts as magical formulas and spells.

The mysterious first initiator into these sacred doctrines was known as Thoth and later to the Greeks by his more familiar name of Hermes. Hermes-Thoth is a generic name that designates a man, a caste, and a god at the same time. As a man, Hermes-Thoth is the originator of a powerful system of magic and its first initiator; as a caste, he represents the priesthood, the repository of ancient wisdom; as a god, Hermes becomes Mercury for the Greeks, the god who delivers messages to mortals from the Olympiad and the god who initiates mortals into transcendent mysteries. Later, the Greek disciples of this secret tradition would call him Hermes Trismegistus (three times great), and he would be credited for originating the material contained in 42 books of esoteric science and credited as the founder of the Hermetic tradtion.

In the time of the Ramses (c. 1300 B.C.E.), Egypt shined as a beacon light of civilization throughout the known world, and while the leaders of foreign nations sought to barter for the empire's rich produce in order to avert local famines and to make treaties with pharaoh in order to avert his military might, seekers of the divine sciences came from the distant shores of Asia Minor and Greece to study in the sanctuaries with magi and hierophants who they believed could give them the secrets of immortality.

Students who would be initiates of the mystery schools were well aware that they must undertake the rigors of disciplined study and the training of body, soul, and spirit. They had heard from former initiates that in order to attain the mastery demanded by the priests of the mysteries that the newcomers would undergo a complete restructuring of their physical, moral, and spiritual being.

According to the credo of the mysteries, only by developing one's faculties of will, intuition, and reason to an extraordinary degree could one ever gain access to the hidden forces in the universe. Only through complete mastery of body, soul, and spirit could one see beyond death and perceive the pathways to be taken in the afterlife. Only when one has conquered fate and acquired divine freedom could he or she, the initiate, become a seer, a magician, an initiator.

The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580– c. 500 B.C.E.) learned the secret doctrine of numbers, the heliocentric system of the universe, music, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, and geometry from the powerful Egyptian Magi. Before he established his own school of philosophy in southern Italy, Pythagoras spent 22 years in the temples of Egypt as an initiate in the ancient mysteries.

A particularly interesting aspect of the Egyptian mystery schools is that for centuries the pharaohs themselves were the pupils and instruments of the hierophants, the magicians, who presided over the temples and cults of Isis and Osiris. Each pharaoh received his initiation name from the temple, and the priests were honored with the roles of counselors and advisors to the throne. Some have even referred to the rule of ancient Egypt as government of the initiates.

Although the ancient Egyptians never appeared to produce a philosophical system in the manner of the Greeks or the Romans, the mysteries produced a remarkable number of systematized theologies that dealt with the essential questions about the true nature of humankind and its relationship to the cosmos. The hierophants created theological constructs and formulated esoteric answers that brought initiates and aspirants to the great religious cities of Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis magna, Abydos, and Thebes.


Around the year 2000 B.C.E. Egypt was invaded and partially conquered by bands of shepherd-kings from Asia called Hyksos, who occupied the areas of the Delta and Middle Egypt. The invaders brought with them a culture that was corrupt by Egyptian standards, and for a time it seemed as though the life and soul of Egypt was threatened.

However, the priesthood that kept alive the ancient knowledge of Hermes withdrew to hidden sanctuaries and temples and practiced the secret mysteries. While they outwardly bowed to the foreign gods, they maintained their old traditions and believed in a time when the dynasties of Egypt would be restored in all their magnificence.

It was during this time that the priests began to propagate the legend of Isis, goddess of enchantment and magic, and her husband Osiris, father of the great war god Horus, finally conqueror of northern Upper Egypt. Osiris came into conflict with Set, who killed and dismembered him, scattering his body parts in the Nile. Death didn't eliminate Osiris, for Isis, incarnation of the divine mother goddess, used her magic to put him back together. Osiris and his doctrines were concerned with the problems of life, death, resurrection, and an afterlife.

The initiate who wished to attain mastery over the mysteries of life after death would be sent to knock at the door of the great temple of Thebes or of Memphis. Here, he had been told, the priests could teach what Isis and Osiris knew. If the newcomer were admitted, the priest of Osiris would question him about the place of his birth, his family lineage, and the temple where he had received his elementary instruction.

In a brief but revealing interrogation, if the student was found unworthy of the mysteries, he would be sent quickly away. If the seeker appeared to be one who sincerely desired to learn the truth of the mysteries, he would be led through a corridor to an underground crypt where a large statue of Isis hid the doorway to an inner sanctuary. The goddess's face was veiled, with an inscription that advised all initiates that no mortal could ever lift her veil and look upon her true features until the moment of death.

Within the hidden sanctuary were two columns, one colored black, the other red. The priest explained to the novice that the red column represented the ascension of the spirit into the light of Osiris, while the black one signified the captivity of the spirit in physical matter. Whoever sought the mysteries risked madness or death, the initiate was warned. Once the door closed behind him, he would no longer be able to turn back.

Those novices who chose to go forward were assigned a week of menial tasks working with the temple servants and forced to observe a strict silence. When the evening of the ordeals arrived, two neocoros, assistants of the hierophant, led the candidate to the secret sanctuary, a dark room where statues of the ancient gods and goddesses, entities with human bodies and animal heads, appeared foreboding and threatening in the flickering torchlight.

On the far side of the room, a hole in the wall, flanked by a human skeleton and a mummy, appeared just large enough for someone to enter on hands and knees. Here, the novice was given another opportunity to turn back. Or, if he had the courage, he was to crawl into the tunnel and continue on his way.

With only a small lamp to drive back the shadows of the cramped corridor, the novice crawled on his hands and knees, hearing over and over a deep sepulchral voice warning that fools who coveted knowledge were certain to perish in the tunnel. As the initiate proceeded forward, he eventually found himself in a wider area where he began to descend an iron ladder. But as he reached the lowest rung, he saw below him only a gaping abyss. There seemed no choice left to him. He could not go back, and he could surely die if he stepped off the ladder into what might be a drop of thousands of feet into the blackness below him.

It was at this point that the fortunate initiate, if the oil in his small lamp had held out, would notice a staircase carved into a crevice to his right. Stepping into the crevice and ascending the spiral staircase, he would find himself entering a great hall and being congratulated by a magician called a pastophor, a guardian of sacred symbols, for having passed the first test.

Before the next ordeal, the pastophor explained the sacred paintings and the 22 secret symbols on the walls of the great hall. These represented the 22 first mysteries and the alphabet of their secret science, the universal keys, the source of all wisdom and power. Each letter and each number given in the language of the mysteries had its repercussion in the worlds of the divine, the intellectual, and the physical.

The second test involved passing through a great furnace of flames. Those initiates who refused, protesting that to enter such a wall of fire could only result in death, never got close enough to see that it was all a clever optical illusion and that there was a safe pathway through the middle. Following the trial by fire was the trial by water, which offered no illusion, but only a walk through a chest-high dark and stagnant pool.

Two assistants helped pull the novice from the dank pool, escorted him to a room with a tub filled with warm and perfumed water, then left him to dry off and to dress in fine linens while awaiting the hierophant. Exhausted from his ordeals, the initiate could enjoy the bath, and later lie on a soft bed to relax while awaiting the priest.

Soon music sounded from an invisible group of musicians, and within a few moments, a lovely young woman, appearing much like the goddess Isis herself, entered the room where the initiate lay resting upon the bed. Heavy with perfumes, moving in rhythm to the sounds of harp, flute, and drum, the personification of Isis would do her best to tempt and seduce the novice.

If she succeeded, the initiate failed. He would be sent away from the temple with the admonishment that he had triumphed over death, fire, and water, but he had not learned to conquer himself. He had succumbed to the first temptation of the senses that he encountered after the tests, and he fallen into the abyss of matter.

If, however, the initiate had resisted the seductress, 12 neocoros would enter the room to lead him in triumph into the sanctuary of Isis, where the priests awaited him beneath a massive statue of the goddess. Beneath this representation of Isis, a gold rose at her breast, wearing a crown of seven rays, and holding her son Horus in her arms, the aspirant would take oaths of silence and submission as a disciple of Isis. From that day forward, he would be a recipient of the mysteries of Isis.


The god Osiris appears in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2400 B.C.E.), the earliest of Egyptian records, as the deity of the royal mortuary ritual. The ancient myths proclaim that Osiris first received renown as a good king, a peaceful leader of a higher culture in the eastern Delta, then as a powerful lord over all the Delta. Although Osiris was eventually slain by an evil being called Set, it was believed that the great king's power conquered the grave and enabled him to be resurrected. Henceforth, beginning with the pharoahs and later to all who could afford mummification, all those who paid homage to Osiris would gain eternal life.

Down through the centuries, Osiris was transformed into a veritable god of the Nile and its vegetation, growth, life, and culture. He was the husband of Isis, goddess of enchantment and magic; father of the great war god Horus; and conqueror of northern Upper Egypt with his principal city at Abydos. The cult of Osiris was established at Abydos, where he became known as the Lord of the Death or Lord of the West, referring to his mastery over all those who had traveled "west" into the sunset of death.

An initiate into the cult would be led at dusk into the lower crypt of the temple by four priests carrying torches. In a corner of the crypt was an open marble sarcophagus supported by four pillars placed upon four sphinxes. The chief priest of the mystery would advise the aspirant that no man could ever escape death, but every soul who died was also destined to be resurrected and to receive life anew. Those who would be a priest of Osiris must enter the tomb alive and await his light. He must spend the night in the coffin and enter through the door of fear to achieve mastery.

The initiate would lie down in the open sarcophagus and be left alone in the crypt. The priests would leave him a small lamp which would soon use up its reservoir of oil. From somewhere outside the tomb, he would be able to hear priests chanting his funeral song. Then he would be alone in the darkness, feeling the cold of the grave close in upon him.

Perhaps the initiate would experience a life review or begin to see colors and lights appear around him. This illumination, he believed, was the light of Osiris come to bring him visions. Some aspirants might claim to have had conversations with Isis or Osiris. Others might visualize themselves in the land of the dead, walking and talking with departed spirits and receiving special teachings from Osiris.

Those who survived the night alone in the sarcophagus were awakened by the priests who proclaimed the initiate's resurrection and who brought him refreshing food and drink. Later, at an appropriate time in the temple of Osiris, the newly initiated member of the cult would be asked to describe any visions that he experienced or any prophetic messages that he received while on the journey of light with Osiris.

The theology of Osiris that promised resurrection soon overshadowed that of the sun god Ra (Re). Ra was a creator god, fundamentally solar, a king by nature, whose theology concerned itself with the world—its origin, creation, and the laws that governed it. Osiris and his doctrines were concerned with the problems of life, death, resurrection, and an afterlife. The connection between the two deities was Horus, who was a sky god of the heavens and also the dutiful son and heir of Osiris.

The cosmology of Osiris may be divided into two periods. The earliest period extended to the time of the Pyramid Texts (c. 3000 B.C.E.). He was known as a peaceful political power, an administrator of a higher culture, the unifying factor in bringing the Delta and northern Upper Egypt into one realm, the ideal husband and father, and after his death, the god of resurrection.

The second period extended from the time of the Pyramid Texts to the common era when he was primarily god of the dead and king of the underworld. According to scholar E. A. Wallis Budge:

"[Osiris] was the god-man who suffered, and died, and rose again, and reigned eternally in heaven. They [the Egyptians] believed that they would inherit eternal life, just as he had done."

When an ancient Egyptian died, the deceased expected to appear before Osiris, who would be sitting upon his throne, waiting to pass judgment on him or her. The deceased would be led into a room by the jackal-headed god Anubis, followed by the goddess Isis, the divine enchantress, representing life, and the goddess of the underworld Nephthys, representing death. There were 42 divine judges to assess the life of the one who stood before them, and the deceased would be allowed to deny 42 misdeeds. Once the deceased had presented his or her case, Osiris indicated a large pair of balances with the heart of the deceased and the feather of truth, one in each of the pans. The god Thoth read and recorded the decision.

Standing in the shadows was a monstrous creature prepared to devour the deceased, should the feather of truth outweigh his or her heart. In those instances when the heart outweighed the feather—and few devout Egyptians could really believe that their beloved Osiris would condemn them—the deceased was permitted to proceed to the Fields of Aalu (or Iahru), the real world, where the gods lived. Because humans were the offspring of the gods, the Fields of Aalu (also known as Kherneter) offered an eternal association and loving companionship with the deities. The ancient Egyptians had no doubts about immortality. In their cosmology, an afterlife under the watchful eye of Osiris was a certainty.