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Chapter 2

Of the Mysteries

The Path by which to Deity we climb Is arduous, rough, ineffable, sublime; And the strong massy gates thro’ which we pass, In our first course, are bound with chains of brass; Those men, the first who of Egyptian birth, Drank the fair water of Nilotic earth, Disclosed by actions infinite this road. And many paths to God Phoenicians showed; This road the Assyrians pointed out to view, And this the Lydians and Chaldeans knew.

Oracle of Apollo, from Eusebius

We have shown in our history that the Greeks were not ignorant of the Hermetic Art, which they borrowed with their metaphysics so far indeed as such things may be borrowed which pertain to reason) from the Egyptians and Persians, whose temples were visited by nearly every philosopher of note.

Now the Egyptians, that is the Hermetic Art, or Art of Divine works, was by the Greeks called Theurgy; and was extensively practiced at Eleusis, and more or less in other temples of their Gods. On no subject has more difference of opinion arisen amongst the learned: the high veneration in which the Mysteries were held, the intellectual enthusiasm with which the Alexandrians speak of them, the philosophic explanations given in detail by Iamblichus and others, concerning the motive and divine nature of the initiatory rites and the spectacles they procured, have puzzled many inquirers who, unable in latter times to account rationally, have disposed of the greater past as a pantomimic show, sanctified by priestly artifice and exaggerated by a wild imagination, natural as it has been supposed to those Ethnic souls. But then the Fathers of our Church, what frenzy should have possessed them, that St Augustine, Cyrillus, Synesius and the rest, should imitate their follies, transferring the very language, disciplines and rites of those "odious mysteries", to their own ceremonial worship as Christians, and that Clemens Alexandrinus should call them "blessed"? This has seemed extraordinary, and the authorities have been quoted and requited and turned in many ways by modern writers each to the support of his own peculiar view or modification, often, as may be recognized, at variance with the original sense in context.

Warburton’s bias is negative and singularly misleading: he regarded the whole scheme of the Mysteries as a political fraud, came to the conclusion that the gods were dead men deified, and that the greater mysteries were instituted solely with a view to nullify the lesser (1). But, as is natural, hw who so shamelessly charged others to be respected as an authority himself, quickly ceased to be respected as an authority himself, and his notions are accordingly quite obsolete. Sainte Croix, whose researches are otherwise the most complete, sets al in an astronomical and eminently superficial aspect (2). Gebelin and La Pluche see all with vacant agricultural eyes (3); whilst the author of Antiquity Unveiled, notwithstanding so much learning to his aid, has found out only the foolishness of the ancients, and thinks that the mysteries should be regarded as a depository of the religious melancholy of the first men (4). Every trifling interpretation in short has been given, and everything imputed to the Mysteries except a discovery of the Wisdom which they professed. For although some with superior mind, as Thomas Taylor for example, have examined philosophically; yet from lack of evidence, and being without a guide from anything analogous in modern times they too dispose of them as immaterial ceremonies, representations at best of abstract philosophic truths (5).