The Esoteric Aspect of Religion

By C.R.F. Seymour


There is a difference between the gods of the Egyptian Mystery religions and those of the popular and state religions, which are described by Professor Budge in his famous work “The Gods of the Ancient Egyptians”.

The gods of the Mystery religions are drawn almost entirely from what may be called the Osirian Cycle. The other gods, it is true, appear in the Mystery rituals and systems of training; but as far as is known, their role was a subsidiary one, and a beginner does not require a detailed knowledge of their attributes, forms and numerous symbols.

The Lesser Mysteries center around the wanderings and sorrows of Isis while the Greater Mysteries deal with the suffering and resurrection of Osiris. Generally speaking, in so far as the Neophyte is concerned, the former deal with the generation of the human soul and of the cosmos; the return to the divine.

The part of Thoth, the teacher of the Lady Isis, is that of the Lord of Initiation and the God of Wisdom. It is one of the most important in the rituals. Then a little more in the background are the great Cosmic deities such as Amoun – the Hidden One; the Ra Cycle of the Sun-gods; the Moon-god Cycles and the Nature or Elemental deities. (see Iamblichus “The Egyptian Mysteries”).

The Egyptian Mysteries were essentially magical in their nature and their initiated priesthood seemed to have relied largely on ritual as well as on meditation for the magical training of their Neophytes. The word “magic” as used in this book may be defined as follows:- “Magic is the art of causing changes to take place in consciousness in accordance with the will.” This is a definition, which is well understood by most modern Initiates. In other words, it is a technique for using the mind.

Von Hugel has written in his “Essays and Addresses” – “Magic begins only when and where things physical are taken to have spiritual results apart altogether from minds transmitting and receiving.”

The term magic evidently has changed its meaning. For the ancient initiates it meant mind-training, and the development – by means of such training – of man’s transmitting and receiving faculties with regard to things spiritual and mental.

In most modern mystery schools magic still has this connotation. It is curious to find an eminent Roman Catholic such as Von Hugel, who is famous as a philosopher and a mystic, applying this ancient religious term to things material and removing it altogether from the sphere of the mind. One can understand a Protestant divine, or an Anthropologist making such an error – but not a Roman Catholic. Perhaps the Church magic is from God and all rival systems are from Diabolus!

In the Egyptian ceremonial magic, the modus operandi for obtaining and concentrating to a desired end, magical power was usually that which is known as the assumption of a god-form; and the whole of these magical rituals and rites derived their effectiveness from the ability of the officiating priest or priestess to identify with the god or goddess which was being personified.

It is difficult to explain to anyone, who has not personally had experience of this peculiar magical rite, which is known as the assumption of a god-form, what is the effect of this operation upon the operator and upon those who are working with him. Perhaps the best way of explaining this is by means of an analogy.

An actor of genius is playing the part of, say, Hamlet or Othello. Such a one, for the time being, is the person whose personality he assumes, and it is the historical or legendary personality of Hamlet or Othello that acts and reacts upon the audience and the other actors. The difference between such an actor and an amateur – who merely knows his lines – can be felt by all in the theatre, mentally and emotionally.

Up to a point, this will explain to the non-initiated the validity of the effects of the assumption of god-forms in a Mystery ritual. But it must be remembered that for the Initiates the character or personification which was called Isis or Osiris represented not a human being but vast Cosmic Forces, which were both, mental, emotional and spiritual in their natures. There was behind these Initiates a real power whose intensity was therefore greater than that behind the conception of any literary or even historical character however famous. But remember this is only a rough analogy by way of explanation.

This class of magical ritual is sometimes called in comparative religion “imitative magic”, and it is extraordinarily common even today. The Roman Mass is an elaborate magical ritual for causing changes to take place in human consciousness in accordance with the will. It is efficacious, it is holy, and it is beautiful; it is extremely helpful for those who are in sympathy with it; and it is a fine example of modern imitative magic.

Consider quietly and without religious prejudice the implications of the phrase: “Do this in remembrance of Me,” i.e. in imitation of Me.

The Communion rites of the Greek Church are an even more primitive form of imitative magic than that of the Roman Mass, for portions of the Greek ritual are worked by the priests behind closed doors and out of sight of the congregation.

The Communion rite of the Church of Scotland which is celebrated in the Scottish National Church at Crown Court, London, is another example of imitative magic for you have in this beautiful rite a duplication of the happenings at the Last Supper, the Elders taking the place of the Apostles, and the Ministrant that of the Lord Jesus. This ceremony, simple and ordinary as it may appear, with its actors clad in the garments of the twentieth century, is an exceedingly potent rite for causing changes to take place in consciousness. The Real Presence is there, and it can be felt in this particular case, just as effectively as in the much more elaborate ceremonies of the Greek or Roman Churches.

The Egyptian Initiates’ concept of a god was something very different from the idea which the idol-making Protestant of the twentieth century usually holds. This difference is best explained by an analogy. In a Roman Catholic Church you will see devout people praying before the statues of the saints. If you study Roman Catholic literature you will discover that the informed Roman Catholic does not worship the saint; the latter is a medium through which divine power can manifest for the benefit of the worshipper. You will also learn that the amount of power available is to a great extent regulated by the faith of the worshipper. In other words, the saint is really a psychological device for focusing the worshipper’s mind upon a certain aspect of divine power.

As an example of this, consider the following cutting taken from the “Daily Express” of February 2nd, 1935:-


Two hundred people suffering from throat complaints yesterday attended the Church of the Holy Apostles, Claverton Street, Pimlico, S.W., for “the blessing of St. Blaise for throats.”

They were blessed by the Rev. Henry O’B. England, a chaplain at Westminster Cathedral. He made the sign of the Cross before the throat of each worshipper with two lighted candles twisted into the shape of a St. Andrew’s cross.

St. Blaise was an early Christian martyr who cured a boy with a bone in his throat. Roman Catholics now believe that he is the special protector of the throat.”

The Egyptian god was also a psychological device for focusing the worshipper’s mind upon a desired aspect of divine power. For the Initiate the god was a focusing point upon which he could concentrate when getting in touch with the sources of power which indwell the Earth Soul. By means of the god-form he focused upon these divine powers as the Roman Catholic with throat trouble concentrated on St. Blaise. In the Egyptian religion there were many gods; in the Roman Catholic Religion there are many saints; gods and saints are but different names for the same thing. Both religions use the same methods, for the Magic of the Roman Church came from the Schools of Magic in Alexandria.

The Roman Catholic saints are fellow-workers with God. They serve the “One God”. The Pantheon of the Egyptian Mysteries was but a manifestation of the Egyptian ‘Absolute’, who is generally called Amoun or Amen or Amon, the Hidden One. Budge tells us that in his opinion the educated Egyptians were monotheistic three thousand years before Christ. (See also Iamblichus, “Egyptian Mysteries”).

From the point of view of the Mysteries, there were three great religious centers in Ancient Egypt:-

First, that of Heliopolis, located near modern Cairo, the center of the worship of the sun-gods. Here the specialized teaching was a technique for getting in touch with those Cosmic Forces whose general symbol is the sun, and whose over-Lord is the Logos of our system.

This Mystery deity was some one or other of the many forms of Ra, or of Osiris when he became identified with Ra. (Iamblichus, paragraph entitled “Many names of God-Formation of Matter”).

The second great center was at Hermopolis Magna, some two hundred miles to the south of Cairo. Here were the schools which were dedicated to Thoth, the God of Learning, and the Lord of Initiation. From this center in later times grew much of that literature which is known to us as that of Hermes Trismegistus.

The third center was at Thebes, some four hundred miles south of Cairo. Here were the Colleges pertaining to the Mysteries of the great Cosmic Builders and those of the Moon-gods and Earth-gods. Here was the center of Amoun, the Unmanifest of the Egyptians and the divinities of “Yesod” and “Malkuth”, to use the terminology of the Qabalists.

If these three types of training be examined, it will be seen that generally speaking their special religious teachings deal respectively with the training of super-consciousness, consciousness, and sub-consciousness.

As a rule the Moon forces represent the contacts of the Lesser Mysteries, the Sun forces those of the Greater Mysteries, while the Colleges at Hermopolis Magna trained those priestly Initiates who stood behind the Greater and Lesser Mysteries as the members of an unnamed Order which governed and guided the former.

The classification given above will not cover the deities of the exoteric Egyptian religions. It will, however, be found sufficient by the beginner to act as a “pointer” and to indicate major divisions in the classification of the macrocosmic and microcosmic forces, which were used by the ancient Initiates. It is not exhaustive and it is not meant to be. But the enquirer will find an immense quantity of somewhat confusing information in the following books:-

The Egyptian Mysteries, by Iamblichus; The Gods of the Egyptians, by Budge; The Mysteries of Egypt, by Spence; Thrice Greatest Hermes, by Mead, Vol. I, Ch. 9.

But it is only fair to add that unless the student has a fair working knowledge of the Qabalistic technique for using the “Tree of Life” he is merely wasting his time and his energy in trying to fathom the depths of the Egyptian Pantheon. He will find this technique given in full in “The Mystical Qabalah” by Dion Fortune; a book he is advised to get and to study carefully. Here is the Key Omar Khayyam failed to find.

In the ancient Osirian religions the central figures around which the rituals were construed are Isis, Osiris, Thoth and Horus. Speaking generally, the Egyptians believed that Osiris came from Heaven as a great teacher and that he died for his people. Also it was believed that by his death and resurrection Osiris became the Ruler of the next world and the supreme Judge of the living and the dead.

Even for the non-initiated Egyptians the central point of the Osirian religions was the sure and certain hope of resurrection immediately after death in a transformed body; and this hope was assured to the worshipper by the death and resurrection of Osiris, the ideal man.

In the esoteric concepts of the Osirian Mystery religions this sure and certain hope became something much more explicit – it was an experience to be undergone while still in the body. This resurrection, as well as the symbolic death in the Mysteries, gave to the Initiate the certainty of putting off mortality and putting on immortality.

“The Veil of Isis” may be taken as a Mystical technical term for what is now called the “Censor” in Psychology. It is a psychological factor which prevents man while still in the physical body from functioning consciously on the inner planes. A mortal could not lift the Veil of Isis; but the Initiates who had died the Mystery death and who had risen as an immortal, (and thus obtained control of the Censor!) was able to penetrate that Veil by virtue of the powers conferred upon him at his Initiation.

So far no real consecutive life of Osiris has been found. Professor Budge thought that the story was so familiar to the ancient Egyptians that all writers appear to have taken it for granted. They mention such incidents as may be necessary, but without giving the complete story.

Budge tells us quite plainly that the “classical writers and the Christian commentators had no exact knowledge of the meaning of the history of Osiris, and none of them really understood the details of his cult.” Plutarch in his “Isis and Osiris” (Mead, T.G.H., Vol. I, Ch. 9) warns his readers that the real meaning of the cult teaching is other than the apparent meaning of the exoteric and popular story.

Plutarch’s treatise runs to about one hundred pages, and to the modern mind, taking what he says literally, it is completely unintelligible. He was an Initiate and a Hierophant, and it is evident that in this treatise to Klea he is using expressions which he knows that she, as an initiated Priestess, will understand, but which the non-initiated cannot understand. Budge seems to think we are better off than classical authors such as Plutarch, because we can decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs, which these classical writers could not do. As regards the practical working of the Mysteries, this is an exceedingly doubtful assumption. For, if the object of this book has been made clear, it will be evident from what has already been said, that the Mystery technique is not a dogma, neither is it a teaching. It is a method of using the mind in order to obtain certain experiences in the domain of what may be called, rather generally “Religious Psychology.” If there is any truth in this conception, it is evident that an ancient Initiate who had had these experiences was less dependent upon knowledge of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, than a modern archaeologist or Anthropologist.

From a study of the hieroglyphs, modern anthropologists, like those whom Plutarch made fun of some nineteen hundred years ago, have derived the cults of Osiris and Isis from a primitive hero-worship which has had added to it elements from numerous Nature cults, many of them very ancient. In reality, the Anthropologists derive these cults from a primitive form of spiritualism. Osiris was a dead hero who had become identified with the spirit of the growing crops and with the grain god; and thus eventually he represented the spirit of vegetation in general. Isis was his chief assistant, for she taught man how to use the fruits of the earth.

Later, these two nature spirits, with the growth of the human imagination, became, according to the anthropological school, (who certainly cannot be accused of imagination) the Rulers of the Underworld and the Saviors of Humanity.

History, today, is opening up vast areas that hitherto have been called pre-historic, and archaeological research is pushing back by many thousands of years the beginnings of civilization. For the religious ‘fundamentalist’ the creation and civilization of Humanity began about B.C. 4,000. The historical fundamentalist also used to be in the habit of deriving civilized life from primitive beginnings which took place also about B.C. 4,000 or 5,000.

This habit of deriving all religions from the spiritualistic imaginings of the peoples of that time, and that of considering man’s fears to be the true source of man’s pantheon, are slowly being abandoned. Scientific research and new discoveries in the psychology of religious thought are bringing to light the curious fact that the more we learn of these ancient religions and the better we understand them, the higher becomes our appreciation of their metaphysics.

The origins of Osiris and Isis have little practical interest for the student who is seeking to master the technical training which was given in the Osirian Mystery Cults, and it is better – in the beginning – not to bother about such matters. For such a student is in the same position as a would be motor-car driver who wishes to pass the driving tests. The latter is not interested in the history of the petrol engine; nor in Archimedes as a professor of primitive engineering; but in the practical work of maintaining the efficiency of his engine, and learning how to avoid reducing the manpower of the nation.

In the same way the type of student for whom this book is written is not interested in the history of Isis and Osiris as such, but in the acquirement of sufficient skill in the mental training which was used in the Egyptian Mysteries between say, B.C. 500 and A.D. 500 to enable him to get into touch with those numerous powers which gave life to the Ancient Mystery Cults at that time.

For the ancient Initiate of that period, Isis (as regards the Lesser Mysteries) was the Great Mother of all. She had two aspects to her nature. She was the Virgin sister and wife who dwells within the soul of the neophyte; and as Apuleius tells us, the neophyte had to await the direct and individual appearance of the goddess herself, before he could presume to demand the rite of Initiation.

The other aspect of the deity was that of the Cosmic Mother of all, a role which pertained to that of the Greater Mysteries.

With regard to the first mentioned aspect, that of virgin sister and wife, a little thought will enable us to put into modern language the ideas conveyed by this symbolism.

One of the promises made by the goddess to worthy neophytes was that after Initiation she would never forsake them, but in this life and in the life to come she would be the friend and helper, the guide and the protector. In other words, the “Isis within” is the Higher Self with which by the technique of the cult training the neophyte has been put into conscious touch.

The Cosmic Mother of all, the Isis of many names, is that ocean of primordial mother-spirit from which the gods and humans alike are born. The individual “Virgin Isis,” the Isis within the human soul, is part and parcel of this greater Cosmic Isis, in just the same way that a bubble gleaming on the foam of a sunlit wave is part and parcel of the great ocean.

In the Lesser Mysteries the neophyte was taught, by means of meditation and ritual, the art of ‘centering’ on the “Isis within.” He learnt the technique of going into the Silence, and of waiting until the goddess herself should appear to him. The visions of the ancient neophyte who spent months, sometimes years, in his little room in the College which was attached to the temple, are of exactly the same nature, and have exactly the same religious validity, as the visions that today come to the Christian monk in his cell in a monastery.

The process of attaining to the vision of the “Isis within” and to conversation with her, is – in method – the same today as it was two thousand years ago; for man changes but little.

The “Isis within” is but a symbol which stands for the same power that the modern Christian mystic calls the “Christ within.”

There is a training of the physical body which has to be undergone by all who seek the conversation of the “Isis within” or the “Christ within.” This physical training is a discipline which aims at rendering the body a more efficient tool of the spirit; and in most of the ancient Fraternities, as well as in some modern Brotherhoods, especially those of the Roman and the Eastern Churches, this discipline is given by a daily toil for a definite number of hours in the open fields. The ancient Initiate, by this means, day by day, rebuilt and renewed consciously the link that binds the “Isis within” to the “Cosmic Isis.”

A bubble on the crest of a wave vanishes in a moment when the attenuated film of water that surrounds it loses its proper amount of moisture. So, too, with the relationship between the “Isis within” and the “Isis without.” Unless the tie be renewed and the life force be kept constant in its flow, the would-be Initiate will fail to become initiated. He will be unable to pass the tests at the “Portal”; and here “fake” is not possible. For the guardian at the gate is his own “Higher Self.”

Bearing in mind these remarks, the story of Isis and Osiris as given by Plutarch may be summarized as follows: – Osiris was the divine Son of Nut, the Sky-goddess, and Geb the Earth-god. He became the good king of Egypt and taught the savage Egyptians the arts of civilization and gave them a code of laws. He left Egypt to travel over the world and to instruct other nations. Until his return his wife and sister, Isis, ruled Egypt.

After his return, his brother, Set or Typhon, by a trick got Osiris into a sealed chest and threw his corpse into the Nile. The chest floated out to the sea and was washed ashore at Byblos. A large Erica tree (it belongs to the species of heather) sprang up, and it enclosed the coffin. The size of the tree was so extraordinary that the local king had it cut down and built it into his palace. Isis, aided by children and by the Jackal god Anubis, came to Byblos and made friends with the king, Melcarth, and his wife, Astarte or Ishtar or Ashteroth. Eventually Isis brought the coffin back to Egypt and hid it in an out-of-the-way spot in the Delta. Set, who was now king of Egypt, hunting by moonlight, found it, and cut the body into fourteen pieces which he scattered throughout the country.

Isis collected them all except the phallus, which was eaten by the fishes, and she built a shrine to Osiris over each piece. Taught by Thoth, and aided by certain goddesses, she performed a magical ceremony, that brought Osiris back from the dead, and enabled her to conceive the younger Horus, that is, Harpocrates. The latter came into the world prematurely and was lame. When he grew up, aided by the elder Horus – the Sun god, and by Thoth, he conquered Set, the Evil One, whose symbol was a black pig.

This is a very brief rendering of the exoteric Isis and Osiris myth as given by the Initiate Plutarch. It appears to be a history of certain human personages and certain divine beings. The uninitiated Egyptians probably mistook it for history, as do some uninitiated scholars of today. For the Initiate the above story is part of a myth which is designed as an aide memoire to enable the human mind to attain to certain experiences which are of a religious nature.

In the Egyptian telestic or theurgic rites, the personages in this myth represented and personified certain qualities in the world soul; qualities which are reproduced in the human soul; and one of the objects of these rites was the linking up of the microcosmos with the macrocosmos. Iamblichus tells us quite plainly that the object of the Mysteries was to enable the worshipper to participate in the god – i.e. in a spiritual essence.

In the Lesser Mysteries of Isis, the various rituals represented various parts of the sorrows and sufferings of Isis in her search for the lost Osiris. In their dramatized form the neophyte, by means of the use of the technical system of the cult of Isis, was enabled to merge his human being into the wider and more vital being of that divine force which was personified under the name of Isis or of one of the other gods of the cult. This merging was one of the main objectives of the Lesser Mysteries, and much of their system of technical training was designed to this end.