Christian Churches of God
Mysticism Chapter 1
Spreading the Babylonian Mysteries
(Edition 2.0 19900610-20001006-20080229)
This chapter gives an overview of and introduction to the relationship of Mysticism to the Mystery and Sun Cults and to the Babylonian Mysteries as they have influenced world religion.
Spreading the Babylonian Mysteries
Establishing the Nature of Mysticism
The Oxford Universal Dictionary (p. 1306) defines mysticism as the “opinions, mental tendencies or habits of thought and feeling, characteristic of mystics; belief in the possibility of union with the Divine nature by means of ecstatic contemplation; reliance on spiritual intuition as the means of acquiring knowledge of mysteries inaccessible to the understanding.” In the negative sense it has been applied to any religious belief associated with self-delusion and dreamy confusion of thought, or to philosophical and scientific theories which assume occult qualities, or mysterious agencies of which no rational account can be given.
It is held by most observers of mysticism that the general description of mystical experience is preceded by the qualification of “indescribable” and is now regarded as a necessary element of the experience.
Linguistically, mysticism and its root mystery are derived from the Greek Myein “to keep one’s mouth closed”, in the sense of a secret or occult truth not to be disclosed to the uninitiated.
The prime root is a verb Muo, to shut the mouth. An initiate into the mystery religion was termed Mueo. The term was used as such by Philo (hence, musterion as secret teachings or mysteries).
The initial concepts of non-disclosure were transposed into an inexpressibility of experience, but essentially the mystic and attendant mysticism was derived from the Mysteries. Initially Chaldean, they spread via the Aryans and sources that J. Burnet (Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed., London, 1958, pp. 81ff.) refers to as vaguely Scythian into Europe and east into India. The Hyperboreans on the Danube were to affect Greek religion and force a religious reaction to the Chaldean Wheel of Birth. This was to manifest itself in the Pythagorean School in forms of purging the soul. However, in the Delian school, the northern version of the Chaldean system had the most influence. “In Thrace it had attached itself to the wild worship of Dionysus and was associated with the name of Orpheus. In this religion, the new beliefs were mainly based on the phenomenon of ‘ecstasy’ (…‘stepping out’). It was supposed that it was only when ‘out of the body’ that the soul revealed its true nature. It was not merely a feeble double of itself, as in Homer, but a fallen God, which might be restored to its high estate by a system of ‘purifications’ … and sacraments …” (Burnet, ibid., pp. 81-82).
The Orphic religion had two features which were new in Greece. It looked to a written revelation as the source of religious authority, and its adherents were organised in communities, based, not on any real or supposed tie of the blood, but on voluntary adhesion and initiation. (Burnet, ibid.)
From the thin gold plates discovered at Thourioi and Petelia, it is seen that the Orphic religion “had some striking resemblances to the beliefs prevalent in India about the same time” (ibid.).
The earliest attested case of a Greek coming under Indian influence is that of Pyrrho of Elis. According to Diogenes Laertius, the chronologist Apollodorus said that he was originally a painter and had heard Bryson (the Megaric philosopher) (not the son of Stilpo). Bryson belonged to the first generation of the Megaric school and is mentioned in Plato’s Thirteenth Epistle (3600). Subsequently, he attached himself to Anaxarchus (the Democritean) and followed him everywhere so that he associated with the Gymnosophists and Magi in India. This was when Anaxarchus went there in the train of Alexander the Great (326 BCE). The authority for this is Pyrrhos’ younger contemporary, Antigonus of Cerystus, and quoted by Diogenes Laertius.
From the extract, it is obvious that he had been influenced by Buddhist Asceticism, and Burnet says the following of him pursuant to the quotation of Diogenes in the article ‘Sceptics’ in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (vol. 11, p. 229):
This passage has been quoted in full because it is the earliest well attested instance of Indian influence on Greece, and it reflects with obvious fidelity the astonishment of the good people of Elis on finding that they had produced a saint. We see that those who knew Pyrrho well described him as a sort of Buddhist arha(n)t, and that is doubtless how we should regard him. He is not so much a skeptic as an ascetic and a quietest.
Burnet was much aware that the influences on early Greek philosophy preceded this first recorded Indian influence and he was aware that it came from the north via the Hyperboreans, and he terms the influences Scythian. The real source is that of the Aryans. The Magi in India originated from the Medes, a priestly caste, and they occupied Babylon with the Persians. They were nomadic shamanists, which had developed from neo-Babylonian Animism into the form of Animistic shamanism. They reimported the religion centred on the mystery religion of Mithras and Anahita to Babylon (see ERE articles).
It is asserted by the ERE that, in view of the uncertainty of their origins, whilst they were one of the six castes mentioned in Herodotus 1.101, which Joppert described as Aryan caste titles, they appear not to have been Aryan. Darius writes of his repairing temples which the Magus had destroyed (Bh. [Pers. text] i.63-66, following Joppert who holds that the inscription favours a difference in the religion but is inconclusive), but from the testimony of Herodotus and others there is little doubt that, having failed in their bid for political supremacy, as leaders of the people against the Aryan invaders, they used their popular positions as shamans to:
… insinuate themselves into the open place of priest in the unreformed Iranian Nature Worship, as described most accurately by Herodotus (i. 131 ff); they had only to emphasize certain clear points of resemblance between their own religion and that of the Aryans, veneration of the sun and of fire being the chief.
The ERE notes that the Magis in India, referred to in the Bharesya Purana and the Brhatsamhita, are identified by L.H. Gray as probably Magians. They practised next-of-kin marriages which differentiates them from the Persians. This first appeared in the Pahlavi writings of the Sassanian age as a precept of developed Parsiism. Modern Parsiism repudiates this with the utmost emphasis. Diogenes stated that the Magi taught the future resurrection of men to a deathless existence (ERE, vol. 4, p. 244). Whatever the case, they were an indispensable caste of priest shamans to the Aryans and were skilled in oneiromancy, astrology, astronomy and magic. The word magic is derived in reference simply to the religious learning and occult practices of the Magi.
The Bible refers to these groups as early as 591 BCE when they secured proselytes in Judea. Their contemporary appearance in Babylon is referred to by Jeremiah 39:3,13 (Rab Mag) (for views of the Rab Mag, see ERE, art. ‘Magi’ and the Oxford Lexicon).
The influence of the Mystery religion of the Magi during the sixth century BCE appeared to be spread with Aryan conquests and extended from Ionia to India. The establishment of the Pythagorean School in 529 BCE and the Buddhist Dharma in 527 BCE at Sarnath were extensions of a similar movement.
The Celts, as part of a Middle Eastern and Scythian alliance, had a much greater part to play in the movements of the Aryan and Chaldean theology via the Hyperboreans than is generally recognized, and these aspects will be dealt with in the work on The Celts in Volume 2.
The Mystery religions were established as adaptions of Apollo Hyperboreas of the North and Mithras/Anahita of the Chaldeans. The deities honoured included Demeter, Persephone, Attis and Cybele, Dionysus, Isis and Serapis. From Pompey’s capture of Cilicean pirates in 67 BCE (Plutarch, Vita Pompeii 24), Mithras was introduced to Rome.
The extension of the Mystery religion into Egypt was to lead to confusion amongst the later writers in attributing Egyptian influence on the establishment of the Greek cults, whereas it was Magian shamanistic Animism influencing both. The Egyptians did not believe in transmigration and Herodotus’ observations of practices in accord with Orphic and Bacchic rules do not imply their origin then, but rather adaptions of the Mystery religion to both Greek and Egyptian systems (Burnet discusses this in Early Greek Philosophy at p. 88).
Famous Mystery cults were established at Eleusis and on Samothrace. Budge, in his translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, shows the similarities between the Eleusynian Mysteries and the Egyptian rituals, which at the very least, show direct interaction between the systems.
Neville Drury, in the Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult, gives an explanation of the Mysteries of Eleusis at page 76. These were famous ceremonies held at Eleusis near Athens. Drury states that they were founded by Eumolpus and included purification and fasts. This was common to all schools and was most notable in the Pythagorean. The rituals were sacred to the fertility goddesses Demeter and Persephone. The mystery revealed concerned immortality and rebirth.
After examinations of archaeological remains in the initiation temple, the ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson has stated that the mysteries were of a psychedelic nature induced by the ergot that grew on cereal crops. According to Wasson, participants in the mysteries consumed a drink that contained barley water, mint and ergot and were immediately transported into a spirit world. What was witnessed there he notes “was no play by actors, but phasmata, ghostly apparitions, in particular the spirit of Persephone herself” (ibid.). Drury notes that Wasson’s view is supported by Albert Hoffmann, who first synthetised LSD from ergot in 1938.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter describes how occupants felt “a fear and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea and a cold sweat before the vision dawned in the darkened chamber” (ibid.). This is typical shamanistic practice, here ritualised in a fertility cult that is derived from a Chaldean system.
The practice of meeting in darkened chambers became common to the Greco-Roman Mystery cults and it was mistakenly ascribed to Christian meetings. The Mithras system in Rome was to penetrate the entire Roman army and its public form, Elagabalism, was to become the official cult of the Empire under the Emperor, Elagabalus (218-222 CE) (Samuele Bacciocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1977, p. 241).
These mystical Sun cults with fertility deities as offshoots became ultimately the dominant form in the Empire. The dies natalis Solis Invicti or the birth of the Invincible Sun God on 25th December was adopted by Christianity after the Councils of the fourth century. Both 25th December and 6th January were pagan festivals. The festival of Natalis Invicti appears in the Philocalian calendar under 25th December (ibid., p.259). The cults introduced systems of worship of the eighth day or Sunday, which also replaced Sabbath worship in Christianity (ibid., pp. 241-245 and 250ff.).
The process of the establishment of the Mystery religions into the various religions of the world, and the development of mysticism in them, is an involved sequence of development from the original neo-Babylonian shamanism. The development of mysticism has, because of syncretic adaptation, achieved similarities and differences that are of great interest.
Theistic and Monistic Mysticism
The mystic aims at a union with God. This is achieved by means conditioned by what they think about God, and by what they experience, and in what sense mysticism differs amongst mystics.
R.H. Zaehner in Mysticism - Sacred and Profane (London, 1957), treats the differing mystical experiences – in particular, the approaches to higher and lower truths which seek to interpret creeds from its own a priori notions – in Chapter 3, from page 30 et al. According to Zaehner, in Christianity the Word is usually held to mean a direct apprehension of the Deity achieved according to orthodox doctrine by sanctifying grace.
Zaehner seems to isolate the fundamental differences between monist and theist mystical experiences when he addresses the concept of liberation from the Mandukya where, apart from one’s own immortal self, nothing exists at all.
Brahman is no longer the identical substrate of all things since that would contradict the monist position, nor is it all things; for there cannot be plurality in the One; for the One just is itself and all else is pure illusion (ibid., p. 164).
This is the Samkya position in practice, which Zaehner states would be called Solipsism. Zaehner sees that there can be no logic “in seeking to free from illusion a person who, from the point of view of the would-be liberator, is, by definition illusory. Zaehner sees this as contrary to the quite logical advice of Gaudopada, that one ‘should behave in the world like an insensible object”.
Absolute monism will then take the ascetic or mystic as far as the stage of isolation (the end of the Yogin’s path, according to Patanjoli), but this is really the end of only the via purgativa, the necessary first step before the ‘self’ in Jung’s sense can enter into direct relations with God, whose existence the monist is in any case forced to deny. Hence, it is possible for the Vedantin to speak of reaching a final state of bliss other than that which he considers there can be none higher. Such an idea is unthinkable to the theistic mystic for whom the riches of God, being infinite, are inexhaustible (ibid., pp. 164 -165).
This conflict was understood, albeit instinctively and in a confused manner, by Moslems such as Abu Yazid.
This monism, according to Zaehner,
… affected Islamic mysticism through Abu Yazid and Hallaj, although neither succumbed to the doctrine entirely. It was left to Junayd of Baghdad, who was an elder contemporary of Hallaj (ninth and tenth centuries AD), to formulate the classical Sufi doctrine of the eternal human soul which inheres in God before creation and which is based on the famous Quranic passage of the Mithaq, God’s covenant with the children of men before they were ever created. Junayd’s basic doctrine resembles the Samkhya and also the non-dualist Vedanta in that he regards the task of the mystic to be the annihilation of his temporal being in the ‘idea’ of him that is eternally in God (ibid., p. 165).
Thus we have three positions, and the Sufi mystic appears to derive ultimately from Indian Monism and not any real Theism or, at any rate, is a monistic treatment of God and is not present in the Koran.
Greek Influence on the Origins of Christian Mysticism
The sequence of the development of Christian Mysticism is traced by Andrew Louth in The Origin of the Christian Mystical Tradition - From Plato to Denys (Clarendon Press, Oxford). In his introduction, Louth makes a significant point regarding the use of words in translation and the understanding of the actions of thought and feeling. We approach things from a post-Cartesian viewpoint of the mind. Greek philosophy is pre-Cartesian.
The Platonic doctrines were based on the soul’s search for God conceived of as “a return, an ascent to God; for the soul properly belongs with God, and in its ascent it is but realizing its own true nature”. (Louth, Introduction, p. xiv.)
This is opposite to the Christian approach which “speaks of the incarnation of God, of His descent into the world that He might give to men the possibility of a communion with God that is not open to him by nature” (ibid.).
Thus, within Christian doctrine, there appears to be an inherent impermissibility of mysticism. When the original biblical teachings – which treat of a physical resurrection and a nephesh or ‘spirit of man’ that precludes the existence of an immortal soul – are examined there must be some non-Christian syncretic origin for the concept of the soul and mystical approaches to its union with God. As can be seen, this can be traced to Greek philosophy, primarily from Socrates in reaction to the Orphic Mystery Cults (cf. J. Burnet, The Socratic Doctrine of the Soul, 1916, B6, CCG, 2000). It then became a distillation of early doctrines under Plato and a neo-Platonic refinement under Philo and the eventual result with Plotinus, from whom Augustine drew his writings. From thence the doctrine entered Christianity in a more complete form, together with the modified Chaldean concepts of the soul doctrine and of heaven and hell which came via the Gnostics.
This union with God is found amongst the early Greek cults from Orphic ecstatic or out of the body experiences of purification. The Greek concept of the Nous and its derivatives are important to it. I think, therefore there is that which I think is a Greek thought process given expression by Parmenides.
The Greek nous, noesis, are quite different from our words mind, mental, intellect etc. They suggest an almost intuitive grasp of reality (ibid., p. xvi). Louth goes on to quote Festugiere:
It is one thing to approach truths by reason, it is quite another to attain them by that intuitive faculty called nous by the ancients, the ‘fine point of the soul’ by St Francis de Sales and the ‘heart’ by Pascal.
By means of nous, Festugiere goes on to say:
… the soul aspires to a knowledge that is a direct contact, a ‘feeling’ (sentiment), a touching, something seen. It aspires to a union where there is total fusion, the interpretation of two living things. Nous then, is more like an organ of mystical union than anything suggested by our words ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’, and yet, nous does mean mind; noesis is a deeper, simpler, more contemplative form of thought, not something quite other than thinking (ibid.).
Plato saw the soul as ensnared by the world that is revealed to it by the senses.
To be detached from this world will mean for it to be detached from the senses and the body. So an important element in the soul’s ascent is detachment from the body and the realization of itself as a spiritual being (ibid., p. 7).
In The Phaedo, the man who wishes to attain to knowledge of reality must seek to purify himself: by reason alone, eliminating the senses. The individual, by philosophy, attempts to live a life only really attainable after death. Purity is only obtainable on separation from the enslavement of the body. For it cannot be that the impure attain the pure (67A).
The process of purification has two dimensions, moral and intellectual. Moral purification is the practice of the virtues, justice, prudence, temperance, and courage. This purifies the soul from union with the body, controlling desires and passions by the rational nous which controls the two elements of the soul, that give rise to desires (the to epithymetikon) and passions (the to thymikon). By a life of contemplation, purification is attained and the soul is released and separation from the body occurs, which is how Plato defines death (Phaedo 67D). He mentions this in the Republic and the Laws.
Plato speaks of the decisive importance of education through music involving sensitivity to rhythm and form. This ‘right way’ (Republic 401D) means “that the soul is deeply sensitive to beauty and it is beauty that characterizes the true form of reality” (Louth, p. 8).
Moral purification might be regarded as attuning the body to the true end of the soul, which is contemplation of true reality.
Plato describes the soul’s recognition of true beauty in the forms of the beloved in the Phaedrus as a mystery.
When one who is fresh from the mystery, and saw much of the vision, behold a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there comes upon him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, and then reverence as at the sight of a god (Phaedrus 251A).
There seems little doubt that Plato is here describing the Mystery Cults previously described. When coupled together, they give a very good view of the objects of the experience and the thought process involved. The Orphic rites were designed to purify the fallen god so it could return to the heavens (Burnet, ibid., B6).
From Diotima’s speech in The Symposium, it becomes evident how beauty as love is subjected to the process of intellectual purification – a process of abstraction and simplification. By moral and intellectual purification, the soul is dragged up the steep and rugged ascent from the cave.
A beauty wonderful in its nature. This is the goal of the soul’s ascent. The rapturous vision of Beauty is itself, the Form of Beauty (Louth, p.11).
What is revealed is eternal and ineffable. It transcends the realm of Forms in the sense that the Greek uses the term Forms for higher realities.
The final vision of the Beautiful is not attained, or discovered: it comes upon the soul, it is revealed to the soul (ibid., p. 13).
In a sense, this is reminiscent of Zen Buddhism.
The final vision is suddenly immediate to the soul in the sense of rapture or ecstasy. This is the concept of mysticism that has been developed in the western tradition. It did not start with Plato; he merely played a key role in formalising it. It preceded early Greek philosophy and was derived from the Chaldean religious system, and the doctrine of the soul is fundamental to its structure. It is thus non-biblical and its end product was to be a form of syncretic or derived Christianity.
The next developments are found in the works of Philo of Alexandria. Philo was to become a representative of the Stoicised form Platonism had taken from the beginning of the first century BCE, known as Middle Platonism.
From Plato, the realm of the Forms was the realm of the divine and, with Middle Platonism this was to change to a much clearer conception of a Transcendent God (Louth, p. 18). Plato’s mystical theology is approached from an examination of his doctrine of contemplation and, despite a clearer notion of God, Middle Platonism is, according to Louth, still more appropriately approached from this aspect.
There is no doubt that Philo’s was a mystical theology, but it was one centred on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Philo expounded that God is unknowable in Himself, only being made known in His works (from Louth’s treatment at p. 19 of F.H. Colson’s and G.H. Whitaker’s edition of Philo’s Works (Loeb Classical Library)).
God’s essence cannot be encompassed by human concepts. Philo makes a significant, lasting and often utilised distinction between His essence and His activities or energies. Philo establishes the doctrine of the unknowability of God (often introduced by the sentence from Plato’s Timaeus (28c), To discover the maker and father of this universe is indeed a hard task). Philo uses the biblical statement that God’s existence can easily be apprehended and demonstrated from a contemplation of the order and beauty of the Cosmos.
God, although possessing a limitless number of powers, is known to man mostly in the aspects of the kingly and the beneficent or the creative – making Himself known to man by Grace.
Philo’s language in De Abrahamo is essentially mystical, using the vocabulary of the Mystery religions (esp. De Abrahamo 121-123 “where of three when, as yet uninitiated into the highest mysteries, it is still a votary only of the minor rites and unable to approach the Existent alone by Itself” etc.).
This vocabulary of the Mystery religions was here applied to the three angels at the Oak of Mamre appearing to Abraham, and is found elsewhere in Philo and is frequently in the Christian Fathers. Although the language goes back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Louth says:
… it probably does not indicate any direct influence of mystery cults, for Plato had used such language of the soul’s ascent to contemplation (Louth, p.23).
Contrary to Louth’s assertion, the reverse would appear to be the case, giving a direct lineage of influence from the Mystery religions through Greek philosophy to Plato, and which Philo combines with developing Talmudic syncretism to provide a basis for the adoption of the Mystery religions into Christianity. Its adoption of mysticism without it would have no dogmatic basis for the doctrine to assert itself.
The greater mystery was the passage of the soul into the inner sanctuary of ‘knowledge’ of God beyond that of knowing Him through His activities. Philo distinguishes three types of service and servants: those who serve God through love of God alone: those who serve Him from hope of reward; and those who serve Him through fear of punishment. These three are all acceptable by this descending order of purity and merit. Louth sees Philo’s compassion to those who serve out of fear as being in distinction to the Rabbis, and many of the Fathers.
The mystical quest for the soul in the knowledge of an unknowable God:
… is the result of its longing for God Himself alone, and apart from the benefits of His relationship to us – it is a quest of pure love (Louth, p. 24).
This is pursued in three stages:
1. Conversion to pure religion;
2. Self-knowledge; and
3. Knowledge of God.
The conversion to pure religion is seen by Philo’s description as the cessation from the worship of the creation, which the Magian traditions have established through astrology. The relinquishing of astrology and the belief in the effects of the stars on human behaviour is the first step to a pure religion.
Next, by consideration of self and by self-realisation the way is opened up to a third stage from accurate self-knowledge to knowledge of God Himself. The mind will no longer stay “in heaven”, which is the organ of sense, but withdraws into itself.
For it is impossible that the mind whose course still lies in the sensible rather than the mental should arrive at the contemplation of Him that is (De Migratione Abrahami, pp. 195 ff – from Louth’s quotation on p. 24).
This rejection of the dominant form of the cosmic influence was to be the adaptation which was necessary to allow Christianity to adopt the Mysteries in a more subtle form – the Creator beyond the creation.
Through moral purity the soul was to assert its ascending over the body but, although Philo uses Platonic terms, he reduces the soul to a creature created by God, and nothing in itself.
… self knowledge is not identified with knowledge of God; in self knowledge the soul does not realise the world of the Ideas within itself (as in Plotinus, and perhaps Plato), rather, in self knowledge the soul comes to realize its own nothingness and is thrown back on God, Him who is (Louth, p. 25). The creature therefore has no ... capacity to know God but is given this knowledge by Grace.
The adoptions were necessary to enable a Judeo-Christian reduction of the mystical propositions to be syncretically adopted. It was, however, readapted by Plotinus as noted by Louth and quoted above, and from him it was taken up by the Patristic writings.
Despite their differences, Philo draws on Plato’s ideas in the Timaeus (41C: cf. 90Aff.) that immortal souls are the direct creation of the demiurge, while what is mortal is made by lesser gods.
This concept is a development of Chaldean theology. This plurality of powers mentioned previously is found in Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides (Morrow & Dillon, Princeton, 1987, pp. 233-234). The power of greatness is immaterial and material realities confer superiority and transcendent perfection, whilst equality is the cause of harmony and proportion in all things, revealing the mean term of proportion either in souls or in nature and its end is friendship and unity.
Then since the Demiurge, in constructing the universe, used all the means – arithmetical, geometrical and harmonic – and the uniting bonds based upon them, you would hit the truth about it. I think if you say that this Equality used by the Demiurge is the one intellectual cause that generates the cosmos (ibid.).
This inward search is for what is termed the One in Us, which Socrates called the illumination of the soul (Proclus, ibid., p. 588). So by the One in Ourselves do we approach the One (ibid.). Now it is in this element alone that Philo differs in that it occurs not naturally but by grace; but the sequential development of this entire search is outlined by the Commentary as follows:
And Plato says that the One is known by no sensation, for he says no being senses it – evidently not even the divine sensation, nor the primary cause of sensation, nor, in general, is there any mode of cognition in the divine Intellect that is co-ordinated with the One. Neither, therefore, does the Demiurge sense-perception perceive the One, for even that is a perception of things existent.
Secondly consider opinion; first, ours, then that of the demons, then that of the angels, then that of the cosmic gods, then that of the absolute gods (for these, inasmuch as even they have something to do with the world, contain the rational principles of sensible objects), then that of the assimilative gods (for in these are the causes of the cosmic gods); and, finally, the demiurge opinion, opinion itself, for this is the fount of all opinion and is the primary cause of the things that exist in the world, and from it the circle of difference has it origin. Consider this whole series and say: the One is unknowable to all forms of opinion.
There remains knowledge. Do not regard only what we have; for it is particular and there is nothing venerable about it – it does not know the One – but regard also the knowledge of demons, which sees the kinds of existence; and the angelic knowledge, which sees what is prior to these; and that of the cosmic gods (by which they follow their ‘absolute’ leaders); and that of the absolute gods themselves, which operates transcendently in the sphere of the intelligible; and, higher still, that of the assimilative gods, through which they are the first to assimilate themselves to the intellectual gods; and in addition to these, consider the original knowledge which is united to the intelligible themselves, which in the Phaedrus (247d) is also called ‘knowledge itself’; and, above all these, consider the intelligible union which lies hidden and unutterable in the interior recess of Being itself. Consider all these kinds of knowledge and understanding of existence, and you will see that they all fall short of the One. For they are all knowledge of Being and not of the One. But the argument has shown that the One is above Being. Therefore, all cognition, whether it is knowledge, or opinion, or sense-perception, is of something secondary and not of the One (Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides (Bk. VII), Morrow & Dillon, Princeton, 1987, p. 589).
From the above, the entire argument is developed from Chaldean theology as found also extending into India and is the basic reasoning which resulted in Indian Monism, with a pantheon of illusiory gods and has the same cosmological structure within the ‘Mysteries’. Philo’s adoptions of these were to accommodate some biblical notions to this mystical structure.
Philo and the God Who Speaks
Philo attempted to adopt current Greek doctrines within a biblical view in a form of syncretic philosophy. His doctrine of the Word, the Logos, is a development of the Stoic idea of the divine Logos or reason that underlies and fashions all things.
For Philo, with his pronounced doctrine of a transcendent God (in contrast to Stoic immanentism), the Logos becomes a mediator between the transcendent God and the world, and has both transcendent and immanent aspects (Louth, p. 27).
Louth develops this concept and also that of Ho Legon, the idea of God as one who speaks.
A lack of understanding of the concept of the Elohim and El as the visible face of God and the entities referred to in the Old Testament, have led people to assume that John was adopting mystical phraseology (probably derived from Philo) in the Gospel. He was not. The metaphysical propositions inherent in the Old Testament are perfectly explained by the writings of John and the explanation of Christ, and further developed by Paul. Philo was attempting to explain the same doctrine within a Hellenistic system, and without the background of Paul, he produced a mystical hybrid, which was to terminally affect Christianity.
Philo’s Trinitarian or triune system was later to be developed by Tertullian and is a non-biblical development from the Mysteries, although Tertullian did hold the Holy Spirit as a power of God. Philo did, however, attempt to preserve his idea of the biblical God, even though he was eventually and unintentionally to create, much later, a perversion of biblical Christianity. There is no doubt, however, that his framework was mystical and of ecstatic derivation. The final distortions into Talmudic Judaism and the Kabbalah are logical extensions of his work, which Judaism kept secret for centuries. The entire doctrine is Chaldean and non-biblical.
Plotinus was to be the major influence of mystical philosophy on Christianity. As E.R. Dodds puts it:
… in Plotinus converge almost all the main currents of thought that come down from eight hundred years of Greek speculation: out of it there issues a new current destined to fertilize minds as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson and T.S. Eliot (E. R. Dodds The Ancient Concept of Progress, Oxford, 1973, p. 126) (Louth, p. 36).
Plotinus (born ca. 204 CE) appears to have come from Alexandria where he studied philosophy under Ammonius Saccas. “Drawn to Eastern thought – Persian and Indian – he joined the army under the Emperor Gordion for his campaign against Persia” (Louth, p. 36). After Gordion’s death, he fled back to the Empire and settled in Rome where he taught philosophy. He was thus in Rome after 244 CE at a most critical time to influence philosophical thought and at the time that the Mystery religions were in the ascendant. Mithraism had become the cult of the army, with Elagabalism being declared the cult of the whole Empire about 25 years earlier, a factor no doubt which influenced Plotinus in his earlier direction.
Plotinus and his followers – chief of whom was Porphyry – were Platonists (now termed neo-Platonists), and they resorted to Plato’s writings in demonstration of their teachings, although they do not have the mechanical, geometric structure of later Athenian neo-Platonism (e.g. Proclus’ Elements of Theology).
We can approach Plotinus’ Philosophy or system in two ways. It can either be seen as a great hierarchical structure, a great chain of being, or it can be seen as an exercise in introspective understanding of self (p. 37).
Plotinus’ hierarchy is expressed in terms of three principles or hypotheses or gods. Beginning with the highest, these are: the One or the Good; Intelligence, nous (roughly the Intellectual Principle); and soul, psyche. Soul is the level of life or sense-perception. Beyond this is the more unified realm of intelligence, nous.
This is Plato’s realm of the Forms. Here knower and known are one, here knowledge is intuitive (Louth, p. 38).
This is a possession of knowledge marked by infallibility. For Plato, this was the ultimate reality, but Plotinus – because of the multiplicity of Forms and the duality of knower and known, even if united in harmonious unity – advanced the concept of the One.
Beyond the realm of Intelligence is the One, which is absolutely simple and beyond duality. This concept is directly Eastern and derived from Indo-Aryan metaphysical development of Chaldean theology. Plotinus obtained this philosophical position from Persia whilst he was there, and it was common by that time throughout the East. This development by Proclus into the seven levels to the demiurge from Plato is a consistent theme of mystical theology.
Plotinus’ mechanism is by Emanation and Return, where everything desires to return to the One from which it emanates. All things are striving after contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end, achieving their purpose in the measure possible to their own kind. Contemplation is primal to Plotinus and his notion of return is:
… an extrapolation of his sense of the soul’s desire for return to the One (Louth, p. 40).
Plotinus develops introspective understanding as the means of reaching the One. The way is not up but inward – from the soul, to Intelligence, to the One.
This was directly adopted by Augustine as tu antem eras interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (thou wert more inward than the most inward place of my heart and loftier than the highest).
Self-knowledge and knowledge of the ultimate are interrelated. The soul must be trained and shaped to achieve perfection to reach the One.
Plotinus saw evil as having its source in self-will, conceiving pleasure in freedom; but he makes an extraordinary statement as follows:
[Such souls] no longer discern either the divinity or their own nature; ignorance of their rank brings self depreciation; they misplace their respect; honouring everything more than themselves, all their awe and admiration is for the alien, and clinging to this, they have broken apart, as far as a soul may, and they make light of what they have deserted ... Admiring pursuit of the external is a confession of inferiority ... (Vol. 1) (Louth, p.42).
These fallen souls are in the place of unlikeliness as taken from Plato’s statement (273D) and picked up by Augustine and passed on into the Middle Ages as the Land of Unlikeliness.
Platonist Mysticism became Patristic Mysticism. Festugiere says: When the Fathers ‘think’ their mysticism, they Platonise. There is nothing original in the edifice (Contemplation 5). For him the mysticism of the Fathers is pure Platonism (Louth, p. 191).
The Extent of the Spread of Mysticism
The Chaldean structure mentioned by Proclus above shows that Plato used the cosmic structure derived from shamanistic Animism, which had been adopted by the Greeks. The seven levels of the cosmic structure proceeding to the Demiurge on the seventh and highest is the same seven-level cosmology found throughout Asia and extends into South-East Asia and Oceania. This structure was transmitted by the Altaic shamans and is found amongst the Uralic peoples generally.
To this day, it is still an integral part of the Theravadin pre-ordination ceremonies in Thailand.
It has varied in levels over the years to extend from five levels up to sixteen. The base was seven, and from the period between Plato and the Abbasids the levels were seven. The shamanistic seven levels centred around the cosmic tree – which the initiated ascends by meditative or ecstatic process, either self or drug-induced – replaced the earlier Chaldean concept of the three heavens, which was the common term of reference. This concept was used by Paul at 2Corinthians 12:22 in describing the absolute or outer heaven. The three levels were divided into three sub-levels and the seven became the upper levels of these, as developed by shamanism.
The goal was the ascent of each level by mystical contemplation and inner knowledge, usually by possession. The shaman or initiate was confronted by a god on each level of ascent. Often this was by ladder, which was also used by the dead in an ascent to the sky. The ladder also facilitated the god’s descent.
Thus in the Indian Archipelago the Sun God is invited to come down to earth by a ladder with seven rungs. Among the Dusun the medicine man summoned to treat a patient sets up a ladder in the centre of the room, it reaches the roof, and down it come the spirits that the sorcerer summons to possession (Mircea Eliade Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy, Tr. Trask, Princeton, Bollingen, LXXVI, 1974, p. 487).
The development of this mystical tradition was extended into Talmudic Judaism in the first century CE after and probably influenced by Philo, however, the intrusion was in the form of initiated Kabbalistic occult teaching and did not become openly written about as was the Christian mystical tradition, and explains the separation from later mysticism. A publication in English by Aryeh Kaplen, Meditation and Kabbalah (1982), is useful to an understanding of the Merkabah mystics and their work The Greater Hekhaloth, which dates from the first century CE (noted also by Drury, Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult, pp. 104,113). The Merkabah or the throne chariot of God could ascend or descend through the different heavenly halls or palaces known as the Hekhaloth. The mystic ascended by meditation repeating divine god names in a mantra, projecting his consciousness
… into a spirit vehicle that would journey to each hall in turn, presenting a sacred ‘seal’ to the archangel guarding the chamber. Just prior to the seventh chamber the mystic entered a chariot and was then lifted up into a profound state of mystical ecstacy called the Merkabah (Drury, article ‘Greater Hekhaloth’, ibid., p. 104).
The repetition of divine names as mantras became common to Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Moslem mystics, and were used in ancient Egypt (ibid., p. 189). The Kabbalah developed the concept of Heavenly Man, which allowed God to take human form and this was centred on Kether, the first sphere of the Tree of Life. The mystic path to the godhead in the Kabbalah is held by occultists to be more direct than the occult route. (Drury, article ‘Mysticism’, p. 187.)
Occultists practising Western magic sometimes use the Kabbalistic tree of life. The tree has three pillars. The middle way or middle pillar has three elements, Malkuth, Tiphareth and Kether. The occult journey is via each of the ten Sephiroth, i.e. the three pillars with the godhead at the summit, who is variously described as spirit, light, or abstract infinite reality. Despite these variations, all mystical techniques have as their final goal, communication with and knowledge of that transcendental state of Being (Drury, article ‘Mysticism’, p. 187).
The forms of Jewish mysticism and occultism above are developments of the Mystery cults in post-exilic Judaism, finding a formal expression after destruction of the Temple from the extreme Hellenistic influence up to the first century CE, culminating in the works of Philo and then becoming secret works on mysticism. These works were to penetrate most of the East and find expression in Islam. Even the prophet called Mohammed used this cosmology at Surah 2:29.
It is He who created for you all that is in the earth, then He rose up the Heavens and ordered them into seven heavens; and He has knowledge of everything.
The Commentary on the Qur’an by Al Tabari (Vol. 1, pp. 192-205, Oxford, 1987) shows that the prophet was not understood to be advocating mystical ascent but rather two lives, one consequent to the resurrection. (Quatada separates them by a distance of 500 years, although the Bible specifically states that the period is one thousand years at Rev. 20:4.) The use of the word Sama is held to be singular and Tabari draws attention to the interpretation of Ha-Huwa-Bi-Kulli Shai’in ’Alimun (pp. 204-205) where the then Christians and the Rabbis were being castigated in this section for secret interpretation and denial of the resurrection. However, he seems to have used this shamanistic structure to illustrate the point.
Eliade records that Islamic mysticism received its shamanistic elements after the propagation of Islam among the Turks of Central Asia, although he does note that the ability of Amed Yesevi and some of his dervishes to change into birds and so have the power to fly and similar legends concerning the Bekteshite saints are common to shamanism generally, not only the Turko-Mongol but also the Arctic, American, Indian and Oceanian. In the Ostrich legend of Barak Baba, he appeared in public with a “two horned headdress” (which became the ritual sign of the order he founded) riding an ostrich, which “flew a little way under his influence” (from Kopruluzade, Influence du Chamanisme Turco-Mongol sur les Ordres Mystiques Musulmans, pp. 16-17 as quoted by Eliade in Shamanism, pp. 402-403). Eliade says: “One wonders if it does not rather indicate a Southern origin” (ibid.). This is far more likely as the shamanistic influences were general throughout Arabia and the Levant from the sixth century BCE at least, with a highly developed Greek form.
It appears that idolatry and the Mystery religions preceded and influenced Talmudic Judaism and the rise and development of Islam.
The use of narcotics such as hashish and opium did become discernible in certain Persian mystical orders of Islam from the twelfth century onwards. Eliade refers to the work of Massignon in his note 118 to page 402 on the ecstatic states and the induced Platonic gaze. He states that:
These elementary recipes for ecstasy can be connected with both pre-islamic mystical techniques and with certain aberrant Indian techniques that may have influenced Sufism.
One of the methods of inducing the ecstatic states was by erotic inhibition, which induced a highly suspect form of ecstasy (ibid.). The prevalent duality of monasticism and mysticism, which, according to Wolpert, was spread from Buddhist monasticism (A New History Of India, p. 52), is apparently not accidental but rather the erotic inhibition of monasticism as facilitative to mysticism.
It would appear that the ceremonial ascent to the world of the gods found in shamanistic mysticism has found expression in the Brahmanic ritual, and the ecstatic techniques are common there.
However, as we have seen, the Mystery religions induced trances from the use of ergot rather than these later developments of Sufism, and long preceded them. The Persian God of Light, who (according to the Avesta) appeared before sunrise in a chariot drawn by four white horses, was Mithra. He was the all-knowing god and deity of fertility and abundance. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, a fusion of religious beliefs occurred which saw Mithras associated with Helios and we have seen the extensive similarity with Mithras and Apollo Hyperborios, and the Mystery fertility deities.
Mithras became the mediator with the unknowable demiurge. He was always linked to astrology and Taurus as the constellation entered by the sun at the beginning of spring. The bull-slaying deity was common to the entire East and was a symbol of the Persians as the first animal created by Ormazd.
The Mystery cults can be seen to extend from Europe and Egypt to the Far East and all involve a shamanistic cosmology of the ascent of the seven heavens or levels, and have penetrated Talmudic Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
According to Eliade:
A ladder (klimax) with seven rungs is documented in the Mithraic mysteries and that the prophet-king Kosingas threatened his subjects that he would go up to the goddess Hera by a ladder. (This also) probably formed part of the Orphic initiation (Eliade, ibid., p. 488).
Eliade notes that:
W Bousset long ago compared the Mithraic ladder with similar Oriental conceptions and demonstrated their common cosmological symbolism (ibid., p. 488).
Eliade notes the use of the ladder by Jacob in his dream symbolism, and that Mohammed saw a ladder rising from the Temple in Jerusalem to Heaven with angels to the right and left. He says:
The mystical ladder is abundantly documented in Christian tradition; the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and the legend of St. Olaf are but two examples. St. John Climacus uses the symbolism of the ladder to express the various phases of spiritual ascent. A remarkably similar symbolism is found in Islamic mysticism; to ascend to God, the soul must mount seven successive steps – repentance, abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust in God, satisfaction. The symbolism of the ‘stair’ of ‘ladders’ and of ascensions was constantly employed by Christian Mysticism (ibid., p. 489).
Drury, in his article ‘Fana’ at page 85, shows the development of the stages of becoming absorbed in God, as practiced in Sufism.
This may be three stages: the act of seeking forgiveness from God; the request for blessings from the prophet Mohammed; and finally of merging with the Divine Oneness. The Islamic mystic Abu Hamid Ghezali wrote, “When the worshipper no longer thinks of his worship or himself but is altogether absorbed in Him whom he worships, that state is called Fana”.
This condition is identified by occultists as Kether (Ain Soph Aur – the limitless light), the Middle Pillar of the Kabbalah, and transcends male and female that are immediately below on the Tree and, therefore, symbolised in the mystical tradition by Androgyne. This is the transcendence and union with the One, which may be compared to satori and nirvana in Zen Buddhism and Yoga respectively (Drury, article ‘Kether’, p. 141).
The function of three interconnected parts is noted by Happold (in Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology, Pelican, 1986, p. 119). He terms these the mysticism of knowledge and understanding, the mysticism of love and union, and the mysticism of action (which have affinities with jnana yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga in Hinduism). These contain four interrelated unions of Oneness, Timelessness and Self, other than empirical self and of Love enfolding everything that exists. This is reminiscent of Plato’s comments earlier.
St John of the Cross represents the stages of mystical perfection as a difficult ascetic and spiritual ascent of a mountain (Ascent of Mount Carmel). The cross took the place of a ladder in some Eastern European legends (Eliade, n. 110 to p. 489).
This seven-rung ladder was also preserved in alchemical tradition. Eliade mentions Carbonellis’ work in identifying the codex of the blindfolded men who climb the ladder and on the seventh rung the blindfold is removed (ibid.).
The sequence of ascent found in the writings of Proclus was found in the Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, who was an anonymous personage, probably a Syrian monk writing ca. 500 CE. He based his writings on the works of Gregory of Nyssa and through him the Alexandrian Platonists. Very significantly:
He also made use of Neoplatonism as it existed in the final form given to it by Proclus. Though himself an orthodox Christian, Dionysius adopted many of the Neoplatonic conceptions (D Knowles, The Evolution of Catholic Mystical Theology from The English Mystical Tradition, Burns and Oates, London, 1961, pp. 21-38).
He used the hierarchy of being in the ladder of denial to be climbed by the soul in its ascent to ‘God’.
As we have seen, Proclus’ hierarchy was a pagan seven-tiered form ascending from the demons to the Demiurge. Thus this unknowable, ineffable, inexpressible One became identified with God. Dionysius expanded “the Platonian circle” of the outgoing of all being from God, followed by its return, and the later neo-Platonist conception of the hierarchy of spirits, human and angelic, in which each order receives illumination from the rank above, and passes it down in diluted form to its inferior.
This teaching, in so far as it concerned angelic beings, was to be integrated by St Thomas into the Christian framework, but its chief influence was upon speculative theologians (ibid.).
According to Knowles:
… the works of Dionysius, and in particular the Mystical Theology; were influential with the Victorines and the Cistercians; and the contentions of the new age permitted once more the narration of personal experience freed from traditional formalization (ibid.).
Six hundred years after Dionysius, mystical theology, either speculative or descriptive, was no longer stagnant. The Middle Age resurgence of the Mystery religions in their so-called Christianised form could now develop. Bernard of Clairveaux, in his Sermons on the Canticle describing his own mystical experiences, preceded the elaboration of Hugh and Richard of St Victor or the Victorines, and thus traditional Augustinian forms were influenced by the Dionysian.
Origen and his follower Clement of Alexandria divided life into active and contemplative. Firstly, gnosis and then theoria (contemplation). The Gnosis of the Alexandrians was strictly mystical. Mystical error compounded mystical error and shamanistic ascent became integral to Christianity. The cloud of darkness became divided above and beneath the soul – of forgetfulness beneath the soul and of unknowing for the higher level of the soul. Augustine’s acceptance of the Chaldean soul doctrine remains unchallenged and gives Orthodox Christianity a commonality with Hinduism and Buddhism. Augustine’s division of Church and State and of the two lives is also similar to the caste system found in Chaldea and India. These designations became standard in the ordering of society and religious communities, which was again similar to that found in Hinduism and Buddhism.
To understand this fully, the development of the Indo-Aryan religion must be seen in overview and later examined in detail.
Eastern Indo-Aryan Religion
In Asia, the Indo-Aryan system had two aspects, one held in the nomadic and the other in the sedentary tribes.
The religion of the nomads was what shall be termed neo-Babylonian shamanism. According to Sir E.A. Wallis Budge (Babylonian Life and History, 2nd Ed., 1927, p. 100):
The Earliest people in Babylonia believed that everything possessed a spirit and such religion as they had can perhaps be best described by the word ANIMISM.
This animistic religion extended from the Aryans into the Asian Uralic groups, including the Turkic and Manchu-Tungus to which Old Korean and Japanese are linguistically related. Prior to its conversion to Judaism ca. 740, the Kazar Empire – which included the Huns and Magyar/Finno-Ugrians (Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe, Popular Library, pp. 125-130) – utilised this system, although they were not related racially to the Turkic language group they shared (ibid., p. 112).
The duality of religious and civil power is recorded by the Arab historians of the period, being exercised by the spiritual and symbolic divine leader, the Kagan, and the secular power known as the Bek.
This is a feature of hereditary class normally found amongst the sedentary groups under Aryan influence being here adopted by the (semi-)nomadic. The hereditary nature, either by lineage or family of the classes of great shamans among the Siberian and the Manchu-Tungus and the possession of these shamans by spirits, is dealt with by Eliade in Shamanism Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (Princeton, 1974, esp. pp. 15-17).
Animistic shamanism is the religion of the earliest known inhabitants of South-East Asia and Oceania, being found even amongst the Negritos of the Malay Peninsula, the Semang, Sakai and the Jakun (ibid., p. 337 et seq.). It is from this early shamanism that the doctrine of sickness as a punishment for sin is found among the Semang and other Pygmies (ibid., p. 338), with shamanism more important among say the Sakai and the Jakun.
The expulsion of demons was a feature of South-East Asia and the islands including the Andaman and the Car Nicobarese. The phenomenon of animistic shamanism is common to all the tribes of South-East Asia regardless of their sequence of occupation of the area from Negrito through Proto-Malay onwards, extending into Thailand and China. The concept of seance and spirit contact and transmigratory belief is general. The assimilation of shamanic ritual and world view has been general from the earliest times in ancient India, even to the later assimilation by Moslem Mystics (ibid., p. 402).
The ritual birch ascents to the heavens in the Turko-Mongol shamanism was again encountered in the Brahmanic ritual involving a ceremonial ascent to the World of the Gods and is invoked by the Rig (Rg) Veda 111, 8, 3 (tr. R.T.H. Griffith, II.4) (ibid., pp. 403- 404).
Ascent of the Shamanic type is also found in the legends of the nativity of the Buddha (ibid., p. 405, see Majjhima - nikaya III, 123 (tr. I.B. Horner (modified)).
The moment ... the Bodhisattva has come to birth (111, 123, tr. I.B. Horner (modified)) standing on even feet and facing north, he takes seven strides.
These seven strides carry the Buddha to the summit of the world. This is similar to the Altaic shaman:
… who climbs the seven or nine notches in the ceremonial birch in order finally to reach the furthest heaven, the Buddha symbolically traverses the seven cosmic levels to which the seven planetary heavens correspond (ibid., p. 405).
Eliade holds the view that the old cosmological schema of shamanic (and Vedic) celestial ascent was enriched by the millennial metaphysical speculation of India. It appears merely to have been re-integrated with the early system. In the Babylonian model, the Heaven (and the Earth below it) was divided into three or seven parts. Where the Earth was in three it was inhabited by Ea (occupant also of the lower of the third heavens):
… men, and the Gods of the underworld. The highest part of the earth formed the seat of the God Enlil; and was called “E-Kur” or “House of the Mountain” (Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, p. 99).
The moon god Sin was at the highest levels of the Babylonian ziggurat (cf. the paper The Golden Calf (No. 222) and chapter 3). This is the origin of the Anglo-Saxon word sin.
The summit of the world, reached through seven strides, was thus a repetition of the seven levels of the Babylonian worldview, each inhabited by gods and demi-gods. The underground Sea or Apsu was also surrounded by the all-enclosing sea, i.e. enclosing Heaven and Earth. The underworld was also divided into seven parts ruled over by the goddess Allatu, assisted by the six hundred Anunnaki who took charge of the spirits of the dead.
The Assyro-Babylonian worldview entered India firstly from Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, but finally from the Aryan conquests ca. 1000 BCE (see below).
The animistic spirits were highly developed in the old Indian system, and Buddhism attempted to adopt this system. The seven strides of the Buddha were no longer aimed at the world of the gods and immortality but at transcending the human condition. By becoming “the highest in the world” the Buddha transcends space, and the “eldest in the world” signifies his supra temporality.
Reaching the cosmic summit attains the “centre of the world” which was the source of the creation. Therefore, the Buddha becomes contemporary with the beginning of the world (Eliade, p. 406).
Eliade holds the view that the ‘seven heavens’ goes back to Brahmanism, probably representing the influence of Babylonian cosmology, which (indirectly) left its mark on Altaic and Siberian cosmological conceptions.
The concept of the nine heavens of the shaman and Buddhism is (for Buddhism) that the first four heavens correspond to the four jhanas and the next four to the four sattavasas and the ninth and last symbolises Nirvana.
Each of these heavens contains the projection of a divinity of the Buddhist pantheon, who at the same time represents a particular degree of yogic meditation. Now we know that among the Altaians the seven or nine heavens are inhabited by various divine and semidivine figures, whom the Shaman encounters in the course of his ascent and with whom he converses; in the ninth heaven he finds himself in the presence of Bai Ulgan (ibid., pp. 406-407).
Buddhism has replaced the ascent to the heavens with degrees of meditation towards final liberation. On his death, the monk attains on the celestial plane his yogic experiences reached during life. It is the Buddha that attains Nirvana.
The ascent has developed from the shamanic goal to the complete spirituality of the Buddhist Yogin. This transformation occurred within the religious development of ancient India.
Eastern Mystical Ascent
Yoga and Buddhist mysticism found fertile ground in China because of the shamanistic systems which preceded it. However, Taoism assimilated the archaic ecstatic techniques of shamanism to an even greater extent than either Yoga or Buddhism. This especially occurred in late Taoism, which is extensively corrupted by magical elements (Eliade, p. 453). Eliade notes the:
… importance of the symbolism of ascent and in general the balanced and healthy structure of Taoism differentiate it from the ecstacy – possession, so characteristic of sorceresses (ibid., p. 454).
Chinese shamanism (Wu-ism as Groot calls it) appears to have dominated religious life prior to the pre-eminence of Confucianism and of the State religion. In the first centuries before our era the wu priests were the real priests of China (Groot, The Religious System of China, VI 1205, as quoted by Eliade, p. 454).
According to Wang Ch’ung:
Among men the dead speak through living persons whom they throw into a trance and the wu, thrumming their black chords, call down souls of the dead, which then speak through the mouths of the wu. But whatever these people say is always falsehood (Groot, p. 1211).
The wu were predominantly female (Groot, p. 1209) and they could become invisible, they slashed themselves with knives and swords, cut their tongues, swallowed swords, and spat fire, and were carried off on a cloud that shone as if with lightning. They danced whirly dances, spoke in tongues (the language of spirits) and around them objects rose in the air and knocked together (Groot, p. 1214).
It was not even necessary to be a wu to see spirits and utter prophecies, it was enough to be possessed by a shen (Groot, pp. 1166 ff., 1214 etc., from Eliade, p. 454).
The wu was a healer with the help of the spirits (ibid.). The majority of shen and kuei that the wu incarnated were souls of the dead (Groot, p. 1211). Eliade, significantly, notes that it is with incarnating ghosts that ‘possession’ proper begins.
Eliade also notes that this phenomenon, taken as a whole, closely approached Manchu, Tungus, and Siberian shamanism in general. The Magi shamans were derived from the same general source, which derived initially from Chaldean Animism and evolved into neo-Babylonian shamanism. As a more subtle form of mysticism, it penetrated Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism in their various forms, and Islam. Mysticism is thus a system of syncretic or derived form adopted from its host, but nevertheless in pursuit of the same goal or ascent to a former lost estate, and involves techniques resembling shamanistic spirit possession.
Throughout mysticism the symbols of the ascent vary from ladders and trees to mountains, fire and smoke, vines or rainbows and sunbeams. The “Chain of Arrows” is found in Melanesia and North and South America.
Eliade (who was not really well-versed in Aboriginal myth) stated that in Australia, the bow is unknown:
… its part in the myth is taken by a lance bearing a long strip of cloth; With the lance fixed in the celestial vault; the hero ascends by the trailing cloth (Eliade, ibid., p. 491).
This route is available to heroes, shamans and the spirits of the dead.
Mysticism in the Pacific
Australian Aboriginal belief differs between celestial ascent and animistic occupation of areas.
The function of the medicine man or doctor man of various Aboriginal peoples in northern New South Wales and in the Kimberleys in Western Australia is discussed by A.P. Elkin in Mystic Experience: Essential Qualifications for Men of High Degree in his Aboriginal Men of High Degree (2nd ed., St Louis, 1977, pp. 138-148), and reprinted in Religion in Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology (Ed. by Max Charlesworth et al., UQP, (1989 reprint, pp. 281-291).
The banman (as he is called by the Ungarinyin people of the northern Kimberley region):
… learned to see and understand hidden things. He will be able to see before his inner eye past and future events and happenings in other worlds. He learns to read other peoples thoughts and recognise their secret worries, to cure all illness with the ‘medicine’ stones, to put himself in a tra(n)ce and to send his ya-yeri (his dream familiar) from his body to gather information (ibid., p. 28).
He is closely associated with the Ungudd Snake and he derives from it miriru or the capacity to go into dream states or trances. This capacity makes him like a Wandjina or mythical hero with the same powers as the ancestor heroes. The ‘doctor men’ in the south-west of the Kimberleys derive their power from spirit beings called rai, who give them an inner eye by which they can see the invisible or travel through the air or under the ground.
The transmission of knowledge, psychic insight, mystic experience and personality authority which distinguish the “order” of what Elkin terms ‘The men of High Degree’ are by rules of conduct and taboos.
Elkin records that T.G.H. Strelow, when referring to the death of what he considered the last of the Western Aranda medicine men, added that:
… the latter as a young man had a strange visionary experience after which he sat about in a state of trance for some time. He was then deemed a fit candidate for admission to the Order of Medicine men and was put through the whole ritual in spite of once running away in terror from the grimness of this ordeal (ibid., p. 282).
From Dr Petri’s material on medicine men, Elkin notes that:
… a young man, during his initiation would get the idea of being a banman (or bainman), and if he had dreams or visions of water, pandanus and bark when near a water place, he was said to be chosen by Unggud to be a banman. A vision of his dream totem’s visit to heaven would have the same significance (ibid., p. 286).
The spirit snake Unggud is “in its very essence” visible only to medicine men. It is a giant snake with arms, hands and a feathered ‘crown’. (This is reminiscent of the Plumed Serpent of South America.) The snake in a subterranean cave confers on him secret strength, inner light and equality with the snake.
The psychic element conferred by Unggud is all-pervasive. It is termed miriru.
Fundamentally it is the capacity bestowed on the medicine man to go into a dream state or trance with its possibilities. Indeed miriru makes him like a Wandjina, having the same abilities as the heroes of ‘creation times’ (Petri, 1954, pp. 232-233 as quoted by Elgin, ibid.).
Trance states appear to extend to mass hypnotism involving battles in the air of medicine men seated on the backs of Unggud snakes (dragons?). Varying accounts (in Dampier Land and the Lower Fitzroy River region) extend to rai or spirit beings or spirits of the dead and may be pre-existent spirit children, including those who will be reincarnated.
The rais live in a chasm where they go in and out (ibid., p. 289). The banman is taken there and cut up and his body is dead but his soul remains there. His body is put over a hot earth oven and then the rai replace his intestines and close up the flesh.
He is told that he can henceforth travel in the air like a bird or under the ground like a goanna. Actually he is sleeping in one place while travelling in his mind, for ‘his spirit became many’ (ibid.).
He has an inner eye capable of seeing disease, over distance and can listen to the dead. The astral rope is visible to him and he is transported by the rai on the ‘aerial rope’. The concept is held of the opening tree, which closes on the medicine man if he enters it and causes him to be sick. The rai magician gives him the lesson and opens the tree to release the one who is squeezed in it (ibid., p. 290). This is strangely reminiscent of the deity that emerges from the tree in the pre-Aryan civilisation in India mentioned by Wolpert.
Certainly, the trance states and travel and the types of symbolism are similar to elementary shamanism. They lack the subtlety of later mysticism, probably due to their extreme isolation. Only where mysticism was forced to adapt to other concepts was it necessary to refine the concept to an ascent and to isolate the shamanistic powers from them.
The Aboriginal forms of mysticism are probably derivatives of an early Asian type. Aboriginal cosmology for the dead varies in its forms from an ascent to heaven, among some tribes, to a pure animistic transmigratory inhabitance of the material surroundings amongst others.
Eliade claims “[t]here is no solution of continuity in the history of ‘mysticism’” (p. 508). The nostalgia for paradise is suggested as one of the oldest types of Christian mystical experience (ibid.). He notes that:
… the ‘inner light’ which plays a part of the first importance in Indian mysticism and metaphysics as well as in christian mystical theology, (is) already documented in Eskimo shamanism. We may add that the magical stones with which the Australian medicine man’s body is stuffed are in some degree symbolic of solidified light (ibid.).
These stones are most often quartz crystals, and are mentioned by Elkin in his work above, and are elemental to shamanistic Animism, at least from Asia to the Eskimos.
Eliade notes that the Narrinyeri, Dieri, Buondik, Kurnai and Kulin believe that the dead rise into the sky. Amongst the Kulin, they go up by the rays of the setting sun. In Central Australia, however, the dead haunt familiar places where they had passed their lives; elsewhere, they go to certain regions in the west (Eliade, p. 491).
The Maori have as many as ten heavens and the gods dwell in the last. The priest attempts to separate the soul from the body. Among the Maori as elsewhere:
… only the privileged go up to the sky; the rest of mankind depart across the ocean or to a subterranean world (Eliade, p. 492).
According to Eliade, all of the symbolisms are variants of the World Tree theme or Axis Mundi.
The myths refer to a primordial illud tempus.
… but some of them tell of a celestial ascent performed by a hero or sovereign or sorcerer after communication was broken off; in other words, they imply the possibility, for certain privileged or elect persons, of returning to the origin of time; of recovering the mythical and paradisal moment before the ‘fall’, that is, before the broken communications between heaven and earth (Eliade, pp. 492-493).
The mystical initiate is attempting to join the shaman or privileged in the cosmic ascent, and the technique of ecstasy, employed initially by the shamans and extended throughout the Chaldean mystery religions, is employed by the mystic and induced by drugs or chanting or spirit possession. The drug usage is essentially a primitive and aberrant form of a religious system, which has, by syncretism, transcended all the major world religions.
Eliade says, in effect, that one may ask the question whether the aberrant aspect of the shamanic trance is not due to the shamans attempt to experience in concrete form a symbolism and a mythology that by their very nature are not capable of being realised on the ‘concrete’ plane.
[I]f, in short, the desire to obtain, at any cost and by any means, as ascent in concreto, a mystical and at the same time real, journey to heaven, did not result in the aberrant trances that we have seen; if finally, these types of behaviour are not the inevitable consequence of an intense desire to ‘live’, that is, to ‘experience’ on the plane of the body, what in the present condition of humanity is no longer accessible except on the plane of ‘spirit’. But we prefer to leave this problem open; in any case it is one that reaches beyond the bounds of the history of religions and enters the domain of philosophy and theology (Eliade, p. 494).
But there is a solution and it is correct that it involves all three disciplines and much more.
Tracing the Path
The elements of shamanism, which form a conditioned base for mysticism, are a communal system of beliefs which affect the psychic process of a people. It has been demonstrated above that there is a fundamental diffusion whereby only the path and sequence are unsure. What follows is an examination of the sequence of development of mysticism throughout the world.
Perhaps there is, after all, a solution of continuity and also of meaning in the practices on a traceable basis which has been hidden in a jumble of incorrect suppositions. When the structure is unravelled and the meanings understood, the result, as will be seen from the concluding sections, is astounding and very relevant to the present.
We will see how Babylon the Great became the world religion through Mysticism.
Revelation 17:5 And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. (KJV)