offered graded instruction in the divine mysteries that governedboth cosmogony—the creation and origins of the universe—andthe spiritual evolution and self-actualization of individual seek-ers. Among the most celebrated schools were those preservingand ceremonializing the Eleusinian, Orphic, and Dionysianmysterieswithcommunalactivities,rites,andfestivals.
Acom-mon theme of mystery school teachings was that divine revela-tion is accessible to sufﬁciently prepared and initiated suppli-cants or students. Among the most lasting and inﬂuentialsources of such revelation was the god-man Hermes Trismegis-tus, a hybrid of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. TheHermetic school was founded to pass along revelations on oc-cult and scientiﬁc matters to initiates.
In Angus’ classic and authoritative work,
The Mystery-Reli- gions
mystery schools are described as arcane religions charac-terized by emphases on symbolism, redemption, gnosis, emo-tion-inducing sacramental drama, eschatology, personal rebirth,and cosmic interest. For the individual seeking reception by arespectiveschool,candidacycomprisedthreestages:
,or preparation and probation, including the swearing of secretvows;
, or initiation and communion, for purposes of beginning the process of regeneration; and
, or experi-ence of an epiphany or theophany, leading to blessedness andsalvation, or even immortality. Initiation was the central act inthis drama, from the individual’s perspective, and the fulcrumby which any subsequent knowledge or experience was gained.Speciﬁcally, initiation into the mysteries sought “to ‘open theimmortal eyes of man inwards’: exalt his powers of perceptionuntil they could receive the messages of a higher degree of real-ity.”
In practice, this consisted of experiencing a ritual death of the physical body and subsequent resurrection into a new bodywith new capabilities of drawing down gnosis, or secret wisdom,often regarding the functioning of the body itself .
Much of the information received by initiates thus spoke tomatters related to normal and pathological physiology and tothe salutogenic process by which pathophysiological statescould be reversed. Nearly all of the ancient civilizations thatsponsored mystery schools (Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Phoeni-cia, India, Iran, Greece, and Rome) also hosted a pantheon of deities accessible to oracles, priests, and initiates for purposes of facilitating healing.
Through associated norms and rituals gov-erning interaction and communion with these sources of gnosis,the beliefs and practices promulgated by the mysteries, as far asmedicine was concerned, were ubiquitous and widespread.Across schools, deep fonts of revealed wisdom were availableconcerninghowtounderstandandapproachhealth—one’sown,thatofanotherperson,andintheory—andhowtoeffectphysicalhealing.
Within the Greek healing cult of Aesclepius, for ex-ample, initiated priest-physicians oversaw great healing templesand shrines, operated medicinal springs, diagnosed and treateddisease through interpreting patients’ dreams, and marshaled atherapeutic armamentarium that correlates with what todaywould be termed natural hygiene: fresh air, clean water, sounddiet, and wholesome personal habits. The most famous Aes-clepian initiate was Hippocrates, whose reforms hastened theevolution of medicine from metaphysical to scientiﬁc disci-pline.
The Gnostic Tradition
In the couple of centuries before and after the time of Jesus, apair of sectarian religious traditions respectively ﬂourished inthe Holy Land. The Essenes, a minor branch of Judaism, andthe gnostics, a name much later given to a class of Christianheresies, were distinctive and mostly unrelated movements.But they were similar in certain respects and shared somecommon inﬂuences. In contradistinction to the nascent rab-binic Judaism of the day, the Essenes were monastic, oftencelibate, communal, paciﬁstic, and vegetarian. According tothe ﬁrst-century writings of Josephus, they were believers infate and in the immortality of the soul, stressed the impor-tance of personal righteousness, and “live the same kind of life as do those whom the Greeks call Pythagoreans,”
one of the mystery schools of antiquity. The Dead Sea Scrolls, acache of manuscripts uncovered between 1947 and 1956, pro-vide a glimpse into the religious and secular life of theQumra
n community, believed to be Essene.Contemporaneously, the discovery in 1945 of about a dozenCoptic codices in Nag Hammâdi, Egypt, provided access to thebeliefs and practices of various groups of early Christians whoseheterodox views about God, Jesus, and the nature of the worldandofhumanbeingssetthemapartfromthehegemonicRomanchurch.
Like the Essenes, the gnostics were typically monasticand ascetic, they were contemplative, and they afﬁrmed thepossibility of mystical insight into man’s higher nature and thenatureofGodandcreation,agnosisthattheearlychurchfatherscould not tolerate.
Both Essenes and gnostics were character-ized by dualistic beliefs—in heaven and hell, good and evil, lightand darkness, body and soul—possibly through exposure to Zo-roastrianinﬂuences.
Thecombinationofmystical,ascetic,anddualistic ideations, especially with respect to the human body,promulgated a vaguely shared perspective on the maintenanceof health and on healing.A possible link between the Essenes and gnostics may bethe Therapeutae, a monastic order of healers famously de-scribed by Philo in his
De Vita Contemplativa
The Thera-peutae are thought to be an offshoot of the Essenes who later established themselves near Alexandria, Egypt. Philo’s writingpostdated the demise of the sect, and much of what is popu-larly believed about the Therapeutae, especially derived fromcontemporary writings of modern neo-Essene groups, is likelyspeculative at best or apochryphal.
According to Philo, theTherapeutae resorted to fasting and prayer, were “devotedwholly to meditation and to the practice of virtue,” and,signiﬁcantly, “process an art of medicine more excellent thanthat in general use in cities (for that only heals bodies, but theother heals souls).”
They were more contemplative than thepractical Essenes, and their monastic self-reﬂection is specu-lated to be an inﬂuence on the gnostics, whose own sacredwritings contain references to healing that are resonant withpsychodynamic theories and the kinds of inner work charac-teristic of transpersonal and humanistic therapies. The Gos-pel of Thomas, for example, attributes to Jesus the following:“If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will saveyou. If you do not have that within you, what you do not havewithin you will kill you” (Saying 70).
Esoteric Healing Traditions EXPLORE March/April 2008, Vol. 4, No. 2