Around the year 2000 B.C.E. Egypt was invaded and partially conquered by bands of shepherd-kings from Asia called Hyksos, who occupied the areas of the Delta and Middle Egypt. The invaders brought with them a culture that was corrupt by Egyptian standards, and for a time it seemed as though the life and soul of Egypt was threatened. However, the priesthood that kept alive the ancient knowledge of Hermes withdrew to hidden sanctuaries and temples and practiced the secret mysteries. While they outwardly bowed to the foreign gods, they maintained their old traditions and believed in a time when the dynasties of Egypt would be restored in all their magnificence.
It was during this time that the priests began to propagate the legend of Isis, goddess of enchantment and magic, and her husband Osiris, father of the great war god Horus, finally conqueror of northern Upper Egypt. Osiris came into conflict with Set, who killed and dismembered him, scattering his body parts in the Nile. Death didn't eliminate Osiris, for Isis, incarnation of the divine mother goddess, used her magic to put him back together. Osiris and his doctrines were concerned with the problems of life, death, resurrection, and an afterlife.
The initiate who wished to attain mastery over the mysteries of life after death would be sent to knock at the door of the great temple of Thebes or of Memphis. Here, he had been told, the priests could teach what Isis and Osiris knew. If the newcomer were admitted, the priest of Osiris would question him about the place of his birth, his family lineage, and the temple where he had received his elementary instruction. In a brief but revealing interrogation, if the student was found unworthy of the mysteries, he would be sent quickly away. If the seeker appeared to be one who sincerely desired to learn the truth of the mysteries, he would be led through a corridor to an underground crypt where a large statue of Isis hid the doorway to an inner sanctuary. The goddess's face was veiled, with an inscription that advised all initiates that no mortal could ever lift her veil and look upon her true features until the moment of death.
Within the hidden sanctuary were two columns, one colored black, the other red. The priest explained to the novice that the red column represented the ascension of the spirit into the light of Osiris, while the black one signified the captivity of the spirit in physical matter. Whoever sought the mysteries risked madness or death, the initiate was warned. Once the door closed behind him, he would no longer be able to turn back.
Those novices who chose to go forward were assigned a week of menial tasks working with the temple servants and forced to observe a strict silence. When the evening of the ordeals arrived, two neocoros, assistants of the hierophant, led the candidate to the secret sanctuary, a dark room where statues of the
With only a small lamp to drive back the shadows of the cramped corridor, the novice crawled on his hands and knees, hearing over and over a deep sepulchral voice warning that fools who coveted knowledge were certain to perish in the tunnel. As the initiate proceeded forward, he eventually found himself in a wider area where he began to descend an iron ladder. But as he reached the lowest rung, he saw below him only a gaping abyss. There seemed no choice left to him. He could not go back, and he could surely die if he stepped off the ladder into what might be a drop of thousands of feet into the blackness below him.
It was at this point that the fortunate initiate, if the oil in his small lamp had held out, would notice a staircase carved into a crevice to his right. Stepping into the crevice and ascending the spiral staircase, he would find himself entering a great hall and being congratulated by a magician called a pastophor, a guardian of sacred symbols, for having passed the first test.
Before the next ordeal, the pastophor explained the sacred paintings and the 22 secret symbols on the walls of the great hall. These represented the 22 first mysteries and the alphabet of their secret science, the universal keys, the source of all wisdom and power. Each letter and each number given in the language of the mysteries had its repercussion in the worlds of the divine, the intellectual, and the physical.
The second test involved passing through a great furnace of flames. Those initiates who refused, protesting that to enter such a wall of fire could only result in death, never got close enough to see that it was all a clever optical illusion and that there was a safe pathway through the middle. Following the trial by fire was the trial by water, which offered no illusion, but only a walk through a chest-high dark and stagnant pool.
Two assistants helped pull the novice from the dank pool, escorted him to a room with a tub filled with warm and perfumed water, then left him to dry off and to dress in fine linens while awaiting the hierophant. Exhausted from his ordeals, the initiate could enjoy the bath, and later lie on a soft bed to relax while awaiting the priest.
Soon music sounded from an invisible group of musicians, and within a few moments, a lovely young woman, appearing much like the goddess Isis herself, entered the room where the initiate lay resting upon the bed. Heavy with perfumes, moving in rhythm to the sounds of harp, flute, and drum, the personification of Isis would do her best to tempt and seduce the novice.
If she succeeded, the initiate failed. He would be sent away from the temple with the admonishment that he had triumphed over death, fire, and water, but he had not learned to conquer himself. He had succumbed to the first temptation of the senses that he encountered after the tests, and he fallen into the abyss of matter.
If, however, the initiate had resisted the seductress, 12 neocoros would enter the room to lead him in triumph into the sanctuary of Isis, where the priests awaited him beneath a massive statue of the goddess. Beneath this representation of Isis, a gold rose at her breast, wearing a crown of seven rays, and holding her son Horus in her arms, the aspirant would take oaths of silence and submission as a disciple of Isis. From that day forward, he would be a recipient of the mysteries of Isis.