Egypt has been considered as the birthplace of the mysteries. It was there that the ceremonies of initiation were first established. It was there that truth was first veiled in allegory, and the dogmas of religion were first imparted under symbolic forms. From Egypt - "the land of the winged globe" - the land of science and philosophy, "peerless for stately tombs and magnificent temples - the land whose civilization was old and mature before other nations, since called to empire, had a name" - this system of symbols was disseminated through Greece and Rome and other countries of Europe and Asia, giving origin, through many intermediate steps, to that mysterious association which is now represented by the Institution of Freemasonry.
To Egypt, therefore, Masons have always looked with peculiar interest, as the cradle of the mysterious science of symbolism whose peculiar modes of teaching they alone, of all modern institutions, have preserved to the present day.
The initiation into the Egyptian mysteries was, of all the systems practiced by the ancients, the most severe and impressive. The Greeks at Eleusis imitated it to some extent, but they never reached the magnitude of its forms nor the austerity of its discipline. The system had been organized for ages, and the priests, who alone were the hierophants, - the explainers of the mysteries, or, as we should call them in Masonic language, the Masters of the Lodges, - were educated almost from childhood for the business in which they were engaged. The "learning of the Egyptians," in which Moses is said to have been skilled, was all imparted in these mysteries. It was confined to the priests and to the initiates; and the trials of initiation through which the latter had to pass were so difficult to be endured, that none but those who were stimulated by the most ardent thirst for knowledge dared to undertake them or succeeded in submitting to them.
The priesthood of Egypt constituted a sacred caste, in whom the sacerdotal functions were hereditary. They exercised also an important part in the government of the state, and the kings of Egypt were but the first subjects of its priest. They had originally organized, and continued to control, the ceremonies of initiation. Their doctrines were of two kinds - exoteric or public, which were communicated to the multitude, and esoteric or secret, which were revealed only to a chosen few; and to obtain them it was necessary to pas through an initiation which was characterized by the severest trials of courage and fortitude.
The principal seat in the mysteries was at Memphis, in the neighborhood of the great Pyramid. There were two kinds the greater and the less; the former being the mysteries of Osiris and Serapis, the latter those of Isis. The mysteries of Osiris were celebrated at the autumnal equinox, those of Serapis at the summer solstice, and those of Isis at the vernal equinox.
The candidate was required to exhibit proofs of a blameless life. For some days previous to the commencement of the ceremonies of the initiation, he abstained from all unchaste acts, confined himself to an exceedingly light diet, from which animal food was rigorously excluded, and purified himself by repeated ablutions.
Apuleius, (Met., lib. xi.,) who had been initiated in all of them, thus alludes, with cautious reticence, those of Isis: "The priest, all the profane being removed to a distance, taking hold of me by the hand, brought me into the inner recesses of the sanctuary itself, clothed in a new linen garment. Perhaps, curious reader, you may be eager to know what was then said and done. I would tell you were it lawful for you to hear. But both the ears that heard those things and the tongues that told them would reap the evil results of their rashness. Still, however, kept in suspense, as you probably are, with religous longing, I will not torment you with long-protracted anxiety. Hear, therefore, but believe what is the truth. I approached the confines of death, and, having trod on the threshold of Proserpine, I returned there from, being borne through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining with its brillant light; and I approached the presence of the gods beneath and the gods above, and stood near and worshipped them. Behold, I have related to you things of which, though heard by you, you must necessarily remain ignorant."
The first degree, as we may term it, of Egyptian initiation was that into the mysteries of Isis. What was it peculiar import, we are unable to say. Isis, says Knight, was, among the later Egyptians, the personification of universal nature. To Apuleius she says: "I am nature - the parent of all things, the sovereign of the elements, the primary progeny of time." Plutarch tells us that on the front of the temple of Isis was placed this inscription: I, Isis, am all that has been, that is, or shall be, and no mortal has ever unveiled me." Thus we may conjecture that the Isiac mysteries were descriptive of the alternate decaying and renovating powers of nature. Higgins, (Anacol., ii. 102) it is true, says that during the mysteries of Isis were celebrated the misfortunes and tragical death of Osiris in a sort of drama; and Apuleius asserts that the initiation into her mysteries is celebrated as bearing a close resemblance to a voluntary death, with a precarious chance of recovery. But Higgins gives no authority for his statement, and that of Apuleius cannot be constrained into any reference to the enforced death of Osiris. It is, therefore probable that the ceremonies of this initiation were simply prepatory to that of the Osirian, and taught,by instructions in the physical laws of nature, the necessity of moral purification, a theory which is not incompatible with all the mystical allusions of Apuleius when he describes his own initiation.
The mysteries of Serapis constituted the second degree of the Egyptian initiation. Of these rites we have but a scanty knowledge. Herodotus is entirely silent concerning them, and Apuleuis, calling them "the nocturnal orgies of Serapis, a god of the first rank," only imitates that they follow those of Isis, and were prepatory to the last and greatest initiation. Serapis is said to have been only Osiris while in Hades; and hence the Serapian initiation might represented the death of Osiris, but leaving the lesson of resurrection for a subsequent initiation. But this is merely a conjecture.
In the mysteries of Osiris, which were the consumation of the Egyptian system, the lesson of death and resurrection was symbolically taught; and the legend of the murder of Osiris, the search for the body, its discovery and restoration to life is scenically represented. The legend of initiation was as follows. Osiris, a wise king of Egypt, left the care of his kingdom to his wife Isis, and travelled for three years to communicate to other nations the arts of civilization. During his absence, his brother Typhon formed a secret conspiracy to destroy him and usurp his throne. On his return, Osiris was invited by Typhon to an entertainment in the month of November, at which all the conspirators were present. Typhon produced a chest inlaid with gold, and promised to give it to any person present whose body would most exactly fit it. Osiris was tempted to try the experiment; but he had no sooner laid down in the chest, than the lid was closed and nailed down, and the chest thrown into the river Nile. The chest containing the body of Osiris was, after being for a long time tossed about the waves, finally cast up at Byblos in Phoenicia, and left at the foot of a tamarisk tree. Isis, overwhelmed with grief for the loss of her husband set out on a journey, and traversed the earth in search of the body. After many adventures, she at length discovered the spot whence it had been thrown up by the waves, and returned with it in triumph to Egypt. It was then proclaimed, with the most extravagant demonstrations of joy, that Osiris has risen from the dead and had become a god. Such, with slight variations of details by different writers, are the general outlines of the Osiric legend which was represented in the drama of initiation. Its resemblace to the Hiramic legend of the Masonic system will be readily seen, and its symbolism will easily understood. Osiris and Typhon are the representatives of the antagonistics principles - good and evil, light and darkness, life and death.
There is also an astronomical interpretation of the legend which makes Osiris the sun and Typhon the season of winter, which suspends the fecundating and fertilizing powers of the sun or destroys its life, to be restored only by the return of invigorating spring.
The sufferings and death of Osiris were the great mystery of the Egyptian religion. His being the abstract idea of the divine goodness, his manifestations upon earth, his death, his resurrection, and his subsequent office as judge of the dead in a future state, look, says Wilkinson, like the early revelation of a future manifestations of the deity converted into a mythological fable.
Into these mysteries Herodotus, Plutarch, and Pythagoras were initiated, and the former two have given brief accounts of them. But their own knowledge must have been extremely limited, for, as Clement of Alexandria (Strom., v. 7,) tells us, the more important secrets were not revealed even to all the priests, but to a select number of them only.
An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry