Paganism does not exist anymore, its temples were destroyed, its books burned and its members persecuted by the Literalist Christians. As a result its history was only known, until about a century ago, by the books of the people who destroyed it. Useless to say that they were not fair. Their description of paganism as a primitive religion close to superstition is wrong. On the contrary, in its time, Paganism was a truly high level spirituality that inspired the builders and the architects of the Egyptian pyramids and the Greek Parthenon, sculptors like Phideas, play writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, philosophers like Socrates and Plato, countless writers and scientists, etc. The Pagan thinkers, artists, and innovators were “initiates” of religions known as “Mysteries”, the centre of their culture. Whereas the state religions are created to insure social cohesion, the Mysteries were an individual form of spirituality, conveying mystical visions and personal enlightenment. The secret initiation process of their members transformed their state of consciousness. The real masters of the Mysteries were their great Pagan philosophers, who were closer to the present days “enigmatic gurus” that to our intellectuals. At the centre of Pagan philosophy is the concept that “all things are one” and the initiation process aim to bring the initiates to experience this Oneness, to get them “united with the World and with the Deity”.
Above the Pagan temple’s door at Delphi one could see the following inscription: “Know Yourself”. This was the fundamental Gnostic challenge facing the Pagan and the Jewish and Christian Gnostics. The “Gnosis” or “Knowledge” they were looking for was self-knowledge, an answer to “Who am I”?
The Gnostics believed that a person had three aspects: body, soul and spirit. To explain what they meant by these terms the Gnostics used a circle:
– The circumference represented the physical body (physis). This is our outer self.
– The radius represents our Psyche. This is translated as “soul”. In relation to our physical or outer body, the psyche/soul is our “inner self”; for the Gnostics, it is a deeper level of our identity than the body
– At the centre is our essential identity known as “pneuma” or “nous”. Pneuma is translated as “spirit”. “Nous” is translated as “intellect” but now intellect means only “rational thought” whereas “nous” is the witness of all experiences, “nous” is a “knowing principle”. It is “who we are” a better modern translation for pneuma and nous is “Consciousness”.
Recognising the level of our identity
The three levels of our identity are similar to the three states we are in each day:
– In the waking state, Consciousness extent its awareness from the centre to the circumference, experiencing the psyche and the body.
– In the dreaming state, we abandon the body and retreat in the psyche or soul.
– In the deep sleep, we withdraw into our essence as “nous/pneuma”, “spirit or consciousness”. In this state of pure consciousness we are not experiencing anything, we are unconscious. This is a state of blissful void in which we exist as the emptiness of consciousness, conscious of nothing.
– The common view is that we are bodies that can be awake, dreaming, or in deep sleep. We are a complex physical organism not yet fully understood; we also have an inner life and are in consequence, conscious. For the Gnostics we are not a physical body that is sometime conscious. We are Consciousness that is sometime conscious of a body.
The body is in the soul
It appears that the psyche or soul is in the body. The Gnostics, when they talk about how things appear objectively, agreed that the soul seems to be trapped inside the physical body. But when they talk on a deeper level about how things are subjectively, the psyche or soul is seen as an event witnessed by Consciousness. It is the totality of the experience, and this includes the experience of the body. This denies that the psyche is in the body but, on the contrary, “the psyche is not in the body, it is the body that is in the psyche”.
The one consciousness of God
The Christian Gnostic Clement of Alexandria said: “The greatest of all lessons is to know yourself, because when a man knows himself, he knows God”. For the Gnostics, a quest for self-knowledge is the same as a quest to know God because “when we discover our deepest identity, we discover that we are God”. For the Gnostics God is omnipresent Consciousness within which everything exists as an idea. This one universal consciousness expresses itself through all conscious beings. We may seem to be separate human beings but, at the deepest of each of us, there is one Consciousness unchanging and the same. This is our shared identity, the hidden root of the tree of which we are branches.
The Gnostics see men like many radii originating from a common circle centre, this centre being the One Consciousness of God shared by all the radii/people. God is this “indivisible point” which is “the source of all”, “the root of the entire circle of existence”. Gnostics find God in themselves like that little centre point.
The radii represent individual psyche that terminate at the circumference in individual bodies. When we look from the centre outwards to the psyche/body, each seem separate but the Centre is common to all.
The one appearing as the Many
But if we are all one in God why do not we experience ourselves as God? Imagine the circle with a centre but no radii. This is consciousness without anything to be conscious of, therefore unconscious. It appears as real Consciousness when it is conscious of the experiences of the people/psyche represented by the radii. The One Consciousness of God is the sum of many individual consciousnesses. At the centre we are the Universal Being the Gnostics call God.
The absolute Mystery and its apparent qualities
Our shared essential identity, the centre, the Mystery of God, is an ineffable, absolute Mystery that can never be solved. The Gnostics often give the impression that the Absolute Mystery has some qualities. They call it “Consciousness” and “the One”. The Mystery, being a point, cannot be described but to the human being on the circumference of the circle of self, the Mystery appears to be our centre and, in relation to our experience, it is Consciousness. Relative to our existence as separate beings, it appears like the One.
The path of self-knowledge
Gnostics divide people according to their level of self-awareness:
– Hylics or materialists identify themselves with the body, the circumference of the circle of self.
– Psychics or “soulists” identify with the psyche or soul, the radius.
– Pneumatics or “spiritists” are aware of themselves as Spirit of Consciousness, the centre.
– In Pagan, Jewish and Christian Gnostic traditions there are two stages of initiation. For example, the Christians name them:
– The first stage, the psychic or “soul initiation” because it initiates the journey from being a hylic to being a psychic.
– The second stage is called pneumatic or “spirit” initiation because it is the journey from being a psychic to being a pneumatic.
Psychic initiates were taught the exoteric teaching, or Outer Mysteries of Gnosticism, that are open to everybody wanting to join this Gnostic school. Pneumatic initiates were taught the secret esoteric teachings or Inner Mysteries. Literalist Christianity’s members are psychic initiates, those who only know the Outer Mysteries. The pneumatic teachings were kept secret because to understand them you must be well prepared; non-initiates can also misinterpret pneumatic teachings.
To the Ancients, soul and spirit were different terms. The psychic or soul initiation was about exploring soul/experience. The pneumatic or spirit initiation was about discovering the experience of spirit/consciousness, the ground of all experience. These two levels of initiation were the bases for reaching Gnosis.
The Pagan Gnostics call the two levels of initiation “catharmos” or purification, and “paradosis” or transmission. In the first stage initiates are purified by ethical teachings while the second stage imply the transmission of esoteric philosophy, a spiritual practice for the Ancients. Under the influence of mystical philosophy, initiates learn to “disengage” from the psyche or soul. They do not identify themselves anymore with anything within their experience, but they identify with the experiencer. They are no longer actors in the drama of their lives but the conscious witness of the unfolding events that make up the psyche. They are not living their lives, life is living through them.
The journey to God
The Gnostic path of self-knowledge is a journey to God as the initiation process changes the initiates’ understanding of God. In fact they are God as they experience their own identity as a superior being outside themselves. As initiates come to realise Gnosis, they come to know that they are indistinguishable from the Mystery of God.
– Hylics do not think about God or they have a religious relationship with what they see as the ultimate external authority.
– Physchics see God as a parent helping them on their journey to spirituality and Gnosis.
– Pneumatic initiates understand their nature in impersonal terms and do not see God as a big person, but they see him as the One, the Good. When reaching Gnosis there is no longer God and devotees, only the Mystery of God in love with itself, since the goal of Gnosis is to become God.
Pagans had many Gods and Goddesses but they were all faces of the Oneness through which initiates relate with the Mystery.
The realisation of Gnosis
Initiates are told “Know Yourself”. In the psychic stage they discover that they are not the physical body. In the pneumatic stage they discover that they are not the personal psyche either and, in reaching Gnosis, they understand that they are not the impersonal witness, they are not a self, they are the Absolute Mystery.
The realisation of Gnosis is the fulfilment of both the psychic initiation of personal transformation and the pneumatic initiation of personal transcendence, but the initiates continue to appear as separate individuals although, with Gnosis, they have discovered their identity with God and they have learned that all that happens is the will of God. Gnosis is the revelation that all is One.
The Essence of Christianity
The original Christians encoded their teachings in allegorical myths.
– Christ represents the one Consciousness of God at the centre of the circle of self. Pagan and Christian Gnostics call the one Consciousness in all of us “the Logos” and Jesus is said to be “the Logos”. To understand that Jesus is the “son of God” we must see that “the Son is the Consciousness of the Father” and the Father is the “Mystery”. When Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father but by me” he meant that the way to the Mystery of God is via his Son, the Logos, we know the Mystery through its manifestation as Consciousness.
– The image of the resurrection of Christ represents the realisation of Gnosis. The resurrection of Christ must be understood symbolically as “awakening the Christ within oneself”. We are all the dead Christ and we need to be resurrected to our true identity through initiation and Gnosis. The purpose of Christian initiation is to awaken within us and awareness of our essential nature as the Christ. After this we will be a “Christian” -a conscious member of the “body of Christ”. If we awaken to Christ Consciousness, we will know Heaven to be an ever-present reality as Heaven is the centre of the circle of self where we permanently exist as the Christ. Hell is the circumference, where we believe to be separate ego and where we exist as spiritually dead. Heaven and Hell are both here and now and we are in one or the other depending if we are spiritually dead or resurrected.
Old Gods and Various Religions
The old gods possessed a remarkable longevity. The Eleusinian Mysteries, founded in the 15th century BC, ceased in the 4th century AD; Dionysus, whose name first appears on tablets dated to c. 1400 BC, was last celebrated in the beginning of the 6th century AD; the last temple of Isis, whose cult extended back to the 2nd millennium BC in Egypt, was closed in AD 560. Yet even after these ceased as objects of devotion in the post-Constantine period, they continued to exercise their influence.
The Mystery religions were practised in various forms all over the known world of that time for thousand of years. Sometime they were used by whole nations, while at other they were practised in secret by a minority of people who feared persecution. At the centre of all these forms of Mysteries was the myth of the dying and resurrecting godman. The best-known Greek Mystery cult was celebrated for eleven centuries at Eleusis in honour of the Great Mother Goddess and the godman Dionysus. It lasted until 396AD when the Christians destroyed the main temple. Initiations took place during the autumn festival in honour of Dionysus. Preparation for the ceremonies included fasting, offering sacrifices, and ritual purification. Initiates danced all along the “Sacred Way” from Athens to Eleusis behind the statue of Dionysus; all the time they were insulted, abused, and beaten up with sticks. After ritual bathing and other purification rites, the initiated, and those to be initiated into the secret Mysteries, entered the Telesterion, the initiation hall. The initiates were sworn to secrecy, so we do not really know what happened inside the hall beside the fact that they observed a play based on the sacred myth. This play represented the struggles, sufferings, and victory of the deity, an allegory showing that, in nature, life triumphs over death, and joy is born in pain. The initiates participated in the passion of the godman whose death and rebirth symbolically represented the death and spiritual rebirth of each initiate and, in this way, they experienced a spiritual purification. The Mysteries did not offer religious dogmas to be believed, but a myth to join; initiation was not about learning something, but it was about experiencing an altered sense of awareness.
In the past the word “myth” did not refer to something false, as it is the case today. For most people, a myth was a pleasant story; to the initiated, it was a sacred code hiding profound spiritual teachings. The ancients did not believe that the Mystery myths were literally true; they were seen as the introduction to the profound mystical philosophy at the base of the Mysteries. The Mysteries were divided in many levels of initiation that led progressively the initiates to ever-deeper levels of understanding. The number of levels was different in all Mystery traditions. They started with the Outer mysteries, in which myths are seen as religious stories, to the Inner mysteries, in which the myths are explained as spiritual allegories.
The Mysteries were everywhere in the Pagan world and the most important one was Dionysus, godman of the Eleusinian Mysteries, albeit under different names: in Greece (Dionysus), Italy (Bacchus), Egypt (Osiris), Asia Minor (Attis), Syria (Adonis), Persia (Mithras), etc. Spectacles were held representing the death and resurrection of their godman. Since the Ancients believed that all the Mystery godmen were in fact the same mythic being, all the time they combined the different myths and rites to create new forms of the Mysteries that crossed national boundaries. For instance, in Alexandria, Timotheus combined Osiris and Dionysus to create a new deity that he called Serapis.