In all the nations of antiquity there were two systems of worship, one public and one private. The public worship was based on a superstitious polytheism with many gods and goddesses who were far from virtuous. Man soon wanted to live a better and more moral life, and this was in contradiction with the basic principles of polytheism. However, this religion was very popular and any tentative to change it was hopeless and dangerous for a long time. The new religions had therefore to be practised in secret societies in which one could only be admitted by initiation. For added security, the doctrine was always hidden behind a veil of symbols that only the initiated could understand. These secret societies that taught a purer theology were known as “Mysteries”, and most nations had one or more of them. They differed in name and in the initiation procedure but, basically, they were very similar, their main aim being to teach the doctrine of a future state and of a future life of compensation and immortality of the soul. This is very similar to the Christian and Masonic doctrine of the resurrection. The doctrine was taught in a form that is the source of Speculative Masonry. Each Mystery had its own god, or hero, who went through death and resurrection.
The members of the secret societies known as Mysteries were separated from the other people by their initiation. Members were given recognition signs that had to be kept secret from the non-initiates under tread of harsh punishment. Initiation was progressive, and there were many levels of degrees. One distinguished three steps in the organisation: the Lesser and Greater Mysteries and a preliminary ceremony which was a preparation to the real Mysteries.
– The first step was known as “The Lustration”, or purification of the candidate by water. This was the preparation required to enter into the Lesser Mysteries.
– During the second step, called “Initiation”, the dramatic allegory was performed, and the Mystery’s own myth or fictitious story was developed. The candidate impersonated, or assisted to a representation of the events of the life and death of the God, or hero, to whom the Mystery was dedicated. The ceremonies of the Lesser Mysteries were a preparation for the next step. This step is comparable 4to the Fellow Craft Degree of Masonry.
– In the third step, “Perfection” or Greater Mysteries, the initiation ceremony follows more or less the same path, but includes also the resurrection of the God or Hero. After that stage the new full member was told all the secrets of the organisation. Freemasonry compares this step to their Master’s Degree.
From all this we cannot conclude with absolute certainty that Freemasonry is the heir of the Old Mysteries. The Mysteries were invented for the purpose of teaching two religious truths that were not recognised by the majority of the people of that time. These were the unity of God and the immortality of the soul in a future life. The unity of God was taught as an abstract doctrine during the Perfection stage, while the immortality of the soul in a future life following resurrection was told by means of an allegory adapted to each country. In all mysteries the initiation ceremonies dealt with the suffering, death, generally by violence, and resurrection of a God or Hero. These similarities with the Masonic ceremonies has led many Freemasons to conclude that their order found its origin in these old Mysteries of Paganism, while others believe that the Mysteries were an offshoot of pure Masonry. There is no historical evidence to support anyone of these theories.
The better known Mysteries, beside the Egyptian’, are those of Mithras in Persia, of Atys or of the Cabiri in Thrace, of Adonis in Syria, and of Dionysus in Greece as well as the Norsemen Mysteries of Scandinavia and the Druidical of Gaul and Britain. Some scholars say that the Pagan Mysteries of Mithras were still alive long after the beginning of the Christian era, and were adopted or copied by many European secret societies who gave birth to Freemasonry. This is a plausible hypothesis supported, in part, by historical evidences. It is well documented that the Mysteries of Paganism were practised secretly in Europe until the fifth or even the sixth centuries, although they had been banished by the Church and the state authorities. From secret societies such as the Roman Colleges of Artificers sprang up the organisations of Builders, among them the Comasini or Travelling Freemasons who spread through Europe in the Middle Ages and created the Gothic architecture. That they were followed by the Guilds of Operative Masons, that were themselves followed by the Speculative Order of the Free and Accepted Masons in the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, is quite probable. The end of this chain is obviously Freemasonry, as we know it to day. There is no doubt that there are many analogies between all these secret societies, but this does not prove a direct continuity. All of them were secret societies, all taught the doctrine of a future life, all used symbols, allegories, and a dramatic form of instruction as well as modes and signs of recognition. All these systems were also divided in degrees or steps corresponding at different levels of knowledge of the organisations’ secrets.