Ancient Mystery Religions

Jim Fournier
December 1996

Mircea Eliade's subtitle refers to Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, but we might also recognize in these words a theme which could be more explicitly described as death and spiritual rebirth. I believe that this is a more accurate elucidation of the theme which pervades all of the ancient mysteries, in one form or another. While the theme of spiritual death and rebirth is explicitly apparent throughout the mysteries, I believe that this theme also implies a larger process pervading this period of history: the emergence of the individual human identity. The mysteries may actually have caused this phenomenon, as the individual soul was forged in the experience of spiritual death and rebirth. At the very least the mysteries may be seen as the first, and most profound expression of the ingression of individual identity into the western mind.

The earliest illustration of the first theme may be found in Eliade's own work on initiation and shamanism. We first encounter symbolic death in the context of the initiation of boys into manhood. The boys' childhood identity must die so that they may be reborn as men in the community. This process almost universally involves a ritual in which the initiate must feel the terror of an encounter with death, frequently combined with the imprint of intense physical pain, by circumcision or through having a tooth knocked out.1 While such rites of passage do to some degree constitute a secret (from the women and young boys) initiation, they are more concerned with acculturation into society than with true spiritual initiation.

The first, and in many ways most powerful, example of spiritual initiation is found in Eliade's description of the shamanic initiation. Here the theme of death and dismemberment is universal. The shaman-to-be undergoes an experience which can only be described as a spiritual death and reconstitution. The initiation may be spontaneous or intentional, brought on by an illness, a lightening strike, through ingestion of a psychedelic substance, through spontaneous instruction by the spirits of shaman ancestors, or by contact with an older shaman. But, by whatever means the visionary dream state is induced there is an almost universal pattern in which novices see themselves dismembered, often decapitated, sometimes boiled, and their flesh stripped from their bones. They may visit Hell or Heaven while removed from their body, and are instructed how to find their own connection to the world tree or axis mundi, a trans-dimensional axis of reality which will continue to give them access to a realm beyond the reality others are limited to. This first initiatory experience may last for three to seven days of ordinary time, which the initiate often experiences as several years or even as eternity. At the end of this initiatory ordeal the new shaman often feels their body remade from a magical substance.2 Completing this process allows the novice to take on a new identity as a shaman, with the ability to go into a trance state to heal others, communicate with the spirits of animals and ancestors, bring back prophesy about the future, and sometimes to visit or view remote locations.

Orphic Mysteries
The oldest of the Greek Mysteries was apparently the Orphic tradition. The Orphic Mysteries may represent the first introduction of northern European shamanism into Mediterranean Greek culture. It is not at all clear whether Orpheus was an actual man, but many of the characteristics attributed to him are also associated with the shaman. He is said to have descended to the underworld to retrieve a soul. He is said to have come from Thrace, in the north. He is said to tame wild animals with his music, and he sings his cosmology into existence. Finally, he is torn to pieces by Bacchae, who, in an ecstatic frenzy, decapitate him and throw his head into a river. This story appears to represent shamanic death. It does not include Orpheus' own shamanic rebirth, but the Orphic cosmology story does in several respects. The principle Orphic deity, Dionysos is killed, dismembered, boiled, and eaten by the Titans. But Dionysos is then reborn due to Athena having saved his heart and given it to Zeus. Dionysos is thus actually "thrice born," as the Orphic's first god, Phanes, who emerged from the Orphic egg wound with the spiral serpent, was also named Dionysos.3

What mainly distinguishes the Orphic cosmology religion from the Homeric story is the idea that mortal men are descended from the Titans and are thus both of the gods and mortal. There are also several other deviations from Hesiod especially involving the death and rebirth of Dionysos and the role that this figure takes on as the symbol of the potential for death and resurrection. This theme extends to a concern for the fate of the soul following death which first appears in Greece in the Orphic tradition. Along with the belief that the soul must make a passage at death comes the belief that the outcome is linked to ones actions in life. One of the principal Orphic rules of conduct involves not eating meat. This suggests that if Orphic thought did originate in northern shamanism, it had already undergone a profound transformation within the Greek agricultural culture because, as Eliade himself points out, shamanism was normally an out growth of hunting cultures where the symbolism of seeing oneself stripped to the bones and made new was natural.4 The Orphic prohibition against eating flesh is linked to ideas about reincarnation. The observance of this and other correct rules of conduct in life will benefit one in making the passage to the "right" fork at death, to drink from Mnemosyne rather than only from Lethe, the water of forgetfulness. The importance of remembrance is linked to the idea of reincarnation. If one is able to remember ones previous life then one is able to understand the true nature of the purpose of one's incarnation and act correctly to achieve liberation. Here the death at issue has become literal and the rebirth will be into one's next life.

The line between the strictly Orphic and the Pythagorean is a little muddied as we understand both largely through their interpretation by later sources. One may have grown out of the other, but they appear to represent two different stages in the development of the conception of the human soul. The Orphic tradition apparently evolved out of the matrix of the ancient Greek pantheon. A large body of material was written by many different people over a long period of time and attributed to Orpheus. Pythagoras was most likely among them, although he, like many others in the lineage did not so much write as speak, so it is impossible to know with any certainty who said what when. The Orphic system prepared initiates to present themselves favorably to judgement after death, and included an element of binary choice between the road up to Elysium or down to Hades. It was apparently Pythagoras who first articulated a more complex doctrine of the transmigration of souls. In one version a ten thousand year process of successive incarnations was defined. According to this model one's first incarnation is always human, but then one might return as an animal. Between each incarnation the remainder of that thousand year period is spent in Elysium or Hades reflecting on ones previous incarnation. Every third incarnation is human, so in ten thousand years one has three human incarnations, and the tenth would then be the final, critical passage. But Heraclides tells us that Pythagoras himself remembered his five previous human incarnations. Perhaps Plato was responsible for the ten thousand year model, but he apparently added the idea that if someone is a philosopher in three consecutive lives he may achieve liberation. It becomes murky. What Pythagoras apparently did contribute was the idea of final liberation; the idea that the soul may achieve a final liberation from the "wheel" of death and rebirth. This idea of final liberation from the entire cycle is a different insight from the more simple minded Elysian heaven where there are green fields, and pleasant breezes, and one is drunk all the time. This idea of liberation from the "wheel" seems to bear great similarity to eastern ideas of liberation from the Karmic Wheel of death and rebirth found in India, but there is apparently no evidence that Pythagoras had any contact with the Indian continent or cultures. There are attributions that Pythagoras went to Egypt for the roots of his ideas, but while it is likely he was initiated into some knowledge system there, transmigration of the soul was apparently not part of Egyptian cosmology.

One thing which does stand out about Pythagoras was that he, like the figure of Orpheus, shares a great deal of shamanic characteristics. He is identified with the Hyperborean Apollo, and with the figure of Abaris, again a shamanic figure from out of the north. He is also identified Aristeas a shamanic figure from the north who is said to bi-locate, to go into trance, to have a soul like a bird, and to be associated with rebirth. Finally, Heraclides tells us that (presumably) Pythagoras himself recounted that in a previous life he was Hermetimus, who was himself identified with soul travel and prophesy, and who was said to have authenticated his identity as the Homeric hero Euphorbus in his previous life by identifying the rotting shield of Menelaus at a temple of Apollo.5 This suggests that Pythagoras like Orpheus might have represented an incursion of northern shamanism into Mediterranean culture. Regardless of its origin, Pythagoras appears to have been the first to introduce the idea of a potential final spiritual liberation into the Orphic doctrine of cyclical death and rebirth through reincarnation. Thus Pythagoras transforms the death and rebirth theme into one of physical death and the potential for a final spiritual rebirth or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth itself. In this way, and in several others related to harmonic relationships in number, music and astronomy, Pythagoras stands out as the symbol of the dawn of western thought.

It was Plato who first collected and synthesized various ideas about the soul in one coherent doctrine. Perhaps equally important to establishing his preeminent place in later western thought, he wrote his version down, and it survived largely intact. Plato apparently brought together the Orphic and Pythagorean concepts about the reincarnation of the individual soul with ideas from Anaximander about the Earth floating in equilibrium within a symmetrically empty space, and ideas from Parmenides about logic and the nature of eternal truth as embodied in the idea of a sphere. He integrated these ideas into a new spherical cosmology in which a spherical Earth6 lay at the center of seven concentric planetary spheres, surrounded by the outermost sphere of the fixed stars of the heavens. In this cosmology, for the first time, Heaven is placed even more remotely in space than a mountain top and the journey of the soul is specifically identified with a journey in space to a realm outside of the outermost sphere. Thus with Plato the journey of death and rebirth has taken on a new and more specific cartography in space, which is intimately related to a new cartography of pure mind. While Plato was clearly a giant in his own right, and in many ways represents a pivotal point in the thinking of the ancient world, within the context of the development of this particular sequence of ideas about the human soul his role was more as one who integrated and systematized the various component ideas rather than their original source. Indeed, if we look for the original sources of the ideas themselves, we may find their antecedents intact in Pythagoras, Anaximander and Parmenides.

Mysteries at Eleusis
Plato and his equally influential student Aristotle, along with most of the lights of their time, were initiates of the Mysteries at Eleusis. Starting between 600 BC and 550 BC according to the most explicit reference given,7 but possibly far earlier according to many sources, the Eleusinian Mysteries lasted for well over a thousand years, spanning the ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Roman empires. They grew steadily in stature and size until, at their peak in Roman times, thousands were being initiated at Eleusis on one single day each year. What is perhaps most remarkable about these mysteries is that for all the thousands of people who were initiated into them, no one ever directly divulged their secret and thus to this day they remain in many respects a "mystery." It is also remarkable that although these mysteries were praised by many of the most insightful luminaries of their time as the most important event of their lives, there never developed around them a cult, or religion, or set of beliefs or customs beyond the rituals themselves.

In The Road to Eleusis Hofmann, Wasson and Ruck elaborate a theory that Kykeon was made with grain infected with an ergot which contained an alkaloid related to ergotamine, from which LSD is synthesized. The ergot in question actually contains lysergic acid amide, or LSA, which is about a hundred times less powerful than LSD, but otherwise very similar in affect. In a lecture Hofmann claimed they have actually found grain infected with this strain of ergot still growing on the temple site at Eleusis to this day, and they were actually able to make a kykeon from it, which they sampled and found to be highly psychoactive.8 The quote attributed to Aristotle "that the initiates were not going to learn anything, but they were to suffer, to feel, to experience certain impressions and psychic moods,"9 would also seem to support the idea that the secret of the Eleusinian Mystery was an internal experience rather than a communication of ideas or even drama. Although, both may have been part of the overall guided experience. Modern scholars see themselves facing a senseless paradox trying to understand how showing wheat could at once be the 'secret' source of revelation and at the same time a symbol carved on the outside of the temple complex. This might be illuminated once one understands the Mysteries in the context of a psychedelic experience. Even the most mundane objects take on a luminous, indeed numinous meaning when viewed in the right state of consciousness. In fact it is that very quality of the mundane made magical which can be experienced as most profound, particularly if the entire cultural mythos supported that expectation, and the individual had never previously experienced that mystical state of consciousness.

There is good evidence that the people conducting the Mysteries at Eleusis most likely came from northern agricultural roots.10 Combined with the compelling evidence that the Kykeon was almost certainly a psychedelic, this suggest once again the possibility of a link to some form of northern shamanism. It occurs to me that Eleusis could represent a link between Greek culture and an agriculturally based shamanism among those living just north of Greece, perhaps in Thrace. An agrarian culture might have been inspired by their contact with, or transformation form, shamanic hunter cultures which were later found living much farther north. Such an intermediary culture might have been more likely to develop an agriculturally based form of psychedelic shamanism. This might explain how Orpheus, and even Pythagoras, could have at once appeared to be shamanic figures, and been so vehemently vegetarian. From this perspective, the Eleusinian Mysteries might be seen as the culmination of a shamanic initiation which had been filtered through, and integrated into, an agrarian society. At this point, however, this hypothesis remains my own unsubstantiated conjecture.

There is one other attribute of the Mysteries at Eleusis which deserves note. In the scattered accounts which do come down to us, there is an emphasis on "seeing" and specifically on seeing a brilliant light emanating from within the Anaktron or inner temple when the Hierophant appears in front of it. In some versions he is seen illuminated in this momentary flash of brilliant light holding an ear of wheat. While the information about the psychedelic nature of Kykeon does explain how the initiation experience could be at once so powerful and inherently unspeakable as to be effectively maintained as a mystery, and it even explains how a mundane object such as an ear of wheat could take on such profound meaning, it does not explain the shared experience of a brilliant flash of light on cue. I suspect that the most plausible explanation for that element of the mystery may be that those conducting the mysteries ignited phosphorus inside the temple at the critical moment. This would have produced a flash of bright white light suitable to cause an indelible impression on the consciousness of all initiates present, especially if they were in an otherwise largely darkened space under the effect of a powerful psychedelic immediately prior to the flash.

Phosphorus was one of the first five elements discovered. It was first found during the Enlightenment in Europe in 1630 by an alchemist experimenting with his own urine.11 In its pure form it must be kept under water because it will spontaneously combust on exposure to air. Today phosphorus is primarily extracted from the mineral apatite which is found in North Africa, among other places, so it is plausible that a small deposit could have been discovered at Eleusis. However, it might also be extracted from bones and shells, which contain calcium phosphate. While no refining process which would produce phosphorus is known to have existed in ancient Greece, there may be a process which would be simple enough that it could have been discovered at that time. Indeed, if any was known at Eleusis it is almost certain that we would find no record of it, as the Hierophants would have maintained it as a far more closely guarded secret than even the content of the mysteries themselves.

I suspect that it might be possible to extract phosphorus from bone with pure sulphur. Heating bone in sulfuric acid apparently just produces sulphur phosphate. I intuitively suspect that heating bone and sulphur together in the absence of oxygen might work. This might be done in carbon (charcoal) and then quenched with water. This is purely conjecture but consistent enough with what I know of chemistry to be at least plausible. Given the example of the alchemist it is also plausible that there may be some even simpler solution perhaps involving evaporation and use of the resulting salts.
Two more ideas occur to me involving potential links between both proposed methods of extraction and shamanism. The first is a straightforward cognitive symbolic association between bones and the skeleton and the shaman as expressed by Eliade. The second is somewhat more obscure, but implied by Eliade's subject, the shaman of Lapland and the Northern Steps of Russia. The reindeer shaman of the conifer forests of northern Europe were well know to use Amanita Muscaria for their visionary excursions. The Amanita has many strains, most have some combination of two different active chemicals one a powerful enthogen and the other a potentially deadly neurotoxin. There are cultures which use roasting or even sun-drying to remove the toxin which will break down before the active ingredient at the right temperature or in the presence of ultra violet light. However, the preferred method is to feed them to reindeer. Reindeer love to eat them, and the reindeer liver filters out the toxin.12 The active ingredient on the other hand passes right through the reindeer kidney (and the human kidney too for that matter) allowing the shaman to simply put a bucket under his reindeer. In later Russian culture there were "pubs" where men would pay proportionately less to drink downstream from the man ahead of him as the mushroom was said to still be worth drinking after the sixth man. All of this is by way of illustrating a scenario whereby a shaman might have had occasion to be carrying his urine in a container from which it all evaporated leaving a residue. What if you throw this into a fire? If it did work it might explain why they could only do the ritual once a year. It might take the entire Eumolpid Clan a year to save up enough dried urine to set off a reasonable flash. This remains unsubstantiated conjecture at present. The best line of investigation might be to take samples from the temple site to a lab with a mass spectrometer and check for residues of phosphorus, as well as nitrites, sulfur and metals, as it is also possible that a nitrogen compound or some mixture of sulphur with iron or other metals shavings could have been used. But any of these would have produced a less brilliant light and a lot of far more acrid smoke.
Regardless of the means employed to produce the experience, initiation into the Mysteries at Eleusis constituted an encounter with the self, unparalleled in the ancient world. Initiates were only allowed to attend as individuals, not as members of their city-states or other collective organizations or cults. Each initiate made an individual sacrifice of a small pig prior to participating. Each initiate or mystes had could only attend under the guidance of another individual or mystagogue who had already themselves been initiated into the mysteries. All of these elements served to forge an individual identity within the initiate. This constituted a radically new phenomenon in the ancient Greek world, and was still revolutionary in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Thus the Eleusinian Mysteries, by taking groups of individual initiates through a powerful experience of inner death and rebirth, brought about the death of their collective identity as citizens of their city-state, and forged in its place the identity of individual human souls.

Chaldean Astronomy
Over exactly the same time period in which the Greeks produced Pythagoras 582 BC - 507 BC and the Pre-Socratics 610 BC - 540 BC, the Chaldeans perfected astronomy after 606 BC but before 523 BC.

In Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, Franz Cumont notes that a tablet dated 523 BC shows the positions of the Sun and Moon as well as the conjunctions of the planets calculated in advance for the first time.13 He also says that there were "astonishing advances made since the fall of Assyria" which I presume correlated with the destruction of Nineveh in 606 BC which he alluded to at the top of the same paragraph. If this is the case, then the birth of scientific astronomy can be fixed in the intervening period.

This was also exactly the period as the Babylonian Exile of the Jews in 587 BC to 539 BC.14 The words Babylon and Chaldea are sometimes used interchangeably. If that were valid in this case it might suggest that there could have been some causal connection between the Jews and the Chaldeans at the moment they finally perfected their astronomical calculations. Could the Chaldeans have learned something from the exiled Jews? My own knowledge is still far too fragmentary to speculate effectively on this.

What does appear certain from the available evidence is that the Greeks learned their first astronomical/astrological knowledge from the Chaldeans. This clearly happened with full force during the conquest of Alexander the Great and throughout the Hellenistic Age. But it appears that it may have started even earlier. Plato's Epinomis may have been written after he received a "Chaldean" guest very late in his life.15 Based on the exact correlation between their figures it seems certain that the Chaldean astrologer Kidenas was responsible for the ecliptic period attributed to Hipparchus, who also apparently shifted the vernal equinox from eight degrees Aeries, used in Babylon, to zero degrees Aeries used in Greece. It was latter shifted back to eight degrees Aeries by the Romans, perhaps after they gained control over, and therefore contact with, the original source in Babylon.16 Many of the details of the sequence of this transfer of knowledge apparently remains exceedingly unclear. However, sometime very close to 128 BC Hipparchus did apparently make an exceedingly important discovery of his own - the precession of the equinoxes.

Hipparchus' discovery of the precession of the equinoxes in about 128 BC represented a paradigm shattering revelation. For centuries, if not millennia, the fixed stars had been understood to be just that, fixed points on the dome, or sphere, of the heavens. This dome was seen to rotate daily, and annually, but otherwise it was thought to be fixed with respect to the movement of the sun, moon and planets, and to return to exactly the same position with respect to the Earth each year. Thus all was ordered within the immutable and unchanging sphere of the Heavens. With the integration of Chaldean astrology into the increasingly homogenized culture of the Hellenistic world, interest in the planets as the indicators of the Fates had grown rapidly, as the unchanging sky gods represented by the planets replaced and subsumed local gods. All of this laid the foundation for a new mystery religion which was to grow rapidly throughout in the Roman world around the beginning of the fist millennia of our age.

The first documented report we have of Mithraism is found in Plutarch's report of Cilician "pirates" observing Mithraic rites in 67 BC.17 The cult most likely started in the city of Tarsus which was an intellectual center of Stoic philosophy in Asia Minor. The god of the city of Tarsus was Perseus, personified in the constellation of the same name. It appears very likely that Posidonius, an eminent Stoic astrologer form Tarsus and "the dominant intellectual figure of his age" 18 was at least involved in the cult's inception, if not its outright founder. Hipparchus had lived on Rhodes, and Posidonius, who lived there immediately after Hipparchus' death would certainly have been intimately aware of Hipparchus' discovery. The Stoic astrologer-philosophers were already fascinated with the concept of the great year, the idea of a very long cycle of time often associated with the birth and destruction of the Universe. To many Stoics, Hipparchus' discovery would have represented the confirmation of this idea. Hipparchus' estimate of 36,000 years (actually 25,920 years) for one complete precessional cycle as is understandable given his desire for the cycles to be orderly. The ancients already saw this order confirmed in the observation that the year was very close to 360 days, so that a day could be treated as a degree without much error. The great year might be expected to be similar. Any observation was exceedingly difficult to make without accurate data spanning a long span of time.

The implication of his discovery, that the fixed stars and therefore the location of the equinoxes moved backward over time, would have been seen as Earth shaking news, suggesting the existence of a new or previously unrecognized force, or god, standing outside of the sphere of the fixed stars of the heavens with the ability to move the very axis of the universe. This would soon be identified with the god Perseus, who could be seen in the heavens with his cape of stars spread out behind him in the form of the Milky Way. At that time the vernal equinox was in Aries. Apparently according to a tradition which was originally borrowed from the Chaldeans, it was placed at eight degrees Aries. In reality it was already closer to zero degrees Aries where Hipparchus had placed it, but apparently it was, at least publicly, switched back to eight degrees in the Roman world.
The most obvious implication of the precession was simply that a different sign of the zodiac had once been the location of the equinoxes. If the current sign were Aries, then the previous sign would have been Taurus. Thus the symbolism of the image of the god Perseus killing the old sign, Taurus, is sufficient to explain the Mithraic iconography. There is considerably more to it than that, with the other figures present representing the constellations on the celestial equator below the ecliptic at the time that the equinox would have occurred in Taurus. In addition, there is additional imagery of torch bearers with one torch up and one torch down, and fruit trees in leaf and in fruit emphasizing the two equinoxes for anybody too dense to recognize the obvious. In the Mithraic Cult the death and rebirth becomes that of the astrological signs representing the ages, and thus the ages themselves.

There was also apparently a doctrine within Mithraism involving the potential for the individual soul in possession of the right key, or keys, to ascend through each of the seven planetary spheres to a realm beyond the fixed stars where Perseus dwells, and where, as in Plato's cosmological model, the soul may find liberation. Thus in that sense Mithraism may also have represented a the key to the individuals aspiration for rebirth or liberation after death. In this rendition I have continued to refer to Mithras as Perseus because I suspect that initiates into the cult very likely did among themselves as well. The name Mithras most likely was taken from the name of a king in Asia minor who was a favorite of the Cilician pirates. There was also a linguistic connection between his family line of kings of Persia and Perseus, such that he very likely would have identified himself with Perseus. But I suspect that it would have been desirable if not essential for the initiates into what was after all a secret cult to have convenient fiction or cover story to tell outsiders which would not give away any proprietary information. To publicly refer to Persius as Mithras would have fulfilled that purpose perfectly. It is also possible that the name itself was first coined by others referring to the pirates of Asia minor by the name of the king they were associated with. In a similar vein it is possible that the words Persius and Mythras were so interchangeable in their own minds that the name came about that way.

Whatever the name there would have been one more reason to choose Taurus which might have only been known by more advanced initiates, but which would have been self evident to the more insightful astronomer-astrologers who learned of the precession of the equinoxes. There are two bright stars in the zodiac which lie so perfectly opposite each other that they seem to form a perfect line, with one end in Taurus and the other in Scorpius. As soon as one knew about the precession of the equinoxes that line would have stood out as a zero point in time, because it would have been obvious that the line would have represented the intersection of the plane of the ecliptic with the equatorial plane at some point in the past. This would have been the case when the equinox fell in Taurus, and most specifically when it fell on Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus. If Aldebaran is taken as defining the center of Taurus at fifteen degrees, then the equinox would have left Taurus as depicted in the bull slaying scene, when the equinox point was fifteen degrees away from Aldebaran. The computer model shows that this occurred in roughly 2,000 BC. The alignment of the line of the two stars, Aldebaran and Antares, with the intersection of the two planes occurred in about 3,000 BC. This seems to correspond well with what might be called the "alpha point" of history about 5,000 years ago.

Transpersonal Psychology
We have been examining the theme of death and spiritual rebirth as it relates to the formation of the individual psyche in the ancient world. It may be illuminating at this point to examine what modern archetypal psychology might contribute to our understanding of what happened during this period. In modern experiential depth psychology the theme of birth as a template for an experience of spiritual death and rebirth stands out as the dominant theme in many peoples individual struggle for personal integration. Stan Grof observed that there are four fundamental phases of biological birth, and that these are commonly recapitulated in an individuals experience of psychic death and spiritual rebirth.19 These four phases are often referred to as the four perinatal birth matrices and are described as follows. The first matrix represents the condition of the fetus in the womb prior to the onset of contractions. It is associated with the primordial disassociation of boundaries in the spiritual union of the amniotic fluid. The second matrix is associated with the onset of contractions before the cervix opens. Thus from the point of view of the fetus it is associated with constriction, restriction and oppression; Sartre's no exit phenomenon. The third matrix is associated with the actual passage through the birth canal and thus symbolizes the bloody biology of the most powerful elemental drives birth, sex and death, and by analogy spiritual death and rebirth. The fourth matrix represents the sudden arrival at a state of completion of the process. Thus the fourth matrix is associated with sudden liberation, transcendence, illumination, arrival, literally completion of birth itself and therefore completion of spiritual rebirth as well.

In modern astrology, exactly the same archetypes have come to be associated with the four outer planets Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.20 Saturn, the only one of the four outer planets known to the ancients, is generally associated with constriction and difficulty, while the three other outer most planets are associated with three different potentially positive aspects of birth, and therefore of spiritual rebirth. The slowest planet, Pluto, is most closely associated with the theme of death and rebirth in general, and of biological birth in particular. Pluto might be equally well invoked as representative of sex, and death, and birth and therefore rebirth and renewal, but always with an emphasis on the most elemental and bloody biology in catharsis through the underworld. Thus Pluto would be most naturally associated with Hades and with its namesake the lord of the underworld. Thus, to the extent that Dionysos is identified with the Baccanae and death and rebirth he is most closely tied to Pluto. But, as a figure representing sudden liberation and triumph in rebirth - a Hyperborean Apollo, he might also be associated with the planet Uranus which has come to be identified with liberation and thus the final stage of birth associated with sudden breakthrough and arrival. This archetype might be associated with the sudden triumph of mind, of the new, and of the rational intellect, but most especially with the triumph of humanity and the impulse for sudden creative invention and novelty. The third archetype of the three, represented by the planet Neptune, might be associated with the watery feminine and with the primordial disassociation of boundaries in spiritual union. This archetype might be associated with an increased interest in the spiritual impulse, and with esoteric vision and understanding in general, but also with the embodiment of the spiritual in the watery feminine, and thus in the goddess.

With this map representing the unification and combinations of the three transpersonal archetypes of death and rebirth in mind we can return to the alignment of the outer planets which represented the unification of all three of them and see how it perfectly symbolized the impulse which apparently first burst into western consciousness in a single pulse in the sixth century BC. We can also then interpret the various mysteries in a new light as each appears to represent a different permutation of the possible combinations of these same three fundamental archetypes of death and spiritual rebirth.

The Birth of Western Thought
In the sixth century BC several strands seem to have come together to weave the roots of the western psyche:

The Eleusinian Mysteries - The Homeric Hymn to Demeter may have first been recorded about this time.7
(It remains an open question when exactly the Mysteries started, many say it was much earlier.)

The Pre-Socratics - First explication of the nature of reality without recourse to gods.

Thales - First proto scientific concepts of liquids, solids, and gases; and of our origins in water.

Anaximander - First introduced the concepts of wet vs. dry and hot vs. cold. Postulated the
Apeiron or boundless essence, and the Earth as a disk floating in that circular space.

Pythagoras - Transmigration of the soul toward liberation. Harmonic unity of number, music and astronomy.

Chaldean Astronomy - First documented prediction of conjunctions of the planets.13

The Babylonian Exile - The apocalyptic myth was either written during or attributed to this period.14

What these events all have in common, aside from marking the first ingression into consciousness of some of the most fundamental concepts of western culture, is that they fall within a few decades of each other:

Hymn to Demeter & Eleusinian Mysteries c600 BC ? (some scholars place it much earlier)

The Pre-Socratics:
Thales c585 BC
Anaximander 610 BC - 540 BC
Pythagoras 582 BC - 507 BC

Chaldean Astronomical Calculations 600 BC - 523 BC

The Babylonian Exile 587 BC - 539 BC

All but the first event represented on this list can be accurately placed within a few decades of 575 BC.
That year was the culmination of the Uranus-Neptune-Pluto triple conjunction.

Nodal Points in Time
The time span involved is remarkably focused and the correlation of a large number of specific individuals and the ideas they represent with that brief period of time appears to be very high. Even more remarkably, there do not appear to be many individuals or events of equivalent stature prior to these, for many hundred years preceding this point in time. If, on the other hand, we go forward only a few years following this moment in time, we find Heraclitus and Parmenides, and then Socrates, all within a hundred years. Plato and Aristotle follow within a few decades of that and the period is in a sense complete by around 345 BC., about one hundred and fifty years after the first impact. The duration of this particular cultural impulse was apparently somewhat longer than has been observed with simple conjunctions of two of the three outer most planets in later centuries. This triple conjunction was a unique event in history. Humanity has never experienced as close conjunction of these three outer planets, before or since that point in time.

The next major planetary alignment, Neptune opposite Pluto conjoined with Uranus and Jupiter and loosely with Saturn, culminated in 324 BC. This alignment might be seen as one more at odds with a spiritual or visionary dimension, and instead more concerned with sudden human triumph and tremendous power. This date correlated almost exactly with the death of Aristotle and Alexander the Great as well as the culmination of his conquest of the ancient world and thus the inauguration of the Hellenistic Age.

The third and final alignment prior to the turn of the millennia occurred around 75 BC. This was principally a conjunction of Neptune with Pluto which was very loosely joined by Uranus. Its very nature was somewhat amorphous and undefined and might be most associated with the ingression of a very powerful new spiritual visions into the prevailing culture. This impulse would have been expected to be profoundly powerful and unstoppable, but at first unseen and to a lesser degree sudden and liberating. It might also have been manifested in the form of both dissolving feminine spirituality and in spiritual impulses linked to elemental drives and bloody catharsis. This alignment apparently must have correlated with an impulse which gave rise to not only Christianity and Mithraism but also the rise to preeminence of the cults of Isis and Osiris as well as Cybele and Attis.

In the course of working on this material there is a pattern I noticed which has become increasingly eerie, but which is so far outside the realm of the rational I hesitate to include it, even in this paper. I had been working on the dates of the precession of the equinoxes, inspired by the Mithraic question of when exactly the Aldebaran-Antares axis would have aligned with the equinoxes. I had wondered if the date of the alignment of the equinoxes with the Aldebaran-Antares axis might also correspond with the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. I was already aware of Orion as the object of the alignments of the air shafts which apparently fixed the date of construction of the Great Pyramid. I was also aware of the triple conjunction in 575 BC which I had already computed in an astrology program, so I knew that it had occurred in tropical Taurus. I was surprised, however, when the same sheet which showed a small patch of the sky surrounding Aldebaran included not only Orion, but also the location of the conjunction in 575 BC. At that point it occurred to me that perhaps the ancients were somehow syncronistically looking at the right place in the sky without knowing consciously what they were seeing (or not seeing) there, as the conjunction in 575 BC involved the three invisible outer planets. But, it became stranger yet.

I wondered when other alignments of the outer planets had occurred within the period we have been studying. By using the astronomy program from a distant vantage point perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic I was able to check and find that there were only two more major alignments between 575 BC and several hundred AD. The first I was very surprised to find was almost as powerful as the one 575 BC but with Neptune opposite Pluto, Uranus and Jupiter with Saturn. This occurred in 324 BC and at first I could only see it correlate with the death of Aristotle, until I realized that this was also the death of Alexander the Great, the culmination of his ten year campaign, and thus exactly the dawn of the Hellenistic Age!

The third alignment was really an exact conjunction of Neptune with Pluto in 75 BC with Uranus approaching them, so a few years later the three would have all been in a loose mutual conjunction, marking the birth of Mithraism, and then as Uranus crossed Neptune and Pluto, Christianity as well. But what struck me about all three conjunctions when I looked at their portraits in Dance of the Planets is that they all occurred in the same spot in the sky - in Taurus, in modern astrological terms, between the sidereal constellations of Taurus and Gemini. The syncronicity was getting to be a little much to ignore. But it is equally difficult to make much rational sense of it. Each of the three conjunctions was essentially invisible to the ancients except to the extent that Saturn and Jupiter participated in each of them.

Never-the-less, the symbolism is pregnant with metaphoric meaning. To the extent that the alignments of the outer planets do in fact constitute long cycles of time which correlate exceedingly accurately with nodal points in history at which there were dense clusters of events, and to the extent that the combination of archetypal meanings attributed to each of those alignments is predictively consistent with the actual historical events they corresponded to, the ancients were right! They believed that events were governed by (we would say correlated with) movements of the heavens. Plato was also apparently correct to the extent that he placed the realm of ultimate interest beyond the sphere of Saturn, which is exactly where we find these new outer planets. The Stoics were also correct to the extent that many of them believed that there were some sort of longer cycles than the ones they could see. The Mithraics were also correct to the extent that they adopted Plato's model and were apparently concerned with assent beyond the sphere of Saturn, only the region they were envisioning as beyond the fixed stars proved to be exactly where the outer planets lie. But there is an even more esoteric twist of interpretation. Three times the invisible outer planets congregated in one region of sky, and on the third occasion marked the birth of a new religion in which initiates would focus on, and draw pictures of, the very region where those three events had taken place, without ever consciously realizing what had happened there. And when they were done Taurus would be the symbol left to picture their efforts. But when the very precession they held as their secret had done its work again in the modern age, the region of sky where the event they never saw had occurred would come to be known for the rest of time as Taurus.


1. Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, (1958), p. 24
2. Ibid., p. 92
3. Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), p. 82
4. Eliade, Rites and Symbols, p. 92
5. W. K. C. Gutherie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 164
6. Plato, Phaedo, (London: Penguin Classic, 1954) p. 173 Plato actually goes to the trouble to describe a dodecahedron here rather than simply citing an example of a sphere, such as an orange.
7. George Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, p. 3 Making reference to Picard (1927)
On page 14 the same author places the origin in the second half of the fifteenth century BC.
8. Albert Hofmann, The Road to Eleusis, (Santa Rosa, ITA Conference lecture, 1988)
9. Mylonas, Eleusis, p. 262
10. Mylonas, Eleusis, p. 19
11. Encyclopedia of Science Verbal information via. R. O. Fournier Ph.D. geochemist
12. From memory, I have not had time to look for the reference on this yet.
13. Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans, (Dover: 1960) p. 8
14. David Ulansey, Class Lecture Notes
15. Cumont, Astrology, p. 29
16. Ibid., p. 37
17. David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1989) p. 40
18. Ibid., p. 72 & 73
19. Stanaslov Grof, Realms of the Human Unconscious
20. Richard Tarnas, Transpersonal Astrology, (Santa Rosa: ITA Conference lecture, 1988)