The Mystery Degrees

Leslie M. Scott, 33 degree

Sovereign Grand Inspector General in Oregon

Address before Multnomah Council of Kadosh, at Portland, Ore.


Old as philosophy is the phrase, “To know is to live.” We find that thought in the Ancient Mysteries, running back thousands of years.

To know, said the sages of antiquity, is to believe in the unity of God, to purify the soul, to prepare for the future life, and to do our duty to our fellow men.  So said Zarathustra, Socrates and the Man of Nazareth; the authors of Jewish and Christian Scriptures; the authors of Masonic doctrine; the thinkers and reformers of every age, and Albert Pike, the formulator of the Scottish Rite.

To know is to live.  Men seek to know, so that they may live wiser, better and happier.  “Seek and ye shall find.” (Luke XI:9.)

The phrase “live and learn” is a cynical reversal of words. Better for spiritual and material progress is first to learn, so that one may thereafter live; and “keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27.).

The ancients practised a moral science which the Greeks, 2,500 years ago, called Mysteries.  The word generically meant to close the eyes and mouth, to hide.  The hidden things inspired the Apostle Paul, who was versed in the Mysteries, to say: “For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. IV: 18.)

The science seems to have originated in India, and to have spread to Ethiopia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece, Persia, Assyria, Rome, Britain and Scandinavia.  It consisted originally of secret religious rite’s.  The Egyptians made much of them, and attached legends to their supreme gods Osiris, the father, Horus, the son, and Isis, the spirit.  These legends were imitated in the religious and philosophical lore of the peoples of antiquity, including the Goths and Scandinavians of Northern Europe, and the Druids of Britain.  The early Christians used them in their sacramental rites, especially as to the eucharistic elements of Christ, the communion, and the exclusion of strangers and persecutors.

Says Albert Pike: “Originally, the Mysteries were meant to be the beginning of a new life of reason and virtue.  The initiated, or esoteric, companions were taught the doctrine of the One Supreme God, the theory of death and eternity, the hidden mysteries of nature, the prospect of the ultimate restoration of the soul to that state of perfection from which it had fallen, its immortality, and the states of reward and punishment after death.  The uninitiated were deemed profane, unworthy of public employment or private confidence, sometimes, proscribed as atheists, and certain of everlasting punishment beyond the grave….

“The veil of secrecy was impenetrable, sealed by oaths and penalties, the most tremendous and appalling.

“It was by initiation only, that a knowledge of the hieroglyphics (Egyptian) could be obtained, with which the walls, columns and ceilings of the Temples were decorated….

“The ceremonies were performed at dead of night … with every appliance that could alarm and excite the candidate. . . .

“The early Christians, taught by the founder of their religion, but in greater perfection, those primitive truths that from the Egyptians had passed to the Jews, and been preserved among the latter by the Essenes, received also the institution of the Mysteries; adopted as their object the building of the symbolic Temple, preserving the old Scriptures of the Jews as their sacred book, and as the fundamental law, which furnished the new veil of initiation with the Hebraic words and formulas, that, corrupted and disfigured by time and ignorance, appear in many of our degrees….

“The formula which the primitive [Christian] church pronounced at the moment of celebrating its Mysteries, was this: ‘Depart, ye profane! Let the catechumens [neophytes] and those who have not been admitted or initiated, go forth’.”

The unity of design of the Mysteries of all lands shows their common origin.  They contained secret knowledge and rites of secret worship.  At first religious, they became political and promotive of caste, and degenerated into charlatanry.  They were imitated in public pageants.  The Rose Festival of Portland uses some of the imitations, as in the obligation of Rosaria; likewise, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans.  Such pageants were common in Elusinian and Orphic Greece.  But the real Mysteries were exclusive and secretive to their devotees and initiates.  The obligations and penalties were solemn and harrowing.

The rites contained not only moral precepts and doctrines of Deity, the soul, and future life, but also knowledge of astronomy, the harmonious and regular procession of the stars and the seasons, and the precision of numbers and mathematics.

They taught lessons of life, death and after-life; they were funereal, heroic, dramatic, as in our Mysteries of Hiram.  To the Egyptians, Hiram was Osiris; to the Persians, Mithras; to the Greeks, Dionysus; to the Christians, the Man of Nazareth.  Hiram is Khuram, Hebrew, meaning Noble Born, higher type of humanity; “exemplar of what man may and should become, in the course of ages … ; gifted with a glorious intellect, a noble soul, a fine organization, and a perfectly balanced moral being … ; the possibility of the race made real.”

Cicero said of the Mysteries: “For a wild and ferocious life, [they] have substituted humanity and urbanity of manners.  It is with good reason they use the term initiation; for it is through them that we in reality have learned the first principles of life; and they not only teach us to live in a manner more consoling and agreeable, but they soften the pains of death by the hope of a better life hereafter.”

Plato, 400 B. C., said that the object was to reestablish the soul in its primitive purity; the Roman philosopher, 500 years later, Epictetus, to uphold the “instruction of man and the correction of morals.”

Aristotle said the Mysteries were the most valuable of all religious institutions; Socrates, that they brought to the dying the most glorious hopes for eternity.

The Mysteries were practised in Rome until 400 A.D.; in Athens, until 700 A.D.; in Wales and Scotland, until 1100 A.D. They contained conceptions that have deeply affected the religious history of the world.  In Greece they were given in four stages:

(1) Preliminary purification;

(2) Communication of mystic knowledge;

(3)  Revelation of holy things;

(4) Crowning of the mystic as a privileged person.

The Homeric poems, 800 B.C., speak of the comfort brought to the afflicted.  Modern Catholics are said to receive similar consolation from the elevation of the Host at Mass, which is imitative of the Mysteries.  The early Christians adopted the mass of Mithras of the Persian Mysteries, and thence took their sacraments and their rites of confirmation.  The priests of Mithras used confession and baptism, and promised future life of happiness or misery; they celebrated the oblation of bread, image of resurrection, and gave extreme unction.

Pythagoras, 500 B.C., had three Mystery Degrees, for which a preparation of five years of abstinence and silence was required.  He was familiar with the Mysteries of Egypt.  He taught Mathematics as an evidence of God and His laws; grammar, rhetoric and logic to improve the reasoning powers, and geometry, music and astronomy for useful knowledge.  He taught also the omnipotence of God, the immortality of the soul, truthfulness, silence, temperance, fortitude, prudence, justice, and abstinence from vice.  Particularly we owe the Fellowcraft instructions to Pythagoras.  Plato elaborated the Pythagoras doctrines, one hundred years later.

The Masonic Fraternity is the modern repository of the Mysteries.  As used by us, they are shorn of mysticism and superstition, and are retentive of spiritual and moral values, and doctrines of Divine unity and harmony, and future life of the soul.  Mankind has made little or no progress in spiritual and moral excellence in thousands of years, nor in expression.  The Golden Rule seems as distant an ideal as when pronounced by the founders of Christianity, and Confucianism, 500 B.C.

Masonry does not specify the type of future life, nor the dogma or doctrine that is to be followed.  Blue Lodge Masonry pledges belief in “future life,” but not in “immortal life.” Scottish Rite Masonry holds the soul to be immortal, but does not postulate the soul’s mode of existence hereafter.

Some of our degrees are likened to degrees of the Ancient Mysteries.  That is to say, our degrees, in their ritual, use the ancient teachings and symbolisms and ceremonials.  Other degrees of our series follow the philosophy of the Ancient Mysteries.  We use Hebrew symbolisms and discipline; the Druse combination of Hebrew, Mohammedan and Christian, and the Christian symbolism, for Masonry is a faith universal, sharing the beliefs that are common to all great religions, of God, future life, earthly duty, and personal rectitude.

The early Christians practised three degrees, based upon the Ancient Mysteries. Some of ours have a similar sequence and present the essence of Scottish Rite philosophy.

Ancient astronomers saw symbols in the stars; the circle, triangle, square, parallelogram.  The Spring constellation of Taurus, the Bull, ushered in the Blazing Star of Sirius, the three kinds of Orion, the five Hyades and the seven Pleiades, signifying the mystic numbers 1, 3, 5, 7. The Nile began to rise, as our Columbia River does, in the springtime; Osiris returned with Taurus at the Vernal Equinox to regenerate the world, after being slain by Python, six months before, in the constellation Scorpio, which is opposite Taurus in the sky.

Masonic Lodges have many astronomical symbols from the Ancient Mysteries; churches have them also.  The cross is astronomical, pointing four directions to the universe.  The Bible makes many references to the stars.  The Mysteries have permeated the great religions, and still live in them.  The birth of the Christ was heralded by a star in the East.

We are Knights of the Brazen Serpent, because the serpent was an emblem of reason, faith and repentance.  The pharaohs wore the serpent emblem on their brow, as a symbol of their piety in the Mystery religion.

Have we moderns found a better way of explaining the soul’s origin and its advent to, and departure from, the body, than the ancients had? Are the plain virtues better known now than then?

One of our degrees may be likened to the Master’s Degree and to the third degree of the early Christians, to their Degree of the Faithful, in which their sacramental secrets were confined.  Our degree uses Christian symbolisms and Christian forms of discipline, and leads to the explanation of the Word, in the final Masonic Trinity: God, the Source of All; His Thought conceiving the Universe; His Word, uttering the Thought and becoming the Creator.  The manifestation, the revelation of the Word is the Universe: material, mental, spiritual.

The triple dogma has long been known in the sanctuaries of the sages, and Masonry has other expressions of Trinity, such as Wisdom, Strength (Force), Beauty (Harmony); Faith, Hope, Charity; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; also many references to other triads.

The search for the Word has engaged the great minds of the ages.  It is a search for the Logos, the nature and purpose of the Divine Plan, for spiritual life and light, by which to guide in the pathway of Truth.  Philosophers have variously struggled to define the Word.

To a Mason the Word is a synonym of the true nature of God, of wisdom, intellect, of the soul of the universe.  It is the unuttered expression of being and life that are in the Absolute.

The search is an allegory of attempts to find the Word.  In the allegory are represented the general ignorance of the nature and attributes of the true Deity, the worship of other deities, and faulty ideas of the Great Architect.

We say the Word once found was lost.  That is part of the allegory.  The writer of St. John’s Gospel says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Men have contrived one substitute definition after another.  And in this atomic age they are finding new substitutes for their concepts.  We say Masonry is a science of seeking and finding.  We have been told that the substitute Word of the Master’s third degree is Sanskrit, meaning, The Holy Child, the Son of God.  The formulators of Masonry were Christians, to whom the True Word was a synonym of Christ the Saviour.  We could go on and on with substitutes for the Word, on which men have not been able to join, and from which they have passed, one after another, unsatisfied.

Such is the climax of the Mystery Degrees of the Scottish Rite, paralleling the Craft Degrees and the Christian Degrees, and signifying three steps or stages:

(1) Material: blindness, repentance, light.

(2) Intellectual: sympathy, justice, gratitude, veneration, geometry, rule of harmony.

(3) Spiritual: rebirth, death, resurrection, faith, the New Law – Love ye one another.

Masonry holds that justice and beneficence are divine attributes, shared by imperfect man.  Evil, pain and sorrow are parts of the Divine Harmony, to be balanced according to the Divine Plan, and not by human creed or doctrine.

Says Albert Pike: “Masonry inculcates its old doctrine . . , that God is One; that His Thought, uttered in His Word, created the Universe, and preserves it by those Eternal Laws which are the expression of that thought; that the Soul of Man, breathed into him by God, is immortal as his thoughts are; that he is free to do evil or to choose good, responsible for his acts and punishable for his sins; that all evil and wrong and suffering are but temporary, the discords of one great Harmony, and that in His good time they will lead by infinite modulations to the great, harmonic, final chord and cadence of Truth, Love, Peace and Happiness, that will ring forever and ever under the arches of heaven, among all the stars and worlds, and in all souls of men and angels.”

This is the Masonic Creed, expressed in these four degrees:

“Believe in God’s infinite benevolence, wisdom, and justice;

“Hope for the final triumph of good over evil, and for perfect harmony, as the final result of all the concords and discords of the Universe; and

“Be charitable, as God is, toward the unfaith, the errors, the follies and the faults of men; for all make one great brotherhood.”

And, by the revealing light of initiation, learn, know and live.