Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": INITIATION IN THE MYSTERIES OF ISIS

(Apuleius, 'Metamorphoses,' XI, 1-26)

Apuleius of Madaura, in North Africa, lived in the second century A.D. He was a lawyer, a novelist, and an orator. His famous Metamorphoses, which used to be called The Golden Ass, is a thinly veiled apologetic and autobiographic work in eleven books, replete with charming tales (e.g., 'Cupid and Psyche' in IV, 28 MVI, 24). The hero, Lucius, being over-curious about magic, is accidentally turned into an ass. His restoration to human shape by the mercy of Isis and his initiation into her rites form the climax of the work and are regarded as being based on direct acquaintance with the Isis mysteries.


[Book XI opens with an auspicious note of mystery. Lucius is spending the night asleep on the warm sand of the seashore.]

(1) About the first watch of the night, I awoke in sudden terror; the full moon had risen and was shining with unusual splendour as it emerged from the waves. All about me lay the mysterious silence of the night. I knew that this was the hour when the goddess [Isis] exercised her greatest power and governed all things by her providence -not only animals, wild and tame, but even inanimate things were renewed by her divine illumination and might; even the heavenly bodies, the whole earth, and the vast sea waxed or waned in accordance with her will.

The Epiphany of Isis

[Lucius decides to make his appeal to Isis for release from his asinine disguise, and the goddess responds. His prayer in 2 recounts her titles as Queen of Heaven, Ceres, Proserpina, celestial Venus.]

(3) So I poured out my prayers and supplications, adding to them much pitiful wailing, and once more fell sound asleep on the same bed of sand. Scarcely had I closed my eyes when lo! from the midst of the deep there arose that face divine to which even the gods must do reverence. Then a little at a time, slowly, her whole shining body emerged from the sea and came into full view. I would like to tell you all the wonder of this vision, if the poverty of human speech does not prevent, or if the divine power dwelling within that form supplies a rich enough store of eloquence.

First, the tresses of her hair were long and thick, and streamed down softly, flowing and curling about her divine neck. On her head she wore as a crown many garlands of flowers, and in the middle of her forehead shone white and glowing a round disc like a mirror, or rather like the moon; on its right and left it was bound about with the furrowed coils of rising vipers, and above it were stalks of grain. Her tunic was of many colours, woven of the finest linen, now gleaming with snowy whiteness, now yellow like the crocus, now rosy-red like a flame. But what dazzled my eyes more than anything else was her cloak, for it was a deep black, glistening with sable sheen; it was cast about her, passing under her right arm and brought together on her left shoulder. Part of it hung down like a shield and drooped in many a fold, the whole reaching to the lower edge of her garment with tasseled fringe.

(4) Here and there along its embroidered border, and also on its surface, were scattered sequins of sparkling stars, and in their midst the full moon of midmonth shone forth like a flame of fire. And all along the border of that gorgeous robe there was an unbroken garland of all kinds of flowers and fruits.
In her hands she held emblems of various kinds. In her right hand she carried a bronze rattle [the sistrum] made of a thin piece of metal curved like a belt, through which were passed a few small rods; this gave out a tinkling sound whenever she shook it three times with a quivering pulsation. In her left hand was a golden cup, from the top of whose slender handle rose an asp, towering with head erect and its throat distended on both sides. Her perfumed feet were shod with sandals woven of the palm of victory.

Such was the vision, and of such majesty. Then, breathing forth all the blessed fragrance of happy Arabia, she deigned to address me with voice divine;

(5), Behold, Lucius, I have come, moved by thy prayers ! I, nature's mother, mistress of all the elements, earliest offspring of the ages, mightiest of the divine powers, Queen of the dead, chief of them that dwell in the heavens, in whose features are combined those of all the gods and goddesses. By my nod I rule the shining heights of heaven, the wholesome winds of the sea, and the mournful silences of the underworld. The whole world honours my sole deity [numen unicum] under various forms, with varied rites, and by many names . . . and the Egyptians mighty in ancient lore, honouring me with my peculiar rites, call me by my true name, Isis the Queen.

'I have come in pity for thy woes. I have come, propitious and ready to aid. Cease from thy weeping and lamentation, and lay aside thy grief. For thee, by my providence, the day of salvation is dawning! Therefore turn thy afflicted spirit, and give heed to what I command. The day, even the very day that follows this night, is dedicated to me by an everlasting dedication, for on this day, after I have laid to rest the storms of winter and stilled the tempestuous waves of the sea, my priests shall dedicate to the deep, which is now navigable once more, a new boat, and offer it in my honour as the first fruits of the year's seafaring. Thou must await this festival with untroubled heart and with no profane thoughts.'

[The goddess tells Lucius that he must mingle with the crowd at the Ploiaphesia and edge his way up to the priest, who will be wearing a garland of roses. Having been forewarned by the goddess in a vision, the priest will be prepared for what is to happen, namely, that Lucius (still the ass) will seize the priest's garland and eat it, where upon he will be restored to human form. And so it takes place. Transformed once more into human shape, Lucius is exhorted by one of the priests, 'whose smiling face seemed more than mortal': ]

(15) 'O Lucius, after enduring so many labours and escaping so many tempests of Fortune, you have now at length reached the port and haven of rest and mercy ! Neither your noble lineage nor your high rank nor your great learning did anything for you; but because you turned to servile pleasures, by a little youthful folly you won the grim reward of your hapless curiosity. And yet while Fortune's blindness tormented you with various dangers, by her very malice she has brought you to this present state of religious blessedness. Let Fortune go elsewhere and rage with her wild fury, and find someone else to torment! For Fortune has no power over those who have devoted themselves to serve the majesty of our goddess. For all your afflictions -robbers, wild beasts, slavery, toilsome and futile journeys that ended where they began, and the daily fear of death-all these brought no advantage to wicked Fortune. Now you are safe, under the protection of that Fortune who is not blind but can see, who by her clear light enlightens the other gods. Therefore rejoice and put on a more cheerful countenance, appropriately matching your white robe, and follow with joyful steps the procession of this Saviour Goddess. Let all such as are not devout followers of the goddess see and acknowledge their error, [saying]; "See, here is Lucius, freed from his former miseries by the providence of the great goddess Isis, and rejoicing in triumph over his Fortune!" And in order that you may live even more safely and securely, hand in your name to this sacred militia [i.e., join the Isiac order]-for it is only a little while ago that you were asked to take the oath-and dedicate yourself to obey our religion and take upon yourself the voluntary yoke of ministry. For when you have begun to serve the goddess, then will you realize more fully the fruits of your liberty.'

The Initiation of Lucius

[And so the priest prophesied and made his appeal to Lucius, and Lucius consented and joined the procession, amid the jeers of the unbelievers. But his conversion, like that of many others, was a slow process, and only gradually did he come to identify himself with the Isiac priests; for, like many another, he believed the strict profession of religion was something too hard for him: 'The laws of chastity and abstinence are not easy to obey' (19) And yet he continued to frequent the services of worship

(21). and eventually came to desire earnestly to be admitted to the mysteries of Isis. This took place on 'the night that is sacred to the goddess.']

(22) The priest finished speaking, and I did not mar my obedience by any impatience, but with a quiet and gentle and edifying silence I rendered attentive service at the daily observance of the sacred rites. Nor did the saving grace of the mighty goddess in any way deceive me or torture me with long delays, but in the dark of night, by commands that were not in the least dark, she clearly signified to me that the day so long desired had come, in which she would grant the fulfillment of my most earnest prayers. She also stated what amount I must provide for the supplications, and she appointed Mithras himself, her high priest, to administer the rites to me; for his destiny, she said, was closely bound up with mine by the divine conjunction of the stars.
These and other gracious admonitions of the supreme goddess refreshed my spirit, so that even before it was clear day I shook off sleep and hastened at once to the priest's lodging. I met him just as he was coming out of his bedchamber, and saluted him. I had decided to request with even more insistence that I should be initiated, now that it was due me. But he at once, as soon as he saw me, anticipated me, saying, 'Lucius, you happy, you greatly blessed man, whom the August deity deigns to favour with such good will! But why,' he asked, 'do you stand here idle, yourself delaying? The day you have so long asked by your unwearied prayers has come, when by the divine commands of the goddess of many names you are to be admitted by my hands into the most holy secrets of the mysteries.' Then, taking my right hand in his, the gentle old man led me to the very doors of the huge temple; and after celebrating with sole ritual the opening of the gates and completing the morning sacrifice, he brought out from a hidden place in the temple certain books whose titles were written in undecipherable letters. Some of these [letters] were shaped like all kinds of animals and seemed to be brief ways of suggesting words; others bad their extremities knotted or curved like wheels, or intertwined like the tendrils of a vine, which was enough to safeguard them from the curiosity of profane readers. At the same time he told me about the various preparations it was necessary to make in view of my initiation.

(23) 1 lost no time, but promptly and with a liberality even beyond what was required I either bought these things myself or had my friends buy them for me. And now, the time drawing near and requiring it, as he said, the priest conducted me with an escort of the religiously-minded to the nearest baths; and when I entered the bath, where it is customary for the neophytes to bathe, he first prayed to the gods to be gracious to me and then sprinkled me with purest water and cleansed me. He then led me back to the temple, and since the day was now more than half over he placed me at the feet of the goddess herself; then, after confiding certain secret orders to me, those which were too holy to be spoken, he openly, before all who were present, bade me for ten successive days to abstain from all the pleasures of the table, to eat no meat and drink no wine. All these requirements I observed with scrupulous care. And at last came the day designated by the divine guarantee. The sun was sloping downward and bringing on the evening when lo! from everywhere came crowds of the initiates, flocking around me, and each of them, following the ancient rite, presented me with various gifts. Finally, all the uninitiated having withdrawn, they put on me a new linen robe, and the priest, seizing me by the hand, led me to the very inmost recesses of the holy place.......

. . . Hear then and believe, for what I tell you is true. I drew near to the confines of death, treading the very threshold of Proserpine. I was borne through all the elements and returned to earth again. At the dead of night, I saw the sun shining brightly. I approached the gods above and the gods below, and worshipped them face to face. See, I have told you things which, though you have heard them, you still must know nothing about. I will therefore relate only as much as may, without committing a sin, be imparted to the understanding of the uninitiate.

(24) As soon as it was morning and the solemn rites had been completed, I came forth clothed in the twelve gowns that are worn by the initiate, apparel that is really most holy, but about which no sacred ban forbids me to tell, since at that time there were many who saw me wearing it. For in the very midst of the holy shrine, before the image of the goddess, there was a wooden platform on which I was directed to stand, arrayed in a robe which, although it was only of linen, was so richly embroidered that I was a sight to behold. The precious cape hung from my shoulders down my back even to the ground, and it was adorned, wherever you looked, with the figures of animals in various colours. Here were Indian dragons, there griffins from the Hyperborean regions, winged like birds, but out of another world. This cape the initiates call the Olympian. In my right hand I carried a flaming torch, and my head was decorated with a crown made of white palm leaves, spread out to stand up like rays. After I bad been thus adorned like the sun and set up like an image of a god, the curtains were suddenly withdrawn, and the people crowded around to gaze at me. . . .

[There followed feast and parties, and on the third day a solemn fast-breaking ceremony. Unable at first to bear to leave the image of the goddess, finally Lucius addresses her one last time, sobbing :]

(25) 'O holy and eternal guardian of the human race, who dost always cherish mortals and bless them, thou carest for the woes of miserable men with a sweet mother's love. Neither day nor night, nor any moment of time, ever passes by without thy blessings, but always on land and sea thou watchest over men; thou drivest away from them the tempests of life and stretchest out over them thy saving right hand, wherewith thou dost unweave even the inextricable skein of the Fates; the tempests of Fortune thou dost assuage and restrainest the baleful motions of the stars. Thee the gods above adore, thee the gods below worship. It is thou that whirlest the sphere of heaven, that givest light to the sun, that governest the universe and trampled down Tartarus. To thee the stars respond, for thee the seasons return, in thee the gods rejoice, and the elements serve thee. At thy nod the winds blow, the clouds nourish [the earth], the seeds sprout, and the buds swell. Before thy majesty the birds tremble as they flit to and fro in the sky, and the beasts as they roam the mountains, the serpents hiding in the ground, and the monsters swimming in the deep. But my skill is too slight to tell thy praise, my wealth too slender to make thee due offerings of sacrifice. . . . Therefore the only thing one can do, if one is devout but otherwise a pauper, that I will strive to do. Thy face divine and thy most holy deity-these I will hide away deep within my heart; thine image I shall treasure forever!'

Having thus pleaded with the mighty deity, I embraced Mithras the priest, now my spiritual father, and hanging upon his neck with many a kiss I begged his forgiveness, since I could make no proper return for all the great benefits that he had conferred upon Me. (26) Then, after many words of thanks, long drawn out, I finally set out for home by the shortest route. . . . A few days later, led on by the mighty goddess, I reached Rome on the eve of the Ides of December.

Translation and explanatory material by Frederick C Grant, in his Hellenistic Religions (New York, 1953), PP. 136-44

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