The little island of Samothrace in the Aegean Sea, today barren and sterile, was once the home of great Adepts, and the site of the oldest Mysteries known to Western history. These Mysteries originated in the night of time, thousands of years before the historical period. In them was taught, by dramatic representation, the whole story of cosmic evolution. Physical science, medicine and the laws of music were taught in the same manner. The nature of the human spirit, its relation to the body, and the method by which it could be purified and restored to its rightful position as Sovereign Lord of the body were all explained to the candidates for initiation and incorporated into philosophical and ethical doctrines. The Mysteries, therefore, were highly religious, scientific and philosophical in their nature, as well as being beneficent as a school of ethics. But, four hundred years before the Christian era, the Mysteries had already begun to decay. Materialistic ideas were slowly undermining the spiritual teachings, priestly speculations were being substituted for the real Gnosis, and the Adepts who had been the heads of the different Mystery Schools were gradually withdrawing into the more remote parts of the earth.
The death-knell of the Mystery School of Samothrace was first sounded by the Karma of a young novice, Olympias, the orphan daughter of the late King Neoptolemus. Mystic by nature, she was a special devotee of Zeus-Ammon, the Egyptian-Greek representation of the “ever-concealed Deity,” whose garment was Aether — the luminiferous substance which pervades the entire universe.
In the year 357 B.C., Philip, the young King of Macedonia, paid a visit to the island of Samothrace, then only a day’s sail from the mainland. Whether this visit was prompted by some mystical strain in Philip’s blood, or whether it had been made necessary by a vow taken in his youth which called for a return to the island, it, at any rate, sealed his own fate, and also the fate of the world for many centuries. There he met Olympias, who became his wife and the mother of Alexander the Great.
The legend runs that on the night before her wedding, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt had entered her side, and that the god Ammon, under the guise of a Serpent, had become the father of her child. During his whole life, and for centuries after his death, Alexander was considered as the son of Ammon. He accepted the fact of his divine paternity and dreamed, even as a youth, of the day when he would be able to visit the shrine of his “father” Ammon in the Siwa oasis in Egypt. It was this desire, rather than the political ambition with which he is generally credited, which eventually took Alexander to Egypt, and to this visit the city of Alexandria owes its existence.
The site that he chose for his city was situated on a long ribbon of land lying between the Mediterranean on the north and Lake Mereotis on the south. To the east lay the great delta of the Nile, and to the west the vast yellow desert where his “father” Ammon lay enshrined. In the year 331 B.C. he marked out the original walls of the city, tracing them with flour that was carried by his Macedonian veterans, and planned the city in the shape of a Cross, formed by the intersection of two grand boulevards.
Cut off by his early death from further participation in the building of the city, the task was left to his half-brother Ptolemy Soter, who, with the aid of his son Ptolemy Philadelphus, completed the work. By that time, Alexander’s dream-city had become a living reality. It was now a giant Cross of Calvary, its four natural divisions housing some of the greatest intellects of the world. In future centuries it was destined to become a Cross of Calvary indeed, upon which the Wisdom-Religion was to be crucified, and its last great exponent of that day, the immortal Hypatia, torn limb from limb by the Christian mob.
The city of Alexandria is interesting to the Theosophical student, for there, just fifteen hundred years ago, existed the last great Theosophical School in history — the School which was begun by Ammonius Saccas, and ended with the death of Hypatia. It is quite possible, considering the fifteen hundred year cycle of reincarnation, that many Theosophists of the present day were members of that old School, and so, not difficult for many to see in imagination the city of Alexandria as it was in 193 A.D., the year in which Ammonius founded his School.
Let us turn back the centuries and visit together that ancient metropolis. There we may envision together a scene which perhaps will make vivid the time and life of Ammonius Saccas.
Ammonius has gone down to the docks to meet Lycias, a young Greek student who is arriving that morning from Athens. As he steps from the ship, Ammonius welcomes him with open arms.
AMMONIUS: “Greetings to thee, Lycias, my friend and future pupil! How glad I am to see thee! And how grateful for thy help! We will need all the strength we can procure for our future work, and thy clear eyes tell me that thou, at least, seest the seriousness of our undertaking!”
LYCIAS: “I do, Ammonius, and already thy city interests me. What a babel of tongues on these docks! And sailors from every land on earth!”
AMMONIUS: “Thou hast chosen an interesting place to make thy entry into our city, friend Lycias. Perhaps the Harbor of Happy Return, through which thy ship came to this, its place of anchor, may have an inner meaning. Perhaps thou, my friend, art one of the old workers in this cause, and thine entry into the city of Alexandria marks a Happy Return to work already started in other lives. Look well at these docks before we leave them. Here I worked as a corn-porter when I was but a lad. Now people call me Ammonius Saccas, or Ammonius the sack-carrier. These docks are in the Egyptian quarter of our city, that quarter which is known as Rhakotis. Come, let us hasten from this noisy place. There are many interesting things that I would show thee!”
And so Ammonius and Lycias cross the Egyptian quarter of the city, soon ascending the rocky hill to the south, upon which is built the great Serapion. It consists of a vast group of buildings centered around the great Temple of Serapis. The Egyptian architecture of the place interests the young Athenian, for it is quite different from the Greek style to which he is accustomed. It is a great fort-like place, gloomy and severe, which they approach by a long flight of steps, bordered with innumerable Sphinxes.
LYCIAS: “What a magnificent place, Ammonius! The Capitol at Athens does not surpass it in grandeur! May we enter the Temple?”
AMMONIUS: “We may. And as we go through, I will tell thee something of a countryman of thine, Apollonius of Tyana, who taught in this Temple a little over a hundred years ago. It was here that the Emperor Vespasian first met him. On the day that Vespasian arrived in Alexandria, the whole city came down to the docks to greet him. He looked in vain for a sight of Apollonius, but Damis informed him that Apollonius was busy teaching in the Temple. Vespasian, brushing aside those who had come to pay him honor, hastened to the Temple, and after a short conversation with Apollonius, made him his friend and counsellor.”
LYCIAS: “Has Apollonius’ work prospered in Egypt, Ammonius? I hear from Rome that Justin is trying to belittle it.”
AMMONIUS: “That is true. The Christians are making a sad mistake by claiming that their religion is unique, when all the world knows otherwise. Here in Alexandria, Basilides and Valentinus have been working for years trying to prove that Jesus’ teachings are but re-statements of the ancient doctrines. But, as thou knowest, their work is being undermined by Justin and Irenaeus, who seem to have forgotten that Jesus himself was a student of the ancient Gnostic doctrines and that his purpose, therefore, was to bring them to light again. Why do not the Christians realize that all religions have sprung from a common source? That is our work, friend Lycias, and we will need all the help that thou canst render!”
By this time the two friends have descended the hill of the Serapion and are walking along the great Street of Canopus. The young Greek is astonished at the cosmopolitan character of the city. He sees many of his own countrymen, haughty and supercilious in their manner. Roman magistrates and military men greet one another, and Roman legionaries are busily patrolling the streets. They see a few Persians in the crowd, and some golden-brown people from far-off India. They see black Ethiopians, and many sunbrowned Arabs and native Egyptians. A procession of nuns passes. These belong to the Temple of Ceres. “Keep your eyes on the ground!” the white-robed priestesses cry. They pass a group of Essenes, and stop for a moment to greet an elderly man whose calm, peaceful gaze rests quietly upon the young Greek.
LYCIAS: “There are so many Jews in thy city, Ammonius! One sees not so many in Rome and Athens together!”
AMMONIUS: “The Jews have always been welcome in Alexandria, my son. Thousands of them were invited to settle here by the first two Ptolemies. There is a great College of Rabbis in the City, and on the hills to the south there dwells a group of Esotericists, known as the Therapeutae. The man I just greeted belongs to that order.”
LYCIAS: “Dost thou expect any help from the Jews, Ammonius?”
AMMONIUS: “Indeed we do, friend Lycias. There are many Jews who have already helped pave the way for our work. Dost know what Aristobulus did? Over two hundred years ago he showed the relationship between the ethics of Aristotle and the Laws of Moses. Dost thou know that great book, The Wisdom of Solomon? Here another attempt was made to reconcile the philosophy of Plato with the Hebrew Scriptures. Surely thou knowest the work of Philo Judaeus, who sought to reconcile the Pentateuch with the Platonic and Pythagorean philosophy. And only last century Josephus, the friend of Vespasian, tried to prove that the Essenes of Carmel were identical with our own Therapeutae. The work done by these eminent Jews was and is important. But it is not enough. Our task is to prove the common source of all religions, and to do that we must go back, as Apollonius did, to the ancient East.”
LYCIAS: “Look yonder, Ammonius! Why are those men screaming in such a fashion?”
AMMONIUS: “That, my friend, is the Temple of Neptune, now used as the Corn-Exchange. Those men who are screaming so boisterously are the speculators. Perhaps the price of corn has gone up today!”
LYCIAS: “I see that Alexandria is not completely absorbed by philosophy, Ammonius!”
AMMONIUS: “By no means, friend Lycias. Alexandria is a pleasure-loving city, passionately fond of the theatre and the horse-races. Come, we are already at the eastern gate. Let us pass through, and I will show thee the Hippodrome and some of the gay restaurants of Eleusis.”
And so they pass through the gate into the sun-baked plain where rich and fashionable Alexandria seeks its pleasures. The air is filled with the sound of rollicking songs, bits of venomous gossip and frivolous talk.
AMMONIUS: “This is one side of Alexandria, friend Lycias. Hearest thou those silly songs? Every time a statesman comes to office, or a new Emperor ascends the throne, the young wags of the city give him a nickname and immortalize it in a popular song. Thou must have heard them even in Athens, for such things travel fast! But come, let us not waste our time here. It is not from this class of people that our School will draw its students. Let us go back into the Museum gardens, and I will tell thee the history of that famous place.”
Wending their way back through the Street of Canopus, the two friends finally reach the great square where the two broad avenues intersect. Taking the street leading to the right, they find themselves in the aristocratic quarter of the city. The young Athenian is amazed at the beauty of the Royal Palace, from which a broad flight of steps leads down to the clear azure waters below. The Palace gardens are colorful echoes of Greece, filled with the same daisies, poppies, iris and asphodel that bloom upon the hills around Athens. Overlooking the Harbor stands a magnificent series of buildings. There the Theatre, whose highest seats afford a view of the Island of Antirrhodos and the great galleys riding upon the blue waters in the shadow of the lighthouse of Pharos. In the center of the square are the tombs of the Ptolemies grouped around the Mausoleum of Alexander the Great. On the other side of the Street of Canopus is the Temple of Pan, and beyond that the Gymnasium with its long porticos. But the building which interests the young Greek most of all is the great Museum which had been, for hundreds of years, the cultural center of the world.
AMMONIUS: “Let us seat ourselves in the garden, Lycias, and I will tell thee something of the history of this place. The first Museum was commenced by Ptolemy the First and finished by his son Ptolemy Philadelphus. The first Ptolemy, like his half-brother Alexander the Great, had been a pupil of Aristotle, and was determined to continue the work begun by his master. He founded the Museum with three objects in view. First, he intended to collect the great literature of every country in the world for the Museum Library, which was called the Bruckion. Next, he determined to increase the store of existing knowledge through the efforts of Greek scholars. Finally, he resolved to diffuse that knowledge as widely as possible. His intention was to make Alexandria the most important cultural center in the world, and to draw to it all the foremost thinkers of the day.
“Orders were given to purchase at the King’s expense all the manuscripts that could be found in every land. Letters were sent to all the reigning sovereigns, begging for the original works of their poets, scientists, historians, logicians and philosophers, and every captain who entered the port of Alexandria was commissioned to bring them back. In this way Alexandria became the owner of some of the most ancient Greek manuscripts: the works of Homer, Hesiod, Plato and Pythagoras, of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Aristotle’s own library was soon resting in the Bruckion. But Greece was not the only country called upon to feed the Museum. Many manuscripts were brought from India and Persia, and some rare Chaldean works found their way into the Bruckion. The second Ptolemy procured a copy of the Pentateuch, and the Greek translation of that work, known as the Septuagint, dates from that period.
“But the collecting of manuscripts was only part of Ptolemy’s work. He maintained an army of scholars at the Museum, whose time was spent in studying and translating these ancient texts into Greek. And in addition to these, the Museum supported a staff of lecturers, whose classes were filled with students from every part of the world.
“The Bruckion at one time contained so many scrolls that it became necessary to establish another Library in the Serapion which we visited today. In those days the Bruckion contained 400,000 volumes and the Serapion 300,000. But later the Bruckion itself housed at least 700,000 scrolls.”
LYCIAS: “May we enter the Library, Ammonius? I fain would see those ancient scrolls!”
AMMONIUS: “Alas, my friend, that thou canst not do. For the great Library of the Bruckion came to an end in the days of Cleopatra. When Caesar’s fleet was burning in the harbor, the Museum caught fire and the Bruckion was destroyed. But fortunately the priceless manuscripts were not entirely lost. For at that time the Bruckion was undergoing repairs, and one of the Librarians had taken a number of the most precious rolls to his own home, where they were safely stored away. Many of the other rolls were rescued by the Librarians, aided by a number of slaves, attached to the Museum. Fortunately one of the scribes in the Museum, a youth named Theodas, wrote out all the details of the rescue, and some day the scrolls may come to light again.”
LYCIAS: “Tell me something about the great Schools of Alexandria, Ammonius! Even Rome and Athens are jealous of their supremacy!”
AMMONIUS: “Thou wilt remember my telling thee that Ptolemy the First was a pupil of Aristotle. The first School was founded to carry on the Aristotelian tradition. In that School the inductive method was used, which starts with particulars and rises to universals. In that way it was directly opposed to the method used by Plato, who started with universals and descended into particulars. This first School was also famous as an institute of Science. It was there, under Ptolemy the First, that Euclid founded his famous mathematical School and wrote his monumental works on Geometry. It was there that Archimedes laid his foundation for hydrostatics, discovered the theory of the lever and invented the Archimedian screw for raising the water of the Nile. The old scientists of Alexandria had correct ideas concerning the sphericity of the earth, its poles, axis, equator, arctic and antarctic circles. Ptolemy himself was the author of a great mathematical work, Syntaxis. In that School Ctesibius invented a fire-engine and his pupil Hero a steam-engine. Water-clocks were used in the Serapion, and Julius Caesar called on one of our Alexandrian astronomers, Sosigenes, to help him formulate the Julian calendar. There were botanical and zoological gardens attached to the Museum, as well as a great chemical laboratory.”
LYCIAS: “Thou hast spoken of the ancient scientists knowing of the sphericity of the earth. Dost know that the Christians are now teaching that the earth is flat?”
AMMONIUS: “So I have heard. And I have just received news that Tertullian is at this very minute condemning all our old philosophers to the eternal fire of the Christian Hell. But I have not entirely given up hope among the Christians. At this very moment there is an extraordinary young man who is head of the Catechitical School here in Alexandria. He is deeply interested in the philosophy of Plato. His name is Clement of Alexandria. Ah! There he is at this very moment! Greetings, Clement! I was just speaking of thee to our young friend who has only this morning arrived from Athens!”
CLEMENT: “Greetings to thee, Athenian! Hast thou come to our city to sit at the feet of Ammonius? Methinks he has something of value to offer thee. I wish that I, like thee, could spend all my time with him. But alas, I am a Christian priest, and dare not go too far afield in my search for knowledge!”
AMMONIUS: “Ah, Clement, my friend, thou hast already jeopardized thy safety! Take care that thou art not excommunicated for thy philosophical leanings!”
CLEMENT: “The trouble with me, friend Ammonius, is that I can find no beginning to the long line of Teachers which even thou admittest exists. Every science and philosophy must have had its teachers, and each teacher in his turn must have had his teacher. Where did it all begin?”
AMMONIUS: “Thy trouble, Clement, is in trying to find two lines of teachers, one connected with Christianity and the other with the old philosophies. We Theosophists have no such difficulty. We know who the Masters of Wisdom were and are. Beware, Clement, before it is too late, and thou art lost both to Christianity and to us!”
“But come, Lycias, the sun is getting low. We cannot tarry longer.”
LYCIAS: “Thou hast spoken, Ammonius, of the philosophical and scientific Schools of thy great city. Has nothing been done along moral and ethical lines during the last four centuries?”
AMMONIUS: “Much. Thou knowest the School that Zeno founded in thine own city of Athens four hundred years ago. We have a School of Stoics in Alexandria at the present day. Their philosophy is a practical one, directed to the living of the every-day life. Their founder, Zeno, had many things in common with Aristotle, but the Stoics have definite statements concerning the three fundamental propositions which, as thou knowest, underlie all true systems of philosophy. They acknowledge the presence of an invisible Principle, or Divine Energy, which permeates Nature, and of which matter is but the passive agent. They do not acknowledge the idea of chance, but claim that everything is the effect of some unknown cause. They consider the soul of man as a spark of the vital principle which the ignorant call “God.” At death, they say, the soul is not annihilated, but is merely absorbed into its original essence. Therefore they do not fear death, and show complete indifference toward pleasure and pain. They are materialists, if thou likest, but their great men, like Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, gave out moral precepts which any man could follow with good results.”
LYCIAS: And out of these different Schools, Ammonius, what wilt thou draw for thine own?”
AMMONIUS: “We will extract the truth from all of them, and discard whatever is false. We will be known as Philalethians, or lovers of Truth, and for us there will be no religion higher than Truth. We will not confine our study to the philosophies of Greece alone, but will draw upon every race, every country, every period of history for their spiritual, intellectual and moral contributions. In studying the different philosophies, we will use the method of analogy and correspondence, and try to understand the meaning of every ancient symbol. Our work will not be a continuation of the Aristotelian system. It will be based upon the ideals of Plato, and will be a resuscitation of the work of Pot-Amun, the Egyptian Priest who lived under the early Ptolemies and who taught the outlines of the Secret Wisdom-Religion to the uninitiated. Our philosophy will be based upon this same Wisdom-Religion, and will be known as Theo-Sophia, the ‘wisdom of the Gods’.”