The Golden Age of Greece lasted from the seventh to the fourth century B.C. During those three hundred years the Greeks laid the foundation stone of Western civilization, planted the seeds from which European science, philosophy and art sprang, and furnished models of education and government which have never been equalled, much less surpassed. These ideas did not originate in the minds of the men who presented them to the world. They were taken from the Mysteries, which in their turn were derived from the archaic Wisdom-Religion. The Mysteries were universities in the true sense of the word, teaching universal principles, demonstrating the fundamental unity of all life, showing the common source of all sciences, religions, philosophies and arts, proving the universal brotherhood of man.
The greatest philosophers of the Golden Age of Greece were Initiates of the Mysteries, and their doctrines were all echoes of the Mystery teachings. First came the three Initiates, Thales, Anaximander and Heracleitus, whose philosophical systems embodied some of the Mystery teachings concerning cosmogony. Then came Pythagoras and Plato, also Initiates, who demonstrated the practical value of universal principles when applied to the problems of education and good government.
In the Mysteries, universal principles were taught by means of dramatic representations. The Greek drama, therefore, is also the child of the Mysteries, and the first great dramatist, Aeschylus, was an Initiate.
One of the principal dramas enacted in the Eleusinian Mysteries was the story of Bacchus, or Dionysus. The legend relates that Bacchus, gazing into a mirror, became captivated by the reflection of his image. While thus engrossed he was seized by the Titans, who tore his body into fourteen pieces. Apollo, seeing this tragedy, collected the fragments and joined them together, restoring Bacchus to life.
The myth of Bacchus did not originate in Greece. It is as old as the world, having counterparts in the myths of the Egyptian Osiris, of the Phrygian Atys, the Syrian Tammuz and the Christian Christ. All of these “sun-gods” were murdered, descended into Hades and rose from the dead at the time of the vernal equinox, or “Easter.” The story of Bacchus shows how the reincarnating Ego beholds his image reflected in the waves of space, whispers, “this is I,” and thereby becomes entangled in the web of delusion. The incarnating soul becomes the “scape-goat” of atonement for all the sins committed by its many personalities.
The Greek tragedy sprang from the myth of Bacchus. The word “tragedy” is derived from the Greek tragos, or “goat,” which refers to the “scape-goat” that every Ego becomes as soon as it assumes a body. The first Greek tragedies were always presented during the spring festival in honor of Bacchus, or Dionysus. At first they were merely recitations given by one man, in which the virtues of Dionysus, the spiritual Ego, were extolled. Later a second actor was added, who was called the “hypocrite.” Between the dialogues a chorus entered, chanting a lamentation for the condition into which the soul had fallen, or a eulogy on the divine Ego itself.
At that period of Greek history, when there were no public buildings save a few temples and law courts (these frequently being identical) no one would have dreamed of erecting a special building for the production of plays. The setting of the first Greek theater was laid before a convenient hillside, where the people gathered. At the foot of the hill was a flat circle, known as the “orchestra,” where the acting and singing took place. Behind the orchestra was a booth, or skene, where the actors changed their masks. In the course of time wooden seats were installed on the hillside, then stone and marble seats which, in the theater in Athens, accommodated some seventeen thousand people. The crowd assembled at sunrise for the first play. The mornings were given over to tragedies, the afternoons to comedies, in which dignitaries of the day were caricatured.
In 525 B.C., just fifteen years before the Eleusinian Mysteries began to degenerate, Aeschylus, the first great dramatist, was born in the city of Eleusis. He was of royal birth, tracing his ancestry back to the last King of Athens, and his father was connected in some capacity with the Mystery School. After his own initiation Aeschylus had a symbolical dream in which Bacchus appeared, inspiring him to write tragedies. Recognizing the voice of “Bacchus” as the voice of his own inner self, he took up his work and composed seventy dramas before he died.
Aeschylus’ best known work is Prometheus Bound. The myth immortalized in this poem is, as Bunsen says, “older than the Hellenes themselves.” It is the most ancient of all allegories, the grandest of all myths, being concerned with what is probably the most important event which has ever taken place upon this planet — that which Theosophy describes as the “lighting up of Manas.”
In order to understand the real meaning of this poem, we must first go back to the beginning of this globe, when there was no earth as we know it now, but only the image of the earth reflected in the æther of space, and the images of such man-forms as had been developed upon the Moon chain. Seven times this misty, fiery earth turned and whirled, growing more dense with each gyration. Again seven times it rotated, its matter becoming gaseous, the man-forms denser shadows. Another sevenfold gyration produced astral matter and the astral forms of men. These forms were huge, without mind, sex, or speech. Trying to describe them, Aeschylus says,
Seeing, they saw in vain;
Hearing, they heard not; but like shapes in dreams
Through the long time all things at random mixed.
For long ages the building of these forms went on, until at last they were as perfect as they had been on the former chain of globes. Then, in the second race, some of the wiser gods who had watched their building settled within the forms in order to guide and help them. Other gods, less wise, spurned the forms, declaring them unfit for habitation. But finally the Law forced these lesser gods to enter the forms and continue their journey of evolution. Thus, by incarnation, the Egos lighted up the latent spark of mind, and so man became a thinking being.
The story of Prometheus, who gave the fire of mind to man, is the tale of humanity itself. The Greeks declared that Prometheus came of a divine race. Compared with the body he occupies, Prometheus, the reincarnating Ego, is a God. By arousing the thinking faculty in those hitherto mindless forms, Prometheus also aroused the memory of the knowledge they had possessed on the moon-chain, thus giving them the “boon” of which the Chorus sings.
While saving him from mental darkness, Prometheus brought to man all the tortures which accompany self-consciousness: the knowledge of his responsibility to the whole of nature; the painful results of all wrong choices made in the past, since free-will and the power of choice go hand in hand with self-consciousness; all of the sorrows and sufferings — physical, mental and moral — to which thinking man is heir. Prometheus accepted these tortures as inevitable under the Law, knowing that the soul can develop only through its own experience, willing to pay the price for every experience gained.
When Zeus (who in this case represents the lower hosts that built the forms) saw that Prometheus had made man a god through his gift of mind, he chained the Titan to a rock on Mount Caucasus, helpless victim of the vulture of unsatisfied desire, of regret, and despair, coupled with the “dream-like feebleness which fetters the blind race of mortals.” In the midst of his suffering Heracles came to him and told him that “the soul of man can never be enslaved save by its own infirmities, nor freed save by its own strength and own resolve and constant vision and supreme endeavor.” But Prometheus, “he who sees before the event,” knew that men would never arrive at that condition before the end of the Dark Age. He prophesied that a mighty race would arise, “the kingly race born in Argos,” in which a great Avatar would appear. But this Argos is not the Argos of Greece. The Argos of Aeschylus is the mystery name of that region which extends from Kailas mountain nearly to the Schamo desert. It was there that physical humanity was born. It is there that the Kalki Avatar will appear some 427,000 years hence.
In tracing the wanderings of Io, the “cow-horned maid,” Aeschylus shows how Egypt owes its civilization to India. Io was told to go to a land near the river Ethiops, where she would find a dark and swarthy race. She was instructed to take some of these people to the “three-cornered land” and found a colony. The river Ethiops of which Aeschylus speaks is the Indus, sometimes called the Nila because of its dark blue color. The dark and swarthy people were the Eastern Ethiopians, who went from India to settle in Egypt. The three-cornered land is the Egyptian delta. The river Nile in Egypt received its name from the “blue river” in India, near which the Eastern Ethiopians dwelt.
How did Aeschylus know the history of these early races? He must have learned it in the Mysteries, where the true history of these early races formed part of the instructions. Both Cicero and Clement of Alexandria declare that this history was taught in the Sabasian Mysteries. These writers are also the only ones who attribute the condemnation of Aeschylus by the Athenians to its real cause. Aeschylus was a pledged Initiate, and in his Prometheus he refers to those dark crypts of initiation where a man became “as one newly born.” Aeschylus spoke cautiously of these things. Aristophanes spoke more boldly in his immortal satire on Heracles’ descent into Hades. (The Frogs.) Aeschylus was charged with sacrilege and condemned to be stoned to death, because the Athenians believed that he had profaned the Mysteries by exposing some of their teachings on the public stage. He is said to have been saved from an angry mob by the appeal of his brother, a hero of Salamis.
Sophocles, the second great dramatist of ancient Greece, was about thirty years younger than Aeschylus. Being exceptionally talented in music, he was chosen to lead the chorus in the victory of Salamis when he was only sixteen years old. At the age of twenty-eight, he competed with Aeschylus in a dramatic contest, winning the prize which, for a full generation, had gone to the older poet. Aeschylus belonged to the stern generation of Marathon, Sophocles to the sunny age of Pericles. Both reflect the underlying spirit of their generation in their writings. Aeschylus stresses the unrelenting justice of Karma; Sophocles, its mercy. Aeschylus depicts the struggles of the soul in harsh and rugged lines. Sophocles paints them in softer and more delicate colors. Although Sophocles is not known as an Initiate, in Electra he calls the Eleusinian School the “edifice of the gods.” In his Oedipus, he attempts to solve the riddle of the Sphynx. He tells how the Sphynx, half animal and half human, sat on a rock accosting every traveller with a riddle, which only Oedipus was able to answer. Oedipus, therefore, must be the symbol of the perfected man who has solved all the riddles of life, and is therefore freed from the necessity of reincarnation.
Euripides, the last of the great trio of tragic poets, appeared a generation later than Sophocles. He also wrote of Bacchus, of Jason, of Hercules and his labors, of the Trojan War and its heroes. Once again the age-old theme of the Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared in the Attic tongue, reminding the Greeks of the trials of life which must be met and conquered before man may, in truth, be called Man.
During the life-time of these three tragic poets the theater of Greece advanced steadily. Sophocles brought a background into the play, and was the first to introduce scenery, in the modern sense of the word. Euripides moved the chorus from the stage to the background, making the actors the chief center of interest. He was a great friend of Socrates, who never missed a performance of any of his plays. He was also one of the most versatile of the Greeks, being a famous athlete, a painter, a rhetorician, and a pupil of both Anaxagoras and Protagoras.
The popularity of the Greek drama was due to the fact that all educated Greeks of that period were thoroughly familiar with their classical writers. When the Pan-Athenean festivals were celebrated every fourth year, the people listened to the passages from the Odyssey and Iliad with full understanding, for most of them had studied these works when they were children and could repeat long passages by heart. Where in our day could we find an audience of 17,000 people who would eagerly listen to, say, a twelve-hour performance of Shakespeare, and who would know the lines by heart? We are greatly impressed when we listen to an orchestra of a hundred men, regarding the symphonies they play as one of the fruits of our modern civilization. Yet, a musical festival took place in Athens in 250 B.C., in which five hundred musicians played a magnificent symphony in five movements!
The “musical” education of the Greeks is stressed by all writers. It must be remembered, however, that the word “music” had a much wider application at that time than it now has. The Greek word mousike at first referred to the arts of the nine Muses. Gradually its meaning was extended to include everything connected with the training of the mind, just as the word gymnastike included everything pertaining to the training of the body. To speak of a Greek as having a good “musical education” is equivalent to saying that he was trained in all the liberal arts, including mathematics.
The Greek ideal of education was based upon the idea of universality, of the integration of all branches of learning. That is an ideal which our modern educators could well emulate. Hendrik van Loon, in his recent volume The Arts, makes an observation which finds an echo in the heart of every Theosophist who is interested in the subject of education. “There is one thing we can do,” he says, “and there the Greeks can be our masters and teachers, as they have been our masters and our teachers in so many other things. They can show us the way back to a consciousness of that universality that underlies all human achievements. They can make us once more realize that nothing in this world exists quite in and by and for itself, but that everything pertaining to the human spirit is correlated and interrelated with everything else. And by so doing they can once more give us a feeling for something that is in truth the beginning and end of all wisdom.”