The Great Initiates, by Edouard Schure, first published in Paris in 1889, has been read by many people throughout the years since then. Whether they have agreed or not with everything they find in it, the book has almost certainly made a very strong impression on them. In his descriptions of the experiences of these individuals he calls the initiates is a deep exploration of the place of humanity in the cosmos.

The Initiates are individuals such as Krishna, Hermes, Moses, Pythagoras, Jesus. Their initiations range from visions of spiritual beings imparting knowledge, alone in a forest or mountain, to structured initiations in a temple. The basic story of the book, then, is the development, or evolution, in mainly Western civilization, of the knowledge of the human soul and its destiny, told through the lives of these initiates.

Much of the inspiration for the book came from Schure’s meeting with a woman, Margherita Mignaty, who was a kind of seeress, and who had some extraordinary inner vision of the spiritual history of mankind, but the writing, he says, required ten years of strenuous work. After he’d written it he met Rudolf Steiner, and the two shared much in the way of spiritual ideas. Schure considered Steiner an example of the initiates he wrote about in the book.

There is a great deal of knowledge in the book about ancient cults and religions, and readers have enjoyed the many poetic touches, and descriptions of the visions and ritual dramas which were part of the initiatory experience he focuses on, and which became in time the underlying impulses of great art.

Rama: The story begins with Rama, at a time when, as Schure sees it, the spiritual insights and values first came into being which lead to modern religions. This is thousands of years ago, after the last great flood. Previous continents and civilizations had been swept away, and a number of races were on the earth, some being the remnants of those previous races. (Some of the nuances in the descriptions of the races in this early part could make the reader perhaps somewhat uncomfortable. One can only, as this writer does, read through these bits with the inner conviction of the brotherhood of man, and read on.) Various cults, involving contacts with ancestors and other-worldly beings, had come into existence around Africa, Asia, Europe and Iran. There was, in the forests of Scythia, a young Druid priest named Rama. Using legendary material, the story unfolds of this man Rama.

Among these tribes in the forests there were at that time some cruel and self-seeking practices, such as human sacrifice. Rama sought to cure his people of this brutality which ran through their lives, and he introduced new practices, doing away with human sacrifice, replacing it with the cult of the sacred fire, and inner purity, and elevating the position of women in their society. After the vision of a figure representing Divine Intelligence, he lead his people east into Asia. There he founded what Schure calls the true Aryan religion. It spread through Central Asia, Iran and Europe, but the clearest picture of it is to be found in the Vedas of India. In the practices of this ancient religion is a presentation of esoteric science, and also there is to be discerned the figure of the rishi, the wise man, the initiate, the Holy Man.

Krishna: The life of Krishna is introduced with a description of the background scene of India of that time – according to Schure’s understanding about 3000BCE, around the beginning of a Kali Yuga. The status of the various races is implicit in the social organisation, and there are two opposing forces in the political powers: that of the ‘solar dynasty’ and that of the ‘lunar dynasty’. This, according to Schure, was the underlying theme of the Mahabharata. Eventually the powers of Light were to prevail through the aid of a group of men who personified the spirit of India – the anchorites – who often lived in retreats in the forests and mountains. They were the real masters of India.

The story of Krishna, which is quite a saga, involves palace intrigues, a black magician with a giant reptile, a wicked king and princess with smouldering ambitions, Krishna’s mother’s experience of the conception – on  a spiritual level – of the great soul, the assassination of an anchorite master, Krishna’s visions of those who loved and guided him, the attachment of the Gopis for him, the giving of the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, and Krishna’s death at the hands of those who feared him.

In his teaching to his disciples, and in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna gives an explanation of the constituent parts of the human being, of the immortal soul and its rebirths, and of the possibility of a mystic union with God. The soul which has found God, he taught, is freed form rebirth and death. Schure points out, too, that his students regarded him as their master more so for his charm and kindness than for his awesome power. Finally, Krishna gave his life as an act of willing sacrifice to win over the souls of those who opposed him.

Schure acknowledges that all the details in his story are drawn from traditions and epics; however, a great man is always involved in the origin of a great institution. Nietzsche thought along similar lines. His researches lead him to the conclusion that the ‘poeticizing soul of the people’ is rather overly-regarded – behind all great ideas and movements was an individual of genius.

After Krishna the solar god – Mithras, Horus, Apollo, and others – became prominent in other parts of the world, and also the Messianic idea which will reach its culmination with Jesus.

The light of Rama passed into Egypt and became the Law of Amon-Ra. From the Vedic times (in Theosophical understanding, the first subrace of the fifth, Aryan, rootrace) to the Persian conquest and Alexandrian age, Egypt was the stronghold of pure and exalted teachings. According to Schure, these teachings provided the essential knowledge of Moses and then Christianity.

A considerable number of books of esoteric science are attributed to Hermes. The figure of Hermes represented the priesthood, and even in some respects a god, and also the celestial initiation, or the initiator. In the temples the priests taught a vast body of esoteric doctrines and science. Initiation awakened the soul and lead to spiritual perception. A man could then become a seer.

Moses***: Schure gives us a picture of initiation in the age of the Rameses (twentieth dynasty). It was during that time that Moses and Orpheus were alive, and knowledge of the temples of Egypt could be accessed by seekers from surrounding lands. This initiation takes place in a temple of Osiris, such as at Thebes or Memphis. We are taken through the various trials and ordeals which the seeker passes through, and the visions which he might have had, the knowledge imparted by the hierophant and by a guiding spirit whose name is Osiris – who reveals the Divine Word and the understanding of the cosmos – and the path of the soul into incarnation. As an initiate he becomes aware of a mysterious counterpart of himself, the ‘celestial self’.

The esoteric teachings of Egypt, however, at this time had never passed out of the sanctuaries.

It was through Moses that the Mysteries of Egypt came out of the depths of the Temple and entered the course of history. As Schure sees it, the establishment of the universal religion is the true mission of Israel.

The Hebrews before Moses were a nomadic tribe, by nature opposed to stone idols, and pre-disposed to the monotheistic cult presented by their leaders who derived their religious ideas from visions and dreams. Moses himself was a member of the Egyptian royal establishment, and a priest of Osiris, who early on had a private sympathy for the proud Hebrew workers who did not easily suffer themselves to be ordered about.

After murdering an Egyptian guard Moses fled to a temple in Madian, beyond the Red Sea, where he went through trials involving deep sleep for days, even weeks, in which he took a journey to the afterlife for souls, in order to expatiate his crime of murder. As well, in the home of the High Priest, Jethro, he found books on cosmogony, dealing with the ancient cycles of humanity, and he wrote what became the early chapters of the Bible. ‘All the images of Genesis are like doors which open with the keys of initiation.’ During this time Moses had other transcendental experiences, in the crypt of Jethro’s temple and on Mount Sinai, where he came into contact with angels and Elohim, and his mission was communicated to him.

Later, during the Exodus, there are the scenes to do with the receiving of the Ten Commandments which are vividly described, and there is a description of the Ark of the Tabernacle and its special role and power.

On his deathbed Moses claims that another prophet will arise from Israel in the future and the Lord will put his word in this prophet’s mouth.

Orpheus: Orpheus, as an initiator of Greece, was the teacher of music and poetry as the revealer of Truth.     In Greece at the time of his birth, in the main population centres, people preferred the feminine goddesses, such as Demeter who represented nature, rather than the austere universal male gods such as the Delphic Apollo. Orpheus was the creative genius who reconciled these elemental forces, whose masculine soul vibrates with love for the Eternal Feminine who responds to him.

At a time when the lunar cults were gaining popularity – the temples in the valleys and forests were about nature and voluptuous practices – Orpheus was born in Thrace, the son of a priestess of Apollo. The cult of Hecate, with its wild, frenzied activities, had gained supremacy. As a young man he fled to Memphis and spent twenty years passing through the Mysteries.

Orpheus returned to Thrace and assumed leadership of a Temple of Zeus. He created a religion for the initiates and the people with a blending of the religion of Zeus with that of Dionysius, which gave out a sublime truth under the veil of poetry and enchanting festivals. Schure gives us a description of an initiation ceremony for a young neophyte, with Orpheus as the High Priest. Orpheus reveals to the neophyte the secret of the worlds, the essence of God, the mysteries of the human soul coming into incarnation, and the path of the soul to the Divine World. Then there is a ritual drama in which the god Dionysius is revealed to a disciple of Delphi. Also, in these chapters on Orpheus, there is a picture of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as an experience of initiation.

Finally, Orpheus, as we know, was attacked by the Bachantes – as those of the cult of Hecate came to call themselves – and killed. The ‘Orphic word’, however, filtered mysteriously into the veins of Hellas by way of the hidden sanctuaries of initiation.

The Greece of Orpheus, however, that pure spirit and doctrine guarded in the temple, began to be threatened in the Seventh Century BCE. Morality had declined, the commands of Delphi were not longer respected, and tyranny had established control over the population. So, it was necessary that esoteric teachings and wisdom should be presented in some way to the people to lift the quality and purpose of life.

Pythagoras: Schure presents Pythagoras, in responding to this need, making an enormous contribution to human knowledge. The school he founded produced an organized body of teaching, a coherent system which could be communicated beyond the temple sanctuaries.

Pythagoras grew up on the island of Samos in the Sixth Century BCE. He was a gifted child who soon turned his mind to the search for some unifying conception of nature, the human soul, and the divine, celestial world. First he went to Egypt, and his initiation at Memphis lasted twenty two years. After that he spent time in Babylon, where he found himself among a mixture of people, languages, cults and religions. These groups included the ancient Chaldean priesthood, the survivors of the Persian Magi, and the elite of the Jewish captivity. All these religions, he came to see, were rays of the one truth.

Returning to Greece he lived at Delphi for some time. Then, after instructing the priests there in all the secrets of his teaching, he departed, and established his school at Croton in Southern Italy.

The Pythagorean school taught to students the harmony of the soul, mind and universe. Any person could study and be initiated there even if they weren’t part of the priesthood. There is a detailed description in the book of a novice undergoing initiation. There novices were given an understanding of the value of morality, of magic, numbers, musical notes, the order of the cosmos, astronomy, reincarnation.

Eventually a mob, incited by those who held a grudge against Pythagoras and his school, attacked the school. The buildings were set on fire and Pythagoras and many of his chief disciples perished. The ideas and traitions of Pythagoras and his school, though – the uniting of morality, science and religion into one vast system – still live on to this day.

Plato: Plato is next. He was born in Athens, lived during the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE, and as a young man was noted as having an inner strength and character, and a sense of an awareness of eternity. As he grew up he was attracted to the arts, and poetry in particular. By the age of 27 he had composed several tragedies. Then he met Socrates, and thereafter he renounced the beauties of poetry and the theatre to devote himself to the path of Truth and Justice.

Plato was initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis. As well, after Socrates’ death, he travelled in search of knowledge, to Asia Minor, to Egypt and the initiation of Isis, and to the Pythagorean school in Italy. Returning to Greece, he established his school, the Academy.

Due to the vows of secrecy of the Mysteries, he couldn’t reveal publicly what he knew of esoteric knowledge. However, the Dialogues have this in disguise. The writing has indeed a singular charm: ‘in addition to the ecstasy of Delphi and Eleusis, here one enjoys marvelous clarity, Attic wit, the malice of the good-natured Socrates, the fine, winged irony of the sage.’ As well, in the teachings he presented, he created the concept of the Ideal, which replaced the ‘organic’ initiation for centuries. In Idealism the soul finds divine truths by its own inner senses and voices. This opened the path to salvation for millions of souls who couldn’t attain direct initiation.

As for those actual initiations, Schure does nevertheless give us, in the chapters on Plato, a very detailed description of the Mysteries of Eleusis, which were regarded with special veneration at that time. The ritual drama is presented, with all their characters and their dialogue.

Jesus: Finally, we come to Jesus. He appeared during a time when the Mysteries had deteriorated. Society was full of egotism, materialism, tyranny and brutality. However, in Palestine, even after three hundred years of occupation and oppression by Rome, the Israelites had preserved their faith. The vision of Moses, of a single God, held firm. This was due, Schure says, to the prophets, the institution of the prophets, which had become an organised brotherhood in the time of Samuel. The brotherhoods preserved the science of Moses, with its sacred music, occult therapy and the art of divination. The prophets also had a faith in a Savior or Messiah.

Jesus, according to Schure, was dedicated to a prophetic mission by his mother – such children were called Nazarenes. When he had grown up he was initiated by the Essenes. The Order of the Essenes constituted the last remnants of those brotherhoods which preserved the traditions of the prophets, together with their way of living. Jesus joined the Essene centre at Engaddi, by the Dead Sea. There he learned the vast cosmogony in the Book of Genisis, and knowledge of the Divine Word passed down through Krishna, Osiris, Orpheus and Pythagoras, and the science of esoteric healing. Also he learned about the Messiah, the Chosen One. Schure describes how during one of the higher initiations Jesus was given knowledge of his prophetic mission, and the ordeals he would suffer in undertaking to save the souls of his fellow humans and bring them peace and love.

We follow the story of the gathering of the disciples, and his teaching to them and to his other followers, leading to his persecution. We read how, near the end, he withdrew to a mountainside in Northern Israel to pray, and he beheld the Divine World, and received from the highest levels confirmation of the role which lay before him. The Last Supper which was to follow, was a form of initiation communion as practised in Egypt and Chaldea.

Coming to the end of the chapter on Jesus Schure explains how the Messianic drama came to a climax with the Crucifixion, but esoterically the Resurrection was the crowning of his work. It involved ‘the purification and regeneration of the sidereal (astral?), ethereal and fluidic body, which is the very organ of the soul’. Summing up, Schure says that Jesus was able to reveal a unity of ethics and metaphysics – a guarantee of eternal life, and the need to begin it on earth in your work and love.

The Great Initiates: a classic study: The quality of the Great Initiates lies in its quite detailed descriptions of the spiritual processes of initiation, as Schure conceived them, with its attendant visionary experience, and the place of poetry, art and beauty in the development of higher consciousness. It could be said that there were various other movements and bodies around the world at the time covered in the book that are not looked at in the work. We now know much more about some ancient societies, such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the Sumerian civilization, or the Mayans, which could have played into the story if the knowledge had been available at the time. There is the on-going influence of Eastern mystical movements – some readers might think that Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) deserved a place in the book (Schure explains his decision not to include him). As well, hidden or secret societies such as The Great White Brotherhood, or the Sarmoung Society mentioned by Gurdjieff, are held by some to be important players in the game. However, what is there in the book covers enormous ground, and is very well written. The reader is free to incorporate these other areas of knowledge, which they see to be left out, along with the Great Initiates, into their total picture of the evolution of higher consciousness in humanity. One can be quite confident that all seekers after knowledge and wisdom will find themselves at home in this book.

*** Note on the section dealing with Moses: It’s to be born in mind that the events as set forth in the book are those imagined to have taken place by the author, Edouard Schure. Some of these might be controversial. Where they depart from what is in the Scriptures, and the usual interpretation of those Scriptures, Schure gives no real proof or hard evidence. What he says has to be considered as in the category of conjecture.’