Dance comes in many forms, but the theme of Hermes II is also a progression.

On the one hand, we have dancing for sheer joy and exuberance, on the other there are dances used as part of ritual. Throughout the world we see processional dances celebrating the new year or earth-mother goddesses, often featuring the symbol of the dragon. Dances such as these have been enacted for thousands of years.

In other places, ritual dances are used as part of an Initiatory journey, such as in the Eleusinian Mysteries. The true secret of these lay in the connecting to one’s higher self, which in turn brings in the concept of Initiation in its many forms.

The term Initiate has a range of meanings in Theosophical literature. What defines an Initiate, and how does this fit in with other terms such as ‘Adept’ or ‘Master’?


HPB calls dancing “one of the oldest and most venerable rites of antiquity. Mystical dancing is a practice hoary with age and pregnant with occult philosophy…”

This quotation comes from an article entitled ‘Praise Him with the Timbrel and Dance”, from The Theosophist, Vol. II, No. 9, June 1881, pp 201-202, and which can be found in H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings (CW) Vol. III, p 204. The article is actually a fairly lighthearted comment on certain members of the Brahmo Sect being criticised for taking to dancing.

After giving several examples of dancing in antiquity, she tells us “The mystics and devotees of nearly every religion and sect have at some time adopted the salutary exercise.”

In ‘Symbolism of Sun and Stars’ CW XIV, p 316, she says “…if the ‘circle dance’ prescribed by the Amazons for the Mysteries – being the ‘circle dance’ of the planets, and characterised as ‘the motion of the divine Spirit carried on the waves of the great Deep’ – can now be called ‘infernal’ and ‘lascivious’ when performed by the Pagans, then the same epithets ought to be applied to David’s dance; and to the dance of the daughters of Shiloh, and to the leaping of the prophets of Baal; they were all identical and all belonged to Sabaean worship.”

She refers to the modern circle dance, the “Rasa Mandala, enacted by the GopĪs or shepherdesses of Krishna, the Sun-God, [which] is enacted to this day in Rājputāna in India, and is undeniably the same theo-astronomical and symbolical dance of the planets and the Zodiacal signs, that was danced thousands of years before our era.” (CW XIV, p 36 fn.)

The Eleusinian Mysteries included processional dancing. For the myêsis, the first degree of initiation, the prospective initiates gathered in Athens, in the morning, then made their way the 15 miles to Eleusis, singing, dancing, ritually washing and making sacrifices.  Towards the evening, they reached the Sanctuary, and the Kallichoron Well – which means literally ‘Beautiful dancing’.

Sometimes, as many as 3,000 people would take part, and it was open to anyone who could afford the time and money as after 510 BC a fee was charged to take part.

There were two degrees of initiation: the lower, the myêsis, involved a re-enactment, which contained dances, of the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, and how her mother Demeter looked for, found and brought her back.

The higher degree, containing several different parts, was the epopteia. This would have included dancing and singing, but also other different rituals and enactments, such as the would-be initiate being made to go through a terrifying experience, followed by a mystic birth, and ending, in later times at least, with a celebration of wheat symbolising wealth and agriculture.

HPB tells of other, more mystical rites, connected with the Eleusinian rituals: “In the Mysteries, the third part of the sacred rites was called Epopteia, or revelation, reception into the secrets. In substance it means [the highest stage of clairvoyance – the divine]”, she says, “but the real significance of the word is ‘overseeing’, from … ‘I see myself’.  (‘St Paul, the Founder of Christianity’, CW XIV, p 123, also Isis Unveiled II, p 90)

In a reference to the mind being like a mirror, in ‘Doctrine of the Eye and Doctrine of the Heart (CW XIV, p 451 fn) she writes about the mystic mirror, which was “part of the symbolism of the Thesmophoria, a portion of the Eleusinian Mysteries; and that it was used in the search for Atmu, the ‘Hidden One’, or ‘Self’.”

“It is well known that throughout antiquity … every nation had its secret cult known to the world as the Mysteries… No one received admittance into them save those prepared for it by special training. The neophytes instructed in the upper temples were initiated into the final Mysteries in the crypts. These instructions were the last surviving heirloom of archaic wisdom, and it is under the guidance of high Initiates that they were enacted. … Alone the high Initiates, the Epoptae, understood their language and real meaning.”  ‘The Roots of Ritualism’ CW XI, pp 84-85.

With the passing of time, the Mysteries began to be taken over by the Mystae (from Mystes or ‘veiled’ – ‘they who see things only as they appear’, and the Epoptae withdrew into secrecy (CW XI, p 88), although “to preserve some reminiscence of this ‘temple’, and to rebuild it, if need be, … certain elect ones among the initiated began to be set apart. This was done by their High Hierophants in every century, from the time when the sacred allegories showed the first signs of desecration and decay.”  (CW XI, p 86)

We have seen that the term ‘Initiate’ has been widely applied to the Mysteries, but what denotes ‘Adept’ and ‘Master’ which are also widely used in Theosophical literature to denote highly spiritual teachers?

There is a great deal of difference between a full-blown Adept and an Initiate, HPB tells us. “An Adept is one versed in some and any special Art or Science. An ‘Initiate’ is one who is initiated into the mysteries of the Esoteric or Occult philosophy – a Hierophant.” (CW XI, p 158, written in 1889)

And again, HPB tells us in ‘A Danger Signal’ (CW XI, p 178) she takes to task a French writer from the Hermes Theosophical Society who has got the terms the wrong way round! She corrects him, saying “An Adept is therefore an individual who is versed in some art or science, having acquired it in one or another manner. It follows that this term can be applied just as well to an adept in astronomy, as to one in the art of making pâtés de foies gras.”

“In the case of the term Initiate, it is very different. Every Initiate must be an adept in Occultism; he must become one before being initiated in the Greater Mysteries. But not every adept is always an Initiate.” She introduces the term as used by the Illuminati and in Masonry. She continues “As far as we are concerned, disciples of the Masters of the Orient as we are, we have nothing to do with modern Masonry. The real secrets of symbolic Masonry are lost…” (CW XI pp 179/181)

What can we learn about the definition, in a Theosophical context, of a ‘Master’? We find that to some extent terms are interchangeable.

In the Glossary at the back of the second edition of The Key to Theosophy, (HPB, written in 1890) the definition reads “Master. A translation from the Sanskrit Guru. ‘Spiritual teacher’, and adopted by the Theosophists to designate the Adepts, from whom they hold their teachings.”

In Theosophy, the ‘Masters’ are often referred to as ‘Mahatmas’. In the same book, the definition given is: “Mahatma (Sans.) Lit., ‘Great Soul.’ An adept of the highest order. An exalted being, who having attained to the mastery over his lower principles, is therefore living unimpeded by the ‘man of flesh.’ Mahatmas are in possession of knowledge and power commensurate with the stage they have reached in their spiritual evolution.”

So flexibility is needed here, and we have to bear in mind the context in which these terms are all used. As HPB says in another place, about a diagram of Fohat and different forms of energy – but also relevant here, when we’re trying to rigidly tie down terminology, that “it must always be borne in mind that diagrams can only show one aspect of a truth, and that they are only meant to help the student to an apprehension of the aspect symbolised. Let us remember that we are dealing with Forces and States of Consciousness, and not with water-tight compartments.”  (CW XII, p 657)

Written by

Janet Hoult studied graphic design at Hornsey College of Art in London, where she also researched the work of the artist Kandinsky and the symbolism of the dragon. She has an interest in dowsing, ancient history, archaeology and Theosophy. In connection with these fields she co-edited 'The Essential T.C. Lethbridge' and has written and produced 'Dragons: their history and symbolism'. More recently she has been a speaker on Theosophical subjects, including 'The Secret Doctrine'.

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