A Mystery Religion

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Demeter depicted with her Eleusinian attributes, serpents, grain, and poppies

“The mysteries are what is wild in us, what cannot be quan­tified or contained. But the mysteries are also what are common to us all: blood, breath, heartbeat, the sprout­ing of seed, the waxing and waning of the moon, the turn­ing of the earth around the sun, birth, growth, death, re­newal.”

— Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery (1988)

Many Neo-Pagans see themselves as the modern-day heirs to the classical mystery religions, like the Eleusinian and Isian Myster­ies. The rituals of these mystery religions focused on the themes of birth, death, rebirth, and the mystic unity of humanity with divinity. The Mysteries emphasized experience over dogma or doctrine. They are called “Mysteries” because some aspects of the traditions were kept secret, but also because the experiences conveyed by the rituals were ineffable; they could not be communi­cated, only experienced. Aristotle stated that “the initi­ated learned nothing precisely, but they received impressions and were put into a certain frame of mind. Not to learn (mathein) but to suffer (pathein) was the reason for participation in the Eleu­sinian ritual; and this was exactly the effect of the celebra­tion.”

Jung described the psychological process of “individuation” (the evolution of the ego into the Self) as an initiation and com­pared it to the Mithraic Mysteries. In her essay, “Wicca as a Mod­ern-Day Mystery Religion,” Wiccan priestess and Jungian psychologist, Vivianne Crowley, states that the goal of many “mys­tery religions,” ancient and modern, is self-knowledge (or rather Self-knowledge): “the realization of a stable core of the person­ality—the Self.” “The approach to the Self is made through an external expression of the inner psychological pro­cess—reli­gious ritual,” specifically “initiation ceremonies that are intended to produce profound psychological effects.”

According to Crowley, the mystery religions share with mysti­cism a concern for returning to a state of oneness with the divine source. While mysticism seeks the union through intro­verted techniques, like meditation, mystery religions “external­ize the inner journey of the spirit to the divine by representing it through symbolism and ritual.” Much of the imagery associ­ated with these rituals is overtly or implicitly sexual or related to death (both of which are forms of union). The Mysteries …

“first make real to the initiate the meaning of death, total ex­tinction, utter loneliness, and then lead [them] on, through deep ineffable terror to the mystic glowing hearth of rebirth, of constantly renewed life, of the aware­ness of [their] oneness with the totality of life.”

Historically, a mystery religion was a secret initiatory religion. Because Neo-Pagans eschew much of the occult aspects of Brit­ish Traditional Wicca and do not require initiation into a group, it might be argued that Neo-Paganism is not a true mystery reli­gion. However, a distinction must be drawn between initiation into a group and initiation as a form of personal transformation. It is in the latter sense that Neo-Paganism is an initiatory or mystery religion. While Wiccan initiation is an example of both group and personal initiation, Neo-Pagans can experience a personal initiation without joining any group.

The initiation into the ancient mystery religions involved a ritual death, often a ritualized participation in the mythical death of a fertility deity, like Persephone, Dionysus, or Attis. The Greek historian, Plutarch, explained: “The soul at the moment of death goes through the same experiences as those who are initi­ated into the great Mysteries. The word and the act are similar: we say telentai (to die) and telestai (to be initiated).” The initia­tory ritual often followed the form of Joseph Campbell’s mono­myth: a separation from the world, a penetration into some source of power, and a life-enhancing return. This is the pattern described by the Roman author, Apuleius (who was himself an initiate). In his novel, Metamorphoses, Apuleius’ protagonist de­scribes his initiation:

“I saw the sun shining at midnight. Gods of above and gods of below I saw face to face and worshiped. I ap­proached the frontiers of death and having walked on the threshold of Proserpine and having been ravished by all the Elements, I returned.”

Through this experience, initiates learn what theorist of matriar­chal prehistory, J.J. Bachofen, called “the law of Demetrian mother­hood … the reciprocal relation between perishing and com­ing into being, disclosing death as the indispensable forerun­ner of higher rebirth.”

Neo-Pagans today celebrate in ritual form a psycho-spiritual journey that follows the same pattern as the ancient Mysteries described above. The Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year may be under­stood as a year-long initiation into the Neo-Pagan Myster­ies. The “Mysteries” of Neo-Paganism are discussed in the follow­ing pages. Keep in mind, however, that while we can talk about the Mysteries (or write books about them), they must be experienced in order to truly understand them.

Updated 2019

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