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 is 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

Many Neo-Pagans see themselves as the modern-day heirs to the classical mystery religions, like the Elueisinian and Isian mysteries. The rituals of mystery traditions focused on the themes of birth, death, and 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.”

Carl Jung’s analytical psychology has had a profound impact on Neo-Paganism. 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” as distinguished from the conscious ego. She describes Wicca as a modern-day mystery religion. The term can be equally applied to many forms of Neo-Paganism. In both cases, “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”. The goal of these rituals is personal psycho-spiritual transformation. According to Crowley, mystery religious 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 cults “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).

Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii

Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii

Historically, a mystery religion was a secret initiatory religion. Because Neo-Paganism eschews much of the occult aspects of traditional Wicca and does not require initiation into a group, it might be argued that the Neo-Paganism is not a true mystery religion. However, there is an important distinction to 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 a 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 cults involved a ritual death, often a ritualized participation in the mythical death of a fertility deity, like Persephone or 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 follows the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return. This is the pattern described by the Roman author, Apuleius, describing one such initiation into a mystery cult:

“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 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 which 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 contemporary Neo-Paganism are discussed on these pages:

The Eternal Return
Neo-Pagans and Death
Exoteric and Esoteric Ritual
The Mother and her Son: Zoe and Bios
The Meaning of Sacrifice
The Dying God
The Descent to the Underworld

What is Neo-Paganism?

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