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26 June, 2009

Living the Mystery

Another Pagan Values Month post, now, which may be a wee bit more coherent than the last one.

I'm going to talk about mystery religion.

This is a matter of particular relevance to initiatory religions such as traditional Craft lines, but it's not unimportant to the reconstructionist lines either. A value most often explored in mystery work is the experiential exposure to the ineffable, and this is something that a lot of modern pagans value highly - as I mentioned yesterday, the whole concept of no intercessor is one of the things that a lot of pagans feel strongly about at some level.

First, a little terminology definition.

A mystery is, at its most straightforward, something which cannot be explained accurately; it can only be experienced, and afterwards offered explanations can actually make sense. Mysteries are not limited to the mystical or spiritual, though the ones that aren't are rarely described as mysteries, and the ones that are common human experience (sex, say) are often spiritualised by at least some people. The Greeks - who coined the term and set the stage for how we think of it - recognised two classes of mystery, the greater and the lesser. Lesser mysteries can be fucked up with spoilers, like a movie with a twist ending. Greater mysteries are immune to that sort of thing, because whatever experience is being evoked cannot be broken with partial preknowledge.

"Greater" and "lesser" may be misleading; I consider learning to turn while skiing a greater mystery. It's also my standard explanation for what a mystery is, so I will tell the story in brief: the one time I went downhill skiing, my parents sat me down and talked about their ski experiences, and explained to me how to turn. The explanation they gave was, "You go down, then up, then down." And they told me I would not understand this until I did it. I thanked them for their useless advice, went skiing, fell over a few times, and then I went down, and then up, and then down. And, as the koan ends, hearing this, the man was enlightened.

And those of you who have done downhill skiing will probably nod and understand this story entirely, because you have partaken of the Mystery; those of you who haven't will nod and smile and, perhaps, thank me for my useless advice.

We, obviously, know very little about ancient mysteries, because we haven't been down that hill. Some mysteries, such as the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, had huge populations of initiates, all of whom were earnestly sworn to utter secrecy about the content of the ritual. In other cases, though, we know a great deal about what was going on at the point that the mystery happened - but not necessarily enough to be sure we can reconstruct the mystery and have it happen again. We can try, but we can't be sure it will work.

(This actually came up in a conversation with a Canaanite reconstructionist a few years ago, who had done one portion of a well-recorded ancient ritual, and had a fellow practitioner say, "That was great, let's do the whole mystery next year!" In the end, my advice, which she wound up agreeing with, was to try adding factors from the historical record into what they actually did, and if the mystery happened, well, now they'd know the secret and could honestly say the time after that that this was a mystery initiation. If it didn't happen, they'd know they were missing something.)

Again, historically speaking, the mysteries were often presented as gifts from the gods, sacred treasures to enlighten, instruct, or transform the initiates - who might be the local citizenry, who might be devotees of the god who gave the mystery to the people, who might fit some other, more complicated criteria of citizenship, heritage, affiliation, role within the community. Initiates might be aware of each other as a sort of semi-secret society, or might have no further connection to each other than the shared experiential knowledge.

Now let us transfer to the modern day.

Many modern pagans are interested in experiential knowledge in various forms. I submit that this is one of the reasons for the popularity of modern Craft religion, as many of the principles thereof are rooted in the manifest world rather than the commonly interpreted as transcendent values of Christianity. (It is, of course, not this simple, and the treatment of Christianity as purely transcendent is erroneous. But that's off to the side, a bit.) I wrote, elsewhere, at one point, about Neb.y, that while He is not the storm, if one cannot encounter Him within the storm, He's not likely to be terribly findable, because the storm is an expression and manifestation of what Neb.y is. This is experiential knowledge; most pagan gods have similar manifestations that can be touched, felt, or known (and what Egyptian woman is not honoring Hetharu when she does her makeup?).

An interest in experiential knowledge almost inevitably leads to the Mysteries.

In many reconstructionist circles, people who claim to be performing the Mysteries are considered pretty fringe. The studious religion-with-homework attitudes of reconstruction tends to be very logic-brained, unlike the intuitive experience of the Mystery -- and, of course, we don't know how the Mysteries were conducted, for the most part. Someone who claims to be able to initiate you into the Eleusinian Mysteries is probably talking through their hat or their nether regions, because we have no data.

This doesn't stop the interest, it just treats some forms of it with contempt, causing unfortunate fractures within the community. There have always been and likely always will be people with a mystical bent, who will be interested in some form of mystery work; if that pursuit is made incompatible with reconstruction, these people will be driven out of reconstructionist work. And I think that's a major loss, because the sorts of stuff people can pull out of mystery work is the stuff that keeps a religion alive and engaged with the experiential world. Those people who take a reconstructionist-leaning attitude towards the Mysteries - that the gods will reveal whatever mysteries they think appropriate when the time is right - barely manage to stay within the fold, at times. Coloring within the lines becomes almost de rigeur for reconstructionists, unless they have sufficient clout within a community that people will take their inventions and revelations as just as good as historical information. Needless to say, I think that's unfortunate.

Of course, the initiatory mystery religions have the opposite problem. Instead of losing people who are trying to find an authentic mystery experience, they are accumulating people who don't think their mysteries are important. The historical and sociological reasons for this are fiddly to track down, but a lot of it comes down to the difficulty of articulating what a mystery is. In a culture where things written down are highly significant, this experiential process is denigrated. Further, in a culture where people think they should have access to anything they want (heard anyone say "Information wants to be free!" recently?), there are a lot of people who are deeply hurt when they're not accepted as candidates to experience a particular mystery. Religion is for everyone, right? It's universal! Only ... not so much.

Mystery paths, historically speaking, were mostly offshoots and side paths, away from the mainstream religion, something that the particularly interested would seek out. For those who didn't want the mystery investment, there was the mainline stuff they could do. For Craft religions, well, there was no mainline for a good long time. And now the Craft community is bewildered by all of the people out there claiming to be a part of their traditions who haven't actually encountered the mysteries - because they're inventing the mainline stuff, partially out of dribs and drabs of what people have let slip, partly out of whole cloth. When one's rooted in the assumption that the mystery is fundamental, this winds up looking tremendously messy - as well as unrooted in not only the actual meaning of the traditions thus transformed, but, potentially, reality. (And some of the more fascinating neo-Wiccan groups have some fascinating notions about reality ....)

I would not be surprised, in the long run, if the pagan world winds up with more people like me, with one foot in the reconstructionist camp, and one foot somewhere in mystery religion of some sort (whether Craft or not) -- looking to bring the possibility of repeatable ecstatic experience back into that book-crusted treatment of religion on the one hand, and matching modern religious expressions with ancient roots on the other. I'm not thinking in terms of the sort of "[Culture in the blank] Wicca" or whatever else might come to mind here, where a loosely Wiccish structure is meshed with a selection of gods from a particular culture (though I consider Ellen Cannon Reed's Circle of Isis an excellent book, even if alien - in part because she passes the god sniff test in her descriptions, rather than doing the common bastardisations of myths to fit an alien structure) but an actual syncretistic form that is really neither reconstruction nor straight-up mystery based religion.

And now I am up far too late, and Neb.y is storming gloriously at last, so I am posting and appreciating my experiential world.

1 comment:

windhovergyre said...

Your posts always make me think.

I'm responding to this one though, because I had a class was about experiential education. We read John Dewey, looked at traditional and progressive ed., what education did for people, the myriad learning contexts and how this is actually used by people in their continual dealings with the world.

We ourselves did a lot of this- games, backpacking, blogging and making videos vs. traditional essays. It sounds playful, but it was intellectually rigorous.

I never thought of the spiritual applications though (we had a floaty conversation about how outdoor education is spiritually relaxing- I thought about almost dying on Lake Superior). Now I'm thinking about ritual baths, singing, weird individual sensory things and the what they do to my head. Maybe the teaching of not explicitly religious things (my first rock climb, I asked what to do and was told: go up) can be used to deal with the religious stuff.

Going to mull this over. Thanks for the thoughts!