What Is a Mystery Religion?

Modern witchcraft and also Wicca are often referred to as mystery religions. The term is paradoxical in a sense because neither witchcraft nor Wicca are religions. I talked a bit about this in one of my previous posts, but just to refresh your memories, this is because a religion is defined as "an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods". Also, in religions, the "officials" (priests, bishops, or whatever rank or name they carry) are simply subordinates of the God/gods. In addition to this, every religion has a moral codex and fixed ceremonial laws. Witchcraft and Wicca are quite flexible when it comes to this. For example, many denominations of Wicca exist, each with their own rules, many individuals (i.e. Solitaries) create their own moral framework, while still keeping to some general moral codes (which actually stem from common sense rather than religious doctrine), many covens create their own practice which is adapted to the members' needs and so on. It can be said that Wicca, as is the case with most Pagan faiths, is a spiritual path, while witchcraft is a practice which can be completely unrelated to any religion or spiritual path.

Nevertheless, "mystery religions" has practically become a fixed expression in the Pagan community even though many people who have heard it aren't quite sure what it means. The obscurity of the phrase is mostly due to the "mystery" part of the expression which I will try to clarify in this post. :)

Defining the "Mystery" in "Mystery Religions"

In ancient times, especially in ancient Greece, mystery religions were known only to their initiates. Anyone who was not initiated did not know what they were about, what rites were included, how the practices looked like and they possibly didn't even know they existed. So "mystery" used to mean "secret". But mind you, those wishing to be initiated had to really work to achieve this; they underwent training and other preparations before they were allowed into the religion itself.

The most famous example of the ancient mystery religions are surely the Eleusinian mysteries but there, of course, were others such as the mysteries at Agrae, the mystery cults of Attis, Orpheus, Cybele, Isis and others. They were largely dispersed throughout Greece in its later period but also early imperial Rome. Although, these mysteries differed from those in Eleusis which can be thought of as the "original" mystery religion; not in the sense of its chronological predating, but rather its importance for and influence on other mystery religions.

Nowadays, these mystery religions have lost quite a bit of their mystery. We know a lot about their history and a fair amount of their practices which demystifies them in a sense. In the case of the Eleusinian mystery, this is due to their abating restrictions regarding secrecy. That is to say, up to the 5th century (the Greek Classical period), these mysteries were restricted solely to Athenians, but this changed in the second half of this century when they were opened to all Greeks and later on to almost anyone. Some converted Pagans also spoke about the rituals of Eleusis, but then again, some rituals were open to the public. The myth of the rape/kidnapping of Persephone (in which her mother Demeter rescues her in a way) was at the center of the mysteries. But I don't want to go into further detail because Eleusis is a different topic and deserves much more attention than just one paragraph. For those of you that are not familiar with the myth, you can read about it in great detail here and if you are interested in the ritualistic details of the mysteries, I recommend you have a look at Lindsey Jones' Encyclopedia of Religion vol. 4 ("Eleusinian mysteries", pp. 2751-2752).

As Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone point out in Progressive Witchcraft, "the mystery practices of modern Wicca seem to have been drawn from the Mediterranean, specifically the Greek and Egyptian cultures and their established Priesthoods, rather than any form of Northern or Western European village or tribal magical practice whose mystery practices would have surely been more Shamanically inclined".

Rosicrucianism and Co-Masonry, and Freemasonry even more so are thought to be the direct descendants of these mysteries. Garald Gardner, the "founder" of Wicca, was connected to both, so it is not unusual that one finds this ancient aspect in modern Wicca.

Obviously, "mystery" no longer necessarily means "secret" because we know some details regarding these ancient mystery religions and more importantly because they were known even when these religions were at their peak.

But to return to the main topic, the main part of all of these religions is the initiation. Without being initiated, one could not be taught the mysteries which that specific path held. There were usually several parts to the initiation, some of which are mirrored in Wicca:

  1. catharsis - a purification process which is necessary to take the next step into initiation because initiation in itself is seen as beginning a new chapter in one's life or perhaps an entirely new life and of course everyone wants to enter this new life clean, calm and unburdened.
  2. palingenesis - a symbolic death and rebirth during which new knowledge is given to the initiate
  3. hieros gamos - a sacred wedding referring to the unity of the initiate and the god/goddess/gods where the initiate truly understands the deity/deities at hand
  4. orgia - no, this is NOT an orgy. An orgia is an ecstatic emotional feeling that the initiate may experience during the hieros gamos which then leads to the last step of the initiation
  5. ekstasis - the actual ecstasy itself, or rather the "getting out of oneself", going beyond limited perceptions, going beyond existence. This is where true spiritual knowledge is obtained.
The hieros gamos is the main aspect of this type of initiation. To elaborate, through palingenesis, the initiate symbolically dies (he leaves fears behind, overcomes certain issues, faces him/herself, is given trials or tasks to perform, similar to those of a specific deity, in order to prove him/herself and so on) and is reincarnated into a deity through identifying him/herself with it during the initiation process. Lindsey Jones explains this wonderfully in her Encyclopedia of Religion: "The Dionysian mysteries made a Bacchus of the initiate; the consecration of the initiate by means of the winnowing basket and the phallus regenerated him by immunizing him against death and infernal demons. Dionysos was held to have returned from the nether regions along with his mother Semele, and to have been “reborn.” His myth provided a model for the rebirth of any initiate, to whom the same immortality was promised. (...) The initiate was seen as undergoing the same trials of initiation that had turned Dionysos into a true Bacchus". The point of this initiatory aspect was to become one with a deity and thus fully understand it and the mysteries it conveys.

Unification with a/the Deity

Even though mystery religions have become demystified by information regarding their rituals leaking out, they can still be seen as mysterious in a sense. This aspect has been preserved precisely through the hieros gamos. Due to my personal experience, I can best explain this on the example of Wicca.

Wicca used to be quite "underground" in the 50s and 60s but it soon spread due to Gardner's love of the press and the Witchcraft Act of 1735 being repealed in 1951 thus enabling witches to slightly more freely practice their beliefs. More and more books started being published on the topic and then the Internet came. So much for mysteries and secrets...

But Wicca has retained some of its mysteriousness in this sense by staying distant to all those who do not wish to actually work. It is necessary to work hard and learn in order to be initiated. With regard to this, initiation does not always refer to the official process of a priest/priestess introducing the initiate to the path itself. Initiation can occur, at least from the viewpoint of some Wiccans (including myself), through direct contact with the God/Goddess in which they bless the initiate themselves and lead them onto this path. Also, most Wiccan groups tend to work in small numbers and be quite reserved. And then there is the tendency of working in secluded areas or private spaces where one will be able to work undisturbed or "in secret". 

But more importantly, Wicca has maintained its mysteriousness through its unification with deities. The focus of most Wiccan rituals is the moment when the God/Goddess/both manifest themselves. This may be done through evocation (i.e. not in the body of the priest/priestess but rather in food or drink) or through invocation (when they are joined with the priest's /priestess' body and spirit). In both ways, the other participants also come into contact with the deity either through enjoying the food/drink which hold the deity's energy and essence or through communicating with the priest/priestess in which the deities reside. Then there is also the idea that all the participants share in the energy of the ritual space. This enables everyone to feel the energy of the deity which is evoked/invoked. This system differs from that of "non-mystery-religion" practices where even the religious officials don't directly communicate with God and are even more rarely unified with him (do not take offence at the apparent sexism; this was not my intention).

In short, the whole point of the mystery aspect of mystery religions is directly receiving the knowledge of that specific path, or deity, or even general life mysteries through contact and unification with a deity. 

Hopefully this post clarified certain things. But if you have a different opinion on the subject, I would, as always, be very happy to hear it. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me. :)

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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