Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Samhain 2010 - A New Year

I wanted to take a moment and wish everyone a very happy and safe Samhain/Hallows for this year. For some, this represents the boundary of a new year, where the old year has died and the new begins to emerge. It can be a time of reflection, insight, remembrance of those that passed - both recently and further away in time. It is a time of commemorating those deceased that we admired, emulated to some degree, or even accepted as mentors. Having a spiritual or occult mentor is truly an important feature in the life of an occultist, witch or ritual magician. However, that mentor doesn’t always have to be alive in order for one to find their work inspirational and deeply meaningful.

Dead mentors are probably almost as important as the living ones, since they offer us a legacy without any real strings attached. For me, three individuals have acted like unwitting mentors to me over the course of my career as a witch, occultist and magician. These three individuals are, in order of importance, Alex Sanders, Aleister Crowley and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. There are other authors and teachers who have had an impact on me (and who are no longer living), but these three have had the greatest impact on me in regards to my studies and practices.

Alex Sanders was probably the most flamboyant witch and ceremonial magician in the mid to late 20th century since Old Gerald himself. Alex freely mixed practical Gardnerian witchcraft with the Golden Dawn system of magick along with parts of the Solomonic grimoire tradition. In many ways, Alex pointed the way for me to proceed in my own spiritual and magickal travels. Even though I was initiated into the Alexandrian tradition on Candlemas, 1976, I never got the chance to meet Alex or Maxine Sanders while they lived together in London in the 70's. I had an acquaintance who met them and even briefly circled with them as a guest, but I never got the opportunity to travel to England to meet them myself. (Some who knew him well have told me that this was probably a good thing, since Alex was reputed to be a very “naughty” boy.)

Alex left behind very few writings, and from what I was able to determine from his written lectures and what others who knew him said about his studies, he was much more of a classical occultist and trained medium than I am, since he readily mixed eastern philosophies, Theosophy and spiritualism with his practical workings. However, Alex was quite an experimenter, and was attempting to fuse a number of different fragmentary systems of occultism together, to create his own version of a pagan system of the Golden Dawn. He lionized the use of the Rose Ankh, which he saw as a replacement or addition to the Rose Cross. Still, the many pictures of him and Maxine, and the books by Stewart Farrar, particularly the first book, “What Witches Do,” and the more nonsensical biography “King of the Witches” completely captured my imagination at a very young age. I can say that my personal and public systems of ritual magick owe a great debt to Alex Sanders – so to that end, I am thankful that he lived and made such a name for himself. It inspired many others to pursue their own path of witchcraft and ceremonial magick, especially me.

The next individual is Aleister Crowley, whose writings and books are an important part of my personal occult library. I have studied “Uncle Al,” as I like to call him, quite rigorously, and have found many of his essays, books and rituals to be highly informative. What I am not crazy about is how Uncle Al lived his life and dealt with people. I have also found some of his writings to be purposely misleading and perhaps even a bit harmful if taken literally. I, for one, would not see any purpose to cutting my arm with a razor blade every time I happened to utter the first person pronoun – this would certainly not, in my opinion, lead one to adopt a humble and ego-less state of mind. I also do not consider myself a Thelemite, nor do I see the “Book of the Law” as holy writ. You won’t find me parroting out of context tracts from that work. I do consider the Book of the Law to be an inspired work, just as the book “Vision and the Voice.” But inspired works are to be analyzed, not enshrined as items of worship.

Since I am not a person of the book, as it were, then I wouldn’t accept any writings as either holy or inviolable. Still, I consider Aleister Crowley to be the father of modern paganism and ritual magick. He was the first who proposed making the adoption of a godhead the principal practice in the art of magick, as he often would fully assume the godhead of Horus when he worked it. Witches and modern pagans have taken this practice to an even greater extreme than Crowley would have allowed, which has both points for and against it.

I was first introduced to Crowley’s writings when I was a teenager, which was a time when a lot of his books and writings were being reintroduced to the western world. After all these years, I still find myself going back and reading over his writings. Whether I agree with his personal lifestyle or fail to believe that he was some kind of occult messiah, I still find a great deal of value in his writings, therefore, I owe him a debt of gratitude.

A few friends of mine, some of whom are Thelemites, have agreed that if we could have actually met Crowley in some manner, we wouldn’t have liked him. Crowley was arrogant, cruel to his friends, allies and followers, abusive to his lovers, and an all around nasty fellow. He grew up wealthy and privileged, but died a poor man with a terrible Heroin addiction. While his personal life is not one to recommend to anyone, his writings stand out for all time. For the sake of his writings, I am grateful for his contribution to the practice of ritual and ceremonial magick.

The final individual that I feel an affinity and respect for is Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, another giant in the annals of western occultism and ceremonial magick. Mathers was responsible for the formulation and establishment of the Golden Dawn organization. It was Mathers who brought the practice of magick from where it had been left in the 17th century into the late 19th century.

Mathers was an excellent scholar and researcher in his own right, and his unwitting legacy stands the test of time. I say unwitting, because Mathers would not have agreed with the Golden Dawn materials being published, and he unsuccessfully attempted to stop Crowley from publishing that lore in the Equinox. After that incident, the flood gate was opened, and there was nothing that Mathers could do to stem the tide. He passed away in the post WWI influenza epidemic that ravaged Paris and he didn’t live to see the fruit of that unwarranted publication. A few other of Mathers’ personal occult manuscripts were published by Crowley, and these, along with the Golden Dawn corpus and the few of Mathers’ legitimate publications represent a massive collection of transitional documents, showing how the occult lore of the earlier modern era was evolved into a system that is both elegant and workable today. Mathers’ legacy to the modern practice of ritual and ceremonial magick is virtually priceless, since the Golden Dawn has spawned a multitude of magickal and pagan systems throughout the western world.

I have often given Mathers a great deal of credit for starting the modern occult revolution of the 20th century, particularly in regards to the practice of magick and western based occultism. Little is actually known about Mathers and his life, and the various pundits and biographers who have written about him have not been very kind to his memory, beginning with Crowley himself. I would suspect that Mathers was a completely honorable man who steadfastly subscribed to the proper chain of transmission and secrecy inherent in the occult orders and organizations of the 18th and 19th centuries. That many no longer hold these values and beliefs as sacrosanct does not in any way diminish Mathers, his accomplishments and his steadfast belief in the Order that he had helped to found. Whether one believes that Mathers had contact with the secret chiefs or not, no one can dispute the legacy that he gave to all of us today who practice ceremonial or ritual magick with an initiatory basis. I suspect that if he were able to witness all that has happened to his lore over the last century, I think that he would have seen it as a positive manifestation of this genius rather than an abhorrent aberration to be condemned. He would not have agreed with the manner of the transmission of this lore, but perhaps would have consigned himself that its revelation did indeed help start a powerful cultural and spiritual movement. That effect may have been the over arching purpose as to why the revelation had occurred in the first place. 

So, these three luminaries are ultimately but not directly responsible for the fruit of my studies and the system of magick that I have forged. During this time of honoring the dead, I shall light a candle and say a Mass for all three of them. They have helped to make my practices and beliefs truly realized, and for this fact, I am deeply grateful.

Frater Barrabbas

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sorcerer’s Cat

Meeoow! My name is Jynx, and I am Frater Barrabbas’s cat. FB decided to take a day off from writing his blog and turned it over to his wiser half, his cat. Humans would classify me as a seven year old brown and grey tabby with some black marbling and a white chin and throat, but I would find that rather limiting. There’s so much more to me than what my lovely green eyes and cover-cat face would indicate. I am, after all, a sorcerer’s cat! That means that I am usually skulking around the background making certain that Frater Barrabbas’s feeble attempts at working magick actually turn out to be successful. Behind every accomplished sorcerer there is a feline assistant, make no mistake about it. If you are an occultist and don’t have a cat or two in your household, then you are either grossly incompetent and don’t realize it, or you’re a complete fraud. Cats are integral to the practice of sorcery, or at least that’s what my supposed master would say. I just know that I am prime to all things - nearly like a god. (Yeah, I like that saying!)

I am sure that you all know the history of cats, how they were rightfully worshiped in Egypt, and that every major breakthrough in human history has happened because there was a cat in the background manipulating events. What you might not know is that we cats do communicate with each other, comparing traits of our masters and mistresses, sharing secrets, stealing ideas, making basic world-order mischief, and plotting to be the next king or queen of the cats. Sometimes we disappear into other dimensions and congregate together, attempting to keep the world from flying apart in total chaos. It’s a tough job being a cat, so that’s why we sleep a lot during the day - we are working at night to make the world better place for humans. However, try as you might, you will never get a cat to reveal their secret gateways, grips, signs and pass words to those mysterious places. Sometimes we may stare at strange corners in the ceilings (gateways to other dimensions) or cock our ears to listen to the ethereal music of the spheres. Cats are very important factotums to the phenomena of mysterious and magickal forces that rule the cosmos - dogs, on the other hand, are about as worthless as humans can sometimes be.

I happened into FB’s life as an unintended unclaimed pet. My former mistress despised me and wanted to leave me stranded at her prior home. Frater Barrabbas made sure that I was moved into the new household, since he immediately saw my tremendous value as an occultist and fell for my great good looks. I am, after all, a very handsome cat with an unusually long striped tail. Later on, when my former mistress and FB broke up, I got the house and my master all to myself. It was a halcyon time for the two of us, only to be rudely interrupted when his new girlfriend moved in with a large stupid dog (who thinks he’s a cat) and two rather obnoxious cats. I was, to say the least, quite put out by this change of fate!

I had helped my master heal from major surgery, never leaving his side while he recuperated, and purring softly to help heal his innards. He rewarded my faithful and unconditional love by allowing more pets to invade my home. A fourth cat was allowed to invade my space later on, which was about all I could stand. FB made it up to me and coddled my anger and soothed my upset feelings, making sure that everyone knew that I was loved the most and was still an alpha cat, even though I was getting picked on regularly. He was my hero, so I forgave him, well, sort of. Now everything is mostly fine, except for that fourth cat called “Faust” who continues to pick fights with me, although this usually doesn’t happen unless I get in his face and annoy the shit out of him. Typically FB intercedes, even if it’s my fault - I do love that about him. The dog is OK, too, since he’s big enough to offer token protection from the other cats, and so is FB’s girlfriend, who has learned to stroke me in the right places. 

Frater Barrabbas is a good guy, I have to admit. He feeds me special treats, often picks me up to cuddle (although I am just as often not interested in this kind of affection), and intercedes when the other cats in the household attempt to gang up on me for no apparent reason. These other cats might consider me an arrogant prick, but then, I am the highest of the high, since FB favors me more than any of them. They just haven’t gotten used to the real pecking order, even though I try quite hard to make sure that they know it. So, because FB is good to me and treats me nice (most of the time) I deem to allow him certain liberties. He can give me treats (pork is much more coveted than other goodies), scratch me on my flanks and skirtch my head, stroke my whiskers and gently rub my chin, and let me stretch out next to him and hog the bed or chair. I will then be ameliorated to put up with his obvious flaws, such as his periodic flatulence, stinky toilet interludes, reoccurring bad breath, loud and raucous snoring, constant body odor and numerous other fairly offensive traits. He is anything but perfect, and like all humans, kind of an inept moron that I am constantly inspiring, guiding and teaching. It’s hard work being a sorcerer’s cat!

I will admit that he can strategically scratch my sides, gently pull my tail, and scratch that area of my back where the tail and the spine meet (a place I can never reach myself) in such a manner as to induce a euphoric trance of purring and pleasure. His only fault in doing such wonderful service to me is that he often stops and mindlessly wanders off to do something completely irrelevant - so I have to follow him around and re-engage him until I feel that the job has been done to my satisfaction. Frater Barrabbas has the kind of touch that can turn most cats into pudding after a few minutes of his attentions, this I will admit. And it also really annoys me that he will use this skill on other cats - what a philanderer! There is only one Jynx the magnificent, and he would be better served to administer his talents solely upon me - that is, if he wishes to continue to be known as a competent ritual magician. After all, I secretly taught him all of the really hard stuff that he would never have gotten if it wasn’t for me.

By the way, I do love water - to play with, not to be totally immersed into. My master has put our communal water reservoir into a plastic bin so as to catch the splashes that I love to make. Also, all of the toilet lids are typically kept closed so I won’t have fun with the water found in them and make a mess (it all dries up eventually, so I don’t know what the fuss is all about). I also occasionally visit the sink in the bedroom and enjoy a bit of the leaky faucet drip from time to time. When I am all wet and sloppy, I like to dry off on my master’s lap - he’s so understanding sometimes.

What I don’t like is the pet door that allows all of us household cats to come and go whenever we like to - not that I don’t use this device whenever I feel like it. I would prefer to be let in and out through the door or bedroom window, especially in the middle of the night when it’s raining out. I paddle the bedroom window from outside for several minutes in the dark of the night, but for some reason he never comes to my rescue. If anything, I have to use the cat door as if I were just like the other cats. That does bug me from time to time (like last night), but I try to be a good sport about it - besides there are a lot other ways that a cat can get revenge. Like the time that I pissed on FB’s shoes in the closet to let him know that I didn’t like the fact that he let yet another cat (a stray, and the fourth, for god’s sake) live in my house.

Another thing about me is that I am a great hunter - mice, birds, voles, moles, gophers, squirrels and chipmunks all know how terrible and lethal I am. I like to eat up some of these critters that I kill and then leave the bloody bits in a corner of the house for my master to find. I have left him various offerings from time to time, and they do disappear, so he must be secretly enjoying them. (I do like to accommodate him in this fashion whenever I can.)  I also have been known to bring a live bird into the house on occasion that flies around until it finally finds a way out. I guess that’s my way of letting Frater Barrabas know that a pet door swings both ways.  I also have a habit of pulling down the funny rolls of paper conveniently located in the bathrooms into a small pile, and then chewing it to form some very interesting paper sculptures. Someday, if you happen to see one of my works in an art museum, you will know that I first told you about it here.

Quite frankly, I don’t see what other occultists see in FB. If anything, they should be reading my writings instead of his, since I am the one who taught him everything he knows! (I only taught him what cats are allowed to teach humans, so there’s a lot of other magickal and occult lore that I know which can’t be shared.) Cats are secretive, inquisitive and all-knowing, so if you are nice to us, maybe we will help you become a great sorcerer, too. Remember, bribes in the form of nice bits of pork or other human meats are the passport that you will need to obtain complete and total success in all things regarding magick. Of course, you will need to first get a cat so you can spoil and bribe it properly.

Anyway, so now you know the truth about Frater Barrabbas and his fantastic muse and constant source of inspiration. He hasn’t dedicated a book to me yet, but I can forgive his thoughtless and forgetful ways because I love him, all for reasons that seem to mystify even me. Next time you read one of his articles or books, or attend one of his workshops, just remember that whatever he is attempting to communicate to you was inspired and derived from me - I am his greatest teacher and confidant.

Yours truly -

Jynx - the magnificent sorcerer’s cat

Friday, October 22, 2010

Modern Mystery Rites and Practices in Ritual Magick - Part 3

4. Mysteries in Ritual Magick

Our last topic in this series is to discuss how the modern mysteries would be performed in the practice of ritual magick. I will assume that we are talking about a base-line magickal system that is immersed in an earth-based spirituality. Thus, the phenomena of the natural world becomes the focus and the principal theme for the celebration and experience of the mysteries. That focus on the natural world makes this kind of magickal practice and its religious foundation very different from Christianity, even though the various monotheistic faiths in the West do hold some admiration and mild veneration of the natural world. A pagan or wiccan ritual magician looks to the phenomena of nature as primacy in regards to the mysteries.

Therefore, using my assumption of an earth-based spiritual foundation, when it comes to practicing mystery rites in ritual magick, there are three specific areas that are incorporated into the magician’s essential discipline. These three areas are the Lunar Mysteries, Solar Mysteries, and the Mystery of Self Transformation or Initiation. The performance of other magickal workings, most notably rites of acquisition or earth based magick are orchestrated around the cycles associated with these three mysteries. The most important of these cycles is, of course, the cycle of self transformation. Yet the application of earth based magick is determined by the cycles of the Moon and the Sun.

In addition, the magician should periodically perform spiritual liturgies that forge a proper spiritual alignment with the Deity or Deities representing the core of one’s personal religious cult. As I stated previously, the system of ritual that I advocate requires the periodic and consistent immersion of the self within the spiritual qualities and persona of the Godhead. These periodic practices are also determined by the cycles of the Moon and the Sun, which act as the primary demarcation of the liturgical and magickal calendar.

The changing cycles of the Moon and the seasons of the Sun represent an interplay of the natural phenomenon of light and darkness, which can be interpreted in many ways. In monotheistic religions in the West, the interplay of light and darkness are seen as the seemingly never ending combat between good and evil. Yet in the earth-based spiritual traditions, the interplay is seen as part of the normal processes of nature and are not given any kind of moral value.

Alternation and interplay between light and darkness is observed first with the diurnal cycle, then with the passage of months and quarters of the year, where the Moon waxes and wanes and the Sun and its associated diurnal period alternates between longer days and longer nights. The tides can also figure into this changing pattern (if one lives near a coastal region), and the changing vegetative growing seasons as well. All of these cycles have an impact on religions and their various calendric events, but these are more intensely experienced in earth-based religious systems.

Modern paganism has established a wheel of the year that consists of eight calendric events called Sabbats, as well as an acknowledgment and celebration of the thirteen seasonal full moons, called Esbats. Neopagans and witches celebrate these events with rituals and colorful folklore, but there are obviously more critical mysteries that need to be addressed than the mere seasonal and lunar based celebrations. It is important for a liturgical calendar to establish milestones for any religious organization, especially one that seeks to re-engage with the mysteries of nature. Yet these new religions have merely brushed the surface and have not actually engaged the deeper mysteries, which haunt the souls of those who have been released from the comforting assurances wrought by the orthodox monotheistic theologies. As these calcified systems falter and fail to comprehensively establish themselves as the answer to all spiritual issues, questions arise and are asked, ironically, the very same questions that were asked nearly two millennia ago.

The cycle of light and darkness, day and night, the growing season and time of dormancy reflect the age old mystery of birth and death in the human species. For humanity, birth and death, however they are explained by science or mitigated by organized religion, are the final and most profound of the mysteries.

Associated with the cycle of life and death is also the occurrence of great good fortune and also catastrophic failure, which represents the unpredictability of material existence. People want to avoid the unpleasantness of loss and misfortune, and to have certainty amidst the uncertainty of life. These are the needs that produced the mysteries of antiquity in the first place, and they are once again the driving forces that are bringing them forward and making them relevant in the post modern age.

To acquire a deeper penetration of the true ancient mysteries in these post modern times, we must look to the merging of magick and transcendental self-transformation. The mystery of the self is the key to the divinity that lies within human nature, and the use of that key unlocks the mystery of the collective godhead. The manner that the mysteries may become unleashed in the life of the Neopagan or Wiccan practitioner is accomplished through seeking personal transformation by using powerful transcendental states and the performance of magickal ordeals that explore the very core of one’s being. One does all of this immersed within the pattern of the greater tapestry of change in one’s natural environment. The key to all of the mysteries, ancient or modern, is to know the mystery of the Godhead that lives within us – since we all are God.

The most important actions that can be associated with a modern rendition of the mysteries is the votive offering and establishment of a “quid pro quo” between the supplicant and a specific godhead. While this might not require animal sacrifice as it did in antiquity, it does require making some kind of offering to a specific godhead that one is approaching in the mystery rite. As a standard practice, the celebrants should make regular offerings to their godhead consisting of no less than incense, scented oil and flowers. Oblations, prayers and devotions are also part of the required regular regimen. These kind of offerings are just part of the regular maintenance of one’s alignment to the godhead; for more engaging work and also seeking to manifest the power of the mysteries, one must make a more serious offering.

What passes for an offering in modern times is typically food and drink, which is blessed and shared between the celebrants and the godhead, with a portion being exclusively offered to that deity. I would also recommend making an offering of some of the food that is consumed as part of the feast. Thus, one should include a small portion of the best of every item that is served to the celebrants. However, for more profound and dire situations, a greater offering must be made, and here it must be something precious and dear to the one making the offering. Once something is given over to the gods, it can’t be taken back or used for something else. Often it either becomes the exclusive property of the godhead, or it is destroyed - consumed by fire or thrown into a sacred lake or well. The magician must consider any offering to be a form of sacrifice made to that Deity, so it is never lightly promised or neglected if the thing that one is seeking does indeed occur. By rigorously observing these rules of spiritual etiquette, the magician forges a timeless bond with the mystery cults of antiquity. 

Let us now discuss the nature of the tools a ritual magician might need to activate the mysteries and to immerse himself or herself in the numinous domain of the natural world. Mysteries are communicated to the rational mind through the power and apprehension of myths, allegories and symbols of transformation. A ritual magician will combine intensive altered states of consciousness, ritual structures and godhead alignment with these myths, allegories and empowered symbols. Since Christianity has either abandoned these mythic elements, or disguised them to the point of opacity, we must turn to earlier religious systems to assemble the proper myths to represent the inherent elements of natural change and the occurrence of Spirit in nature. Keeping in mind that these myths and allegories from antiquity are likely incomplete or distorted over the great passage of time; it is also necessary to experiment and to use our imagination to craft something that is whole, complete and fully effective in the modern world.

Ritual Repertoire of the Mysteries

First, let us look at the repertoire of rituals and practices that act as the foundation for a modern rendition of the mysteries within the discipline of ritual magick. The first thing that must be replicated is the place where the mysteries are to be performed, called the “Telesterion” by the ancient Greeks. Since there are no pagan temples or edifices that are available to the average practitioner of ritual magick, these structures will have to be given a more symbolic and imaginary quality. To aid in that process, I would propose using magickal rituals that erect prismatic energy fields, producing an analogous but more practical replacement for the mystery temple and its associated properties.

In order to replicate a temple of the mysteries, all we need are three basic rituals – establishing sacred space, building a spiral vortex container, and then, defining and establishing an underworld gateway and making a passage through it. The inner domain that is produced by these three rites is further defined through erecting a crossroads, and then drawing an inner circle where they intersect, demarcating the innermost place where the mysteries are to be experienced. Let us now list, examine and describe in greater detail, each of these elements that make up a magickal Telesterion.

For a temple, the following rituals would be employed:

1. Establishing Sacred Space - for witches and pagans, this would involve performing a circle consecration rite. One should also perform personal ablutions (magickal bath) and extensive devotional meditations and offerings. The purpose is to prepare the self and the space so that Spirit may become realized and enter into that place.

2. Erecting a spiral vortex - the energy field that most “resembles” the sealed container of a telesterion is a vortex. The vortex has the properties of amplifying and isolated all energies and actions performed within it. This makes the perfect foundation for performing a mystery.

3. Underworld Gateway - a western aligned gateway establishes the internal transition of the isolated chamber of the mysteries, and draws it deeper into the spectral unconscious domain of the underworld.

4. Erect the cross-roads - a four or eight node cross-roads establish a powerful nexus point where all forces and aspects of Spirit may descend or ascend. The four or eight nodes can be qualified to represent the specific nature of the mystery, whether Lunar, Solar or Self.

5. Establish an inner circle - overlaying the cross-roads is an inner circle, representing the place of the interstice where Spirit resides and where one may actively engage with it. The inner circle is drawn and then opened like a gateway portal.

6. Introit of the Mystery - the preliminary rites that are performed just prior to the activation of the mystery rite are as follows:

Erection and veneration of the World Pole (Stang): The celebrant places a special sacral staff or Stang in the center of the circle, acting as a conduit between all worlds. The staff or Stang may be set up to stand by itself, or it may be held by the celebrant or an accomplice.

Godhead invocation, assumption and sacral consecration: This is where the celebrant summons the specific godhead associated with the mystery, then performs an assumption rite so the spirit of the godhead and the celebrant are merged. Yet the celebrant is still conscious and able to function (at least at this point in the working). Sacraments associated with the mystery are blessed and charged by the celebrant. (A more serious offering can be vowed at this point, with an initial partial payment showing that one’s intention is good.)

7. Mythic Theme - the mythic theme is presented as a narration, with symbols and fetishes used to emphasize the theme of the mystery. The celebrant may assume a deep trance and act as the oracle of the specific deity. Deep meditation and trance are required by all participants to acquire the most intrinsic level of the mystery. Knuckle bone divination (dice) can be thrown at this point to establish auguries, as well as the consumption of specific mind altering substances and intense and extreme yogic asanas (pranayama: lotus 7-breath). The purpose of this climax of intensity is to obtain a state of ecstasy, so artful dance and sacred sexuality can also be done at this point. Once the theme has been fully presented and completely experienced, then the special sacramental food and drink are shared (this is the last thing that is done).

8.  Inner circle is closed, sealed, then the four or eight nodes of the crossroads are sealed with sealing spirals. Then an eastern gateway is opened and the Celebrant, along with accomplices, ascend out of the chamber of the mysteries and into a new dawn of rebirth and restoration, passing the eastern gateway much like the rising of the sun. (The western gateway points are sealed just before the eastern gateway is established.)

9. An outer feast is assembled, where food and drink are blessed and shared. A portion of this feast is given as an offering to the godhead associated with the mystery. The rite is concluded.

If the mystery working is to be done in a grove instead of an indoor temple, then the basic rules of managing a grove are to be used. That means that steps 1 through 3 are to be handled differently, depending on the grove architecture. The other steps can be modified and developed differently as the attendees see fit. For instance, the cross roads can be etched into the ground or even permanently marked within the grove circle. So, too, the gateways can consist of built up edifices as well as the sacred pathways into the grove telesterion. 

Mystery Symbols in Ritual Magick

We have covered the rituals and practices that seek to bring the element of the mysteries into one’s magickal practice, so let us now examine the symbols and themes that all of the those mysteries employ. A practicing ritual magician will have to research and examine these mythic motifs in greater detail than what is presented here, in order more fully employ them in the mystery rituals. Also, I am assuming that the typical ritual magician will be using the basic eight Sabbats found in the wheel of the year, although these are taken from the old Celtic calendar and may not be relevant. If the practitioner is using a different calendar from a different cultural tradition, then he or she will have to replace what I have written here with something that more accurately relates to that tradition. Suffice it to say, the model that one would use to formulate such a replacement is presented here. Also, the various mythic motifs that I discuss below are based on research and personal practice, therefore, they do not relate to any specific tradition.

The mysteries are broken up into five distinct categories, and these are based upon my own research, but they should be mutable enough for the typical researcher to adopt to any tradition or system. These categories can be seen as a heuristic device that will aid the practitioner in understanding the essential nature of the different mysteries.

My five categories are: the diurnal cycle of day and night, the lunar cycle, the solar cycle, the cycle of life and death and the cycle of self-transformation, or the initiation cycle. Each of these cycles has different aspects, symbols, mythic themes and qualities. Let us now examine them in greater detail.

Diurnal Cycle - Symbols - Sun and Moon. We might take this mystery quite for granted if weren’t for the marvelous and mysterious nature of dreams, which occur during our sleep cycle. Night is for sleeping and dreams, so it also evokes the concept of dream-time, which would be another symbol for this mystery. It often amazes me how all animals sleep in order to regenerate themselves, and the fact that they usually wake up from that deep sleep is even more amazing. The reason why sleep is so mysterious is that it is often considered mythically analogous to death.

The ancient Greeks used a system that they called incubation to foster specific dreams and responses from the godhead associated with a mystery cult. A modern version of this method is what I call temple or grove sleeping. One spends the night sleeping in a fully active temple or grove and notes down in a journal whatever is communicated through dreams, fantasies or impressions. I can’t stress enough how this is an important tool for the modern magician.

Lunar Cycle - Symbols: Lunar phases of First Quarter, Full, Last Quarter and New (Dark). Because the moon is constantly changing according to its phases, it has come to symbolize material increase or decrease, the veritable wheel of fortune and material destiny. The moon is also the ruler of memory and the soul. Specific mysteries are found in the seasonal full moons, of which there are 13 (actually 12.33 per annum) - the blue moon occurs once every three years. If one lives near the coastal area of a great sea or ocean, then the tides are also a mysterious phenomenon associated with the moon. New Moon is characterized by the White Goddess of birth and growth. Full Moon is associated with the Red Goddess of love and war, and the New Moon is the Black Goddess of death and divination. Other symbols are the crow, dove and the sickle. Additional cycles are the Lunation Cycle, which consists of eight phases, and the Lunar Mansions, which consist of 28 different phases.

Solar Cycle - Symbols: Four Seasons - Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, Winter Solstice. The Solstices are times where either the period of daylight is at its maximum point, or the period of night is at its maximum. The Equinoxes are times where daylight and night are in balance, with a tendency towards light or darkness. Some basic themes for these solar mysteries are as follows.

  • Spring Equinox - Time of sowing (or preparing/anticipating for sowing), resurrection, creation.
  • Summer Solstice - Birth of Sun’s Destroyer, festival of sacrifice (of the Sun’s surrogate) - absorption of Darkness by Light completed.
  • Autumn Equinox - Harvest/Hunters Festival (Wild Hunt) - also, time of atonement & thanksgiving.
  • Winter Solstice - Birth of the Sun Child - festival of the sacrifice of the Oak King. Igniting of a new hearth fire.

Chthonic Cycle - Symbols: Birth, Life (Procreation), Death, Rebirth - Four Cross Quarter Seasonal Mysteries - Candlemas, Beltaine, Lammas, and Samhain. Represents the four stages in human life - birth and childhood (naming), adulthood (hand-fasting), eldership (anointing of leaders) and death (last rites and ancestor veneration). Beltaine and Samhain are times when the underworld is open and accessible to the material world, for opposite purposes (fertility/death). Candlemas and Lammas represent the state of life and vegetation at the middle of winter (purification) and summer (first fruits), respectively. All four of these celebrations involve some form of fire veneration (bale fires). Some basic themes for these chthonic mysteries are as follows.

  • Candlemas (Feb. 1) - Renewal of Light and Life - honoring the Goddess of Rebirth.
  • Beltaine (May 1) - Celebrating the entrance of the Fire God of Life, Love and Wealth. The Black Lord of Death emerges from the underworld to become the Green Man.
  • Lammas (Aug. 1) - First Fruits - celebration of the new bread loafs and ale - also summer games and the mourning of the Green Man (who receives a mortal wound).
  • Samhain - Feast of the Dead - honoring the ancestors - return of the Green Man into the underworld as Dark Lord of Death.

Self-Transformation Cycle - Symbols: Marriage of Light and Darkness, Apotheosis - The cycle of the self is also known as the initiation or transcendental cycle. On a microcosmic level, it is the cycle of transformation of the individual as he or she incrementally experiences ascension and ultimately, self as godhead. On a macrocosmic level, it is the creation, conserving and ultimate dissolution of the universe - known as the Cosmogonic cycle. Humans and the Deity both engage in this process of creation and destruction, although the role of humanity must be viewed as that of pursuing a collective goal, achieved over a vast period of time and encompassing a myriad of lifetimes.

Where the planetary egregore, which is perceived as the cosmic Deity, and humanity merge produces an entity that is known by many names, but is essentially the gate keeper between the people and the gods. This gate keeper can be perceived as a separate entity or as part of the spiritual essence of an individual. It can be called Hermes, Jesus Christ, Papa Legba, Tehuti, Agathodaimon, Shekina, Baraka, the World Soul, or any of a myriad of names, representing the primary intermediary between humans and Deity. Yet in truth, it is actually an aspect of the higher self, called by many additional names, such as the Holy Guardian Angel, Eudaimon, Augoeides, Over-Soul, Genius, Totem Ancestor, Spirit Familiar, etc.

I believe that without the help of this intermediary, humanity would not be able to sense or perceive any aspect of spirit or deity. It is the intermediary that makes the agency of Spirit perceptible and assists in its manifestation within the mysteries. Everyone has their own personal intermediary, and there are general intermediaries that help whole groups of humanity, often associated with tribes, ethnic groups, cultural groups or place and location. The intermediary, in whatever form it is perceived, is enticed, summoned or assumed internally before the mysteries are enjoined - either individually (as in the case of the ritual magician acting alone) or as a group.

Initiation cycles typically incorporate a double gateway - one is an entrance into, and the other is an exit out of, the underworld domain, where the mystery of Self is enacted. Within that sacred domain the candidate will encounter their shadow self, experience the dissolution and shattering of their identity, realize their true inner godhead and become united with it, thus forging a new and more truthful identity. The final task will be to find an exit from the underworld domain, and then to translate this deep inner knowledge into something that is intelligible to oneself and others within the waking world. The initiation process consists of three basic elements - those inner virtues that seek to aid the candidate (guide), those that seek to challenge (guardian), and the ordeal of initiation itself, which is the uniting of the light and dark sides of the self (sacred marriage).

Aside from the helpful intermediary, who makes this whole process possible and acts as the initiate’s guide and helper, are the assemblage of the Deity and its four Emissaries. I am proposing here a single godhead, since that is how the mechanism of godhead assumption works - one on one. It is also quite possible for one to engage more than one godhead in this process, still, we are talking about the godhead to which one is a personal devotee, and it is also the deity of one’s personal destiny. While an individual can have relationships with many different deities, or many different aspects of the one, in order to achieve ascension and godhead integration, using one Deity or aspect of Deity appears to be the most reasonable approach.

The four Emissaries represent the four qualities of that one godhead as reflected through the prism of the Four Elements, where the godhead itself represents the fifth, or quintessence. The emissaries stand at the outer points of the cross roads and represent distinct transformative processes that the candidate must undergo in order to achieve perfect at-one-ment with the central godhead. These processes will vary considerably, depending on the nature of the central godhead. The five steps of this transformative ordeal could be considered analogous to the five classical steps of alchemical transmutation.

Self-transformation, then, consists of undergoing a complete internal and deep restructuring, where the facets of the self are broken down into their fundamental parts, and the self then undergoes a kind of reintegration. In addition, during this process, the candidate becomes aware not only of his or her internal integration to the godhead, but also, for a moment, becomes profoundly aware of the Cosmogonic cycle, it’s point of current relevancy, and the candidate’s place or role at that point in the cycle. Self-transformation not only regenerates the self in a manner that makes the internal connection to the godhead more clearly focused, but it also incrementally reveals the candidate’s personal destiny.

As you can see, the ordeal of self-transformation is not something that is undergone just once, but many times over in the course of the lifetime of an initiate. If pursued with devotion, reverence and love for the Deity, then in the life of the initiate it becomes the single most instrument of personal ascension and godhead realization. It is the mechanism of mystery that causes individuals to realize their true self and to do that “one thing” as determined by their divine will with clarity of purpose and full consciousness. Using such a single pointed objective not only successfully manifests their own personal destiny, but also the destiny of the world.    

As previously stated, the ultimate mystery of all mysteries is the paradoxical nature and qualities of the Deity itself. Still, it is perceived, identified and employed by an individual or perhaps even a religious organization for self-transformation. The Deity is the agent of mystery, producing paradoxical or even miraculous occurrences that profoundly shape and draw humanity from one stage of its conscious evolution to another. The Deity can be seen as one or many, as within oneself, or outside oneself, as a personal savior, or the savior of all humanity. All of these perceptions are correct, and yet by themselves, they are all lacking, since a single definition cannot encompass what is inherently paradoxical, inexplicable and completely incomprehensible.

In all of the five mystery groupings, the Deity is the active agent, yet it is often hidden behind the symbols, allegories, myths, pageants and celebrations of the mysteries. Often, the only way to truly know and realize the Deity is to experience a profound and deep personal transformation. In that moment, the Deity is briefly known, realized, aligned with oneself, and perhaps even assumed. For a moment a person realizes his or her true will and individual destiny, but then the moment passes, the Deity disappears behind the veil of the mysteries, and we are once again left to ponder and contemplate the nature of Spirit. After a while, we may even wonder if it was real, since most are unable to maintain the sense of awe and the feelings of numinousness that the Deity left behind.

Perhaps the most dramatic representation of this phenomenon is when a person plays the role of the godhead in some ritual or theatrical presentation. While this is often just a parody or a meager facsimile of that godhead, sometimes, either through the merits and the ability of the player to assume the godhead, or by dint of an extraordinary occasion or fateful circumstance, or a combination of all of these, the qualities and characteristics of that godhead can be made remarkably tangible to others.

I have seen this phenomenon for myself, and it truly awakened the sensations of awe and mystery within me. I could see in the facial expressions, tone of voice, or even the basic sense of self that the person behind the makeup and costume was indeed that of a god or goddess they had sought to portray. Two friends of mine, Steve and Paul, have made this an important part of their priestly duties and role, and what they have done on occasion is to emulate their chosen godhead to an uncanny perfection. Briefly, they have “channeled” that god to a degree that many would be unable to do, for whatever reason, and afterwards, they have only a dim recollection of that moment, as if they were standing behind and observing it as if another person. Godhead assumption is a true mystery, and one of the core practices of a number of pagan traditions.

Gods, Goddesses and the Mysteries

Finally, it should be noted that certain aspects of Deity, or different godheads will be engaged with specific mysteries. It stands to reason that if one is a practicing ritual magician and an adherent to an earth-based spiritual tradition that certain Deities in that pantheon will be suitable to represent themselves as the god or goddess of one of the basic mysteries. A human being has certain mysteries that are personal and specific to the self, and others that would be universal. The universal deities would be represented by the Sun and the Moon, the deities of seasonal fertility and the manifestation of life (such as the Green Man and the Corn or Orchard Goddess, and the Horned God of the hunt). This would also be true of the gods, goddesses, spirits and various other entities that are associated with a specific place or quality of the land itself. However, the mysteries of dreams and oracles, love and hand-fasting, birth, healing, good fortune, death and self-transformation would all require very specific deities.

Love and Handfasting would be ruled by an immortal Love Goddess and her mortal mate. Such a love goddess could be Aphrodite and her son, Eros.  Phanes, Priapus, Philotes, Himeros, Pothos, Hedone and Pan could also be called upon, depending on the nature of the desire. For an immortal goddess and mortal man combination, Cybele and Attis might work.

Birth would be ruled by a Goddess of childbirth and protector of women bearing children. Goddesses of birth and the homestead would be Artemis, Hera, Eileithyia, and Hestia.

Healing would be ruled by a God of healing who had the power of sustaining life. A healing god could be either Apollo or his son, Aesculapius. Aceso, Telesphorus and Panacea could also be called upon.

Good fortune would be ruled by a God of material treasures, good luck and the avoidance of calamity. Such gods who could often guarantee a safe passage or good harvest would be Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Tyche, Soter and Soteria, and Plutus,

Death would be ruled by chthonic Gods who give guidance, aid and comfort to the dead and the bereaved. Such gods and goddesses would be Hades, Persephone, Hecate, Hermes, Dionysus, Orpheus, Erebus, Melinoe, Circe, and numerous others.

Self-transformation would be ruled by one’s personal Godhead, or the God of the Gateway between worlds. Such a spirit might be called Agathodaimon or Eudiamonia. The personification of Wisdom would be Athena, and the god of transitions would be Hermes. 

Dreams and oracles would be ruled by any number of Deities, depending on the kind of oracle or its practice.  Such gods would be Apollo, Hermes, Morpheus, Phantasos, Hypnos and Euphame.

 These are just some of the many possible examples taken from the Greek tradition, but there would be almost an endless number of candidates from many other traditions. The student is advised to chose only those that are personally relevant to his or her spiritual and magickal tradition, and then, only after a great deal of study and direct exposure. The power of the imagination, symbols, rituals and allegories can make any obscure deity or spirit fully active and empowered. I advise the student to use prudence and caution when approaching any Deity for the first time.

Throughout the rites and ceremonies of ritual magick, the magician strives to approach and realize his or her personal godhead, and when the striving achieves its objective, then the moment is made deeply meaningful and full of mystery. This is why my approach to ritual magick must include a deep, powerful and individual relationship with a very personal aspect of the Deity, since that is the very source of mystery, transformation and spiritual ascension. It is the destiny of humanity to ultimately become fully united with the Godhead, and the echos of that momentous occasion reverberate deep within each and everyone of us, waiting for its discovery in this lifetime.  To engage in the mysteries is to become like the gods, and that is the greater truth of the ancient and eternal mysteries.

Frater Barrabbas

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Modern Mystery Rites and Practices in Ritual Magick - Part 2

3. Five Mysteries - A Definition

I would like to present a theory that there are five basic mystery systems at work in the natural world. These five mysteries have always been present in world, as long as there has been human beings who could perceive and engage with them. While all religions have noted them, and some use them in some form or another, it is earth-based spiritual systems that have particularly engaged themselves to these phenomena.

These five mystery systems represent the types and characteristics of transcendental magick that are practiced in those traditions, as representative of the liturgical mechanisms that not only forge an alignment with Deity, as is done in exoteric forms of Christianity, but to realize that Deity within one’s self, seeking to understand the nature of Deity and how it operates in the world. Thus the mysteries involve the Deity and how it manifests into the world of matter, allowing for an intimate relationship between it and humanity.

This declaration represents a slight change from the way the mysteries were perceived and practiced in antiquity. Today, the mystery cult is gone and so is the specific godhead associated with that mystery. The institutions have disappeared, as well as the various temples and shrines that were dedicated to them. Only fragments and ruins exist, both in terms of literature and archaeology, and very little of that can be used to replicate those once great social organizations. What is still present to this day are the powerful phenomena of nature itself, the ubiquity of Deity, and the need to gain some kind of spiritual certainty in a material world fraught with change, overwhelmed with crisis and filled with personal and collective loss. To acquire some kind of spiritual foothold in the world, religious practices, and in some cases, even magick, are employed to deepen one’s connection with the greater perception of Spirit active in the world. So, the mysteries have migrated from specific cults and their various gods, to the modern perceptions and feelings of awe, inspiration and wonder about the natural world, the Deity that moves within it, and our place amongst all of it. The natural world and all of its majestic beauty has now become the temple of the mysteries.  

With this perspective in mind, we can now see that the mysteries involve the various periodic cycles of change in the world, of Light and Darkness, Life and Death, which represent the effect of the Deity acting through that world. This concept of Deity is not perceived as being separate from the world, but acting as an integral and essential part of it. The mysteries are the apprehension, realization and inspiration of profoundly deep spiritual transformations. They are events that must be experienced in order to be realized and understood. The mysteries are powerful transformations that can impact a single person and an entire group simultaneously. 

The five mysteries consist of the following natural phenomena:

  • Cycle of Day and Night (Light and Darkness),
  • Monthly Lunar Cycle,
  • Solar Cycle and Four Seasons,
  • Cycle of Birth and Death,
  • Paradoxical nature of Spirit and Deity.

These five mysteries are analogous to what had been incorporated as mythic elements in the ancient mysteries, as we have already seen. The number is not arbitrary, but it is also neither a doctrine nor a dogma. It is a theory, and more importantly, a way to divide up the natural phenomena of existence in order to better understand it.

The Mysteries, as liturgical mechanisms (magickal rituals), are performed by the individual and groups to gain an experience of the godhead within the domain of Spirit and Nature. This makes the mysteries into transcendental occurrences that must be experienced in order to be realized. Experience is the key to knowledge of the mysteries. The mysteries also have the quality of being inexplicable, since Spirit transcends the domain of the mind and language. So only through experience does the practitioner of these modern religious traditions come to understand and know the intrinsic nature of all things that are of spirit, mind, body and of the world at large.

Spiritual experience is the foundation of faith and is superior to mere belief, which does not require experience, knowledge or wisdom to function. Experience leads to a kind of knowing that is a permanent change in the self, a kind of adaptation to a new way of perceiving and behaving in the world. Spiritual experience is the perceptual intuition of Deity in terms of how it behaves and relates to the individual within the world at large; so, it can be considered a kind of gnosis (intuitive wisdom).

Experience and adaptation together are the tools of the seeker and represent the manner in which an immanent spiritual tradition would function for such an adherent. The mechanisms that produce spiritual experiences within the traditions of Witchcraft and Neopaganism consist of a merging of contemplation on nature, ceremony and ritual. These mechanisms are not used to behold an outer and unapproachable Deity nor to bolster a groundless doctrine of beliefs, but to realize and adapt to a perspective where Deity, Spirit, and the individual person are in perfect and indivisible union. As you can see, the beliefs and practices of these new religions are quite different than their orthodox monotheistic predecessors.

The five mystery systems are based on the cycles of constant change that are perceived in the world and within one’s self. These five mysteries are based upon the apparent operation of cycles of change. They are imbued with a greater significance and meaningfulness than would be otherwise perceived, since they are an integral part of life on this planet Earth. These cyclic changes involve the diurnal cycle of day and night (wakefulness, sleep and dreams), the twenty-eight day (approximate) cycle of the Moon, the 365 day cycle of the Sun, the four Seasons, the life-cycle of all living things, and the internal transformative process of the individual. In addition, there is also the mystery of the nature and essential quality of Deity itself, where it is expressed as a distinct being or a multitude of beings, each with its own qualities and characteristics. Deity is also and paradoxically perceived in a non-dual fashion, as an expression of a unified whole that is Spirit.

All things that are living on this planet experience constant and gradual changes represented by the cycle of Life and Death, Light and Darkness. There are also catastrophic changes, accidental deaths, epidemics, and the natural predation between species and within species. Yet despite the constant and gradual changes, as well as the catastrophic ones, which permanently alter the world in which we live, human nature progresses through an established life cycle that has an apparent beginning (birth) and an end (death); a thing that it shares with all creatures that live and thrive on this planet. These cycles represent a process of duality based on the diurnal nature of planetary motion, but what is operating cannot be perceived as anything except a continuum of change. Life and death, light and darkness merge one into the other, and they have no separation except by contrast.

There is no intrinsic value for this duality of life and death, light and darkness, and one can’t judge them as being either good or evil. They simply exist. It is often a prerequisite of monotheistic religions to give values to light and darkness, life and death, to label one good and the other evil, and claim that this duality is in continuous conflict. However, these phenomena have no intrinsic values. It is perhaps overly superficial to value life and light as good, and darkness and death as evil. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when we objectively observe nature. There is no good and evil in the phenomena of nature. Our perception of good and evil is based on what we judge as being either beneficial or inimical to our existence, and this is quite subjective and can vary for each individual.
Everything is a manifestation of a single unified expression of beingness that exists in an illimitable vortex of change. It is wrapped up into a seamless holism of matter, mind and spirit. If we are to apprehend spirituality as it truly exists, and to evolve beyond belief systems that do not allow questions, individual seeking, self determination, and the adoption of new realizations, then we must abandon the bankrupt myths and locked belief systems of the past and embrace, with an open mind, the natural world that we live in. Spirit within nature gives it a powerful non-dual expression, causing individuals to see it in a myriad of ways, however, the truth is that it defies all definitions and doctrines. We must perceive Spirit with the eye of spirit, visualizing it in its natural domain through meditation, contemplation, myth, symbols and rituals. We will find Spirit first and foremost within ourselves, then within the mysteries of the manifestation of the natural world, especially nature that is untrammeled by the human hand. It is not to be found in some mythical heaven, etherial plane or dimension beyond the world. It is here, all around us, if we can but perceive it.

We must also be aware of the fact that change occurs in two manners within human consciousness, translation and transformation. Mystery is all about the perception of the immanence of change in ourselves and in the world. Translation represents changing the outer appearance or surface of a thing. Transformation is change that alters something deep within us, changing its essential formulation. Thus, translation represents a surface change and transformation represents change at a fundamental level. The mysteries represent changes that are both translations (outer changes dictated by nature) and transformations (psychic changes or social revolutions), both of which occur within the individual and in the world at large. It could also be said that these changes represent an evolution of spirit and mind traveling through the changing world of matter and existence.

The primary cycle associated with the mysteries is the cycle of light and darkness. The definition of a single day is obviously the occurrence of a cyclic period of day and night, and it’s also the building block of our sense of the passage of time. The revolution of light and darkness that create day and night are intrinsic to human nature, since we cycle from sleep to wakefulness and back again to sleep every twenty-four hours. In daylight we are fully functional and active, at night, we complete our tasks and adjourn to sleep. In between this diurnal cycle of night and day, sleep and wakefulness, we dream, fantasize, and create worlds and realities with our minds. Dreamscapes are places and events that have no reality in the waking world but are usually derived, in some fashion, from our perceptions and memories of the waking world. The common occurrence of day and night is not the mystery, but our response to it, and the revelation of worlds of dream and fantasy, represent the first mystery.

The next cycle associated with the mysteries is the cycle of the Moon, that twenty-eight day cycle where the moon passes through its four phases, from New, to First Quarter, to Full, to Last Quarter, and finally again to New moon. This astronomical phenomenon is not at all mysterious, since it is readily explained as the visual image perceived by people on earth seeing the illuminated half of the moon from various perspectives, which is dependent on the viewing geometry of the moon relative to the earth and sun. Still, the effect of this constant lunar change, from new to full and back again, does have a powerful impact on the human psyche and the cultural consciousness of humanity.

Each full moon that occurs during a month has a special seasonal quality and mythology. A full moon also has specific astrological characteristics. There is also the symbology of the eight phases of the lunation cycle, and there are also the 28 mansions of the moon, and all of these qualities add to the occult perspectives of the entire lunar cycle that occurs every month. It represents qualities that are the opposite of the of the sun, and where it also functions as a luminary in the sky, the moon appears most dramatically during the night, when it has its greatest effect.

The moon shining in the night symbolizes the light that subtly illuminates the darkness, creating as many illusions and strange shadows as it reveals the contours of landscapes hidden by the night. Its illumination is spectral and represents the world as it is perceived in the unconscious mind, full of mystery and pervaded by strange fantasies. Such an environment is ideal for seekers who wish to know the nature of the hidden and inner self, and so the night and lunar magick assists the magician in determining the nature and the topology of the deep structure of the self, and the shared domain of the culture, the geographic location and the time when they exist.

Yet the sun has its own cycle, particularly one that determines the duration of the year. A solar year is that 365 day period in which the earth makes its orbital sweep around the sun. Yet from our perspective on earth, it is the sun that makes this transition. It is the combination of the orbital cycle around the sun and the fixed tilting of the earth’s axis that causes the amount of light from the sun to vary as the earth circles around it, causing both the phenomena of shorter and longer days and the changing of the seasons in the temperate regions of the earth. When the earth’s northern polar axis is tilted toward the sun, then summer and warmer weather ensues in the northern latitudes, while winter and colder weather ensues in the southern latitudes. When the earth’s northern polar axis is tilted away from the sun, then winter and colder weather occurs in the northern latitudes, while summer and warmer weather occurs in the southern latitudes.

The tilted axis and the orbital position of the earth relative to the sun are two processes that are really derived from the same phenomenon. They determine the seasons and help establish the calculation of the annual calendar, which is perceived as the transit of the sun through the twelve zodiacal signs situated at the celestial equator. While it is actually the earth that is making this transit around the sun, from the perspective of astrology, the sun appears to move through the zodiac on the path of the ecliptic, making a complete cycle approximately every 365 days. This annual progression through the twelve signs of the zodiac and the changing seasons, represent the two aspects of the solar cycle and its associated mysteries, which are the changing seasons and the corresponding waxing and waning of sunlight, and the life cycle of vegetation that are subject to these variations.

In the latitudes that are distant from the earth’s equator there is a noticeable difference between the changing of the seasons and the waxing and waning of light from the sun. The summer solstice represents the longest period of daylight during the year, and every day thereafter finds that the days  become shorter in relation to the nights. However, it is not until just before the Autumn equinox, more than three months after the summer solstice that the seasons noticeably begin to change from summer to autumn. The same is true for the winter solstice. The days after the winter solstice are getting longer, but the season does not change from winter to spring until after the spring equinox. In some latitudes, the season of spring does not become apparent until almost the month of May or later. So, one could perceive the growing season as being somewhat displaced from the actual solar cycle, and in the higher northern and lower southern latitudes, this observation is correct. For this reason, we could separate the growth cycle from the solar cycle and see it as two cycles that are inter-related but not equivalent.

As previously indicated, the solar cycle has four distinct nodes, and these are the two solstices and the two equinoxes. The sun proceeds on its apparent journey through the annual cycle, and the duration of daylight waxes to its climactic event at the summer solstice, and then starts to wane until it reaches its point of greatest diminishment at the winter solstice. The equinoxes determine the points during the year where the period of daylight is balanced against the night, but where either the light is in its ascendency or decline. The four solar events represent the transition of the periodicity of daylight vs. night, and also represent the four seasons in their transition from one season to the next.  These four solar events are concerned with the powers of light and darkness, and represent the transformative forces active in each of the four seasons.

The vegetative life cycle occurs during the four seasons, and these are marked by four periods that represent the fullness of each of those seasons. These four events occur in-between the solstices and the equinoxes, and represent the state of the life cycle of vegetation, which is also emulated by all living things in one manner or another. Thus there is birth, growth, maturity and death, symbolizing the growing cycle of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. These four seasonal events are concerned with the powers of life and death, so they are considered to be characterized as chthonic forces in nature and aligned to the deepest structure existing in all living things. The cycle of life and death is considered the greatest of all mysteries to those who live and must eventually die. The human life cycle consists of the mysteries of birth, puberty, procreation, maturity (aging) and death. This life cycle and its mysteries are echoed in various manners in all living things.

A spiritual seeker has an internal cycle as well, and this cycle is in addition to the cycle of the moon, sun and the seasons, and the cycle of life and death. This cycle can actually be dormant in some individuals and be barely perceptible in others, but when activated, its dynamism drives one to become a spiritual seeker. This cycle is represented by the dynamic interaction of a person’s conscious and unconscious mind, where the unconscious holds all of the potential within a human being, and the conscious mind represents all that is actualized within the self.

A person never remains static, and the dynamic state that exists between the light and dark halves of the self can cause both surface and deep structure changes within that being. This cycle of the self traveling into the unconscious and emerging into the consciousness mind is symbolized by the archetypal journey through the underworld. This is where the self undergoes the ordeal of disintegration and reintegration, and is seemingly reborn into the light of consciousness once again. There are two gateways in this cycle, the gateway of death and the gateway of life, the double gateway of self transformation and regeneration. It is known in literature as the Hero’s Journey, but it is the cycle of transformative initiation.

This light and dark cycle in the self is the greatest mechanism for realizing one’s full potential, but it’s also the mechanism where the self can be destroyed by inner or outer forces, and where madness as well as genius can be realized. The mystery of the cycle of initiation is the greatest mystery, for it can resolve the fear and terror of death and oblivion. Through this cycle is the individual spirit revealed, and that realization can lead to illumination, and ultimately, full conscious union with one’s God/dess Within.

As we can see, the importance of transformative initiation has not been either lost or diminished in the passage of time. It is, in fact, more important now that the ancient mysteries have vanished, becoming the primary mechanism where one may encounter and realize a form of personal salvation. Still, transformative initiation may not be so scripted or rigidly held as it was in the various mystery cults, since it is now based purely on the changeable phenomenon of nature, which is available as a focus for the mysteries to anyone who has awakened and become a spiritual seeker.

The fifth and final mystery of this series is not represented by a cycle per-se, but it could be considered the underlying spiritual process behind all of the cycles that a seeker might experience while practicing a spiritual and magickal discipline. The final mystery concerns the nature of Deity and how it’s defined. Whether that Deity is defined as a singularly distinct entity with specific qualities and characteristics, or as a multitude of Deities, each with their own personality or qualities is not important. Deity may even be perceived as being indistinguishable from its origin in the ground of Spirit, such as how animists perceive the ubiquity of the godhead. Perhaps the greatest truth and mystery is that Deity can exist in any of these states, individually or simultaneously, and yet not exist in any of them. This is because the definition of Deity cannot be adequately determined by the mind of humanity, so it can’t be narrowly defined by a belief or a doctrine. As Lao Tzu wrote, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Spirit is defined as the unified field of all beingness, encompassing all things of the living body, the mind and the individual spirit. Spirit is found in the integral expression of living beings, and that expression is ever changing and dynamic; yet it is also eternal in its continuity and infinite in its variations.

Therefore, Deity has one face, many faces and no face at all. The paradox is that all of these statements are true and also false. Deity is something that fails to be defined at all, but human nature, being what it is, will define the nature of Deity. Humanity will use holy scriptures, doctrine, dogma, elaborate models and heartfelt expectations to give a face and a character to the Deity, even though it will be based more on human nature and the human dimension of Spirit than on the reality of the nature of that godhead.

Human nature perceives Spirit in a myriad of forms, and all forms are true, but also not true, since they are limited. This is the supreme paradox of the nature of Deity; it exists as we perceive it, and also our perceptions are illusory. We personify Deity and it responds to us in kind, but behind it is the ground base of Spirit, which has no definition nor any personality whatsoever.

We may perceive spirits embedded in all things of nature, including inanimate objects as well as animals and human beings. We could see angels, demons, elementals, faeries, anonymous spirits, ghosts, demi-gods, saints and immortal masters, and various gods and goddesses. They would all exist as we experience them and more, and they could also be our projected illusions.

Any assumption about the reality of spirits and gods would be correct, but also incorrect, since any definition would be inadequate to define Spirit in its totality. We may personify Deity as a specific entity or entities; we could pose as monotheists, polytheists, atheists, agnostics, or even animists, and we would still only realize part of the puzzle. We could perceive Deity as being personified and also as an cultural archetype, and we might be getting closer to the truth, but still fail to define either Deity or Spirit fully.

Deity is actually indivisible from Spirit; they are truly one and the same. It is probably human fallibility that sees Deity as having a specific personality or individuality, when anything within Spirit is in complete union and has no individuality. When we shed our prejudicial notions about Deity, and seek to leave it undefined as a formless manifestation of Spirit, then we begin to approach the real truth.

All efforts to define or limit Deity fail when people seek to realize it in their minds, or through belief and doctrine. The mind can’t grasp spirit and words fail to define something that is trans-literate or trans-logical. What remains after the elimination of logic, words, doctrine, ideals and dogma/belief is just the experience of Deity and Spirit - that is, if one is able to directly experience it. Not everyone is graced with a personal experience of Spirit or Godhead, but most who have had such experiences are essentially religious. Those who have never experienced any aspect of spirituality or the phenomenon of deity are likely either atheists or agnostics - belief requires some kind of personal or internal verification of Spirit.

It is through the process of experience that Deity is known, but one can never define that experience or build a logical case for truth out of it, since it’s contextually subjective. Spiritual truths can be subjected to an examination and verified only by others who have learned to master the process that opens up Spirit to human awareness. That process, which opens the domain of Spirit to human inquiry, involves the adoption of an altered state of consciousness within sacred space. The tools used may include meditation, ritual enactment and contemplation. The mystery of Deity for humanity is to discover, awaken and realize the divinity within oneself. In ritual magick, and in other disciplines, there are four mechanisms for realizing Deity, these are devotion, invocation, godhead assumption and communion.

Devotion - Deity as Other Approached Through Love: Perhaps the least understood operation in apprehending Deity is through devotion. Some might consider this an archaic practice, since if one perceives Deity operating within oneself, then devotion to it seems not only illogical, but even a form of idolatry. Thus for this reason, most forms of mysticism begin with the supposition that Deity is distinct from individual humanity, yet later on, this distinction begins to disappear. Ultimately, the mystic and magician discover that there is no boundary between Deity and humanity. Spiritual union eliminates all barriers between beings, thus, in such a state of mind, all things become dissolved into one thing. This is why some mystics have claimed that “Thou art God,” much to the shock and dismay of orthodox followers. Still, perceiving the Deity as separate from oneself is not necessarily a sign of being unenlightened, for the greatest saints and sages have seen their relationship to Deity as one of lover to his/her beloved. Yet as they behave as a lover of God, they begin to dissolve into the union of that love, where the “I and Thou” become one and the same.

One could say that Deity and humanity are divided for the sake of union, so that they may find a way to unite and become one. The seeker achieves union with the Deity through the mystery of the Hieros Gamos, or Sacred Marriage, which is the core mystery of the Cycle of the Hero – the transformative initiation cycle.

This separation of Deity and self is imbedded in the reality of the separate self, which was a survival requirement for the human species. Also, as we develop and consciously grow and evolve, we usually start from the same place, which has been labeled by psychologists as the mental egoic level of conscious development. It is a level of consciousness where the separate self is celebrated, and then lionized at the higher Centauric level of development – at least, according to Ken Wilber.

Devotion to Deity, or Bhakhti, as it is known in the east, deflects the power of Spirit from the petty ego, and instead invests it in a divine “other,” which eventually becomes revealed as one’s immutable higher self.

Invocation: The spiritual seeker carefully defines the Deity so that it develops a specific personality and character. This definition becomes so real that it creates a vehicle so that the Deity may connect and commune with the seeker. The more detail that this Deity possesses, the more capable the seeker is to apprehend and join with that Deity. Such a mechanism becomes a bridge between the true formless Deity within Spirit and one’s distinct concept of Deity. The trick of this operation is that the seeker must not be too set in his/her definition of Deity, knowing that it servers a purpose only, and can be effectively replaced with any other definition. This vehicle is a device that magicians call an Eidolon or Imago of the Godhead, depending on whether one uses a descriptive device or an actual surrogate.

An imago (pl. imagines) in ritual magickal practice is the image or qualities of a spirit or Deity, usually in the form of an descriptive invocation. Eidolon is usually a statue or an individual impersonating a spirit or Deity. Often the statue has been consecrated and charged, with the spirit said to abide within it; and a person wearing a disguise is in deep trance, representing a surrogate for the actual Deity. The surrogate can also be a Priest/ess or special devotee of that Deity.

Godhead Assumption: This operation is where the seeker, through meditation, deep trance and the artifice of an imago, becomes the eidolon of the Deity. This is a rite of merging the spirit of the individual with the totality of Spirit, as determined by the construct or imago of the Deity.

As one’s definition of Deity expands and evolves, becoming completely transcendent, then the operation of assumption will foster a greater awareness of Deity and Spirit within oneself. This will ultimately allow one to transcend all definitions of spirit, deity and the self.

Assumption is the ultimate ritual vehicle of obtaining true union with Spirit, and is particularly practiced in most earth-based spiritual systems. When assumption becomes the central rite of a religion, it is an obvious indicator that such a religion has an immanent perspective.

Communion: This operation is the sacralization of the material world by an infusion of Spirit, as accomplished through the active imago or eidolon of the Deity. Communion is a process of determining spiritual union through assimilation. The imago or eidolon of the Deity blesses substances with its essential self, and thus imbued, these substances are taken internally in some manner by the devotees, who believe that they are joining themselves in a very physical way to their imago of Deity.

Communion forges a physical bridge between the seeker and Spirit, through the artifice of the Deity and sacraments. Sacraments can be food and drink, or oils, balms, spiritual healing medicines, elixirs, or any inanimate object. Substances become imbued with the numen of the Deity and enter into human life, thus imparting an infusion of Spirit to life itself.

There are also the rituals and blessing of the Deity that marks the passage of life, and these are known as the sacraments of naming (birth), confirmation (assumption of one’s role within spiritual community), marriage (union of opposites), seniority (eldership), and the final blessing, as the last rites (death). There is also the sacrament of transformative initiation itself (initiation degrees or holy orders), which is marked by the sacrament of the chrism (oil of anointing), laying on of hands and the pneuma (breath). In addition to communion, there is also atonement, which represents the process of self purification, ego abasement and reduction to simplicity required to enter into a state of communion with the Deity. 

We have thoroughly covered the five mysteries as I have presented them here. We shall now examine the rituals and methodologies used to make the mysteries real and manifested forces in the practice of ritual magick. We will also examine the ritual components that one would use to experience these mysteries, and to integrate them into a practical discipline that fosters transformative initiation and the evolution of consciousness. 

Frater Barrabbas

Monday, October 18, 2010

Modern Mystery Rites and Practices in Ritual Magick - Part 1

1. Analysis of the Mysteries

“Mysteries are a form of personal religion, depending on a private decision and aiming at some form of salvation through closeness to the divine.”
Walter Burkert - Ancient Mystery Religions (Harvard University Press - 1987)

Mysteries are not just a relic of antiquity, but represent an on-going process of transcendentalism and human transformation. The ancient cultures of Europe and the Middle East sought to encapsulate these phenomena into various cults, seeking to aid humanity in dealing with the capriciousness of fate and the inexorable human destiny of death and loss.
In the present world, the current religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have transformed the mysteries from a personal aspiration to that of a collective cosmic phenomena, which manifests as the grace, power and majesty of the Deity to collectively give humanity the assurance to live, prosper and to die with the promise of salvation and redemption. Even so, over the past millennia, these assurances have lapsed for some, causing them to independently seek out the source of that transcendentalism, to identify the nature of the deity outside of creed or religious doctrine. Thus an impulse of mysticism and magick have become ever more important in the world, allowing some the ability to challenge what was once forbidden to question in orthodox religion. Once again, spiritual seekers have appeared and the old questions that fueled the ancient mystery cults have become renewed and even popular.

Due to this fluctuation in belief, new religions have been born in the last century, attempting to deal with the apparent shortcomings of the old orthodox teachings. Mystical and esoteric perspectives have also begun to gain greater currency. Even the relapse into conservative religious faith is nothing more than humanity seeking greater assurance and certainty in spiritual matters. The study of magick has also found itself tasked with the spiritual search for inner truth and a greater understanding of transcendental states of consciousness. For some, this search is irrelevant, since for them, magick is only a tool or the means to achieve a specific material goal.

Yet for others, particularly those who are engaged in the new earth-based religions, such as Wicca and Neopaganism, the practice of magick is accompanied with an immersion and celebration in the spiritual phenomena of nature itself. It would seem that the ancient mystery cults of the previous pagan age have once again become important to those following an earth-based spirituality. Practicing ritual magick with a pagan spiritual foundation seems to require the seamless joining of ritual magick, spiritual liturgies and the celebration of the mysteries of the natural world.   

A practical discipline of ritual magick that includes the mysteries has greater depth and expansiveness than just the technique of performing rituals to achieve material goals. Some have said that ritual magick is limited to only obtaining material results, and perhaps for them, that is true. It’s unfortunate that some who practice ritual magick seem to omit the most important part, which is the occurrence of the mysteries. That is because magick is far more than just the performance of rituals and ceremonies and the reaping (or not) of their benefits. Whenever practitioners experience the full immersion of Spirit into their workings, then what is happening to them is far greater than just the mere operation of material based magick.

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t be mislead by my statements. I am not one who advocates that practitioners of magick shouldn’t seek material results, or that less substantial results (such as wisdom or grace) are more spiritually relevant than material ones. If we can agree that magick is not something which anyone has total and complete control over in their individual and collective lives, then there is a power and intelligence operating in magick that goes far beyond the usual expectations of actions and results.

If magick were a simple matter of cause and effect, then far more individuals would be using it to fulfill their material needs. As it stands, there is always an element of the unknown, the unknowable, the ineffable, the inexplicable and the transcendental when magick is truly functioning as it should. Often one begins a magickal working with a certain assumption, and as the working progresses, that assumption may be revealed to be completely incongruent with reality. This event, when it occurs, causes a revelation and a course correction, which produces a more truthful focus on one’s actual goal.

Essentially, magick and mystery seem to be intertwined, especially when something profound or great is occurring. This is not to say that every magickal ritual and ceremony is mysterious, profound or life changing; still, when magick is truly operating as it should, one will feel the impact of “otherness” in an obvious and fundamental manner. That sense of “otherness” is the core of the operation of mystery in magick, and when it occurs, true magick has been manifested.

A colleague and friend of mine, named Steve Posch, recently presented a workshop on performing public rituals. In that workshop he discussed the things that make such operations successful and also fail miserably. One of the first topics presented was the definition of mystery, since it seems to play an important part in public rituals that succeed. Steve defined mystery operationally as the occurrence of the  “radical other,” and mysticism as the individual encounter with that “radical other.” I found this definition to be quite succinct and very useful. It also agrees with the definition of mystery as determined from a closer study of the mystery cults of antiquity (as we shall see in the next section).

Even so, a written script for a ritual that produces a sense of “otherness” can’t replicate that feeling every time it’s performed. In fact, if it produces it at all, it may do so only once. What this means is that it’s a quality that can’t be either harnessed or produced at will. It occurs sometimes during rituals or ceremonies, other times during the happenstance of life itself; but it is never summoned, coerced or bidden. Mystery is a quality that a magician would want to manifest in every ritual, but even if it does occur only once in a while, it can still be quite profound and most satisfactory. The effect of this variable in the performance of ritual causes some of them to be far more significant than others, and this would seem to explain the variance that I have personally experienced in the performance of magick.

The purpose of this article is to attempt to define and understand what causes this sense of “otherness” to occur in ritual, or for that matter, life. Producing a useful and detailed definition of the term “mystery” will enable us to recognize and perhaps replicate it more often in ritual. If we can identify the power of mystery when it spontaneously occurs in our lives, then we may determine its significance and make greater use of it. We might also be able to determine how mystery can be artificially generated, thus making our ritual workings more effective and meaningful. This premise would seem to go against my stated opinion that mystery can’t be controlled or summoned at will, that it’s actually a rare occurrence in ritual workings. I believe it’s possible to make the occurrence of mystery happen more frequently than it otherwise might in magickal workings, keeping in mind that it’s a capricious phenomenon that can’t be really controlled.

Additionally, one of the most important factors about the occurrence of mystery is that it is directly tied to an encounter of Deity, momentarily emerging into one’s life. That encounter is a powerful transcendental experience, which has the effect of shaping and qualifying the lives of all whom it touches. This is because the Deity, in whatever manner it’s defined or perceived, is the perfect exemplar of the “radical other.” There is nothing else that can impact one’s individual perceptions or beliefs greater than to experience the full realization of the Godhead in one’s life. So it would seem that the source of mystery in ritual and life is an incursion of the divine into one’s sphere of consciousness. Even the adoption of powerful altered states of consciousness can’t equal the power and overarching impact of a one on one encounter with the divine, so these practices seem to be nothing more than preparations for such an encounter with the Deity.

It’s also apparent that the more one engages and encounters the Deity in rites and even in life, the greater the overall mystery that seems to envelope one’s existence. When this phenomena becomes constant and continuous, where the Deity is perceived at all times as occurring in everything and permeating everywhere around one, then total and complete enlightenment has been achieved. Such a high state of being is permeated and shrouded with the numinousness of the Godhead, and it is said to be the very essence of the mystery of Spirit operating in and through life. A person so gifted would be called an Avatar, and that exalted state is the highest spiritual attainment that one could obtain through following the path of either mysticism or magick.

A mystic would find this achievement at the very end of his transcendental path of ascension, yet for the magician, it is accomplished incrementally and would represent only the beginning of his or her tasks. The great work, then, defined as the magician’s “greatest task” would be the formulation of a new age and a new path for all humanity. Still, a system of ritual magick that requires a periodic and constant encounter and immersion with the Godhead is one of the true paths of ultimate enlightenment. This is the reason why I am such a strong proponent of Godhead assumption in the practice of ritual magick, since it leads one to ever higher transcendental states.

2. Mystery Cults and Rites in Antiquity

In order to acquire a more thorough background in the nature of the mysteries, it is important to examine the ancient mystery cults, particularly those in the Greek and Roman worlds. Perhaps one of the best resources for gaining this precious background is found in the book written by Walter Burkert, entitled “Ancient Mystery Cults,” (1987, Harvard University Press). While Mr. Burkert assiduously avoided cluttering up his book with too wide of a scope, he decided to focus on just five of the more famous mystery cults. These cults were the mysteries of Eleusis, the Bacchic mysteries, mysteries of Meter, the Isis and Osiris mysteries and the Mithraic mysteries. Even though the scope was narrowed, there were still some important and significant generalities that could be made about all of them. These generalities hold a greater importance when examining the mysteries as they are perceived today.

This section will focus on just three basic areas that will assist us in gaining a general understanding of the mysteries as they were practiced in antiquity. We will first examine the terminology and the definitions that were used to describe the mysteries, then we will examine the potential historical source for the mysteries in ancient society, and finally, we will analyze the nature of initiation and their associated mystery festivals. These subsections will contain distillations and quotes from some of the strategic points that Mr. Burkert made in his book.

Terminology and Definitions

The term “mystery” that we use today in a number of different contexts comes from the Greek word “mysteria” and “mystes,” which basically mean, an initiation rite, and an initiate, respectively. Thus, it would seem that there was a direct link between mystery and an initiation rite. The two are irreparably joined in the minds of people living in antiquity, which would indicate that all mysteries had as their central function the ability to initiate individuals into a specific mystery. A mystes is therefore, someone who has successfully undergone an initiation in a mystery cult.

Other terms that are encountered when studying the writings of antiquity, which overlap “mysteria,” are “telein” - the act of initiating, “telete” - a specific sacred mystery rite, “telestes” - a priest or official presiding over the mystery, and “telesterion” - the initiation hall. The term “telesthehai” is defined as being specifically initiated into the mysteries of a specific god, such as the word “Dionysoi telesthehai” is defined as being initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus. An “orgia,” like a “teletai” is considered a secret ritual, but not yet actually denoting any specific group sexual activity, which is how it was later defined (as orgy). Two other words, which are used as adjectives and are virtually interchangeable, are “aporrheta” (forbidden) and “arrheta” (unspeakable), denoting as it were, that the mysteries were to be held secret, but also, were inexplicable, therefore, talking about them in a sensible manner was impossible.  (pg. 9)

Initiates who underwent a mystery initiation belonged to a mystery association, sometimes called a thiasos, koinon, collegia or sodalites. These organizations were not as binding or cohesive as later church organizations were, but could be considered a loose public affiliation, although one that brought a certain amount of prestige and respect to the member. Initiation was completely a voluntary action on the part of an individual, they were neither expected nor compulsory.

A succinct definition for the nature of the mystery cults in antiquity can be best summed up by a quote from Mr. Burkert’s book.

“In religious terms, mysteries provide an immediate encounter with the divine. In psychological terms, there must have been an experience of the ‘other’ in a change of consciousness, moving far beyond what could be found in everyday life.” (pg. 90)

We have already covered this ground in the previous section, but it would seem that the mystery cults of antiquity focused on exactly the same things that would be relevant today. The experience of the “other” qualifies the whole encounter that one has with the basic element of a mystery. This can be found either in rituals or in uncommon experiences in life. However, the mystery cults of antiquity found a successful manner of making this experience available to anyone who met the entrance criteria.
According to Burkert, the essential core of all mysteries is the seemingly paradox of life and death, which is similar to the polarities of day and night, light and darkness, above and below. I have found that the ancient mysteries are still relevant today, and that they address the same kind of polarity of light and dark, life and death, addressed in modern versions of the mysteries. We find that phenomenon not only in the changing seasons, but also in the life span of all living things. The capriciousness of material life in this world is a fragile thing that is both precious and easily extinguished.

The language of the mysteries was, and still is, myth and allegory. Mythic plays, acted out by a handful of role players for the benefit of the group, were the most comprehensible and immediate way to communicate things about the gods, and life and death that would otherwise be impossible to relate. Myths are rooted in an oral tradition that teaches more through showing than eulogizing, so they became ubiquitous wherever humans made their home. By focusing on the details of a story, revealing all of its symbolic images and strategic occurrences, rather than explaining and examining it, mythic stories successfully relate what is, in essence, a living experience that is periodically shared with the group.

Along with myths, allegories were used to convey some sense or explanation about certain themes or symbols used in a mystery. Often, allegories were developed in an ad hoc manner to explain what was mostly unexplainable.

While myths represent actual experiences, allegories are the mechanisms that attempt to explain the nature of the mystery through a comparison with other symbols or ideals, often found in nature itself. Where myths are real and self-explanatory, allegories are where symbolic associations are produced, often to deepen and expand the narrow focus of the mystery.

Source of the Ancient Mysteries

The ancient source of the mystery cults was a form of votive worship. It was the act of making a promise or vow to give offerings to a specific god, and then fulfilling it. Votive worship represented a very personal form of religion, as opposed to the common community based religious festivals provided by the polis. It was a form of religious expression that was uniquely expressed between an individual and a single god, characterized by one’s faith, and seeking a form of personalized salvation (soteria). Votive worship was a kind of experimental religious expression, and so, too, were the mysteries, since they could as easily achieve as well as disappoint the one seeking salvation. If one methodology or god failed to deliver what was desired, a person in those times had no problem trying another god and another approach. This was not considered inconsistent behavior in those times. I will quote Mr. Burkert here, since his explanation is quite succinct and to the point.

“There is another form of personal religion - elementary, wide-spread, and quite down to earth - that constitutes the background for the practice of the mysteries - it is the practice of making vows, ‘votive religion,’ as it has been called.” (pg. 12)

He goes on to state that the one making the offering is often ill, in danger or in need. Another kind of offering could be made by one who had achieved some kind of milestone in his life and sought to commemorate it (victory in battle, attainment of high rank, etc.). The one making such an offering promised to the gods something dear or precious as a donation, and usually fulfilled it. The offering is often but not always publically made, thereby ensuring that the one making it will be obligated to comply if the needed thing does indeed occur. One can see that the making of vows is a method of dealing with the uncertainties of the future or the unpredictability of fate.

Votive religion is not to be considered superficial or representative of a weak religious faith. One who is seeking a form of salvation undergoes a powerful emotional transformation that is deeply disturbing and causes intense suffering and pain. There is the powerful need for help or intervention that drives this process, which profoundly tests one’s resolve and faith. Votive inscriptions have shown that this intervention often comes in the form of dreams, visions or even the paradoxical reshaping of one’s destiny (miracles); all of these, of course, resolve themselves in an obviously successful conclusion, since these commemorations are typically written by those who have survived their crisis. (pg. 13)

Mr. Burkert has also shown (pg. 15) that the mystery cult initiation and votive worship were parallel practices that emerged from the same root, although the mystery cult initiation was a later adaptation, both had the same goal of some kind of salvation. This burning individual need for personal salvation was the motivation that produced new gods and new mystery cults. Also, Mr. Burkert has stated that the migration of oriental mystery cults occurred first as a votive religion, with the mystery cult initiation forming around the nucleus of that practice later. It would seem, then, that votive religion was a seductive way to deal with the issues of life, to seek some kind of assurance – this would attract one to seek salvation from many other gods and cults, until salvation was achieved (or not).

There were three major organization forms in the practice of mystery cults. The first was the individual teacher or wandering mendicant, the second was a clergy associated with a mystery temple or sanctuary, and the third was a public association of initiates, such as a club, or “thiasos.” The larger and more wealthy organizations were typically associated with a temple or shrine, sometime even employing professional clergy members. Wandering mendicants represented the more common approach, and in such situations, teachers either lived well or starved by the use of their wits and their inherent charisma. Some mystery cults very likely started with a few wandering teachers and then grew to become massive cultural institutions, others were associated with a sacred place or location from the very beginning.

Mystery cults were typically associated with a specific god, a specific location for a very specific purpose. For instance, one wouldn’t go to the healing shrine of Asclepias to ask the god for safe passage and good weather for an ocean going trade venture. In contrast, Christianity would later function as an all-inclusive mystery religion where supplicants could seek out and receive intercession or help in any endeavor from any shrine or church; this was not the way that the mystery cults operated.

Mystery cults gave an individual the ability to employ a specific god, one on one, to gain salvation for some end. The faith that this act required and the salvation that was received did not imply any kind of religious conversion when an individual would singularly engage that god. This is very unlike later Christianity, which set exclusive boundaries to the faithful, allowing only those who were members of the congregation to receive the benefits of the sacraments and blessings. A person who engaged a mystery cult in antiquity was free to worship any or all of the other gods - the only difference was the necessity of making a votive offering and specific commitment to that one god (or gods) associated with the mystery cult.

Initiation and Practices

As previously described, the ancient mysteries were formed around an initiation mystery rite. Mystery and initiation were basically synonymous terms, establishing that one must undergo the initiation in order to gain the knowledge of the mystery. Essentially, initiation was a ritual that used symbols, myth and allegory to assist the candidate to undergo a psychologically self-induced transformation, analogous to death and rebirth. It forced a catharsis in individuals, making them face the inevitable end of their lives, but fortified them with the promise of rebirth and eternal life. Knowledge of death and the ability to pre-determine an alternative course was an important part of most of the mystery cults.

“Initiation is a change in status - which would affect one’s status after death. Ritual has the effect of eliminating grief and sorrow and establishing a ‘blessed’ status immediately has its repercussions on the other side. This is why the deceased are imagined to join in the mystery festival, to continue blissful teltai even in the underworld; conversely, ‘terrible things are waiting’ for those who decline to sacrifice.” (Burkert - pg. 24)

 Mystery festivals, which celebrate the mystery rite, both as an outer public affair that observes the solidarity of the initiates and their supposed change of state, and the inner secret ritual that shared a profound and deep individual transformation with all of the participants, are monumental social affairs. Even in the private mysteries conducted between a single initiated teacher and his client allowed for a religious focus that was exclusively fixed on the individual and his relationship with a specific godhead. In no other social venue did this kind of lionizing of the individual even occur. One’s personal existence was transformed and permanently changed through undergoing the mystery rite. There was no other comparable type of experience in antiquity, even though there were many different mystery cults, some of them large, and some quite small and obscure. 

Perhaps the closest thing to the ancient mystery cults and their initiations was the initiation rites and practices of Free Masonry. However, Masonry has always focused on creating a fraternal brotherhood and a hidden social network, using mystical symbolism and allegory to give it a transcendental quality. However, Masonry has always operated within the context of Christianity and Judaism, using religious themes and concepts from the Bible. Masons have never promised their members anything beyond this world, leaving that to individual members and their religious affiliations. For this reason, Masonry does not come close to truly emulating the ancient mysteries - for that, we have to turn to the renewed practices and beliefs of paganism and witchcraft.  

Frater Barrabbas