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

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this article very much. I think that the information on the mystery cults and initiatic rites was very well covered and presented in a very concise manner. I would like to comment on Freemasonry. While I feel that the statements made in this aricle are true concerning modern Freemasonry, I might add that there are many esoteric Masons. Also the model for Magickal organizations such as the Golden Dawn was Freemasonry, albeit with many changes. I enjoyed reading this and tho my additions concerning Masonry are not exactly relevant to the content presented herein, felt that I might share them anyway.

    Sarapis Adoni