Short Talk Notes: Digging up the Mysteries

(This is a summary of my notes for a presentation given at Paganicon 2013. I figure it’s worth making a record of talks I’ve given in the event I need to do them again, and so that people who weren’t there will have a sense of what I talked about.)

The essence of the mystery experience is “You had to be there.” The establishment of a mystery cult is one in which the group has found a reliable means to bring people to a consistent there so that they can share the “had to be there” experience.

Mystery cults varied a lot – afterlife orientation, professional orientation, ranging from very exclusive access to very broad access. The Greeks were the biggest fans of ’em, but there is a likelihood of some such thing in a variety of cultures. (By the way: Christianity is supposed to be a mystery cult. That whole ecstatic communion with the body and blood of the god thing.)

Consider the most famous mystery cult: Eleusis. We know a lot about it, and very little of it is useful for performing the ritual. We know where they were held, when they were held, that they started local and expanded; we know which people were qualified to attend. We know an assortment of things about the ritual procedure and the revelations, though not what, precisely, was said; we know there was fasting and a ritual drink (but not what was in the drink exactly). We know that initiates felt profoundly connected to all things, and that they had access to a particularly good afterlife experience as a result, and understood the world better. We know that people who revealed the secrets improperly were subject to the death penalty.

This does not give us the mysteries of Eleusis. But it’s a pile of knowledge.

Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone whose group had a lot of documentary information about a town mystery ritual (this a Canaanite recon group), and who had done one step and had it go well, and half the group was all, “Great! Let’s do the mystery next year!” The person I was talking to was dubious that that would work. I suggested that they elaborate their work in accord with what they had in the records, and if the mystery happened they would know how to do it and be able to do it again the year after that.

We’re almost certainly not going to rediscover ancient mysteries, regardless; we’re going to build new ones. And those will be built out of things that we know, things that we’re guided to, and things that actually have relevance to the current world.

Getting there: more fiddly. We have big heaps of stuff we know, and we make larger piles. For a specific god, for example, we can make a big heap of titles, epithets, kennings, and the like; iconography and symbolism; myths and stories; associations with that god within-pantheon and the sorts of daft things that outsiders came up with which may nonetheless be useful. We can arrange this data and see if we can get it all to point at a core experience of a god. This is a mental exploration rather than a full-on ritual one, but one can get places with it.

I commented about how doing this sort of work with Hetheru-Nut as the Tree Goddess got me Aset as well, and then I had this profound realisation about how Hetharu (a queen of heaven) is married to Heru, sky-god; Nut (a queen of heaven) is married to Geb, god of the earth; Aset (a queen of heaven) to Wesir, governor of the realm of the spirits and the dead, and thus that this is an axis mundi thing going on.

Ancient mystery cults had more than just information going for them – they had shared cultural context. (As I said, if I’m starting out with black meaning regeneration, rebirth, and fertility, and I’m next to someone who thinks black means ooky-spooky eeee-vile, we are not going to have the same revelatory experience from the famous line “Osiris is a black god!”)

My going theory is that one of the purposes of traditional Craft training is to make sure that everyone has the same set of reactions in place so that the mystery stuff can fire properly. Building up that cultural context.

Of course ancient mysteries did more than that. Eleusis not only had the shared context (ensured by making sure everyone had the same language and was doing the same rituals) but made sure everyone was fasting and then drank the same drink, so the blood sugar experience itself was the same all around even if there were no drugs in the drink.

So as we attempt to construct and reconstruct ancient things, we need to wallow in this stuff, learn how it all goes together. I read through texts and I copy stuff out that feels like it might be a ritual into a little white three-ring binder. (And the Kemetics all know why it’s white. The binder lives on my Djehwty shrine, because that’s a sensible place to store ritual texts.) And every so often there’s trying something out: read this and see if it feels good, if it properly places one in relationship to the god; take this ritual bath and see what it does for sense of purity, cleansing, security, balance, and so on. Trying things out at the most basic level will continue to serve to activate the sense of familiarity, as well as lead to a deeper real understanding of what these things can be used for.

So now we’re well-steeped in what we’re doing: next step is to try to go somewhere more specific.

I talked about the Book of Night. (Notes on the Book of Night are from My Heart, My Mother by Alison Roberts.) The descent into the underworld is an archetypical mystery-thing to work with because it’s a universal – not just the initiation journey, not just death, but the act of taking a nap partake of this. So this is an example. It’s not a sole example: it can be compared with the Amduat (which deals with the mysteries of the union of Ra and Wesir rather than the rebirth-through-Nut) within Egyptiana, and other things outside that culture.

And I talked about the need to, when working with this stuff on a deeper level, committing to it. The first thing that happens with the passage through Nut is that she hugs you; the second thing that happens is that she bites off your head. (The second hour is the teeth.) This isn’t a half-measures sort of process, because to get to proper integration on the other side there needs to be getting wholly through it. So one starts working lightly, just doing invocations, getting to know and to trust the relevant goddess, because without that space for trust and knowledge there is no confidence in safety. I pile up in my heaps of knowledge prayers and invocations to Nut in the specific, building up that relationship further so it’s possible to move on in trust.

Every so often there were cross-connections. I found the hours of the night had resonances with the months of the year (and this is why the Nut work I try to post about here has a monthly component – aligning each of those hours with the months of the year, accordingly). But the mysteries come out and come much more true when one starts finding the cross-connections. If it were all simply written out already, after all, we wouldn’t be needing to find them.

And in the end it still comes down to “you had to be there”, which means running tests of things and seeing what happens. Which means coming up with a sense of what is intended by the ritual work so one can judge if it happened. (And judging what happened starts from a sense of self-knowledge, so that one can evaluate what changed, assisted with good mental/psychic/spiritual hygiene, and advice from people who know one well so that they can say if something seems weird or different.)

Writing from Paganicon

I have given my first presentation, and I lived through it! People seemed to appreciate it, too, so that’s something of a relief because I am Exhibit A for impostor syndrome a lot of the time.

I did tell someone to Google my name to find this and then I tested it and it doesn’t actually seem to work very well, so I am hoping that if I say “I am Kiya Nicoll and I approve this blog” people searching for “Kiya Nicoll” and perhaps “blog” will successfully find Peaceful Awakenings. (One can get here – I have the blog link in my speaker information for Paganicon itself – but it takes more steps than I am entirely happy with.)

It’s pretty interesting, actually, for introvert homebody me to be in a whole different part of the country actually talking to people, and sounding coherent enough that some of them have even picked up the Guide afterwards. There’s this constant kind of adrenaline-hyped manic bits of it for me, honestly, so (for those folks who might actually be here in the Twin Cities and stumble across me) if I seem slightly drugged it’s because I’m faking extroversion really hard and it makes me twitchy and slightly more likely to make obscene jokes.

(I found a lovely blue shirt. It is mine.)

I Want To Believe In The Fundamental Decency Of People

I said this this week when I was wrangling with trauma at a therapy appointment. I don’t talk religion much at therapy, like I don’t care to talk therapy here, but when it comes down to it this is a theological desire.

At times like this I always forget the name of the text I want to quote, the one in which Ra declares, of mankind, something like, “I did not put it in their hearts to do evil.” (Which it appears I have quoted before, of course, but did not footnote it then either. Damnit, me, you know you want those footnotes.)

It’s a deep struggle that I think everyone has to be familiar with at some level – The Problem Of Evil is a big deal in monotheistic religions that try to have omnipotence and omnibenevolence kicking around, but it’s not a total non-issue for polytheists either. How to live in a world, believe in a world, in which one can hold out the possibility of the fundamental decency of people … especially when one has been hurt.

In the face of trauma, it can be so hard to hold out that belief in goodness of heart, to remain open-hearted and open-handed to the world. In the face of grievous awfulness, it can be so hard to imagine that there are decent people who could do such things.

I have commented that it would be easier for me to deal with some of my trauma had it been intentional: had people chosen to hurt me, to do me harm, and thus that there were a meaning for it, a reason for it. But carelessness, ignorance, self-absorption, distraction, these things open space for harm and things worse than harm.

To heal, to let go, to open the space to make it possible to connect again, to trust again, to have faith, not in gods and powers, but in the possibility that other people will be true of heart.

Patron/Parent Deities

(For the Kemetic Roundtable project.)

First: don’t worry about it. People spend too many cycles on this question and other, similar things.

(If you came to this religion through devotion to a particular Power, then you already have a relationship in mind, and you don’t need to worry about this.)

If you feel a need for a specific focus of devotion, there are a variety of tacks you can take: venerate Powers who are associated with your work in some way (Ptah the craftsman, Amun the patron of laborers, Sekhmet for medical personnel, Djehwty for wordsmiths or people who work with math or computer programmers who are both, and so on). Venerate Powers that feel related to your personality, who share a kinship you perceive, or who has a trait that you feel will help balance something that you need help with. Venerate Powers who seem to have relevance to yourself (as I mentioned setting up a Wesir shrine when dealing with feeling pulled apart, or for another example adding Taweret to household rituals during a pregnancy). If a particular Power’s symbols and resonances strike you as meaningful for reasons that you don’t entirely grasp just yet, it’s fine to pursue that. If your heart tells you “I want to honor Nefertem because I just do”, then honor Nefertem already, what’s holding you back? Your heart holds wisdom.

Your personal devotions are just that: personal. I’ve actually gotten a lot more uncomfortable over time with the pagan habit of god-name-swapping as a form of introduction; I’ve come to feel that it trivialises the gods and makes of personal relationship a sort of public show. (Or, at worst, an excuse for poor behaviour: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly curb my temper, I’m a Set/Sekhmet/Heru/Montu/Pakhet/whoever devotee”.) And any Power deserves their share of honor, deserves to be mentioned in their place, whether that place is as one to whose ways one has pledged one’s life or as one who is relevant in this day, or this month, or for the duration of this festival. And in that, there is another route to finding a god to swear to, by, or at, if you’re so inclined: celebrate the festivals, get to know the rhythms of the year, and find out what inspires you, speaks to you, where the meanings lie. Find the Powers that guide those festivals and give them specific thanks.

My gut response to questions of “What do I need to know about my gods?” is “Enough to have something that works”. I would start with “knowing what is pop culture and what is historically accurate” as a minimum: Bast the loveyfluff kittycat and Anpu the ooky-spook doom and death, for example, lack a certain something, but they’re very common in superficial takes derived more from Hollywood-Egypt than the actual Two Lands. (I have a habit of, when picking up a popular paganism book about Egypt that includes god portfolios, flipping to the section about Set and seeing if it has “GOD OF EVIL!” in it; a depressing number of them do. Other possible checks include “does this mention that Wesir is an agricultural deity, whether the moon is misfiled as an attribute of an Eye of Ra goddess, and similar basic material.)

As you get more familiar with things, you will learn more things. That’s just the way reality works. So again, back to “Don’t worry about it.” And as your understanding of the whole system grows, your private practice will also deepen.

Regarding whether or not you have to form a relationship with any entity that appears to show up to you: just because it doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean it knows what’s best for you. Just because it doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean it’s telling you the truth. Just because it doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean that you have to do what it says. Those who would encourage nonconsensual relationships of any form are doing things that I, personally, would avoid like the plague. You don’t have to be friends with everyone who knocks on your door. You don’t have to have sex with everyone who hits on you. You don’t have to worship everyone who asks. Remember: a relationship with a denizen of the unseen world is still a relationship, and all of your skills and principles for dealing with relationships are going to be pretty good there.

I genuinely fret about the way people get wound up about this subject, actually. It feels to me like a leftover of coming out of Personal Relationship With Jesus territory, more often than not, the sense that one must have Personal Relationship With Deity Of Some Sort in order to be doing religion right. In the worst cases it turns into a substitution of personal inner relationship for social relationship, a sense that so long as we are ‘right with God’ it doesn’t matter what we do to or with others. But ancient sources all confirm: the gods are fed by ma’at. And as ma’at is an ethos of community, heaping loaves upon the altar is not the point. Relationship with the divine is not a substitute for relationship with other people; it is an enhancement.

The Living Still Bleed

I had reason to comment today that the work of healing myself, my soul, carries with it a religious weight of redeeming and healing the ancestors. But it is much harder to transform the living, the relationship with the living. The living still bleed.

My Craft teacher has a saying, “A healthy priest makes all things sound”, suggesting that as we grow healthier, we spread that health out into the world. This is an ethic of ma’at that I think is an accessible abstract: the healing we find for ourselves is something that is contagious, as we interact with the rest of the world in increasing healthy and secure ways.

I get fatalistic sometimes. No amount of healing will transform me into someone to whom certain awful things did not happen. That boat has sailed. I can make peace with those things – am working to do so right now, which is why I have those thoughts – but they cannot unhappen. And longing for unhappening is longing to be unmade and unnamed, in any case, that seeking of oblivion that rests in opposition to the creative universe of ma’at.

There are people for whom it is not too late.

I would make a world that is sound for them to live in, if I could.

It is not something I can do alone.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

This post is in response to the Kemetic roundtable prompt for “Fallow Time”. Since there are so many different ways of interpreting this question, I think I’m going to do a couple of little pieces.

There was a time I thought my world was falling apart. I felt ripped to pieces, emotionally drained. Things were, in short, very hard.

And I said, “I know who to talk to.”

I am pretty sure it was a full moon in August I went out and just talked to him about it. About the pain, about the despair, about the fighting to keep things working in my life, about the needing to relinquish my hold on things that I was losing anyway. I talked for a long time.

And I said something like, “Okay. I’m going to go out and I’m going to get a plant. I will tend it as your shrine. I will trust that I will get through this.”

I bought the plant; I tended it. There was no answer from the god, except survival through being torn apart, unless the sweet smell of the jasmine blooms counts as an answer.

I am willing to trust that I was heard, is all.

Sometimes when people talk about their dark times, it sounds like they’re talking about quiet times.

And I’m … being a mystic means talking to the Powers and sometimes they talk back.

But that doesn’t mean they have anything to say to me right now. Sometimes, getting wound up about it is a sign that I’m getting too self-absorbed, too caught up in ‘what is being done for me’ and ‘am I getting reassurance that it’s all okay’ and all these things that aren’t actually things that everyone gets, certainly not all the time.

Sometimes there’s nothing to say because I have things I need to do and I ought to get doing them. So I do that.

I think the power of “you know what you need to be doing, so get off your butt and do it already” is underrated. And it’s a lesson I keep tripping over in my Craft training, particularly lately, so it seems fresh in my mind.

Sometimes the gods stop talking because it’s our turn to contribute.

Amongst my medical concerns is a tendency towards clinical depression. (Chronic, moderately severe, et cetera.) And one of the effects of depression is that it cuts me off from joy; the technical term is anhedonia, I believe.

And even if one has established patterns of being aware of divinity in ongoing life, anhedonia can leave one feeling actively severed from the divine. At least if “one” is “me”.

For a long time, I had a commitment: new moons and full moons, I would do formal ritual. And one of the things that I discovered was interesting to me: ritual alleviates my depression. Showing up, doing the prayers, pouring the libations, it actually made a difference.

I actually experimented with this on and off. I spent a week taking care of my father after he had surgery on his knee, and did that formal ritual every day. That didn’t work out so well; I burned out about midway through the week and wound up with a sense of doing it out of duty rather than because it worked, rather than because it upheld me. When I went back home, I went back to my every two weeks schedule, because that worked out pretty well. (It also worked out that if I went more than about three weeks between rituals, the effects really wore off, so two weeks was a good safe space to be in.)

Sometimes what matters is showing up.

It seems to me now that I’ve written it that what bridges these gaps, whatever flavor they might be, is made of trust and patterns, and actually following through.

So that’s what I would offer to someone dealing with these times: find something or someone or a Power or a practice to place trust in, show up, be there, let the cycles move.