(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.)