Toward Atheopagan Mysteries

Sacred Mysteries were initiatory rituals or ritual cycles in the ancient world which revealed secret wisdom to participants. Some examples include the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece and the Mysteries of Dionysos in Rome, and the initiatory mystery religion of Mithraism, also from the Roman period. These rituals and ritual cycles were characterized by solemn oaths of silence, so many of the secrets revealed in them are now lost, or can only be pieced together through comments made by initiates who later converted to Christianity and rejected their prior pagan experiences.

Modern Pagan practitioners have resurrected some of these Mystery initiation traditions by creating new rituals that draw on the symbology and what is known about the meanings of the ancient ones. I am an initiate (a Mystai) in a modern recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and participated as a cast member in two more Eleusinian ritual cycles in subsequent years. We had the advantage of being able to use as a site a complex of caves in a national park, so when it came time to “descend into the Underworld”, that involved a pitch-black staircase of nearly 100 steps.

This was all nearly 20 years ago, mind you. But being involved in these resurrected traditions got me interested in the idea of Mysteries: what they’re for, why they were important in ages now gone. And it showed me that rituals that “reveal” or highlight meaningful “secrets” to initiates can be deeply moving and impactful.

So that got me to wondering: If I were going to create “Atheopagan Mysteries”, what would they be intended to reveal? Typically, there are a small number of meaningful concepts revealed in a mystery ritual—say, four or five; what would they be?

Perhaps the Four Pillars of Atheopaganism? Or a selection of the Atheopagan Principles? An all-night ritual in which initiates are introduced through symbolic, metaphorical ritual activities to the emotional heart of the practice, what makes it meaningful and true?

Time the final revelation for sunrise, and that could be really powerful.

Definitely something to ponder.

Worth fleshing out, for certain. I have a lot more ideas but don’t want to telegraph them here, so someday I can put the event on and the contents will still be a surprise…

I will put more thought into it.

Perhaps, if you like, you can develop your own.

 

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6 thoughts on “Toward Atheopagan Mysteries

  1. My understanding is that there is a significant difference between a secret and a mystery. A secret is something you’re not supposed to share, while a mystery is something which words cannot describe. Mysteries are not created; they are revealed.

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    • Good distinction. There are certainly “mysteries”, then, in Atheopaganism, in the sense of deep truths which can be revealed; in creating a mystery ritual to reveal them, the challenge is to select them and then create the proper symbolic/metaphorical enactments for the revelation.

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  2. These are my impressions based on 16 years in an anarchic, consensus-based, non-hierarchical, ecstatic Pagan tradition. Please take with as many grains of salt as you’d like.

    -Overall, YES! If there was a path (or, preferably, more than one path) to Atheopagan initiation, I think that would be an excellent thing.

    -It might behoove you to ask yourself why you want this to happen. Why, do you think, will people want to do it? Do you want a group of people who have committed themselves on a deeper level to maintaining Atheopaganism and its community? Do you want a small subset of Atheopagans who have had a profound experience that you can talk about? Do you think other Pagans will take you more seriously if you can say you have initiates? Does it just sound cool to say, “I’m an Atheopagan initate”? All of these reasons can be valid, but they produce vastly different rituals and practices.

    -What, if anything, will be the difference between those who have been initiated into the Mysteries and those who have not? In Reclaiming, where initiation is completely voluntary, there’s not a huge difference. In other traditions, I’ve seen initiated members treat the non-initiated like gum on the soles of their shoes. How will you work to avoid this?

    -Disclaimer: I’m not a Reclaiming initiate; I’ve never been through that process or that initiation ritual. What I know about it is this: while certain aspects are common to most initiations, the process is very much tailored to the individual initiate’s needs and goals. And I can only assume that the initiation ritual builds on/forms the capstone of that process. So someone who’s been struggling with isolation may experience the Mysteries of Community. Someone who wrestles with Self-Doubt May experience the Mysteries of Self-Assurance.

    The idea is that each person is different, so it follows that every person’s spiritual journey must be different, even when we’re all operating in the same spiritual framework. Especially in a tradition like Atheopaganism, which has so far staunchly (and wonderfully) rejected rigid dogma and hierarchy, it makes little sense for “The Mysteries” to be one prepackaged set of one-size-fits-all precepts determined and handed down by a self-appointed leader.

    Perhaps what’s most important here is a common experience, rather than a common revelation. So every initiate goes through the same ritual (adapted for accessibility when necessary, of course), but ultimately their experience of The Mysteries within that ritual are their own.

    -I am hella serious about adapting for accessibility. First and most importantly because you want (I hope) your tradition to be radically inclusive. And also because different accessibility concerns will profoundly impact a person’s experience in a situation like this. To use your example: a descent of 100 steps in pitch blackness might be an amazing spiritual experience for some. For a blind person, it’s unimpressive; for a person in a wheelchair, it’s impossible; for a person with nyctophobia, it’s a nightmare.

    An initiatory ritual, especially a long one, probably works best at 90-95% of the time in the growth zone, 5-10% in the comfort zone as a respite, and zero percent in the panic zone, unless it is very clearly spelled out beforehand that panic is a real possibility. And obviously all of that is moot if the person can’t get to the ritual space in the first place. (Actually, now that we’re on the topic, how would this work in a tradition as geographically scattered as Atheopaganism? Would everyone have to come to you in California [a massive accessibility hurdle], or would we be able to initiate ourselves and each other where we are [perhaps according to some agreed-upon template]?)

    In my experience, the best way to plan for accessibility is to have alternatives in place from the beginning. This lets people know you’re absolutely serious about inclusion, and also keeps you from being caught on the back foot when challenges arise.

    -Some of us in Reclaiming have a saying: “A Secret can’t be told; a Mystery can’t be explained.” Very little in Reclaiming is secret. But much in it is Mysterious. Even if you read a word-for-word, minute-by-minute transcript of their initiation ritual, you wouldn’t be an initiate, because you wouldn’t have experienced the Mysteries.

    That said, if you do decide that all Atheopagan Mysteries will be the same, it may be a good idea for those Mysteries to be something other than the tradition’s central tenets, listed on the main website and most of your materials. That should be 101-level stuff. An initiation usually implies, among other things, a deeper level of commitment to the tradition and the people who form its community. I would hope that anyone who’s gone through the initiation process and is being opened to The Mysteries has already done the work of examining the Four Pillars and the Atheopagan Principles and their application to spiritual practice and daily life. Something more “advanced” would be a good thing. Which is why I really like the idea about “the emotional heart of the practice”: now that, imo, is a Mystery.

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    • Eli, thanks so much for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. There’s a lot here for me to reflect upon; perhaps I’ll do another post on Mysteries after I’ve digested this. I’m very grateful for your thoughtful input on this concept.

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  3. Building off of TPWard and Eli’s comment, I would think of the mysteries as a shared experience. The participants may gain knowledge in the process, but what I think is more important is the sense of community that is generated by working through a challenge together or having a common experience. Speaking as someone who identifies more strongly as a Humanist than Atheist or Pagan, the experiences that move me most are those that remind me of my connections to the natural world or to the rest of the human race.

    The idea that comes immediately to mind is starting just before sunset, and have the participants gather wood and start a fire using ancient tools like a friction drill. (You would probably have to provide the tools, and possibly basic instructions for how to use them.) There are a lot of different ways you could interpret this, depending on how you structure the ritual. It could be a mystery about survival and working together. It could be an exploration of our earliest ancestors through the skills they used every day, (though I think it’s also important to acknowledge there are cultures who still use these techniques.) It could probably even be tied in with your idea of the sunrise and light as a symbol of knowledge or enlightenment. I think with a little bit of attention to the structure and the space you use this could be accessible to people with physical disabilities. While they may not be able to go off and gather firewood, they could still help with the process of figuring out how the tools work and starting the fire.

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