The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a religious Southern Baptist. Just like a lot of Pagans have complaints about whatever group they worship or do ritual with, my friend, we’ll call her Margret, had some complaints. She complained that the focus was on why you shouldn’t be gay instead of on Jesus, or it was people railing against witchcraft. You can guess that if Margret is friends with me, she takes issue with neither the LGBT community, nor with witchcraft.
She said something, in her enormous rant about misplaced emphasis, and misrepresentation of her deity, that really, really struck me.
“What the pastors have got to get into their heads is that the game is no longer about one religion competing against another. Also? ALSO?? ALSO! Most people aren’t leaving the church to go to a different religion. They are leaving because they see no purpose for any religion at all. If Christianity is going to survive, people on the pulpit need to spend less time talking down other spiritual paths, and more time talking up the concept of religion in general.”
Why am I writing about this? Because I have spent the last week and a half wringing my hands over the Mysteries, and Initiation, trying to figure out how to express what I feel is the right way to do it. When Margret let loose with her rant, it struck me like a thunderbolt.
Why are more and more people self initiating? Largely, because they don’t see a purpose in being initiated by any major group, and they want the right to practice whatever way they want to practice. They’ve been told that certain techniques are reserved for initiates, and they don’t want to deal with a clergy person emphasizing a group or tradition rather than a deity. They do not see the connection between initiation and power, initiation and faith, initiation and insight, or, really, initiation and anything that would make the drama, the egotism, the elitism or cow-towing to a potentially dangerous guru-like figure worth putting up with.
Initiation, done right, is perhaps one of the most amazing tools we have available for building community, bringing myth to life, and especially, helping those people who are not the nose-in-book sorts to have a strong and authentic connection to ancient deities, and to forge connections between communities in far-flung places.
Having given it some intense thought, I am convinced that the solution is to create open-source mysteries that any group of like-minded people can just pick up, and perform with their friends. In this article, I’ll lay out my reasons, and then suggest some positive steps going forward.
What is the benefit?
Greek deities are incredibly social. I once heard a friend describe them as being, “like potato chips. You can’t stop at one.” If you want to encounter a Greek deity you haven’t met, you can always ask one that you already know. This is as true for someone working with Hephaestos as it is for a child of Hermes. So, when people are out there suggesting that initiations are supposed to help you connect with deities, and you are working with the most social pantheon in town, you might reason that initiation couldn’t benefit you.
Multiple Initiations: Learning to Use Multiple Viewpoints
Ever wonder how it could be that a bunch of people, all honoring the same god or goddess, could have vastly different manifestations of that deity?
Deities are huge. I mean, that stands to reason, right? What people tend not to think about, however, is the fact that any given deity might have several regional mythologies, each equally valid. We use the language of mythology to point to the reality of enormous beings, and mythological language varies slightly from region to region. Consequently, the text of those myths contradict.
Once you learn the regional lingo, you can start to see things from their perspective, and become intimate with truths of the deity that you might otherwise have missed. It becomes possible to see the deity, the same deity, in more than one way at the same time. Effectively, you broaden your view of him or her.
You can become intimate with a deity without ever encountering another person at all. You become vastly more intimate with your deity, however, when you explore other aspects and manifestations of them, learn new mythologies about them, or new interpretations of the mythologies you already know. Initiations, done correctly, can help you do do precisely that.
By attending the mysteries of many different groups, all approaching the same deity, you can gain new perspectives, and see the deity in greater fullness. By validating multiple groups in their attempts to put on mysteries, you are supporting the community effort to explore the deity in diverse ways. By performing an initiations and mysteries and offering them to anyone willing to attend, you are sharing the strength of your connection to that deity and inviting discourse on your interpretations, which, if done correctly, will allow you to fine tune your understanding and develop it more deeply.
Effectively, initiation is a controlled way of aggregating and sharing gnosis.
A Shared Experience: Broadening Community
I once told Dionysos that he was the ultimate god of community, linking it to his epithet, “the breaker of boundaries.” Mysteriously, when people drink together, it is a social bonding experience. That is probably because when we enter altered states as a communal activity, we break down the boundaries of self to create the larger boundaries of a group.
A good initiation does many things, but perhaps the most important is the altered state that it brings about. It is this shared religious experience and the physical proximity of the other people having it with you that creates a sense of kinship.
I think we can all agree that a long-distance pub-crawl would be rubbish. A pub crawl by yourself would just make you feel like a sad and lonely drunk. Would a long-distance initiation or self initiation really have the same effect as one done with a group of people? No. Not because you don’t get the same connection to the deity, or the same connection to the “current,” but because you miss out on the opportunity to have a social bonding experience and to further develop and build community.
Why I think it could be just as good what “secret” groups are offering
Reason 1: Lineage Has No Measurable Benefit
Having been involved in the Golden Dawn and British Traditional Wicca communities, I have known people with three kinds of lineage:
– Lineage from Israel Regardie, or Gerald Gardner
– Sham lineage (seriously, the Head Adept owned up to it in private)
– No lineage (such as the OSOGD and the Open Source Alexandrian group who claim none)
The truth of the matter is that the initiates of these three groups are all about equally powerful in their practice. In fact, the strongest practitioners I’ve met actually came from the sham lineage group, possibly because, since the story did not have to be bound by the facts of the real world, it could sound SO much more impressive. I think that it goes to show that the strength of belief in the group and the efficacy of the initiation is more important than just about anything else.
Reason 2: Our Gods Don’t Hide
I have heard it said by Wiccans and initiates of the Feri tradition that there are secret, ancient, veiled gods, and that if you don’t have a proper initiation by a properly trained priest or priestess, you might get the wrong deity. That might be true of their traditions, I can’t say.
The gods of reconstructionist religions, however, are looking to self-promote. They are used to having millions of followers. They dream of gigantic rites with huge dedicated temples, and festival parades. They are not content, will never be content, to have some small, reclusive, elite group of people as their true worshippers. They are not powerless to make themselves known. You aren’t going to get the wrong Zeus. There is only one Zeus. If there is an impostor Zeus, then woe to that astral entity who is about to have a lightning bolt enema.
As long as a person is sincere in their desire to truly contact the god, that will happen.
Reason 3: Our Texts are Everywhere (for the Hellenic community, at least)
If you haven’t located a copy of the Greek Magical Papyri, then you obviously have never tried. There are certainly other sources you can use to derive technique, including Aristotle and Plato, but the PGM will give you more mojo than you could ever need, want, or use. Why, therefore, would we have any need to locate a Secret Sun Master someplace, who can teach us a true and ancient tradition when all of those things in our tradition are already easily available to anyone capable of reading and understanding them? You want Woo? We got Woo. In spades.
Why I think it could go horribly wrong
I’ll be honest, I also have some reservations. I have been involved with organizing initiations for years, and I have an incredible number of bloopers (and burned pancakes) under my belt. It goes wrong whenever:
– The person in charge of the mysteries starts lording it over the initiates
– People start getting the idea in their head that they have to choose between mysteries
– Heirophantoi compete with one another
– Initiates take it too seriously and it stops being enjoyable
– The people putting on the mysteries are disorganized and sloppy
– There are an unreasonable number of secrets
I don’t want people telling me how my book, movie or initiation ends. I want the pleasure of letting the thing unfold and relishing the little surprises that make a work of art powerful. However, as a person writing mysteries, I know that the end result of my labors will be vastly inferior if I don’t treat it like a piece of writing. I need to shop it out, get feedback, and revise it.
I want an initiation I attend to have gravitas. People need to practice their parts, know what they are doing, and not be reading out of books or off of pieces of paper. I have been to a shocking number of initiations where this was the case. I have worked with people who I could not separate from their ritual book during a degree. As bad as it looks when people are reading out of professional, grimoire-esque ritual books (largely because they can’t make eye contact with initiates), it is far, far worse when they are holding computer print-outs or photo-copies from the Book of Shadows.
Drama sucks. When mystery groups compete, start putting each other down, become mutually exclusive, inflate their own importance, stir up drama, wail about the karma (or their “alchemy”), or when the leader of the mysteries starts comporting him or herself like they are the incarnation of their deity on Earth, what with all of the flame wars, and vitriol and gnashing of teeth, there is no longer any room for community, or for the gods. These, ostensibly, are the two main purposes of initiation, and if you crowd them out with bullshit, you don’t actually have initiation going on anymore, in any meaningful sense.
What I’d like to see instead
I want to see open-to-all, secret-free, gods-oriented, non-mutually exclusive mysteries. I’d like to see multiple groups, each focusing on some area of the mythos, putting on non-mutually exclusive, non-competing initiations, each of which helped to deepen and expand community and connection to the tradition. I’d like to see cooperation in making these mysteries the best that they can be.
Here is what I recommend:
1. Spend about a year collaborating on ritual tech.
We can look at sources like the PGM, or develop and test frame works, then get back to one another about what primary source text based techniques work the best. Of course, these would all be based on the essential question: “What do we want initiation to do?”
2. Create a single outline, including purification procedures.
All initiations have a formula, and every tradition has a recognizable way of consecrating the space, admitting candidates to the space, preparing the candidates (creating an altered state), presenting the mysteries, de-briefing and closing the space. Developing a tool-kit that we can all agree on is a great way to make creating mysteries an accessible endeavor to anyone who wants to try their hand at it.
Even saying it, I know that a group of people trying to agree on a tool-kit is going to be a zoo. One person will think that purifications are for atheist scum. Another person will insist on always having a person in a cow costume. People will disagree on whether the khernips is sprinkled, or carried, or if people should only move widdershins, or deosil, or neither, or both.
The goal would be to include as many opinions and to create as many compromises as possible.
We’d brain storm first, and then, when we couldn’t think of any more ideas, start to combine and harmonize ideas, and take votes on things that are mutually exclusive.
3. Break off into local groups, or individually, write mysteries, and then shop them.
Once we’ve got the ritual tech, everyone would chose a myth that they wanted to expound on, or a group of myths that helped to illuminate a particular aspect or aspects of a deity or deities. They would then swap copies with other teams doing likewise, hopefully with copious footnotes, to avoid yelling.
4. Revise, add surprises.
After getting feedback, we’d revise, and then add certain embellishments so that there can be a certain element of surprise. No hazing. Basic concept: don’t do to your initiates what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.
5. Plan a conclave.
Everyone can come together, once we are ready and practiced, and the groups can take turns putting on their mysteries. This would, I hope, reinforce that the mysteries are not competing, but all part of a large, pluripotent tradition which can be understood in many, many ways.
Alright, peanut gallery. What do you think?