Mystery Traditions/Religions

May 22, 2015 at 3:22 am 1 comment

Many religions have a distinction between exoteric- or outer knowledge available to all members of a religion, and esoteric, inner knowledge only available to a smaller class of initiates as part of a mystery tradition or mystery religion. In many cases throughout history and various cultures, this pool of potential initiates could only be from the noble or priestly castes. In others, such as many of the mysteries of Greece & Roman, they were available to any free citizen (some only to men or to women)

To be considered for initiation, a participant must be seen as spiritually, physically and psychologically ready for the intense, trans-formative and ecstatic experiences involved. An initiation often involves an ordeal- a difficult and possibly dangerous test. If a prospective initiate does not pass such an ordeal, this means a denial of initiation at that time or for the rest of this life. It is called a mystery because not only is it secret, but because the participants have gone through an experience they cannot describe to others. In several of the Greek & Roman mysteries, it was believed that one could only gain entrance to the afterlife- or a better afterlife by going through these mysteries- hence they were very popular.

Wicca and witchcraft in most forms are both mystery traditions. It is certainly perfectly valid to practice many forms of Paganism in an exoteric manner- focusing on celebration and regular devotion- as a layperson, or simply in a tradition that does not have a clergy/laity distinction. Other traditions of Paganism exist only in esoteric form, and one must be initiated to participate. In Wicca- there are typically 3 degrees of initiation, and the third makes you eligible to lead a coven and initiate others. Many covens have what is called an Outer Court, which includes people who are not yet initiated, or have only their 1st degree. The Inner Court is reserved for members who at least have a 1st degree. Lots of Outer Court material has been released to the public- starting in particular with Rites from the Crystal Well by Ed Fitch, Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. As a result, Wicca- or as traditionalists may call it Neo-Wicca* has spread like wildfire. Though solitaries frequently self-initiate, I believe the term *dedicate* is more accurate, and think initiation is something that must be done by another person, generally within a group structure like a coven, grove or magical lodge. I’m not Wiccan, however so really my opinion on this is moot, though we do have initiation in various types of Druidry, such as ADF, the organization I belong to.

*Note: some people will consider the term “Neo-Wicca” to be derogatory, use with discretion. Non-traditional, eclectic or non-British Traditional Witchcraft (BTW) are less controversial terms to use.

Mystery traditions and religions are also found outside of Paganism. Christianity arguably started as a mystery religion, and in some cases still is- particularly in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This is even more so for priests, monks and nuns. Likewise in Buddhism and Hinduism, there are regular practitioners as well as members of more esoteric sects. Mormonism is also an interesting case- a regular member of the LDS church attends services at a ward, similar in set up to many Protestant sects. But if an adult Mormon fulfills certain requirements, he or she can get what’s called a Temple recommend, and gain access to special ceremonies in the Temple. This is modeled after Temple-era Judaism’s Holiest of Holies, and also has influence from Freemasonry, as their prophet Joseph Smith was a Mason- like Gerald Gardner. So bizarrely enough, Mormonism is in some ways Wicca’s distant cousin.

Questions to reflect on:

What’s the difference between exoteric and esoteric?

Do you need to be initiated or become part of a mystery tradition to be a Pagan?

Do you need to be initiated or become part of a mystery tradition to be Wiccan?

In *your opinion* is self-initiation valid? In what tradition(s)? Under what circumstances and why? (No right or wrong answer here!)

Does the religion of your upbringing (if any) have a mystery tradition or esoteric aspects?

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