Western Mystery Religions

Western Mystery Religions

Another non-Buddhist post – maybe I need to create another blog!

The subject of this article is one dear to my heart and has been since my early twenties. I researched it in the 1970’s as part of my undergraduate study, and recently returned to it after writing the last post, Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras.  What many scholars call “Western Mystery Religion” has been an integral part of many pre-Christian cultures. Lasting for nearly 2,000 years, the Greek Eleusinian Mystery stands out as one of the most enduring spiritual traditions of the pagan world.  It began at the dawn of Greek civilization, with its origins coming from the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations based on Crete.  It lasted throughout the Roman period and came to a close in the fourth century CE when it was violently suppressed by the Christians.  Its memory was suppressed by the Church Triumphant, and its symbolisms co-opted by this new Literalist faith.  All the Mystery Religions, including the Roman Mithraism were outlawed and the new world order ensued, eventually leading to the darkness of the Medieval ages.

This disconnection with our past, and the loss of wisdom from teachings that informed us of our human journey out of the animal kingdom, through the original matrilineal societies and the beginning of agriculture, stands as one of the more sorrowful chapters in our western history.

As I write these words I feel that sorrow and with it anger at the power struggle of the post-pagan patriarchy that so thoroughly has crushed the wisdom of the ancients.  It has been a progression of systematic repression and a rewriting of history to serve those men that sought to control society for their benefit. This is still going on today and is at the root of our cultural malaise being challenged by the Occupy Movement.

Fortunately, the Renaissance took place, informed by some of this ancient knowledge, and today we have a greater means to discover our missing western heritage.  Also, despite the many depredations brought on by the Christian state religion, many threads of the pagan worldview survive.  There are few lineages left that bring this information forward to us, but we are reconstructing this knowledge through empirical studies and scholarship.  Nothing it seems is ever completely lost, despite Herculean efforts to eradicate it.  What happens is that old symbolisms and tradition morphs into new expressions in the new order, and with careful study, we can see that nothing is lost.  It is a detective story foremost, and this is what has been going on for some time since the Renaissance began.

The Christians took on the pagan world’s symbolisms and basic teachings and literalized them in the story of Jesus. What was once universal myth, but with actors specific to a certain culture, became dominated by Christianity’s insistence on the literal historicity of Jesus and his message.  Everything else was swept away, burned, destroyed and forgotten – but not completely.

The good news is that we can and are reconstructing the past in order to find what was lost.  This is important, because in our modern world we are adrift from our moorings, and need to understand ourselves better.  In this effort, the rediscovery of the significance of the Mystery Religions is at the top of my list.  The reason for this is because this type of communal experience, as a healing revelation of the cycles of birth and death, is a panacea for what ails us.  We have become disconnected from the natural cycles of the earth, stuck in our rational minds, trying to subjugate nature.  It is not working.  We are soon to destroy our planet if we don’t figure out another way of being.

So enters the Mystery rites of the pagan world as an example of a way to get better connected to our cosmos. These rites, the most famous being those based in Eleusis, a day’s walk from Athens, existed all across the ancient world.  They ranged from the more private small-scale Mysteries, to the Roman Mithraism that was used to bond the military and administrative arms of the far-flung empire, to mass gatherings such at Eleusis.

The two unifying themes across all Mystery rites were the subject of the teachings or revelations, and the use of entheogens to bring the initiates to a deeper experience of these teachings. For many modern people, the subject of entheogens, a.k.a. psychedelics, drugs, and hallucinogens is taboo.  This is most unfortunate, and until recently has been a major impediment in Classical studies.  This is changing and is a watershed event for our culture.  Although it is only one of many big sea changes happening as our culture is forced to open up, it represents a huge crack in our group psyche.  It is hard to declare this truth unless you have had experiences with entheogens.  Without having had these experiences, it is nearly impossible to know their impact. Having participated in sacred ceremonies with such mind-altering drugs, you know what I’m talking about. The truth is, these substances have long been a primal force in human development, something most people don’t realize.

From my personal experience, and from all my research, I have learned that entheogen usage has been integral to all early forms of religious worship.  With our modern, western mindset we find it hard to accept this.  We are so locked into our rationalist conceit, wanting to believe that the world is comprised of and defined by only what our gross sense organs tell us, that we have missed a whole other side of life.  The fear that is a legacy of our recent indoctrination by Literalist culture, keeps us from opening up to the Mysteries.

The Mysteries all shared an experience with a descent into the subterranean world, which to the ancients represented the chthonic past from which humans arose. It was also the source of wisdom, where lost knowledge could be recovered. To us moderns, focused on evolutionary progress, it feels like an unnecessary return to a gruesome past. To us, that has become hell, and we don’t want to go near it.

If we look at the mythology behind the subterranean world, it is not necessary to see it as a hell, but as a plumbing of the depths of our individual and group soul. The Christian overlay has demonized this descent and so kept us from discovering our base natures.

This descent is only the beginning of the journey, because there is an eventual ascent out of this realm, to return to the light as a traveler having successfully navigated the depths of our soul.  Not only do we return to the light of day as a more enlightened and contented being for having seen the Mysteries revealed, we can also return with a boon.  This boon can be seen both as one’s increased self-knowledge, as well as the kernel of knowledge that one brings back to share with one’s community.

This soul journey, something expressed in all Mystery Religions, took the form of a well-known myth that was particular to one’s culture.  Different mysteries had different myths, but they all shared a common theme.  Often they involved stories of natural cycles of plant life, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries.  They also connected people to the more ancient beliefs of the previous matrilineal societies. Though the outward form of the Eleusinian Mysteries told of the story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld, and her mother Demeter’s search for her, there were many layers of meaning within the story.  It was not just a theatrical story being told, or a cultural indoctrination, but it was a revelation of the birth and death process for all humans, in parallel with all nature cycles.  This cathartic experience, aided by the intensity of the entheogenic substances, opened people up to a liberating, visceral vision of their place in the cosmos.

Today, we can barely comprehend what this group experience might have been like.  Was it mass delusion or was it mass initiation into the primary mystery of our existence, an unrivalled satisfaction that gave meaning to one’s life and one’s community?  It seems to me that this is what we are missing in our modern societies – a way to come together and create healing visions and to give all people a feeling of connection with their deepest natures.


Source material:

The Road to Eleusis…Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysteries by Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck…2008

Sacred Mushrooms of the Goddess…Secrets of Eleusis by Carl A.P. Ruck…2006

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