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Missing The Mysteries?

Author: Sable Aradia
Posted: May 28th. 2006
Times Viewed: 5,136

I believe this issue may be the most important one that the modern Pagan community faces. Our religion, our faith, is in a state of transition. We are growing – and rapidly – and there simply aren’t enough teachers around to meet the demand of students. But there are so many who seek the Pagan Path. How can we reconcile this?

A study of the history of the Craft explains many of the somewhat inexplicable views one currently finds on the topic and also warns of the pitfalls and offers answers. There are not many traditionally Initiated Gardnerians left in comparison to the number of Pagans who currently exist, but we’ve all encountered at least one; one who insisted the rest of us were wannabes and he was the real thing. Many Pagans of a variety of stripes claim superiority for one reason or another. Their tradition has been around longer, they are more historically accurate, or they have the Apostolic Succession. Why? Why does this happen, in a religion (or religions, if you will) which was originally formed in Victorian counterculture, founded by rebels, and which preaches freedom as a general rule?

Is the Pagan who learns her path from a book any less of a Pagan than one who was initiated into a Gardnerian lineage?

I was absolutely dumbfounded when I first met a Pagan who did not practice magick. I thought she was nuts. Magick, to me, was a basic principle of the Pagan way; the ability to enact change in our own lives through the power of our own Wills. How could a practicing Pagan not use magick?

But there is more than one branch of the Pagan tree, and for many, it is a matter of following an older path and finding solace in ancient gods and ways and the use of magick is not relevant to them. In that case, I say, what difference does it make whether or not those Pagans find teachers? If all you want to do is commune with the gods as you understand them, and follow an older culture’s ways, your library is likely a better teacher for the latter, and only we ourselves can truly know how much meaning and insight we glean in the former.

So, let’s consider only those paths for which magick is an important aspect, such as Wicca. What is magick, anyway? Why do we view it as part of our faith? What role does it have for us?

For many, Wicca is the name given to the faith – and Craft – of the Witches. That is, in my opinion, a legitimate view. Certainly that was the view of Gerald Gardner. Whatever you might think personally of Gardner, the Wiccan community, at any rate, is agreed on one thing. Either he is the man who invented Wicca as we currently understand it, or he is the man who revived it for the modern world. So I believe that his view is of particular importance.

It is interesting, for example, that many of the most vocal supporters of the theory that “only a Witch can make a Witch” trace their lineage back to Gardner, and believe that only those who descend from Gardner are real Witches or Wiccans. Gardner certainly didn’t think so. Gardner believed that Witches preserved elements of their ancient practices in folk magick and the lore of wise women and cunning men, mostly by handing the traditions down through families. He believed his own method and tradition to be an adaptation of what the hereditary Witches did and if you believe his testimony, you must accept that he was a rebel himself, and most of his initiates would not have been regarded as “real Witches” by the hereditary Witches, because they were not members of “Witch families.”

But Witch Wars have existed since the Craft began. Certainly the feud between Doreen Valiente and Gardner ought to illustrate that. Or, if you don’t believe that was the beginning of the Craft, the Witch Wars between cunning folk precede that famous feud. It’s interesting, too, that the issue that divided Valiente and Gardner was this very issue – how to deal with the rapid spread of the Craft, and whether or not it ought to remain the hidden path of the few, or whether as many as possible ought to be initiated and taught the ways.

But again, Gardner didn’t believe it should always remain hidden. Gardner believed that once, there had been many who had practiced the Old Ways. He believed the Witches to be the heirs to the Mystery traditions of the Ancient World, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, and he believed that the traditions of Wiccan Initiation had descended directly from those Mysteries. He believed that Witches had been driven underground by desperation due to persecution and the Inquisition, and in the process, had lost much of their knowledge of the Old Ways. He even believed that there would come a time when once again, the Priestesses and Priests would come out of hiding, and again, there would be grand ceremonies to the Old Gods.

In the days of the Eleusinian Mysteries, almost every important Greek was an Initiate. However, not all of them were Initiates of the higher levels. The faith itself was widely practiced by even lay people. Only the truly dedicated became the Mysteries’ Priests.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were so popular that many similar traditions began, such as the Osiris Mysteries, the Cult of Isis and the Cult of Mithras. One can certainly see the reflections in Wiccan Initiation, which involves a symbolic death and rebirth!

So, what I have effectively said so far, in a nutshell, is that history supports the idea of a widespread study of Witchcraft and Paganism, and that one does not have to be traditionally trained or initiated to be considered a Wiccan or Pagan. And yes, I believe this.

But hold on.

Faith is faith. There are many Christians, for example, but only a very rare few are called to be ministers or priests. There are many Buddhists, but only a few become monks, and then bodhisattvas. There are many Jews, and few Rabbis.
Most Pagan faiths nowadays are Reconstructionists, who are re-creating ancient religions of different cultures. Most of those religions did not involve the widespread practice of magick, or indeed, any pursuit that might be called mystical or metaphysical. Only the Priesthood truly studied those sorts of things. In this case, does it matter if someone who calls himself Asatru has formal training? I don’t think it does. Magick is not necessary to the Asatru faith, though many Asatruar do choose to practice magick.

It is only in such traditions as Druidry (Druids were a class of Priests who served the Celtic people) and Wicca (where the whole religion as we currently understand it has made everyone a Priestess or Priest) that this really matters.

I think that to call oneself a Druid requires one to be trained in the mystical arts that the Druids practiced, and that does include forms of magick. Otherwise, you are a Celt. Nothing wrong with that, but you’re not a Druid, in my opinion.

In the same vein, I postulate that one does not need to practice magick or ecstatic trance to be a follower of the religion of Wicca, and therefore, a Wiccan, but one does require these things in order to be a Witch.

In a book called “The Jesus Mysteries,” the authors proposed a theory. They postulate that the tale of Jesus Christ was a Jewish Mystery tradition, inspired by the Eleusinian and Osiris Mysteries. They propose that the Gnostics, who study a Christian mysticism, are the heirs of what used to be a class of initiated priesthood of the Jesus tradition, while those who later went on to found Christianity as we currently understand it were lower-level Initiates, trying to establish the tradition to the best of their abilities after their connection to the original source of the Mysteries was lost.. They believe that after a couple of centuries of this, when the literal-minded Christians encountered the Gnostics again, they no longer recognized the founders of their faith for what they were, viewed them as blasphemers, and condemned them to the Inquisition.

It’s an interesting theory, and there isn’t a lot of data to support or refute it, but the comparison is obvious, and somewhat sobering.

Every religion began at some point with a dyed-in-the-wool mystical experience; a direct communication to the Divine. Every religion is either concerned with seeking more of that direct divine revelation, or of learning from the revelation of another.

Witches do not have prophets, because Witches are prophets. Through Drawing Down the Moon or Sun, Initiation, and other mystical practices, Witches communicate with the Divine on a regular basis, in many different forms. These are the experiences referred to as “The Mysteries.”

While I do believe that you can quite rightly be a Wiccan or a Pagan by attending a few public Sabbat rituals or reading a couple of books, only deeply dedicated solitaries, or Initiated Witches, continue to experience the Mysteries. The whole faith of Wicca is founded on those Mysteries, but unless you seek the practice of them yourself, you have to take someone else’s word for it. And according to anyone who has actually had the experience, it defies description in mere words.

So in this case, I say that since you must experience the Mysteries to truly understand them, a “Priesthood class” is definitely emerging. I also say that since traditionally Initiated Witches learn processes which create those necessary indescribable mystical experiences, directly from the hands of someone who has already experienced them, I must conclude that traditional Initiation through a lineage likely provides superior training than pursuing the same path without instruction.

However, I do not mean to say, exactly, that “only a Witch can make a Witch.” I do believe it is possible to experience Initiatory insights spontaneously, or to seek them out for oneself. Otherwise, Vision Quests would not be possible, and neither would transcendental meditation, and Mohammed never would have encountered the Archangel.

So one can, indeed, become a Witch without Apostolic Initiation, though it is fraught with many pitfalls and is more difficult and tedious. Also, just as Christian texts warn of “false prophets,” not everyone who claims to have had mystical insights really has. Some people are just looking for attention or followers. How do you really tell? Only those who share that level of Initiation can truly tell for sure.

I don’t believe this is going to give Initiated Witches more authority in the Pagan community. We are a religion of countercultural rebels, who believe that we are all Priestess and Priests which, in a sense, is true – only we know how we, personally, relate to the Divine.

At any rate, it is too late to cry over spilt milk; the cat is most definitely out of the bag. We will never again be a secretive religion of Initiated covens. We are a large faith now.

What does that mean to those of us who have been initiated into a tradition, or have had the Initiatory experiences? Well, for one thing, I think we should stop alienating the rest of the Pagan community by claiming superiority. If we want Wicca to lose its sense of the Mysteries, we’re certainly working very hard to encourage just that.

Perhaps we can take the role of bodhisattvas, only ones that live in the world. Our religion teaches us to love this world and find mystical wisdom in it, not to transcend it, so I don’t believe we can live apart from it. But we must take the same attitude; we cannot force others to conform to our view of what Wicca and Paganism should be, but hope that the few who are called will come to us for teaching when they are ready, and we must therefore do the best we can to pass on what we’ve learned when we’re asked for it.

Further, we must not compromise those insights because someone doesn’t want to admit that they haven’t reached that level of insight yet, nor can we compromise the methods by which we learned them. The fact is that means that the practice and training of Witchcraft within Wicca will be the path of the few. But Paganism and Wicca may one day be the religion of the many.


Witchcraft Today by Gerald Gardner
The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton


Sable Aradia

Location: Vernon, British Columbia

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