I apologize to Sarah McLachlan, whose song “Building a Mystery” I enjoy quite a bit, for the variation on that title I use here as my subject line.
Over this past weekend, when I was speaking with Fritz Muntean, one of the things he queried was why modern reconstructionists (particularly Hellenic ones) are reconstructing the polis-based religion (despite the lack of an actual polis to make it contextually meaningful) rather than the mystery religions. There are various reasons for this, I suspect, which I’ll speak more about below.
I think it is a good point, however, and raises a number of issues that have not necessarily been examined in mainstream reconstructionism. It may be odd to utter the phrase “mainstream reconstructionism,” considering how much of a fringe and minority viewpoint and community it is; but, there are groups and individuals who are in the mainstream of those various movements, and then there are more marginal individuals who employ the methodologies but may not come up with answers that the mainstream recon communities like or share or would be happy about. (And, for the record: yes, I do employ the reconstructionist methodology, and thus consider myself recon in at least two traditions; however, I’m clearly not a Greek, Roman, or Egyptian recon strictly speaking, I’m an Antinoan cultus recon, and thus a little different from the concerns that each of those religious outlooks would have due to my deity-specific focus.)
Of course, one of my immediate responses to Fritz was, “We are reconstructing a mystery tradition,” but I also included caveats that our mystery tradition–the Antinoan Mysteries–are very modern, despite their basis in and drawing content and context from a variety of premodern, ancient, and late antique sources. We make no bones about our Mysteries being “the same as” the ones that were definitely celebrated in honor of Antinous in various locations in the ancient world; but, we also don’t therefore say that our Mysteries are “not as good as” the ancient ones–they are interesting and effective, I think, and are potentially quite transformative for those who are able to undergo them. Even if we could 100% replicate the ancient mysteries of Antinous, there is no guarantee that they would speak to modern people the way they did eighteen hundred years ago; and, no doubt, the same would be true of our rituals if they were performed back then, I suspect (though there would be at least some recognition, since we are using some of the same materials to which they had access).
One question which arises, however, is what materials there are from which to build (or re-build) the Antinoan Mysteries? There are some documents, especially from Egypt and the region of Antinoöpolis, which have been particularly useful and insightful. Following some hints and hunches that have emerged over the years in relation to Antinous and a variety of other gods has also been useful. And, of course, there is what Antinous and friends themselves have directly revealed, which has not happened as often as one would hope, but the contribution of such experiences cannot be downplayed. (And, yet again, more will be said on this later!)
But, there are a variety of other mystery traditions from the ancient world which may or may not have had some influence on the proceedings. Of course, Antinous and Hadrian were initiates (and Hadrian twice!) in the Eleusinian Mysteries, so the likelihood of some influence from this angle seems almost certain. There are also indications that Herodes Attikos and Polydeukion were involved to some degree in Orphic or Orphic-like Mysteries, based on some of the relief sculptures at the hero shrine to Polydeukion, the other Trophimoi, and the deceased members of Herodes’ family that existed at his villa in Eva-Loukou. The mysteries of another drowned young hero/god, Palaimon/Melikertes, may have had an influence, as that cultus seemed to be something which Hadrian and some of the subsequent Antonines had an interest in (if official imperial coin emblems are anything to go by). Likewise, the quasi-mystery tradition that took place at Lake Nemi in relation to Diana, Virbius, and other heroes and deities may have had some role to play in the shared cultus of Antinous and Diana at Lanuvium as well. And, mystery traditions (if, indeed, such existed–it seems both likely but perhaps likewise an over-stretching of the term, possibly) around the deities Osiris, Serapis, and Sabazios seem to have some influence in a variety of ways on Antinous’ subsequent cultus, certainly; but perhaps they had their role to play in his mysteries as well.
But, what traditions can we rule out? One that I think we can state with certainty had little to no influence of a direct and detectable nature on Antinous’ cultus or mysteries was the Mithraic Mysteries. As interesting as these are, there is simply no evidence to indicate that Hadrian was at all involved in those Mysteries, nor did Antinous come into that orbit. Mithras himself is a super-syncretistic deity, and while it is thus not impossible that he might sweep up Antinous (or the reverse!), it didn’t seem to happen; it may have occurred to some extent with Sabazios and Mithras, but not with Antinous and Mithras.
So, further research and experimentation with a variety of these elements will be useful in the future, and I hope to commence with some of that soon. There seems to be some sort of mystery tradition that wants to develop around Polydeukion, but I know I’m “too old” (quite literally!) to have an organizational or compositional role in those; at most, I can be an initiate to those, and I look forward to that. However, there are also at least two more “levels” to the Antinoan Mysteries, and I hope to be engaging with the second one in the not-too-distant future, depending on some logistical matters.
There are a few further matters I’d like to discuss on this subject meanwhile, though. First, as alluded to above in two places, there is the issue of why mystery traditions are harder to reconstruct. There is the obvious reason: the polis religion was public and left good records, whereas the mystery traditions–even if they have an accessible archaeological profile (as the Eleusinian and Mithraic Mysteries do, and as the Orphic Mysteries have to a lesser extent, yet one which provides likely words and/or ritual texts)–were secret and not openly discussed or written about. But, there is another reason which I think is likely more the prime motivating factor in why these things have not been further pursued in modern polytheist reconstructionist practice: mystery traditions presuppose that their technologies involve a direct experience with a deity or group of deities, and so there are a variety of factors in that equation which put people off in the modern world. For one, such divine encounters are unpredictable, and cannot exactly be orchestrated (even though good use of ritual technology should be able to make it more likely that such experiences occur), so they cannot be as easily controlled or regulated in the way that a basic polis-based festival with offerings and sacrifices, hymns and dances, and other activities in honor of the gods but not necessarily involving their direct intervention or input can be more definitely managed. Further, I think there is a certain lack of confidence that is prevalent in a lot of reconstructionist-methodology-employing polytheists, such that if something cannot be footnoted, it does not exist or cannot be counted as “legitimate” or “authentic.” On the one hand, this ends up being useful, because then one’s position is well researched and contextually understood, and what is new and what is old can be clearly delineated and honestly discussed; on the other hand, though, the lack of authoritative sources on a given issue often means that people might not be willing to take a chance, to use their own creativity and ingenuity, and to trust in their own confidence and ability to have an experience rather than relying on the sources.
But, I suspect the biggest factor in this situation that mitigates against more mystery tradition experimentation is the “UPG” factor in all direct divine experiences. (Incidentally, Sam Webster has recently written why he thinks UPG is a bad terminology to use, and I agree with him largely.) No one can verify someone’s divine experiences, so it is difficult to determine whether someone did legitimately have such experiences, or whether they just “made them up.” What I suspect has even more pull in this situation, though, is the markedly and purposefully independent, individualistic, and even anti-authoritarian tendencies of a large number of modern pagans (recons included), such that they do not want to take anyone’s experiences as authoritative outside of their own, and to trust in someone else’s legitimate divine experiences in a newly reconstructed or revealed mystery tradition would therefore infringe upon their own autonomy, so they might feel. This is a very unfortunate thing, and while this type of suspicion might be a healthy instinct to have developed in order to question and distance oneself from some of the religions that many of us were raised in, this is not necessarily a good instinct to continue having when it comes to any attempts to develop spiritual community through shared spiritual experiences in a new context.
The final matter I’d like to discuss is the entire modern pagan notion of “mysteries” in a variety of circumstances. Wicca has been understood over the past few decades as both a fertility religion (with all of the heteronormativity that such often implies), and as a mystery tradition; since it has initiations and oathbound materials, it certainly qualifies in that respect, if not in several others. But another place in which modern paganism has often spoken of mysteries is in both “men’s mysteries” and “women’s mysteries,” and the latter has been of particular issue when it has come to PantheaCon and transgender individuals over the last few years (as long-time readers of this blog certainly know!). One could argue that the entire experience and phenomenon of the Tetrad++ Group has emerged, “mystery-style,” from that situation quite accurately. When some of the more virulent and controversial stages of the discussion of these matters occurred over the last two years, there was the comment that trans people have their own mysteries, and so they should go and explore them rather than trying to butt in to women’s mysteries. In this situation, I don’t think that the legitimacy of another mystery tradition was being recognized; I think the vocabulary of “mysteries” was being used to mean “it’s an experience that is particular to someone else, therefore go do it so I don’t have to pay attention to you or take you seriously.” When “mystery” starts to mean “mine, mine, mine,” or “yours, so fuck off so I don’t have to deal with you,” then we’ve really lost the thread, I think.
And, to be honest, I don’t think that gender-specific mysteries (cisgender, transgender, or otherwise) are really as much “mysteries” as people would like to think they are, in any sense of the word. It is true that gender identity and status are not inherent in people, they must be recognized and affirmed by society or within a social context in order for them to be meaningful; and yet, as much as the loss of such ceremonial recognitions and coming-of-age experiences is lamentable in modern society, the fact is that people are recognized as their particular genders all the time and at all ages, and in fact gender norms and expectations are enforced upon many people in many situations. The problem may not be that gender isn’t properly recognized in a social context, but instead that it is assumed, and the the various pagan attempts to re-sacralize gender might not accomplish that lack any better, but instead might simply be an occasion on which gender norms are not only reified and further enforced, but they are further given a divine sanction and even imperative which is not any more useful, freeing, or affirming than the way that general society affirms and enforces gender norms on a daily basis. This is one area in which queer theology might be especially useful to question some of the assumptions of heteronormative and cisgendered societal and spiritual constructs, and in which some reforms can be initiatied that do not only apply to queer people.
So, there are about four different matters dealt with in the above, some of which are very different and probably deserve individual posts of their own, or further elaborations in such differentiated contexts; but, I am not quite up to doing that at present, so I’ll leave the above to be discussed however those who are reading this might wish to do so.