Posted by: aediculaantinoi | January 28, 2014

Lupercalia Approaches–Not All Initiations Are “Mysteries”…

Today is one of the few days in late January which does not have a holy significance for the Ekklesía Antínoou–which is both good (because it means I get a bit of a day off!) and bad (because it is one less occasion on which calling to mind as much as possible the significance of sacred time and the differing significances of it to our gods in the course of the year occurs), but perhaps good today because this is one of my busiest and most stressful of each week for the next six weeks–which means there is not a definite topic to write about today…and, in any case, nowhere near as much time as I’d prefer to write about anything anyway. So, I thought I’d take a moment to do a short version on one of the topics I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now.

PantheaCon is less than three weeks away at this point, and yet again this year, we’re doing Lupercalia, which I enjoy quite a bit for all sorts of reasons, and am very much looking forward to again this year. Most of it will be the same as in previous years, though some things will be either tweaked slightly, or certain innovations of last year will be carried on this year, etc. In any case…

The new Luperci who are initiated on the occasion are initiates into the sodality of the Luperca/e/i, which is a sodality with an ancient precedent, but we don’t know if the duties of the role extended much past the occasion on which they were granted, and if elder Luperci did much of anything other than hold the title and supervise the younger Luperci being initiated. (And, note, back in the day, they were all male…and I’m personally glad for the change on that which we’ve innovated in the modern period!) While the initiation could be considered part of the unfolding phenomenon known perhaps as the “werewolf mysteries,” and in that sense it is a “mystery initiation,” at the same time, I think those two terms get a bit misunderstood in modern paganism, and could perhaps use a bit of nuancing.

I see a big difference between the Luperci initiations we do in the modern period, for example, and the Antinoan Mysteries initiations–though one often leads to the other in the experience and current population of the Ekklesía Antínoou. ;)

Though the Latin and Greek terms initiare and mystein (if I am remembering their infinitive forms correctly) translate each other, and thus an “initiation” is a “mystery,” I think we have to make a distinction today that doesn’t often get made between the two things. Rituals that are rites of passage often have an initiatory character to them to signify the new status of the people who undergo the ritual; but, I would argue that such rites of passage, like attainment of adulthood or social maturity (whether it coincides with physical maturity or not), marriage, and death are not really “mysteries” in the most classical sense. Yes, they are changes of status that signify a difference in how one lives before them as opposed to after; yes, they are experiences and ought to be experiential in character as much as possible. However, I don’t know that I’d say they are in the same category of phenomena like the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries, the Mithraic Mysteries, or any number of other such traditions; and I suspect the missing element (because I’m a devotional polytheist) is that there is no commitment or connection to a particular deity or deities necessitated in them.

I think that in modern parlance, including–and perhaps even especially–amongst pagans, the term “mystery” gets used in a way that is often assumed to be synonymous with “mystical” (which it can be, and perhaps even should be, but isn’t necessarily when applied to certain matters); but far more often, it gets used in a way to indicate things like “men’s mysteries” or “women’s mysteries,” which seem to be explored or enacted in a way that isn’t necessarily “mysterious,” first of all, and are more occasions for quasi-rites-of-passage into acknowledgement of these social realities, and then a quasi-indoctrination of the sacred dimensions of these genders…which isn’t much of a “mystery” at all, to be honest. And, this same sort of methodology does get applied to other things, like “queer mysteries.”

Unfortunately, one of the difficulties I see between these sorts of things being actual mysteries and the way that they are understood and enacted in modern pagan contexts is that they aren’t as experiential as they might seem to be, and often rely upon heavily essentialized notions of what it is to be any one of these possible gender or sexual identities. If a more nuanced examination of the issues at stake reveals anything at all, it is that there are many different ways to be queer, or a woman, or a man, etc., rather than a limited number of them–and, I don’t care if someone’s exploration of “men’s mysteries” includes forty-nine archetypes of maleness, it’s probably not sufficient to cover everyone’s particular performativity of that gender.

On the other hand, I think that when one is dealing with a deity-specific mystery tradition, it is possible to have a standardized ritual that everyone undergoes, but that the meaning of it and the subsequent relationship that each person established with the deity can be individualized and negotiated and worked out in their own processing of the experience. In the same way that meeting a new person and being formally introduced to them can then lead to things as diverse as good conversations, business transactions, creative collaborations, casual friendships, marriage, an amazing night of sexual ecstasy, or absolutely nothing, so too with mystery traditions…and though not much attention is paid to the lattermost possibility, I think it is a valid possibility all the same, and should be accounted for when possible.

I think a general contrast can be set up between these latter sorts of deity-specific mystery initiations and general or rites-of-passage initiations: the meaning of the rites-of-passage initiations are always set no matter what the rituals might be, whereas for deity-specific mystery initiations, the meaning is never fixed despite the standardization of the ritual.

This may very well need to be discussed further at some date in the future…but, I think it is yet another matter in our ongoing conversations lately that needs to take account not only of historical etymologies and usages, but also their changing nature, and how that is both positive and negative to their semantic content for the modern period, and which further emphasizes the need for specificity and useful distinctions to be made in our linguistic usages these days. Too often–and this came up a few years ago with the whole PantheaCon gender discrimination debacles–the word “mystery” gets used in such a way as to say “This is mine, and you have “other” mysteries,” which is a fancy way of saying “these things belong to me, and yours belong to you, and that means you have no right to say anything about mine, and yours being mysteries likewise means I have no right to say anything about yours, which is good because I don’t care about yours!” Or words to that effect…

On the one hand, that sort of reasoning is dead right and entirely appropriate when one is talking about any sort of mystery tradition.

On the other, when one is talking about social realities couched in religious language rather than actual big-M Mysteries, it turns into an occasion for discrimination, divisiveness, and all sorts of things that are not useful to anyone, I think.

But, as I said: this may take more reasoned examination and further reflection to be a useful discussion at all. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this, and especially so if you are part of any deity- (or hero-) specific mystery tradition in the modern world.


  1. […] since others are already doing such a good job of holding the line – note exhibits A, B, C, D, E and […]

  2. I agree that there is a significant difference between these exclusive ‘gender events’ and mystery initiations. Good point ;-)

    • Indeed. We’ve seen very easily where this leads in recent years, and how poorly such understandings actually do anything for anyone. (Perhaps not unlike how some of the recent redefinitions of “polytheism” tend to benefit the person making those re-definitions while questioning everyone else who uses the term more as it was intended and still transparently describes…!)

      • Yes, indeed. I know I sometimes feel like I’m being pushed out with some of the redefinitions made by some (self- identified) “very hard” polytheists. However, I’m far too pomo to think language is ever transparent. ;-)

      • Language is so opaque most of the time it’s a wonder we are ever able to communicate anything useful with each other! ;)

  3. “On the other, when one is talking about social realities couched in religious language rather than actual big-M Mysteries, it turns into an occasion for discrimination, divisiveness, and all sorts of things that are not useful to anyone, I think.”

    Ah, this so so so much.

    • I am deeply troubled by how often “mystery” gets used as a way to mark socio-political territory within religious contexts the way that canids use urine…and, the similie there is intentionally as distasteful and unwelcome as this usage of the terminology is. ;)

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