Posted by: aediculaantinoi | November 4, 2012

Experience, Practice, and the Mysteries

At last! A post that is actually about something…although, the week of posts for the Sacred Nights of Antinous were certainly “about something” as well, but anyway…!?! 😉

Last weekend (i.e. the final weekend of October–I’ll post more about this first weekend of November soon!), I was lucky enough to have an iced chai latte and donut in the presence of Christine Hoff Kraemer, Cherry Hill Seminary faculty member and the new managing editor of the Pagan Channel. One of the things we talked about in the course of our wide-ranging (but still too brief!) conversation was the topic I’ll address in the present post. I thank her very much for provoking many excellent and useful lines of inquiry, and for contributing so much toward honing my own thinking in this regard! You’re awesome, Dr. Kraemer!

One of the things that I constantly try to emphasize to anyone and everyone who might be listening is that modern paganism, and almost every form of polytheism that has ever existed and that still exists, are not creedal religions, they are religions of experience and of practice. If someone understands what the difference is between these things–and, don’t mistake me, there are creedal elements to every religion, just as there are likewise experiential and practical elements to the creedal religions–generally, most agree that such is the case, and yet a great many pagans still phrase their understandings of their religion as a whole in creedal terms, and emphasize “belief” and “faith” (with explanations that follow which aren’t always enlightening, succinct, useful, or even viable) more than they emphasize the doing, the ritual, the participation, and the personal and even gnostic (in the widest possible sense) dimensions of what it is that we do.

And yet, when it comes to certain matters that we might call “mysteries,” and that may involve initiation (and, remember, in the ancient world “initiation” was simply the Latin equivalent of the Greek “mysteries”…I’m using the English terms here because my brain can’t recall the exact form of the Latin and Greek terms), the practical and experiential elements of our religion often get foregone, purposefully and intentionally, by some people who wish to engage in those traditions.

There is a great deal that should probably be stated as prefatory material to what we’ll discuss below, but I don’t quite have the time nor the energy to devote to an entire summary of the various mystery traditions that have existed. What I will say in brief, though, at this point is that initiation into the mysteries of a particular tradition, or a particular deity, in the ancient world did not then confer particular benefits to the initiate in other areas of spiritual life. Those who underwent the Eleusinian Mysteries did not, by virtue of their initiation (even if it was into the senior grade of the mysteries), suddenly get to be priests or priestesses of Demeter and Persephone. Though direct spiritual experience, ecstatic trance, and preparatory otherworld travels may have been elements of the Orphic Mysteries, undergoing the Orphic Mysteries did not then make one into a shaman who could function as a spiritual intermediary for other people, even amongst fellow Orphics. The loss of distinction, and the assumption that these various sacerdotal roles and relationships are interchangeable or even equivalent is a gross misunderstanding of the actualities of the situation in the ancient world, and the continued thought that they are such in the modern world vastly underestimates and undervalues the importance and the distinctiveness of each individual role or relationship’s importance, fitness, and usefulness in the overall spiritual ecology of a community, an individual’s own soul, and in the company of a particular deity.

One of my examples below might benefit from a particular metaphor/conceit: that of academia. In an academic setting, there are several degrees possible: Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate (as well as “Higher Diplomas” and other types of certification; and the very rare D.Litt. as well…but anyway!). These are bestowed upon a person not only for the time that they put into their studies, but because of their demonstrable completion of those studies and exhibiting their adeptness in their subject matter, usually through both written theses or dissertations as well as spoken defenses of and presentations on their work. These degrees, as long as they are given by accredited schools, are recognized and respected across the board in society generally speaking (at least for the most part), as well as in other academic institutions. A person with an M.A. in CLassical Studies will be understood to be at a certain level with their knowledge by someone else in Classical Studies at another institution, for example; and, more expertise would be expected of someone with a Ph.D. in the same subject. Because the methodology of granting these degrees is similar across the board, despite differences in subject, two doctoral students in diverse fields, like Victorian Literature and Organic Chemistry, will at least be able to respect and understand the personal process their colleague is undergoing, even if they do not have specific and in-depth knowledge of their friend’s subject. And, later, one would never expect a Ph.D. in Medieval French Literature to teach Advanced Calculus, or to have any opinion on the subject that was particularly useful or worthwhile to someone who was pursuing Advanced Calculus.

In a variety of pagan and polytheist mysteries and initiations, though, and in the groups associated with them, some people seem to expect that their completion of other mysteries or initiations should therefore grant them some sort of respect or even authority when showing up to groups in other traditions. A Gardnerian Wiccan 3rd degree showing up and assuming that they are just as good as a Druid in O.B.O.D., and demanding the respect and assuming an air of the authority that the latter would have, is kind of “not on” for the most part between different pagan groups. No matter how venerable and extensive one’s experience or work in a particular group or tradition is, it doesn’t mean that much when another group is concerned. And, given that many of the mystery traditions that there are may involve a particular deity, just because one’s bona fides with, let’s say, Artemis are pretty solid, that doesn’t then mean that one will likewise be in just as well with Brigid in the context of another group.

Ultimately–again!–polytheist religions are religions of experience. So, the big question is: why is it that some people want to “test out” of certain experiences and forego them, and simply have their past experiences (which are often entirely different and even unrelated in some cases) taken as equivalents for others where mysteries and initiatory degrees are concerned? This may not occur that often, but it has occurred often enough to be something of note; there have been people who show up in Antinoan groups I’ve been involved with who have some accomplishments and recognitions in other groups or traditions, and expect that these will somehow translate into increased authority in our group. Nope. What we do is very different than what most other groups have done or are doing, in this respect and so many others…

But, there was another matter that myself and Dr. Kraemer discussed, which is far more disturbing in its implications, and to my knowledge, has never been discussed within any of the modern pagan or polytheist communities (although if it has, perhaps it’s been an entirely internal matter, and thus I’ve not been privy to it–whereupon I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts on the matter that any of you may have!).

Because our religions are religions of practice rather than creed, the most important thing isn’t what one believes about a particular deity, or a particular experience, or a particular matter in the cosmos; what is most important is how one acts and that one engages in a set of spiritual activities and participates in various spiritual technologies in order to interact with divine or supernatural (whether one accepts that term as valid and apt for what we do or not) realities. As a result, we have a great respect for and reliance upon ritual. We also assume, whether or not we end up “getting something” out of a ritual of, let’s say, offering to the gods, or praising them with hymns and poems, that at least the gods are getting something out of it; the “getting something” on our part may be as small as a feeling of presence of the deity or deities involved, or as large as a life-altering direct experience of the deity, or even–as a few amongst many possible examples–a nudge in the right direction in one’s daily life that helps to get a raise at work, have one’s offer on a house accepted, makes the person they just dated ask for a second date, or ensures that their car trip the next day is safe and without incident (all things, incidentally, that I’ve never experienced!). As a result, and as I’ve written previously, “going through the motions” isn’t really something we have to worry about as pagans and polytheists for the most part, because doing the rituals themselves is worthwhile, and because they are spiritual technologies, even though we may not “feel” or experience anything during the course of them, the gods and the unseen divine realities with which we engage hear, or see, or benefit in various ways from them. This is an underlying assumption about our practices, and one of the elements in our overall religious activities which does require some amount of belief, whether we like to admit it or not.

That having been said, what happens when a mystery ritual or initiation has been carried out by the books, and the initiate in question has undergone it in the best possible way they could with a successful outcome…and yet, nothing happened, and in the aftermath the transformative experience and the altered form of life that should result from the closer relationship to a deity that generally results from a mystery initiation “did not take” and has not had the effects that it should? If we really do place as much trust in the efficacy and validity of ritual, then mystery rituals should likewise have that same trust in their effectiveness invested in them; and yet, humans are humans, and sometimes what should have happened doesn’t, for whatever reason. How do we address this?

The latter is a question that I come back to rather often, because of some of the things I’ve seen that have occurred (or, alternately, not occurred) where initiates into the Antinoan Mysteries are concerned. While it is ultimately a matter that is important between the god and his initiates and no one else, at the same time, as a mystagogos I worry about how the proper “taking” of the experience can be fostered and ensured with greater certainty. Certain traditions (e.g. some Afro-Diasporic traditions) have divinatory means that are consulted frequently along the way in a process of initiation to see that they are favorable to what is occurring; and while that could be an element in other mystery initiatory traditions as well, it has not been for our tradition thus far. Perhaps it needs to be…

So, these are just some issues and some interesting sets of thoughts I’d like to throw out there for discussion at present. How have your own traditions handled these matters? If experience and practice really are at the roots of our religious viewpoints, then how do we place divine experiences at the heart of our traditions more and yet respect and honor but make distinctions between different types of experience; and, how do we still maintain the primacy of practice but insert further levels of discernment and divine perception into our carrying out of practical rituals, whether personally transformative or otherwise?


  1. I’ve experienced a mystery ritual that “didn’t take.” I designed and performed an initiation into Hermes’ Mysteries for myself, and while it was a significant enough ritual as things go, it was clearly (both at the time and in retrospect) not a mystery initiation. I have been through those and know how they feel, how they change you fundamentally. So, I figured either (a) I hadn’t properly designed the ritual or (b) I wasn’t ready for it (probably a combination of both), waited a few years, and when the time felt right, I did a new ritual, somewhat similar but not exactly the same, and that time, it did “take”. That ritual stands as a turning point in my work with Hermes and my deep understanding of certain things.

    It’s hard because we don’t have the benefit of hundreds of years of tradition behind most of our rites. I don’t know if the Eleusinian mystai ever encountered this problem (I’m guessing it did happen), but regardless they at least had a well-tested, powerful ritual being directed by experienced initiates and priests, rather than having to making things up as they go along and rely entirely on their own connection to deity. So things are more difficult now – we can still have those powerful initiations, but we do need to be prepared for when things fall flat.

    • Very fascinating–and all the more commendable that you had the discernment to know that a self-administered ritual didn’t quite have the desired results. Not many people have the self-knowledge, nor the self-confidence, to be able to admit “lack of success” in such a situation.

      • Thank you. I think that such discernment, and the ability to face the facts when things aren’t what you expected or hoped for, is crucial in reviving this type of rite. If we want these to be powerful and real, we have to be objective enough to analyze their efficacy and know when they need work (and also, when they are right).

        It wasn’t fun to admit the failure (though not a complete failure, and even a failed mystery rite might be a solid ritual and a learning experience at the very least) but on the other hand a part of me always feels a bit more sure of things when they *don’t* always go right – because if it was always what I’d expected, it would be more likely to be all in my head!

      • Yes–and nothing demonstrates how not in-one’s-head a lot of these things are like failure. (Other things do, too, but failure is a good one to make that feeling very definite…Not even all of the poetry I attempt to write ends up working out.)

        Certainly, at least trying is always useful, though, too; but, the fear of failure is such a powerful force in holding many people back from not trying at all way too often, alas.

  2. *waves happily*

    I have more to say on the subject of failed initiations — leaving this to remind me to come back later!

    • Awesome! I look forward to your further discussions on this! 🙂

  3. Coming from an Episcopalian background, I had a less belief-oriented, more orthopractic Christian formation than most Americans get. It used to be a point of (modest, diffident) pride that while Anglicanism affirmed certain beliefs, such as the historic creeds, it subscribed to no one doctrinal explanation; e.g., there was never an Anglican equivalent to Aquinas’s transubstantiation as the Official Explanation of how the sacrament of Communion works. And unlike Lutherans, Episcopalians tend to be *very* uncomfortable talking about their personal beliefs. What matters is that we all use the same Prayer Book and sing out of the same Hymnal. Which meant that the Episcopal Church USA started breaking down roughly when they changed the Prayer Book in 1979 and had the gall to include liturgies that weren’t in Tudor English.

    So even coming from that perspective, I am kind of baffled when I see/hear Pagans talking about faith and belief as the defining traits of religion. What do I believe about Antinous, or Jesus, or any of the gods? Hell if I know. What do I have faith in? My husband, my connection to birds, to friends, the importance of creativity and spirituality and the erotic in my life. What do I believe in? The goodness of chocolate and the superiority of straight-tone singing over vibrato, mostly, also that countertenors and early musicians are sexy. Oh, and that the best actors and actresses hail from Britain. *g*

    • Exactly–I have no notion where they’re coming from when they say this. (*ahem–Mark Ryan on The Wild Hunt recently–ahem*)

      To vary a moral from a Marie de France fable: I believe in nothing which isn’t true, at least based on my own experiences. (“Objective” truth is something I don’t put too much stock in to begin with, though…)

      I certainly agree on chocolate, and on Britain’s crop of thespians. 😉

  4. My own failed initiation ended up with my realizing that the spirits I followed were shadows of my own mind and in the process liberated me to seek what I needed to find. I’m still searching but I know better what I am looking for now and I have learned much about spiritual discernment. I’m still no expert and lack the benefit of a community or even co-religionists for the most part.

    But things are looking up regardless.

    On a more personal note, I’ve meant to keep in better contact with you my friend, but I’ve been out of work for months, exhausted my savings, and was briefly living out of my car before being taken in by family. I apologize for the lack communication and I shall endeavor to keep in touch better hence forth!

    Warm regards

    Dave the Human

    • I’m sorry to hear it’s been difficult, and hope things are turning toward much better outcomes for you in the immediate future, if they have not already.

      I look forward to speaking further with you soon! 🙂

  5. […] October 28th of 2012 (though I made no mention of the matters here, but alluded to the context a few days later). Given that October 28th is the date on which we observe the Death of Antinous, this whole thing […]

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