(excerpt from The Wiccan Mystic, by Ben Gruagach. ISBN 978-0615143118.)
Wicca is often described as a modern mystery religion. When asked to explain, though, few Wiccans can really describe what this means.
A mystery religion, if we go by the definition used by scholars who study ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religion, has a few distinguishing characteristics: it is a religion where one must be formally initiated into the group to be considered a member, there are secrets which are only revealed to those who are within the group, and worship tends to focus on ecstatic communion with the Divine. These characteristics are all descriptive of the Eleusinian mystery cults of ancient Greece, the cults of Mithras, and some of the cults of ancient Egypt. But do these characteristics describe Wicca?
The Wiccan tradition Gerald Gardner promoted in the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s included these three key characteristics of a mystery religion. First, new Wiccans are made through formal initiations performed by a Wiccan who possesses a second or third degree initiation themselves. Second, the tradition’s rituals, mythology, and teachings were kept secret, written down in the Book of Shadows and only shared with other initiates. Third, communion with the Divine is sought through ecstatic methods. Gardnerians made use of ritual flagellation, chanting, and dancing as key methods to raise power and contact the Divine; all these are methods of achieving ecstatic states. There is no question that Gardnerian Wicca is definitely a type of mystery religion.
Gardnerian Wicca is just one sect within the Wiccan community. Other forms of Wicca, including that practiced by solitaries, could be considered mystery religions if we look at the key characteristics with an eye to what is most important. Real life, including spiritual life, isn’t always easy to pin down with clearly defined labels.
Initiation was the only way to become a Wiccan at the start, and is a nice tidy way to control access to official status. Unfortunately there are problems with this in Wiccan history, the primary difficulty being Gardner’s claim that he was merely passing on an intact tradition rather than starting something new. By claiming that he was but one initiate of an existing intact tradition the door is opened for there to be others out there in this same tradition, or perhaps in offshoots, who have just as much (if not perhaps more) claim to lineage and therefore authority. In the introduction to the Mercury Publishing edition of Gardner’s book “The Meaning of Witchcraft,” Dr. Leo Louis Martello brings up a rather telling point: Gardner may have never received more than one initiation into Wicca. Gardnerian teachings are quite clear that only a second or third degree Wiccan is permitted to initiate others. We may never know for sure whether Gardner really was initiated into an existing tradition and what degree he had achieved as no independent proof has been uncovered to back up Gardner’s claim of lineage. Additionally, if the lineage was valid and if Dr. Martello is correct that Gardner had only ever been given his first-degree initiation, how could his line of initiatory descendants be considered an intact transmission of the Wiccan mystery? Gardner was quite clear in his insistence that only second or third degree Wiccans were authorized to initiate others. On the other hand, if Gardner was really starting up a new religion based on older material or made up completely new it is irrelevant whether Gardner had been initiated or not himself. The founder of a system has the privilege of making up the rules for their system as they see fit.
Gerald Gardner was not the only one to start a Wiccan line under rather questionable circumstances. Alex Sanders, the founder of the Alexandrian denomination, had just as murky a start to his Wiccan career. Like Gardner, Alex claimed to be merely passing on an intact Wiccan mystery tradition and produced a robust enough initiatory lineage to follow him that the tradition is still quite healthy today. And since the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions are arguably the two oldest of the Wiccan denominations, they are rightfully recognized as the templates that the majority of subsequent Wiccan sects are based on.
Alex Sanders’ was perhaps the most well known Wiccan “grandmother story.” He claimed that he had a grandmother who was a Wiccan, who initiated him in a naked ritual performed in the kitchen when he was all of seven years old. Alex claimed that he was therefore an hereditary witch and had learned the Craft from a blood relative, years before Gardner was initiated into the New Forest coven.
The details of Alex’s start in Wicca weren’t quite that romantic as later research proved. Alex didn’t appear on the Wiccan scene until the early 1960s, well after Gerald Gardner’s books on modern witchcraft had been published, and well after various Gardnerian covens had started to spread around the UK and outside its borders. Alex, it seems, wanted desperately to join one of the existing Gardnerian covens. After being turned down by High Priestesses such as Patricia Crowther, he managed to get a copy of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows and shortly after started enthusiastically initiating others into his own version of Wicca.
While both the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions have proven their worth, withstanding the deaths of their founders and spreading all over the globe, the details of how they were started raises serious doubts whether a formal initiation is necessary for a modern mystery religion to be meaningful to its practitioners. Traditions have to start somewhere and a tradition can be just as meaningful for the first-generation practitioners as for subsequent generations.
Witchcraft lore in the UK is also rife with mentions of lone witches and sorcerers, practitioners of magickal arts who are completely self-taught and just as effective as the most skillful coven member. If Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca were truly intact continuations of a previous system then it is highly likely that solitary witches could be considered authentic Wiccans even though they have never undergone formal initiations. It is more likely, in fact, that the traditions sprang up when solitary practitioners decided to share their methods with others and practice in groups. Coven work, then, might very well be the descendant of solitary witchcraft rather than a distinctly different religious system as some might suggest.
If Gardner or Sanders had instead claimed that they were starting up brand new religious systems then they could have established rules denying the title of Wiccan (which did originate in its current usage with modern witchcraft) to non-initiated solitary practitioners of witchcraft. Since they claimed they were merely passing on an intact tradition, an existing tradition of witchcraft which did include solitary uninitiated practitioners within the body of lore, it becomes much more difficult to exclude solitaries from being considered Wiccans.
Another way to look at the question of initiation as a requirement for a religion to be a mystery religion is to consider that initiation means a number of things. When scholars identified initiation as being a requirement for ancient mystery religions they were speaking of formal acceptance into the group through a ritual of welcoming. In ancient times many religions were open to all, considered part of community life and culture, without any requirement for participants to formally join the faith. In those times, when religious groups like the cults of Eleusis sprang up, it was rather distinctive to have an exclusive membership.
Today, however, many if not most religions require formal acceptance into the group for a participant to be considered a part of that religious sect. In Christian terms this is accomplished through confirmation or baptism. Now it is much more rare for a religious group to accept anyone who wanders in off the street as a full member without any form of acceptance ritual. But despite the popularity of initiation rites not all religions that use them are really mystery religions.
So initiation as a formal acceptance to a group probably isn’t a key characteristic in identifying a mystery religion. It might have been key in the past but it is no longer a distinguishing factor that sets a mystery religion apart from other religions that are clearly not mystery faiths.
Initiation has another meaning however which does fit in well with the idea of a mystery religion. If initiation is considered to be a spiritual experience of a very real and personal contact or communion with the Divine then it fits in well with the mystery religion idea. In the ancient mystery religions the ritual of acceptance into the group was more than just a formal acceptance but an attempt to trigger a spiritual awakening experience or spiritual initiation. It is the spiritual initiation, the direct contact with the Divine, which makes the religion a mystery religion.
In Wicca initiation ceremonies are patterned after the ancient mystery religions with the ceremony designed to try and fulfill both functions. Initiations act as a formal acceptance into the group and also attempt to trigger the spiritual awakening or spiritual initiation. It is important to note, though, that the spiritual initiation is encouraged by ritual but not necessarily caused by ritual. Spiritual initiations are bestowed by the Divine and not by mortals no matter how determined we might be.
In her book “The Training and Work of an Initiate” Dion Fortune discusses at some length the fact that spiritual initiations are the ultimate goal of magickal work but are not at our beck and call. A person can receive a spiritual initiation before, during, or after a ritual initiation into a group. Spiritual initiations might come to a person who never joins a formal group and members of formal groups also might never receive spiritual initiations.
If it is really spiritual initiations that are the important type of initiation within mystery religions, it follows that a religion could be a mystery religion without rituals of formal acceptance into a group. Solitary practitioners who are self-taught, then, can be practitioners of mystery religions if they have a focus on seeking spiritual initiation. Solitaries can and do seek direct contact with the Divine and thus could achieve a spiritual initiation as can someone who is an accepted member in a formal group.
When Gerald Gardner first started promoting Wicca the only way to gain access to the Book of Shadows, the ritual and theological sourcebook handwritten by each member, was to become a formal initiate. The only way to learn how things were done was to be accepted as a member.
As often happens, things changed as the religion grew. Different factions started to appear as different traditions or sects that practice Wicca in their own ways. Some Wiccan spokespeople, including Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders, were quite willing to share information with the media that other Wiccans considered secret. Alex Sanders, for one, was quite willing to invite news reporters and cameras to be present at various rituals. Gardner, a bit more reserved, did quite a bit of publicity work himself in letting the world know about Wicca. His various books set the example by describing bits of lore and in some instances provided almost complete rituals including the first-degree initiation rite. Other Wiccan authors followed his lead and over time ended up publishing pretty much everything that was in Gardner’s personal Book of Shadows, which was the original all later copies drew from.
While it is true that most of the secrets of Wicca are published now, the information is still considered occult, that is, hidden, and not much use to a person unless they actually put it into practice. A person who is learning on their own exclusively has to do a lot of research and needs to be determined in order to learn Wiccan philosophy and practice. To put it into daily use and make it one’s spiritual path requires a lot of work.
As with initiation, considering a mystery religion to be a spiritual path where there is secret knowledge might have been accurate when examining ancient faiths. If the basic knowledge in a religion was once secret but is now publicly available does the religion stop being a mystery religion? Do vows of discretion regarding the discussion of specifics count as secrecy? Is secrecy really a determining factor for a mystery religion?
The American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition: 2000) lists the word ecstasy as traced back to the Greek ekstasis which means astonishment, distraction, or displacement. In more modern usage ecstasy is often considered to be a state of intense joy or delight, and in spiritual terms is a mystical trance where one is engulfed in direct union with the Divine. The word rapture when used to describe an emotional state is similar in many ways as it too has mystical overtones. When one is in a spiritual ecstasy one’s perceptions open to a direct awareness of the Divine presence and heightened emotions of love overwhelm and overflow to touch everything.
The use of techniques to induce spiritual ecstasy is probably the key characteristic of mystery religions that truly distinguishes them from other religions. The ancient mystery cults were religions of individual and very personal communion with the Divine. They were religions where deities were not just abstract concepts to be discussed in dry dialogues but were living entities and forces that worshippers experienced first-hand. Mystery rites involved lifting the celebrants out of their routine existence, their mundane perceptions of life and existence, to a new awareness and identification with something greater than themselves.
Celebrants of Bacchic rites were often described as being in a divine frenzy; Eleusinian initiates underwent a personal spiritual rebirth; devotees of Mithras re-enacted the sacred myths and subsumed their personalities in that of the Divine. In pre-modern stereotypical witchcraft lore the infamous witches’ sabbath or sabbat is depicted as an orgy of feasting and dancing and often sexual revelry with other witches as well as nonhuman supernatural entities. Modern Wiccans are more like followers of Voudou than they are like stereotypical Satanists. Wiccans conduct rites to channel Divine energy and knowledge in rituals such as Drawing Down the Moon and seek to commune with various spiritual forces in meditation and pathworking. There is also a strong encouragement to enjoy life for as it says in the Wiccan Charge of the Goddess “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” The Divine is believed to experience things through worshippers and indeed through all existence so Wiccans frequently perceive even mundane life as flooded with the Divine presence.
Wicca is an experiential religion where one is expected to actively seek out contact with the Divine through a multitude of methods. It is not a religion where the worshippers’ access to the Divine is exclusively maintained through the intermediary of authorized clergy. In Wicca each participant is a witch and priest/ess in their own right. Wicca is often described as religion without the middleman; the idea of a direct relationship between worshipper and the Divine is drawn specifically from the classical mystery religions.
The criterion of ecstatic practice is therefore met in Wicca just as it was in ancient mystery religions. It is likely that this characteristic is the essential core, the Mystery, of mystery religions. It is also likely that the ecstatic experience of communion with the Divine is the essence of the path of the mystic. There is a lot of overlap between the path of mystery and the path of the mystic. Perhaps they are merely different methods of achieving the same goal.