There are roughly speaking three levels of religious interaction in the ancient Greco-Roman World. The first level are the public cults facilitated by a State or city-state on behalf of the entire citizenry. The second level comprises more private cults in lower level social settings. Finally, there are the Mysteries.
The public cults sponsored by a government agency are the most famous and most lavish of examples in ancient religion. These were truly grandiose affairs involving the whole community in festivals and sacrifices to the gods. The purpose of the public cult was to unite the entire citizenry into a corporate identity that stood before the gods. The individual and his concerns took no part in these celebrations. It was the community as a whole that propitiated the gods for common favors.
Reconstruction of public cults is somewhat problematic as none of us live in communities where our particular brand of paganism dominates. Nor have then been any surviving pagan governments that can erect temples, furnish priests, and facilitate festivals. “Public cults” to the extent they exist usually involve a group of people within driving distance of each other who congregate occasionally to honor the gods as a collective body. Obviously this pales in comparison to the massive festivals of ancient times, but it is the best that can be done for the foreseeable future while paganism remains such a small minority religion.
It should be noted that some groups like Nova Rome have actually erected a pseudo-state apparatus that can theoretically administer the public rights on behalf of the organization’s “citizenry.” Proponents of this approach regard it as effective and necessary; detractors regard it as pretentious and fraudulent. The ongoing disputes concerning the resurrection of anachronistic socio-political governance in the role of public reconstruction is outside the scope of this article.
The second level of ancient religion concerns the more private aspects of religion. These include the cult of a particular household, a clan, a neighborhood or district, and various corporate social organizations. We call them “private” in the sense they were not administered by the state as a whole, but they are not private in the sense of catering to the individual. On the contrary, the individual was still part of some collective identity, merely one that operated on a level below the State. An individual was still a member of a family, a clan, a trade guild, a military unit, and so forth.
Reconstruction of these private cults is not seriously disputed. It is the level of reconstruction best suited to modern circumstance. It does not require large numbers of people in elaborate celebrations. Usually all that is required is that a few individuals who have contracted into some corporate identity – such as a household – honor the gods of their understanding within their own private setting. Any debates regarding reconstruction at this role merely concern the exact methods of reconstruction (e.g., can private reconstruction efforts be blended with New Age paradigms and still be legitimately considered “reconstruction?”). Those debates are outside the scope of this article (but as we shall see there is a parallel to the arguments concerning the mysteries).
Finally, there are the Mysteries. This is probably the largest point of contentious in the Greco-Roman communities, at least among certain circles. The Mysteries are a diverse band of cults that often are blended together, but a few generalizations can be proffered. They were cults that existed in some sense outside the formal framework of civic and family religions, even if, in certain instances, they had State backing. They are often distinguished by colorful rites, esoteric cosmologies, and a community open fully only to the initiated. Very often the deity or deities to whom the cults were dedicated were “foreign” with respect to the mainstream culture, or often there were at least syncretic elements some of which were derived from outside mainstream culture. Also quite often the deity or deities in question promised to initiates certain benefits, whether granted in this life or the next, that could not be had from the normal state and familial gods. Even if the initiates were tightly bound in a communal brotherhood of secret, esoteric and initiated rites, the focus was generally on the individual initiate and his or her relation to the divine force in question. The very nature of these religions can therefore be contrasted to the exoteric and communal religion of normal cults.
The Mysteries, as has been said, existed (mostly) outside the normal associations of state cults. Sometimes they were even viewed with suspicion or hostility by the State cults. If this is true, then should not these cults stand an excellent chance for reconstruction? After all, the States that may have frowned on them no longer exist. Would it not therefore be easier to reconstruct the Mysteries than the State cults? Superficially this is true. As a community of individuals who are dedicated fully to a particular deity, with no need of a public intermediary, the Mysteries theoretically are well-disposed to the modern era. A secret band of initiates would be quite adept to form private communities amongst themselves in a world that doesn’t understand paganism to begin with.
Unfortunately, reality is not quite so neat. First, a few of the cults did have some backing to the State, or were at least connected somehow with the State. A few, but not many – we’ll leave this aside for a bit and come back to it later.
Secondly, the social circumstances of the ancient world which gave rise to the Mysteries may have no bearing on the modern world, and would call into question the logic of recreating the Mysteries in the first place. Of course, one could say that about paganism as a whole. If we don’t live in the ancient world, why bother bringing any paganism back? The argument needs to be qualified, and we’ll get to that in a bit as well. Also, the fact that the old mysteries can not be recreated does not necessarily preclude the possibility that new mysteries could be created – let’s save this for later.
Last, and most damning, is that we simply don’t know much about what went on in with these secret cults. The secretive nature of many of these cults does not lend itself well to reconstruction. Many of the details were simply lost. True, we know enough to get a taste of these cults – we are not completely in the dark. But the knowledge we have concerning these cults pale in comparison to what we know from the state or familial cults. There are gaps in our evidence of these cults that simply cannot be filled. If the central essence of these cults – the exotic rites and esoteric understandings – is mostly lost, then how can they faithfully be resurrected for the modern world?
Some would argue the holes in the evidence can be filled with either personal gnosis or by borrowing from modern mystery cults (I.E. New Age). Even so, one questions how much one can invent or borrow and still have a tradition legitimately be labeled as reconstructionist?
There are those that would then say they are not attempting to reconstruct the mysteries per se, but to “re-imagine” the Mysteries in modern terms, or create new ones altogether. Very well. One can legitimately quibble if such a hybrid even falls under the “reconstructionist” label. Is it not just a Greco-Roman flavored New Age super-wicca? Possibly, but let us try to look at it objectively. The author would like to assert he is not the hyper conservative fundamentalist he is sometimes portrayed as. He realizes all pagans, even conservative ones, live fully in the modern world. Certain adaptations have to be made. To ultra-conservative groups like Nova Roma, the author is quite proudly a heretical fluffy modern. The author, therefore, will entertain notions that ancient cults can receive a healthy dose of modernism.
The question, of course, is by what means and to what ends? As has been noted, we have two highly related mechanisms by which gaps in the ancient knowledge of mysteries can be bridged. The first is to simply borrow some of the rites and cosmologies from well established modern esoteric cults like Wicca and Ceremonial Magick. The second is to fill the gaps with one’s personal gnosis, based on one’s personal assessments (and often one’s very personal relationship) with the deity in question – and often this relationship or assessment has been molded by strong exposure to a modern occult path.
These two last are probably the main sticking point in the whole argument, at least to those of an Elaion friendly crowd. The arguments Elaion has utilized against occult and personal gnosis of this type are well known and need not be detailed here as they have been argued incessantly everywhere else. Sufficed to say, many of the Elaion aligned crowd feel that modern occult movements are at best irrelevant to Greco-Roman paganism and at worst offensive to the gods and values of our religions. To blend any Greco-Roman cult with a healthy dose of modern occult systems would therefore be ludicrous from that standpoint. To use the modern occult as raw material for the “re-imagining” of mystery cults comes across to many people as an attempt to have the excitement of a New Age cult with the nobility of a Reconstructionist label. It is therefore disingenuous on many levels.
The prevalence of those who favor the mysteries who were or currently are members of some occult system (Wicca, Neopagan, The Golden Dawn, Thelema, mystical Christianity, etc) is rather striking. One wonders, if there are so many occultists or ex-occultists so hell bent on utilizing occult paradigms, why did these people not just stay in some established occult system rather than trying to mix two contrasting systems? I don’t personally know most of these people, so I can’t say with total certainty. But their motives are a continual source of suspicion among their detractors.
However, at this point I would like to share a personal memory as it might seem relevant. I once bemoaned publicly that we as a community needed more scholars in our religion and less self-declared mystics. To which one gentlemen responded in the negative; he was of the opinion that the only thing we as a religious community needed to lead us were those whom he called “favored of the gods.” That phrase is an exact quote. I know this gentlemen to consort with the crowd that highly favors the recreation of the mysteries, so I was taken aback. The fact that some people are actually calling others “favored of the gods,” and that presumably some people believe themselves to be so, is disturbing. It smacks of pretension, delusion, and silliness. To think there are some current or ex-occult members who are known among their community as “Favored of the Gods” who are determined to recreate the mysteries in their image, and who have their slobbering fanboy groupies at their feet to defend their alleged province to do so! Well, perhaps I am making some exaggerated suppositions here, especially since one man and his off color quote does not a community make.
But it does strike to the issue of motive. Most of those in Elaion simply do not trust the personal gnosis of many in the Mystery crowd. Any Mystery founded on personal revelation has to be taken as a “leap of faith” as kallistos mentioned. The detractors of the Mysteries simply aren’t prepared to grant the Mystery leaders with that leap of faith. They do not trust the motives or the methods of those who claim a close personal and revealed relationship with a particular god, especially if viewed through an occult paradigm. This is not necessarily meant as an insult, but it remains nonetheless a strong point of contention.
We therefore are skeptical of the reconstruction of mysteries due to lack of surviving evidence. And we are all the more opposed to recreating the mysteries with major elements of modern occult or related personal gnosis. These are simply the facts. Neither side will probably convince the other on the merits of their own positions. At this point we should probably end the argument, but we cannot. We need to take a closer look at the historical cults that comprised the mysteries, and say something about the social circumstances and how they apply today, if at all. The argument cannot be complete without an overview of these cults. Perhaps there we can find new arguments for or against the subject.
This will be the subject of the second part of the essay, to be documented in the following few days.