Someone at Patheos has proposed reviving the Eleusinian mysteries.
I’m just going to come out and say this: the old mysteries are dead and it’s pointless to even attempt what they are proposing.
It’s not because we’re completely ignorant of what happened during them. Actually, we’ve got a lot more evidence than most people realize, especially for the mysteries celebrated outside Eleusis. Even there we’re on pretty solid footing, at least when it comes to the overall themes and procedures involved but we’re still missing some pretty important pieces.
The central experience of the initiates eludes us and would even if someone had violated the oath of secrecy and left us a first-hand account of all the things said and done. A mystery isn’t something you can learn or know. By definition it’s something experienced, something that takes place deep in the individual’s soul. Unless you’ve gone through that experience yourself you’re never going to understand it. Without the experience it’s just words and concepts, meaningless gibberish mixed with our preconceived notions. That’s why the initiates vowed never to speak of it. Not because exposing the secret would have damaged the mystery, but because it was pointless to share such things with someone who had not undergone it themselves. It would only confuse them and make it impossible for them to have that authentic experience because it wouldn’t mean the same thing to them any longer.
We lack the proper frame of reference, the cultural identity and cosmology that brought to life the mystery-experience for the ancients. As long as the identity of the gods is shaped for us by the writings of long-dead men and the religion something of the past that we are studying, imitating and trying to reconstruct, the mysteries will remain forever closed off to us. The mysteries were an outgrowth of a living faith, a living culture. They developed over time, through the accumulated shared experiences of a people. They were bound by time and space, by culture and language. That’s why you had to be a fluent speaker of Greek in order to be initiated. It wasn’t that foreigners were inherently inferior – the Greeks actually had a great reverence for the antiquity and wisdom of their neighbors – it’s that the underlying concepts that fed the mystery-experience and brought it to life in the heart and soul of the initiate remained unintelligible to anyone who didn’t properly understand Greek. These mysteries were inseparable from Greekness and once that Greekness passed from the world, so did the mysteries.
That’s why we’ll never have the ancient mysteries back. Even if we gather together all of the fragmented pieces and add our best guesses and inspiration to fill in the blanks, the end product just isn’t going to be the same. The act of reconstruction, as well as our modern additions and above all the lack of a proper cultural context means that we’re going to end up with something else entirely, a hodge-podge worthy of Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
Does that mean that we are doomed to live in a world without mysteries? No! Absolutely, unequivocally not!
The mysteries came from the gods – and they’re not just a divine gift but an experience of them that is direct and incontrovertible. As long as the gods exist – and they’ll still be here long after the last human passes from this world – there will be mysteries.
But the thing we’ve got to get through our heads is that they’re not going to be the ancient mysteries. They can’t be, not if they’re a true mystery. You see, a mystery is rooted in the experiences and understanding, the culture and language of the initiate. We don’t live in 5th century Athens and no matter how much we read or how much we pretend we’ll never understand what it was like back then. It will never be our living culture. And in fact, the more we build up the sanctity of the past, the greater the distance that separates us becomes. So the first thing we’ve got to do is let all of that go, get rid of our veneration of antiquity and the belief that the ancestors knew the gods better than we’ll ever be able to. The gods are alive and a part of the living world. That means that we’ve got to look for them in the here and now, in our own land, in our own lives, in the fabric of our consciousness and culture.
There’s nothing wrong with looking back to the past for inspiration and information, especially in regard to cult practice and the ways that the gods once revealed themselves to man. This is vital information that has changed little over the intervening centuries. But that should never stand in the way of having a direct and personal relationship with those gods who are just as much our gods as they once were their gods. And a big part of acknowledging that they are living gods is accepting that they are capable of change, that we can discover in them things that our ancestors may only have been dimly aware of. More to the point we must be open to what the gods wish to share with us today, in these new lands that we find ourselves in. Maybe it will be the same as what they revealed back then – maybe it’ll be something radically different. But whatever it is we must be open to it and not just what we expect to find.
Mysteries, if they come, will arise out of our collective experiences of the gods today, where we are. When the mysteries come they will be the mysteries of Eugene, the mysteries of Las Vegas, the mysteries of San Francisco, the mysteries of Boston, the mysteries of New York, the mysteries of Miami.
The mysteries of Eleusis could be celebrated nowhere else. Demeter had different cult centers throughout Greece, including places that had their own mysteries just as ancient and esteemed as those at Eleusis. But there was only one Eleusis and one set of rites carried out there.
This is why all attempts at transplanting them to other locations have been doomed to failure.
It was here and only here that she finally settled after her long and painful search (hence the site’s name) ; only here where she was received by the king whom she instructed in gratitude for his kindness; only here where she adopted Triptolemos and sent him out to teach the world agriculture; here where she was reconciled with her daughter and all the rest that formed the backdrop of the mysteries. This happened nowhere else in all the world, so these mysteries could take place nowhere else. In those other places different things had happened such as her transformation into a mare or her seduction of a mortal man. As a result these places had their own unique mysteries. The mysteries that we will celebrate here are likewise going to be shaped by time, place and culture.
A shaft of harvested grain simply cannot mean to us what it once did to our ancestors, not unless we entirely reject the modern world and return to a more primitive agrarian society. Even then it will have different connotations for us for at least the first few generations and probably long after that. How could it not, for won’t it symbolize the turning away from industrial society and those who made the big, brave leap, something our ancestors never had to do? Whole new myths could be spun off of that scenario and that’s what future generations would be responding to. Even without such a monumental break there’s a whole body of myths and symbols that form our current cultural identity and it’s through these that the gods manifest themselves to us. Even when the symbols remain constant their meaning changes for us and we should accept it, embrace it instead of pretending otherwise.
I do not speak of this matter purely in the abstract. I am one of the mystai. I have been initiated into the mysteries of my god Dionysos. In fact I’ve undergone initiation into several of his mysteries, each slightly different from the others and all of them powerful, life-changing experiences.
I recognized many of the details from accounts I had read of the ancient Dionysian mysteries, but there were also differences, things unique to my situation and relationship with him. Had that not been a component I don’t think it would have been as powerfully transformative an experience as it turned out to be. In fact, some of the most idiosyncratic elements were also some of the most traditional, the elements I found running through those past accounts. It’s just that the form these themes took were novel and shaped by my experiences and insights, which is what allowed it to speak to me and thus made it a mystery. It wasn’t at all what I had been expecting, which allowed it to catch me off guard and do the necessary transformative work. Repeatedly while this was happening I found myself going, “Holy shit! This is what was meant by X, this is what it really feels like to have Y happen.” There was an odd sense of overlap, of timelessness, of variations on a central theme running through my life and the lives of those who had stood in this position before me.
I wish that I could be more precise, share more of what happened and what it felt like – but it wouldn’t do any good. You wouldn’t understand until it was your time to stand there and go through it, and even then I couldn’t predict exactly what form that experience would take or what it would mean to you while it was happening and afterwards. But it left me a changed man and closer to my god than I ever could have anticipated and that’s what the mysteries are all about in the end.
But it’s important to remember that initiation isn’t an end unto itself; it’s only the beginning of a process that is continually ongoing. You never leave the telesterion, you just gain deeper and deeper awareness through ever-more nuanced experiences. And though it changes everything about who you are and how you relate to the gods and the world, it doesn’t change your need to seek them and worship them.
That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t seem to get. They think that once you’ve gone through initiation you don’t have to do anything except sit back and bask in the continuous presence of the gods.
You’re still gonna struggle and still gonna have to work at it. That perfect understanding you get during the mysteries fades back into everyday consciousness. And sometimes – hell, in my experience it’s pretty much all the time – you’ve got to try even harder afterwards because the stuff that worked before doesn’t cut it post-initiation.
Yeah, I’m a mystes now, but I still keep a shrine, go through the regular routine of ritual practice, observe festivals and do all the work that’s necessary to have an active and fulfilling spiritual life. And sometimes it doesn’t get me anywhere. I struggle with doubt, with my own weaknesses and shortcoming, with the distance I sometimes feel from my gods and spirits, with the fear that maybe I’ve gone crazy or I’m just wasting my time with all this stuff.
The fact that I once felt that intensity, that certainty, that powerful and awesome direct connection to my god can make everything a lot harder because it looms over me, reminding me that I no longer have it and making me wonder if there’s something wrong with me because of that. How could I go from that to this?
The only solution I’ve found is to keep going, keep trying, to claw my way through the resistance until I get back there or somewhere like it. It’s long, difficult, unglamorous and many times unrewarding on the surface of it. But I will say this much: having experienced what I’ve experienced, I know what’s possible and can never settle for less. It’s as much an inspiration as it can sometimes be an obstacle. But I wouldn’t have had the beautiful experience without the regular practice that led up to it, nor would I ever find my way back without the practice.
It’s sort of like that old famous Zen saying: before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
If you think initiation into the mysteries is a short-cut you’re deluding yourself and that delusion is going to keep you from ever experiencing the mysteries to begin with.
It’s only possible through a living religious tradition centered on living gods. If you don’t make the path your own you’ll never be able to follow it to them.