I don’t want to talk about this.
Every fiber of my being is resisting – and that’s why I’m going to do it. Because in the end that’s what being a Dionysian comes down to. A constant struggle to be free and true, tearing away the masks no matter how painful the process, striving for an openness that leaves you so raw the wind against your skin bruises and filled with a monstrous hunger to experience more, always more, no matter the cost. Being alive and knowing fully what your flesh is capable of.
That is what being a Dionysian means to me, and it’s terrifying as the face of the Devourer, my sweet prince, is terrifying. I love him and I will never stop pouring myself out for him. And I know that he would do the same for me because I am an initiate.
We don’t talk a lot about initiations and mysteries in contemporary polytheism and especially not within Hellenismos.
There’s a couple good reasons for this.
The Greeks shrouded the mysteries in holy silence, recognizing two related but distinct types of silence. The mysteries could not be shared with others because they were such a personally transformative experience that only one who had gone through it themselves would understand. You could tell a stranger all that had happened to you, the mechanisms and imagery and everything involved in the process, tell them what you took away from it and how it’s changed your whole outlook and they couldn’t comprehend. No matter how hard they tried they just wouldn’t get it. They might catch an accurate glimpse – but then everything would just shift about in their heads again and go all fuzzy like an impressionist painting. Until they’ve been woken up – the word mystery comes from the opening of the eyes of the initiate – through the ceremonial experience, they simply do not, cannot understand.
Secondly the initiate was forbidden to share the contents of the mysteries with outsiders because it would profane them, literally to take them beyond the temple enclosure. The external tools by which the experience was created were sacred and needed to be kept from contamination (and also from contaminating.) You see these things had been fashioned and handed down by the Gods, preserved by a line of holy people through the centuries. They built up great power over time – power that was conferred to the initiate and renewed through them. Power is dangerous so they hedged these things in with traditions and taboos and holy structures and before anyone would approach them and have the experience they had to pass tests proving their worthiness, showing that they could handle the strain. This was a wise thing to do for mystery is heavy when it lies upon a human heart – those who cannot bear it will crumble and crack. It does that to everyone – that’s how you’re opened up to see – but there are those who can walk away from the experience and many more that can’t.
So that’s a big part of why Hellenic polytheists are reluctant to talk about the mysteries today.
Unfortunately this has retarded progress within the community. “The mysteries are gone, never to be restored,” they bitterly moan – but on the other hand they wouldn’t recognize a true mystery if it was happening to them.
They think that mysteries can be done only a certain way, with certain tools in a certain location and officiated over by certain people with a certain lineage.
And, well, they’re right.
All of that was a requirement in at least certain forms of the ancient mysteries – and our line was sundered.
Thanks to a millennium and a half of aggressive monotheism and secularism all that we know of these things is what we read in books, and the material is so fragmentary that we can’t even piece it together enough to see the picture it reveals let alone breathe life back into it.
Even if you could reconstruct it properly it would not be the mystery that the ancients experienced.
The mystery came from the Gods and was passed down through a line of initiators – without that unbroken chain of continuity you don’t have the same mystery. And some mysteries were deeply rooted in place. This is the spot where mythic events unfolded – the rites can be performed here and only here or else they lose their efficacy.
But here’s the thing – all of that applies only to certain types of mystery, mostly the ones performed at Samothrace, Pessinos, Andania and Eleusis. These were, unquestionably, the largest and most important mysteries celebrated throughout the ancient world – which has subsequently shaped our understanding of the phenomena since they receive the most attention from scholars – but these were ever only one option among many.
There were other major cult centers where things were done differently and other mysteries offered by that divinity – not to mention the private associations that conducted their own rites independent of the temples and priesthood as well as itinerant holy men who went about selling initiations to bored housewives and wealthy matrons. In fact so many forms of Dionysiac mysteries flourished in Egypt that the fourth Ptolemy sought to codify and solidify them under a single authority.
If we are to see a revival of the mysteries we have to stop looking back at what the ancients had and thinking that this is the only way that a mystery may express itself. This both limits the manifestations of the Gods and is particularly silly since we don’t even know what the mysteries of the ancients were in order to reconstruct them. Scholars haven’e been able to arrive at consensus on the matter so what hope do you think we’ll have if we rely on nothing but their commentary and the scattered remnants that have come down to us?
We have to be able to recognize the mysteries when they are happening even if they are wearing an unfamiliar and unlikely form.
When I was initiated into a mystery of Dionysos there was no one there to confer that initiation on me, much as I would have preferred it that way. I had to put myself back together afterwards and there was none I could share what I had gone through with, none to help me make sense of it all.
It was Dionysos who initiated me, as it always is in his mysteries. The props, the priests, the rituals and traditions may all facilitate the experience but the experience itself is a direct encounter with Dionysos, an opening up to him in a way you never have before. If he is not there there is no mystery. Consequently, any time that he is present there is potential for a mystery to occur.
But keep in mind that a mystery is a very particular thing, a specific experience with a God – and not every experience counts. I experience Dionysos all the time and some of those experiences are quite intense and transformative. But they aren’t mysteries.
One of the central things that a mystery does is change your status – it rewrites who you are and what you’re capable of on a fundamental level. In the more than twenty years that I have been a Dionysian I have experienced his mysteries five times, only three of which I would consider proper initiations. My first came almost six years into worshiping the God. I thought I knew him pretty well up to that point: I’d already undergone some pretty heavy stuff at his hands. But that was nothing compared to the mystery experience. The initiations I’ve gone through since blow that one away – I seriously do not know how I survived what happened at Horse Creek – and yet this one sticks with me even more because that was really the start of it all for me. That single event has bisected my life so that I now think of events as happening either before or after it – prelude and postscript. That’s what mystery does – you’re never the same after it.
And we need that.
We need to be taken out of this present world of man, with all of its messed up social conditioning and the blindness it imposes to the presence of the divine. We need to be taken apart and put back together again with extra organs to perceive and interact with the holy powers on a deeper level. We need an awakening, an infusion of inspiration if we want to know life in its fullness.
That’s what mystery does.
And that’s why I hit the notes I do in my writing as hard as I do and as often as I do.
I want the mysteries back!
The mysteries of my God and of all Gods.
And that ain’t gonna happen if people remain so timid, small and cautious, doing just what they find in books and can read off scripts from their smartphones.
You’ve got to feel it.
You’ve got to open your heart wide in worship and let your Gods grab hold of you.
You’ve got to make the space for that to happen – make space and do the rituals.
The more you do them, the more you put into them, the more of your life you set aside for them to manifest in – they will. Tend the land and fertilize the soil and in time a seed of divine grace may be planted that will result in a plentiful yield of grapes.
But that’s the thing! Mystery is the miraculous sprouting of fruit in your soul – but that’s just the start of the work. You’ve got to harvest in the fields and bring it home and either eat it right there or begin the long, difficult process of creating wine.
Initiation is not the end that many think it is – in truth it’s just the beginning.
It transforms you, but you’re still you. You’ve still got to eat and shit and earn a living and deal with people and perform your regular devotions just like you did before. And even though you know deep in your bones after encountering the mystery things are still going to be tough for you. There will even be times when you doubt and question whether what you’ve been through was real, times when you feel distant from the Gods and wonder what the point of all this is anyway.
In some ways it’s harder because you know and yet you’re still subject to all of this. Shouldn’t the mystery have changed that?
It did, but you’re also human and there’s only so much that can be done about that.
But you know, you know, and initiation makes it easier to find your way back to that place and point of knowledge. Every time you do ritual there will be a taste of that experience in the back of your mouth, ready to be called forth once more. And if you’re lucky and the grace of the Gods is with you, you will succeed every now and again and that will drive you to do it more, to do more.
Mystery is necessary for the reclamation of our traditions – it is what makes them live and ensures that they are passed down to future generations.
We who stand before the Gods now are in a precarious position. We do not have firm traditions to stand on, and nothing to pass down to our children and those who come after them but a few meager handfuls of fragments we’ve salvaged from the dirt. We don’t even have our songs and dances.
It is our duty to rediscover them and fashion new ones in honor of the Gods. Take the best that we were given and make something better out of it to pass on.
This is work that each and every one of us can have a hand in. Rituals are repeated actions. Find what works for your Gods and Spirits and then do that again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Until you’ve built up a tradition and can teach others to do it. All of this, together, creates the religion and from this will emerge our collective mysteries – mysteries for this place and age.
You have a hand in this task whether you are a mystic or completely mundane, whether you’ve been doing this for decades or only weeks. Whatever your aptitude and inclinations, whatever gifts and levels of devotion you’ve got – you have a role to play in the restoration of the Gods’ worship. Even a supportive role is still a role. Dionysos needs his wand-bearers as much as he needs his Bakchoi – above all else he needs you and what you have to offer.