What Makes a “Mystery Religion”?
With Swain Wodening/Berry Canote rearing his head again, trying to creep back into our communities, I’ve been reading up on various online critiques of Theodism, the denomination of Heathenry from which the Wodenings arose (1). One of the pieces I found was this blog post. The guy who runs it is a complete asshole (2) but the piece itself gives an online trail of websites and information that show how Theodism, is an egotistical boys’ club that cares far more about preserving (or hiding) the lack of honor, integrity, and character of the men involved than speaking the truth, taking an ethical stand, and definitely more than venerating the Gods. I worked in Theodism for maybe ten years and venerating the Gods properly was always much farther down on the list than stroking the mens’ …um…egos. But I digress…
In the article above, the fool who wrote it, calls Theodism a “Mystery religion.” He bases this on the fact that Theodism has a hierarchical social structure in which most newcomers begin as “thralls” and earn higher social rank as they learn Theodish customs and ingratiate themselves with their higher ups (3). He also uses the term “Mystery religion” as though it is a negative thing. The dude has no idea what a mystery religion is, or he’d never use the term for Theodish Heathenry, and it is that question: “What is a Mystery Religion?” that I want to discuss here.
The word “mystery” comes from the Greek μυστήριον. It means ‘mystery’ and refers to ‘secret rites,’ religious mysteries, particularly those associated with a specific Deity, and those things revealed by a particular Deity—theophany or revelation—during the enactment of that Deity’s rites (4). It was used in ancient Greek polytheism, Roman polytheism, and even early Christianity to refer to certain rites and practices. The term “Mystery Religion” could refer to a broad range of traditions and rites but there were certain aspects of cultic praxis that traditions under this rubric generally shared (5): There was some type of initiatory rite in which the initiate, having been properly prepared, experiences and receives sacred knowledge from a Deity; these rites were secret and definitely not open to the entire community; they permitted the initiate to “share in symbolic (sacramental) fashion the experiences of the God” (6); they may serve a cleansing or even piacular function; they carried soteriological and possibly even eschatological impact. Obviously, the a priori position from which such mystery traditions worked was that direct experience of the Gods was possible and the initiate could be prepared to (more or less safely receive this) via preparation through particular levels within that tradition.
Mystery religions were separate things from civic religion, or from common and public veneration of a particular Deity or family of Deities. One could honor any Deity without participating in a Mystery tradition. Usually the mysteries were developed (or received) within a cultic context centered around particular veneration to a specific Deity, but they existed within the larger religion. Participation in a mystery cultus was not required to be good polytheists. A tradition could be commonly open to everyone but contain within it a Mystery cultus, or even more than one, (7) that had rites and initiatory procedures that were restricted.
The word μυστήριον itself was even used by the early Christian Church to refer to its rituals, particularly baptism, which was viewed as a type of initiation, available only after extensive preparation. It did what any initiatory rite was believed to do: created an ontological change in the initiate’s soul, thus moving that initiate from one state of being to another (8). Now, if we’re looking solely at the idea of moving from one state of being to another, then I can see why the author of the aforementioned blog [incorrectly] attributed to Theodism status as a mystery religion. A thrall can rise through the social ladder to “thegn” for instance. But this doesn’t actually make Theodism a mystery religion. That elevation in status has nothing to do with cultic rites to any Deity. It is a purely social practice within Theodism.
Moreover, not only does theodism not possess any expectation of rituals involving theophany, but they are also openly hostile to the idea. Devotion and the logical extension thereof of mystical experience are not things valued in this tradition. There ARE Heathen denominations that I would say are mystery traditions (I myself work within one). There are other polytheistic traditions that I would say are or contain Mystery traditions (9). Theodism isn’t one of them though. A “Mystery Tradition” is centered around direct experience of a Deity’s mysteries usually through some sort of initiatory experience mediated by others who have been initiated. The point is the direct experience of the God. The point is that ontological change that takes place in the person’s soul, a transformation that affects everything from that point on, especially what happens to that soul after death. Going from thrall to thegn does not change the status or nature of the person’s soul. Nor are Gods involved. Now, when I was in Theodism there was a warrior “cultus” (10), but it was a social transition not a religious one effected.
Now, in my opinion, Mystery Traditions are the heart and soul of any functional, sustainable religion, as important – if not more so—as the essential balance between good, pious laity, and well trained specialists (spirit workers, shamans, priests, mystics etc.). For a religion to be healthy in its relationship to the Holy Powers, that gifting of mystery to the initiate, and the initiate carrying that back into the regular community, standing as an example and a carrier of holy power to the group is absolutely essential. It requires a community to be focused on the Gods and to understand what constitutes right relationship – what the Romans might have termed pax deorum and what our Heathen ancestors quite likely included under the term frith (11), and in understanding it to allocate to it the highest value across all demographics of the community. It is here that true unity in a group is achieved: that prioritization of piety, of maintaining right relationship with the Powers, and of understanding that it takes each and every one of us working together to properly nourish it. If any of that is present in Theodism, then it’s something that’s surely changed quite a bit since I was there in the early oughts.
- I will give credit where credit is due. Theodism has done more to restore proper blòt than any other denomination. They did a remarkable and praiseworthy job there. That is pretty much the only area in which I will ever say this.
- His critique of Theodism was good enough that I mistakenly assumed he had critical thinking and close reading skills. Also, he’s been deleting comments from both me and my husband, likely so he can twist his fictional narrative to his own ends. Still, the critique of Theodism itself provides useful links to that denomination’s more appalling dirty laundry.
- The term ‘thrall’ is ugly, but it must be noted that what this means in practice within Theodish communities is that the person may be present, participate in most rituals, and be part of the community events but have no voting voice in how things are run. It does not mean that such a person is misused or treated like well, a thrall. It signifies a time of learning the ritual and social customs, rules, practices, etc. where mistakes are expected, and no onus will be attached to the person for any gaffe. It’s a watch and learn, participating in light carefully mediated ways entry into Theodism. It’s not that different than numerous other cultural traditions around the world, for instance religions like Lukumi also differentiate between newcomers and those steeped in the tradition, and the former are not permitted at every rite.
- See https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=musthrion&la=greek#lexicon.
- See Martin Luther King, Jr’s early work on Mystery Traditions in the ancient world: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/influence-mystery-religions-christianity.
- The word cultus comes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultum which means ‘to till or tend,’ as in tilling or tending a field. When I use this term to mean “a system of veneration directed toward a particular Holy Power,” to paraphrase the definition given by the OLD. The register in which I am writing utilizes it as a neutral term, with this classical definition. If I am using it to refer to dangerous, fringe religious groups, or a dangerous “admiration for a particular person” (Again OLD) which is a modern, usually negative connotation, I will say so.
- Μυστήριον became the word Christians used for “sacrament” by the very early medieval period. See https://research.library.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=theology_facultypubs. The term is used twenty-seven times in the New Testament, often for something ‘secret,’ or more commonly for revelation of the Gospel and/or the Incarnation itself. See:https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Mystery (yes it’s wiki but it’s really a reproduction of a Catholic Encyclopedia entry).
- Ironically, BT Wicca would qualify as a mystery tradition. There are levels in which everyone may participate, but then there is also an initiatory structure where mysteries are conveyed…religious mysteries.
- This was a group that excluded women and had the most pathetic initiation rite that you could ever imagine—I’ve done more challenging rituals in my first year as an ordeal master ffs. I should also note that not all mystery tradition initiations change the afterlife. They may change your status in relation to the Gods Who then offer special protection. Still, the change involves Gods. It involves a theophany, a direct encounter of some sort with the Holy and then your subsequent relationship with that Deity is transformed.
- Though both of these terms are polyvalent and have relevance in ways large and small within a community. Frith particularly refers to the right relationship between all parties and may be used in social relationships as well. Pax Deorum had civic and political implications for the Roman Empire.
Initiatory traditions and mystery traditions are not necessarily the same thing. Mystery traditions have initiatory aspects but there are groups that have initiation that don’t have deeper mysteries or a focus on theophany.