Hills of the Horizon: Reconstruction and Mysticism

There is a tension between the process of reconstruction and the experience of mysticism.

The mystical experience is not one that can easily be written down (though many poets have tried, and some have had more success than others).  In a religious context dominated by the stricter reconstructionist methodologies, that stuff that isn’t written down, most preferably in a book released by a reputable academic press, tends to be viewed with some suspicion.  Subjective experiences are potentially treacherous; the question “How do you know they’re not making it up?” seems to float under the subtext of a great number of rejections of the mystical experience in others.

Some reconstructionist groups go so far as to reject work with mysteries entirely, dealing only in those things that can be found in the archaeological and textual records.  Because private and esoteric practices left little decipherable material behind, those processes cannot be reconstructed exactly as they were; some have argued that it is inappropriate to even consider this kind of religious practice.  (I have even seen it argued that since human neglect led to the disappearance of the gods-granted knowledge of holy mysteries, the mysteries are things that we don’t get to have anymore, as if they were toys to be taken away from unruly children.)

It is a simple fact, though, that the odds are that we’re not going to get, say, the Eleusinian Mysteries back.  (I gave a talk on mysteries and reconstruction at this past year’s Paganicon, and part of that was a ramble about all the stuff we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries, which are extremely well-documented in some ways.  In the end, nobody seemed to have much confidence they could pull that off.)  Even if someone does manage to hit on the right ritual procedures to reproduce the effects of some of those known, named, and now-lost mysteries, we’ll never know if they got it right.  It’ll be such-and-so coven’s Kore-and-Demeter torchlight ritual play and none of the rest of us will ever know.

An image from the Amduat, chronicling the sun boat's journey through difficult terrain.

An image from the Amduat, chronicling the sun boat’s journey through difficult terrain.

This doesn’t mean that pursuing mystery work is a waste of time for reconstructionists; it does require a different process from attempting to decipher what procedures the (usually formal and/or upper-class, since those were more likely to be recorded) ancient practitioners of religions used to honor gods, spirits, ancestors, and whoever else, and then doing likewise.  Instead of building a procedure to ancient blueprints, we are left with building a container, discovering what experiences can be held in that space, and elaborating, refining, and rearranging that container until the desired experiences arise naturally and reliably from the format.

(The actual lynchpin of my conversion to Egyptian reconstructionist practice actually went a bit like this.  I decided to try a particular group’s suggested basic ritual, and came out of it saying, “Wow.  That was the best damn ground and center I’ve ever encountered.”  And since I had a history of, at best, feeling like a fool when doing rituals, having a completely positive reaction to a small ritual was a pretty amazing experience all by itself.)

The mysteries we discover with this kind of process will not be the same as ancient ones.  However, they will be accessible to people of the time and place where they are found, they will be relevant to our modern practices, and they will be teachable within our lines of study.  I do think that this can only reach its pinnacle of health within a context of a vibrant and consistent mainstream pagan culture of relevant, related practices, so that people can become familiar with the containers into which ecstatic experience can be poured.

A meaningful pursuit of reconstructionist-oriented religion will return to the source texts and information that has been used to build the public rituals and assemble the festival calendars, and will then try to find ways which these can be iterated into deeper understandings: for example, not just tracing the progression of the sunboat through the twelve hours of the night as a sacred story, but exploring that passage as a mystical journey, and finding ways to construct cycles of practice that enable developing deeper personal understandings of that journey when repeated over time.

Hills of the Horizon is an occasional column by Egyptian reconstructionist pagan Kiya Nicoll. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Kiya Nicoll

Kiya is an Egyptian reconstructionist pagan and witch living in New England with her family and an excessive quantity of books.

  • http://gleewood.org/threshold Jenett

    There’s also the part where just because a given mystery doesn’t connect for us at one point, doesn’t automatically mean that it doesn’t work for other people: we may just not be at the point in our lives where that’s the door that’s possible to open.

    (I usually reference books when talking about this: you can read a book or hear a song at a particular moment in your life, and it is THE thing for you, and you tell other people about it, and they go “Huh? I mean, not lousy, but it didn’t just rearrange my universe or anything.”)

    Religious mysteries are ideally community-centered in some sense (so they can continue over time, and because they’re also a way groups connect). But at the same time, they’re going to hit people differently at different spaces in their life.

    Which is to say: if the container does not currently hold the stuff one wants, it is not automatically a flaw in the container, and coming back to it in year, or a change of circumstance, might give different results in some cases. However, this makes talking about it *even harder*, because it’s not just a “Works/doesn’t” sort of thing.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I must confess, I am sceptical of unfounded ‘mystery’.

    If I have an ‘experience’, I will look it up, to see if it matches with any pre-existing records or if it is more likely a product of a fertile mind. So far, this approach has served me well.

    When someone says something that goes against the grain of what everyone else throughout history has said, I am more inclined to be of the opinion that it was imagination at work, rather than the godhead.

    I think that, even if a person is not a reconstructionist, the best place for them to start looking at the gods is in the archaeological record.

    Mind you, I believe in ‘objective’ gods, rather than subjective ones.

    • KNicoll

      I am not sure if you think you are disagreeing with me, since I certainly am not disagreeing with you, either in the post, or in response to this comment. :} I mean, you sound like you want to be disagreeing with me, but as far as I can tell you’re repeating me!

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I seem to have a problematic writing style. A lot of people seem to think I am disagreeing when I am not.

        I am agreeing with you. Just putting it into my own words.

        • KNicoll

          Okay, no worries. :)

  • Eilidh Nic Sidheag

    For me, whether or not mysticism belongs in my reconstructionism is pretty much a meaningless question, because mystic experiences come to me whether I seek them or not, and I have to acknowledge them for the sake of remaining more or less functional. My religion has to have a place for mysticism or it will have no place for me. Since I’m currently solitary, I don’t have to worry about whether or not or how to teach others to seek those experiences more actively; but it seems to me that any religion needs to be able to provide some sort of structure to accommodate those to whom they will happen regardless, if only for purposes of drama reduction.