Depending on where one reads, there’s a moderate amount of controversy among reconstructionists about more mystical practices, and most particularly Mystery work and initiatory things. We know organised and codified mystical practices happened in a variety of places, and we know that many cultures had actual organised initiatory groups and Mystery cults, but even when we know things about them we don’t know entirely what they were.
Some people have said that these are toys we don’t get to play with anymore. We lost the Mysteries, period, finished, end of story. We don’t know what they were, we can’t get them back, so let’s not go there. Which works fine for a lot of people; the stuff is genuinely lost, and not everyone is interested in the more esoteric and transformational stuff in the first place.
Basically, the argument is that we have lost the way to the mysteries, and since we lost it, we don’t get it back, game over, amen.
What is a Mystery?
In this context, and at its most basic level, a Mystery is something which can only be understood experientially. People can collect information about the experience, can sometimes even be told what the experience will be, but without actually going and doing the thing, there’s a piece missing.
In the case of a religious Mystery, the acquisition of the missing piece is usually expected to be in some way transformational. The person from before has changed with the acquisition of this new knowledge, and there is no going back.
(I think that an overemphasis on the transformational and profound actually gets in the way of dealing with Mysteries reasonably, though. My go-to example of a Mystery is learning to ski. Before I went to ski, my parents told me, effectively, that turning was a Mystery. That I would understand once I got up on the mountain. That to turn I would need to go down, up, down. And I said “Down, up, down? That’s kind of useless gibberish.” And then I went skiing, and fell down a bit, and then I leaned in, and settled my balance, and then I lifted my weight and turned, and leaned in and settled my balance, and I said, “Oh. Down, up, down.” It was a Mystery. A little tiny one that didn’t change anything fundamental, but still.)
The ancient Greeks referred to two categories of mystery – the lesser and the greater. And the basic difference is that the lesser Mysteries could be spoilered. If you know the trick to them in advance, the experience is broken, and, as they say among my people, “You can’t get there from here.”
Clearly skiing is a greater Mystery.
Where did the original Mysteries come from?
The standard answer I’ve heard is something like “They were provided by the gods.”
This is actually a pretty unsatisfying answer. Among other things it doesn’t explain why some people figure that we don’t get to play in the Mystery waters anymore. Obviously, if the gods made Mysteries once, they could do it again if they wanted to. It’s not like they can only do something in that one cave there.
So, the question persists: where did they come from?
The thing about many Mystery cults in their cultural context is pretty simple at root: there was the general, accessible, common-ground religious stuff out there for everyone. And then there were things for people with specific needs, specific spiritual hungers, specific callings. Some of them were weird little edge cases, very specific, with limited people allowed; some were huge endeavours that basically initiated entire villages.
The Mysteries start from where people are. They have a particular vocabulary that’s based in the surrounding religious understanding. They then use the tools of that vocabulary to do something maybe a bit deeper, maybe a bit specific, something special.
How did the gods provide the mysteries? My guess is that someone doing the regular cultural religious stuff found that a couple of bits went together in a particular way, and tinkered with it, and got whatever guidance the gods saw fit to provide, and there was, eventually, a reproducible experience, something that got people through something that was important to them.
Which means that the gods can do it again, if they’re so inclined.