Exoteric and esoteric ritual

Exoteric and esoteric ritual August 13, 2011

I have never liked discussions about “esoteric” meaning or practice.  “Esoteric” for me is associated with Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kaballah, ceremonial magic (or “magick”), astrology, alchemy, tarot,  spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the philosophies of Jacob Bohme, Franz Mesmer, Emanuel Swedenborg, Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Aleister Crowley, and the “occult” generally: none of which (with the exception of Tarot), have I ever been drawn to.  My objection to much of what qualifies as esotericism is that it seems ungrounded.

I remember coming across an excerpt of a letter from Thomas Carlyle to Emerson in the midst of my searching for a new spiritual practice.  Identifying so much with Emerson’s writing as I did, I received Carlyle’s words as if they were written to me:

“You seem to me to be in danger of dividing yourself from the fact of this present universe, in which alone, ugly as it is, can I find any anchorage, and soaring away after Ideas, Beliefs, Revelations, and such like, into perilous altitudes.  I wish you returned to your own poor century, its follies and maladies, its blind or half-blind, but gigantic toilings, its laughter and its fears, and trying to evolve in some measure the hidden godlike that lies in it.  Alas it is so easy to screw oneself up into higher and ever higher altitudes of transcendentalism and see nothing under one but the everlasting snows of Himalaya, the earth shrinking to a planet, and the indigo firmament sowing itself with daylight stars; easy for you, for me.  But whither does it lead?  I dread always to inanity and mere injuring of the lungs.”

"Wanderer ABove the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich

I am reminded of this quote whenever I read “esoteric” discussions of the sephiroth and the like.

I also resented discussions which contrasted exoteric (i.e., celebratory) Paganism with esoteric (i.e., initiatory) Wicca, as I sensed a measure of snobbery in such distinctions.  For one thing, there are other initiatory traditions in Paganism than Wicca.  For another, there is great value in the celebratory nature of Paganism, in and of itself.  For yet another, I believe there is a difference between initiation into a group and and an initiatory experience, which can occur in solitude.

In spite of all of this, my recent attempt to re-dedicate myself has led me back to this distinction and it occurs to me that Pagan ritual can be experienced on several different levels.

The exoteric aspect of Pagan ritual is its celebratory nature.  On this level, which I will call the literal level, Pagan ritual is about celebrating the changing of the seasons and connecting with the Earth.

On a deeper level, which I will tentatively call the symbolic level, the changing of the seasons is experienced as an outward metaphor of inward personal changes.  These can be the changes of the human life-cycle or the ebb and flow of enthusiasm that we experience psychologically.  Through ritual, we recognize that change is unavoidable and that there is a season to all things, a winter and summer, both inside and out.  Part of this is the awareness that we will, one day, die.

Taking this a little deeper still, to what I will provisionally call the spiritual (or pneumatic) level, Pagan ritual can be understood as facilitating the process of individuation.  Pagan ritual can be a therapeutic tool for incarnating, consecrating, and integrating the daemonic/shadow elements of our psyche (esp. libido and destruido) — in Jung’s words, “making the darkness conscious”.

In his short novel Demian, Hermann Hesse writes:

“I don’t mean that you should simply do everything that pops into your head. No. But you shouldn’t harm and drive away those ideas that make good sense by exorcising them or moralizing about them. Instead of crucifying yourself or someone else you can drink wine from a chalice and contemplate the mystery of the sacrifice. Even without such procedures you can treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning–and they do have meaning. If you happen to think of something truly mad or sinful again, if you want to kill someone or want to commit some enormity, then at that moment that it is Abraxas fantasizing within you! The person whom you would like to do away with is of course never Mr. X but merely a disguise. If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

Pagan ritual, then, on the spiritual level, can be seen as a “procedure” for treating our drives and temptations with respect and love so they will reveal their meaning to us.

And finally, there is another level, a mystical level, in which Pagan ritual is experienced not as an integration of the psyche, but as a (controlled) dis-integration.  I see the psychic life as a cycle consisting of two movements:  The first movement is the emergence (birth) of the ego from the unconscious Mother Goddess. This is the spiritual movement toward increasing individuation, but also increasing alienation, from our Source.  True wholeness requires us to periodically return to the Source and to sublimate our ego.  And this is the second movement, the mystical movement.  This is the oceanic sense of oneness that the mystics experience.  It is the ego death that is the goal of true initiatory experience.  Of course, we cannot remain in that place.  The difference between the mystic and the madman is that the latter does not return from the Source.

Now, these last thee levels, the symbolic, the spiritual, and the mystical, may be considered increasingly “esoteric”, that is “hidden”.  But I believe all four levels are important and none should be neglected.

"Tree of Life" by deerdancer

As I was working this out, it occurred to me that these four levels may correspond more or less to the four levels of Jewish exegesis of the Torah, called “Pardes”:

Peshat: the literal meaning

Remez: the allegoric meaning

Derash: the meaning obtained through comparison (midrash)

Sod: the hidden meaning (kabbalah)

It’s not a perfect fit, but an interesting comparison.

But perhaps it is a poor comparison.  After all, I am beginning to think that Pagan ritual should not be “understood” or “interpreted”, and that it is not primarily about conveying a “meaning”.  Rather, it is something to be experienced: an experience of celebration of and connection with nature; a celebration of and experience of acceptance of change in our own lives; an honoring and welcoming of parts of ourselves that have been neglected or rejected; and an experience of the loss of the sense of self and of union with the transcendent.  And can we really say that any one of these is “higher” or more important than any other?

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  • Dmitry

    Thank you for this – it is a very sound explanation of the Pagan “esoteric”. In fact, I believe, that many among those of the “occulture” are likely to agree with it. I had a touch with a Telemite who spoke much to the same point, when discussing initiation.

    • Thanks Dmitry. I am just working these things out for myself, bu I am glad I made sense to someone else.

  • So are you saying that every pagan ritual has all of these levels (like the padres of the Torah)? Or do some levels apply to some rituals but not others?

    Because it seems to me that the “spiritual” and “mystical” levels can’t apply to the same ritual at the same time in the way that “derash” and “sod” can apply to the same passage. Unless I’m misunderstanding you, which is very possible.

    • No, I agree that a person cannot simultaneously experience the integration and dis-integration. But I do think that two people may attend the same ritual and one of them may validly experience it on the “spiritual” level and another on the “mystical” level. In fact, I would probably say that one people also could not switch from one level to the other in a day. I think the work of integration is the work of half a lifetime, and the work of dis-integration is the work of another half lifetime. That’s just my theory, obviously.

      • I think I see where my confusion was, and I think it was with the term “level” to describe the various types of ritual experiences. That made me try to compare them as the same type of processes.

        From what I can tell, here’s the actual processes that are going on:

        In “literal” ritual, we see a seasonal change, and we engage in ritual. That’s it.

        In “symbolic” ritual, we see a seasonal change, we engage in ritual, and then we believe there to be a corresponding change within us, which may or may not actually manifest itself in a concrete way in our lives. Symbolic ritual doesn’t absolutely require a conscious reincorporation of these symbolic changes in a concrete way, though, from what I can tell. Also interesting to note is that symbolic ritual includes literal ritual, but goes a step further.

        Then we have the next two, “spiritual” and “mystical.” Both of these movements, as far as I can see, may happen during literal or symbolic ritual, but they are movements on a completely different axis (unconsciousconscious). The reason that your four “levels” don’t seem to fit with the pardes is that the pardes are actually movements along the same axis (abstractconcrete); this is why peshat and remez match pretty well with “literal” and “symbolic” while “spiritual” and “mystical” seem forced.

        Your thoughts?

  • Sorry, I had put arrows in between “unconscious” and “conscious” as well as “abstract” and “concrete,” but they didn’t show up in my comment. I was trying to visually display the axes I was talking about.

    • I agree that the comparison to the levels of interpretation of Jewish scripture do not exactly fit. I’m not sure if I would see any of the levels as more concrete or abstract than the others. Since I’m talking about *experience* of the ritual, and not really about levels of conscious interpretation (another reason the comparison to the PaRDeS is a poor one.) The exoteric ritual is experienced as pure celebration of an outward nature. The symbolic ritual is experienced as a celebration of an inward nature (psyche) and outer nature. The spiritual level is experienced as a form of inward transformation, one of greater personal integration or wholeness. The mystical level is experienced as another form of inward transformation, of personal disintegration, or loss of self. I’m not sure it’s helpful to think of them hierarchically, so I think you are absolutely right that the use of the term “levels” is misleading.

      • Sorry, my “concrete” and “abstract” were attempts at terminology that I hadn’t noticed being expressed here yet, but I think my use of those terms here matches up pretty well with how you’re using “outward nature” and “inward nature,” so feel free to substitute your terms for mine in my above comments.

        The only reason I used “abstract” where I did was because until we make the symbolic changes tangible through our actions, they may or may not have really, regardless of what we believe is happening. So until they are tangible, they are in the realm of pure belief, and are in that sense abstract. Maybe “tangible” / “intangible” would have worked better, I dunno.

        Anyway, are you familiar with Jung’s Systema Munditotius? It has a close approximation of the axes that I’m talking about, with the vertical being the intangible-to-tangible axis and the horizontal being the unconscious-to-conscious axis.

        The reason I keep harking on these different axes is because of these two sentences:

        The spiritual level is experienced as a form of inward transformation, one of greater personal integration or wholeness. The mystical level is experienced as another form of inward transformation, of personal disintegration, or loss of self.

        You seem to be identifying both the spiritual and mystical levels as transformations of inward nature, which would mean that they are extensions of symbolic ritual, with inward transformation happening as a result of the external ritual.

        What I want to say is that it seems possible for the spiritual and mystical to also be integration or disintegration of an outward sort as well, without necessarily implying inward change. A tangible act of having all of your decisions made for you by others (disintegration) or a tangible giving over of yourself to your emotions and desires (integration).

      • Wow I can’t believe I didn’t see this before, but I am way off in still calling these outward transformations “spiritual” and “mystical.”

        So yes, these types of transformations are possible, but spiritual and mystical are indeed extensions of symbolic ritual, since they involve internal transformations.

    • By the way, thank you for all your thoughtful comments.

      • And thank you for all your thoughtful posts.

        It’s not often that I find someone as analytical about religious practices as I am, so I get really geeked out when someone wants to publicly dissect spiritual experience and discuss their ideas.

  • “It’s not often that I find someone as analytical about religious practices as I am, so I get really geeked out when someone wants to publicly dissect spiritual experience and discuss their ideas.”

    Yeah I enjoy it too. Although I have to be careful to not let the talking become a substitute for the experiencing. Jung wrote in the Red Book: “Scholarliness alone is not enough; there is a knowledge of the heart that gives deeper insight. The knowledge of the heart is in no book and is not to be found in the mouth of any teacher, but grows out of you like the green seed from the dark earth. … You can attain this knowledge only by living your life to the full.”

    • Agreed, experience needs to be primary. In fact, the main reason I analyze religious experience in the first place is to construct better practices which lead to more meaningful experiences.