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Mystery Religions

Mystery Religions: the what and why

by Sarah Howe

Being a regular poster on a forum I am quite often exposed to interesting and sometimes touchy discussions centring around people’s personal beliefs and around specific traditions. One of these recent discussions was on the subject of Mystery Religions, their purpose and what the definition of ‘mysteries’ is. The question was also raised as to whether a solitary practitioner could gain access to the mysteries. These are questions I will endeavour to answer here.


So, what are these ‘mysteries’ and how can we define them?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definition of ‘mysteries’

…something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain…”

In the context of a Mystery Religion the mysteries are the hidden knowledge and revelations pertaining to the divine and our place within the universe. These are usually accessed by an individual via a specific set of rites and rituals within a tradition or path that ‘opens the doors’ so to speak, to these mysteries. Each tradition has their own unique ‘toolkit’ (rites, rituals, symbols and practices) for unlocking these doors and allowing the individuals within that tradition the necessary set of experiences and knowledge to access and gain an understanding of the mysteries.


That sounds quite dogmatic. How does that make Mystery Religions any different to, for example, the Catholic Church?

The definition of mysteries and Mystery Religions isn’t really at all similar to anything within the Catholic Church or that type of religion. Why? Because they are what is known as ‘revealed religion’ – that is religion whereby the whole thing is supposed to have been revealed by a god or gods (sacred books and the whole shebang). These religions and their practices are freely available and open to anyone who cares to pick up a copy of their sacred text and feels that it is for them. Quite often with this style of religion, whilst the individual can pray or talk to their god(s), there is usually a member of the clergy who acts as an intermediary between the divine and the individual.

Mystery religions are the exact opposite to revealed religions. They generally don’t have a set sacred text or a set of laws or tenets or in fact any dogma that must be followed and that has been supposedly handed to them by a god or gods. Each tradition allows the individual access to the mysteries via their specific set of doors that each member must pass through in order to access them and the toolkit (rites and rituals) for doing that are different for each tradition. In addition, there is no single intermediary who acts as the mouthpiece of the divine. Each person has direct access and communes with their god or gods as feels best to them.


Wicca is a religion of mysteries and when one is initiated it is not only into to the coven, but also into the mysteries. Does this mean that you have to be in a coven to know the mysteries?

There are numerous Mystery Religions and Traditions and each one has its own ‘toolkit’ and way of perceiving the mysteries. This means that you have to be initiated into that tradition or religion in order to gain access to the mysteries of that tradition and indeed that particular group.

My experience as an initiate of a Mystery Religion is that the individuals within the tradition seem to have a similar set of experiences in terms of contact with the divine or the unseen worlds that we work with and within. It was and is the common practice of my parent coven to either not share at all or to give only very vague details of experiences to newcomers and in this way the potential experiences of that newcomer were not coloured by the experiences of the rest of the group. It was always amazing to see just how many similarities would crop up once that newcomer began to have their own experiences. This leads me to think that the particular ‘toolkit’ of the tradition is absolutely key to accessing the mysteries relating to that tradition and giving each individual similar experiences that binds the group together and gives them shared understanding and knowledge.


It is said that the mysteries cannot be told, only experienced. So why can’t a solitary have those same experiences?

I do think that a solitary can have knowledge and understanding of the ‘mysteries’ (what is known as personal gnosis), but to have knowledge of the mysteries attached to a particular tradition, one must be a member of that tradition, usually via initiation or a similar ritual. These specific mysteries are experiential and cannot be accessed by people who are not members of those traditions because they do not have access to the ‘toolkit’ belonging to that tradition or religion that allows its members to experience the mysteries particular to it.

This is a system that dates back thousands of years to religions such as the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece and the Mithraic Mysteries or Mysteria Mater.

The mysteries are experiential and they are specific and individual to each tradition. My experiences of the mysteries through my tradition will be different to those of someone from a different tradition or of a solitary path though of course there may well be similarities and common ground between them.

I am fairly certain that a solitary witch, for example, would reach their own understandings and have their own revelations from their experiences just as well as a person following a Mystery Religion would. They may reach understanding in a different way and see things differently because of that, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to reach that understanding, or that they can’t or won’t reach it because they aren’t a member of a group.

Why are the mysteries hidden? Why are they only revealed to some people and not open to everyone?

There’s no reason they are. They just are. People have always searched for deeper meanings to life and the divine through millennia and this is just one of the ways that people try and reach that understanding. There is a huge amount we don’t know about this world and the worlds around ours, the astral and the places where the gods reside and so on. They aren’t hidden for a purpose and no one hid any of this knowledge for their own gain but it is impossible to know everything about all things and perhaps not everything should be revealed to all people all of the time.

People who follow Mystery Traditions do so because they feel that there is more to life than what is in front of our noses and they feel that the particular tradition they follow is the best one for them to access those deeper meanings and mysteries. Other people feel that revealed religion is right for them. It’s not about keeping things away from other people but about finding the right way for you to gain that knowledge and understanding and that is why the mysteries are experiential. They can’t be explained – you have to find out for yourself.

Of course it may seem as though these mysteries are only revealed to a select few and I’m sure that some people see that as a little bit elitist, which of course it is in many ways. The mysteries are revealed to those people who have a thirst for that kind of knowledge, just as the mysteries of science are revealed to scientists who look for particular things and make new discoveries. So, it is absolutely true to say that the mysteries are not revealed to everyone because not everyone looks for them or wants to know. The people that do want to know go and seek out a way that suits them; sometimes that is alone and sometimes that is as part of an established group or religion.


How did the founders of these traditions find those specific doors and tools to access these mysteries?

It would be hard to categorically state how the founder of any of the Mystery Traditions, ancient and modern, came to find their particular way. That said, I think we could guess based on historical accounts and so on that they either came to it via experimentation of their own or perhaps because they were part of a similar (pre-existing) tradition prior to forming their own. Don’t forget that many of the people who formed some of these Mystery Traditions (thinking of the more modern ones here) were intelligent people who had already spent a lot of time in research and practice of various occult and magical paths before hitting upon a combination that worked for them and setting that combination down to form their particular Mystery Tradition.

If it was written down, doesn’t that make it set of laws, dogma and rules?

Writing something down obviously does not make it dogma, law or a rule. As an example: Initiatory Wicca has the Book of Shadows that is handed from initiator to initiate; but this is not akin to the Bible, the Qur’an or similar sacred text, which are supposed to be the word of God. The Book of Shadows is essentially a guide, giving the basic rituals and rites, spells and magical workings that have been used within that tradition. This Book of Shadows will certainly vary from tradition to tradition (the Gardnerian Book of Shadows will be different from Alexandrian etc.) and may even have some variation in the various lines within that tradition but there will still be the same basic structure. This means that each Wiccan from that tradition will share the same basic experiences and have the same basic toolkit for accessing the mysteries. However, the Book of Shadows is not a laid-down-in-stone, word of God, must-be-abided-by rulebook. It gives the basics, nothing more. It is a part of the toolkit but the rest is gained from the group, not from the book.

Given that some of these rites and rituals are available to the public, wouldn’t someone who read and enacted those rituals experience the mysteries of that tradition and be able call themselves an initiate?

You don’t become an initiate of a Mystery Tradition just because you happen to get your hands on a copy of their rituals. The written portion of the ritual is a very tiny part of the experience. The rest is handed to the initiate verbally and experientially. So, even if you did get a copy of the ritual and enact it with a group of friends (because you wouldn’t be able to do these rituals alone unless you developed several sets of arms and multiple personality disorder!) there would be symbols and language within that ritual that you would not understand unless it was explained to you and you would be missing the experiential and verbal teaching aspect, which is actually the biggest part. You might be lucky and stumble onto a small part of what an initiate of that tradition experiences but without the whole of the teaching and experience, you wouldn’t find the right doors and experience the same mysteries that an initiate of that tradition would experience and understand.

Quite simply, the only way to experience the mysteries relating to a particular tradition is to become a member of that tradition.

So as a solitary, how would you go about approaching the mysteries? Using the definition from the beginning of this article, how would you go about finding out about our relationship to the divine and our place within the universe?

Well, there are several ways of doing this, such as:

  • Finding out about the folklore and mythology in your locality. Are there any local gods for example?
  • Getting out and about in the local natural environment, whether that be woods, seashore, fields or the wild and windy moors. Get a feel for the place, its energy and peculiarities.
  • Meditation and path working: focusing the mind and travelling into those unseen worlds to make contact with elementals, spirits and divine energy and learning what they have to teach you.
  • Creating an altar space. Really thinking about what you put on that altar and why. Does it reflect a relationship you have with a particular god or goddess or is it more about your surroundings and the seasons? Maybe both?
  • Creating rituals. These are personal to you and you will probably put a lot of thought into what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. Is it a ritual to honour a deity or to celebrate the start of Spring?
  • Music, dance and poetry. These are good ways of focusing on a particular thing and can help to create a magical atmosphere or even induce an altered state of mind in which experiences can be gained.

So, going back to the dictionary definition of ‘mysteries’, we can summarise that they cannot be explained or written down in a book for all to read. They must be experienced and how those experiences are arrived at is for the individual to decide.

© Sarah Howe 2011

Wiccan ethics

by Sarah Howe

With the interplay between the Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law, Wiccan morality and ethics is a far more complex subject than a casual glance would have you believe.  Once the additional ideal of Perfect Love & Perfect Trust comes into play, it is obvious that the complexity of the issue of Wiccan morality and ethics can only increase.

“Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil.
An it harm none, do what ye will.”

The Wiccan Rede is an interesting concept and whilst simple at first glance, it is far more complex in practice, especially when you take into account that the Rede doesn’t mention the concept of unavoidable harm – the ending of an unhealthy relationship for example, which may cause harm to the person involved, but will prevent a greater harm in the long run.  A great deal of thought must be put into an action as to whether harm would be caused, whether it can be avoided and, if not, whether the harm caused will negate a greater harm.

This is very in keeping with Gardner’s own description of the Rede in explaining its origins.

“They [the witches] are inclined to the morality of Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”.  But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm”.  This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one’s actions, especially upon others”.

(The Meaning of Witchcraft – Page 108)

 In my experience, I have known many people on a variety of spiritual paths, to have taken the Rede to be a law (often seen shortened to “Harm None”); however it is clear that such a law would be impossible to follow.  The word Rede actually means ‘advice’ and it is therefore a more sensible approach to look at the Rede as a guideline and an ideal to strive for rather than a hard and fast rule.  I like to think of it like the bumpers you have down each side of a bowling alley.  The ball may veer off course but the bumper helps it back on track.  This is how I believe the Rede works:  as a bumper to keep us from veering too far from our paths.

The Rede is a positive way of thinking, giving freedom of personal morality rather than imposing a set of strict religious rules.  Quite often, when we are told we aren’t allowed something or are told we can’t do something, it makes us want it even more; as the saying goes – forbidden fruit tastes sweeter.  Where certain religious laws seek to suppress and contain those elements of human nature that they find distasteful or undesirable, the Rede gives freedom of personal expression in a healthy way.  So long as you are not causing harm to others or to yourself, then your morality and individuality are yours to express.

I have heard it argued that such freedom of personal expression would allow for the breaking of non-religious laws and criminal activity but I would argue that not only is the Rede intended for operation within the law (as would be common sense), but that there is no such thing as a victimless crime and that any such activity would constitute harm in any case.  Aside from this, I am of the opinion that any person given to break a law is going to do so regardless of any religious guidelines or commandments.

Vivianne Crowley makes a wonderful point in her book, Wicca:  A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World:

“This moral sense is developed by seeking to adhere to certain basic ideals of love, joy, truth, honour and trust, and making decisions which are in accordance with them.”

When you consider three of the main ideals within Wicca – The Rede, Threefold Law and Perfect Love & Perfect Trust – it makes sense to make your decisions both magically and otherwise based on the concepts cited by Vivianne.  That being said, we are also only human and not every decision we make will take all or any of these things into account.

The Law of Threefold Return

I have noticed a tendency to use the word “Karma” in conjunction with Threefold Law but it is often a westernised view of Karma, which is applied. In doing this the idea of Karma is interpreted as some sort of universal power that hands out punishments to those who do bad things and rewards those who do good things. The Eastern view of Karma, though, is simply that actions have natural consequences.  By being mindful of them, you can earn “good Karma” and thus earn a better future.  However, failing to take into consideration the results of your actions will earn “bad Karma” and lead to some sort of hardship as a result.

If the Rede has been (as often occurs) mistaken for a law and is applied to everything, in conjunction with Threefold Law in its misunderstood form (i.e. “westernised” karma), it would be difficult to see how a person could even get out of bed in the morning for fear of causing harm!

In my opinion, Threefold Law is actually closer to Karma as it was intended in the East or to the Biblical maxim “You reap what you sow”. It is an easier concept to accept if it is not looked at in terms of whatever you send out comes back to you times three, but instead is considered in terms of how our choices are made.  In numerology, the number three is representative of divine trinities and of completion (birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end; past, present, future).  This lends itself to the idea of Threefold Law representing a completion of our choices, i.e. Course of action decided upon, course of action taken, results of action taken.

Combined with the Rede, it is essentially a method of keeping us mindful of our actions and ensuring that we are fully aware of their potential outcomes and impacts.  This applies not only to our spiritual lives (such as when performing a magical working) but also to our daily lives.  It reminds us that whatever choices we make, there are repercussions and that we must take responsibility for our own choices and deeds.  There is no “big bad” to blame when things go wrong, we are responsible for everything we do, good or bad.

Perfect Love and Perfect Trust

 I feel that when it comes to Wiccan morality and ethics, this concept is often greatly neglected.  But what really happens if you incorporate into your life the “highest ideal” of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust?

It is easiest to apply this concept to our coven mates, and it is reasonable that this should be the case; after all, it is with our coven that we first experience perfect love and trust, in the form of initiation.  Their trust that we are the right person for their group and the love everyone bears for each other as friends and as part of the wider Wiccan family.  Then there is the trust and love that we ourselves express in putting ourselves in a vulnerable position with them, by undergoing initiation itself.

We could even apply the concept to our family (however you define that) with whom we share a bond of unconditional love and trust.  It is sometimes possible to apply it to friends and lovers, although here, love and trust may not be unconditional.  Often, trust must be earned and love is given but not without a certain amount of fear of betrayal or rejection.

So, the question becomes, should the concept of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust be applied outside of the coven environment?  Is it even possible to apply it those people we don’t know closely?  Perhaps we leave ourselves open to all kinds of mundane and spiritual problems if we try to define our morality further by including this idea away from the environment where it is most often encountered.

Is it even possible to have any love or trust for people whose motivations we don’t actually know, let alone perfect love and trust for them?  It becomes a little like the commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  It’s a nice idea in principle, but does it actually work in practice or does it become something unachievable, which we still strive for?  Perhaps the best step we can take is to be good people and to treat others with respect and in turn, earn respect through our actions.

In summary, it very difficult anticipate the outcome of any decision we take but by being mindful of our actions and accepting of their consequences, we can take a great step towards living our lives according to the ethical principles of Wicca and to strive ever onwards towards our highest ideals.  I believe this quote from Fred Lamond’s book, Fifty Years of Wicca serves to best sum up what I have attempted to discuss here in his direct quote from Gardner:  “If you concentrate on helping others, your spiritual development will take care of itself”.

Sarah Howe, 2008

What do we have in common?

by Keith Galapas

As an initiated Gardnerian I am restricted on what I can say about my chosen path in any public medium. I made a promise back in 1976 that I would not discuss the specifics of what we do in in the Gardnerian craft. This means that I am oathbound. There is really no one who enforces this except myself and my own definitions of ethics and honour. It is something I have done my entire adult life. This shows the first two things all Gardnerians share.

1) We have been initiated. It takes a Gardnerian to make a Gardnerian.

This is not limited to our tradition. Many occult and Pagan groups work on the model that it takes one to make one. For Gardnerians, the authority to initiate starts after second degree. Many covens feel that a third degree needs to be there are well. Others view the third degree as optional and a personal choice of the individual.

2) We are bound by oath. We all have made a similar promise.

While we may have different views on what that promise covers, we have all made it. I see it as covering the details of what takes place in the circle. Who was there and what we did. It is clear to me that mentioning the legal name of a witch who has not declared themselves to be one publicly is breaking that promise. When it comes to passed lore, there are more disagreements. Selling a copy of our BoS on Ebay is generally frowned upon. If I were to do so, most others of my tradition would no longer work with me or socialize with me. I would no longer get invitations to visit other covens or to attend workshops. So while we do not have central authority, there are predictable reactions to some behaviours. These take place on a person to person level.

3) We have no central authority.

For the most part, covens are autonomous. Some are more independent than others. That is usually by choice. The leadership in a coven can vary. It has always been my experience that in ritual, it is the High Priestess who is in charge. Outside of the circle the most common model is that it is the High Priestess is in charge as well or has the final veto. But this will vary from coven to coven. Some coven or coven members prefer a more hierarchical structure both within a coven and between covens. Others prefer more of a collection of equals. This is very much a matter of coven fit.

Another aspect of this is that there is no one who speaks for all of us. I personally resent it when anybody goes out and claims to speak on any issue for all Pagans, all Wiccans or all Gardnerians. I may or may not agree with their view. I think it hubris or presumptious to assume that their view is mine because I am one of the above. I will listen with respect and consider the views of anyone who has walked the walk for a decade or more. They may convince me, but cannot order me. Any authority or rank I have ends outside of my circle. Only if my views have merit in others’ eyes will they be adopted.

4) We have a lineage.

We know our lineage and can trace who initiated who back to Gardner. The format of those lists will vary in different areas. Some are by public Pagan names only. Others are by legal names. So for some, stating that lineage is not oathbound is correct (if Pagan names are used). All will agree that giving out legal names is considered oathbreaking.

5) We do not charge for training or participation.

This is one of the most common red flags on an invalid Gardnerian group. That they charge for training or charge for participation in the circles. If a group is meeting at a place, such as a camp-ground, there may be a site fee for the camping.