The Eleusinian Mysteries: The Intersection of Gnosticism and Witchcraft

An excerpt from Aidan Kelly’s book To Celebrate the Mysteries: A Reader on Things Eleusinian

The Eleusinian Mysteries first captured my attention sometime in the early 1960s. Given my interest in calendars, I learned how the Athenian lunisolar calendar worked and extrapolated it up to current times to find out when the Mysteries would begin now. After all that work, I realized that the pattern was simple: the Mysteries began at the full moon near­est the autumnal equinox, when the Hierokeryx, the Sacred Herald, announced them in the Painted Porch in Athens. The Athenian calendar was intercalated by addition of the 13th month (called Poseideon Deuteros) in a pattern that kept the date of the Mysteries stable.

Hence I knew the Mysteries would have begun on the Saturday night in September 1969 when our Order, our occult study and dancing society that we had named the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, was holding our Autumnal Equinox Sabbat at Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Sonoma County, California. That evening I led the several dozen attendees on a walk down along a dry creekbed to a natural spring, where I recited the myth of Persephone to them. Then we returned to our circle, with shouts of “Evohe!” and “Iakkhos”, to dance. I audaciously, perhaps somewhat like Apollo, led nine priestesses in a chain dance until all but Katherine and I had collapsed from exhaustion. The campground was filled with an almost visible mist, like a collective aura.

During the next five years, the telling of Persephone’s story grew. I had also discovered the extant fragments of classical Greek music, began experimenting with them, and incorporated the resulting pieces into the evolving ritual. By 1974 it had become an oratorio with dancing and processions and music provided by a small ensemble of flute, saxophone, viola, tuba, and percussion. That ritual has been worked many times during the last 45 years. I incorporated most of the songs in it into “The Wedding Guests” and wrote others. Including both the ritual and the play in this book would thus have been redundant. The script for the ritual is included in my Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches.

For me, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most personal and important religious experience in the classical world, are not a matter of mere curiosity, a detail among the multitude of facts in classical studies to be consigned to a footnote. Rather, I find them to be archetypal, the most significant revelation of the nature of religion in general, as I will explain in the body of this book. In Chapter 2 I discuss the quantum leap in the nature of consciousness that passed a threshold in the middle of the first millennium BCE and made the Mystery religions possible as a personal, not communal, religion..

In January of 1974, having resigned from my position as an editor with Scientific American Books, I began my doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. One of the questions I hoped to find answers to was why the Eleusinian Mysteries were so compelling that people in Greco-Roman civilization came to Eleusis to be initiated every fall for almost 1300 years. The greatest “mystery” about the Mysteries is that they were secret; only the initiates knew what had happened there. Would it still be possible now to deduce what happened, why the Mysteries worked so well as a religion? I believe that, with help from many scholars, I was able to understand that, as I will also explain. My comprehensives in June 1976 included a timed, closed-book exam on the cultus of Demeter; that essay, later expanded, has become Chapter 7 in this book, laying out what can now be known about the events in the month of Boedromion, which included the Mysteries.

At some time soon after my comprehensives, talking with my committee chairman, Wayne Rood, about choosing a topic for my dissertation, I mentioned a one-act situation comedy based on the myth that I had tossed off six years earlier. With some excitement, he exclaimed, “That’s your dissertation!”

“What?” I replied, brilliantly.

He explained that, given all I had learned, I could expand that play into three acts and use a director’s facing-page format for all the scholarly discussion. Hence I did expand that initial sketch, incorporating all the music written for our Order’s Sabbat ritual, and arrived at “The Wedding Guests.” The GTU was and is a very liberal school, where one could do creative work in a dissertation. I was able to do a concert reading of the play with a group of friends, but it was never performed.

I include my work on Sappho here because the fragments of her work are the only writing we have by a woman who was initiated at Eleusis, as the fragments of her poetry reveal. In classical studies, the normal procedure is to number such fragments and keep them safe, each stored in a separate Ziploc baggie. However, as a poet, I regarded those fragments as raw materials and used them to construct a suite of poems, the AEolian Transformations, as discussed in Chapters 8 and 9.

Thus at my age and as a poet, I deal with the Mysteries personally, in a play, in poetry, in music. I have included the relevant scholarship here, mainly in Chapter 7, to demonstrate that, in my doctoral program and in working as an editor for scholarly presses, I learned how to do all that right, but I go well beyond that here.

12.The Secret of the Mysteries

Given everything already discussed, it should be clear that the actual “secret” of the Mysteries was the psychological transformation induced by one’s experience in the ritual. Such a change clearly did not happen to everyone. I think that is what Plato meant by “Many bear the thyrsus, but there are few initiates.” Hence we need to dis­cuss what a ritual is intended to accomplish, a question obviously relevant for most modern Witches.

In some Traditions, the concern about the ritual of initiation is that it be legal, that is, should carry out the prescriptions for how the initiation is to be done in complete detail, observing every jot and tittle, crossing all the “i”s and dotting all the “t”s. There is often little concern about whether the ritual has any effect on the initiate’s mental or emotional life.

The parallel problem was in the theology about sacraments in the Catholic church in the 1950s, when I was growing up. The question I asked, as I suppose many also did, was “ Why did I not feel any different after my confirmation?” The official answer was that the sacraments were represented by seven checkmarks on our souls that could be read by the angels. Of the seven boxes for the sacraments, only six could be checked; there could not be checks for both marriage and ordination. That is, the criterion was that the sacrament had to be conferred legally, not whether it had conferred any perceptible degree of grace. I think you can see that this “explanation” thoroughly violated the principle of Occam’s Razor: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatam, which meant, Do not assume that something exists before that’s necessary.

I was glad to discover, when I was teaching young Roman Catholic Sisters in the early 1980s, that the theology of the sacraments had been totally rewritten in the documents promulgated by Vatican II. The new theories were entirely focused on the personal transformations that the sacraments can produce.

The practical question thus follows from what we do know about the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Athenian law that protected only the “lesser” mysteries, not the “greater” mysteries, is clear evidence that the Athenians recognized that some sort of personal transformation had resulted from being initiated, at least for some people. As I said earlier, these “greater” mysteries did not need protection by a human law, because they were arrheta, incommunicable, knowable only by having the experience itself. In that case, can we know anything reliable about what that experience was, what it felt like? I believe we can.

Here we arrive at the point where Gnosticism and Witchcraft intersect, in the concept of what the Gnostics called “the Awakening.” The Greek word anastasis is always translated as “resurrection” in the Christian scriptures. However, it had many other meanings in Greek usage, including standing up, being raised up, being upstanding, or waking up from sleep, which is the meaning used by the Gnostics, one that makes better sense out of many statements in their writings. For example, in the Gospel of Phillip, one statement says that, using this meaning, “If one does not awaken in this life, one will not awaken in the next one.” That is, it is an understanding of the common Jewish belief in resurrection as happening in this world, not in any sort of otherworldly heaven, the concept derived from the dualistic beliefs of the Greeks.

 The type of experience that they called “the Awakening” is universal and not dependent on culture, although individuals always, of course, try to understand the experience in terms of the religious concepts in their own cultures. It happens often enough that it has been well studied, as by William James, but it is rare enough that there is no common name for it. Calling it “mystic” is not ideal; the associations with that term make the experience sound “misty,” when it is anything but. The experience has apparently happened for most of the religious founders in history, as far as we have writings by them. The epistemological problem here is that if and only if one has had that experience can one recognize that it is being described.

The importance of the experience it that when it happens, almost always spon­taneously, the person becomes a better person, almost a saint, though usually not in any way like the concept almost all people have of what a saint might be like. They become, as it were, a “leaven in the lump,” improving the lives of all whom they touch in some way. I can only speculate about why the experience happens to only a few people, not many, but I expect that if it did happen to enough people, perhaps to a majority of people, the nature of human society would metamorph into the longstanding vision of what humanity might, one hopes, become. Given that hope, one can wonder whether it might be possible to somehow enable more people to have that experience, not have it always be spontaneous, unexpected, but instead purposely induced. I think it may be. I think the Craft has a technology that could work toward that goal, by making experiences in circle even more transformative—but here I believe I must not reveal the “secret of the Mystery,” that it should be discussed and known only in circle and/or among initiates. That is, there are some genuine “third-degree secrets.” I do not know, of course, why the Gods do not let more people have the experience. Perhaps they want to protect us from somehow harming ourselves. No way of attempting to induce the experience on purpose could have a guarantee; one can hope only to make that gift more probable. Yet the effort will always be worthwhile.

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