Faced with several possible interpretations based on the evidence we correlated, it became clear that although it remained possible that Gerald Gardner may have created the tradition, it was certainly not that plausible in comparison to some of the other conclusions that we reached. In fact, at this stage of our research we feel that it is most likely that Gardner was not that much of a charlatan after all, but that his accounts of initiation into an existing tradition, upon which he later expanded, were truthful. When stripped right back, without the many additions and evolutions it has undergone since the 1950’s, Gerald Gardner’s ‘Witch Cult’ appears to predate him by at least some years.
~Sorita d’Este and David Rankine
discuss their book, Wicca, Magickal Beginnings.
Perhaps more interesting to me than the ever-debated question of whether (YES!) or not (YES!) Gardner created a "new" religion (is there such a thing? YES! NO!), is d'Este's and Rankine's discussion of Wicca as a mystery religion: Whilst debating the possible starting point of this magickal tradition, we realised that all the evidence being presented was focused on the people who were the early public face of the tradition and their contemporaries. Yet this is a tradition which is also called a ‘Craft’ and which is an experiential tradition where personal experience is paramount for the understanding of the practices and beliefs. So why were we debating the origins of the tradition in terms of who said or did what?
. . .
Having asked ourselves all these questions again and again over the years, . . . we found that ultimately Wicca remained a mystery tradition at its heart. The practices and beliefs could only be fully understood through direct experience thereof and it was through this that the tradition could be best defined, not through the endless debates about lineages, initiations and personalities!
The definition of a mystery religion (or "tradition" as the authors would have it) as one that can only be understood through direct experience rings true for me; Wicca is what you do. I've been reading The Wiccan Mystic: Exploring a Magical Spiritual Path (religion, tradition, path, we're a confused people; I love us that way) by Ben Gruagach, who spends considerable time trying to define what a mystery religion is, and then determining that, even though Wicca fails to meet several prongs of his definition, it still meets the important prong, so it must be a mystery religion!
Gruagach says that mystery religions:
*require formal initiation
*have secrets shared only with members of the group
*focus their worship (bad word, IMHO, practice would be better) on communion with divine.
As examples of true mystery religions, he lists Eleusinian "cults" (v. bad word, IMHO), worship of Mithras, and the "cults" of ancient Egypt.
Gruagach says that Gardnerian Wicca was definitely a mystery religion: initiation by a "high degree" witch was required, secrets were shared (BoS!) only with members, and communion w/ the divine was sought through ecstatic practices, including flagellation, chanting, dance (if he were more thorough, he'd have added sex) (and drugs, including alcohol).
Yet, when he looks at modern Wicca, Gruagach finds initiation is often lacking; even in Gardner's day, there were certainly Solitaries who were never initiated by anyone (except, perhaps, by themselves. And, Deity. Which, would, you'd think, do the trick.) Similarly, there are, today, few Wiccan secrets not for sale in the aisles of any Barnes and Noble. (Except, of course, for the one that can't be printed in any book, posted on any website, or told by even a Ninth Degree witch to an Initiate: And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of desire.
And that's where Gruagach concludes that Wicca does measure up to the most important prong of the mystery religion test: Wiccans often perceive even mundane [now there's a word I hate] life as flooded w/ the Divine presence. Wicca is an experiential religion where one is expected to [I'd have said, "where one does" . . . "expectations" (of others) play so little a role in the religious life of most witches. You either do experience the divine or want to or you don't.] to actively seek out contact with the Divine [maybe "awareness of unity with" is better than "contact."]
Concluding that it is likely that this characteristic [direct experience of Deity] is the essential core, the mystery of mystery religions
Gruagach determines that Wicca is a mystery religion.
Does it matter? Probably not. One could live (and, certainly, through the centuries, many have lived) with intimate awareness of unity with the Divine, do magic, perform ritual, dance the Spiral Dance, and be in every way a witch without ever having heard of mystery religions or considering whether Wicca is or is not one. As d'Este and Rankine note, Wicca is called The Craft for a reason and a craft is something one does, not only a body of intellectual knowledge.
But I like Gruagach's discussion for this reason: it highlights what I believe to be an important distinction between Wicca and many of the "accepted" world religions. In what I find to be a rather icky attempt at "inclusiveness," xians, in particular, often talk about "people of faith" as if that somehow included all (real) religions. But it most emphatically does not include a mystery religion such as Wicca, where faith plays no role at all and experience is everything. (And you who seek to know Me, know that the seeking and yearning [and having faith] will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of desire.
). Other religions, xianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindus, and even Buddhists may have their occasional mystics, the Levi Yitzchaks of Berditchov, the St. Theresas, the Rumis, etc., who directly experience union with Divinity, but one can be a full-fledged leader of, say, Catholicism, without ever having had such an experience. As long as one has faith, (OK, and for Catholics, who, perhaps more than Protestants, retain a few mystery traits, as long as one is baptised (initiated)) one is "saved," a complete member of the faith. Me, I find everytime that someone wants me to take something on faith, they're trying to sell me something, put one over on me. You gotta Deity? Show me. Otherwise, meh.
This focus on experience may be why the concept of S/he's a witch but doesn't know it
is common among many witches. We can recognize people who aren't Wiccan, would recoil at the suggestion that they're witches, but who clearly live in touch with Divinity, do magic, have found the Mystery within themselves, with them from the beginning, and attained at the end of all desire.
May it be so for you.
Art found here