In various sources on the subjects of Paganism and Witchcraft, we often see references to Men’s Mysteries and Women’s Mysteries. In today’s world of shifting terrain around gender definitions and boundaries, there may well be questions as to how relevant, if at all, such terms and the rites they denote may be to seekers of Pagan wisdom in this challenging year of 2015. I would like to offer some brief reflections on this topic. By necessity, these will have to be quite preliminary, and there may be future writings from me taking specific aspects under deeper consideration.
The word Mysteries really means rites. But I would divide these into three categories: first, rites that involve passageways into changes of status, such as rites of adulthood (or, more accurately, manhood in the old Men’s Mysteries). The latter specifically have been widely described across many cultures in the works of ethnologists. Secondly, rites of sodalities that usually have a professional character. The classic case is the rite initiating an apprentice into full status as member of a guild. Nigel Jackson speculates (in a long essay he composed on the Tarot) that in the early Middle Ages, such guilds may have carried some esoteric teachings from the old Mystery cults of Antiquity, particularly those related to the visual and plastic arts. Until the 20th century, many professions were specifically closed to women. (There was a much smaller number traditionally avoided by men and dominated by women.) Thirdly, esoteric initiatory men’s mystery rites with an erotic element are hinted at in some of the old lore, notably the material so diligently collected by Randy Conner in his book Blossom of Bone. We find modern day attempts to revive such rites in such traditions as the Order of Chaeronea founded by George Ives in 1897, the Circle of Loving Companions begun by Harry Hay and John Burnside in the 1960s, or the Minoan Brotherhood established by Lord Gwydion in the 1970s. In Terence DuQuesne’s writing about Anubis, he speculates–evidently based on personal gnosis–that a male priesthood characterized by erotic rites may have had an initiatory ceremony dedicating a new acolyte to the Deity with specific acts. There are other instances that could be cited from the byways of the literature.
I will note parenthetically here that one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Women’s Mysteries rite I can recall reading was a menarche ceremony described by Emma Restall Orr in one of her books. It is well worth reading for those with an interest in how such rites could be carried out today.
In Cora Anderson’s book Fifty years in the Fairy Tradition, she provides very brief lore regarding the Grey Dove covens which were working groups formed by men. There were also Grey Wolf covens for women. The image of the Grey Dove suggests Aphrodite, while the Grey Wolf makes one think of Dionysos and the wild women who terrorized the countryside in the play The Bacchae by Euripides. It is worth noting that in the latter play, Dionysos acts as the Guardian of the Women’s Mysteries. The language of the play describes him as being in between male and female in his own nature, which leads to devastating consequences for the ruler of Thebes, Pentheus, who is outraged by the ways in which the God flouts the conventions and social order of the city. This leads to my next point.
I will suggest that a new type of rite is appearing today, and one way of thinking about such rites is as Gender Mysteries. In the material collected by Randy Conner in the book mentioned above, in such cases as the Galli Priest/esses of Cybele Magna Mater or the Hijra of India, we see that there are forerunners. These were orders for people who were in some way embodying what was once called a Third Gender or Third Sex. One very special quality of the Gender Mysteries is that while the rites specific to men and women often bring about a defined change of status, the Gender Mysteries may be about what Kate Bornstein has called “the space of no gender”–a spiritual land in betwixt and in between. I personally feel there is deep Power being tapped in such Work. It is all quite vibrant and dynamic and emerging in an organic way out of multiple processes and from the hands of many agents and activists. It feels way too early to me to try to say anything definite about where such work is leading. I have found some exciting new vistas being shown to those of us who are interested in learning from the Priest/esses of the Gender Mysteries about the new Wisdom they are revealing.
The nature of a Mystery rite is that is only going to be appropriate for certain individuals who are at a particular phase of personal development. In the rhetoric dominant in the present age, where we want to believe that every experience and every teaching should be accessible to everyone interested in learning of it, this is a difficult concept to consider. I have given my reasons elsewhere for why I, as a Mystery Priest/ess myself, take very seriously the responsibility involved in only sharing what has been bequeathed to me in due time, with due regard to place and person, in a way that I feel properly upholds the integrity I swore to guard with my life before the Mighty Ones. This isn’t melodrama. It’s knowing the character of a person before you hand her a sharp knife and invite her to go off and play.
In the case of Men’s Mysteries, I think that what is happening is that the rites are shifting from being collective experiences shared by all adult males, to being the province of more specifically defined affinity groups. In the mythopoetic men’s movement which took off in the 1980s from admirers of Robert Bly’s work, there was a very sincere attempt to reconfigure ritual, collective work specific to the needs of men who felt wounded by the upheavals they had gone through in their lives. This work provides many examples of attempts to find new strategies for performing men’s mystery work in the current era. It is work that serves the needs of specific communities, and these communities have often emerged–and in some cases, fragmented and fallen apart–through the experience of seeking to do this work.
So, you may now wonder what the point of pursuing the Men’s Mysteries may be in this brave new world we now inhabit. As one answer–there are many more to be articulated, meditated upon and pondered–I offer these words.
In an entry written in August 2014, I quoted this passage from the writings of Dennis Melba’son, describing a spontaneous ecstatic rite which occurred at the climax of a 1980 Radical Faerie Gathering:
Suddenly there appeared before me Cernunnos, who pulled me into Him. The cape enveloped His body and we kissed. Then He asked me to lift the shawl above our heads and walk with Him around the circle, drawing Fairies closer to the central pole, where we hung the shawl for all to see. The circle drew in tighter and tighter. The seven Names of the Goddess were being chanted louder and louder. Suddenly there leaped into the circle a young dancer, fully clothed. He began to undress. All around the circle–now quite tight, perhaps 2-3 Fairies deep–buttons began to be popped, shoes untied, pants unzipped. Clothes were thrown at the base of the pole, offerings to Cernunnos, as naked Fairies leaped into the inner circle and began to dance. The Chant of the Seven Names grew faster, more insistent. Cocks grew hard. Mouths and bodies enveloped them. Strong arms encircled my body. The dancer leapt up the pole. The chant changed: Pan, Cernunnos, the Horned One Comes … PAN, CERNUNNOS, THE HORNED ONE COMES! The figure behind me pressed closer. I could feel His hard cock through the cape. He pulled me closer–pressing, caressing. The dancer came against the pole and was lowered gently into loving arms. I turned to see the face of my lover. No one was there.
I turned back into the inner circle. Naked Fairies were getting down on it all over. The outer circle began to chant: NO MORE GUILT. The bodies writhed in ritual Sex Majik that healed us all. The chants changed to groans and moans and sighs and whimpers and cries of ecstasy. The God descended. The Horned One came. (RFD issue 25, Winter 1980, pp. 14-15)