Warning: long, somewhat rambly post ahead.
Recently, I read Kerényi’s book on the Mysteries at Eleusis. Now, Kerényi was a contemporary of — and in fact, was close friends with — Jung, and this book was published as part of the Bollingen Series, a series of books relating to the juncture between archetypes, myth, and psychology. Probably partially as a function of their subject matter and partially as a function of when and by whom they were written, they tend to be rather mystical and, to borrow the term from modern paganisms, woo. That’s not really intended as a criticism: every book in the series that I’ve ever read, I’ve enjoyed immensely. However, they’re not exactly books I turn to for hard facts about what actually happened in any historical religion. You know, they’re the type of books in which the birth of Jesus is reproduced in an ancient Aztec myth, the authors conveniently neglecting to leave out the immense differences between those traditions.
So it’s not a book I found all that helpful for giving me 100% trustworthy details on what happened at Eleusis. (Although on the whole it wasn’t too bad in that area, either.) On the other hand, what it was absolutely amazing for was making me think about the idea and importance of Mysteries.
It occurs to me that, unless you’re one of the small percentage of pagans who actually are initiated into a mystery tradition like Trad Wicca, modern pagans don’t really have access to the Mysteries in the traditional sense of the word; i.e. it’s impossible for us to take part in a structured series of events coordinated by a recognized authority and then receive hitherto-unknown secrets. In that case, what can the rest of us do to achieve a similar experience?
As shouldn’t be too surprising for someone who just read a mystical, woo book on Eleusis, I am primarily interested in the idea of Mysteries as they relate to Kore. So I think it’s relevant to talk about how I ended up worshiping Kore. She is one of only two Greek deities I worship, the other being Aphrodite. It’s a little bit ironic: I’ve loved Greek myths for as long as I can remember, but neither Kore nor Aphrodite were Goddesses Who were important to me when I was growing up, and in fact I felt mild dislike toward both.
I would be surprised if there are any pagans who haven’t at some point struggled with Gods Who have bad press. I mean, the idea of pagan Gods itself has bad press. Then there’s the other sort of image problem, the one that occurs not when the God’s image is necessarily bad, but just when it’s inaccurate. (I think the Greek and Roman pantheons are particularly prone to this one given that these are Gods Who have stayed household names long after Their religions died out, opening Them up to a lot of distortion.)
This is where Aphrodite and Kore come in. I never liked Aphrodite growing up, because, well, why would I? She tends to be portrayed either as a catty Mean Girl (more common in popular culture) or (more common in Neo-Paganism) as That Goddess You Call On If You Want Some Dude To Fall In Love With You Or Something. Either way, Her image tends to be very flat. It’s rare to hear anyone who’s not actively involved in Her worship point out that She is, after all, the Goddess of life and also of death, the Goddess of bringing-together but also of overwhelming power, the Goddess of the sea and stars.
And then there’s Kore. I’ll be honest: part of the reason I call Her Kore and not by Her more common name is that, even when I began to worship Her, I still just didn’t like the name Persephone. Now, She definitely doesn’t have bad press. Pretty much every modern representation I’ve seen of Her puts Her in a quite positive light.
It’s just that the Persephone we tend to hear about is a sweet but rather vapid Goddess of spring and flowers. Sure, She’s the Queen of the Underworld, too — but apparently a very nice Queen of the Underworld. Either that or the myth gets remixed in ways that are slightly uncomfortable and can only lead me to conclude that people are either unaware of the proper definition of rape or the proper definition of love story. (1)
Last winter, I was researching various other pagan religions — I like to have at least some clue what people are talking about even if it’s completely unrelated to anything I’m involved in — and was reading Valerie Walker’s Feri site. Walker gives an exercise in which practitioners are to move through their chakras, associating each chakra with a Goddess. The Goddess she gives for the crown chakra is Kore. Now, I knew of course that Kore was simply another name for Persephone, but the Kore Walker mentions, the “shamanic connection” so powerful that She is to be associated with the highest chakra given in most traditions (albeit apparently not in Feri, which lists two more above the crown) — this sounded nothing like the bland, pretty flower maiden. I was intrigued. I began to research Her more, and my opinion of Her did a complete 180.
But the question remains: if Kore isn’t simply the gentle Queen of the Dead or the pretty flower maiden, then Who is She? I couldn’t answer that question.
Then, I read Kerényi’s book. Of Demeter, he writes:
[Demeter is] mother not of all beings, both gods and men, but of the grain and of a mysterious daughter, whom one did not willingly name in the presence of the profane. (2)
In the duality which was always retained at Eleusis, Demeter represented the earthly aspect, Persephone another, rather ghostly and transcendent. (3)
I began to understand some things. Kore is, well, the Kore — the Nameless Maiden, invisible and ineffable. She is that which is beyond understanding and representation. Part of the point of Her myth specifically is the fact that She is that which isn’t there: Kore is the archetype of everything that becomes all the more beautiful and longed-for because of its absence.
I have seen Her referred to as a Goddess associated with the new moon, and the more I think of it, the more that association makes sense. Let’s think about it: how would you represent the new moon? In images that show all of the moon phases, it’s usually just a completely dark space. But that representation only works if the other phases are also present. You can’t expect to show someone a black square of paper by itself and have them say, “Ah, it’s the new moon.”
Recently I decided to draw Kore standing under the new moon. Spoiler: this is not particularly apparent in the drawing. It looks more like She’s standing under a black sun or just a random black orb which happens to be floating in the air.
The matter becomes all the more complicated if we consider the fact that in actuality, both of the ways of representing the new moon described above are incorrect. Moon phases are governed by the moon’s position in the sky relative to the sun. When the moon is full, it is opposite from the sun; i.e. it rises at dusk, reaches its zenith at midnight, and sets at dawn. The new moon, however, travels with the sun. In other words, representing the new moon as black is a bit silly because the new moon isn’t in the sky at any of the times when the sky is dark! If you really wanted to draw an accurate picture of the new moon high in the sky, you would probably actually end up drawing the noon sun.
My point is that the new moon is essentially impossible to represent in any logical and coherent way. It’s an absence made solid. For me, that is what makes it such a potent symbol of Kore: the lightless moon is perfect for the Nameless Maiden.
I have to think that in its most basic and essential state, the worship of Kore is the worship of Mystery. So. Back to Mysteries.
Given that it’s impossible to reconstruct the Mysteries at Eleusis in any meaningful way, one does have to wonder how to worship a Mystery Goddess Who no longer has any Mysteries.
My feeling is that the next-best thing to a Mystery given by others is a Mystery kept to oneself: that is, a secret. I don’t believe one has to actually be a mystic, or have some other kind of access to arcane knowledge in order to come up with a suitable secret. There’s an old post on one of the blogs I follow in which the writer discusses the fact that really, none of the oathbound information given to him when he was initiated in his tradition was actually anything he couldn’t have found on his own:
There is no such thing as “secret lore.” It simply does not exist. All so-called “secret lore” has already been written down in books, and has been for centuries. Yes, centuries.
The names of the Gods are published; the names of the Watchers have been published; the name of God Herself has been published and can be found with only a nominal amount of searching, if one will read books that were written before the 20th century (too few people do that anymore).
In that case, what is the point of having a secret at all? My answer is that the quality of secretness tends to evoke reverence. I don’t know what, to switch to an entirely different mystery tradition for a moment, the true names of the God and Goddess of Wicca are. I’m quite sure those can also be found openly printed, and perhaps even somewhere online, given the amount of interest Wicca generates. I’m sure that if I, not being a Wiccan, were to ever find out what those names are, I’d be disappointed. After all, whatever they are, they’re just words. But if I were a Wiccan interested in becoming initiated in a trad, nothing would please me more than to finally know what those names are.
To that end, I’ve decided on a secret name for Kore. I was inspired to make Her secret a name-related secret by a passage in Kerényi’s book which claims that the Hierophant who presided over the Mysteries at Eleusis used “strange names for the gods.” (4) Given that Kerényi gives no evidence for this having happened, and given that this entire genre of book tends to be more than a little fanciful, I have my doubts as to whether this actually happened.
Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing idea, and I had the sudden realization that I already knew of a name which is a perfect fit. Naturally, I can’t say what it is, but it’s not secret lore; the name has been published not only in print but on the internet. I will say that it’s somewhat obscure lore: although it is a divine name, I have never come across another person who worships a deity under that name. Still, anyone who is truly interested should be able to discover what it is without any great difficulty, especially since this post, of necessity, has already alluded to it.
What matters, of course, is not whether or not anyone else can find it. It’s the fact that I have decided to not speak of it as a mark of respect for Mystery.
I’m thinking of doing something similar for Wesir, although I am extremely confident that will not take the form of a secret name. But it would be nice to find something to do during His Mysteries that will not be discussed. (And now it’s paranoia time: do all other Kemetics already do this? And they’re just not talking about it because, well, the whole point is that you can’t talk about it? And I’m only just catching on now?)
Ultimately, I think that all Mysteries should be like the new moon: hinted at everywhere, implied by all that surrounds it, and at the same time eternally just beyond what can be seen.
(1) In all fairness, I don’t think that reinterpreting this myth to make it more – ah – consensual is inherently a bad thing, although I’ll admit that that definitely isn’t my understanding of it. But it does drive me crazy when people don’t seem to realize that their reinterpretation is in fact a reinterpretation.
(2) Kerényi, Carl & Ralph Manheim, trans. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967, 29.
(3) Ibid, 33.
(4) Ibid, 25.