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The mysteries were the mystic aspect of fertility religions that celebrated sexuality, birth, and death. Essential to all mystery religions is an assumed parallel between the cycles of nature and of spiritual and psychological life. That is, individual and family life, the processes of nature, and the reality of the divine all were seen to mirror one another, and all were seen as part of an ongoing process that was beautiful.
Some cultures celebrated solar cycles (spring, summer, fall, and winter), and others the lunar cycle (waxing, waning, and full moons). The cycles of nature paralleled sacred events of birthing, coupling, and dying. Initially the great spiritual principal was a goddess, and later a god. This divine being gave birth to a son (who in early goddess stories becomes his mother’s consort) or a daughter (as in the myth of Demeter and Kore) who was prized by this parent. Yet this child had to be sacrificed: Kore is abducted to Hades and forever must live there half the year; Dionysus is torn apart by his followers in an orgiastic revel; Christ is crucified.
In these stories, death or sacrifice is followed by images of rebirth or resurrection. The old god dies, and is reborn in the new year. Christ is resurrected, Osiris is pieced backed together; Kore returns to earth, and winter turns to spring. Such patterns of death and rebirth not only parallel seasonal changes, they also mirror the psychological pattern of renewal, as we die to what we were, we can then give birth to what we could be.
Later patriarchal religious stories, such as those of Christianity, retained the sense of mystery around the pattern of death and resurrection, but lost the equally important focus on the great miracle of sexuality. The earlier fertility religions celebrated not only death and rebirth but the great miracle that birth results from sexual union. Thus, the most sacred objects of the earlier mystery religions celebrated male and female erotic energy in quite explicit ways. Some of this symbolism has carried over into Christian liturgy. For example, as Esther Harding has noted, the “holy font of baptism fertilized by plunging in the lighted candle” is a version of ancient erotic symbolism. But the veneration of the miracle of sexual union at the base of such symbolism has been lost.
Indeed, in the present day, it might seem heretical to some to think of sexual intercourse as a major spiritual mystery, especially since the notion of the virgin birth became dogma. To the ancients, however, the celebration of passion, Eros, was as essential as the celebration of rebirth. In some traditions, as with the Hindu Shiva and Shakti, creation comes as a frankly erotic coupling of the gods. And as Harding also demonstrated, the importance of the God being born of a “Virgin” did not originally come from any puritanical impulses. Classically, the term Virgin meant a woman who was “one-in-herself,” who owned herself. She could be sexual and could have children, but she could be someone else’s wife or property. This meant that she knew the goddess within her and honored herself.
The process of initiation into the mysteries of death, passion, and birth venerated by the ancient mystery religions and by native people everywhere reflects the Soul archetypes of Seeker, Destroyer, Lover, and Creator.
— Carol S. Pearson, Awakening The Heroes Within