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Are there “queer pagan mysteries”?

“Religion becomes queer when it breaks up the desiring self, when it refuses to confess an identity, when it refuses to say who we are, and acknowledges a plural self with polymorphous desires. To queer religion is to queer the foundations of theology, its monotheism, its monosexuality and its monopoly of truth”.
Jeremy R Carette, Michael Foucault and Theology: The Politics of Religious Experience

Not long after my post on queering deity I received an email inviting me to participate in a “Queer Pagan Mysteries” workshop (that’s “participate” with a price tag, of course). My answer was that I wasn’t sure what constituted “Queer Pagan Mysteries” but that I’d be interested in finding out what was being referred to here.

The response to my diffidence was along the lines of that just as there are “women’s mysteries” that are common to all women, and “men’s mysteries” which all men share in, then why shouldn’t we have “Queer Mysteries” which all queer-identified people participate in too? The workshop would be focused on “sharing stories” in order to overcome difference and celebrate queer spirituality together. There’d be drumming too (naturally); guided journeying (uh-huh); an invitation to connect with our queer ancestors in “traditional societies” and the final kicker was that this workshop wasn’t being widely and publicly advertised, but was being sent to people the organisers felt “resonated” with “queer” energy. Okay, I replied, do you mind if I forward your email to my friend Lou? She’s been involved in Queer Pagan Camp since its beginning, she runs Camden LBGT forum. She’s a great drummer, here’s a link to one of her articles……..” and more in that vein. The reply was not actually unexpected, that whilst the organisers were looking forwards at some point in the future to opening the workshops to queer women, this present workshop was for queer-identified men only. At which point, I politely declined the invitation, reflecting (not for for the first time) that this was an example of incommensurability between various conceptions of the meaning of “queer”.

My problems with the kind of approach to “Queer Pagan Mysteries” outlined above are twofold – firstly, that it seems to be rooted in a kind of essentialism – the notion that “all queer persons” – regardless of gender, race, culture, class etc., share similar experiences. This kind of essentialist discourse is of course, familiar from second-wave feminism and the mythopoetic men’s movement associated with Robert Bly, for instance – but is this necessarily something queer-identified pagans want to reproduce uncritically? Queer Paganism, for me, entails a politics which rests on the recognition and celebration of difference rather than a call to discover an (essentialised) sameness. My other issue – which is related to the first – is that what constitutes “Queer Pagan Mysteries” – or at least the parameters within which any such notion could emerge – have been set in advance, rather than emerging out of shared dialogue.

This exchange was productive however, in that it started me reflecting on “mysteries” in general, and what might constitute “Queer Pagan Mysteries” in particular. “Mysteries” is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, and has a wide range of meanings and inferences attached to it. Of course, attempting to unpack the notion of “Mysteries” of itself invites the paradox – that mysteries are, almost by definition (at least the ones I looked at), unknowable, secret, closed off from non-participants. The very term “mystery” comes from the Greek myein – “to close”. And we still don’t know what the “core” of the Eleusinian Mysteries was, although historians have pieced together much of the surrounding context. Sarah lies Johnston, in her book Ancient Religions (2007) lists five key criteria shared by many mystery cults in antiquity:

  • Mystery cults demanded secrecy; initiates were forbidden to divulge what they had experienced.
  • Mystery cults promised to improve initiates’ situations in the present life and/or after death.
  • Initiates garnered these advantages by establishing a special relationship with divinities during initiation.
  • Mystery cults were optional supplements to civic religion, rather than competing alternatives.
  • Myths were associated with the cults, which narrated tales of the cults’ divinities.

In her discussion of how to interpret the mystery cults, Johnston points out that whilst the mysteries appear to share some features with rites of passage (and she notes that most parts of Greece, including Athens, home of the Eleusinian mysteries, had no formal rites of passage which explicitly changed adolescents into adults) and that the promise to give initiates access to valuable secrets bears some similarity to guild or professional initiations, what is striking about the mysteries is that they were not mutually exclusive; “One could be initiated into as many mystery cults as one desired and could afford; during the imperial period, wealthy individuals made a “grand tour” of them.” This she says, distinguishes them from rites of passage (such as the transition from adolescent to child) or membership of guilds. She also says that although there is some evidence of communal feasting or celebrations held between initiates (such as the thiasos of Dionysiac initiates) that there is a lack of evidence that initiates of the mysteries felt an obligation to one another – that the bond between initiates was not based on codependence, but that of shared privilege – and that mystery initiations focused primarily on individuals as individuals – in initiations at Eleusis for example, each initiate had his or her own mystagogos.

I think, if we’re going to approach the possibility that there might be “Queer Pagan Mysteries” then it might be useful to examine the very notion of mysteries and how that might operate within a queer-pagan space. Does, for example, mysteries discourse work to bring participants together? If so, how does it work in terms of excluding others? That “the Mysteries” are exclusionary seems to be a fundamental point for Caitlin and John Matthews:

“These Mysteries cannot arbitarily be open to all, if only for the sake of individual safety: they must be guarded and communicated with caution. Even for those born into the tribe, initiation into the Mysteries was an earned privilege won by suffering, sacrifice, and ordeal, not an automatic right. But the true secret of the Mysteries is that they cannot be communicated by one being to another. The mystery guardian can give guidelines and keys to knowledge, not the actual knowledge itself, which is revealed to the initiate only through his or her personal experience and revelatory realization.”
(Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus Inner Traditions, 2003, p38)

Even from this short quote we can see that there’s an obvious tension between (a) the notion that mysteries are something which can only be understood through direct, personal experience, and (b) the necessity for having “guardians” (i.e. teachers) who selectively provide cues and guidance to the deserving – those who have “earned” a right. (Or at the very least, for workshop leaders providing a “service” for others). It might be useful to think of “mysteries” (without the definitive article) in terms of creating/maintaining boundaries – and to what extent those boundaries require “policing”.

In a previous post I drew attention to the idea of viewing queer as an ethical process of engagement rather than an identity-formation, drawing on the work of Gavin Brown. In a recent article (Amateurism and anarchism in the creation of autonomous queer spaces in Anarchism & Sexuality: Ethics, Relationships and Power, Routledge, 2011) Gavin reiterates the idea that queer is an ethical process – “a process of trying to put into practice a set of ethical modes of engagement with sexual and gender difference rather than a simple identity category.” He points out that a key element of queer ethics is a commitment to an autonomous process which is rooted in reciprocal and mutually beneficial relations with other participants. Autonomy is a relational process – always incomplete – and “can be found anywhere where people attempt to take control of their own lives and create what they desire for themselves rather than relying on others to deliver it for them.” and “Autonomy is not an object that can be possessed, only a process that can be worked towards in conjunction with others.” Autonomous modes of organising (in a variety of queer spaces – from activist groups such as Queeruption to “spiritual spaces such as the Radical Faeries and Queer Pagan Camp) tend to favour a participatory, DIY ethos over passive consumption.

If we think of queer as an ethical relation, then what mysteries might we unfold together – out of a shared commitment to openness? And not only to sexual/gendered difference, either – but to the widest possible multiplicities of affect. it seems to me that there are “mysteries” borne out of mutual care and compassion. In a commitment to relating to others (bodied and unbodied) in ways that enable us to share both the exuberance of coming-together and respecting difference at the same time.


  1. steve davies
    Posted November 21st 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice post Phil-loving the idea of Queerness as an ethical process that innately informs our relationship to self and others-for me its still a meaningful personal descriptor of outlook and an expression of my own continued exploration.

  2. Churaig Mac Niall
    Posted November 22nd 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this very much Phil. Queer by its nature is difficult to nail down with words and I think you (and Gavin) do so wonderfully. Thanks for your thoughtful blogging. Churaig