Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse writes about what he terms imagistic vs. doctrinal religions. I’ve come across the terms lately when reading about the practices of Hellenic mystery cults. The doctrinal mode of religion is characterized by a top-down hierarchy, involving regularly repeated daily or weekly rituals, written texts, standard teachings, and lower levels of emotional arousal. Imagistic religion is less structured, with little or no hierarchy or doctrine, characterized by periodic festivals with high levels of emotion that mark a break from regular daily life. Imagistic religions utilize ecstatic trance states and altered forms of consciousness to bring about direct divine contact; doctrinal religion employs mediators to interpret the divine.

I’m finding this division very useful in thinking about modern Paganism. My experience of it is highly imagistic and seems to have a surprising amount in common with the old mystery cults. Surprising because I don’t think anyone has done that on purpose; it just seems to have happened. Most of my practice takes place at home, on my own and without much external human guidance. Eight times a year I go do ritual with my druid grove, which while done in marvelous company has a lot in common with my home practice; we don’t go wild at druid grove. But there are certain points on my personal religious calender where I do pretty much what they did in the mystery cults. I go off to the woods with many like-minded people, camp out, experience a different mode of life, and spend my days in contemplation or purification (or sleep) and my nights in ecstatic trance. I did something like this at Ostara, minus the camping (but with extra sleep-deprivation!) where we walked or danced on fire and then went to a cavern 50 feet underground to drum and dance and chant the night away. I’ll do this at Four Quarters Farm at least once this summer and perhaps more. If I get the time and the resources and the company, I’ll try to go to Starwood or Sirius Rising or some other such summer festival. A summer without at least one of these leaves me feeling like I’ve missed something important. There are a lot of us who feel the same way, though it’s by no means a universal experience for Pagans. People go for their own reasons, I suppose, but almost everyone I know that goes to these goes for the same reason I do – for the Mystery. Like the old Mysteries, and like Whitehead’s description of imagistic religion, it can’t be explained if you haven’t been there.

I’m reading Hugh Dowden’s book on mystery cults right now, and I keep thinking, yes, of course they did that, that’s like what I do. Not in the content, so much as we know of it, as the concept: get out of town and into a different world and do something profound in a place apart.

Because I think it is hilarious, here’s me and one of my besties, Maebius, on a Starwood morning (which I think was at about two in the afternoon.) Maebius is the exceedingly happy one; I am the one making GTFO face.

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