ANCIENT MYSTERIES & THE MODERN WORLD
This essay was written for the 1992 University of Avalon “Golden Apple Award” essay competition, in which it was runner-up. The full title for the essay was “What is the practical relevance of the Ancient Mysteries in the modern world?”
The importance of the spiritual dimension to the green movement, and to the development of the new culture in general, cannot be overstated. It is based on our personal relationship with the Earth imbued with Spirit; otherwise – whatever our political leanings – the planet tends to become a commodity, real estate, territory to be fought over, a ‘thing’ which is part of our existence rather than a living biosphere of witch we are a part.
It was with this as my basic premise that I argued that we require a modern idiom for the ‘ancient mysteries’, a new way of understanding that which always used to maintain the essential spritual link with the earth. As a prize I received a wooden apple, with which I am well pleased.
I live in Glastonbury. I run a design and photocopy business where, during the past week, my clients have brought me work including: channellings from the Archangel Michael concerning the crop circles, poetry and prose pieces about a locally-known actor who died of AIDS, a catalogue for a wholesale crystal business, a hand-lettered calendar to be sold at craft fairs, tape covers for a group of Australian musicians, and a booklet about Permaculture. All this keeps me very busy. I find myself in the midst of an extraordinary energy flux which spans the whole gamut of ‘New Age’ activities – which is the leading edge of the ‘modern world’, in microcosm.
In Glastonbury, having lived here for a while, I find it difficult to harbour any illusions or, on the other hand, to deny credence to anything. Ancient Mysteries are everywhere, and modern conundrums too. Across the road, a play is in preparation, a Healing Rite for Samhain. Round the corner, homeless people, not locals but seemingly lost souls who have been drawn here by the energy centre that is Avalon, are given free meals from a mobile food kitchen.
This is 1992. It would be pleasant to be spending my time admiring the landcape from the top of the Tor or meditating beside Chalice Well … but life in Glastonbury, life in the New Age, is a constant challenge, on every level of my being. From where I am I look around, and ahead …
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Planet Earth is in danger, and the danger has been caused by human beings. Her continued health and survival depend on her relationship with people; the planetary imperative is a shift in human consciousness and awareness.
This is the over-riding reality of the modern world, specifically the industrialised world, a culture which has severed peoples’ spiritual and emotional link with the Earth. By contrast, the Ancient Mysteries, ancient as they are, come from a time when people lived as part of their environment, and were sustained directly by it – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
It would be romantic to suggest that in ancient times there was no separation between people and the Earth, that all was idylically One. But I take the ‘ancient mysteries’ to be those forms of religious, shamanic and magical practices which discovered, celebrated and safeguarded the essential link with the Earth, the essential truth that we are one with the planet and with spirit.
So long as this truth was maintained, through myth, through stories of the dream time, through an understanding of the gods in terms of natural phenomena, through seeing all things as part of the movement of the Tao or the Web of Wyrd, then the basic health of the planet was assured. It would be unthinkable for people to cause her serious damage.
The sacred attitude to the Earth is well described by the writer who invites us to imagine the planet “only a few feet in diameter, floating a few feet above a field somewhere, people would come from everywhere to marvel at it … The people would declare it precious because it was the only one, and they would protect it … The ball would be the greatest wonder known …”
And yet in reality people have polluted, degraded and exploited this wonder to the limit. This is the result of collective human consciousness, 1992.
The space in between ancient times and modern is known as history; and history indeed reads as an on-going process of separation and conquests which has led to the final Conquest over the natural environment itself, our global eco-system which is now seriously sick as a result.
It has to be said that this separation of people from the Earth has been mirrored in the separation of men from women, and that women have been similarly polluted, degraded and exploited by men. In Europe, this culminated in the mass murder of nine million women as a prelude to the industrial revolution.
Up until this time, the ancient mysteries had been kept alive in one form or another, whether within Christianity or outside it, whether as herblore, folklore, or time-honoured rituals. Even where the names of Christian saints had been given to the ancient holy days, the spirit was still there. People still gathered spontaneously at Stonehenge at midsummer. Most people worked on the land, and the spiritual connection with the Earth was not lost.
The pogrom against witches was followed by the destruction of the forests, the enclosure of land and the clearance of people into cities, the mechanisation of life – including both agriculture and medicine, pollution on a geological scale, over-population, and the present ecological crisis. Besides being a move by the male power structure to establish absolute control over women, it was a comprehensive attempt to stamp out the ancient mysteries.
It did not entirely succeed, but by the beginning of this century the balance had been tipped so far that the basic state of separation in human consciousness manifested as two world wars followed by the seemingly everlasting cold war. The state of division and power struggle was completely endemic. Meanwhile, European colonisation of the ‘primitive’ world has reached an advanced stage, accompanied by the death through brutalisation or disease of hundreds of millions of people in the name of progress. The culture of twentieth century industrialisation now covers the entire planet.
There is no sufficient answer to this short of a New Age and a new human consciousness.
* * *
There are clear and encouraging signs that these are emerging; and that they are a move forward, not a step back to something ancient. The ancient mysteries evolved in the ancient world, a world in which people were close to nature – but without the choice to do otherwise. Today, many people in the Third World, perhaps most, aspire to western European standards.
Governments are allowing the destruction of tropical rainforests in the cause of development, and they in turn have no trouble finding forest-dwellers who are pleased to be given houses and shoes. The caribbean islanders do not understand the white university student who ‘drops out’ and comes to live on their island. Presented with the choice, many people do not choose the life compatible with the ancient mysteries.
Or perhaps, those mysteries have not given them sufficient wisdom to see they are making that choice. The stone age people who built the Egyptian pyramids, for instance, were sophisticated magicians one of whose prime motives was the maintenance of the Earth’s fertility; at the same time they practised slavery, and monoculture, and indulged in political power struggles.
The modern world was born out of the ancient world, and the new world must be created by people who have been through that experience and out the other side. The ancient mysteries require a modern idiom, one which is more explicit than taboos and traditions, which speaks to the mind as well as to the heart, and which is for everyone, not just initiates.
It has to be spoken in language which makes sense, universally.
One very encouraging factor is the notion of common sense; for after all, if we manage to destroy the planet we destroy ourselves with it, and this is not common sense. Nevertheless, the possibility of global catastrophe is not a palatable truth to taste, and taking it on board implies a need to change one’s lifestyle, so there is great resistance. The inspiration and organisation for the Rio Earth Summit this year displayed a degree of the new consciousness; many politicians who attended it did not.
All the same, the need has been expressed, for people to work together world-wide. For this to become a reality it must be much more than an idea of course; to clear up the mess will require an effort very similar to a war effort, but working for peace, and it will take generations. To bring this about will require something more than human or political will; it will require a religious, or spiritual dimension.
It will also require education, and information. This involves giving people the power to question received ideas if they wish to, which is necessary; for we need to know not only that if the sacred mountain is destroyed the world will end, but also that to mine it for uranium will lead to its eventual return as nuclear fall-out, and thereby the world will end.
So, we need a new world-wide awareness that is both intuitively ‘right’ and intellectually informed, that is accessible to all and not the preserve of an exclusive priesthood, and that provides a spiritual motivation through a recognition of our universal Oneness … What then is left that is ancient, or mysterious?
The mystery of life is eternal; and in this time of new understanding it is important that we understand how the ancients perceived life, and how they related to the world. At the same time we wish to go forward into a new understanding, one which integrates the experience of ‘civilisation’, and in particular one which heals the separation between male and female.
For the interaction between male and female is the most ancient mystery of all; and “let my worship be in the heart that rejoices for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals … Know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the great mystery: for if that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.”
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There is no handbook for creating the new world. There is no tradition which provides us with all the answers, handed down from generations. There is no book which tells us all we have to do, or how. There is no standard ground-plan laid out for us to build upon. For all this has to be re-created too.
The re-creation takes place in the lives of those taking part in ‘The Aquarian Conspiracy’, as we learn by example and from each others’ experience. Where such people come together as a community, the new currents of thought, economic and social forms, ritual celebrations and a religious ethos are gradually evolved. In this the ancient mysteries have a part to play.
I have defined the ancient mysteries as “those forms of religious, shamanic and magical practices which discovered, celebrated and safeguarded the essential link with the Earth, the essential truth that we are one with the planet and with spirit.”
This, to me, seems like a function which the new society could do with, and which can be re-created out of a fusion between the ancient forms and the new perception.
My experience is in Glastonbury, where, over the past twenty three years, a loose tendency to gather on the Tor on solstice morning has evolved to infuse a large and colourful community, which generally marks the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days with public celebrations; whilst the best-known summer festival in Europe has grown up nearby, associated with the summer solstice.
The community has grown in size to the point where it is beginning to develop its own social structures; it has its own community centre, and a business community which is building an economic infrastructure.
It has its own distinctive political outlook, characterised by people with a co-operative ideal, an informed concern about the environment, and an almost patriotic pride in their chosen area of Somerset. It is developing its own religious forms, and its own rights of passage, with a spontaneous interpretation of the ancient ways. It uses music, theatre and the visual arts to explore and communicate these themes, which in turn reinforces the sense of community.
This phenomenon in Glastonbury now consists of two generations, and the younger one is growing up fast. When there are three, when we are the grandparents and the elders, then a community such as this one in Glastonbury should have a wholeness to it, such that the patterns evolved in the ways I have suggested above will together create an overall pattern, a qualitatively different social reality.
With three generations, social structures could become complete, and a ‘lifestyle’ could become a ‘way of life’; and the ancient mysteries could be passed on, renewed.