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New Worlds: Esoteric Mysteries

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Among the many factors you can use to classify and think about religions, there’s one which I think is extremely pervasive and yet almost never consciously considered in speculative fiction: the extent to which the faith is exoteric vs. esoteric.

You’ve probably seen that latter word more often than the former, so let’s start with the exoteric end. The easiest way I can think to shorthand this is that it’s a key concept in the entire Protestant Reformation, so if you grew up in a church of that type, this is the water you mentally swim in. An exoteric faith does not have secret teachings; everything is out in the open for anyone to see. When the Bible existed only in languages spoken by the learned, the common folk had to rely upon initiates like priests to tell them what it said. Translating it into vernacular tongues made it more public, more accessible — more exoteric.

By contrast, an esoteric faith is one with layers of access. What’s required to enter those inner circles varies depending on the context; it might be years of study, successful completion of a ritual or an ordeal, or — in a cult that exists to fleece its followers — payment of large sums of money (probably with ritual trappings to hide the exploitation). You can dress this up as much or as little as you like, e.g. with special titles for initiates of different rank; in the division of sacred space I mentioned last month, entry to the holier precincts of the site is likely restricted to the upper ranks of the faith.

This isn’t a binary switch, of course. Even in a radically exoteric religion like most forms of Protestant Christianity, there’s still a degree of separation between a minister and their flock, privileges the former has and the latter don’t. And just because the Bible has been translated into a language you can read doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand everything in it. The difference is that if you want to go read the centuries of exegesis grappling with the puzzling bits of scripture, you can: nobody will stop you. Another religion might erect a conceptual wall between believers and non-believers, hiding details of their faith from outsiders but making everything available to insiders. At the far end of the scale is the organization subdivided into twenty grades of initiation, with texts strictly controlled and shared only with the authorized at each stage, or with rites whose conduct is so secret, anyone attempting to spy on them is killed.

If the term “cult” is coming to mind again, you’re not wrong — but that’s a term with multiple meanings, so we should be clear on which one we’re applying when. In a modern context, we tend to mean it in the sense I used above, when I talked about fleecing believers: a cult in that context is generally a group led by a self-appointed prophet of some kind, who uses their power to strictly control the lives of their followers. Some of those prophets truly believe their own message, but others are knowingly exploiting cult members as marks. In the latter case, the layers of esoteric initiation are deliberately used to bait people further in and bind them more closely to the leader.

But we can also talk about “cults” in a more general sense. Scholars use that term for the worship of a specific deity, which may or may not be esoteric, and for groups like the mystery cults of ancient Greece and Rome, which definitely were esoteric. (The “mysteries” in question are the secrets revealed to cult members.) We know frustratingly little about these traditions precisely because of this secrecy, and some of what’s recorded about them is biased material written by outsiders who opposed them. We do know, however, that some of them were built on a foundation of specific, very ancient myths (e.g. the Eleusinian Mysteries and the myth of Demeter and Persephone), while others formed around “exotic” religions imported into the Greco-Roman world (e.g. the Persian-derived Cult of Mithras and Egyptian-derived Mysteries of Isis).

Esotericism in a religion can serve a number of purposes, ranging from the beneficial to the damaging. One purpose that spans that entire spectrum in its own right is cohesion: quite simply, belonging to a select group that’s not open to all comers can strengthen the social bonds between members. In this light, it’s not surprising that many influential Romans belonged to one mystery cult or another, and the connections formed there in turn influenced their political and business dealings. Especially as a society becomes more urbanized and the sense of knowing everyone around you fades, it can be helpful to temporarily narrow the scope to one group or another, whether religious or otherwise — we’ll return to this when we get to the topic of non-sacred clubs, brotherhoods, and the like. But of course this bonding aspect can become incredibly malignant when it’s used to cut members off from external ties or radically disenfranchise people who aren’t members of the select elite.

Placing some knowledge and ritual behind a gate can also intensify the religious effect. There was a stretch of time around the fourth and fifth centuries when Christianity concealed the specifics of rites like baptism and the eucharist from outsiders, perhaps to shelter believers from contempt, or perhaps to increase the reverence participants felt for these sacraments. And if you’ve undergone an ordeal in preparation for initiation into the most secret mysteries of your faith, the odds that your first experience of those mysteries will hit you with great force go up. Something done in public, where anybody can see, risks feeling ordinary by comparison.

But initiates of esoteric faiths may also believe that sharing information too widely can be useless at best, outright dangerous at worst. The Vajrayāna traditions of Buddhism are esoteric in the sense that their teachings must be transmitted directly from teacher to student within the proper context to be effective; if you just read about them in a book, you don’t truly grasp their essence and receive their benefit. And Catholic opponents of the Protestant Reformation were often deeply worried about what would happen if ordinary people read the Bible without proper instruction in how to understand it. Given that Christian scripture contains many contradictions, gaps, and instances of cryptic imagery, their concern was not entirely unfounded: those aforementioned centuries of exegesis are the product of people trying to make sense of the text, and those who deny the need for any interpretation at all are leaving their own interpretive labors unexamined.

In a fictional setting, the danger could go far deeper. If the rites performed closer to the esoteric center of the faith have overt magical effects, letting someone from the exoteric periphery gain unauthorized access to them might literally get people killed. Or it could open the door for some malevolent spirit to interfere with that individual, leading them down a false and deadly path. But esoteric religion doesn’t have to be a source of threat to be part of the story; just giving your elite characters their secret bonding rites or your protagonist a cathartic spiritual experience can be enough.

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1 thought on “New Worlds: Esoteric Mysteries”

  1. There was a philosopher once who was scornfully described as the only man in Athens who was not an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. How esoteric a secret is can vary a lot.

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