Pagan Paths

The morning sun rising in the east calls to the Bright Youth in me, and the Bright Youth responds. The full moon calls to the Muse, and the waning and dark moon to the Dark Maiden who is a part of me. The earth I touch with my fingers calls to the Mother, in both her guises, Nurturing and Devouring. The bright green shoots rising from the earth and the green leaves on the trees on my street in the spring, these call to the Stag King, while the red leaves fallen to the earth in the autumn call to the Dying God. The spring storm that rises up suddenly in the west calls to the Storm King. The night sky, the dark space between the stars, calls to Mother Night, my death come to make peace. The gods-without call and the gods-within respond.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Paganism as a Modern-Day Mystery Religion

Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii

As indicated in the introduction to this blog above, I discovered Jungianism and Neo-Paganism at the same time, through the writings of Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler, and Starhawk, and the two have remained intertwined for me ever since.  In fact, the first Pagan writing I ever read was an essay by Wiccan priestess and Jungian psychologist, Vivianne Crowley entitled, "Wicca as a Modern-Day Mystery Religion", in Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman's Paganism Today (1994).  Wouter Hanegraaf has written that Vivianne Crowley’s Jungian perspective “is so strong that readers might be forgiven for concluding that Wicca is little more than a religious and ritual translation of Jungian psychology.” And, in fact, that is exactly what I believed.  Even after realizing that that Paganism is far more diverse than I had originally thought, Crowley's vision of Wicca has continued to influence me.

In her essay, "Wicca as a Modern-Day Mystery Religion", Crowley states that the goal of many “mystery religions”, ancient and modern, is self-knowledge (or rather Self-knowledge): “the realization of a stable core of the personality–the Self” as distinguished from the conscious ego.  She describes Wicca as a modern-day mystery religion.  The term can be equally applied to many forms of Neo-Paganism. 

Jung himself described the psychological process of “individuation” (the evolution of the ego into the Self) as an initiation and compared it to the Mithraic mysteries.  According to Crowley, “the approach to the Self is made through an external expression of the inner psychological process–religious ritual”, specifically “initiation ceremonies that are intended to produce profound psychological effects”.  The goal of these rituals is personal psycho-spiritual transformation. According to Crowley, mystery religious share with mysticism a concern for returning to a state of oneness with the divine source.  While mysticism seeks the union through introverted techniques, like meditation, mystery cults “externalize the inner journey of the spirit to the divine by representing it through symbolism and ritual. ” Much of the imagery associated with these rituals is overtly or implicitly sexual or related to death (both of which are forms of union).

In her book, Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium (1994), Crowley elaborates on this idea and specifically relates the three Wiccan initiations (the three degrees) to three stages of individuation:

  • Encounter with the Shadow
  • Encounter with the Anima/Animus
  • Encounter with the Self

Personally, I think the connection to the three degrees of Wiccan initiation is not as direct as Crowley implies, but I am not a Wiccan.  You can read more about the the three Wiccan initiations here and judge for yourself.

In any case, I see Neo-Paganism as a modern-day mystery religion along the lines of what Crowley describes.  Historically, a mystery religion was a secret initiatory religion.  Because Neo-Paganism eschews much of the occult aspects of traditional Wicca and does not require initiation into a group, it might be argued that the Neo-Paganism is not a true mystery religion. However, there is an important distinction to be drawn between initiation into a group and initiation as a form of personal transformation.  It is in the latter sense that I would argue Neo-Paganism is an initiatory or mystery religion.  While Wiccan initiation is an example of both group and personal initiation, Neo-Pagans can experience a personal initiation without joining any group.

Over the next several posts, I will discuss each of the stages of initiation which Crowley outlines, starting with the encounter with the Shadow.

Last modified on
John Halstead also writes at (Patheos),,,,, and The Huffington Post. He was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (, and the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John is also a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community ( To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


  • Courtney
    Courtney Friday, 26 December 2014

    In becoming a Pagan, I have experienced the initiation as a form of personal transformation that you spoke of. I liked this post and look forward to your next one.

  • Sable Aradia
    Sable Aradia Saturday, 27 December 2014

    I don't disagree with you, John. Actually, I think that the personal transformation element is the superior of the two reasons to initiate into a group you feel comfortable with (the belonging is secondary.) I realize other initiated witches may not agree, and that's their call, but it's what I think. Can't wait to read your articles.

  • Please login first in order for you to submit comments

Additional information