ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
shaman, the priest performs prescribed rituals endowed with traditional authority. A rite, as mentioned previously, is usually the realization of a myth. The latter is a story about superhuman beings. The rite acts out the story, and, by so doing, realizes it in the present.
However, there are priests and priestesses of the occult/esoteric tradition as well as of the traditional religions. Modern examples are the so-called “witches,” the personae who perform the rites of Wicca which, as we shall see, is of very recent origins. The Wiccans, however, believe that they perform very ancient, secret rites. These, like the rites of the Cult of Isis and Osiris and of Roman Catholic Christianity, are actualizations of the myths on which Wicca is based. Another example of a modern esoteric priesthood is Freemasonry. The grand master and masters of the brotherhood administer rituals which actualize the mysterious myths on which Freemasonry is based. One could cite many other examples.
Myth and Ritual
Mircea Eliade describes the relationship between myth and ritual better than anyone else. He asserts that myths are stories of creation. Like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, these tales tell us how things came to be. Thus, in Kipling’s story of Old Man Kangaroo whom Yellow Dog Dingo, grinning like a coal scuttle, chases all over Australia, Old Man Kangaroo’s legs grow longer and longer and that is why long-legged kangaroos hop about today.
Myths tell us therefore how the world came to be, how plants, animals, and human beings were brought into being, why they are sexed, why they follow different occupations, and why there is suffering, sin, and evil. In other words, everything has a beginning, from the mythic point of view, and each act of creation was for a purpose. While Eliade’s theory of myth is but one among many, it has relevance to my point here. In my view, myth is the content of religion, that is to say, many if not most religious doctrines originate in myths.
Religious myths, which by definition deal with the relationship of the soul to supernatural beings, are stories of gods who die and are reborn. The stories are acted out in formal dramas. By performing the myth, that is to say, participating in the drama, the person dies to an old self and is reborn anew.
For example, the Hellenistic Cult of Isis and Osiris, a mystery religion, was based on a myth in which the deity Osiris was treacherously murdered by his wicked brother Set. Set persuaded Osiris to climb into a box, and when the hapless Osiris did, Set snapped the lid shut and threw it into the Nile. The box drifted to sea and across to what is now Lebanon. Here their sister Isis rescued Osiris, and magically restored him to life. The message of the myth is that the goddess can restore the dead to eternal life. Thus, when her votaries underwent rites of initiation, they vicariously participated in the death and resurrection of Osiris and thereby became immortals. According to Eliade, the myth explains both the origins of death and of rebirth.