Esoteric vs. Exoteric

More and more lately I keep hearing over and over people quote off chopped up portions of the rede and over simplify it. Iím sorry, I do have to be blunt about this one. If your doing this, obviously you donít get it. A friend of mine has put it so well I find that I can not say it any better so with her permission I have put her words here. Enjoy!

Gwen Wolfrose

Written by: Lynna Landstreet of Wild Ideas

No serious and experienced Wiccan Iíve ever met believes the Threefold Law literally refers to the exact same thing you do happening to you three times. The most common interpretations are that it refers to all actions having resonance on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels; or taking place simultaneously in the realms of humanity, nature, and the Gods; or that in performing an act of magic, you symbolically become the actor, the act and the acted-upon.

One of my major pet peeves with the current crop of exoteric Wiccans is that they seem to have forgotten that Wicca in its traditional sense is/was an initiatory mystery religion, in which nothing is ever as simple as it seems, or has only one meaning. Things like the Threefold Law, the Rede, etc., were never intended as simplistic commandments, but as pointers to various underlying mysteries, which one finds oneís way to by unravelling layer after layer of different meanings through the course of oneís studies and initiations.

If you are confused about her referance to exoteric Wiccans please read on.

Esoteric vs. Exoteric

by Lynna Landstreet

Personally, I think that the level of confusion over this issue in the pagan community at large is yet another undesirable side-effect of an initiatory mystery path having been turned into a mass-market religion. There are a *lot* of symbols, concepts, etc. in traditional Wicca that have an esoteric rather than an obvious meaning - thatís what mystery religions are about. And in an initiatory context, people would either not be presented with a particular concept or symbol until they had been on the path long enough to have a good chance of understanding it, or they would be presented with it in a context that made clear that it was up to them to meditate on it and search for an esoteric meaning.

Thereís a major difference between esoteric and exoteric spiritual paths, whether youíre talking about a neo-pagan context or any other. An exoteric path is one that is geared towards the general populace, toward people who donít necessarily want to spend a huge amount of time pondering every aspect of their religion for hidden meanings, but just want a reasonable and easy-to-understand set of moral and religious precepts to guide them in their everyday lives. And thereís nothing wrong with that. Thatís what most people want, and they should be able to have it.

However, an esoteric path is one that is designed for the few, not the many. It may have an initiatory, magical, contemplative or shamanic focus or any combination of the above, but the one thing that is clear about it is that it is not designed to be easy, accessible, comfortable, or readily understandable at a superficial level. It is supposed to be hard work, and it is understood that you donít embark on such a path unless you are willing to devote a large proportion of your life to it. The precepts of esoteric paths are not simple commandments or dictates that can be readily explained in 25 words or less - they are complex, multilayered, symbolic systems that you can spend a lifetime trying to fathom the depths of.

Historically, most pagan cultures - and most non-pagan cultures for that matter - have had both exoteric and esoteric streams within their religions. For example, the average Celt might make offerings to the Gods and the ancestors, attend the festivals, and be guided by the exoteric oral precepts of Celtic religion and culture. A Druid or Fili, OTOH, went through 20 years of training or more to pursue their particular path. Your average Celtic cattle-herder or blacksmith had no use for that training any more than your average data-entry clerk or bartender today needs a graduate course in molecular biology. But for those who chose to devote their lives that particular path, it was there.

Now Wicca, and to an extent the neo-pagan movement in general, are at the present time in a rather paradoxical position. Wicca arose specifically as a magical, initiatory, esoteric path. It was not designed to be a mass religion, and little thought was given to providing exoteric interpretations of its belief system or practices. I donít think its early founders really had any idea it would ever become anywhere near as popular as it has. They likely thought it would remain as it began, a mystery path suited for a small number of esoterically-inclined pagans within the overall context of a very non-pagan society. But the number of people who were, as it turned out, discontented with mainstream religion and hungry for alternatives ensured that this did not remain the case.

As Wicca became increasingly popularized, helped along partly by the egos of certain compulsive attention-seekers within its ranks and partly by genuinely well-intentioned people who wanted to debunk public myths about magic and paganism, many people who were not esoterically oriented found certain of the key ideas appealing enough to want to identify as Wiccan. Suddenly, an esoteric path was acquiring an exoteric populace, while having no clear idea what to do with them. The result was that a lot symbols and ideas that originated in an esoteric context were made available to people who didnít really have the background to understand them, or even to understand that the surface meanings might not be all there was.

This isnít to say that people in search of exoteric spirituality are stupid or lazy or incapable of understanding anything complex. Itís simply that if they are expecting something clear and direct, and instead receive something vague, confusing, symbolic and seemingly impossible, they are likely to get frustrated and dismiss the whole idea as stupid and unworkable. Meaning is contextual. A particular symbol or phrase can mean one thing in one context and quite another in a different context. And a lot of key Wiccan ideas are very often, these days, being presented outside of the context in which they made sense.

The most ironic thing of all is that this sort of cobbled-together exo-Wicca (great, another hyphenated term!) that is so prevalent in the popular press is now completely turning off many people who *are* looking for an esoteric path, but mistakenly believe that what Llewellyn publishes is all there is, and dismiss Wicca in total as being superficial and lacking in depth!

Itís all a big mass of confusion, and I donít see any really easy answers in the near future. But in a sense, it may be that the pains weíre currently coping with are part of a birth process, and that we will come out of this eventually with a relatively coherent exoteric belief system to complement traditional esoteric Wicca. And many other pagan paths, both exo- and eso-, because a lot of the people who are discontented with the version of Wicca presented in the pop-pagan press have gone on to evolve other paths, different but equally interesting.

Blessed be,

Copyright © May 07, 1998 Lynna Landstreet,