I’ve been thinking a lot recently about secrecy, privacy, and mystery in the context of the occult and esoteric religion. These three concepts come up a lot, from oaths of secrecy, secret societies, hidden mysteries, and so on. Let’s start by making some distinctions between those terms.
Secrecy is the act of not sharing information you have and others don’t. Some examples are the signs of recognition in Freemasonry and other secret societies, not revealing the name of your initiator, or not sharing your membership in a particular order.
Privacy is about not sharing information you have, but other people also have it, or can reasonably assume it. What you do in the bathroom isn’t a secret, everybody knows what you’re doing, but we don’t share the details because it’s private.
Mystery is something that can’t be told, only experienced. We say that the Eucharist is a mystery, and I think that’s pretty apt. We can talk about the Eucharist all day long, but it’s the experience of it that can’t be relayed through a website or book. Of course, I might be biased 😉
There was a time when it was very important for people who studied esoteric subjects to keep their interests a secret, but those days are largely gone. As a result, I believe most people think of secrecy in the occult more along the lines of privacy these days. It’s unlikely, in most places, that you would lose your job for your esoteric beliefs, but there could still certainly be social repercussions, and for that reason alone, sometimes leaving things unsaid is still a useful strategy. Of course, I believe there are also some things in ceremonial magic that can be psychologically and ontologically dangerous, and keeping those teachings for more advanced students is also prudent, but I’m not sure if actual damage from this is all that common. But your mileage may vary.
To paraphrase Dion Fortune, the real secrets of the occult can’t be told, they can only be experienced. In other words, mystery. For many, this is how secrecy is actually experienced in esoteric orders, and I think there’s some real value in this approach. There isn’t a lot of occult knowledge that you can’t find in a few minutes of searching, but what good is reading a book of magic without picking up a candle and actually doing it? You can read about the benefits of meditation for the rest of your life, but you won’t have any grasp of it at all until you sit many hours in silence.
Of course, I’m a Gnostic, and not just a regular Gnostic, but one of those really deviant, hard-core, world-hating dualist kind (I’m only half kidding). As a Gnostic, I see another use for esoteric secrecy that I haven’t seen a lot of people talking about. If we take the Gnostic worldview seriously (and definitely if we take it literally), then there are forces at work in the world whose job it is to, at best, maintain the status quo, or at worst, forcefully preventing us from achieving our divine potential. These forces operate on a different level of “reality” than our normal consciousness, and as such, if we are to transcend their influence, we need to change how we interact with the mundane world. We literally need to do things differently than we are used to doing them. I propose one way to do that is to strategically use secrecy as a magical act in and of itself.
This idea isn’t yet fully formed, but the seed is there. What I’m thinking is that, as a ritual act of defiance against the rulers of this world, that we can use the tools of secrecy, privacy, and mystery to shield our actions from the demiurge and his minions. Online encryption, codes, secret signs of recognition, liturgy and ritual, or just plain keeping your mouth shut about some important things, these are just some of the ideas I’ve had on this so far. Talking about esoteric subjects online with your religion nerd friends? Try using PGP to encrypt your emails. Having coffee with your initiator? Do a quick warding ritual. Just remember what the sphinx does: Know, Will, Dare, and Keep Silent.
There will be more to come on this I’m sure, but these are just my opening thoughts. Of course, like many ritual acts, these are more to work on our own consciousness than on the spirit world, but every time you do a small ritual act to make yourself more self-aware, this has a profound cumulative effect. If you try any of this out I would love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.