Sacred sexuality refers to a broader concepts of spiritual practices ranging from sacred prostitution, bridal mysticism, to various practices for couples, but ultimately all forms of sacred sexuality focus on the spiritual realm for the spiritual union between the divine and the human.
In recent years, we can observe a rebirth or an attempt to re-establish a spiritual connection between sexuality and spirituality. For the most part, this is happening through the renewal of Eastern spiritual practices or traditions that already combine sexuality and spirituality. In this article, I will focus on lesser-known Western practices and philosophies of sacred sexuality from ancient Greece – Platonism, Neoplatonism.
For the Greeks, the essence of Eros is the unfoldment of human thought, and in Greek philosophy, he is described as a liberating agent who releases and activates the creative process of the mind. Eros inspires and opens the channel of intuition to the higher and abstract understanding and communion with beauty and truth. The myth of Eros and Psyche describes in detail the inner process of transformation. In fact, Eros cannot be separated from his beloved Psyche, since they are united by a secret and sacred bond, invisible and unconscious in man. In fact, mans psyche remains filled with erotic, sensual, carnal desires that keep him and his mind trapped on the physical plane along with his emotions and consciousness. But a seeker must transmute the attraction of Eros and awaken the bond with his psyche so that he can rise towards the beloved, the invisible golden thread that links his consciousness to the universal qualities of beauty and love.
The gifts of Eros affect the emotional and thought processes of humanity, especially those of a seeker who has to learn how to open up and integrate these gifts in his psyche. From the lowest and most physical levels of consciousness to the most spiritual ones, Eros remains forever present, gradually transforming the inner fire into pure light. Eros operates in every living creature, and Greek poetry and philosophy describe how nature partakes of the gift of Eros. Hence we could say that Eros contribution to humanity is not only inherent in mans psyche, but that it is also involved in the process that awakens the ego to its true nature, the beauty and unconditional love of the soul.
This awakening activated by Eros and Aphrodite reveals the qualities of pure love and gnosis in the consciousness of the seeker. This level of consciousness cannot be described, however, because it is itself a higher aspect of intelligence in which abstract knowledge and impersonal love are combined. We could simply call this level of awakening, wisdom. So, on one hand, Eros can simply mean carnal love and desire for material possessions, but on the other, it can also express the spiritual energy that attracts and leads the psyche towards the Center of Pure Being, where the beauty and love of the soul are revealed.
Many Greek philosophers, Plato and Pythagoras included, said the same thing that beauty and gnosis are inseparable and inherent in the essence of Eros. Thus, we understand that in the psyche of man, Eros rules over his carnal desires but also over his higher aspirations and longing for wisdom. This is not the playful cupid, the winged son of Aphrodite and Mars, but an elderly primordial deity, worshiped by the ancient Greeks as the first element of the primordial creative cause, the element that binds and attracts spirit and matter together.
What made the Mystery traditions so powerful and enduring was the promise, and the experience, of synousia, or direct participation and union with a god. A common practice was dormition, or sleeping in the temple to receive a dream or perhaps a vision of the deity. Another, as we have seen, was for a bride to visit the temple and lower herself onto a ritual phallus so as to be symbolically deflowered first by the god, and only later by her husband. But these are only two in a constellation of practices and symbols in the various Mystery traditions, all of which were centered on the recurrent theme of union with the deity or hieros gamos, sacred marriage.
The initiatory sacred marriage has at its core the idea of divinization, that is, of the awakening of the latent spiritual within the material realm. Sexual union is intimacy; symbolically and actually, it is intimate union that may result in pregnancy, birth or rebirth, and growth of the reborn initiate as a new being. This rebirth comes as a result of union with the deity, and thus we read in Greek Hermetic papyri verses like these: “Enter into my spirit and my thoughts my whole life long, for you are me and I am you; your name I guard as a charm in my heart,” or again, “I know you, Hermes, and you know me: I am you, and you are me.” The initiate ultimately is joined intimately and fully with the god. How does one attain such a union with deity? This kind of union is both symbolized and actualized as courtship and sexual union: the initiate woos and, if successful, becomes one with the deity. The relationship is an erotic one, and it does not reject but rather manifests through earthly sexual imagery and relationship. Christian antipagan polemics held that the Mystery traditions were bestial and diminished participants by making them lustful.
But Iamblichus, in his On the Mysteries, explains that in fact, for one to attain union with the divine, one has to work from where one is, from the human, not rejecting sexuality but rather working through the passions to become liberated from them. Thus sexual relationships can be a vehicle for their own transcendence, if each partner is divinized and becomes, if we may put it this way, transparent to deity. The Mystery traditions harked back to ancient Egyptian traditions that also held that copulation with a deity was possible and, indeed, was an essential symbol of union with the divine. Plutarch observed that for the ancient Egyptians, “it is not impossible for the Spirit of God to have intercourse with a woman,” and we can see how sexual union with a god could be viewed as at once symbolic and, at least potentially, actual. The symbolism of the bride is widespread in the Mystery traditions: initiates celebrated the god Dionysus as “Bridal one,” and as “New Light.” The initiatory hieros gamos mirrored, on Earth, Zeus and Hera’s celestial marriage. We read in one fragment that the initiate invoked Hermes, who is called to be within the initiate like a baby within the womb. Thus intimacy with the gods is celebrated through the most intimate and inner of human terms. Intimacy with the gods is also, as we can see, inherently human. After all, what good would the gods be if there were no initiatory traditions, no ways of linking humanity with the divine?
Separated by a gulf from humanity, the gods would be powerless and without meaning, whereas these Mystery traditions reveal the gods to be capable of the closest of all kinds of intimacy, and their nature to be conveyed to humanity through that intimacy. Thus there are two kinds of hieros gamos. First, there is the marriage of the initiate to the god, and second, there is the human marriage or union that reflects the union of the gods. In both cases, what we see is that sexual union expresses union with the divine, the result of which is blessedness, joy, freedom from Earthly suffering—in brief, transcendence. We must note here that the gods (notoriously, according to a later Christian perspective) are often above ordinary human conventions. What are we to make of the divine seductions, the betrayals, the sexual escapades of the gods in the ancient myths? One possibility, of course, is to condemn the ancient myths as decadent and corrupting, or immoral, and to regard the gods as acting all too human. But there are other ways to see those myths. It is possible that the myths reveal the sheer transcendence of the gods, showing the ways that they break through human conventions to reveal transcendent power.
A dramatic form of such a divine marriage in antiquity was between the individual and the god, as in the Mysteries of Attis and Demeter in which the male initiate was “wedded” to the goddess through castration and thus become more or less androgynous, a reflection of the inner unity. While the notion of religiously motivated castration is hard to accept, there is a history of it in Christianity as well, as exemplified in the well-known figure of the early Church father Origen, and in lesser known Christian groups like the Russian Khlysty. A less dramatic and less irreparable form of such a marriage is, of course, chastity and devotion to the goddess or god, and in either case, human conventions of marriage and reproduction are cast aside in favor of the gifts of the god or goddess.
Plotinus’ discussion on the nature of love helps to explain why the One emanates out, and how lower emanations are able to return to their source. In “On Love” Plotinus says, “And if someone assumed that the origin of love was the longing for beauty itself which was there before in men’s souls, and their recognition of it and kinship with it and unreasoned awareness that it is something of their own, he would hit, I think, on the truth about its cause.” Love connects the soul, consciously or unconsciously, to its source. In different types of souls, the object of their love will reveal itself in different ways. For example, a musician’s love will desire the beauty of harmony. For a philosopher, love desires the beauty of dialectical reasoning. This helps us describe the lived experience of love. All people do not feel the tug of erotic passion in the same way for the same objects. Love is not subject to universal and necessary causal laws: humanity responds to stimulus A in the form of response B. Love and beauty seem the most subjective and fickle of all philosophical concepts. This explains why love is so difficult to define in a universal sense, and why beauty is more often than not understood in reference to a the “beholder.” Plotinus explains that those called “lovers” are those sensitive souls that are naturally more sensitive to beauty and hence feel love more intensely than others. Philosophers are the souls with predispositions to love deeply.
Individuals are drawn to beautiful objects only when they allow their souls to become beautiful as well. Like is drawn to like, so the more virtuous your soul is the more you will be able to recognize virtue in others. Turning inward leads to an understanding of the aim and source of erōs. The spark of the divine resides within the intellectual unconscious of the human soul. Yearning to return to the Source, the rational human soul works to shuffle off the material world by a turn inward closer to unity with the One. Plotinus claims the moral imperative is to subtract the material from beautiful objects, thus yearning for beauty itself, an activity of ascent aiming at the divine, the One.
Staying on the level of erotic attachment to the realm of the senses limits life’s possibilities. You live the most basic type of human life. Your pleasure ceiling is limited to fleshly delights like sex and food. Ascending up the ladder opens up possibilities by giving your palate a more refined taste and new pleasures. One moves from food stuffs to soul feasts! More knowledge means more options and more objects of love but with a telos. Love can act as liberator or enslaver. Liberating love opens up more possibilities, increases the ceiling and directs passion to a refined intensity toward Beauty Itself. Enslaving love limits the ceiling and says “this is as good as it gets” while never differentiating between the objects of desire. It is uniformed, it is ignorance. One beautiful thing is as good as the next. Erotic ascent is the enlightened opening of the soul. The soul opens brightly toward the light of the sun: Beauty Itself, Truth itself, the Good. Imagine a flower sprouting from soil, ascending slowly and building new structures like stem and leaves and stamen and bud until it blossoms and feasts on the source of all, the sun.
But why does the beautiful never let us go?
—“Paean for Aphrodite”
This article is a summary from:
- Erotic Ascent: Plato and Plotinus on Beauty and Pedagogy (The 30th annual joint meeting of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy (SAGP) October 21, 2012, Fordham University)
- Eros and the Mystery of the Inner Process (plotinus.com)
- Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art