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Sex and Religion: Not Just a History of Repression

From antiquity on, there were people in the West who held that spirituality and sexuality were not necessarily mortal enemies.

Few people know of the long-standing traditions of sexual mysticism in the West. These traditions, unlike Hindu and Buddhist forms of Tantra, which were often distorted, commodified, and trivialized upon transmission to the modern West, have remained largely untouched. This is because they were entirely unknown .

But the vast range of possibilities for hidden, erotic mysticism demand a closer look. They reveal a rich, profound range of perspectives, allowing us to see new dimensions of human sexuality. Consequently, history becomes more multidimensional. It is also possible that, as we uncover these secret erotic traditions of the West, they will in turn feed into new movements and generate new ways of understanding. Each era draws upon the past in its own way, and perhaps it is time for us -- at least those who are interested and who feel some calling to do so -- to reconsider the Western currents of erotic mysticism.

Though Western sexual mysticism has a long and fascinating history, it is only now being rediscovered. From antiquity on, there have been people who have held that spirituality and sexuality are not necessarily mortal enemies. Whatever we may think of these diverse figures (including adherents of the ancient Mystery religions, some of the ancient Gnostics and alchemists, and all the way up to present day authors such as Alan Watts), the fact is that they have important things to teach us about the hidden links between sexuality, spirituality, and nature.

Of course, we should begin by outlining what we mean by "sexual mysticism" in the first place. After all, the very term "mysticism" is an ambiguous one, for some even synonymous with "wooly-minded." In actuality, however, "mystic" derives from the Greek word "mustein," meaning "silent" or "closed-lips," and shares its origins with the word "mystery." Meanwhile, the words "mysticism" and "mystery" can both be traced back to the ancient Greek Mystery traditions of antiquity, which, as we shall see, certainly had sexual dimensions.

Taking a look back into Greek and Roman antiquity (approximately 800 B.C. - A.D. 600), we see that the Mystery traditions -- be they Bacchic, Dionysiac, Eleusinian, or Orphic -- were closely bound up with the cosmic cycles, and in particular with the cycles of agricultural and human fertility. In fact, the earlier forms of the Mystery traditions, including those occurring throughout the Hellenistic period (323-146 B.C.), were specific to the domain of women. Women celebrated the mysteries of fertility and sexuality. Only later were men allowed to be priests and participate in many of the traditions. What we are looking at, then, corresponds to something quite different from the modern stereotype of femininity as demure, coquettish, or passive. Today, the women described in the ancient Mystery traditions would come across as frenzied, wild, and dangerous. But it is this authentic wildness, expressing a dimension of nature itself, which we moderns often fail to recognize.

It is important to note that these drunken, wild parties of Dionysiac ritual were held outdoors, and often at night. But while these rites, as previously mentioned, were often associated with fertility, this was not their only dimension. The Mysteries entailed a direct connection with the transcendent forces of the cosmos, which although expressed in the natural world, have their origins in pagan divinity. This was where gods and humans mingled and ordinary rules of society didn't apply. There was a wildness, a fierceness to the Mystery traditions; a dissolution of civilization is integral to understanding both its power and dangers.

Turning to the appearance of Christianity within this declining pagan world, we see something quite different and, in many respects, new. And while there were Stoic and other ascetic or semi-ascetic traditions present within Greco-Roman antiquity, there remains an undeniable and profound shift between the orgiastic traditions of antiquity and the extreme asceticism of Christianity.

Yet there remains one notable strain of continuity between the two. Although it is almost never discussed (except in the works of specialists), early Christianity does entail a sexual dimension. Christianity, after all, was not a single movement or sect, but a whole series of phenomena that emerged in the midst of late antiquity and included a whole gamut of possibilities. Even within what later became known as orthodox Christianity, there was a mysterious tradition of subintroductae, in which men and women lived and slept together but without male ejaculation. Thus there was a Christian tradition from very early on -- as mentioned by Paul himself -- of sexual mysticism: that is, of drawing on sexual tension and power, but harnessing it to spiritual transcendence.

At the very least, one mustn't recognize Christianity as a single, monolithic tradition. Nor was it the case that pagan traditions totally vanished, as if someone had flicked a switch. History does not work that way. Rather, pagan traditions fed into the currents of Christianity in Northern and Southern Europe, as in Russia and in England, often in subterranean ways. What is more, the various currents of Christianity -- including Gnostic streams -- did not vanish entirely but were pushed underground or were transmitted through Judaism, Islam, and other traditions, only to reenter Christianity again later on. Above all, Western Christianity includes an entire series of recurrent and reappearing "heretical" religious traditions. The most important of these recurrences took place during the modern era.

Perhaps we might also begin to view the multivalences of sexual mysticism in the age-old and always present, always renewed font of romantic love. When we fall in love, we find ourselves engulfed in a monsoon of hormonal intoxication that fades away into the cold, long day of routine life. But maybe something else is also possible, a new more enduring inner union. That is certainly what the hidden history of sexual mysticism would suggest. Erotic mysticism is no doubt dangerous: Obsession, immersion in a world of fantasy, sexual manias; who knows how many detours and pitfalls there are? It might very well be beneficial to follow the path of asceticism.

Nonetheless, there are those who feel drawn toward an erotic mysticism, finding themselves in relationships-come-spiritual paths. For them, it may be useful to know that there exists a long and rich tradition of sexual mysticism in the West, and that for all the efforts of the "orthodox" to extirpate it, erotic mysticism still recurs time and again, perpetually renewed like the phoenix.

This article is adapted from parts of The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism, (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2008), just published. Arthur Versluis is author of numerous books, including Sacred Earth: The Spiritual Landscape of Native America , Awakening the Contemplative Spirit, and Magic and Mysticism.

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