THE HISTORY OF EROTICISM IN RITUAL
A paper by Frater Choronzon

first presented to Philos-o-Forum at Eccleston House

on Monday 11th March 1991.


This paper might have been titled 'Sex and Magic Through the Ages', but although that title would accurately characterise the content, the classical/cultural veneer imparted by the concept of "Eroticism in Ritual" allows the subject to be addressed in a discrete rather than a sensational context. The focus is upon the Western Tradition and only passing reference is made to Eastern Tantric practices, although these have been influential in the present century.

Eroticism can be defined as pertaining to sensual arousal in general and sexual stimulation in particular. The word derives from Eros, the Greek god of passion, love, procreation and desire. He is commonly depicted as a youthful winged male figure of pleasing appearance. The image in Piccadilly Circus is a fairly conventional representation, but it is worth noting that Victorian prudery constrained that sculpture to be presented as the Angel of Christian Charity!

Attitudes in the classical world were less inhibited, and the importance attributed to sex, fertility and procreation is reflected in the introduction of Eros as the offspring of primal Chaos in Hesiod's Theogony. The universe is conceived in a sexual act inspired by Eros, and subsequent phases of creation develop from a series of incestuous, orgiastic and auto-erotic episodes involving the primeval deities. There was certainly nothing wrong with sex in the classical pagan cultures, and similar attitudes have been noted in many naturalistic societies whenever these have been encountered in a relatively pristine condition.

The concept of "original sin" which depicted sex as something evil would have been completely alien to the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Romans, and to almost every culture in the pagan world. Circumcision, effectively the ritual mutilation of children's and adolescent's genital organs, would have been viewed as a barbaric perversion, and was indeed banned by Hadrian and by Antiochus IV. I do not propose to dwell on the process by which these attitudes became enshrined as Holy Writ among the "Peoples of the Book", suffice it to say that in my view the cumulative psychological burden and the guilt related stress engendered goes a long way towards explaining the social malaise and hypocrisy which afflicts western society.

In a ritual context there are four main areas in which eroticism has been seen as a significant component in various cultures since the very earliest times, these are:

The latter category will be considered in detail in the next paper in this series entitled "The Hell-Fire Club and Other Swingers". For now I want to concentrate on those areas where the erotic component is as much a means to some wider ritual intention as an end in itself. The unifying thread running through all the practices to be discussed is that they are intended to be enjoyable and should be approached in an uninhibited frame of mind, so let's banish hypocrisy along with guilt and get primitive!

FERTILITY RITES

There are two basic variants within the general concept of a fertility ritual. The objective may be to encourage or sustain personal fecundity - a sort of inverted birth control procedure; or a rite may be performed to promote agricultural fertility for a small locality, a country or even for the planet and cosmos as a whole.

Personal fertility rites are widespread and diverse in character and are predominantly a female preoccupation. In some cases pagan practices survived into the Christian era and even became grafted onto church festivals. R P Knight, writing in 1786, gives a graphic description of one such at Isernia, a town in the Appenines about 60 miles north of Naples. For three days each year women from across the country made a pilgrimage to the church of Saints Cosmas and Damianus to mark their feast day on 27th September. Outside the church a profusion of street vendors sold "votive offerings" in the shape of wax phalli which the pilgrims employed for reverential purposes during a ritual in the church which was nothing more or less than a Rite of Pan. The church was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1805, but the town suffered heavy damage in World War II, and it is not known whether the traditional local practices have survived to this day.

In ancient times Isernia was the major population centre of a tribe known as the Samnites or Sabines who had colonised the area from Sparta. Plutarch relates that shortly after the founding of Rome there was a serious gender imbalance in the new city, and that Romulus himself was involved in an adventure which between 30 and 683 (sources vary) un-married Sabine women were "ravished away" to establish the earliest Roman families. An echo of that event persists today in our own culture. Plutarch writes (circa 100 AD) "it continues also a custom at this very day for the bride not of herself to pass over her husband's threshold, but to be lifted over, in memory that the Sabine virgins were carried in by violence, and did not go in of their own will".

It is said that Saints Cosmas and Damianus were twins; so also, by mythical tradition, were Romulus and his Roman co-founder Remus who were nurtured in infancy by a she-wolf. Plutarch points out though that there may be some ambiguity in that the Latin word 'lupac' also meant "women of loose life". Nontheless the tradition was preserved in the annual Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia which may have had a more ancient origin in Greece.

The procedure is described as follows:

    Two young men are designated 'Luperci' and they attend a sacrifice conducted by priests who may have been 'past-Luperci'. Two goats and a dog are killed and the blood from the sacrificial knife is then applied to the foreheads of the Luperci. Their brows are then wiped clean with wool dipped in milk. At this point (Chaos Magicians may be interested to note) it is important that the Luperci burst forth with laughter. The goats are then skinned and thongs made from the pelts. Each of the Luperci then distributes the thongs among a small band of followers and they streak naked through the streets lashing all they meet. The young Roman wives do not avoid their strokes as these bestow conception and childbirth.


The Lupercalia festival was assimilated by the Christian Church, as were so many other events in the pagan calendar, but it still retains libidinous connotations as it falls on 14th February - Saint Valentine's Day.

Communal fertility rites were more commonly applied to sustenance of crops, herds and the countryside in general than specifically to personal fecundity. An example is the Maypole Dance, typically performed on May 1st in these islands and through much of continental Europe, though similar festivals traditionally occur at midsummer in Scandinavia and in February/March in India. In ancient times the dance was performed around a living tree, but a tall garlanded pole or menhir symbolising the phallus makes an appropriate substitute.

The traditional Celtic Pagan variant of the dance is depicted in William Schaffer's film "The Wicker Man" and consists of a number of participants each holding a ribbon attached to the top of the pole. As they dance moving among each other, the ribbons become woven into intricate patterns and the participants converge towards the pole.

A more modern variant was published in 1984 in Paula Pagani's "Cardinal Rites of Chaos". The central focus in this instance is a Wand of Pan set up in the ground. This is guarded by a priestess and her female attendants while blindfolded males perform a whirling dance. After an appropriate elapse of time, the males must compete to get to the pole while the females endeavour to prevent them by whatever means they may. Whoever wins through is declared the Regent of Pan and suffers anointment with fragrant oil and whatever other devotional attentions the women feel inclined to perform. There follows a session of pair-bonded fire-leaping and "the rite is concluded in whatever way the priestess sees fit".

A form of Fertility Rite which was widespread throughout the classical lands and the middle-east in pagan times was the "Hieros Gamos" (Greek: sacred marriage). This involved sexual congress between divine persons represented by a priest and priestess. Typical deities invoked in such a ceremony might be Pan and Demeter, and the standard form of the ritual is as follows:

  1. 1. Assumption of godforms or impersonation of the deities by the priest and priestess
  2. 2. A procession in which the celebrants are conveyed to the focal location of the ritual.
  3. 3. An exchange of gifts or tokens.
  4. 4. Purification and/or anointment of the principal participants.
  5. 5. A wedding feast perhaps consisting of bread and salt or some other sacrament.
  6. 6. Preparation of a nuptual bed.
  7. 7. A night of frenzied passion.
  8. 8. On the following day a general celebration of the 'marriage' and its consequences for the community.

A stylised form of the Hieros Gamos is enacted in the Gnostic Mass published in the Aleister Crowley compendium "Gems From The Equinox " under copyright of the Ordo Templi Orientis. In that version the 'marriage' is not consummated physically; rather 'Cakes of Light' and a libation of wine are charged by the celebrants jointly and distributed to the other congregated participants. In the course of the ritual the priestess is required to disrobe at a critical point, though Crowley's rubric allows "during the previous speeches the Priestess has, if necessary, as in savage countries, resumed her robe".

In my view the Gnostic Mass is long-winded and not particularly stimulating in an erotic sense; albeit that the Priest, with his arms outstreched along the thighs of the Goddess throughout the recitation of the interminable Collects, may have a more arousing field of vision, particularly in a "non-savage" environment.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Within any society an individual's status changes as s/he passes through life, and it is customary for important transformations to be marked by some form of ceremonial observance. Within our own culture the usual Rites of Passage are associated with birth, the attainment of adulthood, marriage and death. Academic examinations can also be considered in the same category, although these are not generally marked by any ceremonial except perhaps in the case of the award of a degree or doctorate, or the passing-out parade from a military academy. Initiations are also Rites of Passage, be they conducted to welcome a newcomer among a group of companions or to mark some stage of advancement through a ceremonial organisation such as the Freemasons or the Hell's Angels.

The only Rite of Passage with a sexual component in mainstream modern society is marriage. The Christian convention that bride and bridegroom should approach the marriage bed with virginity intact is now largely a dead letter, though in times past and in some very backward communities it is still a matter of importance and family pride. Royal weddings or strategic marriages between members of important families were often required to be consummated in a nuptual chamber adjacent to the wedding feast, after the style of the Hieros Gamos. The bedsheets were expected to be displayed to the guests afterwards with bloodstains to indicate that the bride had come to the union 'virgo intacta'. The social pressures attendant can hardly have contributed to any ambience of relaxed love-making on the part of the virgin newlyweds.

In feudal times though, where the lower echelons of society were concerned, there was a further component in the Marriage Rite generally termed 'Droit du Seigneur' (French: Right of the Lord). This was a legally enshrined entitlement which granted the local overlord the right to spend the marriage night with the bride of any of his vassals. Some authorities posit that this was little more than a tax on marriage, since a redemption could be paid by the bridegroom, and there are many documentary records of such payments having been made. Droit du Seigneur prevailed throughout the continental lands of the old Western Roman Empire, but particularly in France and Italy, and may have been introduced into Britain at the time of the Norman conquest in the 11th century. The concept is said to have been originated by the Emperor Caligula as a device to enable him to sleep with a young lady who took his fancy, but who was the betrothed bride of one of his subordinates. Having once been instituted, the law was presumably such an attractive perk for those of high rank that a full millennium passed before it was rescinded.

In some cultures Rites of Passage attend the onset of puberty or the attainment of sexual maturity. In Jewish tradition this marks the occasion of the Bar-Mitzvah, and among Christian followers Confirmation or First Communion occurs at this time. In terms of an individuals progress through life the key event in personal terms is often the loss of virginity, and, regardless of clerical sensitivities, this occurs on the wedding night only in a minority of cases. In classical and near eastern pagan societies, particularly among the higher echelons, this initiation was imbued with a degree of ritual significance, at least for young males.

Temples of Ishtar, Aphrodite and Pan were attended by priestesses skilled in the conduct of erotic ritual. To a young man introduced to their company by an older family member the impression must have been similar to that of the 'Garden of Earthly Delights' experienced by new recruits to the Order of Assassins at Alamut. A typical form of such a ceremony would commence with a repast, during which the candidate would be attended by comely servitors and teased by erotic dancers. A session of bodily cleansing and purification followed which was directed towards further stimulation as much as hygiene. In a rare Eastern Tantric variant on the theme, for example, known as the 'Omanko Brush', soap and oils would be administered to the whole surface of the candidates body by a priestess using her pubic hair and vaginal lips alone as the method of application - this technique, which demands considerable skill and agility, is reputed to have survived to this day as a 'house speciality' in some of the higher class brothels in Tokyo.

The next stage of the ceremony might be of the nature of an ordeal, involving bondage or restraint accompanied by some light physical chastisement, or perhaps more severe if the candidate had misbehaved during the earlier phases of the ceremony. From this point forward consummation of the ritual might be combined with an instruction session, for example in the techniques of administering oral stimulation to one of the priestesses. The candidates own gratification being rationed according to the efficacy of his performance of this service. If the ritual was being performed to mark admission to some inner circle or priesthood, any oaths or affirmations to be administered would be timed to coincide with the physical climax of the ceremony.

Christian morality/prudery led to the suppression of ritual practices of this character in the Western Empire from the fifth century onwards, although something of a revival seems to have occurred during the 18th century in Paris, Venice and perhaps even in London, though such manifestations were hedonistic rather than ceremonial in character. A visit to an establishment which provided this sort of introduction to adulthood was an integral part of the 'Grand Tour' which used to be undertaken by aristocratic young men usually after graduation from university in company of a tutor.

There are no documented accounts of any equivalent erotic initiation for young women as far as I am aware, but it can be imagined that candidate priestesses to the temple complexes referred to might have encountered similarly stimulating experiences in the course of their induction into the relevant arts.

We should be under no illusions here. The early history of eroticism in ritual is the early history of prostitution - sometimes termed the oldest profession. In Mesopotamia the rites of Ishtar were well established by 2000 BC. As well as being the Goddess of fertility and physical love, she was also a Goddess of battles, of thunder and of storms generally. There was no social stigma attached to her cult, and the most senior priestesses were always from the royal house. Young women were expected to enter her service as a puberty rite (much as they might join the Girl Guides today) and the practice was regarded as a means of acquiring a dowry. The same principles and attributes applied to the rites of Astarte or Ashtoreth in Syria which were well established by 1550 BC, and to the imported Egyptian deities Astharthet and Detesh which can be traced back to the reign of Thothmes III (1500 BC). The cult was assimilated into those of Aphrodite and Artemis in Greece and that of Juno in Rome. In these later manifestations the practices continued well into the Christian era, and although the libidinous nature of the rites attracted the condemnation of Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, it seems that Solomon was a devotee (I Kings 11:5). The suggestion is that he was led astray by his foreign wives!

The socio-economic mechanism which maintained the cult seems to have worked in the following manner. Wars between cities, tribes and states were frequent, and survivors of these military adventures would give thanks for their safe return by an act of devotion at the temple of Ishtar/Ashtaroth. This cost them some money which would go partly to the temple and partly to the priestess(es). The most talented priestesses were in demand, and so could charge more for their ministrations, doubtless meeting devotees from the higher (wealthier) echelons of society as a result, and would thereby be able to provide a more attractive dowry when they tired of their sacred duties.

The cult evolved as it migrated, but it endured for more than two millennia - longer than Christianity has existed - so it must have fulfilled some sort of social need. Duite what was done about sexually transmitted diseases and/or unwanted pregnancies can only be a matter for speculation, but it is hard to imagine that those considerations presented less of a problem than today. It may be that the emphasis was on erotic arousal and stimulation rather than penetrative consummation, but I am unaware of any evidence to support that suggestion.

EROTOGNOSIS

Gnosis is a Greek word for 'knowledge' or the 'means of knowing', particularly in an esoteric sense. In the traditional interpretation it applied as much to straightforward intellectual investigation as to any technique of consciousness modification or direct experience gained thereby. The concept of gnosis as a path to enlightenment is traditionally associated with a diverse array of philosophical and religious groups which emerged in Egypt during the early centuries of the Christian Era. That time period in that location was characterised by the mingling of traditional Egyptian views of the world, which were distinctly magical in orientation, with influences from Roman, Greek and assimilated Mesopotamian cultures, and the newly emergent salvational concepts which were an essential component of early Christianity.

Gnosticism was quite thoroughly suppressed once Christianity became the state religion throughout the declining Roman Empire, and its proponents were condemned as heretics after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. What seems certain is that the gnostic tradition comprised a number of sects pursuing their own magical/mystical paths - a similar ambience might be said to exist today among modern western occultists. Some of those early gnostics appear to have incorporated erotic, or at least phallic devotional concepts into their practices. One remarkable piece of evidence for this suggestion exists among the collection of Christian sculpture in the Vatican Museum - namely the devotional image "Soter Kosmou" (Greek: The Saviour of the World). It is not known whether this piece, dating from the 1st century, is actually on display, as it might be considered offensive or even blasphemous. It consists of an anthropomorphic cockerel whose head is metamorphosed into a disproportionately large erect phallus. In recent times the existence this early Christian icon was highlighted by supporters of 'Gay News' in defence of that publication against an action being brought for the rare criminal offence of Blasphemous Libel.

Among present day occult practitioners (and not just Chaos Magicians) there is some consensus that the inducement of a state of gnosis is an essential prerequisite for any useful magical activity, be it divination, enchantment, evocation, invocation or illumination. A number of techniques have been described by which such a modified state of consciousness may be induced, and these have been divided into two broad categories of 'inhibitory gnosis' and 'excitatory gnosis' by Peter Carroll. The classification is not absolute, and occult practitioners usually find on a personal level that some techniques work better than others, or that particular techniques for inducing gnosis are more effective than others when applied to some specific intent.

Inhibitory techniques are generally contemplative or yogic in character and are aimed at reducing sensory stimulus, with the subsuming of consciousness in coma and ultimately death being considered as the extreme on that end of the scale - Thanatos.

Excitatory techniques, in contrast, depend on hyper-stimulation as a means of modifying consciousness. Extremes of pain or fear or persistence with some energetic physical activity (such as a whirling dervish dance) to the point of exhaustion can be effective, but sexual climax as the ultimate expression of life represents the pinnacle of excitatory gnosis -- Eros. Thus 'Erotognosis' is the attainment of a modification of consciousness by sensory stimulation of a sexual character.

There are physiological differences between human males and females with regard to sexual climax, although generalisations may not necessarily apply to particular individuals. Men usually experience a progressively increased level of arousal culminating in a peak of orgasm which is followed by a hiatus, albeit that in favourable circumstances that cycle may be repeated a number of times. Most women, in contrast, do not suffer the hiatus of arousal after an initial orgasm, and with continued sensitive stimulation are able to experience a progression of climactic peaks until a point of utter physical exhaustion is reached.

Transcendent erotognosis is the state of consciousness which is experienced immediately preceding and at the point of orgasm, and therefore, by reason of physiology, the gnostic state can generally be sustained by women during a longer period of time than is ordinarily possible for men.

The key to sustained erotognosis for men is to control the physical response to applied stimulus so as to extend the duration of the phase of maximum arousal immediately preceding orgasm, without proceeding forward to ejaculation and the subsequent hiatus. This is essentially a matter of mind and body control, and, with a sensitive and sympathetic partner, it can be a lot of fun to practice.

The importance of such techniques in occult applications, and in hedonistic gratification, was recognised by Crowley who wrote a long essay on the subject entitled 'Energised Enthusiasm'; this is included in the book 'Gems From The Equinox'. Sexologists seeking to treat conditions such as premature ejaculation have also proposed similar mind and body control exercises. A technique known as 'Karezza' or Dianism extends control of the male orgasm to the point where the ejaculate is effectively re-absorbed within the body; my own view is that while this may be interesting to try as an experiment in physical control, it bestows no particular added value in any occult sense. Others might have a different opinion, but I take the attitude that the ultimate release of orgasmic ejacultion is an essential part of the erotognostic experience for a man, and that to deny that element in the process is to reduce the efficacy of any magic that may be undertaken as well as being unfulfilling in an emotional and a physical sense.

Erotognosis is an essentially personal experience, but most people find it more effective if the primary sensual stimulus is being administered by someone else. If the objective is simply to produce a sample of bodily fluid for some purpose then obviously one can do what is necessary oneself, but if the target is the oblivion of gnosis some relinquishment of personal control is desirable.

Most of what I have put forward so far has been couched in terms of so-called 'straight' sexual practice, but that is not to exclude the wider dimensions of erotic expression. Basically whatever turns you on will be effective for you personally, and, conversely, you are unlikely to achieve much in the way of gnosis through participation in any erotic practice which you find repugnant. This is not said to discourage experimentation; I have met people who thought the idea of oral sex was repulsive until they found themselves on the receiving end of it; ditto massage with body oil; ditto mild bondage; ditto group sex. With erotognosis one is talking about sensory stimulation techniques applied for an essentially cerebral purpose, not necessarily about romantic love; although if that exists it can enhance the experience.

In summing up it may be useful to give some indication of typical applications of erotognostic techniques in each of the main areas of magical activity. These are appropriate to either male or female practitioners, and they assume the willing and witting participation of at least one partner to provide sensory stimulus, whether of the same and/or the opposite gender to the operator is entirely a matter for personal preference. An obvious caveat in these times of serious risk from life threatening viral infections is that unprotected penetrative sex involving transfer of bodily fluids should be avoided, unless you are absolutely confident that you are privy to a partner's sexual and personal history - stay safe.

Eroto-divination is about obtaining answers to questions. Close to the point of orgasm (for men) or in the course of an orgasmic sequence (for women) formulate a question intensely in your mind. Allow yourself to become immersed in the sensations driving you to the pitch of ecstasy and take note of whatever random thought or image next impinges on your consciousness - interpret that thought-form as the answer to your question. This process may be repeated with different questions, or you can ask the same one again or seek clarification of an earlier answer. Men may find that this question and answer routine actually helps to delay orgasm, and that the eventual climax of the experience is all the more intense for having gone through the exercise. As an alternative, the participant experiencing the erotognosis may be encouraged to make oracular pronouncements while in climax - divination by orgasomancy!

In evocation the objective is to imbue some material basis with a vital essence or to draw forth and fashion some non-material servitor or entity from the energised aura of an operator in the throes of ecstasy. A clear statement of intent should be made at the outset of the working. This class of operation may be more effective if conducted as a group working with the participant willingly providing the erotognostic manifestation (male or female) hoodwinked and subjected to mild physical restraint. Although sexual fluids can be used to charge a material basis, the sweat of passion is equally appropriate, as is breath exhaled with the shriek of ecstatic climax.

Erotognostic invocation typically takes the form of the Hieros Gamos described above. Alternatively the gnosis may be induced by the means indicated and then used as a conduit by means of which the operator may attempt to take on a manifestation of some appropriate deity, with other participants vocalising any incantation.

Erotic techniques are particularly appropriate for enchantment. A sigil can be constructed to represent the intended outcome of the working using any standard procedure, for example that set out in Austin Osman Spare's "Book of Pleasure" which has been paraphrased by many other authors more recently. Such a sigil may be strongly visualised at the moment of erotic climax. Alternatively a conjugal act of mutual stimulation might be devoted to such a purpose. A paper representation of the sigil might be placed under the altar of passion, and perhaps left there if some ongoing enchantment is intended. Alternatively the sigil might be inscribed on rice paper, or on a chocolate biscuit which might be broken with a portion being consumed by each of the participants. At a point of collective attainment of the erotognostic state the sigil would be symbolically reconstituted and the enchantment effected.

Illumination by erotognosis is potentially a devastating experience. An effective procedure might open with an arousal and stimulation process along the lines of that set out above for evocation, but this should be carefully planned to "drip-feed" arousal to each sense in turn, with visual stimulus denied until the restrained recipient's frustration is absolute. Matters should be arranged so that when the hoodwink is removed and the restraints are loosed the operator is instantaneously transported from a pit of torment to a paradise of fulfillment. Some caution is advisable here. The operator may experience a very intense emotional release and the working should not be undertaken by anyone who is not in robust physical health. The objective is illumination through the ultimate Excitatory Gnosis, not extreme unction consequent upon the ultimate Inhibitory Gnosis. On the other hand, being 'Fucked to Death' has to be the best of all ways to go.

REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING

BIBLE, The Holy. Revised Authorised Version (Nelson) 1982

CARROLL, P. Liber Null & Psychonaut (Weiser) 1987

CROWLEY, A. Gems from the Equinox (Llewellyn) 1974 (ed: I Regardie)

CULLING, L T. A Manual of Sex Magic(Llewellyn) 1971

ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA. Various References ed. 1988

FRAXI, P. Index Librorum Prohibitorum 1877

HESIOD Theogony (Greek) ca 750 BC

KNIGHT, R P. Worship of Priapus 1786

LAROUSSE World Mythology (Hamlyn) 1965

MICHELL, J. Our Saviour (Radical-Tradition Papers #4) 1977 (Open Head Press)

PAGANI, P. Cardinal Rites of Chaos (Sut Anubis) 1985

PLUTARCH Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans ca 100 AD. ed 1952

POWELL, A. Athens and Sparta (Routledge) 1988

SCHAFFER, W. Film "The Wicker Man" 1973

SPARE, A 0. The Book of Pleasure 1913 (incl in 'Collected Works'; 1986)

TOWERS, E. Dashwood: The Man and the Myth (Crucible) 1986

WALLIS BUDGE, E. Gods of the Egyptians 1904 (Dover Edition 1969)

WESTROPP, H M. & WAKE, C S. Ancient Symbol Worship1875