A Brief History of Sex in the World's Religions
The connection between sexuality and spirituality is so strong and so ancient that the first “coin” ever minted granted access to sacred sex rites. The shekel in ancient Sumeria represented a bushel of wheat donated to the Temple of Inanna to feed the orphans and priestesses who lived there. In recognition of the offering, the donor received a token with a picture of Inanna on one side and a sheaf of wheat on the other. This coin was redeemed at the temple on feast days in order to participate in the fertility rites. The fertility rites included sex with the Goddess – represented by one of the Temple Priestesses – and insured a fertile, prosperous year for those who honored the Goddess in this way.
The ancient Sumerians were not the first—nor the last—to recognize a strong connection between sex and spirit. A long tradition of sex practiced in connection with spirituality lurks in the history of many world religions. Hinduism has a history of sacred sexual practices that continues to this day. Erotic teachings, derived from Tantra and other belief systems, have been incorporated into some Buddhist and Hindu sects. Ancient Judaism had separate words for whore and sacred whore, indicating a spiritual connection with sex—under certain circumstances.
Egyptians, Persians, Semites, and Babylonians all had sacred whores—variously named Horea, Houris, Harine and Hor, all precursors to the word “whore” —in their temples. Greek priestesses performed sexual rites in the Temples of Aphrodite. Rome had her Vestal Virgins and held orgies, called Bacchanalia, dedicated to Bacchus.
Since those days, sex has lost its high status in most of the world's religions. Now it seems that if religious leaders aren't placing prohibitions against sex or restrictions on when or with whom it's OK to have sex, they're making rules for how to do it.
We are all familiar with the Abrahamic religions' (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) prohibitions on sex with anyone you are not married to. These same religions have decreed, at various times through history, that sex with a menstruating woman is unclean; that a man must have sex with his brother's widow (to produce an heir); and that certain activities (name your favorites here!) are sins. Sodomy even spent a few centuries as one of the Roman Catholic Church's mortal sins, meaning that engaging in it assured you a place in Hell for eternity, a fate famously avoided by the Martyrs of Uganda upon their execution for refusing sex to their king and his guests. Sodomy may have been downgraded to merely a Purgatory-earning venial sin by now, but of course, it's still a sin to enjoy any sexual activity unless you are conceiving a child at that moment.
Good heavens! How did we get here from there?"
That is the subject of this column, and as we journey from ancient spirit-sex practices to today's religious understandings of sex, we'll travel the world and travel human history. We'll investigate sex with the gods, sex for the gods, and sex while invoking the gods – yes, even that “Oh God!” moment. We'll look at how different traditions describe sacred sex and teach about it. And I'll share some of the practices that you – yes, you – can try at home!
Sex is powerful beyond our understanding. Those who worshipped in the temples of the past knew the power of a direct connection with the divine, and they understood how sexuality could make that connection. They saw the creation of life result from this activity, and saw divinity in it. Those who served in the temples learned to use it. They could build their erotic energy up to the edge of climax, then direct it toward a creative outcome other than procreation, such as sex magick or erotic healing. They also taught others how to make love with caring, respect and pleasure.
Current-day erotic healers do the same, each in their own way. So we'll alternate our historical/cultural journey with introductions to some of today's erotic healers, courageous women and men who are re-igniting the flames of sacred passion. These are people who are re-learning what our ancestors knew about the power of Eros, and are teaching others how to develop and use it.
Some have found a way to associate themselves with a temple, but most have not. Temples to the Goddess are rare these days. And sacred sex healing temples dedicated to male gods are rarer still. In general, religions with only male gods don't appreciate sex the way goddess religions do. But there are some male gods of love, lust and sex, such as Eros himself.
So today's practitioners have had to find ways to answer their calling in spite of challenges from our society and its cultural beliefs. We'll see how they do that with compassion and grace. I experienced that compassion first hand years ago. I had a number of sessions with sacred erotic healers that started a process that continues to improve my life in many ways, not all of them sexual.
Some of these healers were men and some women; some were professionals, yet most would consider themselves neither sex workers nor healers. With few legal avenues for professional erotic touch, and social disapproval for those who do so anyway, masterful erotic touch is a rare blessing. Most who take it on professionally follow an avocation stronger than most people could imagine having for their daily work.
Since my initial experiences with the extraordinary healing power of the erotic, I've participated in an amazing variety of sacred erotic rituals that revealed the incredible power and glory of firsthand connection with the divine. As we journey through past and present stories of sex with the gods and goddesses, I'll share some of those experiences, too.