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The Tree of Ecstasy
An Advanced Manual of Sexual Magic
By Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki
Samuel Weiser, Inc.Copyright © 1991 Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki
All rights reserved.
PREHISTORIC RITUAL AND THE GREAT MOTHER
As an instinct and a means of continuing the species, sex is almost as old as the first form of life, as old as the galaxy of which we are a minute part. We might take it further and say that sex in one form or another has always been in existence, that it is the first principle: to create, to survive, to grow, to pass on the genetic substance of life and experience, and to encourage each species to evolve as far as it can. The dinosaurs and the sabre-toothed tiger didn't make it, but humanity got the hang of it pretty quickly - for them, sex worked like magic!
From early times sexual ecstasy, religion and magic have been irretrievably linked together. This is a natural linking: we eat when we are hungry and feel satisfied, we sleep when we are tired and feel pleasure when we wake refreshed, but when we come together in the sexual act we experience total physical and mental ecstasy. To align this feeling with the early Gods and to use it as a means to worship and communicate with those Gods was an obvious step. Cave paintings leave no doubt that prehistoric tribes used the sexual act in their ritual celebrations, and figurines such as 'The Venus of Willendorf' testify to their reverence for the fertility of woman and her ability to give new life. The female womb was the first, and remains for the magician the prime, example of the sacred chalice, with its implication of the communion between humanity and something much greater.
It took early man a long time before he realized it required two to bring a child to birth, as long as it took him to find out that the erect phallus, the source of so much personal pleasure, was in point of fact a highly potent and very important part of the whole fertility cycle. From this moment of realization he began to implement the swing from a matriarchal system to that of a patriarchal and moved away from the worship of the womb to that of the penis. This historic changeover is something I do not propose to spend much time on, as it has been more than adequately dealt with by other writers - Merlin Stone, for example, in her excellent book The Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood.
Sex and religion cannot be separated because each has its roots in the other and from them emerged the first magical rituals. For the early tribes the need for fertility was imperative, both in their women, to combat the high mortality rate, and in the herds of wild creatures that provided most of their food. The woman who was exceptionally fertile was regarded with awe, and was seen as being someone with special powers, highly favoured by whatever magical being it was that caused her to give birth so often. To ancient humanity anyone who fitted their concept of an ideal man or woman was considered to be more than human and was gradually elevated to the earthly image of a God. A fertile woman with her large breasts and hips spread by continuous childbearing would have become an ideal, a copy of the Great Mother. She was the prototype priestess of the Goddess, and therefore seen by the tribe as Her earthly counterpart.
As long as she could bear children such a woman would have great power within the tribe. Evidence suggests that a successful hunter wore the horns of his kill in tribute to the animal's strength and courage. By coupling with a fertile woman immediately after the hunt, these qualities were seen as being transferred by the ritualized sex to the unborn child, who in turn was thought to inherit these special powers and was therefore capable of enriching the life of the tribe. Another belief was that the animal's sacrifice of its life to feed the tribe was rewarded by rebirth in human form. This may have been one way in which the legends of half-human, half-animal forms, such as the centaurs, entered the consciousness of humanity.
The Horned God and the Goddess
Out of such beliefs and practices one of the earliest myths was born, that of the fertile Goddess in union with the ithyphallic hunter, the first Horned God, triumphantly wearing the horns taken from his latest kill. The more successful the tribal hunter in providing meat, the greater his status within his peer group, the more likely he would be the one chosen to impregnate the 'Mother' and provide her with sexual pleasure until the next big hunt.
These celebrations would have occurred at the spring gathering of the herds to drop their young and again in the late summer when they gathered prior to migration. Therefore a hunt lasting many days and involving every man who could hold a spear would have been a half-yearly ritual. The first hunt would feed the starving tribe after the long cold months, the second would enable them stock up on food before the next winter began.
A clever and powerful woman in control of her feminine intuition would have made it her business to influence the outcome of the hunt by the promise of her sexual favours to the most successful male. Emboldened by such a promise, the men would have felt almost invincible as they set out and this would have undoubtedly added to their skill and determination. Feeling themselves to be under magical protection, such a tribe would have grown fast in numbers, eaten well, and lived longer, giving further proof, if they needed it, of the benevolence of the Great Mother.
In order to provide encouragement to the other hunters, the union would probably have been a public rite, watched by the whole group - something we would now find repugnant but which has been customary in many cultures. While the unsuccessful hunters looked on in envy, the older men would have told wild stories about their own vanished prowess, and the young girls and the boys not yet old enough to hunt would have been encouraged to look forward to their own first mating.
The chosen man would have been greatly envied and the others would have striven to outmatch his hunting skills in order to take his place with the Mother at the next big ceremony. Competition and rivalry amongst the men would have been very fierce, inevitably leading to fighting between them. In later civilizations, such fights would have become games of physical skill - wrestling, running, feats of strength, etc - and would have provided the populace with entertainment and the high priestess with the best genes for the expected child of the union.
As the chosen woman got older and did not bear so frequently or so easily, she would eventually have to choose a younger woman to take her place. The older, wiser woman would have installed her successor with chanted words, circled steps, and the shaking of bones and seed-filled gourds, for highly elaborate rituals would not yet have been devised. She would have retained her influence over the girl for a long time, perhaps until her death, which would have been seen as a return to the Goddess.
Sacred Prostitution Cultures of the Mediterranean
If we now move on to the beginning of recorded history in places such as Mesopotamia and Chaldea, we find humanity living in agricultural groups, mostly small villages and towns but some in larger city states. The people are now divided into well-defined groups: artisans, workers, slaves, officials, warriors, rulers, and priests. There are laws, markets, temples, and even the beginnings of a monetary system as well as a fairly sophisticated system of education for the ruling class. Already the earlier myths and legends surrounding the Goddess and Her Consort would have been considered ancient and set in times long ago. But the tribal Mother and the hunters whose prowess she rewarded lingered on. In the temples, among the priests and priestesses, there would have been the Hierodules who served as sexual aspects of the Goddess for the men who came to worship Her. In this era, sacred prostitution was not looked down upon, but seen as natural and holy and a service to the Goddess Herself.
To the temple a man would come with an offering for the Goddess - perhaps he wanted more children, or some extra yield from his fields, cows or camels. In lying with the priestess he would feel himself blessed and honoured. She in her role as the Goddess would listen to his prayers in the silence after their union and perhaps grant them if she was pleased with his sexual performance. It was correspondence magic pure and simple. The man would go home full of confidence, more relaxed and therefore perhaps more likely to impregnate his own wife. The new-found conviction that the Goddess had listened to him might also give him renewed strength to dig more irrigation canals and the fields would yield an increase in return.
In modern terms such priestesses would be seen as prostitutes and harlots, but in their own times they were acknowledged as a vital and important part of the temple hierarchy. In the cult of the Goddess Mylitta in Babylonia, every woman once in her life sat at the entrance to the temple and went with the first man who offered her money. This fee was then given to the temple as an offering. It was seen as the just dues required by the Goddess, which no woman would dream of denying Her.
The Descent Myth and the Love Goddess
At certain times of the year the temples would present enactments of the old stories such as 'The Descent of Innana' where the Goddess, mourning the death of Her lover, goes down into hell to suffer loss, pain, humiliation, and even death. The Goddess of Death demands everything She has in payment - Her jewels, clothes, crown, the magical girdle worn by all love goddesses - and finally demands Her death. When the Goddess of Love and Fertility 'dies' everything dies, so the Gods themselves petition for Her to be restored to life. She emerges from the Land of the Dead with Her lover and the earth comes alive again. This was celebrated every year and bears a remarkable resemblance to our own Easter celebrations, with its emphasis on the death and resurrection of a God - except that the ancient enactment ended with a public act of sex. This was to reassure the people that the Goddess of Love and Fertility was truly restored to them, and that She and Her lover were capable of copulation, thus ensuring that the earth would yield a harvest. In the earliest times the ritual would always have been in full view of the people but gradually it became more withdrawn. Finally only the high priest and/or the high priestess would have been present during the final part of the ritual.
The Sacrificed King
About this time another ancient belief had its beginnings, that of a magical link between the king and the land. As long as the king was fertile and seen to be fertile the land would yield, if not then only the shedding of his blood would suffice. But such a ritual worked only with the aid and consent of the Goddess, either in the person of the high priestess or that of the queen, for She was the land.
From this basic premise many similar myths have emerged: the corn king, such as Osiris, cut down to rise again; the oak king of the sacred grove, doomed to fight all comers until one should defeat him and take his place. There are the harvest lords, John Barleycorn, the Lammas King, all destined to die for the land and rise again. Always the cause of the king's death, and sometimes his executioner, was the Goddess, and the penultimate act of the tragedy was the coupling of the Goddess and the king, for his seed had to be left in Her womb to provide him with a new incarnation.
Woman as Enroyaler of Kings and Source of Inspiration
In Egypt the bloodline of the royal family was kept as pure as possible by inbreeding, something which eventually led to genetic disaster. The old tradition of the woman symbolizing the power, fertility, and persona of the earth and the Goddess of the Earth was very strong here. For a new pharaoh to rule he had to marry the queen or the daughter of the former ruler. She may have been his mother or his sister, but nevertheless only she had the power to enroyal him and grant him the right to sit on the throne. This unwritten law is seen in action throughout history - to offer an example we need only look to the marriage of Henry Tudor to Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV. As the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III met his death, Henry became king of England by force of arms, but in order that this should be seen to be a legitimate claim (his own were on the dubious side) he married the young Elizabeth of York and through her bloodline became accepted as a true king in the eyes of the populace.
To return to Egypt, the frequently seen statues of the king in the form of the young Horus seated on the lap of Isis symbolize this enroyalment. The use of the word 'lap' has long been a euphemism for the female vulva and by 'sitting on the lap', i.e. sexually penetrating, the Goddess/royal wife, he was making a claim to the throne. Anocher phrase often used is that of being 'over the moon', or wildly happy and enthusiastic. But being over the moon is another synonym for intercourse, the moon being the woman lying beneath the man.
Although by now the swing to the patriarchal system was almost complete, much of the matriarchal worship survived - indeed it has never completely disappeared. Wherever it is found, sexual magic is never far away. The Goddess is, after all, not only Isis Queen of Heaven and Gaia the Earth Mother, She is and always has been Venus/Aphrodite the Goddess of Sexual Love. In many ways and under various disguises She has inspired the male of the species and coaxed the best from him throughout history. She has inspired some of the greatest of the world's paintings and sculptures, and been the focal point of the finest love poems and prose in world literature. Her triple gift of fertility, love and sexual pleasure remains the triangle on which much of our existence is built, a gift that holds for humanity the ultimate magic, recognition of the divinity of the self.
To move from Egypt to classical Greece and Rome, we immediately find that similar laws prevail: Oedipus becomes king upon his marriage with Iocasta, as does Aegistheus when he takes Clytaemnestra as a wife. Odysseus was away from his island kingdom for many years during which his son by Penelope grew to manhood, yet the son did not inherit the crown, for that would go to the man Penelope chose as her husband. This was the main reason for so many suitors clamouring at her door. Yet even a marriage ceremony does not make the suitor a king - only the first act of sex with his new wife will enroyal him.
Sex and Ritual in Classical Greece
Almost the whole of Greek myth is to a greater or lesser extent concerned with sex. Gods and Goddesses sought out human lovers and their progeny became the demi-gods, the heroes and the women of power such as Cassandra the prophetess of Apollo, Danae, Leda, Europa, and Io, all of whom won the sexual favour of Zeus at one time or another. There was also the legendary Helen of Troy whose face 'launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Illium'. These were all half-human, or made so by their interaction with a God, but Psyche, the best known, was wholly human and won her immortality by her devotion and her determination to win back her lover Eros, the God of Love himself.
The Greek idea of sex had both its light and its darker side. On the one hand it was seen as something wholly natural and certainly something to be used in ritual and worship. It was a gift from the Gods themselves and as such it was to be used and to be seen to be used and appreciated. On the other hand the Female Mysteries of Samothraki were dark and bloodstained and almost certainly involved the sacrifice of young men at one point in their history. The priestesses carried small, wickedly sharp, leaf-shaped knives as part of their ritual equipment.
Greek women had their own exclusively female rites and mysteries, mostly concerned with fertility, and sometimes with Herms or phallus-shaped stones as part of the ritual regalia. The female population of both Greece and Rome were fully conscious of their sexual appetites and were not afraid to indulge them when given the chance. Quite apart from the wives, mothers and daughters were the Hetairai - we would call them high-class call girls. Besides being sexually experienced, many were also highly educated, and they could and did maintain houses where men would gather to talk and discuss with them everything from art to warfare, from music to philosophy. Attended by their eunuch slaves, they graced banquets and festivals with their presence and wielded enormous influence over the men who sought their company - among whom were the very highest in the land.
There were two other groups of women in ancient Greece whose lives were given over to the practice of sex: the Dicteriades and the Auletrides. The former were bound by law to satisfy the demands of those men who visited them. They were kept apart from other women, had to wear a specific form of dress, and had no rights of citizenship. However many of them did manage to escape from this sexual slavery and even married into respectable families. The Auletrides were musicians and dancers, and the Greeks loved music. If they could sing as well they were able to command quite high payment for their services. But only the Hetairai were able to afford the large houses, slaves, and jewellery that they displayed at their banquets. With their elegance, grace and learning they were undoubtedly the equal of the men they entertained.
Excerpted from The Tree of Ecstasy by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. Copyright © 1991 Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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