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University of California Press
Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism / Edition 1

Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism / Edition 1

by Hugh B. Urban


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Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism / Edition 1

Sexuality and the occult arts have long been associated in the western imagination, but it was not until the nineteenth century that a large and sophisticated body of literature on sexual magic-the use of sex as a source of magical power-emerged. This book, the first history of western sexual magic as a modern spiritual tradition, places these practices in the context of the larger discourse surrounding sexuality in American and European society over the last 150 years to discover how sexual magic was transformed from a terrifying medieval nightmare of heresy and social subversion into a modern ideal of personal empowerment and social liberation. Focusing on a series of key figures including American spiritualist Paschal Beverly Randolph, Aleister Crowley, Julius Evola, Gerald Gardner, and Anton LaVey, Hugh Urban traces the emergence of sexual magic out of older western esoteric traditions including Gnosticism and Kabbalah, which were progressively fused with recently-discovered eastern traditions such as Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. His study gives remarkable new insight into sexuality in the modern era, specifically on issues such as the politics of birth control, the classification of sexual "deviance," debates over homosexuality and feminism, and the role of sexuality in our own new world of post-modern spirituality, consumer capitalism, and the Internet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520247765
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/04/2006
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 349
Sales rank: 980,485
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Hugh B. Urban is Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University and author of Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (UC Press) and The Economics of Ecstasy: Tantra, Secrecy, and Power in Colonial Bengal.

Read an Excerpt

Magia Sexualis

Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism

By Hugh B. Urban

University of California Press

Copyright © 2006

The Regents of the University of California

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24776-0

Chapter One

The Recurring Nightmare,
the Elusive Secret

Historical and Imaginary Roots of Sex Magic
in the Western Tradition

The whole power of Magic is founded on Eros. The way Magic
works is to bring things together through their inherent similarity.

Love is one of the great instruments of magical power, but it is
categorically forbidden to the Magus, at least as an invocation or
passion. Woe to the Samson of Kabbalah if he permits himself
to be put asleep by Delilah! ... Sexual love is ever an illusion,
for it is the result of an imaginary mirage.
ELIPHAS LÉVI, Transcendental Magic

Sex, magic, and secrecy have long been intimately associated in the Western
imagination. Since at least the first centuries of the Christian church,
sexual licentiousness was often believed to go hand in hand with experimentation
in occult arts and secret rituals. Conversely, heretical religious
groups were typically accused of the most perverse sexual activities. One
of the most common charges leveled against the Gnostics by the early
church fathers was that of hedonism and sexual abandon in the course of
their obscene rites, and this accusation of sexual license and obscene ritual
would recur throughout the later Middle Ages in the church's war against
various other heresies, from the Cathars in the thirteenth century to the
Knights Templar in the fourteenth century to the witch trials in the
fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. As Robert Lerner observes,
"heretics of all stripes were simply assumed to be immoralists." Repeatedly
and with remarkable consistency, a narrative emerged that linked sexual
intercourse with dangerous power, and in turn linked sexual transgression
with occult ritual and obscene inversion of religious practice. Even
the most renowned exponents of magic, such as the nineteenth-century occultist
Eliphas Lévi, quoted above, warned of the awesome power and terrible
danger bound up with sexual intercourse. As David Frankfurter observes,
the fear of this unholy union of sexual license and black magic is one of the
most persistent fantasies in the Western imagination over the last two thousand

But how much of this association of sexuality with magic has any real
historical basis, and how much is pure fiction or simply Western society's
own "fantasies of the world turned upside down"? Was there ever any widespread
practice of sexual magic prior to the nineteenth century, or is the very
concept of sexual magic simply a modern attempt to enact a recurring fantasy
that has tantalized the Western imagination for two millennia?

The association of sex and magic is by no means a new idea in the modern
comparative study of religion. Early anthropologists and historians of
religions from Sir James George Frazer to Mircea Eliade compiled masses
of data about various fertility cults across the globe that were believed to
link sexual license and orgiastic behavior with fertility rites and agricultural
ceremonies. Thus, Eliade sees the orgy as a basic and widespread form of
"magico-religious" ritual aimed both to enhance the fertility of crops and
to restore humankind to the primordial, unformed chaos from which all life
proceeds: "The orgy sets flowing the sacred energy of life."

[R]itual orgies ... are attested among populations as different as the Kurds,
the Tibetans, the Eskimos, the Malgaches, the Ngadju Dyaks, and the Australians.
The incentives are manifold, but generally such ritual orgies are
carried out in order to avert a cosmic or social crisis ... or in order to lend
magico-religious support ... by releasing and heightening the dormant
powers of sexuality.... [I]ndiscriminate and excessive sexual intercourse
plunges the collectivity into the fabulous epoch of the beginnings.

Other historians, such as Narendranath Bhattacharyya, have even argued
that there is an archaic matriarchal substratum beneath all the religions of
India, the Middle East, and most of the ancient world which is rooted in a
form of sexual magic. Above all, Bhattacharyya suggests, the ancient goddess
cults of Cybele, Isis, Ashtarte, and the Indian mother goddesses are
rooted in "primitive sex rites based on the magical association of natural
and human fertility."

Not surprisingly, contemporary popular authors have taken this argument
still further, by arguing that sex magic is in fact one of the oldest, most
universal of all forms of human spirituality. "Sex magic is as old as mankind,"
writes popular sex magician Don Webb. Another neo-Tantric guru,
Nik Douglas, argues that sex magic and Tantra can be traced back to the Paleolithic
era, when spiritual sex emerged as the original "Mother of Spiritual
Belief" for all later civilization. "It was during the Paleolithic era of the
Ice Age that the foundations of magic and mysticism were established, with
sex as the cornerstone. In this era, sex was undoubtedly a spiritual mystery."
This idea is really the starting point for Dan Brown's novel The
DaVinci Code
, which imagines an ancient tradition of matriarchy, goddess-worship,
and sexual ritual at the basis of early Christianity itself, which was
later pushed underground by the Catholic Church.

While there is not a great deal of evidence to discredit these theories of
a widespread archaic substratum of goddess worship and sexual magic, there
is not much to support them either. Indeed, we ought to be extremely suspicious
of all such sweeping, largely ahistorical claims, which typically tell
us far more about the personal, social, and political agendas of the scholars
who make them than they do about other cultures or actual historical
events. What we must do instead, I think, is look critically at the data we
have available to us today and interrogate both the more fantastic and the
more credible narratives surrounding magic and sexuality, taking both seriously
as key components in the modern imagining of magia sexualis.

In this chapter, I will examine both the imaginary and the historical roots
of sexual magic in the West. As Norman Cohn has argued, there does seem
to be a recurring fantasy of black magic and illicit sexuality that runs
throughout much of Western history, from the early Christian church to
the time of the witch hunts. This is the story of what Cohn calls "Europe's
inner demons," or the projection of Christian Europe's own violent drives
and desires onto marginalized groups such as heretics and witches. The resulting
fantasy of sex and black magic is thus a kind of "return of the repressed,"
the return of Christianity's own denial of the body, nature, and
sexuality in a monstrously distorted form. As Charles Zika has recently
suggested, however, these fantasies of magic and transgression were never
simply a matter of repressive denial. Rather, they were also ways for medieval
Europeans to explore, give expression to, and even enjoy transgressive
desires: "repression is also about exploring the pleasures of desire,
of seduction, of the body: the history of discipline is also a history of

To borrow a phrase from Michael Taussig, we might say that this narrative
is a form of mimesis, or a projection of deep-seated fantasies and desires
onto certain social or political "others." As Taussig suggests, mimesis
is particularly at work during struggles for power between dominant
and oppressed groups-for example, between colonial authorities and native
peoples, between whites and blacks, or between the Nazis and Jews:
"Racism is the parade ground, where the civilized rehearse this love-hate
relation with their repressed sensuosity, with the nose of the Jew, their 'instinct
for avarice,' the blackness of the negro, their alleged sexuality." Yet
ironically, even as they condemn marginal groups as savage or irrational,
the dominant factions often mimic that same savagery in their oppression
of those groups: "The magic of mimesis lies in the transformation wrought
on reality by rendering its image.... [S]uch mimesis occurs by a mirroring
of otherness that reflects back the barbarity of their own social relations,
but as imputed to the savagery they yearn to colonize." Very often,
this mimetic projection centers specifically around sex-the intense sexual
power, at once frightening and tantalizing, so frequently attributed to
primitives and other races. It is precisely this sort of mimetic projection
of sexual immorality and dangerous power that we see repeated throughout
Western religious history. In the persecutions of the Gnostics, the
Cathars, and the witches, we see many of the same repressed sexual fantasies
and desires projected through the "magic of mimesis" onto a series
of marginalized others.

Yet at the same time, this association between sex and magic was not entirely
a projection or displaced fantasy. Rather, I will argue, there is a deep
current running through Western esotericism that does connect the powers
of sex and magic and would so form the foundation for modern sexual
magic. From ancient Greek love magic, through early Gnosticism and Hermeticism,
to Jewish Kabbalah and Renaissance magic, there is a very old esoteric
tradition that has linked the mysteries of sexual love with those of
magical ritual. The modern practice of sex magic that emerged in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, I will argue, is in large part a complex fusion
of these imaginary and historical traditions, weaving together both the
fantasies of transgressive sexual rites and the actual practice of erotic magic
in the Western esoteric tradition.


The famous gesture of Adam covering his genitals with a fig leaf is,
according to Augustine, not due to the simple fact that Adam was
ashamed of their presence, but to the fact that his sexual organs were
moving by themselves without his consent. Sex in creation is the
image of man revolted against God.... His uncontrolled sex is exactly
the same as what he himself has been toward God-a rebel.

[T]hough it truly shames me for the disgraceful things they did ...
nevertheless I shall not recoil from saying what they did not recoil
from doing, so as to arouse in my readers a shuddering horror of their
scandalous behavior.

After copulating, as if the crime of their whoredom were not
enough, they offer up their shame to heaven.
EPIPHANIUS, Panarion, describing the Phibionite Gnostic sect

Much of the inspiration for the rise of sexual magic in the nineteenth century
is clearly drawn from imaginary sources. That is to say, it drew upon
a long tradition of fantastic narratives about wild orgies, bizarre ritual, and
obscene occultism that had little basis in reality but a lasting impact on the
popular imagination for millennia. To cite but a few examples: when Aleister
Crowley created his "Gnostic Mass" for the Ordo Templi Orientis-which
centered around the male priest "piercing" the priestess with his "sacred
lance"-he was in fact mimicking the fantastic and largely groundless
accusations of sexual license that were commonly aimed at the Gnostics by
the early church. He was not, in other words, re-creating an actual ritual,
but enacting the dark fantasy of an inverted Eucharist that obsessed and
terrified the early Christian church. Likewise, when Gerald Gardner introduced
his "Great Rite" for modern witches-a rite that involved intercourse
between male and female partners-he was not following any ancient or
traditional ritual. Rather, he was mimicking the stereotype of witchcraft and
sex that had lingered in the Western imagination for at least a thousand
years. And perhaps most obviously, the modern "Black Mass" performed
by the Church of Satan-celebrated on the body of a naked woman-is
clearly a mockery of the dark fantasy of a Satanic Mass that has haunted
the Christian imagination for centuries.

The origins of these fantastic narratives of orgiastic ritual and black
magic are doubtless very old and probably predate the rise of Christianity.
We can already see the seeds of this narrative in the descriptions of some of
the Greek and Roman mystery religions, and above all, the cult of Bacchus/
Dionysus. Although little is known about the actual content of the Dionysian
mysteries-which were as diverse and varied as the many myths surrounding
the god himself-they do seem to have centered at least in part
around phallic worship, intoxication, and ritual excess. But whatever their
actual content, the Dionysian mysteries would soon become closely associated
with sexual license, extreme violence, and often criminal activity in the
Greek and Roman imaginations. Already by the fifth century BCE, as we see
in Euripides' classic tragedy The Bacchae, the cult of Dionysus had become
widely associated with orgiastic ritual, hedonism, and violence. Here Dionysus
appears in Thebes in order to revive his cultic worship, which had fallen
into ill repute. To do so, he maddens the women of the area, who are driven
out into the forest where they dance wildly, wear skins of beasts, suckle
wolves, and engage in the ripping apart (sporagmos) and consumption
(omophagia) of the raw flesh of their animal victims.

I have sung them with frenzy, hounded them from home,
up to the mountain where they wander, crazed of mind,
and compelled to wear my orgies' livery
Every woman in Thebes-but the women only-
I drove from home, mad....

In the end, King Pentheus himself-the hard-hearted ruler of Thebes,
who had denied Dionysus-becomes a sacrificial victim of the god. Compelled
by his desire to see the Bacchic rites, he begs to learn of those mysteries
of which "it is forbidden to tell the uninitiated," which "are forbidden
to say," but "are worth knowing." But he is finally discovered, then ripped
limb from limb by the ecstatic Bacchae, and even beheaded by his own

However, perhaps the most remarkable example of the role of the Bacchic
cult in the popular imagination is found in Livy's account in book 39
of his history of Rome. In 186 BCE, Livy recounts, the Roman senate met
in order to discuss the growing fears about the secret Bacchic ceremonies
spreading throughout Italy, bringing with them not only sexual immorality
but also criminal activity and murder. In the end, the senate would call
for the destruction of all Bacchic shrines and strict control of all Bacchic worship
in Italy. The following account might be considered perhaps the locus
for fantasies of sexual transgression in religious ritual and would
deeply inform the Western imagination for the next two thousand years.

The pleasures of drinking and feasting were added to the religious rites, to
attract a larger number of followers. When the wine had inflamed their feelings,
and night and the mingling of the sexes and of different ages had extinguished
all power of moral judgment, all sorts of corruption began to be
practiced, since each person had ready to hand the chance of gratifying the
particular desire to which he was naturally inclined. The corruption was not
confined to one kind of evil, the promiscuous violation of free men and of
women; the cult was also a source of supply of false witnesses, forged documents
and wills, and perjured evidence, dealing also in poisons and in wholesale
murders.... [T]he violence was concealed because no cries for help could
be heard against the shriekings, the banging of drums ... in the scene of debauchery
and bloodshed.

Indeed, the authorities feared that this was not just some bizarre isolated
cult, but a widespread, rapidly growing subversive force that was threatening
the stability of Roman society: "Debauched and debauchers, frenzied
devotees, bereft of their senses ... by the hubbub and the shouting of all
that goes through the night. Up to now this conspiracy has no strength, but
it is gaining a vast increase in strength in that its followers grow more numerous
as the days go by."


Excerpted from Magia Sexualis
by Hugh B. Urban
Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface, Acknowledgments, and Apologies

Sex Magic, Modernity, and the Search for Liberation

1. the recurring nightmare, the elusive secret
Historical and Imaginary Roots of Sex Magic in the Western

2. sex power is god power
Paschal Beverly Randolph and the Birth of Sex Magic in
Victorian America

3. the yoga of sex
Tantra, Kama Sutra, and Other Exotic Imports from the
Mysterious Orient

4. the beast with two backs
Aleister Crowley and Sex Magick in Late Victorian England

5. the yoga of power
Sex Magic, Tantra, and Fascism in Twentieth-Century Europe

6. the goddess and the great rite
Sex Magic and Feminism in the Neo-Pagan Revival

7. the age of satan
Satanic Sex and the Black Mass, from Fantasy to Reality

8. sexual chaos
Chaos Magic, Cybersex, and Religion for a Postmodern Age

The Lessons of King Lamus: Religion, Sexuality,
and Liberation in a “Post-Orgy” World


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