I remember Religious Education lessons at my school during the late 1970s in which indigenous pagan traditions of old Europe and the rest of the world were mocked for their primitive worship of the Sun and Moon. Our teacher was a Christian, and although I recall him giving a reasonable introduction to the great religions of the East, nature based faiths, we were firmly told, were superstitious nonsense.
Since I have become aware of the rich spiritual culture and inner growth that paganism offers, I’ve wondered whether that teacher, Dr Surin, really had so little understanding of nature spirituality or his attitude was a conscious ploy to direct the development of our 13 year old minds.
As long ago as 1851 American archaeologist and historian E.G. Squier wrote in ‘The Serpent Symbol’ that the active and passive principles of nature, –
“symbolised by the sun and the moon, or the sun and the earth, was recognised in the mythological systems of America”.
Those religion lessons skimmed over paganism in less than one session, and no wonder, for there was a crucial central feature to nature based spiritual paths the world over that the teacher did not want to mention – the centrality of pleasure, the inclusion of sex in pagan ritual worship and their regard of the genital organs as holy. This was surely a very conscious decision to hide all this, for British paganism was back in the open by this time, and far back in the 19th century historian H. H, Bancroft, in the Native Races of the Pacific States of North America (1874), had understood that, –
“the life-giving and vivifying principle of nature has been always symbolised by the human organs of generation”.
Traditional faiths were mocked by my religious teacher as ‘fertility religions’. We were told the stupid people used to make ceremony to ask the gods to bless the crops, and that was about it. But back in the 1940s George Ryley Scott was already pointing out (in ‘Phallic Worship: A History of Sex and Sexual Rites’) that the pagans were also honouring pleasure itself, for they regarded sexual ecstasy as a state of communion with the gods. And for this reason the phallus was an almost universal holy symbol across the world. Where the patriarchal phalli did not completely subjugate the feminine the vulva was honoured equally.
From Roman times the Christians began to call the sacred sex workers who had operated for millennia in the temples of antiquity (throughout Middle East and Asia) ‘prostitutes’. But George Ryley Scott pointed out that, –
“It is important to note that these temple prostitutes… were not looked upon with disgust… They were “brides of God” or “slaves of the idol” and were accorded a degree of respect far in advance of anything given to the ordinary female member of society. It was considered to be an honour to serve the gods in this way.”
In the 1970s feminist and gay historians such as Merlin Stone (‘When God Was a Woman’) and Arthur Evans (‘Witchcraft and the Gay Counter-Culture’) were going as far as to call the traditional, ancient faiths ‘sex religions’.
There is a crucial connection between the virulent homophobia that developed in European Christianity and which it then spread around the world in the last 500 years and the destruction of the ancient sex positive cultures. To achieve this, women’s sexual power was turned into something dark by the adoption of the misogynistic Hebrew creation story and the gradual association of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with gay sex instead of it being about hospitality and the rape of strangers (a process begun by Christian thinker Philo in the 1st century CE). The Christians followed the example of the Hebrew Kings of the period 1000-600 BCE whose efforts to stop the worship of phallic symbols and the sexual temple practices carried out by women and the Qedesha (meaning the ‘Holy Ones’, the word was translated into English as ‘sodomites’) had been only partially successful. From the 4th century onwards pagan statues, temples, sacred groves were all attacked by Christians, again following the instructions of the Old Testament Yahweh (such as Exodus 22:20 “He that sacrificeth to any God, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed”), backed up by juicy lines from the New such as Luke 10:19 “Behold I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy”.
The religions of the Father God caused a separation of the spirit and the flesh, and over the centuries of the Middle Ages destroyed rival Christian groups that accepted sexuality, that gave power to women, that refused the authority of the established Church. By the Early Modern era the repression of gay sex in Europe, was being taken up by the political lawmakers as well as the Catholic Inquisition. Europeans were utterly shocked by the open expression of sexuality they found on their world explorations. On every other continent they came across people who had no shame about sex, who had not thought of the concept of obscenity, and they found sexual rites of worship, same sex couples, transgendered souls held in high regard, and sacred phallic imagery, all of which they set about doing their very best to destroy.
George Catlin wrote about the Sioux Buffalo Dance in 1867, recording the climax when O-ke-hee-de (owl spirit) came into the scene: “In his hands he carried a sort of wand – a slender rod of eight feet in length, with a red ball at the end of it, which he slid about upon the ground as he ran”. Professor Gerard Troost of Tennessee wrote of a statue of a priapic kneeling man (he switched to Latin in his work to describe the ‘membrum generationis virile in erectione‘) that was ‘considered too indelicate to be preserved’. Phallic imagery was common throughout the Americas, and in Africa and Asia too, as it had once been in pagan Europe (as the modern world realised with shock when the ruins at Pompeii were revealed). For example, 19th century British explorer Richard Burton wrote that phallic worship in Dahomey, west Africa, “is uncomfortably prominent; every street from Whydah to the capital is adorned with the symbol.”
The cultures of Asia show many examples of phallic worship…..
In the western world the 1960s brought the ‘Sexual Revolution’ at the same time as an explosion of interest in all things mystical and occult. The still prudish atmosphere of the mainstream at the time, plus the materialist backlash against spirituality that has been raging since the 1980s, has prevented as yet a proper reunion of the sexual and spiritual sides of our humanity. When it comes to sex, we as a species are still learning about the basics of respect, equality and consent, and maybe we have to get these properly in place before we can truly embark on the pagan, tantric, embrace of life in all its pleasure giving glory, before we can access all the potential of the life-giving, pleasure-giving sexual organs, symbols and tools of the divine creation, and of the divine creative presence within us.
Pleasure is a Goddess
The Ancients knew
Pleasure dissolves the boundaries
Between Me and You.