The Sacred Marriage - Lecture I



The Sacred Marriage

June 5, 2010

Very Rev Fr Kenneth Paul Wesche

Pastor, St Herman’s Orthodox Church Minneapolis, MN


A Dance behind the Dance

One late spring afternoon, I betook myself to a nature reserve near our home. I followed the path through a woods and came to a small lake. As I took in the peaceful setting, I was transfixed by the birds gliding and swooping over the lake. There was a natural elegance and ease in their movements that the most sophisticated technology of man will never simulate. The serenity and beauty of that setting stirred in me what must be a natural desire imbedded in the roots of the human soul beneath the changes of everyday life: a desire not just to know but to become one with the source of nature’s harmony and beauty.

I suddenly understood why many have retreated into the forest, mountains or desert to take up the ascetic life of the yogi or the monk. They are answering that call of the Spirit and his bride to come, join in their dance. But, how do you find the gates that open onto the dance?

Perhaps you know that the drama of the Gospel appears to be virtually identical to the drama of the ancient pagan mysteries, such that not a few scholars believe that the Christian Faith is but a Jewish adaptation of the same primitive myth that lies at the heart of the pagan mysteries. The Son of God – Dionysius, Osiris, Marduk, Tammuz or Baal – is born of a Virgin, grows to manhood and is cut off in the prime of life, dies and descends into the earth. In the case of Marduk, he releases the gods who were prisoners in ‘hell’. On the third day (which corresponds to the time of the new moon) he rises again and brings life to the world. He marries his bride – Aphrodite, Isis, Sarpanit, Ishtar, Astarte – in the mystical rites of the sacred marriage and the world rejoices. The mysteries of the sacred marriage (the Eleusinian mysteries) were the heart of Hellas. Mythology was its soul; philosophy was its mind, the translation into prose of mythology’s poetry.

Given the striking similarities between the Gospel and the dramatic myth of the sacred marriage, why should we not regard the Gospel story of Jesus as a Jewish adaptation of the sacred marriage?[1] Christians may reject that thesis; but we haven’t shaken it at all if we can’t explain how the Gospel story is any different from the myth of the sacred marriage in the way it functions.

The Orthodox Christian Faith asserts that the events of the Gospel are historical, that Jesus was born of a Virgin; Jesus was resurrected from the dead; Jesus did indeed ascend to heaven; there was an incarnation of God the Word who “in these last days” became flesh and dwelt among us. That is a historical claim; but when you ask the Orthodox Church to verify her claim, she takes you not to the history books but to her sacramental anamnesis, her liturgical remembrance in which the historical moments of the Gospel are said to be present “Today” in the Holy Spirit of the Church. In the context of her worship, the Church instructs you on her ascetic principles of prayer and fasting and practicing the commandments of her Lord as the means by which you discover the eternal present of these historical events in the eternal Spirit of the Church.

Would not the hierophants of Dionysius and Osiris do the same? That is to say, would they not take you to their spiritual disciplines to guide you to a spiritual vision of the divine reality their gods are the face of?

Many times since I was first introduced to the myth of the sacred marriage have these perplexities troubled me. With those birds gliding so serenely over the lake that day, Maya lifted her veil just a bit and I caught the fragrance of the eternal beneath the phenomenological mists of time. Questions I thought I had answered assailed me with new seductive force. For a moment, I wondered if my answers would prove themselves but wisps in the swirling mists of Maya.

But another vision came to me when I turned from Dionysius and Osiris to the Icon of Christ drawn in the theological vision of the Orthodox Christian Faith.

The Stoics and Epicureans on Mars Hill could sense clearly enough that beneath St Paul’s preaching of the risen Christ there was a “new [kainh] doctrine.”[2] To catch the force of St Luke’s account of St Paul on Mars Hill, I think we must appreciate how similar is the Gospel story of Jesus to the myth of Dionysius-Osiris. If the Gospel were only a Jewish adaptation of this universal myth, it should not have been so startling to the philosophers on the Areopagus. But it was very startling: “You are bringing strange ideas [xenizonta tina] to our ears!” is what they said to St Paul. I think it fair to say that in his record of St Paul’s exchange with these Greek philosophers, St Luke is telling us that beneath the dance of Dionysius and Aphrodite or Osiris and Isis, there is a deeper dance – a deeper ontological vision not heard or seen before except by the prophets, and they only saw it afar off.[3] 

In these presentations, my aim is to set forth the ontological vision of the Gospel against the backdrop of the ontological vision of pagan philosophy and religion in order to reveal the mystical “better and changeless path” of the Gospel that leads far beyond the dance of the sacred marriage; maybe even to the gates of Eden and to the top of Mt Tabor. These lectures describe conclusions I’ve reached in a years-long, often-times inwardly traumatic quest to understand why the Gospel of the Christian Faith is, as it claims, the proclamation of Christ the Way, the Truth and the Life, apart from whom no one comes to the Father. Both the sword by which I was able to slay the minotaur, and the thread of Ariadne that has led me through the maze of competing assertions, kept me from falling away to embrace the profoundly alluring song of the sirens, kept me from getting lost in the endlessly fascinating tangle of subtle and seductively sophisticated mysteries that purportedly open onto the “wisdom of the serpent” and which has led me out of the maze and into the light of the Gospel has been the Christology I learned from my mentor, Fr John Meyendorff. In these lectures, I will be showing you what lies at the heart of the mysteries of the “wisdom of the serpent”, and what lies in the heart of the Mysteries of the “Wisdom of God”, Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior. My “findings” have been encapsulated in two series of lectures, which I presented in 10 different lectures over the course of two years at the College of St Scholastica in Duluth, at the invitation and under the sponsorship of the Orthodox Churches of the Duluth area. What I offer to you here is an abridgement of those 10 lectures into four. My plan is to offer one lecture for each of the four Saturdays of June.

Let’s begin with a few preliminary and important notes.



When we talk about ontological visions, we’re entering the abstract realm of philosophy, a highly intellectual realm of dialectical reasoning and rarified concepts. Ontology is the “study of being.” It is like an intellective sculpture, a conceptual model of whatever it is that gives being to our existence and that makes things to exist in the way that they do. It is also a map of the “soul.” If it is an accurate map, it can point out the path that leads to where the treasure is: the “fruit of immortality,” or the perfect realization of what we really are on the other side of our birth and our death.

As the study of being, as an ontology, philosophy reveals its inherently religious character. It is the “love of wisdom”. The first philosophers, so one ancient text tells us, were the priests of the Egyptian mysteries of Isis. It was to Egypt, Babylon and India, to study under the priests, astrologers, the yogins and Brahmins, that the greatest of the early Greek philosophers – Heracleitus, Parmenides, Pythagoras, e.g., - went to study and to learn the mystical secrets of the Goddess – Sophia, Wisdom – hidden in nature and in the universe. The Ancients believed these secrets were revealed freely through the disciplines of geometry and musical theory as the intellectual disciplines of deep meditation and prayer. In western civilization, philosophy emerges from the altar of the temples and becomes increasingly its own distinctive intellectual discipline; but in its essence, philosophy is never separated from its religious roots. It becomes “visible”, let’s say, in about the 7th century BC or so, in Ionia and then in Milesia, as cosmogony (how the world began), then moves into cosmology (what is the essential principle – logos – of the world or universe) and finally into psychology, a study of the soul and specifically the immortal part of the soul. By the time of Socrates, and perhaps under the impetus of his influence, philosophy becomes a religious enterprise of discerning, through the practice of dialectical reasoning, aided by geometry and the rules of musical harmony, the immortal “essence” of the soul from its mortal parts. This was an inherently religious enterprise because its aim was first to come to “know thyself”, to link back to one’s true inner “self” or “essence”, whatever that is, beneath one’s phenomenal bodily, material existence, and from there back to the soul’s immortal and essential source and so attain liberation from the grossness of the body and from the many cycles of material existence in union with the One. This highly subtle and difficult interior journey into the principle of one’s essential being is described in the Katha Upanishad as a path narrow as a razor’s edge, i.e., very difficult to find and then to negotiate.


Philosophy and Mythology.

But the highly sophisticated and intellectual discipline of philosophy was born from the womb of the myth. The myth is an “archetypal image” that is expressed spontaneously from the unconscious depths of the psyche to reveal to the discerning observer the hidden structure of the psyche, much like the light emanating from distant stars in the galaxy reveals the structure of the ancient universe. The myth, that is to say, is the natural, spontaneous language of the soul – like a dream. The myth expresses the unseen “ontological” structure of reality in images, in concrete pictures, that are most always strange, not at all bound by rules of logic or coherence. Even so, the myth is easier to grasp than philosophy because it is more immediate to the soul. This is why I want to set forth the ontological visions of pagan philosophy and of the Gospel by starting with the myth, and in particular the myth of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage. I believe the concrete image, since it is the basis of philosophy’s highly subtle concepts, will make the concepts of philosophy easier to lay hold of.

On this point, I would like to add an observation interesting to me. Pagan religion and philosophy are founded on the concrete images of the myth and on the religious principles that follow from them. Christian theology is the articulation of religious truths that have been revealed and expressed in the historical events of Israel. At the center of these historical events always has been the Word of God, who was revealed in these last days as the Person of the Son of God who was incarnate as Jesus the Christ, born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and who became flesh and dwelt among us. My point is that philosophy both at its roots and in its branches is incorporeal, discarnate in the wisps of human imagination or intellectual thought. The Christian Faith, on the other hand, is rooted truly in the earth, in the material, historical realm of space-time. It is spiritual, but it is incarnational, even in the Old Testament "before" the Incarnation. It is not of the world, but that doesn't mean it is opposed to materiality or that materiality is denied a real existence. The spirituality that comes from God expresses itself in the concrete world of space-time because the world is "good" in all its aspects, both heavenly and earthly.

I. The Religion of the Goddess

A. The Circle of Life.

The theme of a dying and rising virgin born deity is central to an ancient mythological symbol, the hieros gamos or sacred marriage. The hieros gamos or sacred marriage is the mythological union of god and goddess. In the religious cults of antiquity, it was acted out ritually by the king and queen or the priest and priestess. The term was applied originally to the marriage between Zeus and Hera,[4] but now is used in religious studies to refer to any union of a god and goddess in which is centered the cycle of life. In these broader terms, the cultic symbol of the hieros gamos extends far into the mists of pre-history, and the cultic marriage of Zeus and Hera is but one of its many versions.[5] 

Archaeological evidence for the sacred marriage extends far back into the mists of pre-history. It indicates that the Goddess is central to the religious cult of the sacred marriage. Archaeology has unearthed “statues in stone, bone and ivory, tiny figures with long bodies and falling breasts, rounded motherly figures pregnant with birth” going back 20,000 years in a vast expanse of land stretching from the Pyrenees in Spain to the eastern reaches of Siberia. These are humanity’s earliest sacred images of the principle of life, and they are images not of a Father God but of a Mother Goddess. In the land of the bible, too, the ancient Near East, the original cultures were of the Goddess, preceding the male God of Genesis by at least 7,000 years.[6] 

The symbol of the hieros gamos expresses an intuitive experience of nature as a unified whole, personified as a Great Mother whose principal manifestation is the moon.[7] Like the new moon emerging from the eastern horizon, living things emerge from the womb. They blossom like the full moon, then settle back into the earth like the waning moon sinking beneath the western horizon. The tides rise and fall with the moon. The sun in its daily rising and setting follows the same lunar movement, rising from the earth in the morning, reaching its zenith at noon, and returning to the earth at sunset like the waxing, full and waning moon.

All the particulars of nature make visible in their rise and fall a constant and unchanging cycle. This is the circle of life in which life is constantly consuming itself and regenerating itself. It proceeds ceaselessly from and back into the womb of the Great Mother in each particular. It is the one, eternal, unchanging principle by which and in which every particular is made to exist. It knits earth and heaven together in one life of the Great Round embraced by the Great Mother. The cycle itself is invisible and immutable. Its symbol is the uroboros: the serpent swallowing its tail.  

The cycle consists of three visible phases, symbolized in the waxing, full and waning phases of the moon, and in the rising, noon and setting sun. The cycle is completed in a fourth, dark phase. At the end of its third manifest cycle, the moon disappears from the sky for three nights before it reappears as the crescent moon. The sun sets on the western horizon and disappears into the earth until it reappears the next morning. On the earth, animals disappear into hollows and caves in the darkness of winter. Vegetation dies until life emerges again from the earth the following spring. The fourth, dark phase is in or beneath the earth where the sun, moon, animals and plants disappear and, of course, where the bodies of the dead are buried. The underworld is the womb of the Mother to which all things return after completing the three visible phases of the life-cycle.

Here where the end of the Round returns to the beginning an uncanny mystery transpires. Death gives birth to new life showing that life and death are one mystery. Beginning and end are one point. That point is centered in the unseen depths of the Goddess’ womb: Hades – the realm of the unseen. This unseen realm where end and beginning are one and the same is the hidden fourth phase of the life-cycle, the phase of death. It is the realm of the mystery properly called: that realm that lies beyond the veil of birth and death into which profane eyes cannot see.

In this great round of birth, death and rebirth the one Great Goddess appears in two aspects: as that into which life disappears in the dark fourth of death she is the Black Goddess, the devouring maw; but, as that from which life reappears as the new child she is the White Goddess, the generating Mother. These two goddesses are but two different masks of the one Mother Goddess. In these two aspects, she is both terrible and gracious at once. But, in these two aspects she reveals herself to be the vessel of transformation in which the passage from death to life takes place. The transformation effected in the womb of the Mother regenerates the old deceased life and rebirths it into a new life that extends back into the manifest world of space-time – and so the cycle continues: birth, death and rebirth, on and on and on in what Joseph Campbell extols as the “rapture of an everlasting becoming.”[8] Surely among the most striking of all the Goddesses in this respect is the Indian Goddess, Kali. She is the devourer with necklaces of skulls hanging round her neck. At the same time that she is engaged in sexual intercourse with Shiva she is drinking brains from human skulls and others. She is worshipped as “the principle which gives birth to and protects the world, and at the same time of dissolution that withdraws into herself the earth and all things.”[9] In the philosophical thought of such as Parmenides, the womb of the Mother is the birth-gate through which the One becomes many; it is the cosmic drain through which the many dissolve back into the One. The Goddess herself is maya, the bewitching cosmic dancer whose dance is the string of events in space-time.[10]

B. The Sacred Marriage.

At some point in the evolution of the Goddess image, the life-cycle of the Mother is distinguished from the Mother herself and is identified with the seed of life as the masculine generating principle. The two aspects of the Goddess continue now in another form. In her relation to the male seed she is both bride and mother. As bride, she is the devouring maw, which swallows the male seed and receives it into her womb. As mother, she is the World-Mother who gives birth to that seed as the new-born child. The moon now is interpreted as the symbol of the male child rather than the Goddess herself. The son is born of the Mother as the new moon. As the full moon he marries the Mother, now his bride. Then he dies in the waning moon, descending into the darkness of the Mother’s womb as the dark moon. He sojourns in the underworld for three days, the period the moon is lost from sight in the night sky, and then is raised by the Mother from the underworld, risen from the dead, born again of her as her Child in the new moon.[11]

The child of the Goddess is the life that circles endlessly in and out of her womb in the great round of birth, death and rebirth. The child is the zoe, the eternal life that extends through each individual life, bios, like the string extending through the many pearls of a necklace – Kali’s necklace, e.g. It is infant and bald old man at once.[12] It is the life of vegetation, animals and humans. It is the son and the bridegroom of the Mother. As son, it is the new life born of her. As bridegroom, it is the fructifying phallus, the principle of movement, which she swallows into her womb to stimulate the life that is dormant within her. Early on, the son/lover of the Goddess is a chthonic or tellurian deity; for, he represents the visible creation which attains to the development of life. His symbols are taken from the earth: the serpent, the bull, the ram, the ear of corn, and above all, the phallus. As phallus, he is both lover and son of the Goddess, for he is the principle of life she constantly swallows in death and generates in birth.

Here is the explanation for the inclusion of sacrifice, either in concreto in sympathetic magic or symbolically as an essential element in the rites of the sacred marriage. The seed, or the phallus, must be planted in the womb of the Mother. This the primitive mind accomplishes through sympathetic magic in the slaughter of the groom or his symbol, and his burial in the ground, in the womb of the Mother, where he fructifies the life dormant within it.[13]

The son/lover as phallus may be represented in two movements, the two movements of the phallus – erection and decrescence. These correspond to the two aspects of the Goddess, white and black, or womb and tomb. In the vivid imagery of J.J.Bachofen, the Bridegroom races to the devouring maw like a swift race-horse breaking forth out of the starting gates and into the dormancy of death as the fructifying phallus to penetrate the egg lying dormant within. In this aspect, the Groom appears as Eros, the winged phallus, as Pegasus, the horse of the tellurian waters, as swift Mercury or the river source which gushes forth with inborn mobility and knows restlessness itself as its highest law.[14] In the Egyptian festival of the Pamylia as described by Plutarch, he is represented by a statue whose male member is triple: “for the god is the source [arch gar O qeoV],” Plutarch explains, “and every source, by its fecundity, multiplies what proceeds from it.”[15]

Erection of the phallus accomplishes the penetration of the egg: but since the egg lies in the Mother’s womb, and therefore in death, the successful accomplishment of the union necessarily is followed immediately by decrescence: death of the phallus in which the seed of life it carries completes the life-cycle in its return to the fourth, dark phase. In the hidden fourth phase of the cycle, however, the end of life is one with its beginning, so that death marks the birth of the new child, now the “revealed phallus,” “fruit of the womb,” the revealed “mysterium,” Savior of the world, the mysterium of generation. He is also called Eros or  Eros Protogonos, the first-born of Eros. He is the principle of sexual union[16] that unites the individual pearls of life together on the one cosmic string of eternal life, zoe, in the Great Round where death and life are one continuous mystery. The Mother’s womb is where life and death converge in that one point where the Great Round seamlessly ends and begins to form the circle of life, an eternal round of “becoming”. Passing away into death, the once living particular descends into the womb of the Goddess and is absorbed into the mystery of the cosmos. It comes to that point in the Goddess’ womb where end and beginning are one. Death, then, the womb of the Goddess, is also the birthgate of the Goddess, the chamber of transformation in which life passes over into death and death into life.

An Ancient Theme. So, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” When these words rang out for the first time on Easter morning, the fact is that it was not the first time the world had heard of a god-man who was risen from the dead. In fact, this ancient Christian hymn carries themes that go back into the mists of prehistory. It could have been sung to Osiris of ancient Egypt, Marduk of ancient Babylon, Baal of ancient Canaan, Dionysius of Thrace, and to the Goddess Inanna-Ishtar of ancient Sumer and Babylon. Indeed, it is from the ancient myth of Ishtar’s descent into hell and her rising again through the power of her uncle, Enki, the God of water (compare with the Holy Spirit, likened to living waters in the New Testament) that the name for Easter is derived. Depending on your frame of mind, and the nature of your faith, this piece of news will either be very disturbing to you or deeply intriguing; perhaps a bit of both. At the very least, it shows that the death and resurrection of a Virgin born divinity is not contrived; it is not a fabricated religious idea but some kind of primordial reality innate to the human soul. It clearly signifies something about human nature and destiny. What is that mystery? More to the point of our purpose here: what are we to make of the truth of the Gospel’s proclamation of Christ’s resurrection given its striking similarities with these ancient pagan myths of death and resurrection? Because of striking similarities between the sacred marriage of pagan antiquity and the Gospel drama of Christ many scholars believe that the original Jesus is really a pagan god, and that the Christian Faith is but a Jewish adaptation of the hieros gamos mythological symbol.[17] At one time, intellectual integrity compelled me to share this view. Continued reflection, however, has led me to change my view. My intention in these presentations is to share with you something of my own theological reflections on what the similarities shown by the hieros gamos symbol to what the Fathers of the Church call the pneumatikos gamos or spiritual marriage of Christ and his Church means. From other critiques by Christian scholars that I’ve read, you may find my critique different and unexpected.

A Question of Interpretation. How I understand the hieros gamos symbol in its relationship to the spiritual marriage of the Church can be indicated with this: should we say that the similarities between the spiritual marriage of the Church and the hieros gamos of pagan antiquity can be explained in a way analogous to the dogmatic enterprise of the Church? There, the holy fathers used the same concepts and terms of Greek philosophy but filled them with new meaning to express the new ontological vision of the Christian Faith. The substance of this new vision I shared with you in my presentations here last year. In an analogous way, should we say that the central drama of the Christian Faith uses the same images as the pagan hieros gamos but fills those images with new meaning to express the new ontological vision of the Christian Faith?

I don’t think so. Here the matter is different. With the hieros gamos, we are dealing with a mythological symbol, not a philosophical concept. The mythological symbol is a more spontaneous expression of the soul’s hidden contents than are the rational concepts of philosophy. Let’s remember that the myth is the mother of philosophy. She is the original language of the soul. Philosophy is the mind’s effort to understand the myth and give it a logical, rational explanation; it is the translation of the poetry of myth into the prose of dialectic in the mind’s bid to build a tower of Babel and attain at least a measure of omniscience.

That the symbol of the sacred marriage features the union of a god and a goddess tells us that it is a symbol of cosmic proportion. The translation of that image into the cosmogonic and cosmological concepts of philosophy shows that the hieros gamos is an all-encompassing symbol comprehending the movement and the structure of space-time, of being and becoming. Thus far philosophy has honored its mother. But I think it is a question worthy of consideration whether or not the mind of philosophy has in fact comprehended the pathos of its mother, the soul. Let’s describe the matter in the more compelling and provocative manner of mythological imagery: is philosophy’s prosaic translation of the mythopoeic symbol firm enough and long enough to penetrate the womb of the myth all the way to where the treasure is, the golden egg, the princess, who waits deep in the cave for the Bridegroom who alone loves mankind and can make his way to the interior depths of the soul and rescue the princess, energize her golden egg and make her life to blossom in the desert like a rose and attain to its fullest, most perfect manifestation?

I’m saying that because the hieros gamos is a mythological symbol it must be honored as expressing something that is true about the soul. Even if that truth has perchance become garbled in some way, the symbol still is saying something true about human nature and destiny and we are fools not to listen very carefully and to honor what the symbol is trying to say. And, in the interest of showing due reverence to the symbol, I think it fair to ask if philosophy’s translation is faithful to the essence of the symbol; or if, like Gilgamesh losing the fruit of immortality to the serpent of the sea, philosophy has lost the myth’s treasure to the arrogance of its own wisdom; if, like Adam and Eve, it has sought knowledge in the wisdom of its own opinions and become blind to the divine Wisdom agitating the myth.

I’m saying that the similarities between the hieros gamos and the pneumatikos gamos may be because both are true: both signify the same mystery, the same archetypal structure of the soul. But I’m asking, which interpretation of the symbol – the interpretations of philosophy and of modern scholarship or the interpretations of an authentic Christian theology – is most faithful to the pathos of the symbol? The antagonism isn’t between the spiritual marriage of the Church and the sacred marriage of pagan antiquity because there can be no antagonism between truth and truth. The antagonism is between interpretations that are faithful to the symbol and those that are not.

As I said, many modern scholars believe that the central drama of the Christian Faith is but a variant of the hieros gamos of pagan antiquity. That’s how the modern academic disciplines interpret their similarities. I’m suggesting that this interpretation is unfaithful to the two symbols and their similarities. I will be arguing that there is a theological reason for the similarities shown by the spiritual marriage of the Church to the hieros gamos of pagan antiquity, and it isn’t because the spiritual marriage of the Church is but a Jewish adaptation of this universal myth of the hieros gamos. It’s more like the Gospel story of the hemorrhaging woman seeking many physicians to staunch the flow of blood but finding none until she touched the hem of the garment of the Lord. The hieros gamos of antiquity is the cry of the soul for a Physician to heal her, to stop the flow of blood. The philosophers are the many physicians unable to do so. The soul’s cry coming to expression in the hieros gamos is not answered until the soul comes into the presence of the Great Physician and touches the hem of his garment. The hieros gamos is a cosmic koan looking for someone to unlock its meaning. It’s like the dream of Pharaoh looking for someone to interpret it aright. Jesus is the Riddler who knows the answer to the cosmic koan – because he’s the one who came up with it in the first place. He’s the Second Joseph who alone truly interprets the dream with his revelation of a heavenly vision of human nature and destiny. In these presentations, I will be sharing with you how I think the theology of the Christian Faith is interpreting it faithfully and modern scholars are not.

Into the Cosmos. I have found the hieros gamos symbol to be a gate that opens onto the whole enterprise of human thought and experience. The more I learn about the hieros gamos the more I feel that I’ve simply taken another step into a huge room whose vaulted ceiling is as high as the sky, and whose walls are the horizon. Trying to reach those cosmic walls is like trying to catch the sun. It’s always before you, and the horizon is no nearer to you than it was before. The hieros gamos is deep and vast, as deep and vast as the human soul; and, as Heraclitus is supposed to have said, “You cannot fathom the soul so deep are its depths.” We are taking upon ourselves the audacity to reflect not just on the hieros gamos but also on its relationship to the pneumatikos gamos of the Church, which is infinitely deeper. How can we think we are up to such a task? We are up to it if we remember humility and reverence; for in approaching the hieros gamos symbol, we are approaching the sanctuary of the cosmos and its Creator, the alpha and the omega of our nature and destiny. To anticipate one of our conclusions: we are approaching the bridal chamber of Christ God and the Goddess – i.e. the union of God and humanity in the nuptial mystery of Jesus Christ and his Bride, the Church. (This is the third and final veil of the cosmos.) Even though we feel altogether inadequate for the task, we are compelled to it by none other than the Spirit and his Bride themselves. For, they are calling out to us: “Come! Let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.”[18] And so, let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us!

Perhaps in our prurient culture, it’s difficult to appreciate the hieros gamos symbol properly because its central sacrament is sex, and our attitude toward sex is highly conflicted. Its central sacrament is sex, but the hieros gamos is not about sex. Sex itself is about cosmic mysteries. The beauty of carnal sex is the first cosmic veil that most people fail to penetrate. Carnal sex is the dreamy mist of Maya that ensnares most people by its mesmerizing, seductive, illusory dreaminess, always promising but never delivering “Nirvana”. This, so I understand, is the idea behind the statuary of couples in various positions and stages of coitus you find engraved on a Hindu temple. These are a test to see if you are worthy of deeper instruction, or if you are one of the multitude that willingly chooses to be lost in the folds of the “White Goddess” forever illusive bliss. In the experience of the hieros gamos, the mesmerizing power of the cosmos is fully active in the sexual union of man and woman. This is the carnal sacrament through which man and woman participate in the mystery of the cosmos. In sexual union, man and woman are a microcosm of the god and goddess, the two fundamental aspects of the cosmos whose union is the mysterium coniunctionis that completes the whole. (This is the second veil.)

In Egypt, the god and goddess were Osiris and Isis. In the regions of Thrace and Anatolia, they were Dionysius and Aphrodite; in Canaan, Baal and Astarte; in Babylon, Marduk and Sarpanit; and in Assyria, Dumuzi and Inanna or Tammuz and Ishtar (from whom the name Easter is derived). You’ll recognize these regions as those of the nation states that neighbored ancient Israel, and whose history and destinies were intertwined with those of the Old Testament Israelites. Israel was often seduced by the allure of the sacred marriage cult that was the heart and soul of her neighbors’ religious and philosophical world views.[19] For this, the prophets denounced her as a harlot since she was giving herself to a different lord, a different “baal” than the Lord who had in effect raised her up from the dead[20] and “married” her in the covenant of Abraham.[21] 

I don’t think the prophets’ denunciation of the sacred marriage cults was done lightly or in a fit of neurotic pique. As I said, with the hieros gamos symbol we are engaging directly the pathos of the human soul and its fascination for the uncanny, mesmerizing ineffability of the cosmos, the numinous energy of life and death, of light and dark, of pleasure and pain. Denouncing the cults of the hieros gamos was not for the prophets a frivolous game of king of the mountain. It was to be sure a contest for who would be Israel’s King, but this was not a power struggle to see whose tribe, whose religious and political world view could be made to rule over the others. At stake for the prophets was life or death. Choosing between worship of the different baals (lords) of the hieros gamos and the Baal (Lord) of Israel meant choosing between two opposing uncanny numinosities, two radically different ontological visions, two opposing foods and two opposing lives offered in that food: the life offered by the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the life offered by the fruit of the Tree of Life. In the linear terms I offered above, it is a choice between two opposing ways of interpreting and engaging the cosmos and the truth of the human soul.

[1] Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries. Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God? New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

[2] Acs 17:19-20.

[3] Hb 11:13

[4] It is the name of a play by Alcaeus Comicus (v/iv BCE), ed. T.Kock, in Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta (CAF), vol 1 (of 3), p. 756. Leipzig 1880-8. See also Hesychius Lexicographus (v CE), Etymoligicum Magnum 468.56; and Menander Comicus (iv/iii BCE), 320 CAF. See also Jacob Klein, “Sacred Marriage,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5. Doubleday, 1992, p. 866b.

[5] The earliest image of the sacred marriage between goddess and god is dated to around 4500 BC in Cascioarele, Romania. See Ann Baring and Jules Cashford, Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, Viking Arkana, 1991, figure 42, p. 79.

[6] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, Myth of the Goddess. Evolution of an Image, Viking, Arkana (1991), p. 3.

[7] See Elinor Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess; Marijas Gimbutas, Goddesses & Gods of Old Europe; and, The Language of the Goddess; Ann Baring & Jules Cashford, Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.

[8] Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, 15.

[9] McEvilley, 56.

[10] Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (New York: Allworth Press, 2002) 57. In these terms, this is the womb into which the Divine Logos descends and affects that exchange of the One and the many.

[11] Cf. Baring & Cashford, 147.

[12] See J.J.Bachofen, Die Drei Mysterieneier, in Gesammelte Werke IV. Beno Schwabe & Co.: Verlag, Basel, 1954, p. 184.

[13] See Baring and Cashford, p. 137ff; and Erich Neumann, Origins and History of Consciousness, p. 53. Human sacrifice, death of the groom, and even in certain locales the bride (see Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, chptr 4, “The Province of the Immolated Kings,” and chptr 5, “The Ritual Love-Death”; and Baring & Cashford, “The Ritual of Sacrifice,” pp. 106ff.) is practiced at the primitive stage. It is enacted in later stages in the ritual slaying of a bull or horned animal, symbol of the masculine element in the Goddess (cf. Baring & Cashford, 141).

[14] See J.J.Bachofen, 184-186.

[15] Moralia V, De Iside et Osiride 36.

[16] Bachofen, 183.

[17] Cf. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries. Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999. This view also is behind the title of Joseph Campbell’s four volume study on comparative mythology: The Masks of God, or his earlier work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

[18] Rev 22:17

[19] Besides mention of Baal and the “Ashera” one finds throughout the OT, there is also explicit mention of the women of Israel “weeping for Tammuz” and of the images of the cult of Tammuz finding their way into the temple. Cf. Eze 8:14.

[20] Cf. Romans 4:19. Isaac was born literally from dead parents, Abraham and Sarah, who were past the age of child-bearing and so, in ancient Semitic culture, as good as dead. They were made living by God and so he was the arche, the origin and principle of Israel’s existence, their true King. Cf Gen 21:1-7.

[21] Cf. Eze 16.