An Introduction to Western Sexual Mysticism

Olympus on Ida by George Frederic-Watts
From New Dawn 109 (Jul-Aug 2008)

Very few people are aware that there are long-standing traditions of sexual mysticism in the West. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, many in the West became aware of Hindu and Buddhist forms of Tantra, but Tantric traditions were often distorted in the process of transmission or transference to the modern West, where they often became commodified and trivialised. This never happened to esoteric Western traditions of sexual mysticism, primarily because they were entirely unknown. Even today, The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism is the first book to outline the hidden history and nature of Western sexual mysticism.

Of course, we should begin by outlining what we mean by ‘sexual mysticism’ in the first place. After all, the very term ‘mysticism’ is ambiguous, for some even synonymous with ‘woolly-minded’. The word ‘mystic’ derives from the Greek word mustein, meaning ‘silent’ or ‘closed-lips’, and has the same origin as the word ‘mystery’. The words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystery’ are associated with the ancient Greek Mystery (revelatory and initiatory) traditions of antiquity, which, as we shall see, certainly had sexual dimensions. As far back as we can trace, the word ‘mysticism’ refers to religious traditions that point us toward inexpressible transcendence of the apparent division into subject and object, or self and other, and toward realisation of the Divine.

When we look back into Greek and Roman antiquity, we see that the Mystery traditions almost always had sexual dimensions, and there is good reason for this. The Mystery traditions, be they Bacchic, Dionysiac, Eleusinian, or Orphic, were closely bound up with the cosmic cycles, and in particular with the cycles of agricultural and human fertility. In fact, the earlier forms of the Mystery traditions, including during the Hellenistic period, were in the domain of women. Only later were men allowed to be priests in many of the traditions, and the orgia (orgiastic celebrations) took place under the auspices of women. What we are looking at, in the ancient Mystery traditions, corresponds to something quite different from the modern stereotype of femininity as demure, coquettish, or ‘passive’. The women described in some of the ancient Mystery traditions seem to our eyes (as to those of their contemporaries) frenzied, wild, and dangerous, but this authentic wildness expresses a dimension of nature itself that we moderns often fail to recognise.

We should recognise the profound connection between nature and the Mystery traditions during the entire period of antiquity and late antiquity. The Dionysiac rites and the Bacchanalia took place outdoors, and often at night; and while the rites were associated with the fertility of nature, that is not their only dimension. The Mysteries entailed direct contact with the transcendent forces of the cosmos, which although they are expressed in the natural world, have their origins in pagan divinity. There is a fierceness in the Mystery traditions, and a dissolution of civilisation, that is very important in understanding both their power and their dangers.

When we turn to the appearance of Christianity within the declining pagan world, we see something quite different and in many respects new. There really is a changing of the age represented by the shift from the ancient Mysteries to the mysteries of Christianity. It is true that there were Stoic and other ascetic or semi-ascetic traditions within Greco-Roman antiquity, but there is a very real and profound shift that took place from the orgiastic traditions of antiquity to the extreme asceticism of Christianity as emblematised in the Desert Fathers.

Consider on the one hand the bacchanals of antiquity, and on the other Origen’s self-castration – it would seem that we are observing a shift from one pole to the other. Admittedly, there were Mystery traditions that involved emasculation too, but those underscored the primacy of the feminine powers, whereas Origen represents those who are ‘eunuchs for the sake of heaven’. Hence even the apparent similarities between the two broad traditions turn out to be differences.

And yet there is a notable kind of continuity in one respect. Although it is almost never discussed except in the works of specialists, early Christianity also entailed a sexual dimension. As we shall see, one should not simply dichotomise between, on the one hand, the orgiastic traditions of Greco-Roman antiquity, and Christian asceticism on the other. Christianity, after all, was not a single movement or sect, but a whole series of phenomena that emerged in the midst of late antiquity and that included a whole gamut of possibilities, all the way from asceticism to license. And even within what later became known as ‘orthodox’ Christianity, there was a mysterious tradition of subintroductae, in which men and women lived and slept together, but without male ejaculation. Thus there was a Christian tradition from very early on – it is mentioned by Paul himself – of sexual mysticism: that is, of drawing on sexual tension and power, but harnessing it to spiritual transcendence.

There is, of course, much more also to discuss in the Christian traditions of late antiquity. One cannot consider Christianity as a single entity, but rather as a group of very different currents of thought and practice, which we see exemplified both in the Apocrypha and in the various Gnostic traditions and compendia. In fact, a good case could be made that ‘pagan’ orgiastic traditions did not disappear, but were subsumed into some forms of Christianity, sometimes called ‘gnostic’.

At the very least, one has to recognise that Christianity was never a monolithic single tradition. What I have been sketching are only tendencies. Nor was it the case that pagan traditions totally vanished, as if someone had flicked a switch. History does not work that way. Rather, pagan traditions fed into the currents of Christianity in Northern and Southern Europe, as in Russia and in England, often in subterranean ways. What is more, the various currents of Christianity – including Gnostic streams – did not vanish entirely, but also went underground or were transmitted through Judaism, Islam, or other traditions, only to re-enter Christianity again later on. And above all, Western Christianity included a whole series of recurrent ‘heretical’ religious traditions that kept reappearing. But the most important of these recurrences is during the modern era.

As I discussed in my book Restoring Paradise, Western esoteric traditions are transmitted mostly via books or manuscripts – that is, via the written word and image. This means that a given spiritual possibility or even initiatory line may be dormant within a particular work for centuries, even millennia, only to reappear in a new era when the conditions are ripe for its restoration and reawakening. Hence, while it is true that Gnosticism ‘died out’ in late antiquity, it is also true that Gnosticism as a range of spiritual possibilities within Christianity remained latent until being periodically rediscovered in one form or another, whether by medieval ‘heretics’ or by modern seekers.

The nineteenth century is the period when sexual mysticism re-emerges into broader consciousness in the West, as we see not only in figures like the poet and artist William Blake, but also in American utopian communities like Oneida, under the direction of John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886), and Fountain Grove, under the direction of Thomas Lake Harris (1823–1906). Another important figure during what we may call the American renaissance of sexual mysticism is Alice Bunker Stockham (1833–1912). Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, one finds numerous practitioners and advocates of sexual mysticism in the West.

At this point, it becomes necessary to distinguish between sexual mysticism and sexual magic. For during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one also sees various currents of sexual magic emerge, most having inception with Paschal Beverly Randolph. Randolph himself had travelled across the Atlantic, and the currents of sexual magical traditions moved back and forth across from Europe and England to North America and back again. There is much yet to be written about sexual magical traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But here we distinguish clearly between sexual mysticism and sexual magic, because whereas sexual magical practices are focused on particular worldly gains or, to put it another way, on the acquisition of power to achieve particular ends, sexual mysticism is strictly gnostic in the sense that its adherents aim not for power but for inner or spiritual union and realisation. While there may be magical dimensions to a mystical practice, or mystical dimensions to a magical one, in general one can distinguish one from the other without too much trouble.

Of course, the twentieth century was marked by a new syncretism, and by the end of the century it was no longer possible to strictly divide Western and Eastern traditions or currents because each had taken on some properties of the other. Asian traditions, including Tantric traditions both Hindu and Buddhist, had Western adherents and were also subject to New Age commodification, while at the same time Western currents had also made their way around the globe via printed works and electronic communication media. One could find hybrid forms of virtually every tradition imaginable, and furthermore, the intrinsic hybridisation that takes place when, for example, Westerners draw from Asian Tantric traditions. This syncrasis (from the Greek krasis, or ‘mixing’) is also, and increasingly, part of the secret history of Western sexual mysticism.

Modernity’s unprecedented secular environment, and the dissolution of previous cultural norms, makes possible new ways of seeing and understanding sexuality or eros in relation to the religious impulses of humanity. Christianity opens up into an array of possibilities – a pluralistic world exists once again, just as it did in late antiquity before the vanquishing of the Gnostics. It is true that there are traditionally warnings about the dangers of sexual mysticism – indeed, this is arguably why erotic practices were condemned by some of the early Church Fathers and saints, especially as the Church became institutionalised and at the same time, more and more ascetic. But one also has to wonder whether it is really a matter of only one or the other – whether it might also be possible to find a balance between the poles of license and ascesis, and whether the traditions of erotic mysticism may have important things to offer us today.

In any case, it is important at least to know about and to understand the range of possibilities for erotic mysticism that has always existed within the Western traditions more broadly. By understanding the hidden erotic traditions within the West, we have a richer, more profound range of perspectives to draw from; history becomes more multidimensional. But it is also possible that, as we uncover these secret erotic traditions of the West, they will in turn feed into new movements and generate new ways of understanding. Each era draws upon the past in its own way, and perhaps it is time for us – at least those who are interested and who feel some calling to do so – to reconsider the Western currents of erotic mysticism.

Broadly speaking, there are four main characteristics of sexual mysticism in the West:

1. Nature and Magic

Why is it that so many groups and individuals to whom history attributes one or another form of sexual mysticism, also were said to prefer the wilderness to urban society, deserts and forests to towns? The opposition to such teachings tended to arise in cities, host to bureaucratic institutions and to those busybodies who, from papal Rome to Calvin’s Geneva, sought to manage the personal lives of others. On the other hand, the reach of bureaucracy is generally weaker, the further from urban concentrations of power one goes, and it peters out altogether once one passes over into the wilderness. Hence it is perhaps not surprising that, from the ancient Mysteries to the early Christian encratic groups, from medieval groups like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Waldensians, and the Cathars to more recent proponents of sexual mysticism like Thomas Lake Harris or those influenced by Taoism, wild nature is an inevitable refuge and home.

Where the cultural memory of the Mystery traditions survived – particularly in rural and tribal regions – one also often finds folk magical traditions that appear to be of great antiquity. These magical traditions are intimately bound up with the currents and rhythms of nature, upon which they draw and which they seek to augment or divert. The arts of encouraging or discouraging rain, of making or keeping livestock fertile, of planting at the proper time, and of nurturing proper growth in plants and orchards, these are closely allied with the arts of erotic magic and of procreation, of averting or finding thieves, and of protecting one’s land, crops, livestock, and family. Both the Mysteries on a macro level, and folk or natural magic on a micro level, served to sustain and augment human life with the larger natural and cosmic rhythms, and the advent of Christianity represented a new overlay on these existing and continuing traditions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that ancient Gnosticism and numerous subsequent ‘heresies’ like Bogomilism were said to carry on magical practices: the attitudes toward nature, the cosmos, and cosmic powers was closer to those found in earlier Mystery traditions than to Pauline and Augustinian Christianity. Through such practices, one comes into direct contact with and draws upon cosmic powers rather than broadly rejecting or dismissing them as is implicitly or explicitly the case in many forms of ascetic ‘orthodox’ Christianity. It is not a coincidence that the victims of the Inquisitions were alleged to be heretics or magicians. These two categories do not entirely overlap, to be sure, but where they do, one often also finds an unorthodox embrace of nature or wildness, and of the powers of nature.

2. Egalitarianism, Spiritual Marriage, and Spiritual Hierarchy

When we look back over the history of sexual mysticism, we also see that women take on particularly strong roles as spiritual guides, leaders, and sometimes prophets. Among the Gnostics in antiquity, among numerous medieval groups, and in early modern groups and individuals associated with sexual mysticism, we find consistent emphasis not on male authority or, for that matter, female authority, but rather on a paradoxical union of egalitarianism and what we may term spiritual aristocracy, both of which in turn derive from the experience of the spiritual marriage.

As we will recall, the operative dimension of sexual mysticism is supraphysical, from great antiquity onward: throughout the history of Western sexual mysticism, what matters is vertical or transcendent union, that is, union of the two individuals not as individuals, but as transcendent beings. This transcendent union is often described in the ‘pagan’ Mysteries, as in Valentianian and some other forms of Gnosticism, as the spiritual marriage or sometimes later as the mystical wedding. The spiritual marriage as a symbolic term describes the reunion of humanity with the divine, and as the term ‘marriage’ implies, this reunion could hardly be restricted as an experience only to one gender.

Authority within small mystical circles thus accrues to those who have experienced the inner or spiritual marriage, and the most experienced are the elders or guides within the tradition. By and large, it is a matter of indifference whether that individual is male or female, a perspective that irritated Church Fathers like Irenaeus or Tertullian just as much as it subsequently irritated the representatives of the Inquisition who set about investigating groups like the Brethren of the Free Spirit who held similar views during the medieval period. What matters to adherents of such mystical teachings is the extent to which an elder has direct inner knowledge of the spiritual marriage, for that, in their view, is the sole origin of authentic authority.

It would seem that the various adherents of sexual mysticisms in the past seem chiefly to have lived before their time. So many of their beliefs and even some practices may have seemed outlandish in their own time, but are not so any longer in the wake of modernity (and in particular, feminism), with its widespread dissolution of previous socio-cultural inhibitions. During the modern period, perhaps for the first time in Western history, sexual mysticism either as theory or as practice was not likely to get one imprisoned or killed, and, at least in outward aspects, was not even all that far from latitudinarian mainstream thought.

3. Secret Teachings and Gnosis

But there is one critical aspect of sexual mysticism, and indeed, mysticism more generally, that remains entirely alien from modern perspectives. And that is the idea of gnosis, or direct inner spiritual knowledge. The notion of secret teachings of Jesus, given to the disciples and transmitted from them into subsequent initiates – this is comprehensible because it refers to history. Such an initiatic transmission exists on an historical horizon, even if we aren’t quite certain what knowledge was transmitted. Both such a secret history and the knowledge transmitted exist in the world of subject/object duality: there is alleged to be a secret history of a particular kind of knowledge, and, schooled in the premises of modern scientific rationalism, we naturally think of that secret knowledge as information or as technical in some rarified way. But gnosis is not like the kinds of knowledge with which we are familiar.

There are two kinds of gnosis, broadly speaking, in Christian tradition. These two kinds of gnosis correspond to the terms of Dionysius the Areopagite: via positiva, and via negativa. The via positiva or via affirmativa is usually defined as perception of higher realities via symbols or images, but those symbols or images are like passageways or portals into visionary worlds, into what Henry Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis, or “imaginal world.” The visionary sphere of the mundus imaginalis is not imaginary, or a mere reflection of this world – it is, rather, an archetypal revelatory sphere akin to lucid dreaming, in which we encounter divine or angelic beings and visionary oneiroscapes, exactly what we find in many of the Nag Hammadi gnostic writings. But we also find there the via negativa, that is, the path of transcendence of all symbols or analogies.

What the secret history of sexual mysticism suggests is that sexual union or communion can open out into a via positiva experience in which through intimate communion we begin to perceive and even enter into the archetypal sphere that Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis, or imaginal world. Sexual union is potentially conducive to such an experience because in it a man can become an archetypal man encountering archetypal woman – angel or god unites with angel or god (depending on whether one is drawing on Christian or pagan language).

What we see, in the Mystery traditions and again in gnostic traditions of the inner or gnostic marriage, as again in gnostic visionary works – in other words, in the foundational period of Western history – is the possibility of an inner or divine union of which sexual union between a man and a woman is the sign or symbol. The key here is the inner or archetypal union between above and below, which is in fact the touching and intermingling of another, archetypal, revelatory divine world with this mundane, earthly one. The horizontal sexual union between man and woman is consummated not in their union with one another, but inasmuch as this horizontal union has a vertical or transcendent dimension.

4. Realisation of the Transcendent

Clearly, sexual union, as the most intimate mingling of two people, represents a potential opening into kinds of consciousness that transcend our ordinary individuality. We each intuitively know this; we understand that sexual union – and especially those moments when a couple’s union is an opening for a new life to begin to take form – itself is a rare and mysterious union not only of man and woman, but, in principle, of humanity and nature with the divine.

Sexual union becomes sexual mysticism not when two individuals join, but when each lover becomes for the other an opening into the transcendence of I and thou, an entry into a new dimension beyond selfhood. In this new dimension, one encounters not only another individuality, but also the powers behind and beyond nature, the principles that inhere in the cosmos. The Mystery traditions of Greco-Roman and Egyptian antiquity become comprehensible when we begin to understand why in those traditions sexuality – including orgiastic sexuality – is so intimately linked to seasonal cycles, wilderness, fields, and orchards.

And perhaps we also begin to glimpse the multivalences of sexual mysticism in the age-old and always-present, always-renewed font of romantic love. It may be that when we fall in love, we find ourselves engulfed in a monsoon of hormonal intoxication that inexorably fades away into the cold, long day of routine life – yet if this happens, perhaps it was not inevitable, but the result of not entering into a unitive alchemical process. Erotic mysticism no doubt may be dangerous. Obsession, immersion in a world of fantasy, sexual manias – who knows how many detours and pitfalls there are? Very probably it is indeed better to follow the path of asceticism.

Nonetheless, there are those who feel drawn toward an erotic mysticism, or who find themselves in a relationship that becomes a spiritual path. For them, it may be useful to know that there are very long and very rich Western traditions of sexual mysticism that can be traced back before the origins of Christianity, and that for all the efforts of the ‘orthodox’ to extirpate it, erotic mysticism still recurs time and again, perpetually renewed like the phoenix.

This article was published in New Dawn 109.
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About the Author

Arthur Versluis, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Professor in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has published numerous books and articles. Among his many books are Platonic Mysticism (SUNY Press 2017), American Gurus (Oxford UP, 2014), Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism (Rowman Littlefield, 2007), The New Inquisitions: Heretic-hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism (Oxford UP, 2006), Restoring Paradise: Esoteric Transmission through Literature and Art (SUNY: 2004); The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance (Oxford UP: 2001); Wisdom’s Book: The Sophia Anthology, (Paragon House, 2000); Island Farm (MSU Press, 2000); Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (SUNY: 1999); and American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (Oxford UP, 1993). His family has owned a commercial farm in West Michigan for several generations, and so he also published a book called Island Farm about the family farm, and about family farming in the modern era. Versluis was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Germany, and is the founding editor of Esoterica, and co-editor of JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism. He is the founding president of the Association for the Study of Esotericism.

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