Feature Articles – The Hieros Gamos
Few things are less understood than the hieros gamos – the “sacred marriage”. Considered to be the “Holy Grail” of sexual rituals, is it within reach of comprehension and explanation?
by Philip Coppens
One of the most intriguing, nebulous and controversial topics of history and magic is the “hieros gamos”, “the sacred marriage”. Believed to incorporate both sex and ritual, it should not come as a surprise that throughout history, it has attracted many – and often, those who should truly well stay clear of it. Its fame has meant that the theme was used by Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code”, where he described it as how “man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God”. Brown is not the only one who has linked the experience with tantrism and the withholding of orgasm. He is, of course, also the man who considered Mary Magdalene’s vulva to be the Holy Grail. The quest to define the hieros gamos foremost is one of answering the question who and when it was performed. Some – including Dan Brown – link it to temple prostitution, while others see it as the king of the country who marries “the land” – in the form of a high priestess – to rejuvenate it. For the Greeks, it was more abstract. They considered it a marriage between the gods and hence apparently outside of the reach of ordinary human beings. It was only in the Jewish and medieval tradition that the hieros gamos became linked with magic and ritual and it is therefore here that we find the current obsession with it. As such, in 1605, Cesare della Riviera wrote that “in Europe, the tracks of these ancient rituals pass through the Gnostic schools, the alchemical and cabalistic currents of the Middle Ages and Renaissance – where numerous alchemical texts can be read on two levels.” What is the hieros gamos? At its core, the sacred marriage is more of a sacrament than a ritual. It is a marriage between husband and wife, but is of a sacred nature: it is a marriage blessed by the gods, with active participation of those deities, present in the act of lovemaking between the two humans. Focusing on the king having sexual intercourse with the high priestess is thus largely a misnomer, as the king was equally a high priest, and the queen… a high priestess.
In the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung studied the hieros gamos through the Rosarium Philosophorum, a series of twenty woodcuts, printed in Frankfurt in 1550. The images have a clear sexual and royal nature: a king and queen are depicted with the sun and the moon, sharing a bed, performing sexual acts, as a result of which they become one, and are transformed. And it is with these woodcuts that we come to the core of the hieros gamos: indeed, the primary purpose of the sacred marriage is that two equals, twin souls, a husband and wife, reunite through the hieros gamos. In short: the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage, was not a marriage of just any human beings, but of twin souls. The concept of twin souls – more popularly known as soulmates – is as old as civilisation itself. Isis and Osiris were both sister and brother and husband and wife: twins. Rather than seeing this as an incestuous relationship, the ancient Egyptians were using this imagery to portray a complex metaphysical framework.
They – like so many other religions – believed that each human being possessed a soul. That soul was half of one unit, which consisted out of one male and one female half. This meant that for every human being alive, there was a perfect twin soul. The quest in this lifetime was to find that twin soul, and be reunited with it. This was the truest of loves; the greatest quest. If not the Great Work of Alchemy. The alchemist Nicolas Flamel stated that he was only able to accomplish the Great Work while in the presence of his wife Perenelle, but it was equally accepted that the majority of marriages here on earth, was not between twin souls. Once the twin souls had found themselves, apart from understanding the true depths of love and kinship they shared throughout their many lifetimes together, the hieros gamos would be completed at some point. What was it? It was seen as God personally “attending” a sexual activity, in which the human beings – male and female – each get “infused” by the divine essence of the male and female component of God.
The best-known historical example of such a sacred marriage is between King Solomon and Queen Sheba. The story relates how the Queen of Sheba travelled from her homeland to meet Solomon, to perform the hieros gamos with him.
This story is discussed by Kathleen McGowan in her fact-based novel “Book of Love”. She relates that ancient traditions stipulate God had both a male and female aspect: El and Asherah. Tradition relates that they desired “to experience their great and divine love in a physical form and to share such blessedness with the children they would create. Each soul who was formed was perfectly matched, given a twin made from the same essence. […] Thus the hieros-gamos was created, the sacred marriage of trust and consciousness that unites the beloveds into one flesh.” Echoes of the sacred marriage can be found in the Song of Songs, directly linked with Solomon and describing love making. The title highlights it was the holiest of all songs, underlining its importance. Margaret Starbird has pointed out that there are strong parallels between the Song of Songs and poems to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Of course, both Solomon and Sheba and Isis and Osiris were twin souls, and hence able to experience the hieros gamos.
The Song of Songs became very important for the Kabbalists, specifically following the Book of the Zohar, which saw the Song of Songs as a prime example of the hieros gamos. It is in the Zoharic Kabbalah that God is represented by a system of ten spheres, each symbolizing a different aspect of God, who is perceived as both male and female. The Shekina was identified with Malchut, which was identified with the woman in the Song of Songs. Her beloved was identified with Yesod, which represents God’s foundation and the phallus or male essence.
Within the Jewish religion, Malchut and Yesod are El, the fatherly creator god, and his consort, Asherah. He was identified with the bull and She with the mother goddess. Indeed, women who have experienced the hieros gamos note that they have experienced this mother goddess energy, some even mentally visiting some of her sanctuaries during the experience. The imagery also reveals how long our ancestors have been familiar with this sacred marriage: the link between the bull and the earth goddess is visible on the walls of Catal Huyuk, built in the 8th millennium BC. The hieros gamos should therefore be more appropriately labelled the reunion of twin souls, while incarnate in the body, through sexual activity, involving the active participation of the male and female aspect of God: “What God has put together, let no man separate.”
Those who have experienced such union find it largely impossible to describe – “beyond words”. They are, however, capable of breaking down the experience in some components. The man will become one with El, while the female melts with Asherah, the “Queen of Heaven”. During this union, it is entirely possible that Asherah or El is more prominent in one partner than in the other. During these encounters, the sexual activity exceeds – and is different from – a normal orgasm; it is normally more intense, prolonged and multiple, whereby the orgasm itself is more energetic, rather than physical. However, the presence of this divine energy should not be seen as a form of possession; normally, the human sexual energy is equally present, and the sexual experience is a balance and interplay between both energies. To put it crudely: the hieros gamos is a foursome: two human beings, and El and Asherah operating with and through them. Where does this leave the reputation of the hieros gamos as a form of temple prostitution? Asherah has been linked with the Mesopotamian Ishtar, whose cult did involve sacred prostitutes. However, should we perhaps see in these women initiatrices: women who prepared and taught certain methodologies as to how sacred sexuality should be experienced between partners, so that their union could lead to a sacred marriage?
Interestingly, the world’s oldest poem, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, relates how when Gilgamesh discovers the wild man Enkidu, he sends him to Shamhat, a priestess of Ishtar. She was instructed to teach Enkidu how to live as a cultural human being, suggesting that our ancestors identified culture specifically with how to make love properly – the hieros gamos way. These examples, and the example of Solomon and Sheba, make it clear that the quest of the hieros gamos is not open to anyone: it is only the bailiwick of twin souls. It is why Flamel noted that it was only possible to be performed with Perenelle, clearly not only his wife, but also his twin soul. It is also not so much ritual, but total union of body, mind and spirit: the two parts of one soul become united in the body, thus accomplishing in the body what they were at the beginning of time: a unity. The Great Work. And this union was “blessed” by the sacrament of the hieros gamos, in which God themselves, present at the separation of these souls at the beginning of time, reunited and blessed the two lovers.
So even though tantric yoga as such has nothing to do with it, tantrism does know about this state of perfect union and has labelled it Samadhi. It is the state where the respective individualities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in the unity of cosmic consciousness – the two units are reunited. For tantrics, the deities are not El and Asherah, but Shakti and Shiva. Because it is “restricted” to twin souls, the hieros gamos might not hold the sexual and ritual appeal that many would like to give it. But it is nevertheless the most important sacrament of all, as it was the completion of the quest of the soul in life: to find his twin soul and reunite, and within this love, continue their life, combined.
People who have experienced the hieros gamos agree that this is a unique experience. One person stated that during the hieros gamos, both partners experienced total orgasm, though this was without any physical activity – through a physical connection, the other partner experienced perfectly the sexual stimulation the other person was sending in the mind – in short, the partners were both not only reading the other person’s mind, but interacted within that mind – as one unity of cosmic consciousness. Another person described it as “utter bliss” or what “heaven” must have felt like. The feeling of “heaven on earth” may indeed be what the hieros gamos was all about: the twin souls in heaven, experiencing their divine union on earth. As above, so below?