The Sacred Marriage: Analyzing the Symbology That Gave Birth to Christianity


I first ran across the the Sacred Marriage when, as a bored twelve-year-old browsing through my grandfather’s books, I made the amazing discovery of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Let me just say that it certainly got my attention and I was bored no more. I next encountered the themes of the sacred marriage a few years later in the novels of Mary Renault, specifically, The King Must Die and again felt the powerful emotional pull of this story. Fifty years later, it continues to fascinate me.
These early exposures to the Sacred Marriage and the emotions which it evokes sent me on a lifetime quest to understand its mysterious power — and the power of myth and symbols in general.

Over the years, through my studies of myth and religion, I have come to believe that the power of symbols derives from their role in the shaping of human consciousness. I believe it is the function of symbols, specifically religious and mythological (other people’s religious) symbols, to shape our psychological and emotional realities in response to the requirements of the physical and social worlds we inhabit.

Pagan myths and symbols found sacred life-giving qualities within nature and created a human consciousness which promoted and sustained a pastoral and agricultural way of life — when that way of life made the most sense with respect to human survival. In contrast, symbologies associated with transcendent patriarchal monotheism (Christianity, as the most extreme and successful example) find the sacred outside of nature, specifically in a transcendent male authoritarian god who looks and acts a lot like a powerful human king. Transcendent patriarchal monotheism creates a type of human consciousness which has the go-ahead, even the mandate, to exploit a desacralized nature including those humans most closely associated with nature — women and indigenous peoples, etc. Transcendent patriarchal monotheism promotes and sustains a social structure and value system which is congenial with an imperial worldview.

Although there is still a great deal of academic argument swirling around the “facts” of the sacred marriage and the dying and rising god, I think there can be no disagreement on the power of its symbology – based as it is on the most powerful of human emotions, surrounding the most powerful of human experiences: sex, death, and birth — nor on its formative role in the evolution of the symbology of the JudeoChristian tradition. Judging from the art and mythology of the ancient near east (ANE), pagan nature religions of that time and place frequently employed the symbology of the sacred marriage. For further proof of the power and ubiquity of these themes in the ANE, one need look no further than the Hebrew and Christian creation myths to detect the symbology of the sacred marriage lurking just beneath the surface – and wreaking a good deal of psychological havoc for all true believers who find themselves faced with endless religious contradictions. For evidence of the power of this symbology, even today, just key in “sacred marriage” in your web browser and see how many references can be found on the internet.

What exactly is the Sacred Marriage? The Sacred Marriage, stripped down to its bare essentials, is the cosmic coupling of the Feminine Principle and the Masculine Principle to bring forth Creation. This cosmic coupling is depicted in an endless variety of mythological stories and religious rituals which provide the symbols and symbolic interactions necessary to construct the type of human consciousness supportive of an agricultural/pastoral way of life.

The two main characters of the myth are Nature (the Feminine Principle) symbolized as the Mother Goddess, who is understood as the matrix, the creatrix, and ground of being of all life, and her Creation, symbolized as her Son/Lover (the Masculine Principle). In the myth, creation and new life come into being through the incestuous union of these two principles.

This symbolic world-creating union was ritually acted out in two ways (1) sexual intercourse on the part of supplicants with a temple priestess who represented the Great Mother (a pagan communion), and (2) the ritual sacrifice and burial of a young and beautiful male (masculine principle uniting with feminine principle through burial of male body in the female body of the Great Mother Earth). These rites ceremonially recreated the original act of creation and were carried out to bring about a plentiful food supply and a growing and thriving population.

The Sacred Marriage conflated ideas of female fecundity, gestation, birth and nursing with the fertility of the earth, the “gestation” of crops, and the bringing forth of new life from the land and from females of all species. It also brought together ideas of the insemination of the female by the male with the plowing of the earth and the sowing of seeds, as Inanna ’s cry to Dumuzzi makes abundantly clear (“plow my vulva”). In addition “the little death” experienced in sexual intercourse (the temporary loss of male potency) is conflated with death itself (the permanent loss of life). And, I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the layers on layers of meaning. But that’s what symbols are for, carriers of layers and layers of meaning.

The rituals and stories associated with The Sacred Marriage reflect and reveal the evolving social value which early, pre- western cultures accord the symbolic masculine and feminine. They also provide the context, the nexus, from which a new symbolic system was born. Transcendent, patriarchal monotheism, otherwise known as Christianity (and the Judeo-Christian tradition), arises in contradistinction to paganism and is its antithesis. It provided the tools to construct the cultural consciousness we know as Western. Although the belief was “new,” it was in reality just one more layer added to the existing symbolic system. To mix metaphors, like water with wine, it was new wine in old bottles — a sometimes explosive situation. To better understand Christianity and Western culture — and its often perplexing and seemingly contradictory value system, it seems to me that it helps to get a fix on the synbolic system that gave it birth — especially since Western culture has spent so much energy discrediting and devaluing almost everything associated with pagan nature religions. Just consider how f***ed up we are about sexual intercourse. This “Holy Communion” of pagan nature religions we deem obscene. Go figure. At any rate, I hope the following discussion provides some insight into the complexities of Western culture.

The Great Mother

Very early in the development of cultures in the Ancient Near East (ANE), religious symbologies began to develop within which the human female, from whose body human life emerges and on whose body infant human life depends, was seen as analogous to the earth, from whom all life emerges and on whom all life depends. According to Joseph Campbell, “The focal point of all mythology [based on this view] was the bountiful goddess Earth, as the mother and nourisher of life – and the receiver of the dead for rebirth.” This perspective on life sees the human as absolutely dependent on nature in the same way as the infant is dependent on its mother; it sees nature as the source of life and, as such, as sacred; it conflates the ideas of mother and nature so that mother and the feminine principle are synonymous with the sacred life force. It understands the decomposition of the body/organic matter after death as necessary for the cycle of life to continue. This world view, therefore, gives ultimate value to the ideas of mother and nature. This world view seems to be a logical early step in the evolution of human consciousness in the west when it was needed to support a hunter/gatherer way of life.

The Son/Sun/Lover

Over time, however, as a result of their growing awareness of the world around them and how things worked, human beings in the ANE came to doubt nature’s absolute power over their lives and life in general. Grasping the significance of the role of intercourse in pregnancy, they became breeders and herders of flocks – no longer dependent on the whims of nature for milk and meat as hunters are. Coming to understand the process of seed planting, crop production, and harvest, they were no longer dependent on nature’s largesse for grapes and grain – as gatherers are. And they also came to understand that the earth without the sun – like soil without seeds and females without males — was barren. Clearly, to be productive, Mother Nature needed a little help from her friends.

As a result, the psychological power of the Mother Goddess began to wane and the psychological power of the symbolic masculine as cosmic inseminator began to be articulated and enlarged, coming to include even the properties of the Sun. And the symbol for the cycle of life evolved from “Life emerging from the body of the Mother/Life returning to the body of the Mother” to the more complex imagery of the symbolic union of the male and female principles coming together to create new life. That is, the creative act was evolving from female birth-giving to include the role of male insemination.

The Sacred Marriage

The result was that the symbol for the source and maintenance of Life, the Sacred Mother — giving birth, nurturing her young, receiving the body of her offspring back into her body at death in order for the cycle to continue – transforms into the more complex symbology of the Sacred Marriage, in which the more generalized offspring of the Mother (Life itself) evolves into the Male Principle – symbolized as the Mother’s Son/Lover. The sacred dyad of mother and child, creatrix and creation, evolves into the sacred triad – the biological trinity of mother, father, child, but a compromised biological trinity of unequal power, where the mother is the unrivalled head of the family and primary source of life and where one actor plays two parts. The agricultural worldview based on this symbology sees both the union of male and female and the union of death and life as necessary for life to continue. The Sacred Marriage incorporates both these ideas, ensuring the continuation of the agricultural worldview and the survival of the species.

To the idea that death brought forth the rebirth of new life (literally that decaying organic matter “fertilized” the earth promoting the growth of new crops in the spring) was added the idea of the masculine principle as “fertilizing” agent, initiating the creation of new life. Add to this the Sun whose rays warmed, penetrated, and seemingly fecundated Earth on a daily basis, who sank into Earth’s waiting embrace each evening, and who rose from Earth’s dark bed each dawn and you can begin to understand the power and complexity of the symbol of the Sacred Marriage. The death of the male principle– whether the son/lover or his penis, whether the sun or its rays – was understood as the necessary condition for rebirth – whether of the individual human being, the morning sun, or all creation.

In the Sacred Marriage, the old creation story of the Mother Goddess which unites life with death (Life Rising from the Mother/Dying into the Mother) is augmented by a new, sexual union, the holy union of Masculine and Feminine Principles coming together in sexual intercourse to create new life. To deepen the emotional impact, the Dying and Rising imagery was extended to include the Rising of the erect penis and the Dying of the flaccid penis after ejaculation. The “little death” standing in for the more permanent one — the part (the phallus) for the whole (the man). The fertilization of woman by man was conflated with the sowing of seeds and the fertilization of fields with decaying organic matter to produce the image of a Mother/Nature vivified by the Male Principle. Within the context of the Sacred Marriage, the male principle is the phallic, seminal, and solar initiator of new life – as well as the new life itself, which arises as a product of the cosmic union. Joining with Earth, He dies and is buried in Her. And yet, in the spring (or in the morning) he is reborn.

Within the context of the Sacred Marriage, the deaths (both small and large) and rebirth of the Mother’s Son represent the endless cycle of life and death upon which all Life depends. As the masculine principle – inseminator and seed, he dies, joining with/dying into his Mother Nature. In spring, he rises, reborn in the new life coming from her body – in the form of frolicking lambs and new crops of grapes and grain (served up as bread and wine — his body and blood). As the symbol of male potency, he is the phallus, rising to penetrate and inseminate the feminine, then dying, once ejaculation occurs. In this symbolic drama, the Mother’s Son must die to live and must sacrifice his own life so others may also live. He is the res-erection and the life, but She is still the ground of being and the Source.

Through this convoluted and interactive process, the Masculine Principle entered into the psychological consciousness of the peoples of the ANE; and the Dying and Rising God – he who is born from the Mother and re-unites with the mother in sex and death – emerged as a major player in the Drama of Life — and as a major threat to the power of the Mother. The symbolic feminine literally carried within her the seeds of her own destruction – Her Son. Within the context of the Sacred Marriage, the Feminine Principle – The Great Mother – takes the leading role while the Son is merely a supporting actor. But this predominance is not an unmixed blessing: it is mixed with death. She as ground of being is identified with death as well as life, and, in the drama of the Sacred Marriage, she is objectified and acted upon. The symbolic masculine, on the other hand, is associated with images of life and agency. As the phallic/solar inseminator, he brings life and light; as the son, he is life; as the hero, he sacrifices himself for life. This symbolic situation does not bode well for the ultimate success of the Sacred Marriage or for the future of the symbolic feminine – whether she finds herself expressed as woman or nature. Tune in tomorrow….

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