Sex As Sacrament
From Sex In History by Gordon Rattray Taylor

Now that we have obtained a general view of the development of sexual ideals and behaviour during the last thousand years, the time has come to put the picture in wiser perspective and to see from what origins the forms of Christian sexual morality were derived. Just as in a film the camera sometimes draws back to reveal the whole landscape in which the action has been taking place, so let us, before coming to a conclusion, sketch in the historical landscape and show how the events we have been studying were related to it.

The Mediterranean world, in the millennium preceding the birth of Christ, shows a variety of religions and sexual practices, and in each case these evolve through various phases during the period: it is therefore impossible to attempt any comprehensive account. I shall have to draw attention to certain major themes, while glossing over many points of difference and avoiding the numerous controversies still conducted by professional archaeologists concerning the interpretation of much of the material.

Roughly speaking, we find three patterns. The most familiar is the Jewish, in which the sexual code is considered to be backed by religious sanctions, so that infractions are not merely a crime, but a sin which may exasperate the deity. In contrast with this, Graeco-Roman sexual regulations have only civil force: the gods on Olympus are not much interested in how men behave, in sexual matters or in any other, though they too seem bound in principle to obey similar sexual rules. Finally, there is a pattern quite unlike anything so far considered, in which the sexual act is felt to have magical and even divine significance: it should be performed only with reverence, after carrying out the appropriate preparatory and purifying rites. It constitutes, in fact, an act of worship. One may call it the sacramental view of sex.

This is a conception so unfamiliar to most people that it seems worth spending a few pages discussing it in more detail, before noting the details of the more familiar sensual and sinful views of sex, as we may term them.

The view of sex as a sacred mystery is one which can be traced at various levels of sophistication. In its most primitive form, the sexual act is seen merely as having powerful magic properties. Essentially, the principle behind magic is that of sympathetic action: in order to make the wind arise, one whistles; in order to make the corn grow high, one leaps into the air; in order to kill one's enemy, one sticks pins into his effigy. At that dark season of the year, when all nature seems dead, what should one do to ensure that the seeds in the ground shall quicken and new growth appear ? What but perform the sexual, generative act oneself. Thus, in earliest times, and among many preliterate peoples today, we often find the sexual act as the cumulating point of a ceremony of rebirth, a ceremony usually performed either at midwinter, on the day following the shortest day, or (where less astronomical knowledge exists) at the moment when winter turns into spring. Even in modern times, in the remoter parts of Europe, peasants would go to the fields to copulate with each other, in order to ensure a good crop.

Primitive man's wealth and security depends upon the fertility of his crops and herds, and upon a supply of sons and daughters to help him in the tasks of agriculture: how can he look upon fertility but as a blessing, bestowed when God is favourably inclined, withheld when He is angry. The sexual organs serve as a symbol to remind man that all depends upon this vital process, they are the vehicle of the sacred generative power. And so, in the earliest days of Rome and Greece, we find phalli exhibited outside shops, baked in pastry, hung round children's necks, and, above all, exhibited at places of Worship or carried in procession, just in the same way, and for much the same reasons, that the Cross is exhibited in Christian periods. (160)

In earliest times, God is not conceived in human or personalized form, but as soon as He emerges as a quasi-human figure it is natural to regard Him as ultimately responsible for this generative magic; hence the idea develops that all fertilisation is caused by the god himself — the man is merely the vehicle. In many mythologies, it is the moon which fertilizes — hence the reluctance of sleeping women to let the moonlight fall upon them — and among those tribes which are beginning to discover the role of the man in conception, the explanation is added that the man "opens the way" for the moonbeams. (122) At a later stage, when astronomical knowledge has advanced, the sun may become the male, fertilizing figure and the moon changes from a male to a female deity. In the animistic phase of religion, when every tree and river has its local indwelling spirit, we find maidens bathing in the river and symbolically offering their virginity to the river god.

While this idea obtains, all births are virgin births, in the sense that no man, but a god, is responsible for them. In a later phase, folk memories of this persist, and culture heroes often claim to be descended from the union of a woman and a god, usually the moon. Genghis Khan made this claim: and Isaiah was made by his translators to assert that the Messiah who was to save Israel would be born in a similar manner. Later, Christ was credited with virgin birth not because it was thought miraculous — it was not — but because it was the standard way of claiming special importance. (122)

To understand this fully, we must appreciate the fact that the term "virgin" did not mean to the Classical world what it means to us. The Romans distinguished between virgo, an unmarried woman, and virgo intacta, a woman who had never known a man; the Greeks likewise. To them, a virgin was a woman who had kept her personal autonomy, instead of submitting herself to the narrow, caged life of marriage. It was, one may say, a psychological virginity which was meant. It was the married woman who had sold her independence, who had lost her virginity. Moreover, to sleep with a god was held actually to restore virginity, as Philo and Plutarch record. (Cf. Donne's "Nor ever chaste, except thou ravish mee". This idea was also implicit in the conception of the Brides of Christ.) (122)

The religions which developed these ideas were all based on a maternal figure, found under different names throughout a great part of the Near East. To the Phoenicians she was Astarte; to the Phrygians, Cybele; to the Babylonians, Ishtar; to the Thracians, Bendis; to the Cretans, Rhea; to the Ephesians, Artemis; to the Canaanites, Atargatis; to the Persians, Anaitis; to the Cappadocians, Ma. But though her names differ, her attributes are the same — she is always the mother who succours and helps, and who bestows fertility. This composite figure was generally known as Magna Mater, the great mother, and it was said that she was mother of all the other gods. (79) The Egyptians, too, had their mother deity in Isis: she was also the succourer, the compassionate, but the concept of Isis was developed to a higher level of sophistication than that of the goddesses mentioned earlier.

These deities were not decomposed; so that the same goddess could represent both virginity and fulfilment, both mother and prostitute. This is why Ishtar, the mother, can say of herself "A prostitute compassionate am I". She is the mother who offers her tenderness to any of her sons who needs it. This double aspect was also expressed in such images as that of the — dark and bright phases of the moon. (122)

From these ideas developed the notion that all women should, at some time or other, offer themselves to the deity: for this; purpose they would, in a spirit of solemnity and holy awe, present themselves at the temple. In some cases, it would be the priest who, as god's representative, would come to them in the in darkness; in others they must wait in the temple grounds until some man chose them. It was clearly understood that, whoever he was, he was the vehicle of the deity. Europeans in India, where similar customs still exist, have often reported with indignation that the priests practise a gross deception upon the worshippers, pretending to be the deity: they imagine that this is simply the crude device of a venal priesthood to obtain sexual satisfaction. Actually, everyone concerned fully understands that it is the priest, physically speaking, who performs the ritual act, but they believe him to be divinely empowered to do it.

In another variant, each temple has priestesses whose duty is to perform a like service to male worshippers. This is the temple prostitution which has so often scandalized Christian observers. But the term prostitution, with its connotations of sordid commercialism and hole-and-corner lust, wholly misrepresents the sacred and uplifting character of the experience, as it was experienced by those who took part. It was nothing less than an act of communion with God ant was as remote from sensuality as the Christian act of communion is remote from gluttony.

The Greeks, meanwhile, were developing a more subtle and sophisticated idea of deity, and their treatment of such ideas betrays a correspondingly complex form. In the earliest phases of religious development, religious feeling seems to be confined to a sense of awareness of a "mysterium tremendum". Later, man comes to personalize this mystery, and to attribute to it will and feeling, and at this point he gives it a name. He imagines these deities behaving much as he would behave — for he knows no other way — and projects on them different aspects of his own behaviour: one embodies his belligerence, another his thirst for wisdom, and so on. The Greeks, as Dodds has observed, projected outside themselves their own unconscious motives, and also explained the otherwise-inexplicable by attributing it to the actions of gods.

Hence, whenever a man was seized by some force compelling him to act otherwise than he normally would or could, where we should often explain it in terms of unconscious motives, the Greeks explained it as possession by god. (88) Epilepsy was due to possession by god, running berserk was due to possession by god. But equally, falling in love was due to possession by god, and so was insanity. Such states were called mania, but it is misleading to say (as some writers do) that the Greek called being in love a form of insanity. Mania was a great and terrible experience. As Plato says:

"... in reality the greatest blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods.... And it is worth while also to adduce the fact that those men of old who invented names thought that madness was neither shameful nor disgraceful; otherwise they would not have connected the very word mania with the noblest of the arts, that which foretells the future, by calling it the manic art."

The Greeks also, indeed above all, saw the deity in beauty. The story is well known of how the courtesan Phryne, on the point of conviction in court, lowered her garment and uncovered her peerless bosom, causing the judges to let her off. It is usually told as if the judges had simply done so in an attack of erethism, like the characters in an American comic strip. The reality is that they felt themselves in the presence of the divine: such beauty must mean that Phryne was under the special protection of Aphrodite. As Athenaeus tells us:

"But the judges were seized with holy awe of the divinity, so that they did not venture to kill the prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite."

It was for this reason also that Praxiteles was commissioned to make a statue of Phryne, and that he bestowed on her his statue of Eros, the life-force.

The Greeks word for god meant the moment of excitement when one recognizes a long-lost friend, and applied it to the excitement of a new discovery. Whence our word enthusiasm; and they distinguished enthusiasm from ecstasy, of standing outside — a notion we echo in our phrase "he was beside himself". In all these states God had seized man, an action known as theolepsy.

The Greeks, therefore, looked with especial interest on any process which seemed able to induce this theoleptic awareness of divinity. They knew that music, dancing and alcohol could cause it, and found it to be present also at the climax of the sexual act, when the bounds of one's personality seem to dissolve and one merges with the infinite. Thus it was that from very early times, Greece had offered a home to a cult, evolved originally in Thrace, in which, once every two years, people climbed the mountains, accompanied by kettledrum and flute, danced wildly, and ended by performing the sexual act. This, when the time came to provide it with a deity in human shape, was called the worship of Dionysos. Priapus — specifically sexual desire — was his son, but Dionysos himself as the god of the grape and of wine — wine which enabled an to escape from the bounds of his own personality.

The Greeks also had their fertility rites, performed annually in the spring. But the worship of Dionysos was something more complex. (187) It did not take place annually, nor anywhere near cultivated fields. It was limited to closed groups, or "thiasoi", and in the early days they seem to have consisted only of women; whereas the fertility rites were attended by all. The ceremonies took place at night. It was not just a sensual orgy, but was attended by discomfort and risk. Plutarch records how, at Delphi, the worshippers set out to climb the 8,000-foot Mount Parnassus, were cut off by a snowstorm, and returned with their clothes frozen stiff as boards. The cult, when later thrown open to all, seems to have attracted people of good position.

That the purpose of the cult was to induce an experience which was felt to be ennobling, and of a religious character, cannot be doubted: the followers of Dionysos were called Bacchae (or Bacchantes) and means to have a religious experience of communion with deity. But it was also something more — a social device for releasing sexual tension. As Dodds says, the social function of the cult was essentially cathartic. Hesiod calls Dionysos a god of joy. At Athens he as known as the healer: Athenians who resisted him were liable to be afflicted with a disease of the genital organs. Euripides says that his function is "to cause our cares to cease". Later, when the function of healing by the dance had passed to the Korybantes, Plato says that they cured "anxiety feelings and phobias arising from some morbid mental condition". Today we know that anxiety states are commonly the consequence of sexual repression, and can well understand that a cult which promoted physical exercise, lifted inhibitions by means of alcohol, and culminated in a sexual act, may (like the Saturday-night dance of a football club) have been well designed to get rid of such anxieties. The disease of the genitals suffered by those who resisted him was doubtless impotence.

But the Dionysiac worship did not only provide an outlet for libido, it also provided an outlet for the destructive and aggressive urges of Thanatos. The ceremony ended with the tearing to pieces of a living kid, and the immediate devouring of it. Indeed, it has been supposed that at some stage in its development, it was the priest himself who was torn to pieces. In Euripides' Bacchae, it is King Pentheus who tries to impose order on the Bacchae and who is torn to pieces. This is reflected in the mythology, in which it is the god himself who is torn to pieces by the Titans.

Whether or not, at any historical period, an actual person was so sacrificed is less important than the mythological meaning. It seems feasible that Euripides intended to portray the effects of conscious control of instinctive drives. When that control is too rigid, the unconscious forces are likely to burst out in a violent form and destroy the conscious. From some such roots derives the institution of the orgy of which the Saturnalia is an example: an occasion when it is permissible ' to indulge all those desires which are normally kept under control. The orgy is a useful, perhaps an indispensable, social safety valve.

Nevertheless, while there are advantages in providing ceremonies in which such drives may be given outlet, so that their consequences can be limited, there is also a danger that such Ceremonies will suffer a steady deterioration. By late Roman times, the Dionysiac worship seems to have deteriorated into a secret society engaged in practices of a revoltingly sexual and sadistic kind. (145)

As I have indicated, this idea of periodical self-abandonment to Eros and Thanatos, which had at the same time the character of a religious act, was primarily associated with the worship of a mother figure. In this pure form, it also betrayed another feature worthy of note: a tendency to direct violence against the self. The mother religions all exhibit self-flagellation in various forms, and also the gashing of the body with knives; flagellation, in an attenuated form, also formed part of the Greek Thesmophoria, and the association of flagellation with fertility ceremonies is a commonplace of modern folklore. In part, this may be explained by saying that flagellation is a sexual stimulant, but the more significant feature is that, whereas in father religions violence is chiefly turned outward, sadistically, in mother religions it seems to be turned inward, masochistically.

It is an interesting question how this self-flagellation should be compared with the self-flagellation of the mediaeval period. Both clearly represent a turning of destructive impulses against the self, but there is also a certain difference: the mediaeval form was accompanied by intense feelings of guilt, whereas the earlier does not seem to have been. Moreover, mediaeval masochism was more obsessive; it was often continued for long periods. The masochism of the mother religions was usually an annual event; frequently it shrank to mere symbol; I think it is fair to say that its character was primarily that of a cathartic discharge of aggressive impulses. Nevertheless, it is characteristic of mother identification that the discharge should take a masochistic, not a sadistic form. It would therefore be extremely interesting to try to discover whether those who practised self-flagellation in the mediaeval period were biased towards mother-identifications for it may be that the Church encouraged self-flagellation as part of its attempt to deal with the persistent metrist trend and to keep within its ranks many who might, without this outlet, have seceded to the matrist heresies which we discussed in Chapter V.

Furthermore, this attack- on the self took a specific sexual form, in that it led, in certain cases, to self-castration . Lucian's account (220) is informative:

On certain days a multitude flocks to the temple, and the Galli in great numbers, sacred as they are, perform the ceremonies of the men and gash their arms and turn their backs to be lashed. Many bystanders play on the pipes, while many beat drums; others sing divine and sacred songs. All this performance takes place outside the temple... As the Galli sing and celebrate their orgies, frenzy falls on some of them, and many who had come as mere spectators afterwards are found to have committed the great act. I shall narrate what they do. Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes and with a loud shout burst into the midst of the crowd and picks up a sword from number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself and runs wild through the city bearing in his hands what he has cut off. He casts it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women's raiment and ornaments.

Since we have seen how a very strong identification with the mother tends to lead to male homosexuality, we shall be able to understand this phenomenon; and since we have observed the incest fears with which such identification is associated, we shall appreciate that castration is the one act which makes it impossible to perform incest. "E d'amor mou castitaz." This was not, however, merely a pathological eccentricity, but an essential feature of the religion: though only a few resolved on the supreme sacrifice, all visitors to the temple were expected to undergo the symbolic castration of shaving off their hair (hence also the tonsure of the Catholic Church) and Lucian himself deposited his hair at the shrine of Astarte when a youth.

The psychological meaning of these mother religions becomes clearer when we examine the myth associated with them. With minor modifications for different deities, it tells how the mother figure was loved by an effeminate youth, who is was both son and lover. (79) Thus, just as the Oedipus myth reflects exactly the child's position in the paternal family, so the mother-myth reflects with extraordinary precision the position of exclusive mother fixation as it would be found in any family where there was no father. The myth usually goes on to tell how the boy is violently killed, but finally he is reborn. At the level of primitive fertility, this expresses the death of vegetation — the child of the earth — and its subsequent rebirth. At a higher level, it may express the idea that the mother must give up the child she loves in order that he may enter on a new life as a man. In these myths, the boy is frequently castrated. Thus when Osiris dies, he is cut in pieces, and the only part which is never recovered is his penis. Finally, we may note that the boy is closely associated with a tree, usually a pine — chosen perhaps because of the phallic symbolism of its cones. In some versions the boy is actually in the tree, as if he were a spirit of vegetation; in others he dies on the tree, as the leaves do, and as Christ was to do subsequently. In the Babylonian version, Tammuz, the son of Ishtar, descends into hell for three days, after his death, prior to his resurrection. (152)

Mythologically, the respect in which the worship of Dionysos differs from that of the Magna Mater is that the focus of attention has been transferred from the mother to the son. Dionysos was the son of Rhea, the mother of the gods (or, in some versions of the many-faceted Greek mythology, the son of Semele, or of Aphrodite, which was much the same thing). And, just like Attis, the son of Cybele, he was torn in pieces. Also like the various mother goddesses, he was served by Priestesses not by priests. But it was not in honour of Rhea that the rites were held, but of Dionysos. Further, although the worship of Dionysos was not itself concerned with fertility, there were close connections between this cult and the fertility ceremony of the Thesmophoria, the great spring festival held in honour of Demeter, the earth mother, in which jars of wine sealed the previous autumn, were opened and drunk, and in which Dionysos led the mystae in procession. (117)

It has been suggested that it was the mother religion which developed the idea of union with the deity as the centre of religion simply because women are (so it is said) more easily brought into the theoleptic state. This looks like explaining the cause by the effect, and the arguments already adduced will suggest another explanation. No doubt it required the Greek genius to develop a specific notion of theolepsy from the crude frenzy of primitive fertility worship; the Egyptian carried the conception still further, and the worship of Isis assumed the form of initiation into a higher wisdom, after undergoing a divine experience. As we shall see, a similar development also occurred in Greece. For the myth can also be interpreted on a higher level: the death of Dionysos may symbolize a death on the level of this world, followed by a rebirth on a higher plane. And here the loss of the penis, and the effeminate or hermaphrodite character of Dionysos, serves to show that the true service of deity always involves the abandonment of earthly desires. Uncomfortable as the idea may be to us, the sexual act itself presents such a symbolism, for sexual detumescence is a little death, and the woman is always, in some sense, the castrator of the male.

But this does not exhaust the symbolism of this powerful, myth. For as Euripides strove to show, the central problem is the control of these powerful instinctive forces by the conscious mind. As King Pentheus discovered, to try and suppress them entirely is suicidal. The attempt provokes an explosion in which all barriers are overthrown. The conscious mind must ride these forces as a man rides a powerful horse. This explains, what has puzzled so many, why the worship of Apollo at Delphi was combined with the worship of Dionysos. It was Nietzsche who started the confusion with his false antithesis between Apollonian and Dionysiac religions. Since then, numerous writers have classified not only theoleptic religions, but periods such as Romanticism, as Dionysiac; and have treated religions and periods of cerebral control (including Classicism) as being Apollonian. But Apollo was the symbol of moderation, the golden mean, the Greek conception of measure. The extremes of patrist Puritanism are not Apollonoian, while, on the other hand, the Romantics never abandoned themselves to group orgies. Apollo did not deny the unconscious, and the Delphic sibyl, who spoke from the unconscious in a state of trance, was under his aegis. Apollo and Dionysos are not opponents but partners.

The fertility ceremonies often called for sexual abstinence immediately prior to the annual rites; the theoleptic religions actually moved in the direction of demanding sexual continence as part of their programme of detaching the mind from earthly matters, but this was left to the conscience of the individual; they prescribed no punishments and set up no system of supervision. Still less did they attempt to intervene in the regulations governing married life and the civil laws governing sexual offences. Since religion was conceived as a special kind of experience, those who failed to prepare themselves suitably might fail to experience the revelation: to enforce an outward conformity without the inward desire to achieve the experience would be pointless.

In any case, by no means everyone devoted themselves to these theoleptic religions. In Greece, the bright new pantheon of Olympian gods, cheerfully brawling and wenching, gradually pushed the older fertility deities into the background, and in Rome much the same occurred. These gods cared only that they should not be spoken of disrespectfully and that the appropriate rituals should be performed. They offered no rewards for good behaviour. In Rome, indeed, the performance of rituals became almost entirely a matter for professional priests, and the ordinary man had little to do except to keep quiet. (88)

In early Rome and Greece, therefore, sexual behaviour was left largely to taste and custom. (132) Civil enactments protected individuals from abuses, such as rape. Marriage was monogamous, and for life, but only a minority of the population aspired to marriage. Husbands had property rights in their wives: a wife's adultery was severely punished by the husband, partly because it made the paternity of his children doubtful. A husband, on the other hand, could have what sexual experiences outside marriage he liked, subject only to the fact that he would incur the wrath of another husband if he seduced a married woman, and might be killed for so doing. An unmarried man was equally free. Where formal marriage was envisaged, a daughter's virginity was protected because lack of it tended to lower her marriageability, but there was no admiration of virginity as a good in itself, and among the populace a woman was free to sleep with a man at her own discretion. It follows that such a woman was not a prostitute as we use the word: she was not 'declasse', and had no sense of doing something looked down upon, whether or not she took money for her actions. (145) In Rome, the daughters of knights were forbidden to take money for sexual favours, but that was all.

That is why Seneca could say:

"He has done no wrong. He loves a prostitute — a usual thing; wait, he will improve and marry a wife."

And why Horace could actually recommend brothels, saying

"young men, when their veins are full of gross lust, should drop in there, rather than grind some husband's private mill".

It is against this background, too, that one must put the emergence of the hetaira, the witty, cultivated woman of whom Demosthenes said:

"We have wives for child-bearing, hetairae for pleasure and concubines for daily needs."

As Plautus says in the Curculio:

No Stop sign here, no Notice to Trespassers.
If you've the cash, buy anything on sale.
The highway's free to all — walk where you like
But don't make tracks through any walled reserve
Don't touch a wife, a widow or a virgin,
A youth or a freeborn child, take all the rest!

Sexual matters could, therefore, be treated without hesitation, in a way which has only been possible in Europe at a few periods.

The thought seems as fresh to us as if it had been written Yesterday, when Plautus laments in the Pseudolus:

The constant love we wear and share so near
Our fun and games and talking lip to lip
The closely strained embrace of our amorous bodies
The gentle little bites on tender mouths
The wanton pressure of tiptilted breasts —
Ah, all these pleasures which you shared with me
Are broken, wasted, ruined now forever.

In Greek literature, still more, there is much frank sexuality but little innuendo. The Greeks distributed their sexuality and were as interested in bosom and buttocks as in genitals. Not only was 'Ancient Greek' one of the epithets for Aphrodite, but they even coined a special word for the coquettish movement of the rump. (160)

The Greeks seem to have been almost entirely free from perversion; in particular, Licht reports that he has been entirely unable to find any reference to sadomasochism We can only speculate how far this was due to the satisfying character of their social structure, which seems to have bred little frustration, and how far to the existence of institutionalised outlets for sadism in the worship of Dionysos. The Greeks did, of course, wholeheartedly accept inversion — or rather, they recognized that the sexual nature of every human being contains both homosexual and heterosexual elements. They devised a suitable institutional form for its expression, as we have seen and no doubt this was a major factor in the remarkable psychological health which they enjoyed. They had no fears of nudity, and their spontaneous enjoyment of physical beauty did not stop short at the private parts. Aristophanes feels no hesitation in observing that a boy, preparing for gymnastics, did not oil himself below the navel

"so that the first tender down bloomed on his privates as it were on fresh apples".

In short, the Greeks saw in generative power not only a vitally important force, upon which man, and indeed all life, depends, but a positive miracle — something which could exist only by virtue of the presence of deity in its purest form. The procreative miracle was the ever repeated proof of the existence of God, and the sign that His aim and nature was to create life and to dispel the forces of darkness, decay and death. It was the one solid reason for optimism in a world which must have seemed to them as dangerous and destructive as our own. They approached this recurrent demonstration of God's bounty and goodwill with holy awe, and, like Cerinthus, who replied to the Fathers' horror of the phallic by saying that man should not be ashamed of what God had not been ashamed to create, they carried in religious procession symbols of phallus and pudenda in all innocence, and called the sexual parts a name meaning that which inspires holy awe. (160)

The Jews, of course, being father-worshippers, never accepted this sacramental view of sex, nor was their religion a sacramental religion. They bitterly opposed the mother religions which were popular among the surrounding tribes, and which, in the time of the early kings, threatened to engulf Judah also. Nevertheless in these early times, they also seem to have operated as a shame culture, and to have been free of unconscious sexual guilt. As far as the regulations governing sexual behaviour were concerned, Jewish law differed in only two material respects from the position as I have described it in the Graeco-Roman world. Jewish law was, in any case, derived from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi, but Moses has had the inspiration of obtaining divine sanction for it. Before he climbed Mount Sinai, Jahweh had been a local mountain deity interested only in the smoke of burnt offerings: a god of the living not of the dead. The only sexual injunction in the ten commandments is that against adultery, or the coveting of a neighbour's wife. It must be understood that in this period, just as in Rome and Greece, adultery was a property offence and meant infringing the rights of another man. It did not mean that a man should restrict his attentions to his wife: indeed when a wife proved barren, she would often give one of her handmaidens to her husband that she might bear children for him. (172) Moreover, as the Bible often reminds is, men were free to maintain mistresses ("concubines") in addition to their wives: and on the number of wives a man night have there was no restriction.

Nor was there any ban on premarital sex; it is seldom appreciated that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any prohibition of non-commercial unpremeditated fornication — apart from rape, and subject to the father's right to claim a cash interest in a virgin. Once a girl had reached the age of twelve-and-a-half years, she was free to engage in sexual activity, unless her father specifically forbade it. Prostitution, though frowned on, was common and in Jerusalem the whores were so numerous that they had their own market place. Nor in the pre-Exilic period was sodomy a crime, except when committed as part of religious worship of non-Jewish gods. (172) As we can see from Genesis xix. 5 and Judges xix. 22, it was regarded as a natural, if rather vulgar, form of debauchery. The ban in Deuteronomy xxiii. 17 refers only to the religious form, and the word translated as sodomite in the King James version of the bible is 'qadhesh', which means a priest concerned with temple prostitution. Indeed, in the time of the early kings, even the "qedheshim" became common in Judaea.

Such was the position in the first half of the millennium before Christ, but in about the year 500 B.C. a remarkable psychological change seems to have crept over the Classical world. It was a change marked first, by an increase in the amount of guilt felt, and second, by a sudden preoccupation with the after-life.

Dodds, in his very interesting work; The Greeks and the Irrational, has traced the way in which the Greeks gradually developed a sense of guilt. In Homeric times, the Greek culture was a shame culture, in which fear of losing the good opinion of others was the chief sanction. Gradually this sanction became internalised, and men came to fear the rebukes of their own conscience. In Homeric times, all the -forces which we should regard as unconscious were projected outside the self and described as gods or daimons; it was part of this process that gods appeared to reproach one for evil actions, intended or committed. The effect of this charge in specifically sexual matters is beautifully demonstrated- by the myth of Oedipus and his incestuous relationship with his mother. In the version of Sophocles, Oedipus is not only overcome with horror and guilt, but is also blinded, a common symbol of castration. This is the version of which Freud was thinking when he pointed out how the myth reflects the emotions which arise in any son's relation with his mother. But in the earlier Homeric version, Oedipus suffers no penalty or remorse; he becomes king and reigns in honour for many years. Evidently some change had taken place in the mind of the Greeks between the time when the stories which Homer collected were first composed, say 1200 B.C. and the time of Sophocles, say 500 B.C.

Romantic writers have claimed that the Greeks were wholly free of guilt. This is hardly true. We first find a word for consciousness of guilt being used in the Classical age: 'Ancient Greek' and in the same period we find a growing preoccupation with the idea of pollution: 'Ancient Greek'. (68) In Homer, it was possible to become polluted by one's own action, but it was not possible to become polluted accidentally or by infection from another. In the Classical age this fear of infection became common. In psychoanalytical practice the fear of contamination is such a well-known sign of repressed guilt that one is safe in inferring something of the sort here. And there is much evidence: the Greeks, like the Jews, held that evil deeds created their 'Ancient Greek' — a punishment which would be visited on the children if not on the father. And there was a growing fear of the jealousy of the gods, who, it was thought, would resent too much success — an obvious projection of personal fears and resentments.

The solution to which the Greeks turned was catharsis: ritual purification. And the mystery religions offered powerful rituals of this sort, in which the candidate died, his sins dying with him, and was reborn in purity.

In the same way, the early Greeks had conceived the after-life as a dim underworld existence, and had shown little interest in it. The worship of Dionysos held out no promise of personal immortality, and there was certainly no promise that man would join the gods: between the two worlds, human and divine, a great gulf was fixed. But suddenly we find a series of movements loosely known as Orphism, which asserted not merely that one could temporarily become a god through intoxication, but that one could become permanently divine through spiritual ecstasy. (117) The Orphic declared: "A god am I!" It was a religion of non-violence, asserting that all men were brothers; and it asserted that the source of evil was man's carnal appetites. He must therefore avoid flesh and beans, and avoid bloody sacrifices. Since the first Indian books appeared in Greece about 500 B.C., following the extension of Cyrus' empire to the Indus in 510, we may suspect the influence of the Vedas. (196)

Just the same change occurred among the Jews. In the early days before the return from exile, they conceived the after-life as a dim existence in which people retained the same characteristics and even clothing as in life, and if they had been wounded or disfigured the marks remained. The dead could speak and moves and they retained an interest in their living relatives. (195) At a later date, they came to believe that death was annihilation — a sleep from which there was no awaking.

"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything."

The writer of Ecclesiastes recommends a simple hedonism in face of the fact of mortality:

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God hath already accepted thy works.... Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in life.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

This is the fate which attends all classes of persons, without distinction of good or bad. It is only on the return from the Captivity that, for the first time, we begin to get references to a resurrection, to a waking from the long sleep and an entry upon a new sort of existence involving a close proximity to God. (Since Ecclesiastes was compiled in post-exilic times, it is rather remarkable that the editor should have included sentiments derived from a period evidently much earlier. He may have been an ex-patriate.)

Coupled with this, we find an astonishing change in the attitude to sexual matters, and a feeling that all pleasure, but especially sexual pleasure, is wicked. (172) Reuben speaks of

"the power of procreation and sexual intercourse with which, through love of pleasure, sin enters in...."

In Ecclesiastes we find the blame being laid on women in terms which are indistinguishable from the mediaeval:

"I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets and her hands are bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her."

And two verses later:

"Women are overcome by the spirit of fornication more than men and in their heart they plot against men."

It is significant of this hostility between the sexes that one of the crimes specifically prohibited was a woman attacking a man's genitals. (172)

Coupled with this went a drastic tightening of the regulations; whereas formerly the sexes had mingled quite freely, now it became a sin for a man to speak to, or even to look at, a woman, unless it was unavoidable, in which case a chaperon was necessary. (78) Even virginity began to be praised — "Happy is the barren that is undefiled . . . and happy is the eunuch" — whereas previously Rabbinical tradition had regarded celibacy as a crime. Josephus reports of the Essenes:

"They reject pleasure as an evil, but esteem continence and conquest over the passions to be a virtue. They neglect wedlock."

These changes were accompanied by an almost mediaeval degree of suspicion: according to one teacher, boys should not be allowed to play with girls, and a mother-in-law should not live with her married daughter for fear she might seduce her husband. Ideas of contamination became widespread, just as among the Greeks: a man might not pass within four ells of the house of a prostitute for fear of infection. (78)

From our point of view, perhaps the most diagnostic sign was the change in the attitude to homosexuality. Not only was this made a capital crime, but the law was applied to non-Jews also. The intensity of these new homosexual anxieties is perhaps best shown by the special ban upon a father appearing naked in front of his sons, though no such prohibition was thought necessary in the case of his daughters. Ham, one of Noah's sons, was condemned to perpetual slavery and his children after him — hence the subjection of the Negro race, for Ham was black. His crime was that he entered a tent and found his father lying dead drunk and naked. In general, exposure of the privates was regarded as a crime, and, in fact, as a form of incest. Total nudity was thought even more obscene and shameful. Homosexual fears seem also to be shown by the rule that a mother might kiss her sons, but not her daughters, and conversely for a father.

Since we have noted the role of masturbation taboos in producing guilt feelings, it is interesting to find that the post-Exilic Jews laid enormous stress on this. The Zohar calls it the worst sin of all; one authority declares it to be a crime meriting death. And the clerical regulations on the subject display an obsession with detail comparable with the mediaeval penitentials: for instanced Jew must not sleep on his back, wear tight trousers, or touch his penis when urinating, for fear of an involuntary discharge. (78)

The remedy which the Jews found for their new sense of guilt was an ever more scrupulous observance of the law. The desire for a postmortem existence was largely swallowed up in their desire for a national resurgence or resurrection, and their apocalyptic works foreshadow not so much a happy after-life as the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, with Judah in an especially favoured position.

In the great Mediterranean civilisations, however — Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia — religion concerned itself more and more with preparation for an after-life. Its general method was to try to induce in the candidate a special kind of experience which would leave him with a conviction of the reality of postmortem existence and which also seems to have induced a sense of the kinship of all life, for these "mystery" religions were always pacifist in character. To do this, men explored in a systematic manner the various ways in which abnormal psychological states could be induced: hypnosis, flagellation, fasting, whirling dances, the inhalation of fumes, the contemplation of sacred objects, special music — all these, singly and in combination, were employed by the mystery religions to produce a religious experience. (117)

But it should not be supposed that this was done lightly. The sacred ceremonies were preceded by elaborate preparations, especially when new members were to be initiated. Such candidates were required to fast, to preserve absolute continence, to confess their sins, to undergo a ceremonial purification by water and the spirit (baptism) and to show their seriousness of mind by making sacrifices or financial contributions. In some cases they were required to undertake penitential pilgrimages: Apuleius has left us a vivid account of his wanderings from brine to shrine. In others, the celebrant was required to practise austerities and rigorous ablutions. Juvenal tells us of a devotee of Isis:

"She will break the ice and descend into the river in winter; thrice a morning she will bathe in the Tiber and lave her tumid head in its very depths. Then, with bleeding knees, she will creep, naked and shivering, over the Whole length of the Campus Martius."

Nothing could be further from the truth than to suppose, as some Christian writers would have us do, that the mystery or theoleptic religions were simply glorious free-for-alls. In point of fact, in this later period, the use of sex and drink as psychic stimulants had in most cases been abandoned, and Christian writers, anxious to blacken the mystery religions, were forced to dig up, from the practices of many hundreds of years earlier, details which even the historians of the period, such as Varro, confessed difficulty in ascertaining.

Nor should it be supposed that the experience of divinity was attained easily or often. Plotinus had the beatific vision only four times during Porphyry's stay with him, while Porphyry himself tells us that he attained it only once, at the age of 68. This refers, of course, not simply to enthusiasm but to ecstasy — "Men going out of themselves to be wholly established in the Divine and to be enraptured" as Proclus puts it. Ecstasy, it seems, could be of a passive or trance like character, or it could take an active, orgiastic form — the form which Plato calls "divine frenzy". It is to this frenzy that the word orgy refers.

The world seems to have been in a strange and uneasy state during these centuries, beset by hopes and fears. A few were rationalists and stoutly denied all deity and postmortem existence but most clove to the hope that personal immortality was possible.

It is tempting to see, in this craving for the prolongation of personal individuality, the consequence of a new sharpening of man's awareness of his own individuality. The primitive mind seems to live in a continuous state of awareness of the minds of the other members of the clan, and a hurt to one member is instantly perceived as a hurt to all. But at some stage in social evolution, men come to see their own independence from the group, their freedom to act as they wish, regardless of custom and the desires of others. It is a state of affairs which not only creates problems for society; it also creates problems for the individual, who pays for his new autonomy with a sense of isolation and abandonment. (127) His first reaction to this may be to engage in ceremonies involving others, group rituals, so as to strengthen and renew his sense of community: and perhaps he also assuages his loneliness by plunging into sensual excesses, numbing the unconscious loneliness as a man numbs his sorrow by drinking, and closing his mind to the terrors of annihilating death, by eating, drinking and wenching. But when the rumour reaches him that perhaps death is but the door to a new life, then how ardently must he perform whatever actions are necessary to ensure his escape from this loneliness into a future existence in which he will be embraced by God's love and assured of the company of the blest!

The guarantee of the reality of this future existence was the vouchsafing of a genuine experience of unity with all life in the present. And since the initiate observed that gross and sensual men do not ordinarily attain to this experience, he concluded, no doubt with reason, that asceticism is the better course. Hence we find eroticism giving place to asceticism. But since the majority of men cannot, or will not, attain to this experience, we also find a growing popularity for the mother religions, and the development of their ritual in ever more sensual forms.

As social units grow larger, and society more disorganised, we may suppose this sense of isolation to become inflamed, and in some such way we can account for the Roman senate's deliberate import of the mother religions into Rome in the two centuries before Christ. The Jews, it is true, kept clear of the erotic solution — which they could not have admitted without sacrificing their whole religion — though it would seem that they had some trouble in preventing Jews seceding to the other religion of their Canaanite neighbours. But by the second century B.C. we find them also evolving ascetic sects, such as the Essenes and, later, that celibate group of which John the Baptist was leader.

Man seems, for the first time, to have begun to secrete a barrier of partition both between the rational and intellectual part of his mind, and between the rational and emotional. As he becomes more and more able to use his reason, he becomes more and more obtuse about his emotional drives and attitudes, which have now become unconscious. They emerge to the extent that they continue to affect his behaviour, but he no longer understands why he is impelled to certain actions, and sometimes he is even blind to the very fact that his actions tend to a particular direction. This process has been called the raising of the limen (threshold) and represents a shutting off or denying of the irrational. To treat the irrational as caused by gods (whose motives are presumably rational in their own eyes) is a way of dealing with these irrational forces and making them less alarming. As the Greeks turned to euhemerism, this solution failed, and the alternative which offered was to deny their existence, the alternative of rationalists everywhere. Projection was replaced by repression.

But the cost was great, and especially where the destructive drives were concerned. Even among the Greeks, with their strong tradition of balance and civilized behaviour, we find an enormous increase in destructive magical techniques in the centuries immediately before Christ. (68) In Rome, the position was perhaps worse. Although sadism had not yet reached the appalling excesses of Nero, the public games were taking on a steadily more degrading character. Sadism also appeared in personal relationships, as we can judge from poets such as Propertius. Knowing as much as we do of the frightful spectacles of savagery which were to be enacted, with every mark of public acclaim, in a century's time, it is legitimate to see sinister elements in Propertius' account of what happened when the prostitute whom he loved, Cynthia, returned and found him with two other girls.

I relished fighting with you in the lamplight
Last night and hearing all your furious oaths
Why throw the table down, when mad with liquor,
And wildly hurl the wineglasses at me?
Come, come, attack my hair in your savage temper
And scratch my features with your pretty nails!
Dearest, threaten to burn my eyes to ashes,
Split my robe wide open and bare my breast.
Surely all these are signs of a true passion:
May those who know me see the marks of biting
And bruises which betray a happy love!
In love I want to weep or see you weeping:
To agonize or hear your agony.
I hate a sleep never broken by sighing....

Cynthia seems to have been a woman of impetuous, even commanding character, of the sort whom Sacher Masoch, so much later, wished to serve: she was known for driving her own horses at full speed down the Appian way, and one may perhaps suspect elements of masochism in Propertius' love.

It seems, in short, that the ancient world was in a state of increasingly great distress in the five centuries before the Christian era. That distress led in Palestine to a tightening up of the patriarchal morality, in Rome to the break-up of traditional morality. Greece, Egypt, Babylon were equally affected. A phenomenon so widespread cannot convincingly be attributed to economic factors or to changes of social structure: though these were present, one must see behind them some decisive change in the human psyche — the emergence of a conflict which could be palliated, perhaps, but not healed.