Thanks to all the publicity generated from Dan Brown’s fast-paced novel, The Davinci Code, millions have been introduced to the term, Sacred Marriage. However, his rather exciting description in the story is based on some unknown--very likely made-up--idea. Countless people have been stimulated by all the hype generated, yet I have not seen an article or main-stream book that truly gives the historical basis for the Sacred Marriage.
So here is mine: The Sacred Marriage by May Sinclair copyright 2006
Our historical knowledge of the Sacred Marriage has several renditions. The earliest known is from Mesopotamia, an area that is often indiscriminately called Babylonia or Assyria. In the ancient Near East super-natural powers were of an in-dwelling spirit, causing everything to be and to thrive. The spirit within a leafy or fruit-bearing tree or grove was female. In Babylon and Ugarit the Goddess of the tree or grove was called Ashratum, in southern Arabia she was named Atharath, while in Canaan the Goddess Asherah was depicted as “The Tree of Life”. Initially religions were based on fertility. One of the first people we know about in Mesopotamia, called Sumerians, were not local to the area, but, per their mythology, arrived from the Persian Gulf bringing knowledge of astronomy. The Sumerians worshiped a Sky-goddess, but merged their beliefs with that of the indigenous people venerating an Earth-goddess. They conducted a rite called the Sacred Marriage where a male consort was chosen annually by the Goddess incarnate to both protect and ensure abundances to her people. Without a doubt, the Sumerian Goddess was not part of an agricultural resurrection duo but was a solitary originating principle. Until sometime after the 4th millennium BCE (before current era), all of Mesopotamia was a theocratic Goddess worshiping, socialistic, matriarchal society. But that changed.
Mesopotamia was an area of great upheaval throughout several millennia. The agriculturists had enormous amounts of land dedicated to their Goddess. As pastoral peoples entered the area--peacefully or as invaders--with their herds, problems arose from differences in economic purposes. The nomads wanted open pastures and the Sumerians wanted enclosed lands to grow crops. To advance peace mercenaries were take-on from some of the semi-nomadic tribes and control was initially maintained over their hired warriors. But while retaining Indo-European traditions many of the newcomers also absorbed much of the Sumerian culture. In due course, becoming Mesopotamian kings themselves, the conflicts were between the earlier and later arrived nomadic groups.
The power held by the temples of the Sumerians was not usurped by secular or military authority for numerous centuries and only then because of the stress and anxiety caused by the ever increasing numbers of migratory groups all competing for the goods. Often the nomads moved into the area and simply accepted the traditions they found in place, but when there were religious difficulties efforts were made to have whatever deities they worshiped be added to the group of recognized goddesses and gods making up the Sumerian’s official pantheon. Or various aspects of their deities would be subsumed, meaning they were merged with those already present by using similar stories about each to integrate the newcomers.
Still, there is an important difference between the worship of gods in hunter societies who believed their priests, when in a trance, experienced transportation to the spiritual world and that of agricultural communities believing the Goddess entered into their priestess’ body when engaged in rituals. From the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven was the astral deity linked to the planet Venus. Wearing a horned headdress signifying the moon, she was also symbolized by an eight pointed star and a ring post.
The Sumerian’s Sacred Marriage ceremony started with invocational singing as the Goddess descended into the High-priestess’ body. Once the Goddess entered the priestess a ritual bath took place as love songs were sung. Next the Goddess met her gift-bearing bridegroom at the gate and opened the door to him. Originally taking place in the abode of the Earth-goddess, a greenery adorned reed hut called a gigunu, the High-priestess, as the incarnated Goddess, declared the fate of her potential consort. Only when she favored the powerless priest, who had no authority of his own, was he next led to the wedding chamber where seated on a throne was crowned as her divine consort just before consummation of the marriage. The fertility of the entire area depended on the Sacred Marriage being correctly enacted at that holy place.
The Sumerians moved the gigunu atop the Temple ziggurat or stepped pyramid that represented the Cosmos, but much later the ziggurat was considered to be the home of a Mountain-god. Not until a strong male Nature-god was included in the ritual was the ziggurat considered a mountain top where the God was appeased and appealed to for preventing natural or man-made disasters. And it was only after the Akkadians moved out of Arabia into Mesopotamia in the mid-3rd millennium that the priestesses ultimately offered military and political advice received from the deities through oracles.
The Goddess was first worshiped as a solitary originating principle generating the gifts of life and abundance when incarnated into a woman priestess who expressed it through demonstrations of sex and birth. The Goddess, being a principle rather than a person, spread her abundance through sexual encounters with numerous virile young men. There are several legends of the Goddess and her lovers found in literature through-out the Near East. The stories suggest that the High-priestess chose a young lover who became her consort for the term of a year and was then sacrificed. The Sacred Marriage took place when the New Year Festival was celebrated at the Spring Equinox around March 21. Both human and vegetative seeds were sown. Parts of the festivities were enacted before the joyous people. The mystical part of the ceremony was conducted privately inside the gigunu. The Goddess exhibited her ability to bestow abundance through the sex act and its subsequent pregnancy. Throughout the summer the crops and baby grew. The harvested fields were celebrated at the Vernal or autumn Equinox on September 21, with the birth of the semi-divine child being rejoiced at the winter Solstice around December 21.
The mystical marriage and references to a bridegroom must not be confused with modern western ideas about marriage. The Goddess was not considered to be a wife nor mother figure. Rather, she was an originating principle that entered into a human priestess who then conferred abundance to her people as it was expressed through the sex act. Sex was a gift to humanity. It was sacred. The incarnation of the Goddess never had a long term husband. None of the rites performed in the temples were to show how marital relationships best work. They were expressions of the ever occurring seasons and a reassurance of the earth’s abundance. Attempts to alter that idea were made by the nomadic tribes insisting on their male God being an equal partner in creation. None-the-less, religious ideas and ideals are not easily over-turned--even by gods-of-might.
The earliest cities, Ur, Uruk, and Eridu found in the very southern part of Mesopotamia all grew up around a Temple. There were a number of titles for the priestesses and priests within religious orders of the ancient Sumerians, such as En and Naditu. One of the significant things about them is the women were not allowed to bear children although some were married. Like the Goddess Inanna, the priestesses remained childless. Yet, only after the Mesopotamian kings came from the nomadic tribes, was any child born to a priestess exposed to the elements and its fate.
Sargon of Akkad, who ruled during 2300 BCE, was rescued after being left to die at birth because his mother was a priestess at Kish. Other rulers born before and after Sargon claimed partial divinity from their goddess mothers, but were not exposed to infanticide. During Sargon’s period of history a priestess, as the incarnation of the Goddess, was only allowed to conceive a child during the Sacred Marriage to continue the hereditary rights of the reigning God-king. When Sargon obtained rites to divinity without being part of the reigning king’s family he raised a political challenge.
The Priest-kings were only incorporated into the Sacred Marriage, becoming the personification of a god between 2310-1651 BCE, when each king was deified during the ceremony to become divine throughout his lifetime. The Goddess was no longer solitary, ensuring abundances to her people during the Sacred Marriage, when her priestess was conferring divinity onto the king. During the altered ritual the Goddess Inanna, as an En, determined the qualifications of the aspirant ruler. Babylonian tables note Inanna had sexual intercourse with the king and through her cosmic power ensured his authoritative potency.
Originally the Sumerian religion indicated that all property, including land, belonged to the goddesses of the cities. Temple personnel were only the administrators and therefore nothing under their control could be bought or sold, only distributed. With the advent of gods-of-might, the concept of everything belonging to both the gods and goddesses remained, except the administrators were authorized to buy and sell everything on behalf of the deities. A city was theoretically the property of its main deity, so the Goddess had to be displaced for the God and his city to be identified together. The Temple was rededicated to the City-god while other shrines or smaller temples were built for his wife and children. Still, the Goddess continued to be the instrument used to secure kingship. On numerous Babylonian tablets there are inscriptions that clearly show the Goddess retained control of kingship__not the king.
All classes and cultures supplied daughters to the religious orders, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Assyrians. En, being either a male or female, was the spiritual head of the Temple, but holding the title involved more than participating in the religious rites of the Sacred Marriage. By the time the mystical marriage involved both religious and political functions the En was making decisions other than those of a spiritual nature. Certainly judgments were made at times other than when the Goddess incarnated into the High-priestess’ body. Eventually a female En was chosen because she was related to the reigning king.
It took thousands of years, but ultimately the priestesses were merely serving Nanna-Sin, the Moon-god as they represented the Goddess, Ningal, his wife and the mother of Utu or Samas, the Sun-god. Goddesses and gods living in the temples inside the cities were of the essence found within principles like truth and beauty, as well as cosmic phenomena such as the sun, moon, and earth. The Moon-goddess represented the power of creativity, but was superceded by a Sun-god when male power initiated the social move from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. Property changed from being communal to personal--belonging to a god and king.
As often as the cities were sacked in Mesopotamia, they were rebuilt to allow business as usual for everyone. It was when the social structure went from a theocratic, socialist community to that of a hierarchical state, with a king at its head, that a change in the status of the goddesses and women are noted. Because the Goddess, called the “keeper of the storehouse” required constant protection, the Lugal, meaning great man, increased his standing to become a king. As military and economic powers were joined under the authority of the kings, the Lugal was inducted as an En priest, taking part in the Sacred Marriage. Ultimately accepting divinity for himself, the king succeeded in taking control of the temples’ earlier economic position and declared all lands belonged to the City-gods. His new power allowed him to take precedence over the Goddess and her priestesses. As the title and prerogatives of the Lugal progressed to permanent kingship it was inherited through dynastic royal succession with the palaces rivaling the temples’ wealth and influence. The Lugal, who controlled the judicial and military domains, when adding the obligations of an En that included the provinces of magic and ritual, took on the responsibilities for fertility and abundance of the harvests.
By then the New Year sacrifice included the king being held accountable for a good harvest. Sympathetic magic was correlated to the tears of the king bringing sufficient rain. A Babylonian tablet reports that if the king did not cry during the rituals it was a bad omen for the year. Eleven days prior to the Spring Equinox, as part of the New Year festival, the king, after being stripped of his insignia of office, was brought into the Temple’s inner sanctuary to be humiliated and struck. After his symbols of office were returned he was struck again. A tearful king signified that the deity was pleased. It was not until the first millennium BCE, at the point where the Sacred Marriage became only one phase of the New Year festival celebration, that the original separate rites of the Sacred Marriage and those specifically relating to the harvest were merged together.
Throughout three millennia the various law codes concerned the sacred women of the temples--their property, businesses, legal, and inheritance rights. As time progressed the laws became ever stricter for married women, yet worship of the goddesses and the sexual practices in their temples did not stop. Marriage to a man was separate from a woman’s sacred duty to perform sexual obligations in the Temple of the Goddess. The Goddess began as an originating principal. With the introduction of each male orientated or dominated society into Mesopotamia, her position was reduced until she ultimately ended up as a wife and mother figure supporting her consort and son by conferring semi-divine status to the kings.
Our second version of the Sacred Marriage--the one more or less referred to by Dan Brown--is quite different. It comes from the idea that males can only gain spirituality from females. In India we can look at the Kali and Shiva cult, which is a merger of yogic practices with the mysteries of the goddess concept connected to the cosmic eon, that included vulva and phallic worship along with human sacrifice. Sexual intercourse was believed to increase a god’s psychic powers so sages were trained to control their sexual actions__prolonging coitus without ejaculation. It was while participating in the Sacred Marriage that man gained renewal or immortality through the Goddess. The ceremony in India included the Goddess Kali placing a wreath of flowers on her bride-groom’s head or giving him an apple. Together the Kali priestesses and priests performed the Great Rite where the incarnated Kali initiated her consort Shiva into eternal union. Tantric poets said no man could know the Goddess until he also knew her death aspect, thus her consort, ritually slain, became the God incarnate--ever dying--ever-living.
Originally the Triple-goddess Kali was the creator, preserver, and destroyer, giving birth to time itself along with methods of measuring it: years, months, seasons, days of the week, twilight, night, dawn, and the lunar eons. With inclusion of the mathematically determined belief that earthly catastrophes are caused by planetary deviation, said to have originated by the Babylonians and Chaldeans, Indian conjecture established a version of its timing that equaled 12,000 years. The Great Year, originally based on the lunar cycle and its eclipse-predicting eon was changed to involve the earth in a universal apocalyptic revolution. The Goddess, thus altered, at a given point would protract into her dark and unformed aspect and the earth would be destroyed until she spoke the primal Word to create a new world. The change to a patriarchal position in India caused the female trinity to be superceded by a male one--Shiva. Kali first lost her Triple-goddess status to her consort Shiva, and then eventually her cosmic position to the Aryan Brahmin’s Brahma, successfully adjusting the Hindu trinity to become that of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
That changed, too. By the mid-500’s BCE Buddhism took over. Buddha taught life is pain that comes from desire while wisdom is gained by halting all desire. Still, Buddhists believed a man could gain illumination by practicing Tantric rites because enlightenment resides in the sexual part of women. Unfortunately sexual desire was also considered evil because it leads to reproduction that stretches out the chain of life in reincarnation after reincarnation.
Another adaptation of the Sacred Marriage took place in the Jerusalem Temple. As in India, the Hebrews did now allow male priests to be unmarried because their invocations and spells would be ineffectual. Their wives provided them with spirit. The basic philosophy being that only through sexual union can either a God or a man gain contact to spirit and the reality of existence. An enlightened man gains apprehension through his feelings that are awakened by the awareness of his physical senses.
The palace and Temple in Jerusalem had all the splendors of Phoenician architecture along with the wisdom literature of Egypt and Arabia. Even having a serpent__the Jerusalem Temple was a vision of God’s paradise. Its doors and walls were decorated with palm trees, flowers, and Cherubim. There were twelve pairs of Cherubim: on the Ark, the veil separating the Holy of Holies, and on the ten sets of curtains. The location of the most sacred Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem Temple that housed the Cherubim-decorated Ark containing the images of Yahweh and his consort was called the Devir. Like the monarchs of the surrounding nations, the Davidic kings enacted the Sacred Marriage to ever restore fertility to the land. As in Mesopotamia the Goddess of the Hebrews initially held the cosmic power that she ultimately bestowed onto the king. And like the Great Rite in India, the merging of female and male in coitus, represented the Sacred Marriage of the Hebrew God Yahweh with Asherah__renamed Shekhinah__his female counterpart.
The Hieros Gamos, which is Greek for Sacred Marriage, was altered significantly when Alexander the Great opened up the East to the West. Western invasions brought wealth from the Orient, but constant war and its upheaval caused a desire for a personal religion that could supply inner peace. The state supported religions offered little to individuals, so there was a resurgence of mystery-religions that used the same methods developed by ancient shamans to bring individuals into a another state of consciousness. As early as the 10th century BCE, the mystery-religions introduced the cult of the Minoan Fertility-god, Dionysus into Greece. The Dorian’s Father-god Zeus also joined into the struggle for a piece of the mystery-religion’s action and fees. A number of stories were relayed about Zeus, Dionysus, and the Titans who were the human descendants of the Goddess Gaia and her consort Uranus. Sometime during the 5th century BCE, the Orphites moralized the myth that humans, being evil from the Titans and divine from Dionysus, had to be liberated from the evil of matter. The Orphic movement, as well as the Dionysian cults, practiced the Sacred Marriage rite, but there was a problem for the men who desired more intimacy with and equality from God. First some of the Gnostics and then later Christians said the stories were allegorical__meaning there was a hidden spiritual meaning surpassing the literal interpretation of the sacred message. Symbolism was developed to change the physical acts of the sacramental marriage into a union of the soul with God. The Sacred Marriage rite no longer belonged to the group; instead it was transferred to the soul, with the individual receiving the benefits previously offered to the community or city.
It must be added that the Sacred Marriage might not have completely disappeared into mere symbolic interpretation. On November 12, 1990 Japan’s Emperor Akihito, may have participated in the rite as part of his enthronement coronation ceremonies, Sokui Rei Seiden NoGi. In Shinto tradition the sexual union between the female and male is linked to the continuance of the fruitfulness of the earth. And it is the Goddess that legitimizes a new male ruler’s power while transforming him into a living God. Emperor Akihito’s coronation included a young women being placed within the inner sanctuary of the Shinto Shrine along with a Shinza-couch considered to be the resting place for the Sun-goddess.
If you enjoyed this essay you can learn more about history by reading my latest book,
Infamous Eve, A History May Sinclair, PdD