Erotic Symbolism: A Western World-View

Oriental & Mediterranean Ancient Erotic Symbolism

villamystery2_small3,187 words

The theme of an original duality or polarity related to that of the sexes occurs in the traditions of almost all cultures. This duality is sometimes expressed in purely metaphysical terms, sometimes in that of divine or mythological figures, cosmic elements, principles, gods, and goddesses.

It seemed evident to the early historians of religion of recent times that this was due to anthropomorphism. In their opinion, as man had created his gods in his own image, so also he had transferred to them the sexual differentiation proper to the mortal beings of this earth; and therefore all those dualities and divine dichotomies were but the product of imagination and human sexual experience was their only real content.

The truth is just the opposite. Traditional man endeavored to discover in divinity itself the secret and essence of sex. For him the sexes, prior to their physical existence, were present as super-personal forces, as transcendent principles; before appearing in nature they existed for him in the sphere of the sacred, of the cosmic, of the spiritual. It was in the multifarious variety of divine figures, differentiated as gods and goddesses, that he tried to seize the essence of the eternal masculine and of the eternal feminine, of which the opposite sexualization of mankind is but a reflex and one particular manifestation.

And therefore the views of the historians of religion to which we have referred, must be inverted. Instead of human sex affording the basis from which to see what there is of truth and reality in the sexually differentiated mythological and divine figures, the key to an understanding of the deeper and more universal aspects of sex in man and woman is to be found precisely in these figures.

But in addition to this we have many examples of doctrines which starting from the two principles, the male and the female, have explained the process and the various stages of the world made manifest, taking, moreover, those two principles as the basis for a special morphological understanding of the inner side of the phenomena of the nature, spirit, and life of man, both as an individual and as a community.

The most notable example of such teaching is afforded perhaps by the Chinese doctrine of the yang and the yin. Yang and yin correspond indeed to the cosmic male and female; they are the two fundamental determinations or categories (erh-hsi) of reality, as well as the two chief forces which, in their various combinations and forms of equilibrium, define the nature and specific form of all that exists within and outside man. Thus we find already in the I Ching, the fundamental text of the whole Chinese tradition, the possible combinations of the signs of yang and yin variously grouped in trigrams and hexagrams, presented as the keys to an understanding of all the processes and transformations of the world made manifest.

The doctrine of Hindu metaphysical Tantrism on Shiva and Shakti or other equivalent deities, is much the same. They express the metaphysical duality of pure motionless being and of power-substance or power-life. Uniting with power-life as with his spouse (Shakti has the double meaning of power and of spouse) the God gives rise to manifestation. Just as in the Far-Eastern conception yang and yin are omnipresent and determining, so likewise in the Hindu conception powers and conditions going back to Shiva and Shakti, to the cosmic male and female, are everywhere in act in reality. Thus a text makes the goddess say: “As in the universe everything is at the same time Shiva and Shakti, so Thou O Mahesvara [the male god] art everywhere and I am everywhere. Thou art in everything and I am in everything.”[1]

We find likewise in the ancient Western world several equivalent conceptions: the duality of matter and form (Aristotle and Plato) of nous and pysche of ous the eternal being and ousia the substance power of the eternal masculine, which bring us back to the same order of ideas.[2] To this conception we are equally brought back by all sexually differentiated figures of mythology and of the cults of the ancient world.

In the following considerations we would like to fix our attention on a special application of these ideas, touching, on the one hand, the philosophy of civilization, and on the other the ideals of spiritual realization. For this purpose we shall start from a specific theme of sexual symbolism. On the first point we owe to Bachofen[3] the most important contribution to a “sexology of civilization,” that is an attempt to group systematically the various forms of worship, ethics, outlook on life, conception of the beyond, of law, of social institutions on the basis of the special relation ascribed to the two principles of the primordial dyad, the cosmic male and female, by the several cultures or several stages of a same culture.

The great morphological antithesis with which we are thus confronted is that between the uranian and the tellurian cultures, between the culture of the Mother or of the Great Goddess (Magna Mater Deorum) and the culture of the Father, or of the male Olympic God. As a social reflex of these two fundamental conceptions, characterized by the preeminence of the female (demetric or aphroditic) principle, or of the male principle we have the gynaecocratic or the androcratic type of society; a duality of which, however, the matriarchal or the patriarchal societies are only the extreme cases, for a civilization may develop under the female symbol without being necessarily a matriarchy.

The fertility of the leading ideas set forth by Bachofen as early as the last century, and applied by him essentially to the study of the ancient Mediterranean world, has not been adequately grasped, though several other later scholars in their more specialized researches have come to similar conclusions, often without perceiving it. It has not even been noted that starting from the same premises valuable clues can be found for comparative research in fields that Bachofen had hardly taken into consideration, i.e., in the study of different forms of spiritual, mystical, or initiatic experiences. In fact, it is well known to the student of the science of religion, that in this field too, sexual symbolism has played a large and important part. In a way, even Christian mysticism has adopted the symbolism of marriage, speaking of the “bridegroom,” and of the “bride,” and of a spiritual wedding. This last idea is but a sublimated reflex of the motif of the hieros gamos, so widely spread both in the ancient world and in the Orient.

Now, it may come as a surprise what wealth of significance we can associate in this field with a special form of symbolism which to the uninitiated may seem rather shocking, the symbolism of the inverted embrace. This symbolism can be studied within the frame of two traditions, the paleo-Mediterranean and the Hindu.

On the one hand we have the Egyptian goddess Nut. This ancient Egyptian goddess is one of those representations of the cosmic feminine who, like Isis herself, seems originally to have had a telluric significance, i.e., an essential relation with the Earth, but who in the course of time acquired a celestial character and a supremacy in a gynaecocratic conception of the universe. Identified by Plutarch with Rhea, the Great Goddess of the Mediterranean area, Nut appears at a given moment as the “great Lady who gave birth to the gods,” the “Lady of Heaven, the Sovereign of the two Earths,” who sways the papyrian scepter and holds the key of life. Now, in one of the most frequent representations, Nut is “she who bends”: “almost always nude, she arches her body until she touches the earth with her finger tips, while her legs and arms seem the pilasters supporting her horizontally placed body.” Nut in this posture is the sky, and she is not alone: stretched on the ground beneath her is Geb, conceived as the god of the earth (thus with inverted meanings, for the sky had always been referred to the male, the earth to the female element) with the male organ erect, and the whole image leaves no doubt that Nut is about to lower herself and lie on the supine god to join with him and take him into her flesh in the sacred union, the sacred mixis of Heaven and Earth. Pestalozza, to whom we owe this description, rightly notes that the unusual inverted position of the goddess in the embrace adumbrates a definite symbolical ritual meaning. This position is met with not only of the Egyptian representations but it recurs also in the Sumerian and Elamitie world, and in the bas-relief of Laussel it takes us back to the Paleolithic age. The principle of female sovereignty finds in it a curiously drastic expression. The superimposed position of the goddess signifies ritually the prevalence of the female element in a gynaecocratically directed culture, her supremacy affirmed and asserted in the very exercise of the act through which life is perpetuated.[4]

But there is also a spiritual counterpart of this situation. It is to be found in the ancient Mediterranean Mysteries in which the source of the sacrum was recognized in the Divine Woman, the Great Goddess—Demeter, Cybele, Mylitta, Ishtar, etc.—and the participation in it was linked with orgiastic forms that led to ecstatic devirilizing states. It was thus that at the climax of frenzy in the rites celebrated in the mysteries of some of these goddesses—especially of Cybele—the devotee went so far as to emasculate himself, a brutal and insane act, in which one can nevertheless see the material symbol of a form of ecstasy implying dissolution of the male principle, the very opposite of a supernatural integration of the ego, the personality. This “spiritual feminization” is confirmed by some details of the ritual, such as the female apparel worn by the initiates and priests of some of these cults, and also by the fact that often these goddesses had only priestesses assigned to their worship. In some cases “sacred prostitution” was practiced. By copulating in a sacrament with the priestesses or with the consecrated virgins (the so-called parthenoi hieroi) in whose shape the goddess was invoked, one expected to obtain participation with the sacrum.

If we move to the East we find the archaic continuity of these forms of gynaecocracies, for the substratum of pre-Aryan India and its ramifications show the importance given to the central motif of a female divinity, a great Goddess, often worshipped, in India also, with orgiastic rites. But just as in the ancient Mediterranean world the gynaecocracies with their cults and mysteries found themselves faced by the spirituality of the purely Hellenic stock descended from the North, directed toward androcracies and Olympic divinities, so again in India we witness a decided shift in the outlook, which occurred even in the schools that most felt the influence of the pre-Aryan heredity, such as Hindu and Indo-Tibetan Tantrism. A significant indication of this may be found precisely in the motif of the inverted embrace, of which we find traces also in the cultures directed towards androcracy, but with a totally opposite meaning. In passing, it may be mentioned that this type of embrace was condemned by the Islamic peoples in a definite symbolic context, because it is said: “Cursed be he who makes of woman the sky and of man the earth.”[5] But in Hindu and Indo-Tibetan iconography the representation of the divine couple in viparita-maithuna are well known and very frequent. This is the name given to an embrace characterized by the immobility of the man and the movement of the woman, therefore repeating substantially the Egyptian representations of Nut and Geb. Here, however, the same symbol is used to express the opposite idea of male sovereignty.

The reference is essentially to the doctrine of the Sankhya on the metaphysical dyad purushaprakriti. Purusha is the spiritual male principle, “inactive,” immobile; like the “motionless motor” of Aristotle, who is pure being which, by its mere presence, by a kind of catalytic action causes motion, the becoming in “nature,” prakriti, conceived as the cosmic feminine principle and the material cause of creation. The Tantric and other schools have taken up these views again; hence the symbolism of Siva and of other deities of the “purushic” type, represented as joined in an embrace with his Shakti (his “bride” or demiurgic force), in which the active role is played by the woman. The idea expressed by this erotic symbolism is that real virility does not act in a material way; it only awakens movement, commands it (whence also the Tibetan symbol of Vajradhara, the “Scepter-bearer,” who in this iconography often takes the place of Siva), gathers the fruit as the enjoyer; movement in itself as pure dynamism; as “desire,” as “energy” directed outward without having in itself its own principle, it belongs instead to the feminine principle, cosmologically to nature, prakriti or Shakti, the material cause of the manifestation, its “mother”: not to Siva, the motionless Scepter-bearer. We thus have a complete inversion of meanings, not only in relation to the conceptions of gynaecocracy, but also, and perhaps even more, to those of modern activism and of the Western “religions of life.” The latter, directed towards a philosophy of becoming rather than of being, seem in spite of all appearances, really to have lost the sense of what virility is in its superior manifestations.

The following remark should also be made: if we run through the leading Hindu treatises on profane eroticism, such as the Kamasutra and the Anangaranga, it would not seem that the viparita-maithuna is a position much in use in the current love manifestations of those countries. It would seem, therefore, to belong essentially to a symbolic and ritualistic plane, and to have the value of mudra or asana in order to express the meaning above referred to. But this holds good not only in iconography.

As is known, sexual magic and sexual Yoga appear in Tantrism. They are a part of the so-called secret ritual, of the Hindu pancatattva, of Vajrayana or Buddhist Tantrism and of the Sahajiya schools. Here by means of a special regime of the embrace the actual sexual experience with a young woman, consecrated and carefully trained, becomes paradoxically one of the techniques for obtaining the existential rupture on the level, liberation, participation in the Unconditioned. Now, one of the names by which this practice is known is lata-sadhana; lata is the name given to the woman used in these rites, in which she acts as an incarnation of the Devi, of Sakti, Durga or Tara. The literal meaning of lata is liane, climbing plant, which refers to one of the postures of the viparita-maithuna (here equivalent to latavestitaka and vrikshadhirudhaka). We thus see that even in the real initiatic use of the woman, the special ritual posture gives the tone to a particular spiritual trend that may be considered as in net opposition to the ecstatic participations in the sacrum as they are administered by the gynaecocratic Mysteries. This notion is corroborated by other points. In the sexual sadhana of the Vajrayana we find among the meanings that the human couple is to incarnate ritually those of upaya for the man, and of vidya, prajna of bodhi for the woman[6]; those are two principles on which a cosmological as well as a yogic interpretation is conferred by that doctrine; it is from their union that perfect liberation springs. Now, the anti-ecstatic active nature of this achievement is clearly shown by the fact that a passive, feminine character is attributed to the enlightening and transfiguring force, to the knowledge or wisdom—vidya, prajna—it is like the woman in the nuptial embrace in which the role of the male is instead played by the “operating power,” upaya.

There is yet another point to consider. The Mahayanic doctrine of the trikaya, of the three “bodies” of the Buddha, is known. Now the doctrine of the Vajrayana teaches that the non-dual state, the supreme achievement that can be attained by means of sexual practices and which is associated with sahajasukha or paramahasukha can lead still further; there is indeed talk of a “fourth body,” sukha-kaya, in which the ecstatic state or nirvana—if conceived as a transcendency detached from the world—is surpassed. In that “body” the Buddha, joined in a “sublime embrace—alingara—with the Shakti, possesses along with perfect enlightenment—sambodhi—also the root or primordial power of all manifestation.[7] This might be described as a super-ascetic realization which leads beyond the dualism of samsara and nirvana, the exact opposite of all pantheistic dissolution, of all naturalistic ecstasy under the sign of the demetric and telluric Magna Mater.

One last hint may be offered by the ethics of the Vira, Kaula, and Siddha, that is to say of the Hindu Tantric schools of the “left hand way”—vamacara—which employ the “secret ritual,” with maithuna. We have here an ethic of the “superman,” that would make the theories of Nietzsche turn pale. He who travels along this path is dvandvatita, that is to say superior to all opposites (good and evil, shame and honor, merit and demerit, etc.), not only as a detached being but also as svecchacari, that is as a man for whom his own will is the only law, for whom all the laws, rules, and rites of the ordinary “bound” man, pasu, have lapsed. This may of course lead to dangerous deviations. The path—as a text states—may be compared to walking on a razor edge or to riding a tiger.[8] However, as for the corresponding spiritual atmosphere, there can be no doubt about an absolutely “virile” attitude, an attitude all the more important as we are here dealing at the same time with schools in which the Shakti, in its various epiphanies and cratophanies plays an essential part.

Even this brief excursion into the world of paleo-Mediterranean and Oriental traditions shows what interesting horizons lie beyond the veil of the metaphysics of sex; it shows that erotic symbolism knew how to fix essential meanings and differentiations affecting the highest peaks of spiritual elevation and the border lines between contrasting visions of the material and the sacred world.

 East and West, vol. 7, no. 2 (July 1956): 156–61.


[1] In J. Woodroffe: Creation as Explained in the Tantra (Calcutta, s.d.), p. 9.

[2] See for instance Plotinus, Enneads, III, vii, 4; III, vii, 10; III, viii, 1; I, i, 8; III, ii, 2; V. viii, 12.

[3] J. J. Bachofen, Das Mutterrecht (Basel, 1870).

[4] See on all this P. Pestalozza, Religione mediterranea (Milan, 1951), c. II and pp. 71 et seq.; cfr. p. 51 where it is mentioned that in some texts of the Pyramids this position is assigned to Isis herself.

[5] H. Bartel, Experiences chez les Arabes (Tunis, 1904), p. 302.

[6] Cf. S. Das Gupta, Obscure religious Cults (Calcutta 1946), pp. xxxvii – xxxviii.

[7] Cf. L. De la Valle Poussin, Bouddhisme: Etude et materiaux (Paris, 1898), p. 134; H. Von Glasenapp, Buddhistische Mysterien (Stuttgart, 1940), p. 161.

[8] On all this see J. Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (Madras, 1929), passim and pp. 580 et seq.


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