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Hieros Gamos


HIEROS GAMOS , Greek for "sacred marriage," "sacred wedding feast," or "sacred sexual intercourse," is the technical term of a mythical or ritual union between a god and a goddess, more generally a divine and a human being, and most especially a king and a goddess. The term has had its widest use in the study of kingship in the city cultures of the ancient Near East. The fundamental symbolism however is that of the union of man and woman, a set of opposites as general and as readily available as the opposites east and west, north and south, sky and earth. The latter, sky and earth, are often presented as endowed with sexual characteristics and are therefore inseparable from this subject.

It is useful to state in this introductory orientation that a lingering Victorian prudishness in twentieth-century scholarship, embarrassed and at the same time fascinated by sexual symbolism, has occasionally singled out hieros gamos configurations for undue attention. It has done so with euphemisms, adumbrations, and unwarranted explanations, oblivious to the fact that in most civilizations other than those of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America, sexual references are not matters for this sort of secretiveness. (Typically, in learned translations textual passages with descriptions of pudenda, intercourse, harlots, courtesans, and so on, were translated into Latin until at least the middle of the twentieth century.) It is essential nevertheless to understand sacred marriage symbolism in advanced cultures in the first place as a variation on much older, very general symbolic expressions. The rather mechanistic and blanket explanation of sacred marriage rites as a stimulus or magic for bringing about fertility in people, animals, and fields, in the wake of scholarship by Wilhelm Mannhardt (18311880) and James G. Frazer (18541941), cannot do full justice to the poetry, profundity, dramatic quality, and complexity of the documents.

Ancient Roots

The French prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan (b. 1911) was led to the conclusion that certain signs and figures in the art of Paleolithic hunter cultures that stretched from Spain and France into Siberia form a coherent whole in their expressions, in both signs and representations. Among these expressions is the polarity of female and male symbols, for instance, the bison (female) and the horse (male). The American prehistorian Marija Gimbutas has collected a large number of art objects discovered in eastern Europe, dated from c. 7000 to 3500 bce, hence before the rise of the earliest civilizations in the Near East, and in that large collection the vast majority of objects is conspicuously related to female forms, conjunctions of male and female, and parturition. Details of interpretation are difficult to assess, but researchers are aided by the wide distribution of identical or comparable symbolizations in later cultures, of which the meaning is clearer; they allow one to see general patterns. These very ancient signs and images presuppose articulate languages and mythologies. Moreover, with respect to the subject under discussion, it may be safely inferred that "sexual" and "marital" topics were focal points in religious expression.

Mention must also be made of the fact that next to a sexual union between heaven and earth, of the type of Ouranos and Gaia in Hesiod's Theogony and Dyaus and Prthivi in the Vedic texts, there exists documentation of supreme beings that are often called "bisexual." Such a being is both one and two, male and female at the same time. Being two in one, divinities of this type are more properly called "androgynous" than "bisexual." The ancient Mexican supreme being is Ometecuhtli-Omecihuatl ("father-mother"). The figure of Apna-Apha ("our-mother-our-father") occurs in a place on Kisar, an island in the Moluccas. The Konyak Nagas of Assam know a supreme being Ga-Wang ("earth-sky"). It is noteworthy that in several of these cases the female or earth element is mentioned first and seems to be the more important aspect, and also that in a number of myths earth and sky are said to have been one in the beginning, and the act of creation consisted in separating the two.

All these imageries from prehistory and from a variety of tribal cultures are essential for an understanding of the hieros gamos symbolism as a particularly fertile imagery in several cultures, each with its own historical impulses and developments that, like the earlier symbolisms, have their focus in the fullness of existence. What sets the later hieros gamos apart from its earlier forms is a more highly developed dramatic expression and a tangible association with (political and economic) power.

Agriculture and Sexual Symbolism

The invention of agriculture, the novelty of a community's life henceforward depending on grain or rice, represents a tremendous change. Scholars have become reluctant to exaggerate the significance of this change because of the recent work on prehistory; they are now inclined to see more than mere "hunting magic" in prehistoric art forms and to detect in them much more articulateness and subtlety. Hence the sudden emergence of agriculture may appear less as a break with the past and more as a radical transformation. Tilling the soil is an act performed on the (female) earth. Archaic digging sticks are commonly depicted as phalli. Quite literally, the work of the farmer is a sexual ritual. The process of generation, though certainly not unknown before, now becomes a process in which all forms of existence and the preserving and safeguarding of life itself are at stake. The seasons take on a new significance, and the great goddess is the one who rules over the calendar, that is, over time, as well as over the material world.

In the protohistorical civilization of the Indus valley such a goddess played a role, and the artifacts make clear that she and others elsewhere were associated or identified with the physical expression of vegetational power. The goddess's power is not necessarily linked with a male partner, and even when she is so linked (as is Devi, the great goddess of Hinduism, with Śiva), her uniqueness, or her transcendental character, is not diminished. She is the one inexhaustible source of all that is. Agricultural production has obviously made its marks on religious expression, yet it would be unwarranted speculation to see even in her a figure completely different from the prehistoric female forms of thousands of years earlier, such as the so-called Venus of Willendorf or the Venus of Lespugue, or to deny all continuity with the past.

The goddess's power is expressed in her ability to generate all by herself; her characteristic function is that of generatrix (Przyluski, 1950), and the participation of a male is secondary or irrelevant. Comparison to "ordinary" motherhood is misleading. One is dealing with a religious symbol, and her giving birth by herself points to what in abstract language would be her essential transcendent reality. Typically, a Vedic text (gveda 10.125) refers to the goddess Vāc (Speech) as the queen of the land and bringer of treasures, but also as the first to partake of the sacrifice (i.e., before the other deities) and as the one who really moves when any of the principal gods move. In other words, she is the ultimate ruler even over the divine world.

How can such absolute transcendence be grasped? Here the "classical" marital symbolism of the Neolithic and agricultural world, with its own prehistoric roots, makes its force felt. The farmer's work is the outer circle of a series of concentric circles. In the symbolic expressions sexual and marital imagery form the center.

The economic change brought about by agriculture is the one aspect most immediately visible to a modern spectator. No doubt it is significant that for the first time staple food could be stored. (One understands at once that, from an economic standpoint, this is the birth of a true notion of capital, for without some degree of permanence, "capital" remains a hazy concept.) The ability to store grain creates the conditions necessary for larger communities. These facts are all of significance for the historian, yet they are abstract inferences from situations of which archaelogical finds, ancient art objects, icons, temples, and myths speak directly and concretely. For example, in the culture of ancient Greece, grain was stored in vessels that were half buried in the earth, and such vessels were the place where divinities of the earth (chthonic deities) appeared.

The acts of a great goddess, the divine character of the earth, the significance of women, the ritual nature of work on the land and its bond with sexual involvement all amount to a new, total experience of the everyday world and its ultimate foundation. How novel this entire symbolism was can be seen from the frequency and the ferocity with which outsiders have tried to destroy it. The expansion of Indo-European tribes (c. 3000 to 1500 bce) religiously pastoral rather than agricultural in orientation, set civilization back considerably (Gimbutas, 1982). Various nomadic raids in Northwest India and also much later conquests by Muslim invaders, who, like the Indo-Europeans, were basically pastoral in their religious orientation, made havoc of temples; the invaders were particularly provoked by sensual imagery (which for Muslims included the unveiled faces of goddesses and nymphs sculptured in sanctuaries).

In its turn, agricultural life itself became established and traditional; sexual rituals persisted. These latter have rightly drawn the attention of well-known scholars (such as Mannhardt, Frazer, J. J. Meyer, and many others) not only to rites in ancient societies but also in continuing folk customs. The power of naked women to increase the harvest is attested by a number of cultic ceremonies. Images of prehistoric, protohistoric, and traditional goddesses show the ancient significance of nudity, as do those of fully dressed goddesses alternating with trees with dense foliage (Przyluski, 1950). Prosperity and abundance are symbolically integrated in the dynamic of ritual life. Mannhardt and Frazer have recorded many instances where the sex act itself was believed to be an effective magic. The explanation of "magic" makes sense if only one bears in mind that it owes its existence to a coherent vision of this world and its divine complement.

Perhaps many older, prehistoric images of goddesses or perhaps many prehistoric artistic designs interweaving male and female characteristics anticipated comparable ideas and hopes. Whatever the likelihood of this suggestion, there is no doubt that full-fledged agricultural societies, even at a very early date, were in a special position to focus on certain aspects of the symbolism.

Early City-States and Hierodouloi

The hieros gamos as a royal ritual is the creation of early city-states built on the wealth provided by agriculture. Far from putting an end to the "primitive" village cults, they expanded and stylized them with forms that were derived from, and were variations of, earlier symbolism. One of these is the sexual union of the king and a "priestess" as an episode in the lengthy ancient Babylonian Akitu (New Year) festival. The model for this rite is already given in Sumerian myths and temple customs. It is true that existing knowledge of religious practices among the common people of the ancient Mesopotamian world is inadequate, but it is known that in this world the main ritual procedures for the entire populace were carried out through the mediation of rulers and religious specialists of various kinds. Around 2100 bce King Gudea had a temple built for the god Ningirsu, who had appeared to him in a dream. Among the rites performed in the new temple was the sacred wedding ceremony of the god and his consort Baba, lasting seven days. Apparently such a marriage was an expected part in the liturgy for each one of the important deities already present in Sumerian culture, as it was later in Babylonian cults, and still later throughout Assyrian and also West Semitic cults.

The hieros gamos rite, attached to the New Year festival and celebrated in various cultic centers, symbolized the union of the king of the city and the city's goddess, represented sometimes by the king's consort, more often by a hierodoulē, a female servant of the sanctuary, a "priestess." (It may be misleadingly derogatory to translate the Sumerian or Akkadian terms as "sacred prostitute.") Many bloody sacrifices were offered, functioning, as has been suggested, as wedding gifts, but certainly losing none of their proper sacrificial value, involving humankind in activities brimming with the risks of encountering the divine world and venturing its existence in the time to come on this encounter. The entire wedding in the ritual is a replica, a visible counterpart, of the celestial union. Not only was the hierodoulē the personification of a goddess, but also the king might be said to represent a god, if only some qualifications are made.

An early prototype of the ritual is the Sumerian story of the goddess Inanna and her relation to Dumuzi. The latter is depicted as a shepherd boy with whom the supreme, all-powerful goddess fell in love. In the drama the goddess descends into the netherworld for reasons that are not altogether clear but are certainly related to her ambition to perfect her rule by extending it even over the realm of the dead. She is defeated in her attempt, and her "elder sister," Ereshkigal (the queen of the great below) makes no exception in her case; she fixes "the look of death" on Inanna. Inanna cannot escape unless a substitute is found. She vows to find one. In her absence, Dumuzi, her love, spends his time with all the paraphernalia of wealth and power, occupying the throne. Although Inanna had no intention of consigning him to the netherworld in her place, she now fixes "the look of death" on him and orders the demons to take him away and torture him. The story ends in a compromise, whereby Dumuzi will be on earth for half the year, and the other half in the realm of death.

It is this type of mythological configuration that served as a model for the Sumero-Akkadian kings, and it is this type of mythology with its many themes, subthemes, and variations that formed the pattern of kingship and religion in the entire world of the ancient Near East. Ezekiel 8:14 is one of the texts in the tradition of Israel strongly opposed to most of the religious customs connected with the hieros gamos; it tells of women who (ritually) bewailed the fate of Tammuz (Dumuzi) at the gates of the temple. A considerable number of details make it not at all unlikely that also the gospel story of Jesus Christ owes some of its features to the myth of the dying shepherd-god (Kramer, 1969). Dumuzi (Tammuz) is not really presented as a god, and originally he was no god but rather a (human) king whose marriage to the great goddess (Inanna-Ishtar) was required to confer a sacred certainty, a future, and wealth on his land.

It is clear that kingship demanded a sacred foundation that could be provided only through the omnipotence of the great goddess. However, the complexity of the story of Inanna and Dumuzi, even in summary, allows one to see more than a utilitarian purpose, or a mere generalization on an ideology of kingship. The sacred marriage, far from being a mere cerebrally thoughtout, politically effective ceremony, is a manner of coming to terms with the extreme agonies of human existence: defeat vis-à-vis death, the ultimate frustration of any attempt to amass power or wealth, in spite of the necessity to do so. Both the certainty of death and the uncertainty of power and wealth are not only facts of life; they are experiences in the ultimate drama, to be relived each year. The king's place, and through his mediation, humankind's place in the relationship to the goddess and her partner, allow for an initiation into the mystery of existence. Obviously, this is much more than a clarification concerning a destiny after death or an explanation or stimulus for the sowing and reaping of grain, or a comment on the life and death cycle of cereals.

In Babylonian religion, the rule of the supreme god Marduk, just like that of his divine partner Ishtar (the Akkadian name of Inanna), is not limited to one area. Although the goddess's myth shows her as not altogether successful in her journey to the netherworld, she does return and her rule is emphatically presented as universal. In contrast, in the earliest myths, Dumuzi remains associated with pastoral life, and the impression is given that rule on earth has its limits; this same impression is also given in later times. Such rule, however, must have its basis in the hieros gamos.

That the certainty of rule over the land and its well-being is of the utmost concern is borne out by the king's determination of destiny. Just as the god Marduk's rule was established when he received the "tablets of fate" (in the Enuma elish, the most famous creation myth), the king shows himself as king in fixing the rules and regulations that keep the universe functioning properly. The ritual by which he does so is complex, but it is related to the Akitu festival, and the sacred marriage itself is to be regarded as a "third form for the determination of destiny" (Pallis, 1926). Clearly, the union with the goddess is of paramount importance for rule on earth.

The Power and Love of the Goddess

It has been seen that the one most striking theme in the mythology and rituals of the sacred marriage is the power of the goddess. It is associated with war and destructive anger but also with irresistible life and with love. This mythology is the root of much love poetry, even in traditions that, with Israel, rejected its symbols and rituals. The words of the Song of Songs 8:6, "love is strong as death," derive their force and meaning from the same revolutionary reorientation in the history of humankind that created the hieros gamos symbolism.

Although the Mesopotamian imagery of the sacred marriage is the earliest on record, comparable symbolisms have arisen in other religions (e.g., Mexico and India)always in an agricultural context and in a tropical or temperate region more or less close to the equator. Contrary to ideas that dominated scholarship for a long time, supreme goddesses are not primarily mothers but lovers. When supreme male deities come to the fore, such as Marduk in Babylon or Viu and Śiva in Hinduism, the devotee turns generally not to the male but to the female partner of the couple, from whom flows grace, and who in her loving relation provides the perfect bridge. In the devotional experience of Vaiavism (the religion of the distinctly royal, masculine, yet compassionate god Viu), the devotee calls instinctively on Lakmī (Śrī), Viu's consort, who is depicted in Hindu literature as accessible, even more accessible than Viu himself. Through many waves of cultural history and religious change the very early experience of the great goddess's love is still tangible.

Perhaps most noteworthy, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, most especially in Tibet, the goddess Tārā has preserved her popularity, in spite of the traditional prominence of the male element in Buddhism, in which according to an almost general consensus only a final birth as a man can open the way to nirvāa. Tārā however is ranked on the same level as the bodhisattva s, those who are prepared to enter nirvāa but decide not to do so and decide instead to assist the as yet unsaved world. Again, through the female, bliss is most accessible.

See Also

Agriculture; Akitu; Androgynes; Goddess Worship; Hierodouleia; Kingship, article on Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World; Marriage; New Year Festivals; Sexuality.


For a large collection of pictures that may lead to a reasonable assessment of pre-agricultural religion and of pre-agricultural goddesses and symbolisms of male and female, see Marija Gimbutas's The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 65003500 B. C.: Myths and Cult Images (Berkeley, Calif., 1982). Information on the spread and the forms of the prehistoric female statuettes can also be found in La préhistoire by André Leroi-Gourhan and others (Paris, 1965). For discussion of problems and theories on interpretation, see Leroi-Gourhan's Les religions de la préhistoire (paléolithique) (Paris, 1964) and Le geste et la parole, vol. 1, Techniques et langage (Paris, 1964), and vol. 2, La mémoire et les rythmes (Paris, 1965).

The major study on the Sumerian hieros gamos myths and rituals is Samuel Noah Kramer's The Sacred Marriage Rite (Bloomington, Ind., 1969); to the French translation, Le mariage sacré (Paris, 1983), Jean Bottéro added a valuable appendix, "Le hiérogamie après l'époque 'sumérienne.' " For an excellent general account of Babylonian religion, and the significance of myth and ritual in it, see Jean Nougayrol's "La religion babylonienne," in Histoire des religions, edited by Henri-Charles Puech, vol. 1 (Paris, 1970), pp. 203249. S. A. Pallis's The Babylonian Akïtu Festival (Copenhagen, 1926) is the classic study of the New Year ceremonies of which the hieros gamos forms a part. Thorkild Jacobsen's essay on Tammuz (Dumuzi) in his Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture, edited by William L. Moran (Cambridge, 1970), is an effort to show the religious experience concerning Tammuz in a human environment, thus making it understandable to moderns. Of interest for the continuation of ritual drama into art forms and entertainment is Theodor H. Gaster's Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East, 2d ed. (Garden City, N.Y., 1961). A collection of essays edited by S. H. Hooke, Myth and Ritual (Oxford, 1933), is only indirectly of importance for the hieros gamos, but it does call attention to the New Year festival and other general patterns over the entire area of the ancient Near East.

Helpful in order to see reflections of Mesopotamian ritual in Israel is Raphael Patai's Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual, 2d ed. (New York, 1967). Walter Burkert's Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley, Calif., 1979) discusses, among other things, the relationship between ancient Near Eastern and Greek images and mythical themes. Jean Przyluski's La grande déesse: Introduction à l'étude comparative des religions (Paris, 1950), although criticized especially on linguistic grounds, is an indispensable study on the symbolism of great goddesses from the Aegean to Southeast Asia.

On South Asia, J. J. Meyer's Sexual Life in Ancient India, 2 vols. (London, 1930), and Trilogie altindischer Mächte und Feste der Vegetation, 3 vols. in 1 (Zurich, 1937), contain a wealth of material on literary and folkloristic customs pertaining to the function of women, goddesses, and marriage. For a description of a classical Hindu sacred wedding, see C. J. Fuller's "The Divine Couple's Relationship in a South Indian Temple: Mīnāksī and Sundareśvara at Madurai," History of Religions 19 (May 1980): 321348, and for the symbolism of Tārā, see Stephan Beyer's The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet (Berkeley, Calif., 1973).

Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958) and A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries (Chicago, 1978), with extensive bibliographies, respectively present the large context of religious phenomena necessary for an understanding of "The Earth, Woman, and Fertility" (chapter 7 of the former) and the function of the great goddess and the hieros gamos in humankind's historical religious development. Raffaele Pettazzoni's The All-Knowing God (London, 1956) provides many data and relevant bibliographic references on supreme beings, including valuable information on androgynic and female deities. Geo Widengren's Religionsphänomenologie (Berlin, 1969) has helpful references to works on hieros gamos.

Finally, Walter M. Spink's The Axis of Eros (New York, 1973) is an interesting attempt to envisage all of the world's artwith many striking reproductions of erotic expressions from early, obviously "religious" works to modern, supposedly "secular" formsin one coherent view.

New Sources

Austin, Hallie Iglehart. The Heart of the Goddess: Art, Myth and Meditations of the World's Sacred Feminine. Berkeley, 1990.

Blundell, Sue, and Margaret Williamson. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. London and New York, 1998.

Evans, Arthur. The God of Ecstasy (Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos ). New York, 1988.

Harman, William. The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington, Ind., 1989.

Ifie, Egbe. Marriage with Gods and Goddesses in Classical and African Myths. Ibadan, 1993.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore, 1993.

Pollard, John. Seers, Shrines and Sirens. London, 1965.

Pomeroy, Susan B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves; Women in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1975.

Thomas, Gary L. Sacred Marriage. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002.

Kees W. Bolle (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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