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Orgy: Orgy in Medieval and Modern Europe

ORGY: ORGY IN MEDIEVAL AND MODERN EUROPE

Leveling charges against various dissenting groups or heretical sects both of holding meetings at which babies were ritually slaughtered and of conducting orgies at which every form of intercourse, including incest, together with the worshiping of odd divinities in the form of animals, was almost a standard procedure in the history of religions. Cannibalism or sexual intercourse between close relatives, which are usually considered against human nature and as such forbidden in almost every society, were the natural imputation against persons who saw themselves as outside the normal customs or rules. Moreover, dissenting factions were labeled "conspiratorial organizations" and often faced charges of conducting ritual murder and cannibalistic feasts. In some cases it is possible to establish with certainty that these charges were no more than a stereotype, as in the case of such activities imputed to the early Christians. Besides allegations of cannibalism and sexual promiscuity, radical groups were sometimes accused also of sacrilegious acts, such as spitting and trampling on the crucifix or adoring Satan in corporeal form in some obscene fashion. Sometimes the nocturnal orgy was imagined as presided over and supervised by a demon.

Medieval Christendom

Already in late antiquity some heterodox sects like the Priscillianists in Spain (fourth century) or, according to isolated testimonies, the Montanists in Africa were accused of unleashing orgies and ritual murders of children, but there is no real basis for such accusations. The same can be affirmed for a large number of Christian groups in the Middle Ages, which showed a polemicaland sometimes even schismatic, by the rejection of some dogmasattitude toward the Catholic Church and sought a radical restoration of its conduct, which should have been more in conformance with Christ's example, for example, by totally abolishing richness and luxury. Among these the Waldensians (who originated at the end of the twelfth century) first and the Fraticelli (who developed from radical Franciscan spiritualism) can be also counted. In spite of their condemnation in 1184, the Waldensians spread throughout Europe, and it is probably against them that the attacks of the inquisitor Conrad of Marburg in Germany were directed. Also the papal bull Vox in Rama, issued in 1233 by Gregory IX, which for the first time gave official character to the trivial charges of nocturnal orgiastic and demonic covens, had the same sect in mind. Even though the archbishop of Mainz, in disagreement with Conrad, minimized the phenomenon (reducing the orgies to mere transgressions by individuals), the stereotype survived in the following centuries and periodically caused a repetition of the prosecutions, until the Waldensians were finally rehabilitated in 1509 and given back their confiscated properties.

A trial in 1466 was the end of the Fraticelli as an organized sect, albeit their renown as devil worshipers and cannibals lasted later. This sect, whose adherents were not indeed numerous and did not possess a unified organization, had originated from a radical wing of the thirteenth-century Franciscans, some of whom left the order and then the church (they were the so-called Spirituals, inspired also by the apocalyptic and prophetic writings by the Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore). They professed the opinion that Christ and the apostles lived in total poverty and therefore considered the Roman church as the whore of Babylon, a pattern that recurs elsewhere in millennial groups. The trial of 1466 was the final act of a series of minor proceedings that started at the beginning of the century. Many sources, such as Bernardino of Siena and the historian Flavio Biondo, attest the practice of a ritual infanticide (the practice is called barilotto, an Italian word that alludes to the little barrel of wine with the ashes of the dead child), followed by a promiscuous orgy.

Similar accusations were used by the French king Philip the Fair to achieve at the very beginning of the fourteenth century the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar, whose power was more and more increasing: among the charges, often extorted under torture, there were, as usual, those of impiety, blasphemy, and sodomy. But in all cases modern research, by a reexamination of the evidence, has been able to clear these groups of charges, which to some extent have hung over them for five or six centuries.

There are, however, several perplexing testimonies that should discourage us from dismissing the accusations too summarily. This is the case, for example, of the so-called Brethren of the Free Spirit, another heretical sect that played a more important part than Catharism, since it extended over a vast area in Europe (from Germany to Holland and France, and also to Italy) and had an extraordinary capacity for survival, despite being constantly harassed by persecution. It is possible that some of its adherents from Picardy influenced also the Taborite revolution in Bohemia, and a brief but hectic revival of the "Free Spirit" (whose adherents were known as Ranters) took place in seventeenth-century England during its civil war. Its nature has been much debated by historians, also because of the almost total absence of written sources, including inquisitorial documents, not to mention the difficulty of making out the forerunners of the movement and its effective adherents. For example, it is indeed possible that the Beghards, officially condemned by the Council of Vienna in 1312, or the Beguines shared many patterns with the Brethren of the Free Spirit; so did the Amaurians, the followers of Gerardo Segarelli (d. 1300), Fra Dolcino (d. 1307), Wilhelm Cornelisz from Antwerp, and many other mystics of the thirteenth century, among whom many women can be mentioned too (Hadewych, Willemine of Bohemia, Bloemardine, Marguerite Porete). However, it is possible to affirm that this sect was a sort of gnosis intent upon individual salvation, a system of self-exaltation often amounting to self-deification, which concluded in an aberrant form of mysticism and anarchy. What distinguished the Free Spirit from other medieval sects is total amoralism. The core of the heresy of the Free Spirit (which did not form an organized church) lay in its adherents' attitude toward themselves: they stressed the desire to surpass the human condition and become godlike, and they believed they had attained so absolute a perfection that they were incapable of sin, a conviction that often could lead to antinomianism. It was thus permissible to do whatsoever was commonly regarded as forbidden, and, in particular, such antinomianism commonly took the form of sexual promiscuity. Eroticism, far from springing from a relaxed sensuality, possessed above all a mystic and symbolic value of spiritual emancipation. Adultery too was regarded as a transcendental means of affirmation or liberation. Moreover, for the elect, sexual intercourse could not under any circumstances be sinful, so that they were able to indulge in promiscuity without fear of God or qualms of conscience.

In this perspective the Adam cult, which frequently characterizes the sectarians of the Free Spirit, becomes comprehensible. In this form of worship can be outlined a blend of chiliasm and primitivism that became one of the commoner forms of modern romanticism: in fact, the Adam cult involved a sort of re-creation of the lost Paradise and at the same time an affirmation of the advent of the millennium. The most famous episode took place in Cologne in 1325. It ended in a scandal that led to the execution of the most prominent members of the sect, who were recognized as adherents of the Free Spirit. A suspicious husband, in fact, disguised as a Beghard, had followed his wife to a secret meeting that was held in a subterranean chamber, sumptuously decorated and called Paradise. This gathering was presided over by a man (probably an apostate priest identical with the celebrated heresiarch Walter the Dutchman) and a woman, who claimed to be respectively Christ and the Virgin Mary. After the celebration of some kind of Mass, a naked preacher then exhorted those present to remove their clothes in order to be like the innocent and restore the paradisiacal condition. A banquet followed, with much singing and rejoicing, and everything was concluded by the final orgy. It seems that the allegation of an orgy may have been something more than the standard cliché against dissidents, since the mention of ritual nudity is variously reported, as well as sexual promiscuity. Also, in later centuries the descendants of this heresy claimed to perform sexual acts in the same way as Adam and Eve.

The Free Spirit heresy can be partly compared to the case of the Cathars; their peculiar form of Christianity was largely influenced by some dualistic or Gnosticizing movements in Eastern Europe such as the Bulgarian Bogomils, who in turn derived from the Paulicians, recorded by some Byzantine heresiologists (for example, around 1050, Michael Psellos mentions the Thracian sect of the Messaliansprobably identical to the Bogomilsand charges its adherents with the usual accusation of orgy and cannibalism). Scholars have long since outlined, for example, the affinity between the Interrogatio Iohannis a Bogomil textand Cathar sexual morals. This text emphasizes the view that sexual desire and sexual difference were a Satanic creation, imposed on angelic spirits that were originally bodiless, and it presents a dualist account of sexual difference. Scholars have also suggested that the Catholic redefinition of marriage at the end of the twelfth century, according to which it had to be understood in terms not of sexual consummation but of free choice, was an effort to vindicate marriage in response to the Cathar attack. Whereas some sources included the charge that the Cathars advocated sodomy and incest, other inquisitors, on the contrary, defended the "perfects" from the charge of sexual debauchery and insisted on their denying of marriage: when some preachers emphasized the attack on marriage and childbirth as heretical, they were creating the buds of a Catholic view of "normal" sexuality and marriage. Furthermore, some scholars have also suggested that Catharism influenced the troubadours and their poetic of courtly love, which craves for extraconjugal or adulterous relationships.

Reformed Christianity

The usual criticism brought against the church found, so to say, a land of election in Bohemia, not only because of the enormous wealth of the church but also because of a powerful national sentiment that gave impulse to the so-called Hussite revolution. After the execution of its charismatic leader Jan Hus (in 1415), the unrest increased and led the country into a restless struggle that soon took violent forms, in particular when considering the radical Hussites, known as Taborites, a sect lead by Martin Húska and Petrus Kániš and finally defeated in 1421. In fact, this revolutionary wingcharacterized by anarcho-communistic features and thus compared to the late antique African circumcellionswas mainly formed by the harassed proletariat and peasantry, people encompassed by a social as well as religious animosity. Not only did they dismiss prayers and Masses for the dead as vain superstitions, neglect the veneration of the relics, and deny the dogma of purgatory, but they were utterly convinced that the earth had to be cleansed of sinners so Christ could descend from heaven in majesty; thus, it was the inescapable duty of the elect to kill in the name of the Lord. Thus, the usual millennial expectations degenerated into an unheard-of violence, massacre, and terror. The Taborites gathered in completely egalitarian communities, held together by brotherly love alone. The most important was near Usti, on a promontory that served as a natural fortress, and was renamed Tabor, after the mountain where Christ had foretold his Parousia. There were even extremer wings, partly influenced by the doctrine of the Free Spirit, which they practiced on a far larger scale. These people are known by the name Pikarti (which alludes to the refugee from Picardy who introduced the heresy in the Taborite community) or Bohemian Adamites. According to the accounts given by some members, after their defeat and imprisonment they lived in a state of community so unconditional that not only did nobody possess anything of his own but also marriage was regarded as an appalling sin and promiscuity seems to have been obligatory. Moreover, on the ground of Christ's remark about harlots and publicans, the Adamites argued that the chaste were unworthy to enter their messianic kingdom. The alleged ritual dances held by naked people around a fire and accompanied by much singing, together with the custom of spending much time nude, were considered a return to the state of innocence enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the fall. The Adamites have sometimes been paralleled to the libertine Gnostics of the third and fourth century, also because they pretended to have a divine nature even superior to Christ's, whose death was regarded as evidence of his mere human condition.

Also Lutheranism and, more generally, Reformed Christianity had to reckon with dissenting groups, which constituted the radical (or, as it has been labeled, "left") wing of the Reformation and to which some charges of immorality were similarly imputed. The same patterns that have already been sketched out for medieval Christian sectarians (millennial enthusiastic exaltation, agapic spirituality, militant evangelism, sometimes dualism), together with a sort of proto-communism, featured some Anabaptist movements too. As far as sexual promiscuity is concerned, originally the only permitted form was marriage between two Anabaptists, and they generally observed a stricter code of sexual morality than most of their contemporaries. A famous example is, however, provided by the Anabaptist "messianic reign" established in Münster (between 1533 and 1535) by Bernhard Rothmann, Jan Matthys, and Jan Bockelson, also known as Jan von Leyden. The latter, who became the absolute regent of the rebellious city, legalized polygamy in July 1534, an unpopular decision that hastened the end of this singular political experiment, also because refusal to comply with the new law was made a capital offence and some women were executed. In explaining how the biblical precept to "increase and multiply" had to be taken as a divine commandment, and how the polygamy already practiced by the patriarchs of Israel should be restored in the New Jerusalem, Bockelson undertook a path that resembles the one carried out by the Brethren of the Free Spirit and by the Adamites. Even allowing for the exaggeration of hostile accounts (which mention also sumptuous banquets and dissoluteness at Jan's court), it seems certain that sexual behavior in Münster turned from rigorous puritanism to sheer promiscuity, and that polygamy was changed into something not very different from free love. It is interesting to remember that the composer Jacques Meyerbeer echoed these events in his grand opera Le Prophète (1849).

Witchcraft

Orgiastic themes are a constant feature in the huge literature that flourished around witches and witchcraft because of the alleged nocturnal gatherings in which at regular intervals witches betook themselves to sacrilegious and orgiastic covens, usually known as "sabbats" (a term taken from the Jewish religion, traditionally considered the essence of anti-Christianity, or indeed a form of devil worship). They were usually held at the summit of some famous mountains, but also in churchyards or crossroads. Sabbats could generally involve only the witches of a neighborhood, but three or four times a year ecumenical sabbats were celebrated, attended by witches from everywhere. It is possible to draw a representative picture of the sabbat, since the various accountsusually recorded from the Inquisition trials onwardsdiffer only in minor details. It was the devil, in the shape of a monstrous being, half man and half goat, who presided over the sabbat. The coven began with a reassertion of the devil's mastery over his servants, the witches (usually women, but sometimes also men or even children). They knelt down and adored the demon, also kissing him on his left foot or genitals. A parody of the Eucharist followed, and then a meal usually consisting of revolting substances was served. Finally, the participants took part in a hysterical dance, to the sound of trumpets, drums, and fifes, which would become a frantic and erotic orgy. All things, including sodomy and incest, were permitted, and at the height of the orgy the devil would copulate with every person present.

From the nineteenth century down to present times, the subject has been variously investigated. Whereas some historians have encouraged the belief that there were secret societies of witchessometimes arguing that they were the most extreme of all heresies or the most nihilistic of all sectsand that the authorities who pursued them were in effect breaking the local organizations of that sect, others have suggested that the notion of an organized sect first developed as a by-product of the campaign of the Inquisition against Catharism or other heresies. They have even dismissed the idea that witch hunting was directed against a real society or an effective cult, adducing psychological or sociological explanations, for example considering the sabbat a fantasy of men's hatred and fear of women, and the great witch hunt a bloody episode in the sex war. Furthermore, in his well-known pamphlet La sorcière (Paris, 1862), the French writer Jules Michelet argued that witchcraft was nothing more than a protest by medieval serfs against the oppressive social order, which later turned into a ritualized defiance of Christian religion. His romantic description of the Medea-like priestess of the cult who ritually mates with Satan partially involves the idea of a fertility cult that aimed at securing an abundance of crops. This thesis was largely developed in the 1920s and 1930s by folklorist Margaret Murray, who was deeply influenced by the Frazerian vogue of her age. According to Murray, down to the seventeenth century, there persisted in Europe the relics of a religion centered on the worship of the two-faced horned god Dianus, who represented the cycle of crops and seasons. This agrarian cult was easily confused with devil worshiping and, as such, prosecuted. Though mostly discredited, Murray's thesis has enjoyed a certain influence and was responsible also for the proliferation of modern witch covens. In more recent times, other scholars have reconsidered the linking between fertility magic and witchcraft, or centered their attention on the libidinous aspects of the sabbat, suggesting that ecstatic experiences or trances, often induced by drugs or hallucinogenic herbs, share many patterns with the ancient cult of Dionysus, which also was mainly performed by women. It is indeed possible that the stirrings of feminine discontent may have contributed to the orgiastic elements in witches' revels. Those who plausibly deny the existence of covens and organized sects underline how the spreading of such an idea was the product of a society that strongly insisted on religious conformity, repressed dissent, and did its best to enforce that conformity. Nevertheless, whatever might be the final interpretation, it is important to consider how witchcraft was thought of as a collective fact. Though witches performed spells individually, they were a society bound together by communal rites, and in every respect they were thought to represent a collective inversion of Christianity.

Orgiastic practices in heterodox Judaism

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, qabbalistic doctrines were often given a shade of mystical eroticism. Such a development reached its apex in the controversial figure of the Smyrnean Sabbatai Sevi, the pretended messiah and founder (in the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the seventeenth century) of a Jewish sect inspired by qabbalistic teachings and pervaded by millennial expectations, who at the end of his life made an astonishing and unclear conversion to Islam in order to have spared his life from the sultan. Sabbatai's behavior presents a strange mixture of erotic mysticism and inhibitions, which increased as he became master over a large number of enthusiastic followers, culminating in an alternation of semierotic and semiascetic rituals (for example, the singing of psalms, clad in phylacteries and surrounded by women and wine). Accounts of his life include also charges of immorality, which cannot be lightly dismissed as an invention of hostile sources. However, there is little or no evidence of debauchery during the early period, as long as he was a Jewish rabbi, despite fits of manic enthusiasm; on the contrary, all allegations of moral excesses date after his apostasy. There may have been tendencies in Sabbatai that remained suppressed for a long time by his ascetic way of life but that erupted sooner or later, perhaps after his marriage with Sarah, through whom a licentious element entered in his life. According to some contemporary Armenian sources, Sabbatai had relations with women or favorites and was accused by his adversaries of lewdness and debauches. Among the disconcerting conduct he kept up, he was variously said to have taken with him for many days some virgins and then returned them, allegedly without having touched them. There are also documents that testify how Sabbatai prided himself on his ability to have intercourse with virgins without actually deflowering them. Also a favorable source, that is, his disciple Abraham Cuenque's idealized account of Sabbatai's residence (during his imprisonment) at the "Tower of Strength" in Abydos, says that the "messiah" and his wife Sarah were attended by beautiful virgins, the daughters of the most illustrious families, and also that several rabbis submitted to him their queries and difficulties in matters of rabbinic law, a description oddly reminiscent of similar and anything but legendary accounts of "Platonic" arrangements at the court of Jakob Frank.

This account, despite its exaggeration, shares many features with the complaints to the Turkish authorities concerning the unbearable abominations committed at Sabbatai's court. The same sources mention, in addition to this example of erotic perversity, instances of antinomianism, such as treading the phylacteries under foot or tearing up a Torah scroll and trampling upon it, or the ritual consumption of forbidden animal fats, preceded by his blasphemous benediction, "that hast permitted that which is forbidden." It is clear that this was essentially a symbolic expression of the abolition of sexual taboos and prohibitions, or, in other words, a demonstration of antinomian, revolutionary messianism. Sabbatai had planned to abolish the ritualistic Jewish observances and had raised a standard of rebellion against the hallowed traditions of the law, and abrogated its prohibitions, including, by implication, those against incest and fornication. The symbolic overtones of his breaking the alimentary taboos must have been obvious. It has also been supposed that his behavior was influenced by his wife (who, in turn, had led an irregular and eccentric life before marriage) and by his own ideas regarding the messianic liberation of women from the yoke of their husbands.

Sabbatai's influence became widespread in Central Europe too and lasted after his fall in disgrace. Messianic expectations could also offer a sort of viaticum to the prosecutions suffered by Jews during that period, or were meant as a way to improve the social condition of the Jews, also because of the decline of the rabbinical schools. However, having lost its political influence messianism assumed a mystical coloring and was transformed into a secret and sectarian cult; in Turkey a half-Jewish, half-Islamic sect was established, the so-called Dönmeh, while in the Polish region of Podolia numerous groups of Sabbatians were formed. Their adherents, in expectation of the messianic revolution, discarded many dogmas and religious customs; the cult thus included elements of both strict asceticism, including self-torture, and sensuality or licentiousness. Despite the attempt of the Polish rabbis at extirpating it, the Sabbatian heresy survived and was practiced in secret, Masonic-like, circles. The Frankist sect, which was very influential in the eighteenth century, originated from Sabbatian ambits. Its founder, Jakob Frank, came from a Sabbatian family and was himself a devoted adherent to the movement, intimate with the leaders. He began gathering sectarians around 1755 in his native Podolia, asserting that he had been directly instructed by Sabbatai's successors in Salonica. After having been excommunicated by a congress of rabbis because of the scandal stirred up by their assemblies, Frank and his followers tried to gain the support of the Catholic hierarchy by proclaiming their rejection of the Talmud. A huge number of them were also able to receive baptism in 1759, but the insincerity of the Frankists became more and more clear, and also a church tribunal judged Frank as a heretic. Though imprisoned, he was able to win a number of followers to his new religion, a strange mixture of Sabbatianism and Christianity. He was released in 1772 and traveled throughout Europe until his death in 1791.

An important role in the organization of the sect was played by Eve, Frank's beautiful daughter, to whom also a peculiar form of cultic veneration was directed (involving a sort of syncretism with the Virgin in Chentsochov); after the death of her father she became the holy mistress and leader of the sect. Frankism remained prominent also during the Romantic age and the nineteenth century, and in a certain way inspired the Polish nationalism, together with other mystical streams, which were more acceptable because of the lack of antinomianism and sexual scandals. In fact, Frankism consistedmore than Sabbatianismin a total negation of the traditional bulk of Jewish religion and ethics, conforming to a sort of mythology of nihilism, in which the new messianic law entailed a complete reversal of values and the transformation of the prohibitions of the Torah, including sexual unions and incest, into licit acts. The adherents believed that the descent into evil is a condition of ascent toward good, and, in this way, orgiastic practices were turned into the via mystica of the new eon. Also the outward conversion to Christianity was intended as the holy sin that would liberate them from the repressions of Mosaic and Talmudic law.

Among the Jewish sects that derived from Sabbatianism and practiced sexual antinomianism, the Moravians in eighteenth-century London can be noted too. Their leader was Count Ludwig Zinzendorf, himself an amateur qabbalist. According to the theories followed by Zinzendorf, God and the universe are dynamic sexual potencies that interact together to generate orgasmic joy when in perfect equilibrium. Furthermore, contacts between Frankists and Zinzendorfians are well documented, as well as contacts with Masonic milieus. Some contemporaries described the Moravians as a subversive secret society, whose leaders aimed at progressively sapping the energy of civil government and establishing an empire within an empire. Their "clinging together" was a euphemism for communal sex, ritual orgies, and comparable "gnostic obscenities" reserved to the higher initiates. Also, Emanuel Swedenborg, who since youth was trained in heterodox Jewish mysticism and in Sabbatianism too, attended the Moravian lodge during his sojourn in London. His diaries testify to many of the shocking sexual ceremonies of the Moravians, in which he was initially concerned but that later repelled him. However, like the Moravians earlier, the Swedenborgians were vulnerable to becoming objects of public ridicule and scandal. This motley crew who populated the clandestine world of illuminist Freemasonry in pre-Victorian London found a sympathetic enthusiast in William Blake, who maintained a lifelong commitment to radical theories of sexuality, including polygamy.

The Khlysts

Even more puzzling are the accounts reported about the Russian orthodox sect of the so-called "people of God," or Khlysts, and it is difficult to distinguish the real significance of this mystical and totally irrational religious approach, since the concealment of their rites was almost total and the majority of our information derives from hostile sources (missionaries or police). The name Khlysts, as the members were called by detractors, derives either from a distortion of "Christ," because the adherents thought that Christ could become incarnate in every one of them, or (and this seems the most probable interpretation) from the Russian word for "whip," with an allusion to ritual practices of self-flagellation. It seems possible to affirm that this sect was an emanation of the various Russian schismatic movements that began their diffusion during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that taught that Christian faith had been destroyed by an Antichrist, after a long period of splendor and decadence, and should be founded again. Whereas Danil Filippovič, a peasant from the Volga region and alleged founder of the sect, seems to be nothing more than a shadowy and legendary figure, the first important representative was Ivan Timofeevič Suslov. In the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the sect spread out and reached also the high society in Saint Petersburg.

Both an emotional revelation and a multiplicity of the divine incarnations lay at the ground of the Khlyst spirituality. In order to allow the death of the old person and the mystical resurrection in Christ, which also meant the presence of a divine spark in the intimate self and possession by the Holy Spirit, fasting, chastity, prayer and self-flagellation were necessary. The culmination of their rites consisted in a nocturnal ceremony, which began with a fanatical dervishlike dance, after a dispersion of holy water: men and women concentrically rotated in opposite directions, until they became exhausted and proffered prophecies. Accounts of self-flagellation and a concluding orgyafter the ritual election of a woman, who was then adored as the Virgin Maryare also reported; these practices, a sort of hybrid between the cult of the ancient Mother Goddess and the Christian veneration of Mary, were justified by asserting that the satisfaction of carnal desires is the straightest way to redemption and that humans can be saved only passing through a hyperbolic degree of depravation and sin. Sexual intercourse, however, was restrained to this singular rite, while usually a strict chastity was observed. The same kind of frantic, insistent attitude toward asceticism and purity led some members to refuse such transgressive behavior and to commit self-castration at the end of a frantic dance (like their pagan antecedents, the Galli, priests of Cybele who emasculated themselves). The new monastic order was founded in the second half of the eighteenth century by Kondratij Selivanov, who asserted in 1765 at the same time that he was the embodiment of God and of Tsar Peter III. The members took the name Skoptzi (literally "whitened"), alluding to their condition: they also proclaimed the intrinsic oneness of God and man and aimed at restoring the chiliastic reign of God on earth. The Khlysts enjoyed a special renown also because, according to many, the famous monk and political intriguer Rasputin (born c.1864d. 1916) was a member of the sect, even though not all his biographers credit this information. It is true, however, that he exercised a sort of magnetic fascination over women, and he is reported to having seduced many, despite his strong ascetic outlook.

New Religious Movements in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

As it has been seen, sex, magic, and secrecy had long been associated in the Western religious imagination, especially as far as esoteric orders are concerned. It is possible to recall here also the radical illuminist sect of the frères ("brethren") at Avignon, who were in contact with Masonic and Swedenborgians circles. In their arcane observance they practiced ritual nudity, communal sex, and worship of the Shekhinah (the qabbalistic feminine counterpart of God). Accusations about erotic ceremonies at Avignon, as well as biographic details about their chief, Count Grabianka, suggest that these revolutionary sexual theories were not only preached but also performed.

Of course, different is the practice of polygamy or group marriage variously theorized during the nineteenth century by the proto-Marxian French philosopher Fourier and his well-known doctrine of the falansteries, or in the religious experiences of some North American communities, among which it is worth mentioning the Oneida Community, founded in 1844 by John Humphrey Noyes and some friends of his in New York. Regulated by a communist way of life, Noyes's community was deeply pervaded by millennial feelings and practiced so-called complex marriage, according to which every man and every woman were married to each other and could engage in sexual intercourse but could not be attached to each other as stated earlier. In addition, the male members also practiced a form of birth control where during and after sexual intercourse the man could not ejaculate.

However, the first well-developed system of sexual magic is due to Paschal Beverly Randolph (18251875), the foremost American exponent of magical eroticism or Affectional Alchemy. This was a sort of sexual magic to which he claimed to have been initiated by some fakīrs during a journey to Jerusalem, who were perhaps adherents to the mystical order of the Nuayrīs, a group long persecuted by orthodox Islam because of their alleged Gnostic sexual rituals. Randolph saw in sexual orgasm the critical moment in human consciousness and the key to magical power and personal fulfillment as well as social transformation and regeneration. His doctrines were developed mostly by the esoteric movement known as the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), inspired by Karl Kellner and Theodor Reuss. The OTO taught that it is the polarity of male and female energies that creates the universe, and it is sexual union that leads to the reunion of the divine ego and to angelhood; it also developed a system of nine initiation degrees, the last three of which focused upon the theory of sex magic and the techniques of auto- and heterosexual magic.

It is worth mentioning here also the enigmatic and controversial figure of Edward Alexander (Aleister) Crowley (18751947), himself a member and reformer of the OTO and founder in 1920 of the Abbey of Thelema (from the Greek word for "will") in Sicily, a utopian community in which every desire could be gratified and every impulse expressed through free experimentation in drugs, sex, and physical excess. His impact on the modern revival of paganism, magic, witchcraft, and occultist and esoteric practices has been extremely influential, albeit he has been neglected by academic scholarship until recent times. The reason for this neglect is perhaps to be found, besides his more generally outrageous behavior, in his strong insistence on the practice of "sexual magikc" (according to his spelling). During his life Crowley had been the object of intense media scandal and was apparently delighted in offending contemporary British society, not only by proclaiming himself the "Great Beast 666" but also by explicitly using the most "deviant" sexual acts, including masturbation and homosexuality, as central components in his magical practice (therefore, he expanded to eleven OTO's original nine degrees). Sex was believed to conceal some awesome, even sacred, power, the tremendous liberation of which Crowley tried to effect through his magical practices.

Rejecting the prudish hypocrisy of the Victorian Christian world in which he had grown up, Crowley identified sex as the most powerful force in life and the supreme source of magical power. He has been thus compared to other controversial figures of his day, such as D. H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde, who aimed at bursting the oppressive values and constricting morality of their society. Yet Crowley took the ideal of transgression to its furthest possible extremes, since he deliberately overthrew every imaginable social, moral and sexual taboo in order to accomplish a radical superhuman freedom, self-affirmation, and even self-deification. With a certain fondness for ostentation and scandal, Crowley himself sensationalized his way of life, and his infamy as the wickedest man alive was due to the emphasis of the popular press, which described Crowley's sexual promiscuity in vivid and exaggerated detail and considered him and his followers as members of a blasphemous sect, whose proceedings contributed to immorality of the most revolting character.

Crowley was also one of the first Western authors interested in the Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga and, most of all, the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra, even though he seems to have mediated his knowledge of Tantric doctrines by secondary and often highly distorted sources, which partly reflected the prejudicial bias of European Asian scholars. This complex exoteric body of spiritual teaching often involves explicit forms of ritual transgression, such as consumption of food or sexual intercourse in violation of class laws, in order to awake the tremendous power or shakti that flows through all things. However, according to recent scholarship, Tantra is in most cases a conservative tradition, which allows social relations and sexual taboos to be violated only in highly controlled ritual contexts so that the ritual authority and social status of male Brāhmans may be ultimately reasserted, that is, reinforced, outside the boundaries of esoteric ritual. Even though sexual union is a fairly minor part of a global spiritual practice, to a Western audience Tantra appeared nothing else than a popular form of spirituality whose core was healthy sexuality or even a perverse confusion of sexuality and religion (in the Victorian age Tantra doctrines were trivialized by Edward Sellon, himself a pornographic writer, who offered titillating descriptions of the licentious orgies among the votaries and of the disregard for every natural restraint). The Western redefinition of Tantra by its sexual element, its comparison to the orgasm theory of Reich, and the vague equation with "spiritual sex," the goal of which is only heightened orgasm and optimal physical pleasure, owes much to Crowley's interest in this doctrine and to his putting the sexual element, as well as perhaps the antinomian one, at the first place; although Crowley had only a superficial understanding of Tantrism, he became a seminal figure in this transformation and is still today widely cited as the modern pioneer of "Tantric Sex Magick."

It seems that some neo-Gnostic movements were permeated by libertine streams, just like their ancient predecessors; at the same time similar patterns are reported also for modern witchcraft, in the forms developed by Charles A. Lelend or Gerald Brosseau Gardner, although there is no real certainty of an effective practice. Orgies feature also the modern Satanic or Luciferian cults (for example, in organized movements like those inspired by Anton La Vey or Martin Lamers) from the eighteenth-century "Hells of Fires" onwards, even though it is very difficult to distinguish whether they have a religious significance or simply represent a way to vent one's own instincts, usually induced or propitiated also by drugs or hallucinogens.

Contemporary Philosophical and Sociological Interpretations of the Orgy

To sum up, some patterns common to all these religious movements can be outlined. Besides the risks involved in an overstatement of the orgiastic phenomenon, often due to the hostility of the sources (for example, as far as the majority of medieval sects is concerned), it is indeed true that in some cases the practice of sexual promiscuity, accompanied by lavish banquets and frantic dances, is well attested and draws on particular philosophical premises. A more general antinomianismusually permeated by chiliastic instances and sometimes by dualistic conceptions and communism practiceslies at the foundation. Moving from the statement that the (often stereotypical) acts attributed to these outgroups represented a total inversion of the norms, totally forbidden and thus regarded with horror, psychoanalytic attempts at explaining this kind of phenomenon have also been made. While the charge of cannibalism or ritual murder of children can be explained either in terms of homicide fantasies experienced in infancy or early childhood and then deeply repressed, oras seems more probableanxiety for the untimely death of children, so frequent in the past centuries, the theme of erotic orgy is simpler to interpret as reflecting repressed desires, temptations, or even misogyny. Such a notion of unconstrained sexuality was combined with that of a systematic and total inversion of the ordinary cult.

Conversely, the sects that really practiced orgies or experienced sexual promiscuity during their (often secret) rituals show a characteristic blending of self-exaltation or rather self-deification and antinomianism, which took the form of an anarchic eroticism. A motif common to all these groups is the sinless condition of the elects (or, in other terms, "awakened," or "perfects"), which allows them to perform all the acts, including prohibited or impure ones. Such persons lose an experience of sin, understood as mortification or mystical death, deprived sexual intercourse of its impure character, and produced an effect of transformation, which helped to destroy one's own conceit. This was achieved also thanks to a sort of neutralization of the individuals who merged into a cosmic-pantheist unity, since orgies permit the individual constraint of eros to be overthrown.

Moreover, sex, particularly in its transgressive, nonreproductive forms, is intended as a way to unleash the supreme creative power, which can be deployed for a wide range of both spiritual and material ends. Recent interpretations (from Julius Evola onwards) consider orgasm as a means to attain a condition of exhaustion taken to the extreme limit, which can create "breakages of consciousness" and so open the mind to the "supersensual." It is thus possible to compare such practices to what Georges Bataille calls the power of transgression, which is a central aspect of eroticism, religious ritual (such as blood sacrifices, carnivals, etc.), and mystical experience alike. According to Bataille, the various acts of transgression imply deliberate violations and systematic inversions of the moral laws and sexual codes of the larger society, though they cannot be understood as mere hedonistic and unrestrained sexual license; their power lies in the dialectic between taboo and transgression, and the ultimate aim of them is to transgress the very boundaries of the self, that is, to smash the limits of finite human consciousness in order to experience the unlimited continuity of the infinite (in this sense eroticism is intimately linked to death itself). According to Bataille, who echoes some theories already outlined by the Marquis de Sade at the end of the eighteenth century, the prohibition is there to be violated, and the best way of enlarging one's desires is to try to limit them, because it is just this experience that brings the blissful sense of continuity and unity with the Other. Nor are there lacking sociological interpretations of the orgy, like those by Michel Maffesoli and Jean Baudrillard, who argue that the present is a "post-orgy world," after the great social and sexual revolutions have broken every conceivable taboo. The orgy, in fact, is the explosive moment of modernity, that of liberation in all domains, although, as a consequence of it, liberation has left everyone in an undefined and uncertain state, in which one's own definition is put into question.

See Also

Sexuality, article on Sexual Rites in Europe.

Bibliography

The Priscillianist heresy and a certain attitude of the church toward magic and occultism is well outlined by Henry Chadwick, Priscillian of Avila: The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church (Oxford, 1976).

The dualistic grounds that feature many antinomian religious groups have been investigated, with respect particularly to Eastern Europe, by Josef Leo Seifert, Die Weltrevolutionäre von Bogomil über Hus zu Lenin (Wien, 1931); see also Ugo Bianchi, Selected Essays on Gnosticism, Dualism and Mysteriosophy (Leiden, 1978), who deals with Gnosticism and medieval sects. Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements, 2d ed. (New York, 1961) considers in detail the chiliastic expectations of such movements.

For the various late antique, medieval and Renaissance Christian "heretical" groups or sects suspected of libertinism and orgiastic practices, see the compendia arranged by Georges Welter, Histoire des sectes chrétiennes (Paris, 1950) and Martin Erbstosser, Ketzer im Mittelalter (Leipzig, Germany, 1984).

More detailed investigations are provided by: Romana Guarnieri, Il movimento del Libero Spirito (Rome, 1965); R. E. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1972); Theodora Buttnwer and Ernst Werner, Circumcellionen und Adamiten (Berlin, 1959); Howard Kaminski, A History of the Hussite Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967); Alexander Patschovsky, "Chiliasmus und Reformation im ausgehenden Mittelalter," in Ideologie und Herrschaft im Mittelalter, edited by Max Kerner, pp. 475496 (Darmstadt, Germany, 1982).

Denis de Rougemont, L'amour et l'occident (Paris, 1939) is an attractivealbeit not strictly scientificmonograph about transgressive and adulterous love during the Middle Ages. On the same theme and, more generally, about the Cathar views on sexuality see also Robert Nelli, L'érotique des trobadours (Paris, 1963) and Le phénomène cathare (Toulouse, France, 1964).

The great European witch hunt of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries has been the subject of numerous inquiries, which have been more and more increasing in the last decades. It is worth remembering here the well-known books by Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Oxford, 1921; repr. 1962) and The God of the Witches (London, 1933); Arno Runenberg, Witches, Demons and Fertility Magic (Helsingfors, Finland, 1947) partially follows Murray's views. Shamanistic features in witchcraft are outlined by Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat (Toronto, 1962); Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Les paysans de Languedoc (Paris, 1966; English transl. Urbana, Ill., 1976) reconsiders the "social" explanation of the phenomenon.

A well-documented inquiry is provided by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y., 1972) and Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Daemons (New York, 1975), whose totally "negationist" views have, however, been questioned. See, for example, Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (New York, 1985); Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witch's Sabbath (New York, 1992), who partially reconsiders Murray's and Runenberg's arguments, even though without being convincing; see, for example, Giovanni Busino, "La microhistoire de Carlo Ginzburg," Bibliothéque d'Humanisme et de Renaissance 61 (1999): 763778.

Among recent contributions see also: Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen (Oxford, 1993); Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London and New York, 1994), which deals particularly with post-Reformation Germany; Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997); and, most of all, Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago, 2002).

An excellent monograph about Sabbatai Sevi is Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 16261676 (Princeton, N.J., 1976); for the Frankist movement see Arthur Mandel, The Militant Messiah or The Flight from the Ghetto: The Story of Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1979), and Gershom Scholem, Du frankisme au jacobinisme (Paris, 1981). Sexual symbolism in the Qabbalah is well investigated (among others) by Moshe Idel, "Sexual Metaphors and Praxis in the Kabbalah," in The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory, edited by David Kraemer, pp. 197224 (New York, 1989); and Franco Michelini Tocci, "Simboli di trasformazione cabalistici ed alchemici nell'Ēš Mesarēf con un excursus sul libertinismo gnostico," Annali dell'Istituto Orientale di Napoli 41 (1981): 4181.

The best inquiry on the Khlysts still remains Karl Grass, Die Russischen Sekten (Leipzig, Germany, 19071909); see also René Fülöp Miller, Der heilige Teufel Rasputin und die Frauen (Berlin, 1927; English transl. New York, 1962), which deals with Rasputin's life.

On the utopian idea of group marriages as developed by Fourier see Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), as well as Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Paris, 1971; English translation by Richard Miller, New York, 1976); for American communities see Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana, Ill., 1984); and Free Love in Utopia: John Humphrey Noyes and the Origin of the Oneida Community (Urbana, Ill., 2001).

For sexual magic and its developments see: Tim O'Neill, "The Erotic Freemasonry of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf," in Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas and Hidden History, edited by Jim Keith, pp. 103108 (Los Angeles, 1993); Marsha K. Schuchard, "Why Mrs. Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision," Esoterica 2 (2000): 4593; John Patrick Deveney, Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth Century American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician (Albany, N.Y., 1997); Francis King, ed., The Secret Rituals of the O.T.O. (New York, 1973); Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, 2000); John Symonds, The King of the Shadow Realm. Aleister Crowley: His Life and Magic (London, 1989); Francis King, The Magic World of Aleister Crowley (London, 1987); Lawrence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley (New York, 2000). Important for the present subject is Hugh Urban, "Unleashing the Beast: Aleister Crowley, Tantra and Sex Magic in Late Victorian England," Esoterica 5 (2003): 138192.

Julius Evola, Metafisica del sesso (Rome, 1969; new edition with a foreword by Fausto Antonini, Rome, 1984; translated into English as The Metaphysics of Sex [New York, 1983]; or as Eros and the Mysteries of Love [Rochester, Vt., 1991]) is an interesting forerunner of modern sociological approaches to sexuality and orgiasm, such as those developed by Michel Maffesoli, L'ombre de Dionysos, contribution à une sociologie de l'orgie (Paris, 1982); see also Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (New York, 1993). For Bataille's views on transgression, see his Erotism: Death and Sensuality (San Francisco, 1986); Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 19271939 (Minneapolis, Minn., 1985); and The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge (Minneapolis, Minn., 2001). See also Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité, 3 vols. (Paris, 19761984; English transl. New York, 19781986).

Chiara Ombretta Tommasi (2005)

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