Yoga, Ectasy, Religion, and Sex

Religion is sexy — at least some of the time. (To scholars of religion, all religion is “sexy” in an intellectual sense.)

Last year, I edited and prepared for press a new biography of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a leading figure in American religion in the 1920s, but a sex-related scandal in 1926 hurt her with the news media.

McPherson was widowed as a young woman, then briefly re-married. She was a “rock star” of religion, working larger and larger venues with thousands of people focused on her preaching and healings.

And after raising all of that divine energy, she was supposed to go home to her solitary bed. According to the author—in our private conversations—she did not always do so. Why am I not surprised? Maybe some day he will write that follow-up volume that tells all.

Interesting, a lot of today’s Pentecostal Christians do not know her name, although she founded one of its denominations. One of my students, a Pentecostal, said she had heard of her and thought of her as “scary”—but she did not know why.

All of this is a long introduction to a  New York Times article: “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here.”

One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.

Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.

The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.

Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.

But it’s not just yoga and tantra. People get crushes on supposedly celibate Catholic priests, as Edie Falco’s character, Carmela,  did in The Sopranos. And so on. It’s a issue for clergy, just as it is with psychotherapists.

As a polytheist, I would like to time-travel back to one of Sister Aimee’s healing services and see if she was  channeling only Yeshua the radical rabbi or maybe someone else as well, someone known for lifting his devotees up and them hurling them down.

As polytheists, we know that some of the deities and some ritual practices carry a strong sexual charge. People who work these will feel the results. If we know that in advance—and if we can ways to use these energies that do not have bad social consequences—then Pagans won’t “find themselves less prone to surprise.”


It Sounds All Wrong When You Guys Say It

Best comment on this video: “I think that they’re trying to trick earth women into returning to their planet with them.”

I’m all for “worshiping the divinity expressed in feminine energies,” but why does this video creep so many viewers out?

It reminds me of that tribe in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death—the Donahues (a joke whose shelf life is long expired).

An Important Magical Principle

It’s an old saying in advertising that “sex sells.”

This Cornell University professor may have demonstrated in the ESP lab something that magicians have known for a while.

The scourge of responsible psychological research stands behind me, wearing a red cardigan and an expression of great interest. “How were your results?” Bem asks. He points out that I scored better predicting the location of erotic photos—in Bem’s hypothesis, more arousing images are more likely to inspire ESP—than I did boring old landscapes and portraits. In this dingy lab in the basement of an Ivy League psych department, is the future now?

Professor Bem also has some ideas on sexuality and gender identity, as you will find if you read the whole thing.


Another Case of ‘Sacred Prostitution’?

In Phoenix, Arizona, the Phoenix Goddess Temple is offering erotic massage, etc., in return for “offerings.”

Women at the temple take names like Magdalena, Shakti, and Devima. There’s also a high priestess named Gypsy, and a tall, lithe blonde named Leila, who advertises her measurements (36-26-37) on her page at the temple website, which includes photo galleries of each goddess.

The goddesses practice techniques that include genital touching for a “religious offering” of money that generally ranges from $204 to $650. Their advertisements go in the adult sections of local newspapers, including New Times, but Phoenix Goddess Temple founder Tracy Elise says the temple is not a brothel — it’s a church, and the services offered are religious rituals to enrich people’s lives.

This gambit has been tried before in other states and not ended well. Our cultural-legal system has no place for “sacred prostitution,” even when presented under the banner of freedom of religion.

British writer Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess (one of the most influential books of the Pagan revival), included a similar sort of temple in his fantasy novel Watch the Northwind Rise, also called Seven Days in New Crete (1949).

I do agree that sexual healing can and does take place. But the legal deck is stacked against offering it openly—you might suspect that when even the “alternative” newspaper calls it “New Age prostitution.

Classics scholar Stephanie Lynn Budin, author of The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, has weighed in elsewhere about the Phoenix Goddess Temple.

What drives me really nuts is that this tends to promote the idea that pagan religion is libertine; that this is what you get if you don’t honor some anti-material, anti-body, generally male deity codified in a book somewhere.  This then makes it easier to exploit people seeking new spiritualities, claiming that this is part of the deal.

Her argument, as I understand,  is that we interpret the writings of Herodotus and other ancients through our own sexual preoccupations and that the reality of the Pagan past was something different.

(Hat tip: Caroline Tully.)

What a Difference the Suffix ‘-ess’ Makes

Following a link from another religion blog, I dropped into today on Beauty Tips for Ministers (subtitled “Because you’re in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”)

I read this:

SO many of you have written to let me know that TLC will be airing an episode of “What Not To Wear” this Friday during which they make over a young, beautiful Episcopal priest.

And I was thinking, “Well, this is going in a homoerotic direction” when the truth hit me.

But I suppose if you want to be chased out of an Episcopal church by a bishop swinging his crozier, start talking about the “young, beautiful priestess.”

What difference that “-ess” makes. You know why, don’t you?


It does not matter if you are speaking of the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome or someone more contemporary. To the monotheistic mind, the word “priestess” seems to conjure up “fertility rites,” flowing hair, and orgiastic drumming. Ishtar! Jezebel!

Traditional Episcopalians and other Christians opposed to the ordination of women have used “priestess” as a slur before–and maybe they still do.

No, having women in sacramental, priestly roles is pretty scary, and so the only thing to do is to pretend that they are men under those robes.

Never before has a chasuble looked so much like a burqa.

(And one Episcopal priestess-in-training fears that vestments designed for men make her butt look too big–but that is a separate issue.)

The issue is that religion can be very sexy. Religio-magical power can be felt as erotic power, which why clergy often get into scandalous situations.

Female beauty plus sacramental (i.e., magical) power? There is nothing in the Book of Common Prayer about handling that!

So must they just pretend it’s not there?

And what do we Pagans do?

Sex and Witchcraft

The popular image of the sexually alluring witch goes back to Circe at least, was notable in the early modern period in the work of artists such as Hans Baldung, and got a big boost from Jules Michelet.

It keeps popping up today. Sometimes it is lightly disguised, as in the Craigslist posting blogged about here, where what the original poster seems to want is not a Tarot reader but a softcore porn model.

“Red Witch,” an Australian blogger, has been collecting popular culture images of female witches (some of them NSFW, not surprisingly), with thoughts of doing a book.

Anyway, I started collecting the stuff you’ve see on this blog because it seemed there had been an evolution in the representation of witches, and I wondered whether the polarized version that I was familiar with (witches are either good/bad, young/old, sexy/hag) was actually the mid-point of an evolution in which the Witch is at first only bad/old/hag, then becomes either good/young/sexy or bad/old/hag, and then is only good/young/sexy. Since nobody that I knew of—and my collection on witchcraft was pretty complete even then—had discussed the history of the representation of witches, and the importance of good/young/sexy witch imagery to the growing social acceptance of witchcraft and Wicca, I wanted to understand it better.

Matilda, who appears to be in the UK, has some flirtatious fun with the witch archetype on her web site.

As far as the modern religion of Wicca is concerned, the sexual element was there from the beginning, when Gerald Gardner and his priestess/paramour Edith Woodford-Grimes created the “Southern Coven of English Witches.” Where was his wife, Donna? Not interested in nudism, free-thinking, ceremonial magic, esoteric religion, and running a witchcraft museum, apparently.

(A good scholarly biography of Gardner as founder of a new religion still needs to be written. I would love to see it in the Pagan studies book series that I co-edit.)

At least Wicca is somewhat honest about its sexual element, with the centrality of the Great Rite and all. The fact is, however, that religion often has a sexualized component.

Every time that a Catholic priest, Pentacostal preacher, or Lutheran minister gets caught having sex with the wrong person, it is treated as a deviation from the standard. But sometimes spiritual practices lead to a stronger sexual vibe–and then what do you do with it?

I learned in graduate school, finally, from a professor of Asian religions why monks and nuns there often wear saffron robes. The color signifies their spiritual “heat.” It’s a warning—keep away!—like an orange road cone.

The East has sex scandals too—Sai Baba’s is just one example.

In Christianity, however, the professed religious often wear black, brown, or white—neutral colors. “Nothing happening here.” (Except for some of those Pentacostals …)

Wicca tries to seize the hot wire and direct the current. When that works, it can be life-changing. When it does not work, you get the usual run of social and interpersonal problems.

Aphrodite and Revolution

You don’t think of her as a political deity, but a (London) Times writer suggests that Aphrodite Pandemos contributes to the success or failure of popular revolutions.

This theory, which I first heard from a friend in Armenia, holds that popular upheavals only stand a chance of success if a country’s most beautiful young women come out on to the streets.

The idea being that even the most politically indifferent young men want to be where the pretty girls are and that this creates a critical mass at demonstrations that causes a regime to lose confidence in its ability to prevail. To paraphrase Marx, the young men feel they have nothing to lose but their virginity.

You, of course, are my readers . . .

You educated women and the rest of us who love you, that is.

“The Romantic Life of Brainiacs” says that you are not missing out the way that popular media say that “smart girls” do.

The Cliche: Pity the overschooled old maid and the lonely career woman. Highly educated or high-achieving women are less likely to marry and have children than other women. If they do marry, they are more likely to divorce. Even if they don’t divorce, their marriages will be less happy. And, oh, yes, they’ll be sexually frustrated, too.

The Reality In fact, educated women nationwide now have a better chance of marrying, especially at an older age, than other women. In a historic reversal of past trends – one that is good news for young girls who like to use big words – college graduates and high-earning women are now more likely to marry than women with less education and lower earnings, although they are older when they do so. Even women with PhDs no longer face a “success penalty” in their nuptial prospects. It might feel that way in their 20s, when women with advanced degrees marry at a lower rate than other women the same age. But by their 30s, women with advanced degrees catch up, marrying at a higher rate than their same-aged counterparts with less education.

Lots more there. Read the whole thing.

You Sexy Witch – 2

No, it’s not a porn site but a light-hearted collection of pop-culture witch images.

'Salem Witch,' a World War II American bomber.
Here is some World War II bomber “nose art,” for instance.

Some of the images, such as those of Fiona Horne, are not work-safe, however.

I want to see the Halloween party hats mentioned in the upcoming book on Pagan material culture (or on material-culture theory as applied to Paganism) in our Pagan studies series.

Two other issues connect here, at the very least.

One is the idea of the body as “nature” and hence as a locus of nature religion, which I broached in Her Hidden Children but about which a lot more could be said.

Then there is also the complex of reasons why “witch” is typically gendered as female. (And what sort of female?)