When the academicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to seriously investigate religion -- the origin and development of the "major" creeds, the ancient cults, and the practices of modern folk religions -- they discovered to their progressive shock, embarrassment, and even titillation that the most ancient and omnipresent of all religious symbols are apparently none other than the human penis and vagina.
Certainly, to us nowadays, it seems quite fitting that a humanity still close to the natural world in which its cultures had evolved would find genitalia apt symbols for the source of all life. After all, the sexual process is key to the creation of each individual human life and to the survival of the entire species; what could be better to represent the origin of all life and being, or to show people their direct connection with this divine spirit? Even when the overt reference was obscured the succeeding symbols of worship often partook of this basic identification between what's often called Godhead and that vital generative force which is at the core of life in our universe (beyond even male and female, being both at once, and both in one).
Whether it be Sun or Moon worship, rock or tree worship, snake or bull worship, it can still be traced back eventually to a veneration of the forces of virility and fertility. Even the so-called Sky gods are usually accompanied by their phallic symbols, Olympian thunderbolts, Norse hammers, and Tibetan dorjes, not to mention Chaldean swords and Chinese dragons. Likewise, many of the earliest rites of worship used both public and private sexual acts to invoke the blessings of their deities; some even used sacred prostitution to exalt both their spiritual deities and their material fortunes in a manner which well befits the era before the rise of sexual hypocrisy as a principle of civilization. Also widespread were dancing, blood sacrifices and feasts, and the sacramental ingestion of mind-altering materials of highly varied types (the most commonly known today include: alcoholic fermentations, cannabis preparations, and hallucinogenic mushrooms, cactus, flowers, and bark).
As "universal" theologies and clerical classes developed, the symbols of the sexual energy were retained in things like the Christian cross and Shaivite lingasharira, but the ritual practices around sexuality became almost exclusively focused on control and sublimation rather than power and celebration. Still, this control might express itself quite differently among the various "sophisticated" (that is, politically dominant over wide areas) religious traditions. The most fanatical expressions of control came from those religions which, while they subsumed the sacred sexuality on a sub- or unconscious level in their symbolism, in their conscious attitudes equated sex, even physical existence itself, with filth and evil. At their most extreme these sects exalted self-destruction as the holiest of acts.
But for a religion to survive with any social power the society in which it exists must itself survive. Therefore any religion which seeks that long-term power will have to come to some accommodation with the fact that most of a society's people must engage in at least some sexual activity in order for that society to continue to perpetuate itself (this is especially so in eras of high death rates). The Christian's highest ideal of sexuality may well be that which was expressed by Jesus himself, "For there are eunuchs, that were so born from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs, that were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs, that made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.", but even here the sentiment is immediately qualified by the next sentence, "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." It's a fact that in Jesus' own day the priests of Attis in nearby Asia Minor (Paul's homeland) underwent an initiation ceremony wherein the candidate, in an ecstatic trance, would castrate himself. Holding up his own testicles, the newly-made priest would rush in and present them to some lucky householder, who would then be obliged to provide the novice priest with an outfit of female clothing which would henceforth be worn as a priestly vestment.
It has often been debated whether Jesus actually meant to extol the practice of sacramental self-castration, or whether, as Christian orthodoxy later decided, he meant his eunuchs to symbolize a religious ideal of celibacy. In either case, control of sexuality in the Christian world took on a decidedly antisexual form. Compromise was permitted for the ordinary man and woman, but the undoubtedly divine nature of sex was mainly recognized and sanctified by all the taboos and fences which were hedged about it, rather than by the promotion of the experience as an act of worship in itself.
Curiously, it was among the Gnostic sects, which were persecuted as heresies by the victoriously emergent definers of orthodoxy (in both the Roman and Persian worlds), that we find both the most readily apparent survivals of sacred sexuality and some of the all-time greatest examples of openly suicidal rejection of the "carnal sphere" wherein the animal body dwells. Until relatively recently much of what we knew about the Gnostic movement in the Hellenistic world (roughly 200 b.c.e. to 400 c.e.) was in information provided by early Christian writers whose interest was almost always to portray Gnosticism as a degraded heretical belief. Thus, when these opponents of "heresy" describe the sacramental consumption by certain Gnostic communities of both the semen and menses of the congregation, we can either refute these charges as the damnable lies of fanatics or accept them as evidence of Gnostic depravity, or we can ask ourselves if this might in fact reveal something of the underlying practices which are symbolically embodied by orthodoxy in the eucharistic ceremony of the mass of communion.
The more recent revelations of the Nag Hammadi and other material has tended to confirm that the ancient Gnostics were, in the main, neither charlatans nor libertines even if some were more accepting of women as leaders and homosexuality, both of which the Pauline churches rejected. Though Gnosticism was ultimately suppressed as a competitor and subverter of orthodoxy, both Christian and Zoroastrian, the influence of its beliefs about the relationship of God to this world, of its antinomianism, of its complex structures of spiritual hierarchy, survived in numerous and diverse ways, in the religious enthusiasms of Cathars, Bogomils, and Albigensians, the philosophical mysteries of Neoplatonism, Hermetism, alchemy, magick, and kabbalah, and perhaps also in the secret rites of the Isma'ili Shiites ("Assassins") and the Knights Templars, and in the 'skrying' of Dee and Kelly, or in the vault of Christian Rosenkreutz, or even within the thrice-veiled shrine of "speculative" Freemasonry.
Though it is true that, starting in the 3rd/4th centuries and peaking around the 13th/14th centuries, the practice of sex worship had been almost entirely crushed or socially neutered or driven deep underground in the Christian world by "orthodox" churchmen, the same cannot so truthfully be said of the other influential religious worlds of humanity. Control is still a hallmark of the theologians' sexual attitudes in non-Christian communities, but the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist worlds, among others, can all offer at least a few examples of the survival of sex worship as a vital tradition. This is particularly evidenced by the Tantric teachings and practice among Hindus and Buddhists. The ancient methods, which adepts in most places passed on by oral instruction alone, were committed to writing, with meagre detail and occasional frankness in India and Tibet. Here, control of sexuality is presented through self-discipline and sacred ceremony rather than through personal repression and social hypocrisy. The importance of purity in the sexual act of worship is enjoined, and the ease with which it may be defiled is emphasized, but that is a far cry from enjoining perfect abstinence and emphasizing the illicit nature of all but the most discrete marital sex (a necessarily hypocritical situation which prevailed in European religious thought at the time of Tantra's development in Asia).
The kernel of the Tantric tradition is the understanding of the human body as more than merely meat, gristle, blood, and juices. We also have bodies of nerve, mind, and spirit. The essence of the Tantric method is the use of the physical senses, the breath, and the sexual energy, to achieve the higher levels of spiritual, as opposed to mere physical, ecstasy. As with every other tradition of enlightenment the specific techniques of Tantric meditation, mantra, and ritual are most easily learned directly from an experienced practitioner, though very valuable guidance may also be found in the writings of various teachers and scholars. Quite a few excellent modern books have been written on the subject, so many in fact, that to mention any here would seem superfluous. While none of the earlier Hindu and Buddhist texts can match in clarity and specificity what you can find nowadays in your local metaphysical bookstore, their study is still valuable in revealing the spiritual significance of Tantrism, and well worth it for those who are interested in a deeper than intellectual understanding.
This cardinal principle of universal interpenetration and merging is quite evident in the famous golden saying of the Renaissance Hermetists, "As above, so below." And it is not surprising that, in the Western world, it is the Renaissance and the Reformation which began the process of loosening the iron grip of Christian sexual repression upon the intellect of European humanity. Paradoxically, while popular political turmoil and the more or less open clash of ideologies was slowly undermining the foundations of the medieval system, in most instances the intrusion of society into the sex lives of its members was actually increasing. This paradox gave rise to the particularly nasty sexual hypocrisy of modern "secularized" Christendom which may have reached its peak in the era of so-called Victorianism. Yet all during the long build-up of bourgeois sensibilities and decorum a slowly swelling undercurrent of progressive illumination was flowing, mainly in the more rarefied milieus which eventually developed into modern science and critical scholarship. At first the role of sexuality in spiritual practice was announced only in highly esoteric formats - e.g., the alchemists' use of "Athanor" and "Cucurbite" as code words for the penis and vagina, or "Blood of the Red Lion" for semen and "Gluten of the White Eagle" for menstrual blood (though a few think, perhaps wrongly, that this particular phrase means female sexual fluids instead).
As the tradition of scientific investigation grew out of, and apart from, the earlier traditions of magick and mysticism, the subject of sexuality and its positive spiritual application began to be explored more openly. Starting sporadically in the later eighteenth century and continuing in greater breadth and depth as the nineteenth century progressed, men such as Richard Payne Knight, Thomas Wright, Jacques-Antoine Dulaure, Richard Francis Burton, Hargrave Jennings, General J.R. Forlong, Thomas Inman, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and many others, all in various ways examined the relationship of sexuality to the spirit. Their studies in history, ethnography, comparative religions, and physiology brought a discussion of concepts like phallism, Tantrism, and orgasm to a wider literary public than ever before in Western history. Parallel with these intellectual developments, there were attempts to revive or at least recreate the varied practices of the ancient sex-worshipping cults. Some, like John Humphrey Noyes and Grigori Rasputin, cloaked themselves in the guise of reasonably "everyday" Christianity; while others, like Pierre Vintras, Jules Doinel, and Joseph-Antoine Boullan, formed "heretical" churches of their own. A few, most notably P.B. Randolph, Karl Kellner, Theodor Reuss, and Aleister Crowley, set out to establish sex cults of purely modern devising (though many of these same "promoters" did not hesitate to invent fantastic ancestral lineages for use in their advertising).
Of these four specific pioneers, Crowley was the most outspoken in his public writings. His Gnostic Mass (Liber XV) is probably the best known modern and original piece of ritualized sex magick written in the English language. As with any set of dramatic symbols, the Gnostic Mass can be understood on different, and numerous, levels. There are many supplemental writings by Crowley which might be recommended to help illumine the concepts underlying the Mass, but the easiest to understand are the "secret" instructions he composed for his followers, De Arte Magica, De Natura Deorum, De Nuptis Secretis Deorum Cum Hominibus, De Homunculus, Liber Agape, and the notorious Emblems And Mode Of Use (also worthwhile are his various experimental notebooks, including Rex De Arte Regia and Amrita, and his curious pseudo-Persian Bagh-I-Muattar which gives advice on various homosexual and/or mystical practices). Many of these writings of Crowley's are couched, like the Gnostic Mass, in highly symbolic terms, but they ought not for that reason be dismissed as merely "fairy tales". The application of personal intuition, wit, and imagination can turn these symbolic outlines into quite explicit sets of instructions.
Crowley did his best to open wide the floodgates for the surging "waters" of sacred sexuality to pour into contemporary consciousness and inundate Western culture. And indeed, since his time a small but ever growing number of people have joined with him in his reverence and appreciation for the magical efficacy of sex. A few of them have even been his own erstwhile followers like Kenneth Grant and Louis Culling, but mostly these people have converged from a large number of vastly different traditions (like Tantra, Voudoun, and Reichian psychotherapy!); and they have converged to agree upon the urgent need for freer, more creative use to be made of our society's sexual energies in order that the human species may survive its currently critical period of massive socioeconomic oscillation/transition. As technology outruns social and personal responsibility it is increasingly obvious that the activities of contemporary society have begun to imperil the continuing existence of most life on earth, especially humanity's own. Yet the very same technological and economic structures which threaten our existences today are themselves the end products of past success; thus they are strongly identified with the established vested interests, and have built up for themselves a very considerable "social momentum".
If humanity is to act to save itself from a future of extreme misery (if not extinction) every energy must be mobilized to overcome the lazy inertia which would merely have us rushing to catastrophe a little less quickly, instead of actually turning aside from our current path toward the cliff. We sense that only an inner transformation on a mass level can enable our society to make the turn without skidding out of control. There is only one human psychic driver strong enough, creative enough, and universal enough to bring about this mass transformation, and that wonderful dynamo is sexual energy. Ecstasy, peace, rest, are these the birthrights of all humanity or delusional dreams? Perhaps our love for each other, expressed and amplified sexually, will lead us to find a better relationship with our ecosphere and become active contributors to its balance rather than continue to be its leading disrupters. Perhaps the unleashing of the power of the human imagination by the use of focused sexuality is the only way to initiate and maintain the kinds of cultural change we must undergo if we are to survive the next few generations relatively unscathed. If this is indeed the case then it behooves us to closely investigate, by means of both science and imagination, the various ways, especially sex magick, which have been evolved to tap the power of sexual energy in order to cause positive changes in human psyches and circumstances.
Though reference has been made to it, a concise definition of sex magick has not yet been given here. All clear conceptualization must by its nature include some definition of terms. If one is to use words to evoke understanding in a reader then it certainly helps if the reader first understands what is meant by the particular words being used. Actually, the only way in which to completely understand a word is to experience it directly through some mix of sensations (including any of those sensations which are derived purely from trance activities like reading, watching television, fantasizing, dreaming, meditating, or even performing ceremonial magick). Obviously the exact mix of sensations which one person has built up around the word "school", for instance, must differ in many respects from the exact mix of any other person. So in one sense we can never know exactly what is meant when someone else says "school". Yet common sense knows that, while no two people can see school in exactly the same way, most of us have had more than enough in the way of similar experiences to understand pretty well what may in general be meant by the expression. This matter of meaning is very often certain enough whenever the vocabulary of everyday communication is used; however, the difficulties may become almost insurmountable when highly technical terms are employed without a fairly detailed discussion of their meanings. To physicists the words "mass" and "energy" have very specific and specialized meanings which are quite different than when an art critic or a priest uses them; a good physics textbook must include clear definitions of such basic concepts. In the case of this particular introductory essay our task is to clearly define what we mean by the terms "sex" and "magick".
Sex in its broadest sense may be understood as that division of specific units by function which results in their complementary reunions in order to bring forth units of a new order, differing in some way from their antecedents. Hence, the processes of Hegelian dialectics and nuclear fusion are both examples of sex, but for the purposes of this disquisition we have used the word in its vastly more limited connotation of animal, specifically human, sexual activity. Aside from pregnancy and birth the most easily noticed, though far from the only, physiological concomitants of human sex are penile tumescence and ejaculation in the male, and vaginal lubrication and clitoral orgasm in the female. However, much more important to our immediate attempts at understanding are the electrochemical phenomena which take place in the nervous systems of both sexes. These alterations of ordinary consciousness, which may be described (by various observers at various times) as "thrill", "frenzy", "absorption", "abandonment", "trance", "bliss", "peace", or even "unconsciousness", are the psychological signs of the relatively free flow of sexual energy in the human body. This energy itself, while differing widely in its physical and psychological manifestations, may be assumed to be identical for all human beings, both male and female, and whether one prefers to call it "life force", "vital fluid", "kundalini", or whatever, it is the ultimate source of the sex power.
"Magick" is very broadly defined by Aleister Crowley as "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will". By this definition every successful act of volition is an act of magick. Thus any sexual act which conforms with the will(s) of the participant(s) is an act of sex magick. And yet, while there is no greater miracle of the mages' art than that human babe which results from an act of purely physical sex magick, it is nonetheless once again useful to narrow the use of a key term; therefore, instead of utilizing Crowley's rather sweeping definition, by magick we will be referring only to actions by some "operator(s)" which are consciously intended to directly effect changes on subtler planes than the physical, which will then effect changes on other planes, including the physical, if the people or things involved are properly connected by means of what Crowley called the magical link. To those unfamiliar with the fuzzily technical language of Crowley's occult system this could be translated as follows: the use of visualizations conceived and guided by one's thoughts, emotions, and imagination (in meditation, ritual, and/or creation), along with other things which, greatly influencing and "cross-fertilizing" each other, build up a vividness and presence in consciousness sufficient to create dramatic changes in one's states of spirit, mind, and even body (or anything else in one's physical experience as well, if by some means an effective physical link to the act of visualization is created and properly maintained by the operator).
Thus, "sex magick" may be defined, for the purposes of this essay, as not only the use of the psychological aspects of sex to induce a deep enough trance state to make direct contact with subtler planes, but also the use of the physiological products of the sexual ritual to establish a direct magical link between Malkuth ("physical existence") and whatever other planes are reached in the climax of the operation. The success of any particular operation is entirely a function of personal experience, that of the operator(s), participants, or observers, if any, and their individual judgments of the outcome need not agree at all. In the same way the success or failure of this essay depends upon the reaction of each reader.