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Holy Sex: Fascinating Rituals in Religious History

A judge in Delhi welcomed 2014 in the old fashioned way—by issuing a statement about premarital sex. The act is, he said, “not only immoral, but also against the tenets of… every religion in the world.” Over the last two thousand years, this judge’s views have been supported time and time again. From cults of virginity to the stoning of adulterers, the religions of the modern world have made sex a virtue mainly by the act of omission.

But were ancient religions really as fixated on abstinence as their modern descendants? As it turns out, thirty thousand years of human history is a long time to maintain unchanging views of sexuality. The Delhi judge may be surprised to find many religious views on sex today are largely a modern phenomenon—and in many cases extra-marital sex was not just allowed, but even required, as a proof of spiritual devotion.

Here’s a list of five fascinating sexual rituals once as commonplace as praying to Mecca or trimming the tree for Christmas.

1. It was sinful not to have sex.

In ancient Babylon, Greek historian Herodotus wrote accounts of a form of worship of the goddess Aphrodite that compelled a woman, once in her lifetime, to offer herself up to a stranger. The ritual would proceed as follows: the woman would arrive at the temple and wait for the first man to cast a coin into her lap (the amount was irrelevant) and speak the sacred words. Whoever the man was—whether King or Shepherd, young or old, she would be obligated to have sex with him. Refusing was a sin, and the money given to her was holy and remitted to the temple.

Author Mary Renault gives life and poignancy to this custom in her iconic book, The King Must Die: A Novel, a retelling of the Theseus myth.

2. The way to cement Kingship was through love, not war.

There are many popular coronation ceremonies, but would you believe a public display of sex was once one of them? In ancient Sumeria, a young king was expected to show that his relationship with the goddess was strong by bedding her chief priestess in full view of his subjects. The eager audience rejoiced if it appeared the coupling was a successful one – it would mean good crops and prosperity ahead.

This ritual was also the source of much of the oldest erotic poetry.

3. Being pregnant at the wedding didn’t cause the lady guests to clutch their pearls in shock.

It turns out in 12th century Great Britain, cohabiting before marriage was so common it was the norm, rather than the exception, for a bride to be pregnant on her wedding day. In fact, families in the Middle Ages were so concerned with carrying on the bloodline that (in a seemingly modern twist) they encouraged cohabitation during the engagement period to ensure the lady was able to conceive. The wedding was concluded only when the bride was visibly pregnant. In later centuries, the Catholic Church changed its views and began to combat the practice, but it was not fully stamped out until The Marriage Act of 1753.

4. Men ran around whipping women with leather thongs to promote good luck and fertility.

Today, people prepare for February 14th (Valentine’s Day) by buying flowers and making dinner reservations. However, the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia taking place on February 15th (which survived until the 5th century B.C., and to this day, variants remain alive and kicking in the former Czechoslovakia) involved a different kind of celebration of love and fertility. Held in honor of Lupa, the mythological wolf who was believed to have suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, the festival was a celebration of spring and release of good luck and fertility in the coming year. Naked youths and magistrates ran through the streets, striking (the often willing) women who lined up for the rite regardless of their current state: those who were barren hoped the blows would render them fertile, those already pregnant hoped for an easy and safe delivery.

5. At Bacchanlia, sex and politics were expected to mix.

Today we think of Bacchanals as cheesy, Greek-themed parties hosted by college frats. But in ancient Greece, the celebrations in honor of Bacchus, God of wine and ecstasy, were popular and subversive events that evolved into such hotbeds of political conspiracy that they were eventually banned. The early incarnations of these celebrations were open only to women and created an opportunity for a powerful female priesthood. A historian writing about the rites describes them as licentious, drunken revels where different sects of society freely intermixed.

This paper, by historian Matthias Riedl, delves into the fascinating political history of the practice—as it turns out, the suppression of the Bacchanals has claim to fame as the first major religious persecution in Europe.