Body as Hierophany

This paper was presented at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Chicago, 1988.

It is certain that human beings have the capacity to distinguish one thing from another and that this capacity is necessary for our continued survival, however I want to begin this paper by taking up an issue which is related to the conceptual framework that has come to be associated with the process of distinguishing particular things from each other.  Namely, that we have added a further nuance to this distinguishing capacity of ours:  somewhere along the way we have also developed a conceptual schema that promotes the separation and arrangement of things in terms of a hierarchical dualism, a schema, moreover, which incidentally provides a circularity of sorts and functions to justify our valuation of them as necessary and appropriate, as having to do with their intrinsic nature, rather than as having to do with our own individual or collective whims, or our political or theological or philosophical biases.  [1]

Although our framework is undergoing change as we become more sensitive to the dangers that inhere in the wholesale and non-reflective application of categories that may only pretend to be universal, this schema continues to underlie much of our thinking I am concerned in particular with the way in which this hierarchical placement has affected our thinking about the body, about nature, about woman, and about sexuality.  That is to say, all these things have been both dichotomized and devalued.  Within this hierarchy, each of these has been accorded a value lower than the things to which they are seen as opposed.  Let me sketch this devalued position in the case of each of the four:  body, nature, woman, and sexuality.

(1)   Body.  With respect to body and spirit, we not only distinguish one from another, but we consider one so superior to the other that we conceive them as elements in an opposition; we dichotomize them.  Depending on variations from one theory to another, this dichotomy will be expressed in different ways.  Sometimes spirit is considered superior to the body, while the body is frequently thought of as mere dross, to be ignored, or even harmed as part of our quest for transcendence. [2] It is spirit that is closest to the divine, which participates in the divine:  it is spirit that is eternal.  The body is thought to be an “Other” relative to spirit, our true self; the body is illusory, spirit is real.

(2)   Nature.  This understanding of the relation between spirit and body is analogous to our attitudes toward Nature, that is, body with a capital ‘B.’ Just as the body is thought to be an “Other” relative to spirit, so too is Nature regarded as an “Other” relative to persons.  Nature is an object, to be subdued and used, or used up, for human ends.  (We have conceived, for example, the idea of “disposable land,” land that has been specially set aside to use for dumping the waste from the manufacture of nuclear weapons and thus rendered unsafe for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.)

(3)   Woman.  Women have been regarded as spiritually other than and inferior to men.  This used to be very explicitly stated:  “Give not the power of thy soul to a woman, lest she enter upon thy strength, and thou be confounded.” [3]   And “You (i.e., woman) are the devil’s gateway;” [4] thus in some ways it was simpler to counter.  Today however such attitudes have gone underground as it were and are usually manifested in more subtle ways.

    . . . women are involved in all spheres of life:  they ought to be permitted to play their part fully.  According to their particular nature.  It is up to everyone to see that woman’s specific and necessary participation in cultural life be acknowledged and fostered. [5]

       Subtlety does not reign universally, however, even today: 

Our teaching is that the sacrificial act, the central act of our faith, the Mass, is a spiritual renewal of the sacrifice of Christ.  And this requires maleness. [6]

(4)   Sexuality.  The sexual function has been regarded as other and inferior to more “respectable” or more “spiritual” functions.

In addition, there is a complex web of connections among the things I have mentioned:  women have been identified closely with the body and with nature and sexuality, while men have been considered closer to spirit, made in the image of God.  In part because of these interrelations within the framework I concentrate on here, I shall not attempt to analytically maintain a focus upon this or that hierarchical distinction, but shall instead keep all four of these distinctions as my concern throughout the paper. 

While these misconceptions remain problematic for any number of reasons, in this paper I want to examine the way in which they function to make it difficult to develop new hermeneutical approaches to the writings of western love mysticism, that is, writings by mystics themselves which use the language of Body and the body, to be precise, erotic language.

My purpose here is first, to explain some of the reasons why I think that a reinterpretation of such writing is called for, and second, to show that both Body and the body (and woman and sexuality) are potentially hierophanic, but this must be preceded by preliminary discussion of these conceptual problems in order for my reasoning to be intelligible and my case plausible.

Our present conceptual grid did not emerge full blown let alone, if I may here risk waving a red flag (although it is a sign of my esteem for this august audience that I do not suppose for a moment that your are likely to regard the allusion in this light), from the head of Zeus – and if it did, would that make us think it superior to a set of concepts that proceeded from his loins, or from those of his female consort?  Where did it begin?  And how did it come to be conceived as it is now?

The seeds of our present thought about Body and the body were first sown many centuries ago, long before the Greeks who are sometimes credited with (or blamed for) the mind/body split.  We read in the Enuma Eliş, an Akkadian creation myth, that in the beginning, when neither the heavens nor the earth had been named, the great Mother Tiamat, “She who bore them all,” existed in a kind of primordial soup, with Apsu, “their begetter.”  From out of the absolute stillness of this prima materia, in which Tiamat and Apsu “commingled as a single body,” emerged Lahmu and Lahamu.” [7] At first, Lahmu and Lahamu participate harmoniously in the undifferentiated modality from which they emerged and in each other, but several generations later they become increasingly differentiated, and the former serenity of the primordial condition gradually becomes disrupted.  Apsu begins to plot ways to do in his noisy offspring, and when Timat hears of this, she become horrified at the prospect of killing what they had brought into being.  Although Apsu is eventually killed by one of his children who discovered the plans that were underway, a fully developed feud had already been launched.  On one side, we find Tiamat and her allies, on the other, Marduk, a direct descendant of the primordial “She who bore them all.”  Tiamat is now described as a monster, and is considered the embodiment of chaos.  Marduk, on the other hand, is destined to become the creator of the world, of order, and is charged with the task of vanquishing Tiamat.  After driving the Evil Wind” into her body, he

released the arrow, it tore her belly, cut through her insides, splitting the heart.  Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life /and/ cast down her carcass to stand upon it.  Then the lord paused to view her dead body, that he might divide the monster and do artful works.  He split her like a shellfish into two parts.

Marduk then proceeded to create the world from pieces of her body. [8]

The dynamics of the narrative are significant.  While the opening verse conveys an image of ontological wholeness, Marduk as creator of the world, eventually becomes identified with order that is then absolutely opposed to Tiamat who becomes identified with chaos, and devalued.   The notion of “the Other” which is implicit in the narrative functions as a “model of” reality that has become a foundational concept in Western thought as a “model for” destruction and oppression. [9] Tiamat, “She who bore them all,” (roughly equivalent in philosophical terms to the prima materia, and in theological terms to the ground of being) is no longer revered as the source and bearer of life, but is reviled.  In contrast, Marduk, the “most potent and wisest of gods,” the “creator” who cannot himself give birth, and therefore must destroy in order to create, is proclaimed “king of the gods.”  As the monstrous embodiment of chaos, Tiamat is reduced to being the raw material for the project of creation; she essentially becomes the paradigmatic “Other.” [10] Tiamat is left with but one quality:  she remains female.  The myth ends with a prayer:

May /Marduk/ vanquish Tiamat; may her life be strait and short!  Into the future of mankind, when days have grown old.  May she recede without cease and stay away forever. [11]

The story of the Enuma eliş comes from early in the second millennium (circa 1900 bce), [12] thus, the root of our present thinking about woman and nature preceded the Greeks who developed and refined it.  Centuries more would pass before the Greek legacy was finally developed into the Cartesian formulation of a thinking self.  [13]   Susan Griffin has written eloquently about the combination and recombination of these ideas in the book, Woman and Nature.  First, she writes:

It is decided that matter is transitory and illusory like the shadows on a wall cast by firelight; that we dwell in a cave, in the cave of our flesh which is also matter, also illusory; it is decided that what is real is outside the cave, in a light brighter than we can imagine, that matter traps us into darkness . . . /and/(it is decided that God is primordial light, shining in the darkness of first matter . . . [14]

The voices of the Church fathers are heard next:

It is said . . . that the earth is a central sphere . . . that Hell is within the sphere of the earth . . . That Hell is beneath our feet . . . It is observed that women are closer to the earth.  That women lead to man’s corruption . . . the face of the earth is a record of man’s sin . . . sin and afterwards death came into the world because Eve consorted with the devil in the body of a serpent. [15]

Then we hear the voices of Kramer and Sprenger, authors of the Malleus Maleficarum and inquisitors par excellence, who tell us:  “the word woman is used to mean the lust of the flesh,” and that “the power of the devil lies in the privy parts of men,” who are susceptible to women since “women act as the devil’s agent and use flesh as bait.”  Finally, they say, “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable.” [16]

These are just a sample from the plethora of writings in which women and nature and sexuality are depicted as bound up with one another and seen as evil or inferior to men and to culture.  Such writings are important because they continue to exercise a hold on our philosophical and theological imaginations and thereby continue to shape our attitudes.

Positing an essential relation between woman and nature is not inherently problematical.  All human beings, not only women, are intimately connected with nature – we come from nature, nature produces us.  Problems arise when we refuse to acknowledge that man too has a similarly essential connection.  Ultimately, though, the real problem lies not in affirming a relation between woman and nature, but in denying a relation between man and nature and in devaluing both woman and nature.

In The Laughter of Aphrodite, Carol Christ articulates the two intuitions which form the basis of her thought and reflect a much more optimistic view of woman and nature.  “The first is that the earth is holy and our true home,” she writes:  “the second is that women’s experience, like all human experience, is a source of insight about the divine.” [17]

To assert that the earth is holy runs counter to dualism.  To say that it is “our true home” suggests that there is some point to seriously rethinking what it means to be human and part of nature.  And to say that all human experience, including women’s experience, can tell us something about the nature of divinity suggests that, just as the Rabbi of Cracow discovered, the treasure we seek is hidden behind our own stove. [18]

I would argue that the dichotomization between ‘body and spirit’ has more to do with convention and particular biases than with ontology.  By the same token, O strongly suspect that the oppositions between ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ and ‘sexuality’ and ‘the sacred,’ as well as their hierarchical valuation, are concomitants of the split between body and spirit and as a result these too have more to do with our conventional categories than with what has been called the “really real.”  In large part, my critique rests on whether or not it is valid to affirm the existence of an ontological non-hierarchical continuity between spheres that are usually regarded as dis/continuous, and I am convinced of the validity of such an affirmation. [19]

My recent study of the writings of two 13th century women mystics, Mechthild and Hadewijch, demonstrated that one of the most significant manifestations of dichotomized thinking occurs in interpretations of love mysticism.  There, in an area in which we might expect to find the valorization of (or at least a sympathy for) a hierophanic vision of Body and the body we encounter a canon of interpretation that steers us away from directions that could lead to a sacralized view of nature and sexuality.  Our tradition does not speak comfortably of sexuality and the sacred, tending instead to speak of sexuality or the sacred.  We find a stubborn insistence on the “metaphorical” nature of such writings, along with an impoverished and narrow understanding of the meaning of metaphor:  to say that something is “metaphorical” or “symbolic” is usually to say that it is dis-embodied.

Yet even though some scholars seem uneasy with the idea that the mystical experience can and often does encompass the physical, there are others whose interpretations are informed by the sense that Body and the body are holy.  Norman O. Brown, for example, writes that “the mystical body is no, because mystical, therefore, non-bodily.” [20] Even more significant is a statement that Eliade makes during a discussion of hierophany in The Sacred and the Profane.  After commenting on the paradoxical nature of hierophanies he writes, “By manifesting the sacred any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself.”  Then he adds, “The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.”  [21] I consider his statement both profoundly radical and profoundly true, and shall devote the final portion of this paper to an articulation of some of its implications.  Accordingly, with this in mind, let us turn now to a consideration of several examples from the writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch. 

Neither Hadewijch nor Mechthild selected words casually; they were mystics, but they wee also poets.  As mystics, they chose words to describe their experience of God with great care, using them with a high degree of intentionality; [22] as poets, they were intimately familiar with the tools of their craft, and utilized words in much the same way (and for many of the same reasons) as an artist uses paints, resulting in descriptions which convey much of the immediacy of the original experience.

Mechthild was born in Germany in 1210, and began having visions of God as early as 1223, shortly after joining a group of Beguines, but it was not until 1250, after recovering from a serious illness, that she began to record them.  Her confessor, Heinrich of Halle, collected her writings, eventually publishing them in a book called The Flowing Light of the Godhead. [23]

Just as in the secular love poetry and prose of this period the theme of courtship and consummation is very prominent, especially in the early writing, which is almost invariably couched in terms of erotic love.  The following piece draws an analogy between the soul’s journey to God in the mystical experience and the sensations of an inexperienced girl visiting court for the first time.

When the poor soul comes to Court, she is discreet and modest.  She looks at her God with joyful eyes . . . She is silent but longs above everything else to praise Him.  And He, with great desire, shows her His Divine heart /which/ glows like red gold in a great fire.  And God lays the soul in His glowing heart so that He, the great God, and she, the humble maid, embrace and are one as water with wine.  She is overcome and beside herself for weakness and can no more . . .. and . . .. says, ‘Lord!  Thou art my Beloved; My desire!  My flowing stream!  And I am Thy reflection!’  [24]

Once attained, the sweetness of union with God is not forgotten, and Mechthild continues to yearn for her beloved and to seek the experience over and over gain:  “My body is in long torment, my soul in high delight, for she has seen and embraced her Beloved,” she writes.  “As He draws her to Himself, she gives herself to Him.  She cannot hold back . . . Lord! Give me Thy blessing,” she says. [25]

God yearns for her as well, and tells her:

Thou art my resting place, my love, my secret peace, my deepest longing, my highest honour.  Thou art a delight of my Godhead, a comfort of my manhood, a cooling stream for my ardour. [26]

Elsewhere, Mechthild describes her soul as a young maiden and God as a beautiful youth whom she tells “I cannot dance O Lord, unless Thou lead me.”  Moreover, when she does dance, he is so pleased by what he sees that he compliments her:  “Thy dance of Praise is well done,” and rewards her:  “Now shall thou have thy will of the Virgin’s Son.  Come at midday to the shade by the brook, to the resting place of love.  There thou mayest cool thyself.” [27]

While an aura of humility and a certain timidity characterize much of Mechthild’s writing, Hadewijch’s descriptions are unequivocally and unapologetically powerful. [28] They are unfailingly consistent with her sense of personal power and self:  the description of union with the divine in terms of a liaison between a worldly man and a naive girl would never have come from her.  There are in fact several instances in which Hadewijch explicitly compares her unreadiness to receive God while she was still only an immature girl with her capacity to receive him fully once she reached the maturity of womanhood. [29]

There is uncertainty with respect to Hadewijch’s dates, but it is generally agreed that she lived during the 13th century, which places her in the thick of the newly vitalized movements of women’s spirituality that began in the mid-1200s. [30] While the quality of Mechthild’s writings merely demonstrates that she received more education than was commonly given to female children, Hadejwich’s works attest tot he fact that she was a highly original thinker, a remarkably erudite scholar and writer; above all, she was an artist whose vision was strong, clear, and powerful.  She has left an impressive collection of letters, poems, and narrative accounts of visions, and it is in the latter that we encounter Hadewijch’s most vital and unrestrained expression. 

Seeking and yearning for God was a lifelong endeavor into which all of Hadewijch’s formidable energies were poured. [31] In the account of a vision called “Oneness in the Eucharist” Hadewijch begins by talking about her yearning for God and continues by describing identification with the divine, and like Mechthild, uses the language of Eros to describe relationship and union with God. [32] Explaining that what she experienced one “Pentecost Sunday” was so profound that it could not be adequately communicated in words, she writes “I can say this about it.  On this day

I desired to have full fruition of my Beloved, and to understand and taste him to the full.  I desired that his Humanity should to the fullest extent be one in fruition with my humanity . . . To that end I wished he might content me interiorly with his Godhead . . . and that for me he should be all that he is, without withholding anything from me For . . . I chose this gift:  that I should give satisfaction in all great sufferings For that is the most perfect satisfaction:  to grow up in order to be God with God.

Hadewijch writes that she wanted “to experience nothing else but sweet love, embraces, and kisses.”  In addition, it was “In this sense,” she emphasized, that “I desired that God give himself to me, so that I might content him.”  A “great eagle” appeared to her and told her to make herself ready, and then addressed God:  “Just and mighty Lord, now show your great power to unite your oneness in the manner of union with full possession.”

Initially, God appears to Hadewijch here “as a Child . . . in the same form as . . . his first three years,” then in

The form and clothing of a Man . . . looking like a Human Being and a Man, wonderful, beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who wholly belongs to another.

Hadewijch next tells us she received the Eucharist, that

He gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is, and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is.

But at this point, Hadewijch’s eucharistic experience moves completely out of the ordinary.  No longer is she partaking of the divine body and blood in the same manner as the rest of the faithful, under the ordinary form of bread and wine.  Instead,

He came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity.  So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported.

Hadewijch continues by saying that she could “sustain this intensity only for a short time,” an aside which suggests that this indeed entailed an experience which literally involved her body, particularly since the body is thought of as being more subject to temporal limitations than is the soul.  Severely limited in its capacity to sustain close encounters with the infinite, however brief, the body tires:  “soon, after a short time, I lost that manly beauty outwardly in the sight of his form.

I saw him completely come to naught and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me.  Then it was to me as if we were one without difference.

Finally, in a description that prefigures some of Ignatius’ directions for active contemplation, [33] Hadewijch writes:

It was thus:  outwardly to see, taste, feel, as one can outwardly taste, see, and feel in the reception of the outward Sacrament.  So can the Beloved, with the loved one, each wholly receive the other in all full satisfaction of the sight, the hearing, and the passing away of the one in the other.  After that . . . I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself.

Whatever else this experience may have been, it was an experience that involved the body. [34]

Now as I stated earlier the fact that accounts like these are highly eroticized presents a hermeneutical conundrum, and from the beginning of the interpretive tradition, one can see that a genuine struggle is going on with respect to the commentators and the “problem” of Eros.  Although the choice of literary image which we find in Hadewijch and Mechthild is not without precedent, both sacred and secular, what is perhaps most remarkable and most telling is not the genre per se, but the powerful reactions to it, and the way in which those reactions constitute filters through which various interpretations are derived.  Anders Nygren, for example, tackled the problem of Eros by affirming an essential difference between divine love, Agape, and human love, Eros.  Although he cites Pausanius’ discussion of ‘heavenly’ and ‘vulgar’ Eros from the Symposium, in which the respective antecedents of the two Aphrodites are explained, Nygren somehow manages to ignore the implications of Diotima’s contribution that Socrates relates toward the end of that dialogue. [35] According to Diotima, Eros is neither one thing nor the other (i.e., neither heavenly nor vulgar), but one of the intermediary spirits “halfway between god and man.”  Such spirits

Are the envoys and interpreters that ply between heaven and earth, flying upward with our worship . . . and descending with the heavenly answers . . . since they are between the two estates they weld both sides together and merge them into one great whole. (my emphasis) [36]

Pausanius’ description concerning the nature of the two Aphrodites suggests that even as early as Plato’s time, belief about the nature of love had already become seriously flawed, but there are further implications, too.  If we continue to accept the idea that there are two kinds of love, and that one kind – sexual love – is tainted, then we can hardly be surprised when interpreters of love mysticism are unable to see in the texts anything besides disembodied metaphor.

The “problem” of Eros is often “solved” by a process of “spiritualization” in which the mystic’s erotic language is understood as metaphorical language, and the relation between lover and beloved is viewed as analogous to the relation between the soul and God. [37] There are serious drawbacks to this line of interpretation; one being that it reinforces tendencies to dichotomize spirit and body, Agape and Eros; another (and more important one) being that it does not come close to exhausting the meanings of the metaphor in question, but limits them instead.

One ought to be able to acknowledge the powerful eroticism in this language, the directly expressed sexuality in these images, without running the risk of being thought heretical or irreverent.  Such freedom is not the order of the day, unfortunately, and constraints like those I have described make it very difficult (though clearly not impossible) to discuss the presence of eroticism and sexuality in western mystical writings.  Traditionally, the interpretive canon has permitted us to speak of Eros but only within certain strictly delineated boundaries, and in terms of certain (usually Christian) theological categories.  For example, while trying to describe the mystical genre to which Mechthild’s writings belong, Elmer O’Brien throws up his hands in exasperation, frankly admitting that:  “Historically, no categories exist in which to insert these events.  Theologically, there are no principles at hand to explain them.” [38] In light of the interpretive status quo, he is certainly correct, and the current paucity of explanatory principles will continue for as long as we regard the status quo as canonical.  The acceptance of any body of interpretation as canonical sounds a death knell for original scholarship, but far more importantly, it prevents us from learning more about the nature of reality; it prevents us from knowing.  As things stand now, attempts to arrive an interpretation within the existing framework result in our being limited with respect to what we can legitimately ask about the material, not to mention what we can say about its meaning.  The absence of a theoretical framework with sufficient explanatory power means that we must develop the framework so that it becomes adequate; it does not mean that we should ignore, or distort, or suppress parts of the data.

What is needed is the construction of a conceptual and theoretical framework that lends itself to the development of new insights about the nature of some kinds of mystical experience.  Such a framework is possible only if informed by an ontology that re-values Body and he body.  Thus, rather than positing an ontological separation between spirit and body, persons and nature, eros and the sacred, or valuing these things according to a hierarchical schema, we would think in terms of a dynamic unity which consisted of subtly interactive modes or aspects of itself.

At this concluding juncture, I want to consider more fully the implications of Eliade’s statement that “the cosmos itself could become a hierophany.” [39]

At the level of Body, of nature, to takes this seriously not only means an end to the view that Body is evil but an end to the view that Body is inferior to Spirit since for Eliade hierophany consist in a kind of tension necessarily involving both This is not a new idea:  Diotima understood Eros not as belonging exclusively to either heaven or earth, but as an intermediary force which “welds” the spheres together; the Tabula Smaragdina so beloved of the alchemists tells us that “the power of upper and lower are combined . . . neither one is complete without the other.” [40] The Eliadean notion of hierophany is bound up with the potential for the fullness of Being itself; it is paradoxical in a way not unlike that in which the Christ, as fully human and fully divine, is paradoxical.

At the level of persons, to take Eliade’s statement seriously means that we can legitimately interpret the experiences of a Hadewijch in a way that does not exclude the body, but profoundly includes it, and thus encompasses sexuality.  We can understand the body as sacramental in a Tillichian sense.  For Tillich, sacramental materials “are intrinsically related to what they express; they have inherent qualities . . . which make them adequate to their  . . . function and irreplaceable.” [41] We remember that O’Brien lamented the dearth of theological categories that could help inform his analysis of the mystical tradition to which Mechthild belonged, but perhaps he ended his search too soon; there are numerous models for sacred sexuality in both eastern and western traditions.

Consider the experience of the tantric initiate, for example, which occurs in certain forms of esoteric Buddhism and Hinduism For that initiate, write Kees Bolle, “The world takes on a new meaning.  It is transformed before the initiate’s eyes and becomes both the means and object of his realization.”  [42]

In that tradition, the experience of nature is transformed, and nature is recognized as the “language” of the divine, as is the experience of the body and of sexuality, the language of the body:  both reveal the sacred.  In that tradition, female sexuality is non-problematic; the female body is not regarded as the locus of evil or as an unfortunate enticement into the lusts of the flesh, rather, it is celebrated together with the male body as a sacramental element.  [43]

To speak of tantra and western love mysticism in one breath may seem incredible, yet it appears there is more of a link between east and west than one would suspect.  For example, according to Denis de Rougement, who has discussed similarities between the ideals of courtly love and tantra, it is quite probable that such cross-cultural influences did occur, beginning in the 6th century c.e. as the result of the widespread transmission of texts between east and west. [44]

We can also trace the marked thematic connection between the images found in mystical writings like those of Mechthild and Hadewijch and the Song of Songs to the ancient Near East thereby providing another model for sacred sexuality.  In the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) ritual the events told in The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi were the focus of public and ritual reenactment in ancient Mesopotamia; this ceremony included sexual intercourse between the king and a hierodule who was thought to embody Inanna. [45]

The suggestion that historical, cross-cultural connections might be responsible for the thematic similarities between the texts of western love mysticism and those of tantra and the ancient near east will need to be further developed and adequately supported, and articulating these possibilities here may be interesting, but not the same as establishing them as fact.  Obviously, there remains much work to do in this area.

Nevertheless, setting aside the possibility of cross-cultural interrelations that may someday help account for the presence of erotic language in sacred texts from divergent traditions, we nevertheless are lead to observe that the belief that human beings could participate in the sacred through sexual union, through the body, is exceedingly ancient and apparently very widespread.  It is a belief that has arisen at various times and in various places, among disparate peoples who lacked the dubious vantage point derived from studying the history of religions.  The erotic impulse has been entwined with the religious impulse from the beginning of human experience.  And why not?  For each involves ecstasy, and ecstasy moves us out of ordinary, profane experience, into the realm of extraordinary experience, into the sacred.  There is an important caveat here:  we must remember that the dynamics of ecstasy share the paradoxical nature of hierophany, ecstatic movement does not entail a severance of the ties which bind us to ordinary life. [46] All of reality is a whole, is holy.

One final word.  I must confess to sharing with Francesco Patrizi, the 16th century philosopher who became infused with the splendid vision of Hermetic ideas, [47] an enthusiasm for the possibilities of introducing the mainstream to the marginal, and I can imagine the day when the cosmos in its entirety is viewed as a hierophany, when, to paraphrase the words of one contemporary poet, these things are “taught in . . . school,” when even

Kids and historians of religion will learn that God
lives like music in the skin
and sounds like a sunshine harpsichord. [48]


Revised Istanbul, December 2001

[1] Robert Hertz, “The Pre-Eminence of the Right Hand: A Study in Religious Polarity,” in Right & Left: Essays on Dual symbolic Classification, ed. By Rodney Needham with a Foreword by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 3-31.

[2] See Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), for an extraordinarily lucid discussion of the ambivalence toward the body experienced by man women mystics that was expressed in ascetic and penitential practices.

[3] Ecclesiasticus 9:2.

[4] Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum, I, 1, in Migne, Patrologia Latina (Paris, 1344), Vol. I, cols. 304-05, quoted in Julia O’Faolain and Lauro Martines, eds., Not in God’s Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 132-133.

[5] Documents of Vatican II, Austin P. Flannery, ed. (Michigan: William B.  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 965.

[6] John Cardinal O’Connor, quoted in National Catholic Reporter, 4 November 1988, p. 20.

[7] The relation between Lahmu and Lahamu can be understood by using the example of the relation between the right eye and the left eye:  in all normal cases, they are distinguishable one from the other, but neither is inherently superior to the other.

[8] James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 60-72.

[9] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, “Religion as a Cultural System” (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973), pp. 87-125.

[10] See Simone de Beauvoir’s Introduction to her book The Second Sex, trans. And ed. By H.M. Parshley (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), pp. xiii-xxix, for a discussion of woman as “the Other.”

[11] Pritchard, op. cit., p. 72.

[12] Ibid., p. 60.  the only extant text of the Enuma eliş is much later than the myth itself.

[13] René Descartes, Meditations II. 

[14] Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature:  The Roaring Inside Her (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), pp. 5-7. er

[15] Ibid., pp. 7-11.

[16] Ibid., pp. 7-11.

[17] Carol P. Christ, Laughter of Aphrodite (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1988), p. ix.

[18] Martin Buber, Die Chassidischen Bücher (Hegner: Hellerau, 1928), pp. 532-3; quoted in Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. By Joseph Campbell (New York: Harper and Row, 1946), pp. 219-221.  

[19] If we interpret the word ‘holy’ in its most literal sense, we find that it is etymologically related to the word ‘whole.’ The English word ‘holy’ is derived from the Greek ‘kailo’ meaning ‘whole’ or ‘uninjured’ and after a variety of linguistic permutations—most of them taking the feminine form—appears again in the Old English world ‘halig,’ meaning ‘holy,’ ‘sacred.’    When I began to discuss the implications of Christ’s statement for women’s experience with my students I start by introducing them to the idea of ontological continuity.  When this concept is used to inform an understanding of the physical universe we can then talk about a “universe that has no seams.”  I continue by suggesting that since our experience as persons is part of this whole, a recognition of this essential relationship, together with all of its implications, means a recognition that the human experience is potentially holy.  Moreover, the perception of boundaries between what we are accustomed to call ‘self’ and ‘the world’ is matters of convention, rather than ontology.  While these conventional boundaries are invaluable for simple day-to-day functioning (to preserve them means, for example, we can avoid being hit by trucks) we must continually remind ourselves of the difference between convention and ontology.  Distinctions arising from the former do not necessarily reflect what is really real.  While such distinctions may be based on sound ontological ideas, they do not have to be; in many cases, such distinctions are the product of distorting political, cultural, social and historical influences.  At this point I reiterate the analysis of the Enuma Eliş in terms of its function as a model for the “Other,” and here the discussion moves away from the philosophical and theological to the political as we consider correlations between the mythic model and contemporary attitudes and behaviors toward women, minorities, and the environment.  

[20] Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (New York:  Vintage Books, 1966), p. 83.

[21] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane:  The Nature of Religion, trans. By Willard R. Trask (New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959), pp. 11-12.

[22] Cf. Kees Bolle, The Persistence of Religion:  An Essay on Tantrism and Sri Aurobindo’s Philosophy, with a Preface by Mircea Eliade (Leiden:  E.J. Brill, 1965), p. 57, where he discusses the “intentional language” which is used in the Tantric tradition in order to prevent the unitiated from having access to the meaning of these texts and rituals. 

[23] The Revelations of Mechthild of Magdeburg or The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. By Lucy Menzies (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1953). 

[24] Ibid., p. 9.

[25] Ibid., p. 10.

[26] Ibid., p. 11.

[27] Ibid., p.p. 21-22.

[28] It should be noted that Mechthild, in contrast, displays certain ambivalence toward the body.  There are places in which she writes in a way that suggests she viewed her body as an integral part of the order of things:  “Love melts through the soul into the sense, that the body also may have its share”, or even as a means to God:  “I pray Thee /Lord/ that my longing may not die even when I can no longer do anything with my body!”  (Menzies, ibid., p. 179) and while other passages suggest just the opposite—that the body was virtually an insurmountable obstacle:  “my body, that dead dog, ever stinks in my nostrils.”  (Menzies, ibid., p. 179) and “The senses cannot perceive this blissful intercourse between God and the soul.” (Menzies, ibid., p. 190).  Elsewhere I have suggested reasons for this ambivalence and have argued that Mechthild’s dilemma stemmed ultimately from her uncertainty about whether to trust in her own experience of the divine on the one hand, or to interpret it in terms of the prevailing norms, on the other.  This hypothesis is further supported by the fact that although the vision which accompanied Mechthild’s illness of 1250 convinced her that she had a divinely sanctioned mission to write of her experiences, she continued to suffer tremendous self-doubt.  As is often the case with extraordinarily gifted women, it was all to easy for Mechthild to doubt her own worth, as well as the reliability of her experience and the value of her writings, and she remained very uneasy about the great responsibility she felt called upon by God to carry out.  Menzies writes that Mechthild “often wept for shame . . . that I, a poor little woman, should write this book out of God’s heart and mouth.’”  (ibid., p. xix.  See also Karen Voss, “Mysticism, Eros, and Embodiment,” a paper presented at the Conference on Women and Spirituality, University of Colorado, April 9, 1988).  Although Mechthild’s theology has been called  “theology of humility,” if we are truly committed to taking women’s experience seriously, it may be that we should not be satisfied with this conceptualization.  However, Bynum warns against assuming that women simply internalized male values (Bynum, op.cit., pp. 291-294).

[29] Hadewijch:  The Complete Works, trans. With an Introduction by Mother Columbia Hart and a Preface by Paul Mommaers (New York:  Paulist Press, 1980), p. 263.

[30] See for example the account of a Beguine group in the early 14th century in Silesia in Robert E. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1972), pp. 112-119 and also the account of Mareguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls, in the same work, pp. 200-208.

[31] Hadewijch relates divine acknowledgement of those endeavors:  “Behold, ancient one, you have called me and sought me, what and who I, Love, am, myriads of years before the birth of man!”  (Hart, op.cit., p. 272).  The salutation (possibly knowingly paraphrased from Augustine) is quite remarkable, and evocative of myth, since it suggests Hadewijch’s active participation in a deep-seated, usually inarticulate human yearning for “restoration” to a condition of wholeness.  (Note:  The question of whether the attainment of such a condition constitutes a return (in some sense) to a condition of primordial wholeness, or whether it is rather a going forward into a condition of unity is a perennial one.  See Karen Voss, Aspects of Medieval Alchemy: Cosmognony, Ontology, and Transformation (unpublished M.A. thesis, San Jose State University, 1983), pp. 78-82. 

[32] “The sense cannot perceive this blissful intercourse between God and the soul.” Hart, op.cit., pp. 280-282.

[33] See Karen-Claire Voss, “Imagination in Mysticism and Esotericism” Studies in Spirituality No. 6: 1996, pp. 11-14-117 et passim.

[34] Important theological implications arise from these descriptions that entail reciprocal movement between the mystic and the divine beloved.  See Voss, Mysticism, Eros, and Embodiment, op. cit.

[35] Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. by Philip S. Watson (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 31.

[36] Plato, Symposium 202e, trans. by Michael Joyce.

[37] Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (New York:  Pantheon, 1983).

[38] Elmer O’Brien, Varieties of Mystic Experience (New York:  The New American Library, 1965), p. 117.

[39] See p. 9 of this paper.

[40] “Tabula Smaragdina,” trans. by Karen Voss.  See “The Presence of the Tabula Smaragdina in the Musaeum Hermeticum,” paper presented at the American Academy of Region, Western Region conference, San Jose State University, March 25, 1988.

[41] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951-63), 3:122-23.

[42] Bolle, op.cit., pp. 67-68.

[43] See Mircea Eliade’s comment on the mystical image of Christ as Bridegroom in the Christian mystical tradition in Yoga:  Immortality and Freedom, 2nd ed. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 265.  The Tantric model of sexuality may prove to have limitations.  It appears to me now that sexual union that was truly the microcosmic actualization of macrocosmic cycles would be dynamic, not static, and would have to entail the continuous, reciprocal exchange of energies.  My initial impression is that since all the texts (as well as subsequent interpretations) were written from a male point of view, insufficient focus may have been placed on the experience of the female partner.  See Rita Gross, “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource of the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45, n. 32 (1”978), 279-280fır a discussion of the over-emphasis on the phallic aspect of the linga-yoni icon.

[44] Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World, trans. by Montgomery Belgion (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956; revised and reprinted by Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 120-121 et passim.

[45] See Samuel Noah Kramer, “Cuneiform Studies and the History of Literature:  The Sumerian Sacred Marriage Texts,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963), p. 487 and Frédérique Apffel Marglin, “Hierodouleia,” The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. By Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), pp. 309-310.

[46] For a consideration of the implications of the ecstatic experience, see Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp. 7-8.

[47] See Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 345.

[48] Richard Brautigan, “Gee, You’re So Beautiful It’s Starting to Rain,” in The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (New York:  Dell Publishing Co., 1968), p. 38.




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