Sacred Marriage

The Sacred Marriage,
by May Sinclair, Ph.D. ©2006

Part I
Our historical knowledge of the Sacred Marriage has several renditions. The earliest known is from Mesopotamia. One of the first people that we know of in Mesopotamia called Sumerians, were not local to the area. They worshiped a Sky-goddess, but merged their beliefs with that of the indigenous people venerating an Earth-goddess. They conducted a rite called the Sacred Marriage where a male consort was chosen annually by the Goddess incarnate to both protect and ensure abundances to her people. The Sumerian Goddess was not part of an agricultural resurrection duo but was a solitary originating principle. Until sometime after the 4th millennium BCE (before current era), all of Mesopotamia was a theocratic Goddess worshiping, socialistic, matriarchal society. But that changed.

Mesopotamia was an area of great upheaval throughout several millennia. The agriculturists had enormous amounts of land dedicated to their Goddess. As pastoral peoples entered the area with their herds—peacefully or as invaders— problems arose from differences in economic purposes. The nomads wanted open pastures and the Sumerians wanted enclosed lands to grow crops. The power held by the temples of the Sumerians was not usurped for numerous centuries and only then because of the stress and anxiety caused by the ever-increasing numbers of migratory groups all competing for the goods. Often the nomads moved into the area and simply accepted the traditions they found in place, but when there were religious difficulties, efforts were made to have whatever deities they worshiped be added to the recognized goddesses and gods making up the Sumerian’s official pantheon.

Still, there is an important difference between the worship of gods in hunter societies who believed their priests, when in a trance, experienced transportation to the spiritual world and that of agricultural communities believing the Goddess entered into their priestess’ body when engaged in rituals.

The Sumerian’s Sacred Marriage ceremony started with invocational singing as the Goddess descended into the High-priestess’ body. Once the Goddess entered the priestess a ritual bath took place as love songs were sung. Next the Goddess met her gift-bearing bridegroom at the gate and opened the door to him. Originally taking place in the abode of the Earth-goddess, a greenery adorned reed hut called a gigunu, the High-priestess, as the incarnated Goddess, declared the fate of her potential consort. Only when she favored him was he next led to the wedding chamber, seated on a throne, and crowned as her divine consort just before consummation of the marriage.

The Sumerians moved the gigunu atop the Temple ziggurat or stepped pyramid that represented the Cosmos, but much later the ziggurat was considered to be the home of a Mountain-god where God was appeased and appealed to for preventing natural or man-made disasters.

The Goddess was first worshiped as a solitary originating principle generating the gifts of life and abundance when incarnated into a woman priestess who expressed it through demonstrations of sex and birth. The Goddess, being a principle rather than a person, spread her abundance through sexual encounters with numerous virile young men. There are several legends of the Goddess and her lovers found in literature throughout the Near East suggesting the High-priestess chose a young lover who became her consort for the term of a year and was then sacrificed. The Sacred Marriage was celebrated during the New Year Festival at the Spring Equinox around March 21. Parts of the joyous festivities were enacted before the people. The mystical part of the ceremony was conducted privately inside the gigunu. The Goddess exhibited her ability to bestow abundance through the sex act and its subsequent pregnancy. Throughout the summer the crops and baby grew. The harvested fields were celebrated at the Vernal or autumn Equinox on September 21, with the birth of the semi-divine child being rejoiced at the winter Solstice around December 21.

The mystical marriage and references to a bridegroom must not be confused with modern western ideas about marriage. The Goddess was not considered to be a wife nor mother figure. Rather, she was an originating principle that entered into a human priestess who then conferred abundance to her people as it was expressed through the sex act. Sex was a gift to humanity. It was sacred. The incarnation of the Goddess never had a long-term husband. None of the rites performed in the temples were to show how marital relationships best work. They were expressions of the ever-occurring seasons and a reassurance of the earth’s abundance. Attempts to alter that idea were made by the nomadic tribes insisting on their male God being an equal partner in creation. None-the-less, religious ideas and ideals are not easily overturned—even by gods-of-might.

Originally the Sumerian religion indicated that all property, including land, belonged to the goddesses of the cities. Temple personnel were only the administrators and therefore nothing under their control could be bought or sold, only distributed. With the advent of gods-of-might, the concept of everything belonging to both the gods and goddesses remained, except the administrators were authorized to buy and sell everything on behalf of the deities. A city was theoretically the property of its main deity, so the Goddess had to be displaced for the God and his city to be identified together. The Temple was rededicated to the City-god while other shrines or smaller temples were built for his wife and children. Still, the Goddess continued to be the instrument used to secure kingship. On numerous Babylonian tablets there are inscriptions that clearly show the Goddess retained control of kingship—not the king.

Much later the New Year sacrifice included the king being held accountable for a good harvest. Sympathetic magic was correlated to the tears of the king bringing sufficient rain. A tearful king signified that the deity was pleased. It was not until the first millennium BCE, at the point where the Sacred Marriage became only one phase of the New Year festival celebration, that the original separate rites of the Sacred Marriage and those specifically relating to the harvest were merged together.

Part II
Our second version of the Sacred Marriage comes from the idea that males can only gain spirituality from females. The ceremony in India, called the Great Rite, is from the Kali and Shiva cult, which is a merger of yogic practices with the mysteries of the goddess concept connected to the cosmic eon, which includes vulva and phallic worship along with human sacrifice. Sexual intercourse was believed to increase a god’s psychic powers so sages were trained to control their sexual actions—prolonging coitus without ejaculation. It was while participating in the Sacred Marriage that man gained renewal or immortality through the Goddess. The incarnated Kali initiated her consort Shiva into eternal union by placing a wreath of flowers on her bridegroom’s head or giving him an apple. Tantric poets said no man could know the Goddess until he also knew her death aspect, thus her consort, ritually slain, became the God incarnate—ever-dying—ever-living.

Originally the Triple-goddess Kali was the creator, preserver, and destroyer, giving birth to time itself along with methods of measuring it: years, months, seasons, day, night, and the lunar eons. With inclusion of the mathematically determined belief that earthly catastrophes are caused by planetary deviation, said to have originated by the Babylonians and Chaldeans, Indian conjecture established a version of its timing that equaled 12,000 years. The Great Year, originally based on the lunar cycle and its eclipse-predicting eon was changed to involve the earth in a universal apocalyptic revolution. The Goddess, thus altered, at a given point would protract into her unformed aspect and the earth would be destroyed until she spoke the primal Word to create a new world. The change to a patriarchal position in India caused the female trinity to be superceded by a male one—Shiva. Kali first lost her Triple-goddess status to her consort Shiva, and then eventually her cosmic position to the Aryan Brahmin’s Brahma, successfully adjusting the Hindu trinity to become that of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

That changed, too. By the mid-500’s BCE Buddhism took over. Buddha taught life is pain that comes from desire while wisdom is gained by halting all desire. Still, Buddhists believed a man could gain illumination by practicing Tantric rites because enlightenment resides in the sexual part of women. Unfortunately sexual desire was also considered evil because it leads to reproduction that stretches out the chain of life in reincarnation after reincarnation.

Another adaptation of the Sacred Marriage took place in the Jerusalem Temple. As in India, the Hebrews did now allow male priests to be unmarried because their invocations and spells would be ineffectual. Their wives provided them with spirit. The basic philosophy being that only through sexual union can either a God or a man gain contact to spirit and the reality of existence. An enlightened man gains apprehension through his feelings that are awakened by the awareness of his physical senses.

The palace and Temple in Jerusalem had all the splendors of Phoenician architecture along with the wisdom literature of Egypt and Arabia. The Temple was a vision of God’s paradise. Its doors and walls were decorated with palm trees, flowers, and Cherubim. The location of the most sacred Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem Temple that housed the Cherubim-decorated Ark containing the images of Yahweh and his consort was called the Devir. Like the monarchs of the surrounding nations, the Davidic kings enacted the Sacred Marriage to ever restore fertility to the land. As in Mesopotamia the Goddess of the Hebrews initially held the cosmic power that she ultimately bestowed onto the king. And like the Great Rite in India, the merging of female and male in coitus, represented the Sacred Marriage of the Hebrew God Yahweh with Asherah— renamed Shekhinah—his female counterpart.

The Hieros Gamos, which is Greek for Sacred Marriage, was altered significantly when Alexander the Great opened up the East to the West. Western invasions brought wealth from the Orient, but constant war and its upheaval caused a desire for a personal religion that could supply inner peace. The state supported religions offered little to individuals, so there was a resurgence of mystery-religions that used the same methods developed by ancient shamans to bring individuals into a another state of consciousness. As early as the 10th century BCE, the mystery-religions introduced the cult of the Minoan Fertility-god, Dionysus into Greece. The Dorian’s Father-god Zeus was also included in the mystery-religions. A number of stories were relayed about Zeus, Dionysus, and the Titans who were the human descendants of the Goddess Gaia and her consort Uranus. Sometime during the 5th century BCE, the myth that humans, being evil from the Titans and divine from Dionysus, was changed to note people had to be liberated from the evil of matter. The mystery-religions, practiced the Sacred Marriage rite, but there was a problem for the men who desired more intimacy with and equality from God. First some of the Gnostics and then later Christians said the stories were allegorical—meaning there was a hidden spiritual meaning surpassing the literal interpretation of the sacred message. Symbolism was developed to change the physical acts of the sacramental marriage into a union of the soul with God. The Sacred Marriage rite no longer belonged to the group; instead it was transferred to the soul, with the individual receiving the benefits previously offered to the community or city.

It must be added that the Sacred Marriage might not have completely disappeared into mere symbolic interpretation. On November 12, 1990 Japan’s Emperor Akihito, may have participated in the rite as part of his enthronement coronation ceremonies, Sokui Rei Seiden NoGi. In Shinto tradition the sexual union between the female and male is linked to the continuance of the fruitfulness of the earth. And it is the Goddess that legitimizes a new male ruler’s power while transforming him into a living God. Emperor Akihito’s coronation included a young woman being placed within the inner sanctuary of the Shinto Shrine along with a Shinza-couch considered to be the resting place for the Sun-goddess.


May Sinclair obtained her doctorate in Philosophy of Metaphysics shortly after her 50th birthday. An award-winning poet, she has written extensively about ancient disciplines connected with symbolism and teaches private workshops on Dream Interpretation and Analysis from a Jungian perspective. Soon to be published is her newest book Infamous Eve, a review of what was occurring politically, socially and economically when the Hebrews wrote the book of Genesis.