Riane Eisler’s book
SEX, MYTH, AND THE POLITICS OF THE BODY
Candles, music, flowers, and wine – these we all know are the stuff of romance, of sex
and of love. But candles, flowers, music, and wine are also the stuff of religious ritual, of our
most sacred rites.
Why is there this striking, though seldom noted, commonality? Is it just accidental that
passion is the word we use for both sexual and mystical experiences? Or is there here some long
forgotten but still powerful connection? Could it be that the yearning of so many women and
men for sex as something beautiful and magical is our long repressed impulse toward a more
spiritual, and at the same time more intensely passionate, way of expressing sex and love?
Because we have been taught to think of sex as sinful, dirty, titillating, or prurient, the
possibility that sex could be spiritual, much less sacred, may seem shocking. . .Yet the evidence
is compelling that for many thousands of years – much longer than the thirty to fifty centuries
we call recorded history – this was the case.
In traditions that go back to the dawn of civilization, the female vulva was revered as the
magical portal of life, possessed of the power of both physical regeneration and spiritual
illumination and transformation. . .Far from being of a lower, base, or carnal order, it was a
primary symbol of the powerful figure known in later Western history as the Great Goddess: the
divine source of life, pleasure, and love.
In the south of France, where some of the earliest European art has been found, there are
many images of the sacred vulva. Some of these, in cave sanctuaries near Les Eyzies in the
Dordogne region, go back thirty thousand years. As archaeologists point out, the cave was
symbolic of the Great Mother's womb. Its entrance was thus a symbol of the sacred portal or
This association of the divine vulva and womb with birth, death, and regeneration is a
major mythical theme in prehistoric art. It probably goes back all the way to the Paleolithic (or
early Stone Age), is clearly present in the Neolithic (when agriculture began), and in various
forms still survives in the Bronze Age and even later historic times.
Many sculptures of what archaeologists call Venus or Goddess figurines, as well as other
ceremonial objects excavated from all over the ancient world, have highly emphasized vulvas.
Since prehistoric art is primarily concerned with myths and rituals, there is little question that
these vulvas are of religious significance. . .A six thousand-year-old Goddess figure from
Bulgaria, the throned "Lady of Pazardzik," has her arms folded over her prominently etched
vulva. Her sacred triangle is ornamented by a double spiral, an ancient symbol of regeneration.
Strikingly similar is a Japanese Jomon pottery Goddess from approximately the same time with
double spirals on her torso and a highly stylized inverted pubic triangle. . .
In ancient Indian religious tradition, the female pubic triangle was viewed as the focus of
divine energy. It is to this day in tantric yoga associated with what is called kundalini energy,
which, when awakened through the pleasures of sex, rises through the body to bring about a state
of ecstatic bliss. . .
There are also indications that the male phallus was in ancient times an object of
veneration. Although the evidence for this is strongest from Bronze Age times, phalluses, and
particularly depictions of the union of the phallus and vagina, are found as early as the
Paleolithic, in imagery strongly reminiscent of the sacred lingam-yoni figures today still found in
India. . .
One of the most beautiful examples of this artistic tradition depicting sex as sacred comes
to us from Mesopotamia. It is a terra cotta plaque sometimes identified as "Lovers Embracing on
Bed," probably the Goddess Inanna and the God Dumuzi about to consummate their sacred
union. It was fashioned about 4000 years ago. And like many earlier Neolithic Goddess
figurines, it clearly delineates, indeed accentuates, the sacred pubic triangle. . .
Our early mythical imagery reflected a worldview in which death was neither an isolated
event nor a final destination in Heaven or Hell. Rather, it was part of the same cycle: a cycle of
sex, birth, death, and rebirth, in which the Goddess reclaimed what was hers to give, and in
which sex played a mysterious but central part. As our ancestors realized that women only give
birth after sexual intercourse, they apparently concluded that the rebirth of vegetable and animal
life every Spring (and even the rebirth of the sun on the Winter Solstice each year) is also
generated through some kind of sexual union. So our ancestors fashioned rites through which we
humans too could find union with the mysterious forces that govern the universe, which they
associated with the female creative power.
For if plants could be born again and again from the earth (the womb of vegetation) one
could believe, even though it was not given to humans to witness that process, that the Goddess
– who recycled days and nights, barley and wheat, and Spring and Fall – would also recycle
human life. And one could also believe that through erotic rites of alignment with the mysterious
power of sex through which the Goddess performed her miraculous work of birth and rebirth, we
humans could find not only protection and solace in our inevitable pain, sorrow, and death, but
also augment our chances, generation after generation, for a joyful and bountiful life.
But if in a more partnership-oriented era the sacred marriage of the Goddess symbolized
both the union of female and male and our oneness with the life-and-pleasure-giving powers of
the universe, what kind of sacred union could be celebrated in a world where the worship of the
Goddess and her divine son or lover would become ever more subordinate to the worship of
violent and warlike gods? . . .
In such a world, both the worship of the Goddess and the sacred marriage as an ecstatic
religious rite would have to acquire very different forms and meanings. . .
A fascinating case in point is the famous story of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.
According to this popular Greek myth, which tellingly takes place on the island of Crete, there
was once a wicked king by the name of Minos, who every year required a tribute from the
Athenians of seven young women and seven young men to be sacrificed to a monstrous creature,
half bull and half man, called the Minotaur. When the action opens, the young Athenians
(including Theseus, son of the king of Athens) have just arrived in Crete. Through promises of
love, Theseus quickly tricks Minos' daughter, the priestess Ariadne, into giving him a secret only
she knows: how to safely enter and leave the underground labyrinth where the bloodthirsty
Minotaur dwells. Armed with Ariadne's magic thread and his trusty sword, Theseus descends
into the labyrinth, catches the Minotaur by surprise, and speedily dispatches him to Hades (the
Greek realm of the dead).
One interesting feature of this story is its vilification of the Mycenaean King Minos. In
earlier accounts, Minos is far from evil. Homer, who writes glowingly of Mycenaean times,
identifies him as the son of Olympian Zeus himself. Hesiod describes him as the most inspired
and just law-giver of the ancient world. So undoubtedly what the vilification of Minos reflects is
the end of Mycenaean control of the Mediterranean and the gradual ascendancy of Athenian
Even more interesting, if we look at this story in light of what we know about the
important roles played by Cretan women as late as Mycenaean times, is how this myth deals with
Ariadne – who, like Queen Arete in the Mycenaean Phaecia of Homer's Odyssey, was probably
still worshipped by her people as the earthly representative of the Goddess. Even in this
Athenian legend, Ariadne is still a woman possessed of great power. It is she, who like Inanna in
the Sumerian Hymns, holds the secret to the labyrinth, to an initiation-like journey such as
Inanna and Dumuzi took to the underworld of death. It is also she who has the knowledge of how
Only now that knowledge and that journey are no longer part of a mythical cycle
involving sex, death, and rebirth. Nor is it any longer a journey in which a female deity plays the
major role. Instead, it is a journey taken alone by a male hero. And it is not a journey to the
realm of a chthonic or underworld Goddess, as in the Hymn of Inanna, where her older sister
Ereshkigal is queen. Rather, it is to a place under the earth where a hoofed and horned male
monster (much like the later devil of Christian iconography) devours human flesh.
Most tellingly, in sharp contrast to the story of Inanna and Dumuzi, in which Inanna
returns from the underworld to continue to govern her people, the story of Theseus and Ariadne
has a very different ending. For him, it ends with a triumphant hero's journey home to rule as a
king. For her, it ends with her people's defeat, the betrayal of her love by Theseus, and her
abandonment far away from home on the isle of Naxos.
Just as Greek gods such as Zeus, Apollo, and Ares were Indo-European imports, mythical
Greek heroes such as Theseus, Hercules, and Perseus were idealized representations of the men
who were now everywhere taking over the ancient world. The qualities these archetypal heroes
embodied were not so different from those of the epic he-men of our time, of a Rambo or James
Bond. They were consummate killers, noted for their power not to give, but to take life. They did
not hesitate to use lies and thievery to advance their ends. And, in a world where (eventually,
even in Crete) women were gradually becoming male properties, they were frequently not only
rapists and seducers, but also abductors or thieves of women.
Moreover, as in James Bond and other contemporary macho adventure films, sex with
women was for these ancient Greek heroes merely incidental. For rather than a sacred act
associated with the worship of the Goddess, sex was now associated with kingly ambition to
conquer and to rule – and above all, with violence.
Probably because of the tenacious hold that the institution of the sacred marriage as a
legitimization of royal rule still had even by his time, Theseus eventually marries Ariadne's little
sister Phaedra. But like Ariadne, she too is no longer described as the representative of the
Goddess. Instead, we are simply told she is also a daughter of King Minos.
In other words, the powerful ancient archetype of the Goddess and of the priestess who
was her earthly representative has by now been radically altered. And so also has the institution
of the sacred marriage, which now no longer takes place, as all ancient sacred marriages did, in
the land of the priestess or queen – as tracing descent through the mother and a husband coming
to live with his wife would require. Rather it takes place in Theseus's homeland, to which he has
taken the little girl Phaedra, who is then brought up as a member of his household: a clear
reflection of the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal descent and of the Athenian custom of childmarriage
But these radically altered sexual relations, first between Theseus and Ariadne, and then
between him and Phaedra, are not the only way in which the ancient sacred marriage is coopted
and debased in this myth revolving around the exploits of a Greek prince/king. Even more
dramatic – as I suddenly realized when I reread the part of this story focusing on the Minotaur –
is how the sacred marriage is debased, distorted, and in essence parodied, in the account of his
What we are told is that the Minotaur is the child of King Minos's wife, Queen Pasiphae.
However, he is not the child of Minos, but of a beautiful white bull with whom, in punishment of
Minos for not sacrificing the bull to him, the Greek sea god Poseidon made Pasiphae fall in love.
The bull as a symbol of male potency goes back all the way to the Paleolithic – as most
probably does the myth of a sacred sexual union of the female creative principle with a bull,
since in a Paleolithic cave we find an otherwise inexplicable painting of a horned animal
standing over a pregnant woman. This association of the male principle with the bull is still very
clear in the hymn of Inanna (where she refers to Dumuzi as her "wild bull") and even much later
in Minoan and Mycenaean Crete (where the horns of consecration or bull horns were prominent
religious symbols everywhere associated with the worship of the Goddess). So there seems little
question that the sexual union of Pasiphae and the white bull is still the sacred marriage of the
female principle represented by the Goddess and the male principle represented by the ancient
But now, rather than being a rite of central religious significance, it is presented to us as
the illicit, and unnatural, affair of a king's wife. Moreover, rather than bringing forth new life in
the Spring – or a divine child symbolizing the Goddess's power over birth, death, and
regeneration – what this sexual union produces is a monster with an unquenchable appetite for
In short, just as in medieval Christian dogma sex is linked with sin, in the Theseus legend
the sacred marriage between Pasiphae (as the representative of the Goddess) and the white bull
(the ancient Bull God) becomes an adulterous act by an unfaithful wife. To top it all off – and in
complete reversal of earlier myths and archetypes – the product of this once sacred union is now
an evil and bloodthirsty demon, curiously prefiguring the familiar horned and hoofed devil that
in later Christian myth endlessly torments humans in his underground Hell. . .
Yet even to our day, the earlier melding of the sexual and spiritual is evident in both
Eastern and Western mystical traditions. This is one reason many people in the so-called New
Age spiritual movement look to mysticism for clues to a more satisfying spirituality and
sexuality. Many of these people are particularly drawn to Eastern mystical traditions, as they
often preserve more of the prehistoric view that a balanced union of female and male is the
essential foundation for balance and harmony in all aspects of our world.
But both Eastern and Western mystical writings are a mix of partnership and dominator
elements. So precisely because there is today so much interest in alternatives to religions where
our bodies (and particularly our sexuality) are supposed to be base and evil, it is important that
we try to untangle the various strands of these two completely contradictory points of view. . .
Certainly the earlier, more partnership-oriented societies of our prehistory were not ideal.
But they were societies where our most intimate connections – the connections of women and
children through birth and of women and men through sex – were still understood as sacred
rather than profane. And they were societies where even at the dawn of human civilization,
women and men already seem to have sensed the wisdom that lies at the core of our most exalted
mystical and religious traditions: that it is only through connection, through love (be it of a
divinity or another human) that we can attain our highest potentials.
The search for this lost wisdom by mystics – and by women and men throughout the
ages – is the search for reconnection with our partnership roots. It is the search for a way of
relating that is the antithesis of the dominator mode, where in both reality and myth polarization
and strife, conflict and separation, winning and losing, dominating and subduing, dismembering
and disembodying, conquering and controlling, in short, force, fear, and violent disconnection,
are the central themes. And its very essence, as mystical writings have so often brought out, is
the search for a means of healing what was so brutally rent asunder with the shift to a dominator
world: the fundamental erotic, and with this also spiritual, connection between women and men.
RIANE EISLER is the author of Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body,
hailed by Gloria Steinem as “Riane Eisler's most stunning, far-reaching, and practical gift – both
to readers and to a world that must change or perish.” She is best known for her international
bestseller The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, hailed by anthropologist Ashely
Montagu as “the most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.” Her newest book, The
Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics has been hailed by Archbishop Desmond
Tutu as “a template for the better world we have been so urgently seeking.” Riane’s website is
www.rianeeisler.com. Her books are available from bookstores as well as on
www.partnershipway.org and www.amazon.com