Who was “the sacred prostitute”? And what happened to the developing consciousness of humankind when people no longer venerated the goddess of love, passion and sex?
So asks Jungian Psychologist Nancy Qualls-Corbett, early in her book The Sacred Prostitute. She goes on later:
These questions bothered me. Much as I wanted to put them out of my head, they continued to jostle and nag me as if, almost autonomously, the sacred prostitute and her goddess wanted to be known. I felt compelled to investigate historical accounts of sacred prostitution, the goddess’ role in the lives of ordinary people in ancient civilizations, and the sacred sexual ceremonies enacted in the temple of love. But most of all, I wanted to know what relevance these ancient rituals might have for men and women today.
Open to her, and you may be in a similar situation – She does that – jostles and nags (or is it she invites and entices?). She wants to be known. Having spent decades in this tug of war, moving toward Her and pulling away, I find She doesn’t let go. Just as She compelled Qualls-Corbett to behold Her in one idiom, She compelled me to (at least attempt to) embody Her in another, and to (at least attempt to) vindicate Her in this third idiom.
We don’t know if there were prostitutes before patriarchy – but I suspect there weren’t. Without the denigration of women or sex, without the separation of body and mind, of matter and the sacred, without the type of monogamy that supports patriarchy, it seems there would have been little need.
Charles Eisenstein – in The Ascent of Humanity (‘Ascent’ here being sort of tongue in cheek) – argues exhaustively that all the myriad problems facing civilization today stem from a mistaken sense of the self as separate. Separate from other humans, separate from nature and the planet, separate internally (body from mind, spirit from matter, feeling from thought), separate from the sacred. That sense of separation began at the dawn of civilization and has been increasing ever since. He makes a good case that this process of increasing separation is akin to growing up – just as an adolescent must separate from her parents in order to become a mature individual, so have we as a species needed to separate ourselves from the myriad webs of connectedness we naturally inhabit in order to mature. Separation as part of our evolutionary path. He also argues that separation has reached its peak – we simply can’t get much more separate than we are. I think most of us would agree – enough is enough, it’s become pathological. Most people are yearning for reconnection.
The absence of the Goddess, and the perversion of her sacred prostitute are deep symptoms of that pathology. Here is Qualls-Corbett again:
I began to see that the pervasive emptiness people complained of could be explained in terms of the loss of the goddess — the one who renews life, brings love, passion, fertility – and the sensuous priestess – the human woman who brought the attributes of the goddess into the lives of human beings. The connection to an important layer of instinctual life – joy, beauty, a creative energy that unites sexuality and spirituality – had been lost. . .
When the divine feminine, the goddess, is no longer revered, social and psychic structures become overmechanized, overpoliticized, overmilitarized. Thinking, judgment and rationality become the ruling factors. The needs for relatedness, caring, or attending to nature go unheeded. There is no balance, no harmony, neither within oneself nor in the external world. With the disregard of the archetypal image so related to passionate love, a splitting off of values, a one-sidedness, occurs in the psyche. As a result, we are sadly crippled in our search for wholeness and health.
The sacred prostitute is one metaphorical link to a connected self, recognized as necessary early on in the separation process, and increasingly degraded the more separate we became. Marion Woodman says:
She is the consecrated priestess, in the temple, spiritually receptive to the feminine power flowing through her from the Goddess, and at the same time joyously aware of the beauty and passion in her human body. . . she magnifies the Goddess in physical delight and spiritual ecstasy. She opens the masculine to the potency of penetrating to the divine, and the feminine to the rapture of surrender to it. The mystery of that union dwells beyond the finite bonds of personal love.
The sacred prostitute is where human (both male and female) connect to the Goddess. She has both a human and a divine identity – the literal embodiment of all that the goddess is. And the Goddess is many things – she is sex, beauty, passion, and eros, yes, she is also life and birth. She is love, creation, soul and heart. The Goddess is dance and wisdom, body, matter, death, nature, earth, animal instinct. She is chaos and the unconscious. She is also the final stage of maturity. Ann Ulanov writes in The Feminine in Jungian Psychology and in Christian Theology:
Th[e] highest phase of confrontation and individuation in both sexes is initiated by the feminine: for the man, through the anima, which leads to the self; for the woman, through the feminine self, not through any contrasexual elements. The feminine, in this sense, is the completing element; it is the feminine which completes the individuation of each sex. The masculine initiates the emergence of consciousness from primary unconsciousness; the feminine initiates the completion of consciousness by re-establishing contact with the unconscious .
If she is the principle of reunion in a separate-self paradigm, the sacred prostitute is also a healer. She heals the wounds of the masculine cut off from the feminine.
The stranger too is transformed. The qualities of the receptive feminine nature, so opposite from his own, are embedded deep within his soul; the image of the sacred prostitute is viable within him. He is fully aware of the deep emotions within the sanctuary of his heart. He makes no specific claims on the woman herself, but carries her image, the personification of love and sexual joy, into the world. His experience of the mysteries of sex and religion opens the door to the potential of on-going life; it accompanies the regeneration of the soul (italics mine). Qualls-Corbett
If I once read what follows, I don’t know where, so perhaps I dreamt it or made it up long ago. But in my understanding, wherever there is war, there is an urgent need for the sacred prostitute. The masculine warrior, in order to kill, has cut himself off from his interior feminine (and thus, his humanity). To kill for an idea (of kingdom, homeland, religion, economic gain or political system) requires a cutting off from one’s soul. In war, the body becomes problematic. Being subject to horrific vulnerability, having to combat the body’s self-preservative instinct to flee violence, witnessing the horrors inflicted on the body – all require dissociating from the body, from softness, from the need for tenderness.
Afterward, having lost his connection to the body and to the sacred, nothing responds to him. The ground won’t grow food, women and children and domesticated animals shun him. Wild animals stymie his success at the hunt. He is like a ghost. He experiences no fellowship, his presence is toxic. He is a stranger to the natural world and the temple whore is his path back to connection. She heals his separation from his body, from his need, from his vulnerability, from life. She makes him right, again, with the goddess, the planet, with life. Without her sacred rites, this stranger is a wandering, isolated madman.
This is the real reason for ‘camp followers’ – those troops of women who trudged alongside soldiers, accompanying them from battle to battle. Like groupies with musicians, their main purpose was sex – to make them human again. Even now, though warriors no longer march, wherever you find war, you find an exponential intensification of the sex trade. War means trafficking. But without the presence of the sacred (absent because of culture’s anti-body, anti-sexuality misogyny), the sex trade merely perpetuates the separation.
Demonizing the Sacred Whore not only strips her of her capacity to heal, it subjects her to the very malady she was meant to treat – the dissociation of the body from the sacred.
And it’s not just war that occasions a greater need for the sacred whore.
In every hyper-masculine arena, you find prostitution. Crime bosses, political bosses, business moguls – prostitutes are part of the decor. Without consciousness of what’s missing in their souls, without an understanding of why it is necessary, the sex industry around men of power is unable to achieve it’s real purpose. But it still is the inevitable effect of a hierarchical demand that men and women abandon their feminine aspects as they climb toward the top. The uglier it gets, the more necessary whores become.
Yet without understanding her sacred mission, without recognizing that these acts should be consecrated rites, all we’re doing is throwing bodies on a perennial fire. Soldiers and whores alike, disposable bodies thrown into the flames of wars whose only purpose is to fuel the powerful.
Of course, the key factor that’s easy to miss in our current sex industry paradigm, is that the sacred whore is an embodiment of the active feminine, not the passive. With neither end of the feminine spectrum is she an object, there to be dumped on, used, squirted into. But nor is she there to shore up a wounded or exhausted ego with false compliments. The sacred whore is, most of all, a high priestess – there to teach the alienated or inexperienced stranger how to revere and reconnect to the feminine, which has nothing to do with ego. She does not wave a magic wand and poof! he’s fixed. No, he has hard work to do, to bring himself back – she is his guide along the path.
To quote Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida:
Knowledge and love are the same mental activity; to know a thing we must love it, to love a thing we must know it. [Love] is the power by which we grasp ultimate reality. Love is the deepest knowledge of things.
When men are cut off from the feminine, they no longer know it – therefore love is impossible. Trying to unite without knowledge and love is dangerous for both parties, and over time creates an ever-intensifying alienation.
We take as axiomatic Satine’s statement in “Moulan Rouge” – ‘I’m a courtesan, I’m paid to make men believe what they want to believe’ – when in fact the role of the sacred whore is exactly the opposite. That’s the perversion of prostitution. The fixation that glosses over a deeper and more dangerous truth.
David Dieda says that what a woman wants in a sexual relationship with a man (or what the inner feminine wants from the inner masculine – or however we configure the masculine/feminine polarity), is absolute consciousness, pure unadulterated loving presence. She demands exactly the quality of mindfulness of any other mindfulness practice. Dieda says that is the gift of the feminine to the masculine, a clear and living path to awareness.
The woman’s job then, is to make that desire utterly transparent – with clear and instant and unequivocal feedback. The task is simple, but oh-so-difficult for the patriarchially-trained woman. Her task is to express herself with utter honesty. To respond, bodily, emotionally, verbally, precisely how she feels in every moment. If her visceral response is to close against a less-than-conscious approach, her job is to say so. If her man is absent-mindedly behaving in ways that hurt her, she must tell him that. According to Dieda, the only way a woman can open sincerely to her man is if she trusts her body’s every response and offers it to him as a tool for awareness. The woman, Deida says, always intuitively knows exactly what degree of consciousness, of presence, her man is engaged in, and when she responds with utter directness, she gives him a great gift.
In intimate relationship, a woman’s job then is precisely not to make a man believe what he wants to believe, but to make him absolutely aware of what actually is in the moment, to teach him the truth about the impact of his presence.
Of course, it can be profoundly painful for a man to experience such honesty. It feels emasculating to a weak ego. But we all gain strength by facing our fears – and judging by the way men react and by the way women are trained (not infrequently with violence) to deal with men in civilization – honestly facing his woman’s displeasure would seem to be among the greatest fears men have. In offering her clarity, a woman helps a man move from a fantasy about manhood to a powerful, mature, loving masculinity – a masculinity that doesn’t depend on authority, or logic, or force, or money, or righteousness for strength. I attest to the the truth in Deida’s words from my own personal experience.
The masculine, Dieda says, wants to penetrate the world with love, and the feminine wants to surrender to it. But what civilization has been penetrating with has not generally been love for a very long time, and the feminine has lost faith in surrender. Civilization is like a soldier – cut off from its humanity. And the sacred whore wants nothing more than to lead him back into life’s welcoming arms.
In remaining immediately and expressively connected to her body’s wisdom, a sacred prostitute demands that those who enter into her energetic aura remain connected to theirs, because only by engaging their own bodily wisdom can they engage appropriately with hers. The Sacred Whore can only be approached with an attitude of humility and a desire for restoration. You cannot penetrate her unconsciously.
So, you might ask, did I have all that in mind when I made my fateful decision long ago? Not really. But I did have a visceral intuition, a bodily sense of what was possible and necessary. I had a sense of an underlying truth about erotic connection and healing. And I had a unconscious drive to explore this blasphemous way that truth could be applied. I hear echoes of this intuition in the writings of other whores.
. . the shy young men, or awkward middle-aged ones. I began to love the tenderness of their skin, the anxieties they confessed, the humility of their needs. I took them to the room as a priest might take a penitent; I laid a calm hand on their shoulders and undressed them gently. Kate Holden – In My Skin
Along with those whispers of intuition, there is ultimately deep regret. The ugliness of the modern sex industry destroys the very gifts we may have, in our rare tender moments, wanted to offer.
My body told me what was possible. But it wasn’t possible within the civilized paradigm. I needed to be stronger, clearer about how to proceed, and far more sure of myself to accomplish what I set out to. If I’d had the theory, or if our culture affirmed the role of the sacred whore, it might have turned out very differently. But as it is, I see myself not as an ex-prostitute (though that’s the label I’ll share with people lately) but more precisely as a failed sacred whore.
Now, having failed Her the first time around, She has given me a new opportunity to serve Her will to be seen, this time, not with my body, but with the words that flow through my body from Her heart.