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A Pagan Perspective on Sex

Robin Herne's picture

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The Pagan religions of the ancient world had diverse opinions on matters of sex and sexuality, some of which have carried over into the modern forms of paganism.

Sexual identity was far more fluid in the ancient world, and it is important to bear in mind that ~ as far as is known ~ none of the languages of the polytheist cultures of early Europe had words meaning heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Clearly people of millennia past engaged in the same sexual activities that go on today, yet there is little evidence that most of those old cultures were particularly concerned about the gender of the person someone had sex with.

Upper class Athenians, for example, considered the ideal relationship to be between a free male citizen and a person of lower social standing ~ in the eyes of Ancient Greek society that could be a wellborn teenage lad (yet to achieve the status of legal independence), a woman of any social background, or a slave of either gender. Women could normally only achieve independence by becoming priestesses or, more controversially, prostitutes. There is evidence of older women emotionally, intellectually and sexually inducting younger women ~ the most famous case being the priestess Sappho of Lesbos, fragments of whose love poetry survived the book burning mania of intervening centuries.

The socially secure individual, the erastes, took on the task of guiding the novice, the eromenos, through society. Such relationships were intended to be short-term, though some (such as marriage, in which the husband was invariably considered to have more legal standing than his wife) did indeed last a lifetime. Such relationships were, for the most part, initiatory and any sexual aspect was part and parcel of inducting the beloved to the ways of the world.

Not all ancient cultures accepted the notion of sexual relationships based upon a dominant-submissive dyad. The Ancient Greek traveller Diodorus Siculus commentated of Gaulish men that, They are accustomed to sleep on the ground on animal skins and roll around with male bed-mates on both sides. Heedless of their own dignity, they abandon without qualm the bloom of their bodies to others.” Diodorus was rather surprised that men (i.e. people of similar age and social status) had sex, rather than engaging in the Athenian model.

A number of deities are described as having same-sex relationships, and very few modern Pagans would raise any objections to performing same-sex weddings, or having open displays of affection (within the same limits of decorum expected of heterosexual couples) between same-sex couples at Pagan gatherings.

Modern Pagans tend to place strong emphasis on such virtues as honesty and responsibility. Sexual pleasure can be taken outside of marriage, but in general Pagans would expect the partners to exhibit honesty (by not misleading partners into expecting more commitment than is on offer) and responsibility (by not pressuring unwilling partners into sex, or exposing them to risks of unplanned pregnancy, STIs etc). In a world with a population well in excess of 6 billion, contraception is to be encouraged.

Deceiving a spouse or partner is unlikely to be considered a honourable way to behave. Sex is considered to be a sacred activity, and lying to or brutalising a partner would be seen as a poor way of treating such a potentially magical act.

Some ancient Pagan religions allowed for polygamy (more than one husband or wife). British law only permits for one spouse at a time, but there are some Pagans who live with two or more partners ~ such relationships can be acknowledged in a religious rite even if not by the law.

Many have suggested that modern Western society is sex crazed ~ and advertising agencies certainly do seem to use sexual imagery to sell virtually everything imaginable. Those people, especially the young, who are not out swapping bed partners every other day, are often made to feel like prudes and unfairly pressured to engage in activities they might sooner to leave till later in life.

Sex is also given a high status in other respects. Virtually everyone who becomes a parent accepts that some of his or her hopes, dreams, ambitions etc will have to be shelved at least for a few years, maybe even forever. It is simply accepted that some parts of our natures have to be put aside in favour of familial responsibilities. Sexual needs, however, are often treated as far more important than other desires and hopes ~ such that many families are broken up when one parent goes off to pursue erotic pleasures (gay or straight) with a third party.

Personal happiness and short-term pleasure can often come at a very high price to the people who depend on us.

There is no specifically Pagan approach to the matter, but Pagans do often question such issues as personal identity and the values that wider society tells us we ought to have.