Very few people are aware that there are long-standing traditions of sexual mysticism in the West. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, many in the West became aware of Hindu and Buddhist forms of Tantra, but Tantric traditions were often distorted in the process of transmission or transference to the modern West, where they often became commodified and trivialised. This never happened to esoteric Western traditions of sexual mysticism, primarily because they were entirely unknown. Even today, The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism is the first book to outline the hidden history and nature of Western sexual mysticism.
Of course, we should begin by outlining what we mean by ‘sexual mysticism’ in the first place. After all, the very term ‘mysticism’ is ambiguous, for some even synonymous with ‘woolly-minded’. The word ‘mystic’ derives from the Greek word mustein, meaning ‘silent’ or ‘closed-lips’, and has the same origin as the word ‘mystery’. The words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystery’ are associated with the ancient Greek Mystery (revelatory and initiatory) traditions of antiquity, which, as we shall see, certainly had sexual dimensions. As far back as we can trace, the word ‘mysticism’ refers to religious traditions that point us toward inexpressible transcendence of the apparent division into subject and object, or self and other, and toward realisation of the Divine.
When we look back into Greek and Roman antiquity, we see that the Mystery traditions almost always had sexual dimensions, and there is good reason for this. The Mystery traditions, be they Bacchic, Dionysiac, Eleusinian, or Orphic, were closely bound up with the cosmic cycles, and in particular with the cycles of agricultural and human fertility. In fact, the earlier forms of the Mystery traditions, including during the Hellenistic period, were in the domain of women. Only later were men allowed to be priests in many of the traditions, and the orgia(orgiastic celebrations) took place under the auspices of women. What we are looking at, in the ancient Mystery traditions, corresponds to something quite different from the modern stereotype of femininity as demure, coquettish, or ‘passive’. The women described in some of the ancient Mystery traditions seem to our eyes (as to those of their contemporaries) frenzied, wild, and dangerous, but this authentic wildness expresses a dimension of nature itself that we moderns often fail to recognise.