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According to some of the early thinkers and philosophers the key to the mysteries of the universe lay hidden in the mysteries of sex. On the one hand there existed the fiery, active, male generative power, and on the other the gentle, passive, receptive, female power. Out of these two powers all else was created. Most of what we would call the polytheistic religions also ran along these lines, their male Gods supplying the generative powers and the Goddesses the receptive. Occasionally there would be those that crossed over and the Fire Goddesses such as Vesta, Pele, Sekmet, and Kali emerged, while to complement them there came about the less aggressive Gods such as Mercury the Messenger, Thoth the Scribe, and Aesculapius the Healer.
The Ancient World
Sex pervaded every aspect of life in ancient times. It was considered an important part of humanity's existence. The genitals were not considered to be obscene and in some countries they were barely covered. The decorations on Greek pottery have left us with what amounts to a film show of what life was like. Much of it is highly sexual in content: satyrs and nymphs cavort naked under the olive trees, young men and women pass by, bathing, dancing, and making love, drawn from life as the artists saw it happen. The Greeks fought their battles either naked or nearly so and saw nothing strange in it.
The Romans were less inclined to nudity but still had their festivals at which all pretence to modesty and shyness were abandoned. In fact their Bacchanalian festivals became so bad, so obscene and violent, that finally they were banned.
Meanwhile in Egypt, under the fierce heat, the women wore little more than a shift of transparent linen, while female slaves seldom wore anything more than beads and the men of the household wore a brief pleated kilt of the same material. A woolen cloak might be added at night if it grew chilly.
The Phoenicians called their chief God Asshur, or Asher, meaning the penis, the happy one (note the similarity to Eheieh Asher Eheieh, given as a name by Yaweh to Moses in his exile). Another of their Gods was Dagon. Represented as half-fish and half-man, he was a teacher of mankind who came up out of the sea each day and returned at night. The fish was worshipped as a fertility symbol because of the female fish's ability to lay many thousands of eggs and because it lived in the live-giving ocean. The practice of young women impaling themselves on the stone phallus of Asshur prior to their wedding night was commonplace.
The Land of the Pharaohs has drawn the imagination of everyone at some time or another. Its religion was complex in the extreme with many Gods. It breaks down roughly into two groups of deities, those headed by Ra and those headed by Osiris. The Osirian group is the one with which most people are familiar. To the Star Goddess Nuit and the Earth God Geb were born two sets of twins: Osiris and Isis, Nephthys and Set, one set with a light skin and the other dark.
Osiris and his sister/wife took human form as the king and queen of Khem, the ancient name of Egypt. Osiris was the symbol of the generative power of nature. In fact he was basically a corn God. To show his power to rise again after being cut down, he was sometimes depicted with three phalloi. The creation myth of the Egyptians speaks of Atum the Creator masturbating into his clenched fist, and there are many representations of Atum and other Gods in this position. Some carry rods or sceptres with a phallic head, others are shown with an erect penis, being adored by worshippers and anointed with oils and perfumes. Herodotus described a religious procession in which small statues with movable sex organs attached to a cord were carried to the temple.
The worship of the Apis bull was a part of the Egyptians' sacred rites and the French traveller Vivant Denon speaks of the finding of the embalmed phallus of a bull interred with a female mummy. Their rituals were, however, much more rigid and stylized than those of the exuberant Hellenes: they opted for dignity rather than excess.
Zeus was the king of the Greek pantheon, and his origin can be traced from the Vedic Dyaus pitar. He was a sky God and as such most of his 'amours' (and there were plenty) were with human women. (We can see an echo in this of the biblical story of the Sons of God and the Daughters of Men and their intermarriage . ) The children that were born of these women were the demi-gods, the heroes who were deified after death. It is also of some significance that Zeus was called the Aegis-Bearer, as was his daughter Athena, who was born without a mother, from the head of Zeus. The aegis was a ritual goat pelt worn by a chieftain or ruler and was the totem of the Aegidae, a tribe that moved into Greece in its early history. The goat, like Zeus himself, was exceptionally prolific and this may have accounted for the aegis being part of his symbology. The worship of the goat as a giver of fertility was widespread over many lands and religions, extending from India in the north to the famous Temple of Mendes in the Nile Delta. Zeus was also given to what was styled even in ancient times as Greek love, i.e. homosexuality. His abduction of the beautiful youth, Ganymede, in the form of an eagle has been the subject of many paintings.
Hermes was, like his father, much given to the pursuit of women and even his famous staff, the caduceus, depicted the male and female snakes twined about the upright staff or lingam. His pillars, or Herms, could once be seen everywhere in Greece, by the roadside and in the villages and cities. Each showed a head and an erect phallus which was adored and anointed with wine and oils by the local people. Occasionally young women would offer their virginity on them, a remnant of the same ritual prevalent in earlier Phoenicia.
Hades, the dark and silent God of the Greek underworld abducted his own niece, the daughter of his sister Demeter, and took her to be his queen. This cycle of events became the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Hades has often been interpreted as a Greek form of Satan ruling over Hell, but this is not true. He simply ruled over those who had died and his kingdom held no punishments.
Probably the most sexual of all Greek Gods was Dionysius, the God of wine and sexual pleasure. His mysteries were celebrated with orgiastic rituals and drunkenness. His Roman counterpart Bacchus was worshipped by women with wild and excessive behavior. The Bacchantes were dangerous to meet when they were in the power of their rite, as Pentheus found to his cost.
Pan or Priapus was worshipped mainly in country areas and especially at harvest time. He was seen as the protector of flocks and wild animals. At the same time he was noted for his wanton behavior with human women and nymphs.