The Sacred Fire, by B.Z. Goldberg, , at sacred-texts.com
She was the beginning and the end,
WE are leaving Baal with the setting sun and following the spreading shadows down to the chambers of Aphrodite. Baal will ever dwell in our memory associated with daylight and sunshine, with gladness and the joy of living. Man showed himself naked before his god. He had nothing to hide, nothing to crouch before. In the temple of Baal, he stood squarely upon the ground, filling his lungs with the breath of life and extending his arms in welcome to the entire world. In Baal, man's ego opened to include the universe.
Aphrodite we shall learn to associate with night and darkness. Aphrodite was so great a mother that all her children appeared puny and insignificant before her. Man came into the world out of a woman and was forever longing for his native land. In Aphrodite, he hoped at least symbolically to return whence he had come.
There were two ways in which man could realize himself: one was to absorb the universe within him; the other was to dissolve himself in the universe. Baal was the first attempt, Aphrodite the second. Consequently, Baal was the god eternal, but Aphrodite was eternity itself.
Baal was light; Aphrodite was darkness. Darkness was
at the beginning of creation; darkness will be at its end. It seems to be the natural, permanent condition, with daylight its only break. Baal-Shamash, the sun-god, rises every morning from his nightly hiding-place and, seating himself in his chariot, drives across the sky—a chariot of fire over a field of darkness. But as he reaches the horizon, he returns to his abode, and night, no longer disturbed, continues to prevail.
Baal-Shamash is a god and immortal, yet once a year he dies, only to be resurrected and to return to life again. Aphrodite never dies. It is she who goes down to the lower regions to find the god and to bring him back into the world of the living. Baal is the living god; Aphrodite is life itself. Baal is the green leaf, the stalk sprouting out of the ground; Aphrodite is the black soil that holds within itself the force of life and its secret, the source whence all comes and to which all returns in the end.
We are drawing closer to Aphrodite, the eternal feminine. As we look upon her through the eyeglass of thought and understanding, we see the goddess complete in herself. She is both male and female—a bearded face with full maiden breasts; in female dress yet with a sceptre in her hand, the lingam symbol of the male. Aphrodite knows no sex, but sexuality. They who come to worship her must hide their sex. Males come in female attire and females in the clothes of males. The greatest glory they can bring to Aphrodite, the overpowering devotion to the goddess that only the chosen ones attain, is to physically efface their sex. When the human being reaches the stage in which he is neither man nor woman, then he is in closest tune with the spirit of the great goddess of love.
However, that was the goal of only a few pining souls. The vast number of Aphrodite's worshippers had nothing further from their minds than to mutilate themselves. They saw another way of communion with their goddess. The sexes in mating resemble Aphrodite; they attain that supreme unity which is the harmony of nature and the creative force of life. For originally, life was but one sex; only in time the unit was broken into halves, each longing for the other. When the two find themselves and reunite, the original union is restored and happiness is born.
And yet, very few were conscious of these thoughts as they carried their sacrifices into the chamber of Aphrodite. They merely came to her like children calling upon their mother. There, under the roof of the goddess of creation, they heard the call of the creative force and responded to it. There, heart longed for heart and flesh hungered for flesh. And as the call was sharp and the hunger beyond control, they loosened all bonds and plunged head and heart into the sea of love.
On our way to the chambers of Aphrodite we must first pass out of the city, for her temple lies beyond the gate. Her abode is a city in itself, with streets, houses, parks and shrines, enclosed within a thick stone wall. It is a wall of demarcation between two different worlds.
Outside the wall, life is toil, worry, restraint. Without, one is variously preoccupied with his dry, daily labor. He is limited in activity, in movement, and in relationship with fellow men and women. Outside, there is a world of hard, drab reality. Inside, life is one great love-
feast welling with the pleasures of sense. Man appeared at his best with the best he had when he entered the gate of the wall. He cast aside all care and lifted all restraint. Inside, he felt like a captive prince returning in triumph to his father's domain. Within, there was sheer joy, bliss, one prolonged state of ecstasy, out of which he woke reborn to a new life.
As we enter the city of Aphrodite, we see the inside of the stone wall lined with trees and shrubbery, among which little huts of two rooms each are arranged in a circular row. There are exactly twelve hundred such huts with twelve hundred priestesses, a hundred for each sign of the Zodiac, and all are on the Sacred Ring of Aphrodite, goddess of love and passion. Each hut is the abode of a priestess, an humble yet sacred servant, who has dedicated her life to the great function of her goddess. The door of the hut is of red metal; over it hangs a lingam, a hammer stuck into an anvil, the symbol of the eternal union. Above the knob is inscribed the name of the priestess. To the right of the entrance is her reception room and to the left an alcove where the worshipper may spend the night.
From all parts of the world the priestesses came to these huts upon the Sacred Ring to serve their goddess. Their skins were of different colors and they spoke in various tongues, calling their idol by distinctive names. Yet, there they were in the same place of worship, bedecked with the same jewels, anointed with the same oil and exhuming the fragrance of a perfume adopted by custom, all to honor Aphrodite.
They were mere maidens when first brought there, childish in figure and pure of heart. Little did they know of
the meaning of Aphrodite's divinity or of the service they would have to render. There was only the vague desire to be a priestess, to devote one's life to the divine being.
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Priestesses of Aphrodite
When accepted by the high-priest, the maiden was dedicated to Aphrodite and deflowered with the sacred knife, so that her virginity might not displease the goddess. Then she was entered in the school of love where she was
taught to dress, to arrange her hair, to use perfumes and sweet-scented powders, and to arouse the passions of man. In time, she found her way to a room on the Sacred Ring.
The more closely the priestess devoted herself to the temple, the further away she moved in thought and memory from her own country and her very family. She was a maiden reborn in Aphrodite and consecrated to the pleasures of sex. Torn away from a life in which she had been rooted, she was not allowed to take root in another, but was left adrift in the sea of passion. The offspring that might come to her were taken away to be raised as servants in the temple. Seldom did she know what became of her child. When she died, her remains were hurriedly removed from the Sacred Ring so that death might not blot the holy ground of life and creation.
The origin of the temple priestess was hidden in obscurity. Her end was shrouded in darkness. But in between, there was a span of life in glaring sunlight. No wonder, then, that there were so many young women clamoring to be accepted in the feminine priesthood. The poor woman, with no chance whatever to rise to distinction, saw therein the opportunity to climb to loftier heights. The adventurous woman, destined to live on the plane of life to which she was born, found there a chance to get out of the rut and to advance in the affairs of men as well as in their estimation. Many were the maidens awaiting their turn to enter the shrine of Aphrodite. But greater were the numbers pensively turned away by the eunuch priest. Boundless was the love of Aphrodite and great the lust of man, but the temple grounds had their limits.
Even among those that were accepted, favor and fortune played their hands. Only a small number of them were consecrated at a time, and only a few could see their own huts in the near future. Great, therefore, was the strain that weighed down upon the virgins as the day of dedication drew near. Many a sleepless night did they spend in wondering whom fate would choose and what this great dedication might be like. Many were the rumors current among them, yet they hardly conceived what they all meant. The rumors only irritated them and fired their imaginations.
On the morning of the dedication everyone was stirring early. For hours they carefully prepared themselves. There were baths and sacred ablutions. There were ointments to be applied and perfumes to be used. Each maiden was to be ready to meet the goddess, to meet her as a lover with all the amorous preparation of the Orient. They were finally seated in the corridor, waiting to be offered to Aphrodite. And as they waited, a priest walked slowly about them, chanting the Song of the Lingam:
"Virgins, anoint yourselves with the costly ointments. Sweeter yet than the Lotus be your fragrance. The sacred moment is drawing near. Aphrodite the glorious is awaiting you. She, the mother of love and passions, is ardently pressing upon your purple lips and mouth.
"Virgins, anoint your bodies with the costly ointment. Give yourselves to the Lingam—only once in your lifetime. After this holy act you will forever belong to him.
"Give yourselves to the Lingam.
"Virgins, do you feel it? The Lingam is coming down upon you. With longing pain he is filling every beating heart.
"Virgins, do you feel it so deeply? The Lingam overwhelmed
you. He broke the flower—softly, like the rays of the Sun-god, the Lingam is melting away.
"Sweet is the Lingam's boring kiss. His kiss is sweeter than honey. Once it reaches the heart, the senses take to flight.
"Virgins, give yourselves to the Lingam."
The virgins took up the refrain, "Sweet is the Lingam's boring kiss," and followed the priest to the inner shrine. The room was long and narrow. Its walls were decorated with bas-reliefs of suggestive themes—women overpowered by animals upon a field growing the lingam and the yoni, bacchantes embracing tigers; monstrous bulls rushing upon virgins. A great multitude of beings, they were all driven together by the irresistible force of overwhelming passion. The male reached out, the female opened herself, in the fusion of those great creative forces.
Within this room the virgins now were, their bodies veiled in their streaming hair. Marching in pairs, they approached the altar, where they prostrated themselves and then drew back in reverence. Again, they marched about the room to form a circle around the altar. They were to be the living witnesses of the most sacred rite of Aphrodite: the sacrifice of the virgin.
As if coming from nowhere the fumes of incense filled the room. In the distance sounded the longing tones of the flute, remindful of pastures and shepherds, of a horizon at which Father Sky kissed Mother Earth. Then the clang of metal cut through the haze of incense. It was the priest making ready for the sacrifice. The goddess of love, through her minister, was now to receive a virgin into her fold.
And outside the circle of maidens, in a corner of the room, the representatives of womanhood were preparing
the human partner of Aphrodite, the maiden that would soon be a maiden no longer. Yet, she was not to offer her maidenhood to a man, not even to a priest, but to the sacred golden knife ordained by the goddess herself. The young virgin, delicate, childlike, was placed upon a gilded table, her head resting upon a cushion of silk inscribed with a lotus. The guard of honor, a number of priestesses who were themselves recent initiates, came in their priestly attire to act as sponsors for the new member of their order. They encircled the gilded table, leaving room for the priest at its end.
Somewhere in the distance a horn was sounded. It was to announce that the high-priest was coming. All eyes brightened, all cheeks flamed. Hearts throbbed in anticipation and delight. There was a flutter in the room but no one stirred.
As the head of the guard of honor touched her feet, the virgin closed her eyes. There was neither fear nor apprehension in her face, but the happy expression of ecstatic delight.
The priest raised the golden knife. The rest was a dream, a trance in which virgin, priest and priestesses participated. They awoke only when the girl was carried out upon the gilded table to an ante-room. They awoke tired, exhausted, yet happy, from an experience that was not to be had by mere mortal.
We are now approaching still another of the sacred shrines of Aphrodite, inclosed within tall shrubbery in the heart of the Sacred Ring. It is the shrine of the chosen priestesses. No male ever crossed this threshold, not even
priest or eunuch. Here, at last, a goddess found peace and privacy with the intimate servants of her own sex. At last, the pure feminine element, in communion between goddess and woman, found expression in a service undisturbed by strangers and undefiled by profane man. Aphrodite may not have required this feminine service, but her priestesses were urgently in need of it.
All her life the priestess was serving others. From the moment she entered the temple she acted as a bridge between man and her goddess. Over her and upon her, man reached out for divine communion; she herself never communed. Through her, souls rose to heaven; her own soul remained hovering over the deep. She was to divine the slightest caprice of each male who called upon her in the name of Aphrodite and to satisfy him with all her artistry. No one ever heeded any caprice or desire of her own refined and supersensitive self.
Hers was the life of an actress, ever upon the stage. From early morning until late at night she was performing, doing her part with all the talent at her command. For all the years of her study in the school of love, like the master player, her fingers were ever at the keyboard. She was practicing with the flute and tom-tom and cymbal: playing pieces to soothe man's nerves after the strain and worry of the day, pieces to arouse his longing for companionship and intimacy, and pieces to awaken his desires and passion. The low, soft notes she accompanied with warm, half-suppressed sighs. And from her languid eyes came tender glances of love. At first, she may have been retiring and bashful, then desire and impatience crept into her expression, and finally she gave herself
to the studied gestures of the voluptuary, dancing a pantomime of love as she did so.
At every moment of the day the priestess was conscious of her beauty and its pearl, her bosom. This she inclosed in gilded wooden breast-shields, elaborately set with sparkling jewels. But through the veil that covered her breasts, their palpitations and soft undulations were visible and, with her sighs of passion, contributed to the general voluptuousness. She was ever studying the effect of her perfumes, the charm of her long black hair falling in waves over her ivory shoulders or collected in tresses and ornamented with jewels and fresh flowers. Like the fortune-teller, she was to divine from the twinkling of an eye, or the quiver of a muscle in the face of her worshipper whether she was proceeding along the path of love to which he was accustomed, the love that pleased him most and called forth his greatest devotion to Aphrodite.
At times, she was called upon to give delight, not to one individual worshipper, but to the pious congregation at the gate of the shrine. She then appeared at the door of the temple in soft, flowing veils which slowly, almost invisibly, faded away from her body, and she stood before them statue-like—a perfect nude veiled only in the soft waves of her hair. For a brief moment the amazed and panting onlookers were overwhelmed with admiration for her god-like figure. Then, like a dark cloud passing over the sun, a purple curtain was drawn before her and she disappeared in all her nudity.
Again, she may have appeared on the steps of the temple where her body, resplendent in the sunlight, shone like marble. This time she advanced to the shore of the bay, where amidst throngs of fervent admirers sending
up shouts of enthusiasm, she entered the waves to honor her goddess—the goddess born out of the foam of the deep. Withdrawing from the waves, she returned as
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Hers was the life of an actress, ever upon the stage
[paragraph continues] Aphrodite born a second time. And as she stood for a moment upon the golden sand, her body, glistening with drops of water, appeared as a pale pink statue against a curtain of vivid blue.
But it was all for man and all for Aphrodite. The priestess was fulfilling a mission; herself, she was hardly a partner to all her experiences. In the midst of the greatest joy she may have brought to man, she herself was often in sadness. She had been instructed not to seek her own personal pleasure. She had been taught to disregard the personal element, the individual of the opposite sex.
There are footsteps. A knock upon her door.. Someone is coming. She is not to consider who or what he may be. He is a worshipper at the altar of Aphrodite, and she is his priestess. She is to dedicate herself to his sex, not to him. And yet, only human as she is, how can she refrain from looking at the person, at his face, or listening to his voice? Is not sex itself a bordering on love?
From the time she came out of the school of love, she was a bundle of nerves, ever seeking new sensations, new sources of passion and luxury. She was the priestess of Aphrodite, yet she, too, was human; she, too, needed a god or a goddess for her own soul to be saved from the tedium and hopelessness of life. No wonder, then, that at times the priestess turned to Aphrodite, not in the interest of the males with whom she shared her bed, but on her own behalf. And what other god or goddess could so well understand the heart of the priestess as Aphrodite herself? Was not her own fate similar to the fate of her priestess? It was sex that made a priestess out of the virgin. Sex, too, made Aphrodite a goddess.
Every priestess knew the story of Aphrodite. She saw it illustrated upon the walls of the sacred shrine. There she saw the great, youthful god, Anu, making love to the beautiful goddess Banu. This aroused the jealousy and wrath of Manu, who, when night came, fell upon Anu and
killed him. He chopped his body into pieces, scattering them all over the world. His lingam he threw into the river, and as it sank, foam formed upon the waters, silvery in the moonlight. Out of this foam Aphrodite came into the world. In it she had her being and in it her whole life was engulfed. Like her priestess, Aphrodite's existence was rotating about the sex of man.
So, to Aphrodite's shrine every priestess betook herself whenever her heart was heavy laden and she was in need of solace. Every night she could come here, every night save one, the night of the full moon, when the sanctuary was reserved for the chief priestesses of whom there were eighteen. These lived close about the shrine. They were masters in the art of voluptuousness. Their names were born on the lips of the greatest of men, and they acquired wealth no less than fame. They had their own way of finding joy and bliss. It was a secret that they alone knew and that could only be surmised by those aspiring to be included, some day, among the great eighteen.
These women from their early youth had devoted themselves to the art of voluptuaries. So intensely were they centered upon the sensuous that their imaginations made them lose their senses. They were forever struggling with lasciviousness, always endeavoring to attain a beautiful physique. Here they were in the sanctuary of their goddess—a sacred place where no male ever entered. Here they were forever seeing their own nudity and that of their companions. And deprived of natural sexual pleasures, they created for themselves tastes and desires that grew into passions for their very companions. The unnatural passions thus awakened among these sex-hungry women were fierce, overpowering, and implacable.
It was at their feasts that these chosen priestesses gave themselves up to desire. It was then that, fired with jealousy and rivalry, they held their combats of beauty. On the nights of the full moon, the eighteen met in the sacred shrine of Aphrodite. They gathered in the innermost chamber where there were no windows and but two doors. Through one door they all entered; through the same door all were to depart, all save one. For one must die before the night of the full moon ends, and she will be carried away through the other door—the door through which no one departs alive. The door of death.
The floor of the chamber was covered with hides of tigers and leopards, and silk cushions were scattered here and there. In the center, there was a divan with a small triangular table upon which stood a goblet containing a deadly potion. On another table near by there were sacramental drinks and aphrodisiacs.
No one knew what was going on here on this fateful night. One of the eighteen that participated could not tell, the remaining seventeen would not. So here the story must end. The end of a mystic night of love in which eighteen worn, neurotic, and oversexed women sought, without men, to drink the cup of love to its very last drop—and to the final breath of one of them.
And here both life and death met in the mystic union of love. For love was at the beginning and love will be at the end. What could be a more beautiful finale for love than death—the end of all? It was but another manifestation of the goddess: Aphrodite supervising the exit from life as well as the entrance to it; Aphrodite, goddess of love and life—in its complete cycle from birth to death.
We have still to visit the chambers of Aphrodite herself. Here all may come, for she is goddess to all. She is the goddess universal, bringing life and blessing to all creatures upon earth.
The walls are bare in the holiest of the chambers, and the room contains only a square bench, an altar, and the statue of the goddess, nude and sexual, upon a pedestal of rose stone. The bench is bare and cold now, yet once a year, in early spring, it is draped with white silk and sprinkled at each corner with the blood of doves. A cluster of almonds and a bunch of fig leaves are put up for a pillow, and upon the bench a hierophant and a virgin perform the great act of unity which the goddess herself performed with the father of gods and men. After the act, the sheet is burned upon the altar and the maiden retires to the quarters of the priestesses.
Now the bench is bare. Aphrodite is in no mood for such sacrifice. She is more concerned with her son Attis whom she holds upon her hand. For while Aphrodite is a virgin, she is also a mother. She placed a pomegranate between her breasts and became pregnant. This was in the month of April. Nine months later her child was born out of her side so that it might not injure her virginity. Aphrodite is the virgin mother, deified by all people and worshipped to this very day in every part of the world.
The virgin goddess was immortal, living ever so long as there was love in the world and birth and life. But her son was not so fortunate. Attis felt the mystic urge to break away from the living. So one day he came to a
palm tree, the very symbol of virility and generation, and mutilated himself. Attis bled to death. In his very lifeblood, in the force of generation, this son of the goddess of life came to find his end. Attis died with the leaf upon the tree, with the blades of grass in the field, with all that moves and creeps upon the earth.
Like the corn in the field, the son of Aphrodite was annually interred in the dark, cold, infernal region. This was a period of mourning for Aphrodite, when she failed in her function of arousing passion and inducing love. It was the time when nature was dead, lying fallow in wait for the rebirth of Attis and spring.
As the days of Aphrodite's mourning progressed, her devoted worshippers joined her in sadness and sorrow. They touched neither food nor drink and abstained from sexual intercourse. They wailed and mourned and cut their hair; they went about the hills and valleys playing their flutes and searching for the son of their goddess who was to rise again. The god who holds the dead in his sway was moved by this mourning of goddess and human kind. So, upon the promise that the son of Aphrodite would return to his kingdom as the year went by, he raised the bars that separate the lower world from the one above.
Meanwhile, the priests of Aphrodite were preparing for the return of Attis and life and love. A palm tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sacred chamber. The trunk of the tree was swathed like a corpse with woolen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for it was the violets that first sprang forth out of the blood of Attis. Then a young priest, a youthful servant of the
goddess resembling her son, was tied to the tree and left for the night. In the morning lie was found stabbed, still tied to the tree.
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Lamenting for Attis
This was the Day of the Blood. The sight of the dead priest, swathed in blood upon the sacred tree, aroused others to give of their own life fluid for the sake of the son of their goddess. The high-priest drew blood from
his arms and presented it as an offering. And the inferior priests, wrought to the height of passion by the wild, barbaric music of cymbal, drum, and flute and by the profusion of blood around them, whirled about in furious dance. Finally, overcome by excitement, frenzied, and insensible to pain, they savagely thrust the knives into their bodies, gashing themselves in violence to bespatter the altar with their spurting blood.
The frenzy and hysteria of the priests spread to the worshippers, and many a would-be priest fell into the wave of religious excitement. He sacrificed his virility to the goddess, dashing the severed portions of himself against her blood-besmeared statue. There were men who had come to the festival out of curiosity rather than devotion, and numbers of them were caught in the raging fury. With throbbing veins and burning eyes, they flung their garments from them and with wild shouts seized the knives of the priests to castrate themselves upon the very spot. Then, insensible to pain and oblivious of everything, they ran through the streets of the Sacred Ring, waving the bloody pieces and finally throwing them into a house they passed. It became the duty of the households thus honored to furnish these men with female clothes, and they, made eunuchs in the heat of religious passion, were to serve their goddess for the rest of their lives. Their virility was destroyed in a moment in the tumult of emotion; but their sacrifice was to be lifelong and irrevocable.
As the night progressed, the fury of the worshippers was turned into joy. Suddenly a light shone in the darkness. The tree was erected, the dead priest no longer upon it. Another one resembling him was sacrificing at the altar. Elsewhere a tomb had been opened; the son of
[paragraph continues] Aphrodite had risen from the dead, and, as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation.
The morning was greeted with boundless glee. Universal license prevailed. Every man might say and do what he pleased. To facilitate the breaking of all bonds, people went about in disguise. Then the tree was taken out of the sanctuary of the goddess and carried down the hill to the brook where the virgins bathed before they entered the temple. There it was washed of its blood, decorated with roses, and slowly brought back in a procession of ease and serenity.
The blood scenes were forgotten. Even the eunuch priests were unmindful of their wounds. The moments of extreme passion were spent. The "erotic blood-letting" had been accomplished. Having returned to his former freedom in love, man became himself again.
Aphrodite, Goddess of Love