Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sacred Sex in "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and Beyond

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest and most influential poems in the history of literature. It's also one of my favorite hero myths.

I was reading Jenny Wade's 2004 book, Transcendent Sex, which quotes a small passage from this poem, and became interested in looking at her view that this might be the oldest recorded example of the transformative power of sexuality, which it does seem to be. But I am also interested in what this epic poem might have to say to us today.

Here is the full passage describing Enkidu's transformation through sex with a sacred harlot, or Hierodule in the text (her name was Shamhat).

Gilgamesh said:
'Trapper, return,
Take a priestess, child of pleasure -
When he goes to the wells
He will embrace the priestess
And the wild beasts will reject him.'
Then returned with the hierodule
And three days to the drinking hole,
There sat down
Hierodule facing the trapper,
Waiting for the game.
First day, nothing.
Second day, nothing.
Third day, yes.
The herds came to drink, and Enkidu -
Glad for the water were the small wild beasts,
And Enkidu was glad for the water -
He of the gazelles and wild grass,
Born in the hills.
The priestess saw this man
Wild from the hills.
'There, woman,'the trapper,
'Bare your breasts now;
This is he,
Have no shame, delay not,
Welcome his love,
Let him see you naked,
Let him possess your body.
As he approaches, take off your clothes,
Lie with him, teach him,
The savage, your art of woman,
For as he loves you, then
The wild beasts, his companions,
They will reject him.'
She had no shame for this,
Made herself naked
Welcomed his eagerness
Incited him to love,
Taught the woman's art.
Six days, seven nights,
That time lying together,
Enkidu had forgotten his home
Had forgotten the hills
After that time he was satisfied.
Then he went back to the wild beasts -
But the gazelles saw him and ran,
The wild beasts saw him and ran.
Enkidu would follow, but weak,
His strength gone through woman;
Wisdom was in him,
Thoughts in his ear - a man's.
So he returned to the priestess.
At her feet he listened intently
'You have wisdom, Enkidu.
Now you are as a god.

For six days and seven nights (an allusion to the transit or initiation of the seven planets in Sumerian culture), Enkidu made love with the Hierodule. Afterward he is no longer a beast-man covered in fur and at home among the wild animals - he is now part God and part man, nearly the equal of Gilgamesh who is two-thirds God and one-third human.

Here is one take on this episode in the poem:

It is remarkable that Shamhat shows Enkidu exactly what Gilgamesh was unable to see: that lovemaking is the most sacred act of being human and in connection, and that it transforms us in all levels. To surrender to love is to be filled up by the Universe. Gilgamesh sends a love priestess to teach Enkidu this most precious aspect of a fully mature and integrated human, the art of connecting with others at the deepest levels, but somehow the young king of Uruk was too full of himself to understand the depth and implications of the gift he sent to Enkidu.

Sexual expression -- as transformative experience -- can recreate a beast into a God-man, at least in the poem. Besides being the sacred prostitute, Shamhat is also the servant of Inanna, Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. She serves Enkidu as the initiator of sexual love, but also of his deeper self. Through sexuality, he becomes the God-man he is meant to be.

Here is Wade's definition of what constitutes "transcendent" sex:

Three factors distinguish transcendent sex from the most intense "regular" sex:

  • Transcendent sex involves altered states that seem to come out of nowhere and overcome one or both lovers. The term “transcendent sex” comes from the sense of transcending (going beyond or breaking through) the usual sense of space, time or self that constitute normal, waking consciousness. For instance, a person might suddenly be out of body, hovering over the bed, or traveling back in time to a past life, or expanding to include the consciousness of all living creatures.
  • In transcendent sex, there is a pervasive sense that these events participate in, or come from, a supernatural force, which people usually associate with Spirit, however understood. Whether it’s stepping into another reality, seeing visions, being possessed by a power animal or imploding into the utter emptiness of the Void, most people attribute a numinous quality to the events, even if they consider themselves atheists or agnostics. They feel they have been given a glimpse of the Greater Reality, the Absolute, Truth, God.
  • Transcendent sex involves relationship, even if it occurs when a person seems to be alone. It is rooted in the ground created by the lovers, even when one person is taken so far beyond reality that the partner and the lovemaking recede into infinity. Or, in some cases, even when the partner is not human or appears not to be "real" in the ordinary sense.

In real life we can have a state experience very similar to Enkidu's, one in which we taste the divinity always waiting within us and be transformed by it (as described above), but we are not not likely to enjoy the total transformation he did. Still, we can become more of who we are meant to be, more in touch with the Spirit that animates our flesh.

Like using entheogens, substances which open the doors of perception, we can get a taste of higher order state experiences (transitory experiences) through sexual sharing, which can then motivate us to take up a spiritual practice that can help us evolve into that stage of being (an enduring structure of consciousness). This is crucial -- having a state experience might make us feel as though we have suddenly evolved, but it doesn't fundamentally change our center of gravity developmentally. We need to take up some kind of practice to stabilize the state, eventually, as a stage.

These experiences can also be very unsettling for those who are not familiar with alternate states of perception. Imagine glimpsing satori without preparation or explanation of what is happening, and to do so while fully naked with another person. This is from Jenny Wade's wesbite for the book:

[M]any transcendent episodes can be extremely disturbing. People can experience things that are overwhelmingly frightening, creepy, or sad. Altered states of any kind have the power to be destabilizing, especially for people who are not expecting them (this is especially true during sex) and for people who have had little experience with waking altered states when they were not using alcohol or drugs. For example, near-death experiences, which are considered to be mostly positive, have profoundly disturbed survivors who may have trouble reconciling what happened to them with “normal” reality, going back to their lives in light of their new understanding, or coming to terms with their new insights and capacities. The same is true of people who have had a spontaneous transcendent episode during sex. The more you know about what may happen during the state and afterward, the better you will be able to cope with whatever occurs and integrate it in a healthy way into your life. The more you know about what to avoid, the more likely you are to stay out of danger.

But they can also change our lives in dramatic and positive ways. Again, from Jenny Wade's wesbite for the book:

Transcendent sex is to sex what near-death experiences are to dying. It takes you beyond the limitations of yourself and the everyday world into spiritual experiences so profound that you will be transformed. Sex can trigger episodes identical to the highest spiritual states of shamanism, yoga, Buddhism, and mystical Christianity, Judaism and Islam, including:
  • Shapeshifting
  • Being possessed by or channeling animals, plants and supernatural entities
  • Seeing visions of divine avatars
  • Reliving past lives
  • Transcending the laws of physics with paranormal powers
  • Awakening to the enlightenment of nirvana
  • Seeing the face of God

These experiences are so breathtakingly powerful, they can be destabilizing. For people who know how to integrate them, though, they often are the most transformative, healing events of their lives. Research has shown that like other spiritual events, transcendent sex can result in:

  • Becoming whole and shedding a lifetime of shame and guilt about sexuality.
  • Healing from sexual trauma and abuse to enjoy making love.
  • Acquiring paranormal abilities for healing or psychic gifts.
  • Becoming a spiritual seeker after a lifetime of atheism, doubt, or a religion that did not fit.
Who wouldn't want that? I certainly do -- and have been graced with such experience in my life.

However, for me the question in the poem is this: Did Enkidu want that experience? No one asks him if he wants to be transformed -- he was quite happy in his primal state among the beasts until Gilgamesh sent Shamhat to civilize him. And in the end, as a result of his adventures with Gilgamesh, he dies, having cursed ever becoming human. (Tablet Twelve offers a different take, but it seems to have been added on later, mimicking in part the Orpheus myth of Greek culture -- or maybe the Greeks were echoing the Sumerians.)

But then, few of us (according to Wade) are seeking these experiences the first time they occur in our lives. And like Enkidu, who had to spend time with shepherds to learn the arts of being human, we may need to spend some time with a teacher to learn how to integrate what we have experienced.

But will it kill us, as well? Will we come to curse the experience and its impact on our lives.

Ken Wilber (in the "Foreword" to Transcendent Sex) says that sacred, transcendent sex can kill us, if by us we mean our ego-bound sense of self.

What is so important about Jenny's research, however, is that it shows that whatever danger we thought sex held for us, it is even worse. Sex really can kill you, if by "you" is meant the ordinary you, the everyday you, the skin-encapsulated ego of your everyday persona. It's not just that sex can be "mind-blowing"; it's that sex can show you the face of God, the smile of the Goddess, the radiance of Spirit -- and more unnerving still, not as a force or presence out there, but as your own deepest self and nature. (viii-ix)

This is the power of sacred sex -- to transform us, awaken us, offer us a taste of our divinity in whatever way we conceive of it.

Our initiation probably won't last six days and seven nights, nor will it transform us from a beast into a God, but it can profoundly impact our lives. Nearly all of us would love to have this experience, and few of us ever will.

We can do personal work (meditation, tantra, deity meditations, and so on) that can help make such an experience more likely, and Jenny Wade recommends workshops by Ellen Eatough to learn more about this work.

My best recommendation is to become as fully present (this link is for women, but men could learn a lot from this as well) to the body and breath as possible, while focusing on opening our heart to our beloved.

One important thing to remember is that sacred sex is not about the orgasm -- in fact, the orgasm might be a distraction or end the experience. It's more about the heart energy or soul energy opening in the body. For most of us, this will mean undoing our sexual conditioning -- but from my limited experience, I'd say it's worth it to do the work -- and your beloved will be grateful as well.


Johnny Tech said...

Have you read 'Passionate Marriage' by David Schnarch - I am still in the process of reading it but i think it has a lot of cross over with the content of this blog posting...


william harryman said...

I have read that book and highly recommend it. But what he is talking about in that book is nowhere near the spiritual experience of transcendent sex. However, I do think that his approach can certainly increase the likelihood of having a transcendent experience during love-making.