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The Great Rite

Understanding The Rite
The Great Rite IS NOT for everyone and like all rituals it can be used as positive act just as easily as it can be used to abuse. While modern attitudes about sex are puritan in many circles, within the pagan world, it is simply part of nature. But that doesn't mean it isn't used without accountability. This energy of the union between partners is part of the miracle of love between two people. It's energy is more than just physical gratification, it can become a prayer, a method of worship, and in honoring the Great Spirits in the form of the God and Goddess joining to form the God Head (Spirit).
In addition, the Great Rite is not always a physical act. While it may have started out that way in ancient cultures, societies and understandings evolve. So too do spiritual rites and ceremonies. Whither conducted as a physical act, or a symbolic act, the Great Rite can be a very beautiful and powerful event when conducted with the utmost respect and reverence.
But as with ANY ritual, it can be misused as well. And all practitioners MUST understand the rights they hold within a group and within any ritual. Sexual harassment is a misuse of power, regardless of how it's invoked. Demanding sexual favors in return for something badly needed, or desired is abuse and criminal, both in a spiritual sense as well as a physical accountability. Demanding a coupling for an initiation when the initiant is not comfortable with the union, is intimidation and rape. The causing of pain, terror and humiliation is a criminal act and is more than a misuse of power, it is a spiritual sin even within the pagan world. It is the desecration of the first grail, the womb of a woman and a disrespect to the spiritual path of any religion.
In ancient times, the GreatRite dealt with the union of the Goddess to the God to win favor or blessings from the Divine Universe. It was a ritual of survival that promoted fertility of fields, flocks and family.
Today the Great Rite deals with the essence of feminine and masculine energy as it relates to the God and Goddess. The idea is that in order to establish true Divinity within oneself, you need to accept and join your two natures together. We are all part masculine and part feminine within our being. Only when we learn to accept the nature of both can we discover the true divinity within.
Sex and Magik
Sex and magik have long gone hand in hand. This is nothing new and contrary to 'moral' attitudes, it's not something that's done just to get laid. Linking the sexual act with divine forces was an easy leap for early humans. Not understanding the medical process of copulation and conceiving. Prehistoric tribes documented their divine rituals through cave paintings which depict this idea fairly well.
These early paintings, carvings and figurines such as the 'Venus of Willendor' are perfect examples of the early reverence for fertility of a woman and her ability to give new life. This miracle of life was seen just as that, a miracle given to a woman by a deity, typically a Goddess. A woman who was extremely fertile was considered to be favored by the God/Goddess and elevated within her tribal structure. Some cultures viewed such a woman as the embodiment of the tribal Goddess who granted favor over the tribe. If this great Mother was fertile and brought new life to the tribe, that favor was also granted to the growing, harvest and hunting seasons of the tribe as well. In ancient times, all these events were strongly linked and each affected the other.
When early humans realized it took two to create life, the pendulum slowly switched from focusing on the matriarch to the patriarch. As long as a woman could bear children, she still held great power within her tribe. When she grew older and less fertile, she often chose her successor. But her singular power as 'Mother Goddess' shifted and was soon to be shared with a deserving male of the tribe.
In these ancient times, the fertility of a woman was seen as a blessing or as the Goddess living through the woman. The strength and ability of a man to provide food and housing for the tribe was seen as the God blessing or working through the physical hunter. Some suggest this is the early concept of the Horned God seen throughout legend and myth.
It is clear however, that the Goddess and Mother of the tribe was just as important as the God and the Hunter. Without both, the tribe will suffer and die. There cannot be abundance and sustenance for the whole society without the work of both the Goddess and God to provide fertility of the fields, the herds and even the tribe itself. From this early concept of survival, the reverence of ritual celebration and the union of male and female was born.
A Little History
From the beginnings of recorded history, we know that in Mesopotamia and Chaldea, Prostitution was a sacred profession, unlike today. Sacred Prostitution was seen as holy and practitioners were providing a service of the Goddess to the cultures of their society. A man would go to the temple and with an offering, he would request service of a Priestess within. His purpose was to gain favor of the Goddess for more children back at home with his wife, or an extra bit of fertility for his fields, or herds of sheep, cattle or camels. In lying with the Priestess he might feel blessed or honored, and go home full of confidence. He might dig extra irrigation ditches for his fields, or be more encouraged to lay with his wife.
The myths of the Greeks, to a greater or lesser extent are concerned with sex and the union of Deities with the lowly humans they rule over. The Greek pantheons constantly sought out human partners who's conceived children often became revered demi-gods. These myths had both a good and bad side of their tale. On one hand, divine unions were seen as gifts from the Gods and often became ritualized. They became honored experiences even if they didn't yield a child, but still gained abundance in the fields or herds.
On the other hand some tribes such as the Samothraki, involved the sacrifice of young men at one point in their history. Some Priestess would lay with a young man and to ensure she would become pregnant, she carried a very sharp, leaf-shaped knife which she used to take the life of the man she lay with. Sacrificing his life would ensure his essence was transferred to her womb.
There is even evidence of Sex and the Goddess in Biblical Times. It is held by some historians that the Hebrew God Yaweh was originally a phallic deity. In fact it is an accepted historical belief that the Hebrews were not always a monotheistic society. Phallic pillars were set up for worship in many of those early Hebrew villages, along with images of the Goddess Anat or Anath. Even today, the lineage of the faith is passed through the feminine side of the family. If a Jewish woman marries outside the faith, her children can be counted as Jewish, but if a man marries outside the faith it's not so straight forward.
Through many passages of the Bible we can see evidence of Goddess worship. In Judges V, the Song of Deborah is a clear example. The story of Susanna and the elders is another example. If you can find an early version of the bible, you can see the ritualistic venues and importance of women such as Queen Esther who is another 'goddess' symbol. If read with a perspective of the Great Rite, it becomes clear that this queen was also a priestess of the Goddess. Through his reign, her husband the king had to prove his virility and therefore his right to lay with her. This is a very clear connection between the earliest Great Rite rituals and the bible. And don't forget the Songs of Solomon, which have been considered one of the most glorious love poems ever written.
Other Biblical considerations revolve around the use of language of the time. The use of rock or stone, didn't refer to the stability of God in ones life, but rather phallic symbology of the God. From early historical times, even up to the middle ages, 'rocks' or 'stones' often referred to the male testicles, and of course, pillars to the penis. "Of the rock that begat thee thou are unmindful" Deuteronomy 32:18. "For who is God save the Lord? And who is a rock save our God" Samuel 2:32. In this case God's rock provided mankind with a son, the Lord Jesus.
The bible also provides one of the biggest examples of the reverence between the Divine and human coupling through the conception of Jesus. Early variations of the bible come right out and say "God lay with Mary and she conceived a son". That translation has changed over the years thanks to the French and the first use of the term "immaculate conception" (meaning without sin or blemish) in 1497.
During the middle ages, oaths, promises and sworn statements were made 'with a hand laid upon the sacred stone'. When taking the oath of office and loyalty, the right hand of the official was placed beneath the testicles of the king. In parts of the Middle East, this is still practiced today.
All this began to change after the fall of Rome and with the rise of Christianity. Sex began to be denied both as a source of magikal power and of pleasure between partners. Where as sex was seen as a gift from the gods, it was now becoming a sin and to find pleasure in the act of sexual copulation, was to accept the influence of the Devil. By this time, women were seen as the temptress who could drag a man down into the pits of hell and the only way to keep her from having that control, she must be subservient to her husband, brother, or even her son. Her sole value became her ability to bear children which quickly became a bargaining point as a bride or as a prize of war.
Items such as a Chastity belt became common place, but were deadly for the women who wore them. After years of being forced in such contraptions, a woman would develop various diseases, including blood poisoning. During this time, a woman's life expectancy was no more than 30 years. Her entire value, power and favored desires were forgotten and tossed aside. She was property and her only value was the ability to provide a male heir to her husband and his family line. What a sad turn of events that diminished both the value of women and the sanctity of the physical pleasure and spiritual connection of the sexual union.
The Great Rite - Physical vs. Symbolic
The Great Rite is probably the most well known or heard about pagan rituals. Today it is a rite of sexual intercourse that pays homage to the polarity of male/female; god/goddess, priest/priestess. The rite can be performed "in-true" form, meaning the actual physical act of intercourse. Or "in-token" form, meaning a symbolic act of the union between God and Goddess.
This polarity exists in all things in and around the universe. The Great Rite therefore expresses the physical, mental, spiritual aspects of the Divine through the astral union between a man and woman as representations of the God and Goddess. Ok..say what? In other words, the energy created between a man and woman during the physical act of intercourse is an expression of spiritual energy from the God and Goddess.
To many the Great Rite is the Hieros Gamos, The Sacred Marriage or the Holy Matrimony, which results in the creation of the God Head (spirit). It's the top of the spiritual trinity, whose base is the God and Goddess. This concept is nothing new and dates back to neolithic periods. Ancient kings required Hieros Gamos, which was a union with a priestess representing the Goddess, in order to rule. The King represented the God, the priestess the Goddess and through their Union his reign was both approved and blessed by the Divine Spirit. From this perspective it takes both the God and the Goddess to create the greater Divine Spirit and attain favor of that Spirit.
Depending on the tradition, the Great Rite was performed within a Magik Circle between the High Priest and Priestess. It is sometimes also performed for seasonal festivals, and especially handfastings between the newly married couple.
At times it has been used as an Initiation into a coven (such as 3rd degree initiations in the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions). Representing the inner marriage of the soul and spirit, ego and self. It is the gateway to becoming a whole being. In these type of initiations, the Rite is performed between the initiant and the High Priest, or High Priestess. This is done either "In token", which is symbolically using ritual tools, such as an athame inserted into a chalice. Or "in true", which is the physical sexual act.
When the rite is performed as a celebration of the season, it is often conducted "in true" form by a couple who are already intimate partners. The public display of the union varies between traditions. For instance, a portion of the rite maybe performed within the ritual circle in front of the coven, and the intimate union is performed in private.
Gerald Gardner established an open and public display of the Great Rite with the coven watching. The Coven members would form the circle edges and the couple would copulate in the center. He also favored ritual scourging as part of the rite, a practice which has fallen greatly out of favor.
Other covens perform a portion of the ritual with everyone watching and then those forming the circle would turn their back on the couple in the center. Others Covens instruct the circle members to walk backwards out of the sacred ritual space, then turn and file out clockwise leaving the couple in private. And still other groups form a closed circle, and then open a doorway allowing the couple to exit the ritual circle and enter their own private space, which is typically a circle that was earlier prepared by the couple.
Because of the puritanical influence over sexual encounters, many modern groups practice the Great Rite "In-Token". What's important about any ritual is the energy it pulls in and creates. There's no denying that many people are uncomfortable with the physical display of sexual unions. Making everyone feel at ease creates a calm peaceful energy for the spiritual gathering. So In-Token rituals are becoming more popular. The main point to the Great Rite is the creation of energy between the male(physical being) and female(spiritual being) to form the whole(the Divine Creation). That can be just as easily done through symbolic means as it can through a physical act.
There are several items that can be used to represent the Goddess in these forms of the Great Rite. A ritual cup is the most common, but a ritual bowl, a cauldron or even a fire bowl can be used. The corresponding item to represent the God can be a ritual athame, a wand, a sword or a staff. I have seen a carved tree (about 3ft in length) used as the God, and a fire bowl as the Goddess. The log was placed in the bowl and set on fire to represent the union. The gathering than danced by the light of the fire, honoring the spirit that moved within and through everyone present.
There are many variations that can be conducted for this ritual. There is no single or right way.
The Great Rite - The Ritual
The Rite maybe performed in many methods or formats. There are several rituals performed with the Great Rite for varying purposes, here are just a few.
  • The Rite of Pan
  • The Rite of the Horned God
  • The Rite of the Moon Cup
  • The Dance of Love
  • The Ritual of the Hawthorn Tower
  • The Raising of Osiris
  • The Two of Swords
  • The Grail of Grace
  • The of Crystal
  • The Calling of a Soul
  • The House of the goddess
  • The Adoration of the Pillar
  • The Rite that is Left Undone
Each of these empowers the rite with the energy of the union for specific purpose, but can be for different meanings. The Rite of the Horned God honors the great hunter and provider of a Tribe for instance.
In the Rite of Pan, the male force is the hunter and the female force the prey. Through out the ritual the struggle between male and female is established, but before the rite is realized, an understanding is gained that while the male is strong on the earth/physical sphere, the female is equally strong on the above/spiritual sphere.
In the Rite of the Moon Cup, the woman is the summoner, and the man her target. She is the daughter of the Moon, her representation on earth. He is Lord of the Forest who pays homage to the Goddess (the moon) for his domain.
The Dance of Love is often a ritual performed by a committed couple in private. The idea is to generate Divine energy for a specific purpose, such as to favor the couple with fertility or abundance of their individual family. In this ritual, the couple spends time in meditation prior to their union to connect with the Divine Universe. This act raises their energy to a higher level of reverence to distinguish this moment as something more special and important than other acts of love making. This also helps empower the partners to express their energy as the representations of the God and Goddess during physical contact. All of which culminates in the creation of energy for their specified intent, and it's release into the ethereal world for manifestation.
The Great Rite - Straight or Gay
The concept of straight or gay is not an issue in Pagan communities in general. Same sex encounters are common in nature and being that humans are part of nature, it is seen as a common practice there as well. The Great Rite is not about the 'physical' aspects of a man and woman, but rather their expression of energy as the God and Goddess. This can be easily accomplished between same sex couples just as it can be expressed through heterosexual couples.
Feminine energy is not something that only women have. Men have too. By the same token, masculine energy is not specific to men. Women have it too. The Great Rite can be expressed through same sex couples simply by choosing which side of the polarity coin (masculine vs. feminine) is going to be represented by which partner.
Further Reading
This posting is ONLY an introduction into the concept behind the Great Rite and a few of the rituals which use it's energy. Further reading prior to anyone practicing this rite is required. I have purposely made this post a high level explanation and have intentionally left out how the ritual is invoked. Primarily because of the ease to misuse this rite.
For further reading, I recommend the following:
  • Vivianne Crowley "Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium"
  • Janet and Stewart Farrar "A Witches Bible- Complete"
  • Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki "The Tree of Ecstasy"

Sources: 1, m1, m2, m8, m10, m14, m18, m23, m24, o17, o28, o30
Created: 05.07.2002       Updated: 05.18.2011