Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

12. Sex As Sacrament

Now that we have obtained a general view of the development of sexual ideals and behaviour during the last thousand years, the time has come to put the picture in wiser perspective and to see from what origins the forms of Christian sexual morality were derived. Just as in a film the camera sometimes draws back to reveal the whole landscape in which the action has been taking place, so let us, before coming to a conclusion, sketch in the historical landscape and show how the events we have been studying were related to it.

The Mediterranean world, in the millennium preceding the birth of Christ, shows a variety of religions and sexual practices, and in each case these evolve through various phases during the period: it is therefore impossible to attempt any comprehensive account. I shall have to draw attention to certain major themes, while glossing over many points of difference and avoiding the numerous controversies still conducted by professional archaeologists concerning the interpretation of much of the material.

Roughly speaking, we find three patterns. The most familiar is the Jewish, in which the sexual code is considered to be backed by religious sanctions, so that infractions are not merely a crime, but a sin which may exasperate the deity. In contrast with this, Graeco-Roman sexual regulations have only civil force: the gods on Olympus are not much interested in how men behave, in sexual matters or in any other, though they too seem bound in principle to obey similar sexual rules. Finally, there is a pattern quite unlike anything so far considered, in which the sexual act is felt to have magical and even divine significance: it should be performed only with reverence, after carrying out the appropriate preparatory and purifying rites. It constitutes, in fact, an act of worship. One may call it the sacramental view of sex.

This is a conception so unfamiliar to most people that it seems worth spending a few pages discussing it in more detail, before noting the details of the more familiar sensual and sinful views of sex, as we may term them.