Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Since we have seen how a very strong identification with the mother tends to lead to male homosexuality, we shall be able to understand this phenomenon; and since we have observed the incest fears with which such identification is associated, we shall appreciate that castration is the one act which makes it impossible to perform incest. “E d’amor mou castitaz.” This was not, however, merely a pathological eccentricity, but an essential feature of the religion: though only a few resolved on the supreme sacrifice, all visitors to the temple were expected to undergo the symbolic castration of shaving off their hair (hence also the tonsure of the Catholic Church) and Lucian himself deposited his hair at the shrine of Astarte when a youth.

The psychological meaning of these mother religions becomes clearer when we examine the myth associated with them. With minor modifications for different deities, it tells how the mother figure was loved by an effeminate youth, who is was both son and lover. (79) Thus, just as the Oedipus myth reflects exactly the child’s position in the paternal family, so the mother-myth reflects with extraordinary precision the position of exclusive mother fixation as it would be found in any family where there was no father. The myth usually goes on to tell how the boy is violently killed, but finally he is reborn. At the level of primitive fertility, this expresses the death of vegetation — the child of the earth — and its subsequent rebirth. At a higher level, it may express the idea that the mother must give up the child she loves in order that he may enter on a new life as a man. In these myths, the boy is frequently castrated. Thus when Osiris dies, he is cut in pieces, and the only part which is never recovered is his penis. Finally, we may note that the boy is closely associated with a tree, usually a pine — chosen perhaps because of the phallic symbolism of its cones. In some versions the boy is actually in the tree, as if he were a spirit of vegetation; in others he dies on the tree, as the leaves do, and as Christ was to do subsequently. In the Babylonian version, Tammuz, the son of Ishtar, descends into hell for three days, after his death, prior to his resurrection. (152)

Mythologically, the respect in which the worship of Dionysos differs from that of the Magna Mater is that the focus of attention has been transferred from the mother to the son. Dionysos was the son of Rhea, the mother of the gods (or, in some versions of the many-faceted Greek mythology, the son of Semele, or of Aphrodite, which was much the same thing). And, just like Attis, the son of Cybele, he was torn in pieces. Also like the various mother goddesses, he was served by Priestesses not by priests. But it was not in honour of Rhea that the rites were held, but of Dionysos. Further, although the worship of Dionysos was not itself concerned with fertility, there were close connections between this cult and the fertility ceremony of the Thesmophoria, the great spring festival held in honour of Demeter, the earth mother, in which jars of wine sealed the previous autumn, were opened and drunk, and in which Dionysos led the mystae in procession. (117)

It has been suggested that it was the mother religion which developed the idea of union with the deity as the centre of religion simply because women are (so it is said) more easily brought into the theoleptic state. This looks like explaining the cause by the effect, and the arguments already adduced will suggest another explanation. No doubt it required the Greek genius to develop a specific notion of theolepsy from the crude frenzy of primitive fertility worship; the Egyptian carried the conception still further, and the worship of Isis assumed the form of initiation into a higher wisdom, after undergoing a divine experience. As we shall see, a similar development also occurred in Greece. For the myth can also be interpreted on a higher level: the death of Dionysos may symbolize a death on the level of this world, followed by a rebirth on a higher plane. And here the loss of the penis, and the effeminate or hermaphrodite character of Dionysos, serves to show that the true service of deity always involves the abandonment of earthly desires. Uncomfortable as the idea may be to us, the sexual act itself presents such a symbolism, for sexual detumescence is a little death, and the woman is always, in some sense, the castrator of the male.