The Song of Solomon would never have become sacred scripture if it had not been interpreted as allegory. In the traditional Jewish understanding, the Song recounts God’s love for Israel and the history of their relationship. For Christians the Song describes Christ’s love for the church. It is second in popularity only to the equally misunderstood paean to love in 1st Corinthians 13 for scripture readings at weddings. But the verses that are read are carefully chosen to reflect the pious ideal of married love, not the glories of sex. The Song of Solomon is actually Sacred Marriage liturgy from a Mesopotamian ritual of marriage between two gods, the fertility god Dummuzi-Tammuz (perhaps represented by the king or tribal chief) and his sister Inanna-Astarte (represented by the chief’s daughter, or a priestess).
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart witha glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride (Song of Solomon 4:9-10).
My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand. His head is the finest gold; his locks ar wavy, black as a raven. His eyes are like doves beside springs of water, bathed in milk, fitly set. . . . His body is ivory work . . .his legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars. His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable (5:10-16).
A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrr andaloes, with all chief spices – a garden fountain, a well of living ater, and flowing streams from Lebanon (4:12-15).
Awake, O north wind and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that is fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits (4:16).
In the cosmology of the ancient world, the Goddess, the Great Mother, brought forth all of life parthenogenetically – i.e., without the benefit of input from the God. Later, when humans had figured out the role of sun and seed, the metaphor of sacred marriage was ritualized in the ceremonial union of the king or ruler with the representative of the Goddess in the Temple. Such a ceremony assured the strength, the fertility, the success, the safety of the land and the people.This ceremony is called “Temple Prostitution” by most clergy, which tinges it with degradationand evil – but that is merely the gloss of 1,600 years of Church dogma. The union of the sun god and the earth goddess, or the Sky with the Earth, is as old as humankind and as varied in interpretation as all the tribes.
In these sophisticated times, we have little need for that kind of sympathetic magic, at least in a literal sense. Nevertheless, Sacred Marriage needs to be understood at a cosmic level, as it was of old – in the context of our present-day new cosmology, rather than the cosmology of the ancient world. Here is Genesis as told with the understanding of the new cosmology from TheUniverse Story, by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (Harper SanFrancisco, 1992):
At the base of the serene tropical rainforest sits this cosmic hurricane. At the baseof the seaweed’s column of time is the trillion-degree blast that begins everything. All that exists in the universe traces back to this exotic, ungraspable seed event, amicrocosmic grain, a reality layered with the power to fling a hundred billiongalaxies through vast chasms in a flight that has lasted fifteen billion years. Thenature of the universe today and of every being in existence is integrally related tothe nature of this primordial Flaring Forth. The universe is a single multiform development in which each event is woven together with all others in the fabric of the space-time continuum (p. 21).
Swimme and Berry suggest that what we need is a “ritual rapport with the cosmological orderand the mythic powers of the universe” as we understand those powers today. Sacred Marriage can be understood as a metaphor of the new cosmology:
To say the stone falls to the Earth misses the active nature of the event. To say gravity pulls the stone to the Earth suggests an underlying mechanism that has nobasis in reality. To say the Earth pulls the rock to itself fails to capture the mutual presence of the universe to each of its parts. It is more helpful to say that the planet Earth and the rock are drawn by the universe into bonded relationship. The bonding simply happens; it simply is. The bonding is the perdurable fact of the universe and happens primevally in each fresh instant, a welling up of an inescapable togetherness of things (p. 25).
Today we know that there are many ways of relating to or bonding with each other. Our society is in a legal and liturgical debate about what constitutes “marriage.” We speak of same-sex unions, partnerships, common-law marriage, single non-celibacy, extended families, how it takes avillage to raise a child – and what is the nature of our creativity if not a sacred marriage between inspiration and expression?
Two seasons of the year lend themselves to a celebration of Sacred Marriage. One is Valentine’s Day, February 14 – assuming that day happens before Lent (and also assuming progressive Christianity still wants to mark the days leading to Easter with fasting, sexual abstinence, and prayer). The second and most appropriate time is the Celtic Pagan holiday of Beltane.
Beltane is an ancient festival of fire celebrating the sun and fertility. It is a “cross-quarter day,” a time midway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. For the astrologers amongus, it is the point when the sun reaches 15 degrees Taurus, which is actually on May 5 – Cinco deMayo – a major spring celebration for Hispanic cultures. Traditionally, the Celtic Beltane is celebrated on April 30, – Walpurgis nacht for Norse and Germanic peoples – the evening of the first of May. Like Samhain, or Halloween, which marks the transition between the worlds of Summer and Winter – Life and Death – in the Celtic tradition, Beltane marks the transition from Winter to Summer, Death to Life. For the Celts, and cultures world-wide, this time of the year is another threshold time when we can move easily across that line between physical reality andspiritual reality. The veil between the worlds is thin.
The Christian story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or rebirth, blends well with the Pagan’s dying-rising god. Before the Augustinians won the war over how to determine the date of Easter, it may well have been celebrated at Beltane. But at the Synod of Whitby, 664, Easter was tied to Passover, and became the only Christian liturgical celebration whose timing is based on the Moon – the First Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox – which makes it amovable feast, most closely associated with the Spring Equinox instead of the Beltane cross-quarter day, which is determined by the position of the earth relative to the Sun. So for this one Christian holiday, the Moon Goddess prevailed over the patriarchal Sun God.
Let me give an historical aside: The Synod of Whitby was called in 664 to settle disputes between the Roman Bishops and the Celtic Bishops about the calculation of the date of Easter, and the pattern to be used for haircuts: the Roman tonsure, a small, circular, shaved area on the top of the head versus the Druid tonsure, which shaved the head from the front back to the ears. While those issues were the stated reason for the Synod, it was really about the establishment of Roman ecclesiastical power. The decision that placed Roman authority above the monastic, collaborative Celtic model was based on the idea that because St. Peter holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven, those at the Synod would not get in if they did not agree with that authority. The Synod was the first major defeat for the Celtic version of the Church, which remained organically united until the Orthodox-Roman split in 1054. Celtic bishops were systematically replaced with Roman bishops throughout Europe between 800 and 1200 C.E..
Beltane is the time for Sacred Marriage.