By Sorita d’Este 

 “Assist me to erect the ancient altar, at which in days past all worshipped, the great altar of all things. For in old times woman was the altar.  Thus was the altar made and placed”[i]


Magic, Religion and Sex; potent words which, when combined, often evoke strong emotional feelings and reactions in the repressed, religiously indoctrinated, socially inhibited and close-minded.  Even in these times of mass media which has desensitised western society in so many ways, even just mention of sex magic often causes startling reactions fuelled by misapprehensions.  Thus the idea of the Great Rite, a central mystery in traditions of initiatory Wicca, with its magical and religious overtones, which reaches its zenith in the act of sexual union, has been at the root of many debates and rumours.  Misunderstandings exist not just in secular society, but also within the magical and pagan communities, about this ceremony, and quite possibly rightly so.

Today there are many different traditions of practice which use the term ‘Wicca’ to describe themselves, and within the context of this essay I am using the term to refer specifically to the esoteric traditions.  That is traditions in which members can trace their initiatory lineage to Gerald Gardner (Gardnerian) or Alex and Maxine Sanders (Alexandrian); or who otherwise practice an initiatory form of the tradition which closely follows the practices, beliefs and liturgy taught in the Gardnerian and/or Alexandrian traditions.   Within these traditions there are three initiations; each of which takes place after a period of study and practice, though there are significant differences in how the degrees are bestowed, as well as in regards to the requirements for a candidate to be deemed suitable or ready for advancement to the next degree, due to the decentralised nature of the tradition. The liturgies for each of the three initiations are contained in the Book of Shadows (BOS) which is a book of rituals and spells, copied by an initiate from their initiator.  The origins of the majority of these rituals has been shown[ii] to originate in the books of the medieval grimoire tradition, Christian liturgy and Freemasonry, embellished with generous helpings of the writings of the infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley and that of Charles Leland, an American anthropologist.

For the textual analysis of the Great Rite which follows I have used public domain[iii] versions of the text based on original manuscript copies of Gerald Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Of course minor textual differences between the handwritten copies of different initiates will exist, but for the purposes of this essay such differences are not relevant as we are concerned with the precedents and origins of the rituals, rather than its development in initiatory Covens subsequently.

By its very nature the Great Rite is one of the most private ceremonies of the Wiccan tradition, and it is usual for all members of the coven to turn their backs or leave the circle when it is being performed in ‘actuality’, that is as a sexual consummation, rather than in ‘token’, that is its symbolic form without sexual consummation.  The Great Rite is performed by a High Priestess and High Priest who are performing it as part of their elevation to the third degree, or who have already attained the third degree and who are performing the ceremony for another purpose such as celebration or consecration.  As an act of sexual union it is performed only between two consenting adults, and ordinarily such a couple will also be sexual partners outside of the context of magical work. Traditionally the ritual is designed for use between a man and a woman, rather than two people of the same sex; although arguments for and against the enactment of this ritual by two individuals of the same-sex abound and debate is likely to continue on the subject for some years.[iv]


 Origins, Symbolism and Practice


In preparation the altar will be set up according to tradition, the magic circle will be cast, and the guardians of the Watchtowers will be evoked to guard and witness proceedings.  All participants will be admitted to the circle and all other celebration, worship or work will be done and completed before the enactment of the Great Rite begins:

Magus: “Ere we proceed with this sublime degree, I must beg purification at thy hands.”

The High Priestess then proceeds to perform the purification, which traditionally involves binding the Magus and then tying him to the altar.  She then scourges him, a total of 40 strokes admitted in batteries of three, seven, nine and twenty-one, a sequence and total number given a number of rites in the Book of Shadows, with the purpose of attaining purification.  When she is done, he is untied and the process is repeated on her by the Magus; after which a Eucharistic feast of wine and cakes are shared between all present.

Gerald Gardner, who is known by some as the “Father of Wicca” provides the first published account of this method of scourging in his novel High Magic’s Aid :

Thou first must be purified. Taking the scourge from the Altar, she struck his buttocks, first three, then seven, then nine, then twenty one strokes with the scourge…”[v]

The use of flagellation for the purpose of purification seems to hark back to the medieval Christian flagellants who used self-inflicted pain to alter consciousness and purify their souls, though there are also recorded examples of where the initiates of a medieval witch coven was allegedly scourged by the Devil during ceremonies.  It is however not completely clear from the accounts as to what the exact purpose of the scourging in these medieval Covens was, other than the possibility that it might have been as punishment for disobedience. In one example from 1678 one Katherine Liddel of Scotland claimed, amongst other things:

“that he (the devil) was cold to the touch, and his breath like a damp air, and that he scourged them oft, and was a most ‘wicked and barbarous master’…” [vi]

Within the tradition different reasons are given for the relevance of the total number of forty strokes, the most common being that it corresponds to the number of knots on a traditional scourge (i.e. 5 knots each on the 8 strands of the scourge), the eight representing a concept known as the “eight paths to power” multiplied by five, being the five points of the pentagram.

An interesting precedent for the forty strokes with the scourge can be found in the Bible, when St Paul said in Corinthians 11:24-25:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.[vii]

The Canonical laws of the time prohibited the use of more than forty strokes, and in an effort to avoid any violation of the law by mistake, it was common practice to give one stroke less. It was furthermore customary for the person who was being punished to be tied to a low pillar for the duration of the scourging to ensure that they would be forced to lean forward; a practice echoed in Wicca.  Cyprian, in his third century work The Life of Cæsarius Arelatensis describes this practice.  It is then, as an aside to note,  that after Solomon, Cyprian was probably the most attributed author of magical grimoires including the black book Clavis Inferni (Keys to Hell), which provides instructions for the control of the demon princes of the four cardinal directions.

Clearly however, the use of bondage and flagellation also allows for parallels with erotic BDSM to be drawn, with the roles of dominance and submissive being interchangeable.  It has been suggested that the use of this technique could be credited to a sadomasochistic preference held by Gerald Gardner for its use to raise magical power. This popular notion can in part be supported by the fact that the use of the scourge, flagellation, bondage and sexual energies are central to many of the rituals presented in Gardner’s Book of Shadows.  It is also ironically these practices so central to the initiatory tradition taught by Gardner, has been whitewashed out of the public image of the initiatory traditions and which is nearly non-existant in the exoteric traditions.  In fact, adherents to the pop-culture Wiccan traditions are often surprised and appalled by the idea of any form of ritual nudity, bondage or scourging, being unaware of its importance in the traditional rites.

Then the rite continues:

Magus: “Now I must reveal to you a great Mystery.”

The High Priestess assumes what is known as the Osiris Position, standing naked with her scourge and ritual wand, her arms are crossed over her chest.  The Magus kisses her on the lips.  The Magus now declares the body of the High Priestess, who in this rite is the representative of the Goddess, as being the altar for the ritual:

Magus: “Assist me to erect the Ancient Altar, at which in days past all worshipped, the Great Altar of all things. For in the old times a woman was the Altar. Thus was the altar made and placed …”

The High Priestess now lies down in the centre of the circle, in the pentagram position (i.e. arms and legs outstretched) in an West-East orientation.  If there is a Coven present, an assistant may cover her with a veil.

There are some noteworthy parallels here between the practices in Wicca and those found in the Preliminary Mass of Gold, the first initiation ritual into the Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow[viii] a mystical sex magic order founded by Maria de Naglowska in 1931 in Paris.  In the Preliminary Mass of Gold the Priestess lies down in a West-East orientation, the Priestess blesses the wine which is held by a male and the cup is placed on her genitalia – all of these practices are echoed in the rites taught by Gerald Gardner two decades later.  The Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow was a mystical Gnostic sex magic order, who amongst other things celebrated the mysteries of both the masculine and feminine divine in their rites, primarily as Lucifer/Satan (masculine) and The Mother/Sophia (feminine).  Their focus on Lucifer and Satan, as well as explicit sex magic practices gave rise to the popular suggestion that they were a Satanic order.

Contemporary to the public emergence of Wicca, this idea of woman as the altar is prominently found in the writings of Dion Fortune’s novel The Sea Priestess where the hero Wilfred Maxwell has a soliloquy about his fiancé Molly saying:

“When the body of a woman is made an altar for the worship of the Goddess who is all beauty and magnetic life, and the man pours himself out in worship and sacrifice, keeping back no part of the price but giving his very self for love, seeing in his mate the priestess serving with him in the worship – then the Goddess enters the temple.”[ix]

Fortune was likely to have been inspired by earlier esoteric works in her writing, and the same sources may have also influenced the flow of ideas which culminated in the Great Rite. One such influential text was written in the nineteenth century by the French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874) in 1862, La Sorcière, in which he argued that witchcraft had been the original religion of Europe.  Michelet, on describing the preparations undertaken by the witch, declared, “with equal solemnity she purifies her person. Henceforth she is the living altar of the shrine.[x]”  Michelet presented a model of a nature and fertility cult, which was led by priestesses and had managed to survive and flourish underground during the Middle Ages as a sanctuary for oppressed women.  Michelet’s work laid the groundwork for later writers and anthropologists such as Charles Godfrey Leland and Margaret Murray, both of whose work would be highly influential on the emergence of Wicca. In addition to emphasising the character of the witch as a positive figure, Michelet also cited the idea of the naked body of the witch as the altar, writing that: “At the Witches’ Sabbath woman fulfils every office. She is priest, and altar, and consecrated host.”

In doing so Michelet may in turn have been drawing on accounts from the witch trials and the famous case of La Voisin, a major French scandal of the seventeenth century.  In 1679 one of king Louis XIV’s mistresses, Madame de Mountespan, enlisted the aid of Catherine La Voisin, an infamous sorceress and poisoner. Both the women played the part of altar for black masses performed by Abbé Guiborg, a renegade Catholic priest.  Noteworthy in the descriptions of these events are that “as often as the priest was to kiss the altar, he kissed the body,”[xi] and “at the end of the Mass, the priest went into the woman”.[xii]  As a side-note of interest here is that the women were described as holding black candles in their hands during the ceremony and that the chalice would be placed upon their naked bellies, a practiced echoed in the Great Rite when consecrations are performed, and it is interesting to consider these similarities in the light of constant denial on the part of Wicca that it has any associations with Satanism.

“Magus: … and the sacred place was the point within the centre of the circle, as we of old times have been taught, that the point within the centre is the origin of all things. Therefore should we adore it.”

The Magus kisses the High Priestess on her pubic area.

Here we the reference to the “point within the centre of the circle” is most likely a reference to the sun, the symbol of which is a circle with a dot in the centre. This is then also a symbolic reference to the phallus of the male (who as the channel for the god of the tradition, also represents the sun) which will join in an act of sexual union with the Priestess in the centre of the circle, their union being the “origin of all things” as it is through sexual union that new life is created.

Therefore, whom we adore, we also invoke, by the power of the lifted lance.” Invokes. “O circle of stars [kiss], whereof our Father is but the younger brother [kiss], “Marvel beyond imagination, soul of infinite space, before whom time is ashamed, the mind bewildered and understanding dark, not unto thee may we attain unless thine image be of love. [Kiss]

This section of the liturgy is drawn directly from the Gnostic Mass by Aleister Crowley, where the original text reads:

Thee therefore whom we adore we also invoke, by the power of the lifted lance. [xiii]


O circle of stars whereof our Father is but the younger brother, marvel beyond imagination, soul of infinite space, before whom Time is ashamed, the mind bewildered, and the understanding dark, not unto Thee may we attain, unless Thine image be Love.” [xiv]

Crowley wrote the Gnostic Mass, which is also known as Liber XV whilst travelling in Moscow, and would later write about it in his autobiography saying that:

 I wished therefore to construct a ritual through which people might enter into ecstasy as they have always done under the influence of appropriate ritual. In recent years, there has been an increasing failure to attain this object, because the established cults shock their intellectual convictions and outrage their common sense. Thus their minds criticize their enthusiasm; they are unable to consummate the union of their individual souls with the universal soul as a bridegroom would be to consummate his marriage if his love were constantly reminded that its assumptions were intellectually absurd.[xv]

 Much of the symbolism of the Gnostic Mass is sexual, and although it is not stated, a note to the Gnostic Mass by Crowley implies that the priest and priestess engage in sex magic after the rite is over and the congregation departed.[xvi]  Crowley wrote “Certain secret formulae of this Mass are taught to the Priest in his Ordination”, which fits with his emphasis on the 9° heterosexual union of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) and again parallels the practice in Wicca where the Coven usually leaves the circle if there is to be sexual consummation.

Therefore, by seed and root, and stem and bud and leaf and flower and fruit do we invoke thee,

 This was evidently also in part inspired by Crowley’s Gnostic Mass which contains the phrase “By seed and root and stem and bud and leaf and flower and fruit do we invoke Thee”. [xvii]  Crowley in turn took his inspiration in writing this piece from the poem Song of Proserpine[xviii] by the early nineteenth century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: 

Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth,

Thou from whose immortal bosom

Gods and men and beasts have birth,

Leaf and blade, and bud and blossom,

Breathe thine influence most divine

On thine own child, Proserpine.

Magus: “O, Queen of space, O dew of light, O continuous one of the Heavens [kiss]. “Let it be ever thus, that men speak not of Thee as one, but as none, and let them not speak of thee at all, since thou art continuous, for thou art the point within the circle [kiss], which we adore [kiss], the fount of life without which we would not be [kiss]. 

 Some of the wording here is again drawn from Aleister Crowley, this time from his channelled text the Book of the Law, where it relates to the Ancient Egyptian stellar goddess Nuit:

O Nuit, continuous one of heaven, let it be ever thus, that men speak not of Thee as one but as none; and let them not speak of Thee at all, since Thou art continuous!”[xix]

 The Magus now performs an eightfold kiss, which marks eight points which when joined together produces the symbol used to represent the third degree in Wicca, being that of an upright pentagram with a triangle on top of it, on the body of the High Priestess.  The five points of the pentagram being the feet, knees and genitalia; and that of the triangle, the breasts and lips, this is the same pattern followed during the 5-fold kiss which is usually performed by the Magus on the High Priestess whilst she stands or sits on the altar in preparation for the ceremony of Drawing Down the Moon, in which she becomes a vessel for the Divine and for initiations.

Superimposing this symbol formed by the kisses on the Qabalistic Tree of Life provides us with one of the many layers of symbolism found in the Great Rite. The points of the upward pointing triangle correspond to the Supernal Triad on the Tree of Life, comprised of the Sephiroth (emanations) of Kether (top), Chokmah (bottom right as viewed) and Binah (bottom left).  These Sephiroth correspond to the pure divine source (Kether, meaning Crown), the masculine divine (Chokmah, meaning Wisdom) and the feminine divine (Binah, meaning Understanding).  The five points of the pentagram correspond to more of the Sephiroth, these being Daath (Knowledge) at the top, Chesed (Mercy) at the upper right as viewed, Netzach (Victory) at the lower right, Hod (Splendour) at the lower left and Geburah (Strength) at the upper right.

These Sephiroth have planetary attributions, but it is their elemental attributions which are particularly relevant here: Chesed corresponds to Water, Netzach to Earth, Hod to Air and Geburah to Fire, providing a complete balanced group of the four elements.  Daath, which is a pseudo-Sephira which has some of the properties of a Sephira but is commonly considered to not be a Sephira, equates to Spirit and also occupies the position of gateway on the Tree of Life between the supernal Triad and the seven lower Sephiroth which represent increasingly tangible levels of divine manifestation.  The three Sephiroth which are left out of this sequence are particularly significant in Wicca, being Tiphereth (Beauty) which is solar, Yesod (Foundation) which is lunar, and Malkuth (Kingdom) which represents the kingdom of the four elements, i.e. the Earth.  However it could be argued that the Great Rite represents the union of the polarity of female and male, which in Wicca is equated to the moon and sun, and the act of union is one of manifestation, equating to Malkuth.  Thus the missing Sephiroth could be seen not as missing, but rather as the participants and the act of the Great Rite itself.

Following the symbol being marked by kisses, the ceremony continues:

Magus: “And in this way truly are erected the Holy Twin Pillars Boaz and Joachim [kisses breasts]. In beauty and strength were they erected, to the wonder and glory of all men.

This is line is heavy with qabalistic symbolism and could have been inspired by the work of any of the contemporary traditions and writers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  Occult authors such as  Levi,  Papus,  Mathers and Fortune all wrote about Qabalah and used a great deal of qabalistic imagery in their work, but it is most likely that the inspiration came once again from Aleister Crowley and his Gnostic Mass.  In this rite, the Priestess is seated naked on the altar, between the Black and White pillars.

Boaz and Jachim are the two pillars in the porch of the temple of Solomon, which are equated to the black and white pillars of the Tree of Life.  These are the Black Pillar of Severity (Goddess) and White Pillar of Mercy (God) of the Tree of Life.  As illustrated above, the Black Pillar of severity is on the left, and the White Pillar of Mercy on the right.  The third pillar, that of Balance, represents the gateway to the temple, the entranceway to the Mysteries.

This symbolism is also clearly expressed in the High Priestess tarot card in the Rider Waite deck.  This deck which was first published in 1910 was illustrated by the magical artist Pamela Colman-Smith.  In this trump card the High Priestess is seated on an altar between the two pillars, with the black pillar on the viewer’s left and the white pillar on the viewer’s right.  The pillars are marked with the letters B and J respectively, representing Boaz and Jachim.

Qabalistic symbolism permeates Wiccan liturgy, practice and beliefs, though often practitioners today seem to be totally unaware of its omnipotent presence in their workings.  It is, for example the symbolism of the black and white pillars as representing feminine and masculine which determines the placing of the symbols or statues of the Wiccan deities on the altar, with the Goddess on the left and the God being placed on the right.  The unnamed Middle Pillar of balance between the Black and White Pillars corresponds to the centre line of a person, with the Sephiroth (emanations) equating to the crown (Kether – pure divinity), heart (Tiphereth – Sun), genitalia (Yesod – Moon) and feet (Malkuth – four elements).

Another significant reference which can be seen in part of the ritual text is to the Ethical Triad, which is the three Sephiroth of Chesed, Geburah and Tiphereth in the middle of the Tree of Life.  The words ‘beauty’, ‘strength’ and ‘glory’ refer to the Sephiroth which comprise this Triad.  The name of the Sephira of Tiphereth means ‘beauty’, Geburah means ‘strength’, and the alternative name commonly used for Chesed is Gedulah, which means ‘glory’.  This is not the upward pointing triangle of the third degree symbol, rather it is the downward pointing triangle of manifestation of divine power, reflecting the divine union of the Supernal Triad, comprised of the Sephiroth of Kether (crown), Chokmah (wisdom) which crowns the white pillar and Binah (understanding) which crowns the black pillar.

At this point in the ritual any members of the Coven who are present will leave the circle if the ritual is to be consummated in sexual intercourse.

The Magus then continues:

O Secrets of secrets that art hidden in the being of all lives. Not thee do we adore, for that which adoreth is also thou. Thou art that and That am I [kiss].

 Again this line of the liturgy is taken from Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, where the original reads:

O secret of secrets that art hidden in the being of all that lives, not Thee do we adore, for that which adoreth is also Thou. Thou art That, and That am I. [xx]

 This statement affirms the presence of the Divine within the Magus and the High Priestess, expressing a view which is echoed in other texts in the Book of Shadows, such as the Charge of the Goddess, too.

I am the flame that burns in every man, and in the core of every star [kiss].

I am Life and the giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the Knowledge of Death [kiss].

I am alone, the Lord within ourselves whose name is Mystery of Mysteries [kiss].

 The ritual continues with these words, again taken from the work of Aleister Crowley, here the original text refers to Hadit, the male principle in the context of the original text. Here then the Magus is essentially declaring his own divinity by identifying himself with Hadit.

The original text reads:

 I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star.  I am life and the giver of life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death.”[xxi]

I am alone: there is no god where I am.[xxii]

 Make open the path of intelligence between us. For these truly are the 5 points of fellowship:-

Foot to foot,

Knee to knee,

Lance to Grail,

Breast to breast,

Lips to lips

 The eighteenth century Masonic tract The Grand Mystery Lodge Laid Open (1726) described the “five points of fellowship” where bodies should touch during the ritual embrace, as “foot to foot, knee to knee, breast to breast, hand to back, cheek to cheek[xxiii].  This is clearly the origin of the use of this term in the Great Rite ceremony, though it is not identical.  Here we should however clarify that the five points of fellowship from a Masonic viewpoint are defined as part of the work undertaken by a mason.

In Masonry, as in Wicca, the “five-points of fellowship” are represented by the symbol of the pentagram.  For the mason, this may also represent the five wounds of Christ when he was crucified at Golgotha.

The reference of “lance to grail” is undoubtedly, taking into consideration the sheer quantity of material borrowed from it, a reference to the use of a lance and cup in the Gnostic Mass.  However, it can also be interpreted as being a reference to the lance and grail of Arthurian legend, perhaps in an effort to imply Celtic mysteries and myths on which many, including Gardner, were keen to associate themselves with.  In doing so the emphasis is then superficially moved to the sexual symbolism of the union of the lance and grail, but becomes an issue for Wiccans who feel anger towards the Church and Christianity as the symbolism of the lance and grail is in reality a reference to the blood of Christ, with its origins in the legend that Joseph of Arimathea used the grail to collect Christ’s blood after his side was pierced by the lance when he was hanging on the cross, and is therefore a symbol of the blood and flesh of the man-god of Christianity in this context.

Another point worth noting here is that in one of the early Books of Shadow texts written by Gerald Gardner the text instead reads “genitalia to genitalia”[xxiv] and it would seem therefore that the use of “lance to grail” was a conscious decision on the part of Gerald Gardner or one of his colleagues in the early stages of the Gardnerian movement.  This might have been in an effort to be inclusive of those who did not wish to, or for some reason could not, consummate the rite in actually, but who preferred celebrating it in a symbolic form instead.  Alternatively, it might have been that at this stage there was a need to try and whitewash the practices in an effort to separate it from the other similar sex magic practices which were considered Satanic, which is just as likely when you take into consideration the level of media interaction which was sought by Gerald Gardner and some other early Gardnerians of the period, who were trying to (and had some success in doing so) promote the idea that Wicca was a survival of a nature loving Pagan religion, rather than the forgotten child of magical practices steeped in Judaic-Christian symbolism, or worse that of traditions considered to be Satanic!

The ritual union is then enacted by the Magus and High Priestess in the circle, who conclude the rite by declaring in unison:

Magus and High Priestess: “Encourage our hearts, Let thy Light crystallize itself in our blood, fulfilling us of Resurrection, for there is no part of us that is not of the Gods.”

Not surprisingly even this last part of the ritual text is taken from Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, where the original reads: 

 Make open the path of creation and of intelligence between us and our minds.  Enlighten our understanding.  Encourage our hearts.  Let Thy light crystallize itself in our blood, fulfilling us of Resurrection.” [xxv]


The Great Rite and Image Problems


Although Wiccans often try to present a clean-cut image to the public and to other traditions within the wider magical community, it contains numerous practices which present causes for concern.  Firstly, by its nature, as a mystery tradition the practices, beliefs and rituals of a coven are considered oathbound and private.  The tradition also employs the use of both flagellation and bondage as part of its rituals, blindfolds are used during initiation rites and rituals are often performed skyclad (i.e. naked).  These things alone, before we enter into the realms of ritualised sex, are enough for comparisons to be made with BDSM and other fetish practices, with their leanings towards dominance and control.

The use of flagellation and bondage hints at something dangerous and forbidden, the idea of men and women dancing around skyclad, unashamed of their nudity, combined with ideas of Horned Gods and magic awakens a primal fear of losing control and being helpless within the minds of those who have been conditioned to the modern world, whilst also being visually stimulating and exciting.  The combination of fear and titillation in turn transforming into to feelings of guilt and self-loathing, which provides the fuel for the attention given by the media for these aspects of the practices of Wicca.  This has fuelled many misapprehensions through the media portrayals of Wicca, and understandably so.  After all, there can’t be many parents who would feel comfortable with the idea that their teenagers are running around naked in the woods with other naked men and women, worshipping phallic gods with horns, and moon goddesses who are unashamedly sensual; with the knowledge that they will also be blindfolded, tied up and scourged!  No amount of reassurance that this is a “religion” is likely to put their minds at ease.

So then it is only natural that initiates of the tradition, especially those who are keen on gaining a positive image of Wicca in the media and a wider acceptance of it as a religion within the wider community,  have sought to exorcise the idea of sex magic from the public image of the tradition, instead focussing on the symbolic ideas of union, as well as drawing comparisons with historical Hieros Gamos (Sacred Marriage) rituals and also with Eastern practices of Tantra, which they consider to be more acceptable to the general public from whom they seek acceptance.


The Great Rite and the Hieros Gamos


The Great Rite is often described as a hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of the Priestess and Priest, the Goddess and the God; and Wiccans take the view that this rite has its origins in hieros gamos rites which they believed took place all over the ancient world.  Controversially however whilst there are some scholars who argue that the hieros gamos was a widespread phenomena, others argue that the evidence for this claim is lacking and that it might not have existed at all, or that if it did it was a very rare and unique practice.

The oldest and best known example of a historical hieros gamos is that celebrating the goddess Inanna in ancient Sumer. The second millennium BCE text called The Joy of Sumer (c. 1900 BCE) describes a ritualised union between the queen (priestess), representing the goddess Inanna and the king as representative of the shepherd god Dumuzi.  In it the people first prepare the bridal bed with sweet-smelling cedar oil, arranging rushes and spreading a sheet over the bed.  We are then told that the Queen, that is Inanna, bathes herself with soap in preparation for Dumuzi (the King), who then joins her thus:

The king goes with lifted head to the holy loins,

Dumuzi goes with lifted head to the holy loins of Inanna.

He lies down beside her on the bed.

Tenderly he caresses her, murmuring words of love:

“O my holy jewel! O my wondrous Inanna!


After he enters her holy vulva, causing the queen to rejoice,

After he enters her holy vulva, causing Inanna to rejoice,

Inanna holds him to her and murmurs:

“O Dumuzi, you are truly my love” [xxvi]

The people then make offerings, which include food and the burning of juniper resin as incense after which they perform rites.  At this point the union of Inanna and Dumuzi culminates, as the narrative continues:

The king embraces his beloved bride.

Dumuzi embraces Inanna.

Inanna, seated on the holy throne, shines like daylight.

The king, like the sun, shines radiantly by her side.

He arranges abundance, lushness, and plenty before her.

He assembles the people of Sumer.” [xxvii]

The festivities and rites conclude with feasting and the honouring of Inanna as the “First Daughter of the Moon, Lady of the Evening[xxviii] and the “Joy of Sumer[xxix] showing the emphasis placed here not only on the actual union between the priestess and king, but also the emphasis placed on honouring the goddess as being the bestower of joy and plenty through the feast.  Some of the descriptions given of Inanna in this text are also later echoed in the descriptions given to other goddesses, including that of the Shekinah in Jewish mysticism, who is also implicated in acts of sacred sex in medieval Kabbalistic texts and commentaries.

Whilst superficially there are parallels between the sacred marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi and the Great Rite the rituals have little in common other than the idea that the man embodies the god, and the female the goddess and that they then join in an act of sexual union.  It is however possible to see how this ancient practice could have been a source of inspiration for some of the symbolism found in the Great Rite.  There is also a difference in purpose, as the Great Rite is used for different purposes and is not celebrating the mysteries or myth cycle of particular historical deities; where as the Sacred Marriage is part of an established myth cycle and cosmology.


The Great Rite and Tantra


There has been a move in recent years by initiates and scholars towards making comparisons between the Great Rite and the Tantric Pancamakara Rite (also known as the Rite of the Five M’s).  These comparisons can only be ascribed to a lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the Western Esoteric tradition and its layers of symbolism which has been distilled from the mystical practices of many thousands of years.  Even this essay, only touches upon some of those layers contained within the Great Rite, so many more can be revealed by looking more deeply at the origins and through gnosis gained in practice.

The Pancamakara Rite comparison, whilst allowing a student to learn more about the practices of an unrelated tradition, simply does not bear any relation to the practice or liturgy of the Great Rite.   It is a complex and devotional process, with numerous steps, sexual consummation being one of the last ones in a very long process, which involves the memorisation of long lists of gods, goddesses, spiritual beings, myths and cosmologies, as well as practical workings, meditations etc.  The two rituals are so different that any attempt at a meaningful comparison can only become frustrated and will not be valid. 


The Great Rite, the Qabalah and the emergence of Western sex magic


As has already been illustrated the Great Rite is replete with Qabalistic symbolism and to further understand why this is so it is necessary to examine ideas of sexual union as a form of spiritual practice in the Qabalah.  The sixteenth century Kabbalist, Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-70 CE), who systemised the Kabbalah into the root of what it is now, wrote about the Shekinah and sexual union.  His teachings are extremely clear, and perhaps surprisingly graphic in their instructions to husband and wife considering the period they date from.  In a commentary on the Zohar he wrote: 

Their desire, both his and hers, was to unite Shekinah.  He focused on Tiphereth, and his wife on Malkuth.  His union was to join Shekinah; she focused correspondingly on being Shekinah and uniting with her husband, Tiphereth.”[xxx]

Cordovero may have drawn inspiration from the fifteenth century writings of Ephraim Ben Gerson, who in his homily to a groom, gave very clear instructions for the magical process to be enacted during the sexual act.

 Thus do Kabbalists know that thoughts originate in the rational soul, which emanates from the supreme. And thought has the power to strip off and rise and reach its source, and when reaching its source it attains communication with the supernal light from which it came, and both become one. When thought once again stretches down from on high, all becomes one line in the imagination, and the supernal light comes down through the power of thought that draws it down, and the Shekinah is found down below. The clear light then spreads to the thinker’s location. So did early priests reach communion with the supremes through thought in order to draw down the supreme light, and all beings would thus grow and multiply and be blessed in accordance with the power of thought.[xxxi]

If we look particularly at the alchemical imagery from the sixteenth and seventeenth century of the union of the king and queen, we can see a strong case for a symbolic precursor of the Great Rite.  In these images the empowered man and woman (i.e. king and queen) are united sexually in a sacred vessel, such as a sepulchre (The Rosary of the Philosophers, La Bugia) or flask (Anatomia Auri), which can be seen as representing the otherworldly space of the magic circle as a place of divine union.

Although there are many earlier precedents of the hieros gamos and sacred sex, the Great Rite in Wicca is most likely to draw its practice from the Thelemic magical orders of the early twentieth century, like the Ordo Templi Orientis, Great Brotherhood of God (G.B.G.) and Fraternitas Saturni (Brotherhood of Saturn), which all used sex magic as part of their practices.  By the 1930s, although an act of sexual magic might have seemed socially shocking, on an esoteric level there were several magical orders which performed sex magic in Europe and America, including the Czech Universalia and the French Fraternity of the Golden Arrow and the Thelemic orders mentioned previously.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a number of pioneers of the use of sex for magic and union with the divine manifested through the sexual partner, whose work would influence those who followed, and who are only now starting to receive the recognition their work deserves.  Foremost amongst these were the American sex magician Pascal Randolph (1825-1875) and the American sexual mystic Ira Craddock (1857-1902).

Not only did Randolph travel considerably, meeting a number of prominent European occultists such as Eliphas Levi, Hargrave Jennings, Kenneth Mackenzie and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but he also founded the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.  This magical order included sex magic teachings and was the inspiration for its inclusion in the Ordo Templi Orientis.  Indeed Randolph’s words in his last public speech would see expression through the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley (who was interestingly born in the same year of 1875), with Randolph declaring “We proclaim the omnipotence of will”.

Randolph’s writings covered a range of esoteric topics, including sex magic, with one of his best known works being Magia Sexualis.  This work was nearly lost, as at one point only a French copy of this work existed, which was translated by the Russian sexual mystic Maria de Naglowska, founder of the Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow and herself a keen advocate of sexual magical practices. Maria de Naglowska’s practices veered towards BDSM and were within a Luciferian and Satanic framework, peculiarly in keeping with her being based in Paris (just over 250 years after Catherine La Voisin and her Satanic sexual rites) during the 1930s when she created the order and its rites and taught them to the surrealist and symbolist artists who lived there.

Craddock wrote on a number of key themes including the importance of sustaining sexual pleasure and the retention of semen, advising men that if they did ejaculate, that “when he takes his thoughts away from the bodily sensation just before the last thrill comes which precedes ejaculation, to fix them, not upon something on the bodily plane, but to lift his thoughts to that which he considers the very highest and grandest power in all the universe, call it by what name he will–First Cause, Unconscious Energy, Primordial Substance, Jehovah, Brahma, Allah, God, the Ultimate Force, the Divine.”[xxxii]

Aleister Crowley wrote a review of some of Craddock’s work in his Equinox Vol 3 No 1, saying of her (sexual) writings,  “I am very far from agreeing with all that this most talented woman sets forth in her paper, but she certainly obtained initiated knowledge of extraordinary depth. She seems to have had access to certain most concealed sanctuaries…. She has put down statements in plain English which are positively staggering. This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.”[xxxiii]

The Great Rite contains many layers of symbolism, but there is no doubt that based on the evidence, it a child of Aleister Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, and as such one of the Great Beast 666’s hidden legacies.  Whilst it is difficult for many Wiccans, especially those who have come to the tradition from a feminist and Goddess-spirituality perspective, to accept and acknowledge the influence Crowley had on this and other rituals within the tradition, others are finding deeper meaning in the texts by studying the source texts from which they have been borrowed, combined with practice.  The Great Rite will probably remain the most controversial and easily misunderstood rites of Wicca, but maybe that is part of its mystery and appeal.

This essay only touch on the first layers of symbolism and history of this ritual,  there is a great deal more to unveil.  For now however, it seems appropriate to end with a quote from Pascal Randolph, whose work undoubtedly influenced many who would follow, including the magical orders previously mentioned, even though he is rarely credited.  In writing on sexual magic Randolph said:

The union of the man with the woman must be innocent.  Lust for pleasure must not be the main purpose.  Transcending carnal pleasure, aim at the union of the spirits, if you want your prayer to be exhausted in ecstasy.  If you conform to these principles, the sexual act will become a source of spiritual and material force for you and a fountainhead of wisdom, happiness and peace.  In magic, you search for that which is called the fortune of spirit.[xxxiv]


Article originally appeared in The Gnostic 5

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Chappell, Vere (2010) Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ira Craddock. (Contains Right Marital Living) Maine, Red Wheel Weiser

Crowley, Aleister (1938) Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law). (First received in 1904), London, O.T.O.

Crowley, Aleister (1971) The Equinox Volume 3 No. 1 (The Blue Equinox). (First published in 1919), Maine, Samuel Weiser

D’Este, Sorita & Rankine, David (2008) Wicca Magickal Beginnings. London, Avalonia

D’Este, Sorita & Rankine, David (2009) Practical Elemental Magick. London, Avalonia

Farrar, Janet & Stewart (1991) A Witches Bible Compleat. New York, Magickal Childe Inc.

Fries, Jan (2010) Kali Kaula: A Manual of Tantric Magick. London, Avalonia

North, Robert (2010) The Grimoire of Maria de Naglowska. USA, New Flesh Palladium

Skinner, Stephen & Rankine, David (2008) The Veritable Key of Solomon. Singapore, Golden Hoard Press.

Randolph, Pascal B (1987) Magia Sexualis. (first published in French as Eulis in 1876), Rome, Ediz Mediterranee

Rhodes, H.T.F. (1955) The Satanic Mass. New York, Citadel Press

Wolkstein, Diane & Kramer, Samuel Noah (1984) Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. London, Rider & Co



[i] Book of Shadows

[ii] Wicca Magickal Beginnings, d’Este and Rankine, 2008

[iii] See

[iv] See

[v] High Magic’s Aid, Scire (Gerald Gardner), 1949

[vi] Witch Stories, Lynn Linton, 1861

[vii] Corinthians 11:24-25

[viii] See The Grimoire of Maria de Naglowska, North, 2009 (USA, Lulu)

[ix] The Sea Priestess, Dion Fortune, 1938

[x] La Sorcière, Michelet, 1862

[xi] The Satanic Mass, Rhodes, 1955

[xii] The Satanic Mass, Rhodes, 1955

[xiii] Liber XV (The Gnostic Mass, Aleister Crowley, 1913

[xiv] Liber XV (The Gnostic Mass, Aleister Crowley, 1913

[xv] The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, Crowley, 1989 (London, Arkana)

[xvi] As noted by Kenneth Grant in Magick, Crowley, 1986:436 (London, Routledge)

[xvii] Liber XV (The Gnostic Mass, Aleister Crowley, 1913

[xviii] Song of Proserpine, Percy Blythe Shelley (1792-1822)­

[xix] Liber Al, Aleister Crowley, 1904

[xx] Liber XV (The Gnostic Mass, Aleister Crowley, 1913

[xxi] Liber Al, Aleister Crowley, 1904

[xxii] Liber Al, Aleister Crowley, 1904

[xxiii] The Grand Mystery Lodge Laid Open, 1726

[xxiv] See The Witches Way, Farrar & Farrar, 1984

[xxv] Liber XV (The Gnostic Mass, Aleister Crowley, 1913

[xxvi] The Joy of Sumer, in Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, Wolkstein & Kramer, 1984:108.

[xxvii] The Joy of Sumer, in Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, Wolkstein & Kramer, 1984:109.

[xxviii] The Joy of Sumer, in Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, Wolkstein & Kramer, 1984:109.

[xxix] The Joy of Sumer, in Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, Wolkstein & Kramer, 1984:109.

[xxx] Included in Or ha-Hayyim, Azulai, C17th CE.

[xxxi] Homilies, Ephraim B. Gershon, C15th CE.

[xxxii] Right Marital Living, Craddock

[xxxiii] Equinox Vol 3 No 1, Crowley, 1919

[xxxiv] Magia Sexualis, Randolph, 1876

[11:09:59 AM] Sorita d’Este: The Wiccan tradition makes use of barbarous words, and there has been much debate about the chant first seen in this context in High Magic’s Aid and subsequently reproduced in the Book of Shadows and elsewhere.  This chant is commonly referred to simply as the Bagabi or the Bagabi Rune:

“Bagabi laca bachabe

Lamac cahhi achababe


Lamac lamac Bachalyas

Cabahagy sabalyos


Lagoz atha cabyolas

Samahac et famyolas Harrahya.”

Over the years there has been much debate about the origin and nature of the Bagabi.  It can be traced to a thirteenth century play called Le Miracle de Théophile written by a French troubadour called Ruteboeuf.  The chant was given as a barbarous invocation used by the magician of the story to invoke the devil (the story of Theophilus is discussed further in the next chapter The Sabbats).  The use of it was recounted in subsequent books during the nineteenth century, including Histoire des Francais des divers etats published in 1853:

“Par exemple, dans le miracle de Theophile, qui ne tremble quand le sorcier Salatin appelle le Diable par cette terrible incantation:

Bagahi, laca, bachahe!

Lamac, cahi, achabahe!


Lamac, Lamec, Bahalyos!”

And as illustrated here by its use in the novel The Day He Died in 1947, the chant was not at all obscure at the time that Gardner emerged with his witch cult in the early 1950’s:

“Karrelyos – Lamac lamec Bachalyas,” he chanted his voice rising and falling rhythmically.  “Cahagy sabalyos, Baryolas, Lagoz atha Cabyolas…”

The author Michael Harrison attempted to equate this chant to the Basque language in his The Roots of Witchcraft in 1973, giving a possible translation for this chant which results in a rather entertaining English rendition.  His translation of the whole chant, rather than the initial part quoted above which is used more widely, goes something like:

“Kill (for the Feast) in November, kill! I shall transport thee there myself, and without the aid of a sieve, to scour the plates and dishes with sand: work (which must be done) with those plates and dishes.  (We shall meet our friends) ready for the drinking-cup if they shall go (to the Feast), their bellies full with quaffing from the drinking-cup.  O Sons (of the Master) with your Families, (shout His praises with the cry:) ‘HURRAHYA’!”

If this indeed is a correct translation, it would make it a rather ridiculous and bizarre chant to be using in the context of raising power in a Wiccan ceremony, yet when used the Bagabi does definitely seem to have an inherent power of its own.  One can also easily see why it is appealing to try and link the Bagabi to the Basque region of Spain, considering the history of witchcraft persecutions this area suffered.

No linguistic equivalent in any language, or barbarous version in grimoires or old magickal papyri seems to exist for this particular chant.  However, considering the villain in the original tale of Theophilus is a Jewish magician, it is possible that the Bagabi is in fact a corrupted Hebrew chant.  Alternatively, we suggest it could equally likely just have been made up in an attempt to appear mystical, and decided for the purposes of this volume to demonstrate how easily this can be done and how easily it can be given meaning.

[11:10:42 AM] Sorita d’Este: (this is from Wicca Magickal Beginnings, 2008 ed)

[11:11:30 AM] Sorita d’Este: In the section “On Chants” where we discuss the use of a particular chant by initiates, which originates in a play where it was an invocation of the Devil 






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