— Counter-Currents —

The “Mysteries of Woman” in East & West, Part 1

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Beata Beatrix," [1]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Beata Beatrix,” 1864-1870

2,816 words

Part 1 of 2

Translation anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

The following essay was originally published in English in East and West, vol. 9, no. 4 (1958): 349–55. This is chapter 15 of Julius Evola, East and West: Comparative Studies in Pursuit of Tradition, ed. Greg Johnson, forthcoming from Counter-Currents in the fall of 2013.

By the “Mysteries of Woman” are meant in this article those traditions which refer to a female principle the participation of man to the sacrum in its several forms, whether they be those of spiritual exaltation, enlightenment, or real initiation. As a rule, the starting point is a divine hypostasis, a female divinity or “occult” woman, conceived as being the ontological principle made manifest in real women who therefore contain it in themselves, and are its potential bearers.

The “Woman Mysteries” may therefore present two forms. Under one of them the endeavor is to enter directly into contact with “woman in herself,” with the “divine woman”; under the other, this contact is always the essential aim but the starting point is found in a real woman and in the emotions she awakens, and sexual union itself may be considered as the means to the participation.

Here we shall only consider some typical cases of the “Woman Mysteries,” so as to draw a comparison between Western and Eastern traditions. The field of our inquiry will necessarily be restricted; yet it will illustrate clearly enough the convergence or parallelism of some of the fundamental themes.

The ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean area can offer us much matter of importance, connected with the cult of she who was known as the Great Goddess. We shall, however, only glance at this branch of the history of religions for the purpose of a few rapid references. The Egyptian and Assyrian figures so frequently found of a goddess or divine woman offering the “key of life,” or the “beverage of life,” evidently express the central theme of the Mysteries of Woman. In the ancient civilization of Crete the goddess herself was often undistinguished from her priestesses, and there is reason to believe that the cult intended for the former was often transferred to the latter as being her incarnations.[1]

But one of the most typical forms is that of the so-called “sacred prostitution” practiced in many of the ancient temples dedicated to the Great Goddess: Ishtar, Mylitta, Aphrodite, Anaitis, Innini, etc. In those temples there was a permanent body of hierodules, i.e. of women at the service of the Goddess who celebrated the mystery of carnal love in order to transmit, as it were through an efficient sacrament the influence or virtue to those who joined with them, evoking the Goddess in them. Also these young women were thought to be in a certain way incarnations of the divine woman. They were called “sacred virgins” (parthenoi ierai), beings pure and sacred: qadishtu, mugig, zermasitu: expressions which evidently are not to be taken as referring to the values of the profane world but to those of their specific religious function.[2] We will not here linger on the part that woman played in the cult of Dionysus.

Well-known is the Platonic conception of eros as the principle of a sacred exaltation (mania) which was compared to that of the initiates in the Mysteries. It is probable that in the origin this theory was connected with the Mysteries of Woman, an echo of which is likely to have survived also in the Eleusian Mysteries. As treated by Plato it acquires however an abstract character, for in the end it refers to the spiritual exaltation and the ecstatic rapture aroused by Beauty per se, not by the beauty of any special being, still less by some individual woman. Notwithstanding, in Plato the connection between a given type of eros and participation to immortality is stated.

One of the bases on which this idea rests is the Platonic doctrine of the androgyne, itself derived from the Mysteries, which in the West continued to be professed in more or less underground currents, in Hermetism, in the Kabbalah, and even in some Christian mystics.[3] In these currents the very theme frequently recurs of the spiritual reintegration of fallen man through the female principle, conceived in various forms of which one of the most ancient is Sophia—Wisdom, the Gnosis, the transcendent Intelligence—of Christian Gnosticism. Jacob Boehme and his disciple Georg Gichtel will still speak once more of Sophia.

The same theme was to appear again within the framework of Jewish tradition through the so-called Sabbatianism. Jacob Franck in particular defended an esoteric interpretation of the advent of the Messiah, considering it not as a historical or collective event but as the symbol of the awakening of the individual, of the enlightenment which sets free and leads beyond the precepts of the Law. He moreover connected the mystic power of the Messiah to a female principle, a transcendent woman present in every woman as the principle and origin of their power.[4]

This gave the start to forms of erotic mysticism, also with aberrant and orgiastic features, in which some authorities, not without reason, have recognized a revival of the ancient cult of the Great Goddess. Similar revivals, assuming even more distorted and dark forms, are found in Mediaeval demonology and in the Black Masses, whose fundamental theme was a kind of sacrament that centered in a woman, the “Queen of Sheba,” and such like figures, and a ritual and evocative character was attributed to the defloration or possession of this woman by the officiating minister.[5]

Let us close by a reference to the Russian sect of the Khlysti whose secret rites, celebrated in common, centered round a young naked woman, sometimes looked on as the Virgin, sometimes as Mother Earth. In an atmosphere of exaltation which culminated in promiscuous sexual intercourse, the participants awaited the descent of the Spirit, and the fulfilment of the “marvelous mystery of the transmutation.”[6]

These are all echoes of a lost and degraded tradition. The notion of nuptials and direct magical unions with invisible female beings can be found in the sagas of many peoples and in some of the mediaeval traditions of magic. It links up also with the so-called Alpminne of the German Middle Ages. Paracelsus himself dealt with this subject.

But let us return to Plato to point out that what was called Platonic Love laid the foundations for an important current of mediaeval thought of which the real meaning is still known in its right light to a few only. It is commonly held that Platonic love is something purely ideal, romantic, Victorian, shunning all physical contact with woman. All this is but its exterior aspect and is somewhat in the nature of a caricature. Platonic love is rather a bent in which the desire and rapture aroused by woman is not allowed to develop along material and profane lines, but is used as the means for a spiritual realization, which may even partake of the nature of an initiation. For such purposes a real woman is simply used as the starting point and as a support. Through her the “Lady of the Mind” is evoked. This Lady is the real object of the eros and she is recognized as having the power to awaken in her lover the cc new life,” of bring his true nature into act, of assuring his salvation.

Much of the chivalrous cult of woman, and of service to woman, proper to the Western mediaeval world, can be traced back to this conception. So also the forms that have arisen from an incomprehension of the original and more profane content of the doctrine are no less significant. The true object of the cult in question was indeed a woman possessed of autonomous reality, apart from the physical personality of the real woman, who could eventually serve as her support, and who could in a certain sense, incorporate and represent her. It was in the imagination that this lady lived and had her dwelling; thus it was on a subtle hyperphysical plane that many knights enacted their desires and raptures.

Only thus can one account for the fact that the choice of the lady to whom the knight dedicated his life, and to honor whom he engaged in all kinds of hazardous undertakings, was often such that the possibility of really possessing her was excluded from the start; or else she was a lady inaccessible whose “cruelty” was accepted and even extolled; or she might be the mere image the knight conceived of a lady who did indeed exist but whom he had never seen. The expressions donnoi or donnei were used in some of the circles of Provence to designate a type of erotic relationship from which physical possession was a priori excluded.[7] Rilke is not mistaken when he says that in some cases it would seem that what was feared above all else was that courtship might be successful. The fact is that something other and above physical possession was sought, something to which greater value was attached than to the pleasures and emotions of human passion. The idea of “magic nuptials” and of “occult intercourses” seems also to have been at the basis of a rumor current about the Order of the Templars; it was said that these knights had commerce with demons and that though they practiced chastity, each of them possessed a “lady” of his own.[8] If the theology discussed in the Castles and in the Courts of Love enjoined fealty both to God and to the Lady of his choice, asserting that there could be no doubt as to the spiritual salvation of the knight who died for the Lady of his mind, this leads us back again to the “Mysteries of Woman,” that is to say to the notion of the immortalizing power that a given type of eros can possess.

The “Mystery of Platonic Love” of the Middle Ages, has been referred not only to the world of chivalry and of the Courts of Love in which—as noted—the original and deeper content of the doctrine was often not understood, but also to the Fedeli d’Amore (the Faithful of Love). It has been thought, and many still think, that these Faithful were only poets. To them belonged Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, and other early Italian medieval writers. They were, in fact, a secret order of initiates whose doctrines deviated widely from those of the Catholic Church and whose experiences were in line with those of the Woman Mysteries. All this was already known in the West in very exclusive circles, but in modern times the true character of the Fedeli d’Amore was revealed by Gabriele Rossetti and later on by Luigi Valli.[9]

Certainly the Fedeli d’Amore wrote poetry, but their poetry was of a cryptic character. It dealt with love, but this love was very different from the common kind. The many Ladies sung by these poets, from Dante onwards, by whatever names they were known, where one only, the image of Holy Wisdom, of the Gnosis, that is to say of a principle of enlightenment, of salvation, of transcendent knowledge. Therefore it was not a question of personified theological abstraction, as many commentators of Dante had thought in the case of Beatrice, but of the “initiatic woman,” the “Lady of the Miracle,” the “glorious woman of the mind” (thus Dante calls her and adds: “Who was called Beatrix by many who knew no other name to give her”) that is to say, a being, a real efficient power, whose effects have often been described in dramatic form. To behold this lady, to receive her “salutation,” to make love operate, is something that kills, that wounds, that strikes like lightning. At the same time, the Lady bestows salvation (there is often a play of words on the Italian expression “salute”; the texts speak of the Lady who “salutes,” and this may mean giving her greeting as well as giving salvation = salute). Mors osculi, death in a kiss, was a former cabalistic formula. Some among the Fedeli d’Amore speak of a “light which strikes the heart,” causing loss of control over the limbs and the vital spirit. But by striking the heart and slaying, “the mind that slumbered is awakened.” “From this death life will arise,” writes one of these poets. There are some who dealing with the “grades and powers of true love,” consider ecstasy quae dicitur excessus mentis, as the climax of them all, and they add: sicut fruit raptus Paulus. The experience is thus assimilated to that of which St. Paul speaks.

In relation to the “miraculous Lady of all virtue” (virtue = power) and to the “higher virtue of the nuptials,” we should remember that Da Barberino also introduces the symbol of the androgyne, i.e. of the One who puts an end to the dual condition of the split individual. That Immortality is the end sought, is deduced by a Provencal exponent of the same trend of thought, Jacob de Baisieux, from the word amor itself. He explains this word thus: a-mors: the meaning of a is without; mors means death, “Amor = without death.” The experience is not without problematic, nay dangerous features. Some, indeed, utter the warning cry: “Fly if you are not willing to die.” Dante gives to Love personified a “fearful” aspect.

No less interesting is the reference to the intellectual side of such experiences. One of the names by which the Lady is known is “Madonna Intelligenza.” She is the Holy Wisdom. Cavalcanti speaks of the “possible Intellect” as the place in which Love acts and where the Lady exercises her power. The “possible intellect” is a technical expression from Aristotle’s doctrine as interpreted by Averroes. It expresses the nous, the transcendent, super-individual, transfiguring intellect which in the ordinary man is a mere potential faculty; it is for that it is called the “possible intellect.”

Regeneration, a New Life is a recurrent motif. The Vita Nuova is the title of Dante’s famous cryptic work. In the Convivio (The Banquet) Dante attributes to the “Lady of the Miracle” the power to “renew the nature of those who behold her, which is a marvelous thing.” Life in the higher initiatic sense is bestowed by the Woman. Therefore Cecco d’Ascoli says that his Lady shaped his mind and showed him salvation, and that when union with her is interrupted he “feels again the darkness of death.”[10]

Even these necessarily brief references clearly show that the matter dealt with by the Fedeli d’Amore was something quite other than mere poetry, than sublimated sentimentality or sophisticated symbolism. The experiences they recorded should be traced back to the Mysteries of Woman; they essentially took place on a hyperphysical plane and had an initiatory character.

The part that real women played in such experiences remains an open question. Interpretation should avoid two extremes, that which would assign to real women and to sublimated human feelings the essential part, and that which sees only symbols when the poets speak of love and of women. The foundations of the eros and of the rapture awakened by woman, by the image of woman or by her magnetism, must have been real. The level on which the eros acted was, however, other than the usual one. It would seem that the technique was essentially that of Platonic love, understood as above set forth. In fact, from all that is known of the Fedeli d’Amore it would not seem that they also practiced non-Platonic forms of sexual initiation, making a concrete use “even if not a profane and carnal one” of woman, as was the case of the ancient Mediterranean practices to which we have already referred, or of the Oriental ones with which we shall now deal.


[1] See G. Glotz, La civilisation egeenne, It. version, Turin, 1954, pp. 308. 312.

[2] See S. Langdon, Tammuz and Ishtar, Oxford, 1914, pp. 80-82.

[3] E. Benz, Der Mythus des Urmenschen, Munich, 1955, has brought together the leading texts of this last current.

[4] M. D. Langer, Die Erotik in der Kabbala. Prag, 1923. pp. 30-54.

[5] See M. Murray, The God of the witches, Sampson Low, 1933; S. De Guaita, Le serpent de la Genese. – Le Temple de Satan, Paris, 1916, v. I, pp. 154 et seg.

[6] See N. Tsakni, La Russie sectaire, Paris, 1888, c. IV, pp. 63-73.

[7] See C. Fauriel, Histoire de la poesie provenqale, Paris, 1846; P. La Croix, Moeurs, usages et coutumes au Moyen-Age et l’epoque de la Renaissance, Paris. 1873.

[8] See G. Garimet, Histoire de la Magie en France, Paris, 1818, p. 292.

[9] G. Rossetti, Il Mistero dell’amor platonico del Medioevo, London, 1840; L. Valli, Il linguaggio segreto di Dante e dei Fedeli d’Amore, Roma, 1928; A. Ricolfi, Studi sui Fedeli d’Amore, Milano, 1933.

[10] For detailed documentation on this subject see our work Metafisica del sesso, Rome, 1958, pp. 262-61.

Source: East and West, vol. 9, no. 4 (1958): 349-55.