Great Rite

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Great Rite

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The Great Rite is a religious experience of exultation. It is an essential part of the Third Degree and other rituals in Gardnerian Wicca, and it has been adopted by most Wiccan traditions. It is a sexual rite, with the participants enacting the roles of the God and the Goddess as part of the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage.

At some point, all peoples possess initiation rituals that are similar to the ancient Mysteries. Of these Mysteries, the Eleusian were of special significance, reaching their height in Attica around 600 BCE as part of the worship of Demeter. Initiates participated of their own free will, on a purely religious basis. Unlike the Thesmophoria and other Demeter festivals, which were secret and open only to women, the Eleusian Mysteries were for both sexes. Many writers, including Hippolytus, refer to a sacred marriage that takes place as part of the rituals. Some say this marriage is between Zeus and Demeter, but the Eleusian myths refer to the union of Hades and Persephone.

Asterius wrote of celebrating "a union between the Hierophant and the Priestess," representing the god and goddess. In the Wiccan Third Degree ceremony, the Great Rite takes place between the Initiate and the High Priest or High Priestess (the male initiates females, and the female initiates males). This ritual is not concerned with raising power for magical work, but rather is a sacred blending symbolizing the ultimate union with the deity. As Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor remark, "Wherever the worship of the Great Mother occurred, ritual emphasis was on the sacredness of life. . . and so sexual rites, worship, and ceremonial union—not to be confused with fertility rites—were a part of her mysteries everywhere."

Sir James Frazer, in The Worship of Nature, speaks of the sacred marriage between the Sun God and the Earth in Indonesia, when men and women indulge in a saturnalia. He says, "The mystic union of the Sun and the Earth is dramatically represented in public, amid song and dance, by the real union of the sexes." In Crete there was the sacred marriage between Iaison and Demeter; in Greece, a similar union occurred between Zeus and Hera. Much like the Wiccan rite is the Babylonian Akitu festival, where the king represents the god and celebrates a sacred marriage with a chosen priestess.

In the Wiccan Great Rite, there is no saturnalia, no general sex. The act takes place between the principal persons only. Although the sex act takes place, it is not sex for the sake of having sex. Rather, it is a very sacred, holy union that is the culmination not only of the Great Rite ritual, but of the whole journey the Initiate has traveled through the degrees, a journey that usually takes place over a number of years. In most traditions, during the act itself the other members of the coven face outward in the circle.

The Great Rite may also take place at each of the major sabbats as a climax to the celebrations. However, it is never mandatory. Indeed, if there is ever any reason why the participants should not actually consummate the act, then it may be done "in token," although, unless the reason is a very valid, choosing to perform the act in token is considered inappropriate by many traditionalists. In the token form, the High Priest holds the athamé between the palms of his hands and slowly lowers it into the goblet of wine offered to him by the High Priestess, symbolizing the penis entering the vagina.

A tremendous amount of energy is released during the sexual act, which is why sex magic is considered to be so potent. The Great Rite may therefore be performed as the culmination of some magic workings, but this is certainly not common.

Janet and Stewart Farrar suggest that the Craft uses a sex ritual, or a gender ritual, to mark its highest degree of initiation because it expresses three fundamental principles of the Craft: "First, that the basis of all magical or creative working is polarity, the interaction of complementary aspects. Second, `as above, so below'; we are of the nature of the Gods, and a fully realized man or woman is a channel for that divinity, a manifestation of the God and Goddess (and each in fact manifesting elements of both). And third, that all the levels from physical to spiritual are equally holy."

Doreen Valiente adds, "Ritual sexual intercourse is a very old idea indeed-probably as old as humanity itself. Obviously, it is the very opposite of promiscuity."

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