Catholicism and the Gothic Psyche, (2/3): Sex, Violence, and the Origins of the Sacred

Gothic horror often deals with sexuality, sexual torment, and graphic violence. One of the common polemical retorts against Catholicism is that it is obsessed with sexuality, sexual violence, and blood imagery. But how did Catholicism arrive at this nexus of the intersectionality of sex, violence, and the sacred?

The Biblical account is unclear whether Adam and Eve had sex before the Fall. The later Augustine affirmed, in The City of God, that sex was part of the plan of the unfallen world, but he doesn’t commit on whether Adam and Eve got it on like in John Milton’s Paradise Lost where steamy, nude, and titillating sex causes Satan to be jealous of what he sees. What is clear, however, is that sex occurs after the Fall with all the pains and oddities along with it: shame, guilt, and disappointment.

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Alexandre Cabanel, “Paradise Lost,” 1867.

The origins of the movement of sacred history, that is, of salvation, is in tragedy in the Christian account. Adam and Eve, after expulsion, engage in sex and give birth to their children. The two most famous are Cain and Abel. As the story goes, in the jealousy of a sacred offering being rejected and another accepted, Cain slaughtered Abel. The movement of sacred history begins in sex and violence in the first book of Moses.

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The relationship between sex, violence, and the sacred is also attested to in the pagan theogonies. In the Enuma Elis, the god Marduk must fight with the water goddess Tiamat. Tiamat self-generates from her own eggs the serpents, dragons, and other monsters of lore. The chaotic watery and fluid abyss that is Tiamat’s domain possess a direct challenge to human life; so Marduk challenges Tiamat and slays her by shooting an arrow into her mouth like ramming his phallus down her throat and choking her. Marduk stands over his naked prey:

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,
And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
He cut through the channels of her blood,
And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

From Tiamat’s fertile blood Marduk fashions man to be the toiling servants of the gods who forever remember this primordial chaoskampf and its sexual overtures in their rituals to him.

Hesiod’s Theogony is equally graphic in its sexual violence and through that violence the birth of the gods. Cronus, conceived in hatred for Uranus, slices off his penis and the blood from Uranus’ castrated sexual organ drips onto Gaia’s fertile body which births many monsters; when his castrated penis and its sperm land in the womb of the primordial sea goddess (Thalassa) and it swishes and swirls about, Aphrodite is born from this act of sexual violence and ascends out of the dark abyss from “white foam.”

As Hesiod poetic and graphically puts it:

As soon as Cronus lopped off the genitals
with the sickle, they fell from the mainland into the much-surging sea, so that the sea
carried them for a long time. Around them a white
foam from the immortal skin began to arise. In it, a maiden
was nurtured. First, she drew near holy Kythera,
and from there she arrived at Kypros surrounded by water.
From within, a majestic and beautiful goddess stepped, and
all around grass grew beneath her slender feet. Aphrodite
[foam-born goddess and fair-wreathed Kythereia]
gods and men call her because she was nurtured in foam (187-197).

Virgil’s Aeneid too, captures an element of sex, lust, love, and the sacred when Aeneas charms Queen Dido. Virgil’s mythopoetic story is the spiritual myth of Rome and stands directly contrast to the more brutal, empty, and materialistic founding myth of Romulus and Remus. Yet, Aeneas falls in love with Dido and if not for the gods intervention and Aeneas’ pietistic duty to his father, family, and countrymen, who would have stayed as Dido’s lover. On a hunting a trip they retreat into a cave and make love—it is the sexual sealing of Dido and Aeneas in this moment that is the cause of Dido’s downfall and cursing of Aeneas and his children (Rome) when he flees and she thrusts Aeneas’ firm and hardened blade into her chest and then burns on a pile of his disposed belongings he left while fleeing. The Punic Wars, which this story gives mythopoetic justification for, was a sacred war for the Romans—their very survival, the survival of them and their gods, depended on their success.

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Johann Heinrich Fussli, “Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent,” ca. 1790. Like all mythology, even Norse mythology captures the birth of the gods and life in a chaotic watery struggle between the hyper sexual water god or goddess and the sky god or land god of male order. The encounter usually ends with the male god of order penetrating the female god or water serpent with a prolonged object as an extension of himself. This is usually through the mouth or chest which kills the beast and results in a limp god or goddess beneath the dominance of the god of order.

Returning to Genesis 6, when God was so aggrieved at the wickedness of the world that He decided to bring a cataclysmic flood, it was because of sexual lust between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” who gave birth to the Nephilim and the strong heroes of antiquity. The “sons of God” slept with the “daughters of men” and impregnated them to create a new hybrid race of demi-god beings who terrorized the world before being wiped out in the flood. And yet, as John Milton reimagined:

So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the clouds
That shed May flowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained (Paradise Lost, iv.494-504).

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The first movement to sin is the inability to control the passions. The most obvious passion that rules our lives is the sex passion; and in times past it would be cathartically ejected in the most brutal and sadistic of ways. From Sumer to Babylon to Athens, the origins of the sacred are in sex and violence. This is why sacred sex and harlotry was a deep ancient ritual that Christianity had to do away with, but not do away with in an androgynous sense, but to do away with in spiritual struggle and war.

Struggling against sex has long been a hallmark of Catholicism and an aspect of Gothic fiction. The femme fatale, often a naked spirit or demon that tempts the protagonist into wickedness and death, is everywhere present in Gothic horror. She calls like the Nymphs of old, but with full splendor on display for the weakness of the flesh, which leads men to death. There is something both repulsive and enticing in the nakedness of the femme fatale; there is a sense of the sacred in sex because sex is the manner by which to fulfill the first commandment of God to “be fruitful and multiply”, yet there is a sense of repulsiveness to it because of the reality of the Fall and the punishments to the soul and body as a consequence of the Fall.

Eros is also a central theme in Catholic theology. God is not merely a God of agape but also a God of Eros. Divine Eros is what draws God to love His people, and the nature of Eros compels man to seek the source of Eros which is God Himself. As Julian of Norwich demonstrates in her tome, The Revelations of Divine Love, the marriage of God with man and man with God is by the twin exhibition of erotic longing. While Catholicism spiritualized Eros to the idea of “Platonic idea,” Divine Eros as the desire of the soul still exhibits all over it the foamy and gooey carnal reality of bodily sex. Divine Eros overwhelms the human eros of the believer, in this meeting of the two desires, human eros is completely overwhelmed and taken into another sphere of experience – a metaphysical dying and rising in the bosom of God.

Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene,” ca. 1619-1620. Religious ecstasy has also been a common theme in traditional Christianity, especially Catholicism.

But as seen in Hesiod, the origins of the sacred in sexual violence is not something good and benign. It is a brutal and grizzly mess. It leads to rebellion, death, and hatred. The origins of the sacred in paganism is sex and violence leading to war and conquest. The origins of the sacred in Christianity is sex and violence leading to the redemption of man. Hence why Gothic literature ends in the salvation of sex, through marriage, like in the Castle of Otranto, because by overcoming the carnal temptations of the faux sacred, the true sacred of internality deifies the body and brings the felicity only possible by becoming divinized partakers of the Love of God; or like The Romance of the Forest, ends in succumbing to the temptations in which death, guilt, and the compulsion to confession close the story.

The Gothic understands the depth of sex, sensuality, and the sacred and how they often blurringly conflate together. The Gothic understands this reality because Catholicism understands this reality. “Few venture as thou hast in the alarming paths of sin.” The centrality of sex, violence, and the sacred in the Gothic tradition is because sex, violence, and the sacred are at the core of man’s being and very much define man’s existence—especially in his post-Edenic “nakedness,” his nakedness from grace. Like Goodman Brown, sometimes we need to stumble upon a good old orgy to be awoken from the slumber and to reconnect with the idea of the sacred and the moral heart and moral order being inflamed by moral failing, especially sexual failings.

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