The Oldest Swingers in Town

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While the reality of swinging is readily accepted in modern life through the mushrooming of swinging clubs,websites and other contemporary channels, SHM wondered about its source. SS Bal goes back to a dark past - and finds a bright future.

My high field that which is well watered, My own nakedness, a wellwatered, a rising mound, I, the maiden - who will plough it? Young lady, may the king plough it for you, May Dumuzi, the king, plough it for you!'
(Y.Sefati )

This extract by Sefati, author of Love Songs in Sumerian Literature, recounts the sacred nuptials of the high priestess of the Goddess Inanna to the new king, Dumuzi. This 'Hieros Gamos' or sacred marriage ritual has been traced back several thousand years to ancient Sumeria, but certain variants of it can be linked to the swinging clubs of England today. SH readers who enjoy the attentions of voyeurs charging their sex play will empathise with the king Dumuz, whose marriage ritual saw him engaging in heated sex with Inanna's high priestess - reportedly in full view of their marriage congregation!

The use of religion and deity worship as a catalyst (or excuse?) for wild sexual abandon pervades ancient civilisations. Indeed, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, in homage to Saturn, translates into 'orgy'. The word 'orgy' itself derives from the Greek 'orgia' signifying 'worship'.

Loosening up

As the clock ticks towards midnight in swingers' clubs across the UK, witness the bottles of wine behind the bar decrease the loss of inhibitions increases. Then cast your mind back to the legendary wild parties of Bacchus and Dionysius (probably the only time anyone ever paid attention to history lessons at school). Ancient Roman tributes to Bacchus, the god of wine, saw music, intoxication and uninhibited sexual frenzy merge in the divine spirit of Bacchanalia.

These days, it's just a Saturday night at your local club. Less divine and more 'the wine' - but the parallels are there. So, one hopes, is the 'sacred lunacy' of Dionysius signified by deep, carnal bliss. The pre-Roman festival of Lupercalia paid homage to the shepherd god, Lupercus. Subsequently sanitised and repackaged by Christianity, we now know it as Valentine's Day, but the original version was a far racier affair featuring wine, whipping and whim. Women and whimmin' went hand-in-hand during this pagan holiday, with the girls putting their names in a vase to be picked randomly by the men. Many years later, swinging couples were doing the much same thing - but now with car keys in glass bowls. Engaging in public sex seemed very much the historical norm until religious crusaders decreed otherwise.

Etruscan excesses

The Etruscan era saw the emergence of the emancipated Italian woman. Etruscan women were portrayed as wine-drinking girls who thought nothing of fucking in public and swapping partners. They were later vilified by Roman writers as prostitutes. 'Among the Etruscans who had become extravagantly luxurious, it is customary for the slave girls to wait on the men naked,' whinged Timaeus. His 4th Century BC sympathiser,

Theopompus of Chios, also had mixed feelings about these apparently wanton lushes. 'Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom,' he wrote. 'Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often... it is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They are expert drinkers and very attractive. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom. They sometimes make love and have intercourse while people are watching them... and are keen on making love to women.'

Exhibitionism, multiple fuck-buddies, and bi tendencies - go, Etruscan girl, go! Art frescoes of the time depict all manner of exhibitionist and homosexual frolics. In Pompeii, gay sex, group sex and its varieties were performed with gusto and perceived as normal. Babylonian babes also faced negative PR for the ancient custom of having sex with strangers in temples without refusal and, in return, being bestowed with holiness by their Goddess.

It's a spiritual thing

This cult of sexual rites and religious ideology was cross-cultural and famously apparent in the East. Sacred sexuality forms a common link between the social history of India, China and the Middle East as well as Europe. The concept of sexuality as a channel to the spiritual is widely recognised in the Indian religion of Tantra, which evolved into the Chinese belief-system of Taoist alchemy. The 'sacred lunacy' of Dionysius alluded to earlier has obvious resonance with the system of sacred sexuality in which the participants enter into a hallucinatory state to mover closer to the divine.

Polyamory, the practice of being in multiple and consensual relationships with others, is an acknowledged branch of this family tree. Polyandry, big in ancient India, allowed women to have many husbands at a time, as documented in the literature of the Puranas. Here, the queen, Madhavi, bore children from several different fathers. The Kunala-Jataka (Sacred Books of the Buddhists) recounts how Princess Kavita chose five husbands at a time. The Konarak Temple on the Bay of Bengal displays the energy of a man fornicating with several women. Meanwhile, a girl in a cluster with many men is portrayed in the Shiva temple of Jagan Nath in Kathmandu. In the Khajuraho complex of temples (built between 950-1150 CE) in India, sculptures of couples in the flush of group sex and Tantric yoga positions are displayed.

Helping hands

The so-called 'dakinis' of the Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, are often present in the sexual fray. These semi-divine women act as the sexual helpers of coupled couples - a kind of spiritual fluff girl to the couple. But in Tantric ritual mode, that familiar spirituoreligious ecstasy surfaces once more, earning the dakinis the status of time-transcending 'sky-walkers'.

Not quite swinging

Modern incarnations of sexual freedom and religion prevail in the practice of polyamory. Polyamory and swinging share certain ideals in that both concern multiple sexual partners with consent among participants. The departure point is that polyamory is more concerned with sustaining relationships while swinging is, well, casual fun.

Swinging also shares the concept of 'compersion' with polyamory. This is the pleasure that swingers derive from watching their partner sexually engaging with another individual. This contemporary sexual 'giving' of one's partner strikes chords with the sexual 'donations' of the ancients to their gods. Paradoxically, sexual indulgence becomes sexual selflessness.

If compersion has a copyright, then this probably belongs to the Kerista Commune in San Francisco, which espouses the cult of polyamory. Its modern twist on ancient practice saw the Commune adopt the singer Joan Jett as its 'Matron Saint'.We love your brand of rock 'n' roll too, Joan. Staying in the modern world, the Church of All Worlds (CAW) markets itself as one of the oldest incorporated Neo-Pagan churches in the US, with a properly constituted board of directors and an ordained priesthood of men and women. CAW is often said to have been inspired by Robert Heinlein's Sci Fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land which explores alternative spiritual pathways. Although this article has traversed thousands of years across the anthropological ages - from the ancient Sumerians to the contemporary American - one principle is recurrent, and CAW roots this in its philosophy that sexuality is an expression of the divine. CAW advances the concept of 'positive sexuality', which adopts consensual sex with the aim of social bonding. It also supports the practice of sacred sexuality and its accompanying rituals. Full circle - or linear development? In concluding a social 'fit', the swinging community is but one branch of alternative views on sexuality and the social code.

However, whether your perspective is informed by swinging, Neo-Paganism or the variants of polyamory, perhaps all branches would concur with the opinion of George Bernard Shaw:

'Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error.'