Chapter 13 - The Great Rite - part a
The Great Rite is performed as part of the Third Degree initiation ceremony, as well as at some of the Sabbats and other important rites. The ceremony of Cakes and Wine is sometimes referred to as the ‘symbolic Great Rite’ as it, like the Great Rite, represents the union of the divine feminine with the divine masculine. 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 have both attained Third Degree within the tradition and is, of course, only performed between consenting adults.
When considering the origins of the Great Rite we need to examine both the words and actions found in this Wiccan ceremony, as well as its purpose and symbolism as a magickal act.
At the start of the ceremony the High Priest declares the body of the High Priestess as being the altar:
“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;”
The idea of a woman being the altar in magickal ceremonies dates back many hundreds of years and it is not unreasonable to believe that it may have entered the Wiccan Tradition by virtue of inspiration from one of the earlier sources. This idea is also found prominently 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.”
Fortune was likely to have been inspired by earlier esoteric works in her writing. 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.”
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. His labours laid the groundwork for later writers and anthropologists such as Leland and Murray, and thus arguably for the emergence of the Wiccan Tradition. In addition to emphasising the witch as a positive figure, Michelet also cited the idea of the naked body of the witch as the altar.
“At the Witches’ Sabbath woman fulfils every office. She is priest, and altar, and consecrated host.”
In doing so Michelet may 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,” and “at the end of the Mass, the priest went into the woman”.
Extract from: Wicca: Magical Beginnings written by d’Este & Rankine, 2008 (Avalonia.) PB / Kindle @ https://amzn.to/3Ay4HJr. Shared here with the intention to inspire and inform the now and future generations interested in Wicca and other Pagan traditions inspired by it.