It’s always the same. And it’s never the same.
The crowd assembles in the temple, on the first day of the last month of Summer. The clay walls are bright with lamps, and there are sheaves of grain tied in every corner, and gilded sheaves glinting on the walls. Red tapestries, embroidered with gold, hang just for this occasion. The bare floors are swept, save for under the altar, where kernels of grain are scattered
On the altar, instead of the usual idols and candles, there is a naked man. His face, as always, is obscured by a glamour. After all, he is a member of the community, and it would be awkward to recall your neighbor or cousin in the proceedings that would follow. Below the neck, too, the body that everyone sees — whether brawny or slight, whether smooth or hairy — is the form of the God of the Harvest in their imagination, for the man was stepping into that role tonight.
As usual, the form upon the altar is already fully aroused, although this fact is concealed by a cloth across the hips. There would have been a period of preparation with the High Priestess in her chambers: a joint ritual bath followed by kisses and embraces, just enough to set the mood for the evening. The energy of this rite must be fed by the sacred tensions of intimacy. Also in the High Priestess’s chambers, the man would have drunk two important potions: one to keep his ardor from fading, the other to spare him the stomach cramps and other discomfort of prolonged excitement.
Soon enough, the last cloth barrier between the people and their god is removed.
These are a farming people. From their early years, their children see animals rutting in the field, and learn to distinguish male from female. However, only children on the cusp of their own maturity are allowed in the temple on this night. There are darker lessons to be learned at this time, lessons about the price of pleasure, and the cost of renewal.
The priestesses join the nude man on the altar dias, perfumed and decked in gauzy scarlet robes for this specific occasion. Veils of the same material cover their faces and heads. While their bodies are not excessively similar, they, too, are glamoured to keep them from being identified with their actions during this rite. They circle around him, all-encompassing, like the earth, for their role tonight is that of a goddess: the Great Mother herself.
In order to continue the thread of worshipful intimacy that had begun in the High Priestess’s quarters, the priestesses caress the man’s arms and legs and torso. Occasionally — very occasionally — a priestess lifts her veil to kiss his flesh, or use her tongue. The man, in turn, can touch them, back, but only on the arms, up to the shoulder. The villagers watching the ritual—those who had never taken part, at any rate — are never sure whether this makes it harder to easier to bear … or to observe. The only kiss on the lips will come from the high priestess, and that is at the very end.
The High Priestess anoints the man’s member with a few drops of oil, and the priestesses take turns pleasuring him with their hands. Before the ritual’s conclusion, they deliberately bring him close to climax several times, and ease off, keeping him on edge for as long as they can. As customary, this lasts for around an hour, and while the potion he had taken spares him from the worst discomfort, it does not save him from physical or emotional frustration.
One of the reasons for the glamour on the man is that you can learn a lot about your cousin or neighbor in situations like these. Even if the crowd doesn’t know who they had been watching (they never remember who’s missing), they notice the differences from year to year. Different places gave pleasure to different men — the sternum, the nipples, the sides of the feet the back of the knee. One man might respond very little to the the touching of his shaft, only to thrust his hips madly when his scrotum is fondled. One might lie still and quiet, his breath hitching only as he nears release; another might whimper or scream.
The man is not forbidden to speak, for no no one would recognize the voice if they tried. Requests are even permitted —keep doing that, please stop that — although he usually doesn’t say much. Only begging and commands are forbidden. His hands are not bound, but there are handles at the sides of the altar about halfway up, to grip to keep from touching himself, or to otherwise hang on. After all, this is an act of both worship and sacrifice. He signed up for it — even trained for it, briefly.
There are breaks in the action, of course, especially if things seem to be going too fast. The priestesses pause if the man needs to rest, or to weep, or anyone on the dias needs a drink of water. By the time the end approaches, the audience is eager for their god’s ordeal to be done. Eventually, that moment always comes, based on some cue not agreed agreed upon ahead of time, but recognized by all the participants. The man is helped onto his side, and many hands hold him steady while one pair applies more oil. Soon his seed spills upon the ground, joining scattered grains of wheat, millet and sunflower, and ensuring fertility for the next year.
This year’s rite is particularly memorable. If the young man playing the grain god suffers at all, he does it beautifully. Rather than focusing on the conclusion of the priestess’s ministrations, he savors them, gets lost in the moment. He writhes just slightly, ecstatically, as they explore his body, and gives velvety moans and deep gasps as they stroke along his shaft. When he does scream, they are unquestionably screams of pleasure, and at the end, he accepts his kiss from the High Priestess with his back straight and his chin raised.
Afterward, the people of the village make their way home in the dark, under an unseasonably clear Summer sky. As always, more than a few couples are driven into each other’s arms by what they’ve just witnessed — to create their own, if far less torturous, acts of worship and renewal. Afterwards, in bed, they turn their sheets down to bare their heated skin to the season’s fist coolness. And everyone agrees that tonight was a good omen, indeed.
It’s always the same. And yet it’s never the same.
[Diana Andrews lives in Middle Tennessee, where she makes her living at an office job in the health insurance industry. In her spare time, she is a mother to her cat and plots the overthrow of kyriarchy through popular culture.]