Hierogamy or hieros gamos is the concept of “sacred marriage,” and it’s the oldest form of what occultists call “sex magick.” It’s basically a religious rite in which people have sexual intercourse, with at least one of the participants being “possessed” by a Deity. In some cases, both a God and a Goddess are invoked, often with the former “riding” the man and the latter “riding” the woman. (An example would be the “Great Rite” in Wicca, or at least when the high priest and priestess of a coven actually have sex during the ritual. It’s more often “sanitized” today, which means the sex part is switched out with some kind of symbolic substitute, like sticking an athame into a chalice.) In other cases, only one Deity is invoked, and it’s almost always a Goddess.
The historical purpose of hierogamy was twofold, having both a practical and a gnostic application. The practical purpose was to channel the fertility of the Gods into the crops, animals, and people of a community, and this is best exemplified by the rites that were used in Mesopotamia. The gnostic purpose was to reach a higher level of consciousness, which was more often the goal in Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism. Many people would agree that one good orgasm really can “blow your mind” and make you feel like you’re in tune with the rest of the cosmos. It makes total sense to me why people would consider that ecstatic burst of self-surrender to be supremely magical. From this standpoint, sex can be much more than just some “dirty” animal act; it can be a religious experience that is both self-fulfilling and incredibly humbling.
I don’t really see it as being my place to define what the path of a qadishtu or priestess of Ishtar is meant to be like, but I do feel safe enough saying that qadishtu weren’t “prostitutes” by the definition of the term that we use today. Sex was indeed an important part of their sacred rituals, and the qadishtu were ostensibly paid for their services; but there probably wasn’t always a direct relation between these two things. First of all, it’s not clear whether they had ritual sex with literally any man who entered their temples, or if just one priestess performed the rite with a king during the annual spring festival. Secondly, it’s unreasonable to assume that this was the only service these women offered. It’s quite likely that they also officiated weddings, baptisms, funerals, and even exorcisms (just like all other priesthoods). We know for a fact that they were educated as scribes, which means they could read and write (both of which were exceedingly rare skills to have at that time in history). This would mean that they were also historians, mathematicians, and civil record-keepers. The fact that Herodotus and the biblical patriarchs defined these women in terms of sex says more about men than it does about the qadishtu. Then there’s also the fact that these women were politically powerful members of their society, not exploited sex workers. Any way you slice it, reducing the ancient qadishtu to our modern concept of “prostitute” just doesn’t fly with me.
Ever since the Pagan movement got started in the 19th century, people have been reclaiming the concept of hierogamy for their own religious or spiritual practices today. Unfortunately, there are certain problems that go along with this process, and some serious mistakes have been made. The rite of sacred marriage should only be engaged by consenting adults who fully comprehend what is being done, and who trust each other enough to share their bodies with each other in such an intimate and spiritual way. In other words, it works just like regular consensual adult sex; no one should ever be bullied or emotionally manipulated into doing it against their will. Unfortunately, there are sickos out there who do just that (and let’s be honest here; they’re usually men). These assholes care more about controlling people and getting their rocks off than they do about doing any kind of work for the Gods. If you encounter someone who insists that you “can’t be a real witch” if you don’t perform the Great Rite with them, that person is a lying sack of shit. I’ve also heard of situations where the magician enlists a non-magician for sex magic without properly explaining what they’re doing. Aleister Crowley pulled this one on some of his “Scarlet Women,” and I personally think it counts as a kind of rape. Imagine that you don’t know anything about magic, and that you’re just enjoying being with a partner. Then your partner starts reciting strange incantations and you start hearing spooky noises and/or seeing creepy things. Not cool!
Another problem is the over-emphasis on heteronormativity that happens. In lots of covens, it’s thought that only women should invoke Goddesses into themselves, and that only men should invoke Gods. People also argue over what role transgender people should be allowed to have in this process (if any). Well as a priest of Set and a layperson of Ishtar, I’m here to tell you what I think They think. A Goddess can take possession of a cisgender male body or a transgender female body if She damn well wishes, and a God can do the same with a cisgender female or transgender male. I would also argue that hieros gamos does not have to be limited to just one God and just one Goddess, either. That really isn’t my sort of thing personally, but whatever. You can perform the rite in a solitary context as well, just visualizing one or more Deities as your partners. (If They can be invoked into human bodies, They can be invoked into the images in our minds as well.) As a matter of fact, this may be the safest way to engage in hierogamy if you don’t have a steady life partner who is interested in doing this kind of spiritual work with you.
If you do have a steady partner or partners with whom you can engage in this kind of practice, this next part might not apply to you so much. But if you don’t, and if you decide to try and engage in this sort of thing anyway, you should take all the same precautions that you would with sex in general. There is nothing wrong with using condoms, lubricant, plastic wrap, or even latex gloves (especially if you aren’t in a committed relationship with your partner or partners for the rite). If you take birth control pills, don’t listen to any kooks who tell you that you need to stop using them (because they might “interfere with the energy of the rite”). It’s always a good idea to have yourself tested for STDs, too, and there’s nothing wrong with asking your partner(s) to do the same. (If a potential partner of yours is offended when you ask the question, “Have you been tested for STDs recently?”, they are being unreasonable.) We live in a crazy world, and we all need to be careful.
I really can’t endorse meeting up with strangers, but if you decide to go that route, please make sure someone else knows exactly what you’re doing, and when and where you’re going to do it. Arrange for them to go with you, come looking for you, or call the police if they don’t hear from you before a specified time. Carry mace; read up on how to defend yourself. Again, I don’t personally endorse that route – in fact, I think it’s a really bad idea – but I can’t stop anyone from going there if they want to. So be warned, and be smart.