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Sexuality and Sin - The Origin of the Ascetic Ideal in Christianity

Where does the anti-sexual attitude of the Church come from? Why is lust still considered a sin according to Catholic teaching, so that sexuality should only serve procreation? As I will show, the Christian ideas about sexuality and marriage come from the ancient philosophy and were used by religions like that Manichaeism influenced. The devaluation of sexuality as a sin is neither a Christian invention nor something natural and self-evident, but rather it concerns certain ideas that arose in antiquity, which, conveyed through Christianity, have been handed down to our time.

Religion and Sexuality in Antiquity

In ancient times, living out one's sexuality was considered to be Defilement or pollution. Therefore, the ancient Babylonians were obliged to take a bath after sex and to offer an incense offering. The ancient Egyptians and the Arabs knew this custom before the emergence of Islam. Many of the ancient folks looked at the power of sexuality as something demonic, as a force ruled by evil spirits. Above all, women were seen as instinctual and therefore a break-in point for evil spirits. Therefore, men had to exercise caution when dealing with the female sex in order to protect themselves from demonic influences.

Nevertheless, sexual intercourse was considered a sacred act by some peoples. For example, from Mesopotamia the concept of holy wedding known, whereby the city prince united ritually with the goddess Inanna. The prince appeared in the role of Inanna's partner Dumuzi. In Greece, namely in Corinth, the Temple of Aphrodite used the income from female slaves who went into prostitution as a source of income. Other peoples in turn practiced it castration for religious reasons with the aim of protecting oneself from the evil influence of sexuality. This custom first spread from Asia Minor to northern Syria and further to other regions. In Rome, virgin priestesses served in the Temple of Vesta. So in ancient times there was no uniform conception of sexualitybut their power over people was recognized and could be interpreted positively or negatively in a religious context.

There are regulations in the Old Testament that relate to the cultic purity Respectively. According to Lev 15:18, a couple who have sexual intercourse, whereby the man has an ejaculation, is considered impure until the evening of the same day. However, this in no way devalues ​​or prohibits living out one's sexuality. Remaining unmarried was rejected in Judaism. The only exceptions were ascetic sects such as the Essenes and the therapists. Most Jews did not regard the statement “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) as a blessing like the Christians, but as a commandment.

Greek and Roman philosophers

Plato (d. 348) was the first to advocate the idea that the human soul exists a long time before it is embodied in the living human being. According to Plato, the soul has priority, the body is only a fetter. The use of the body leads to a pollution of the soul.

Plato's most famous pupil, Aristotle (d. 322), also assumed that the soul takes precedence, but he interpreted the body nowhere near as negatively as Plato. Aristotle assumes a hierarchy of lusts: the pleasure in pure thinking is the highest pleasure, followed by the pleasure of moral virtues and finally sensual and physical pleasure. The most important thing, however, is that people live naturally.

The Older Stoa gave human nature an absolute rank, while in the Middle Stoa (2nd-1st century BC) it was mainly through Cicero (died 43 BC) spread the view that man must live according to reason. The Stoic considered the freedom from passions to be one of the highest goals because it was the most effective way of overcoming the conflict between body and mind. Hence, they directed all their energies to suppressing the unreasonable urges of lust and passion.

The early Christian sexual ethics mainly influenced Philo of Alexandria (died c. 50 AD). He was equally Jewish and Hellenistic and interpreted the sexual cult regulations from the Old Testament, which referred to cultic purity and did not fundamentally condemn sexuality, in accordance with Stoic ethics. They thus became moral laws that should be evident to every reasonable person. Philo formulated the principle that sexual intercourse should only serve the generation of offspring. He considered it unworthy of a wise man to enjoy sensual pleasure.

The stoic Epictetus (died 318) raised dispassion to the maxim of life. Also Plotinus (d. 270), the most important exponent of Neoplatonism, rejected everything physical and sensual.

Especially the New Pythagoreans and Gnostic went a step further and advocated voluntary celibacy. This should be rated higher than marriage. Many Christians renounced marriage, as the Christian apologist does Minucius Felix (3rd century) regarded as evidence of the high morality of the church. Pagans and Christians then competed with one another in their contempt for the physical.

In addition, the belief that Adam died because of Eve's guilt became popular in early Christianity; Eve brought sin into the world. This thought weighed heavily on the relationship between the sexes.

With regard to marriage, early Christian theology adopted numerous ideas from Jewish and Greek thinkers. In legal matters, the church mostly followed Roman law. Genuinely Christian is only the lifelong duration of monogamy (monogamy), by Jesus and the Apostle Paul (died after AD 60) was propagated. Under Roman law and in Judaism, divorce was permitted under certain circumstances.

Paul, who was not married, was often understood to mean that he viewed marriage as a necessary evil to counteract fornication. However, he did not judge marriage negatively per se and did not prescribe celibacy, but primarily warned against extramarital fornication.

Marriage and Sexuality Regulations in Ancient Christianity

The first Christian author to see the primary purpose of marriage in the procreation of offspring was Tertullian (died approx. 220). In his opinion, the pleasure associated with sexual intercourse meant sin, so he spoke for it Suppression of all natural feelings of pleasure out. Complete abstinence seemed to him the best way of life. One of the reasons for thinking this way, besides adopting the stoic and platonic philosophy, was the expectation that the world would end soon. That is why Tertullian valued virginity, the “bride-to-be with God”, higher than marriage.

Clement of Alexandria (died approx. 217) tried to mediate between the Christian faith with the ancient philosophy. In doing so, he took over the hatred of the world and the body from the Gnosis, a dualistic current that aimed at religious knowledge. He regarded reproduction as mandatory of the married couple, because God had commanded: "Multiply!" In his view, enjoying sexuality at the same time was irrational and sinful. He wrote: “To rule over desire, to be a despot against the lower man, that is the noblest rule.” These ideas are not contained in the New Testament, but are typical of the Stoa and Gnosis.

Another Christian Author, Origen (died approx. 254), assumed that Adam and Eve's fall was a sexual offense. This burdened all descendants as original sin. Since every newborn person was born through the act of fathering, every person comes into the world as impure, sinful fruit. Origen interpreted the cultic purity regulations from the Old Testament to mean that everything sexual was bad and dirty.


The most influential theologian of antiquity, who shaped the marriage doctrine of the Middle Ages most strongly, was Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). He led a dissolute life at first and then turned to it Manichaeism to. This is a religion for which a dualism of good and bad, light and darkness is particularly typical. The Persian religious founder Mani (216-277) developed it as a universal religion from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Gnosis. The followers of Manichaeism divided into auditores, "Listener", and electi, "Chosen", a. For the electi the ascetic ideal was considered mandatory, they had to avoid sexual intercourse, marriage, and the consumption of meat and wine.

Augustine converted to Christianity in 386with which for him personally the decision to abstain was connected. He subsequently wrote several writings in which he turned against Manichaeism, among other things. Nevertheless, Manichaean ideas can be found in his theology. The Christian bishop Julian von Aeclanum (died around 455) accused him of this during his lifetime.

According to Augustine, evil was the original sin, caused by the primeval fall of man in paradise. Original sin, in his opinion, affected all of humanity. He viewed human free will as misguided. He particularly emphasizes the desire (concupiscentia), which he saw primarily as connected with sexuality. He is thus close to Manichaeism, which also uses the term concupiscentia used and associated it with sexuality. In Manichaeism, a dualism of good and bad is also represented, which is indissoluble and has existed since ancient times.

According to Augustine, Adam and Eve knew no evil sexual desire in Paradise, so there was no conflict between body and spirit. He looked at it as a punishment from God that man feels covetous and cannot dispose of his genital organs as he dispenses with his other members. Another punishment from God that man is born in pain. Augustine endeavored to present the living out of sexuality in marriage as legitimate. Nevertheless, he assessed marriage as a whole much less positively than abstinence.

This interpretation of original sin according to Augustine became the official teaching of the church and still applies today. However, even then there were dissenting voices: The priest Caelestius and his teacher Pelagius took the view that Adam's sin had only harmed Adam and that the children were born in the same innocent state as Adam was in before the fall of man. However, at the instigation of Augustine, Caelestius was condemned as a heretic at the Synod of Carthage in 416.

Concepts of marriage among the Teutons

The anti-sexual attitude of the Church came with the spread of Christianity to Central and Northern Europe. The Germanic peoples did not advocate such rigid marriage and sexual morals like their contemporaries in the Mediterranean. They did not consider sexual abstinence a particular virtue. The Roman author Tacitus (approx. 58-120) praises the “strict marital discipline” of the Germanic peoples and the “well-guarded morality” of the Germanic women, but his statements should be treated with caution, as he primarily criticized the loose manners of his Roman Wanted to practice fellow citizens. He contrasted the Romans with the supposedly naturally living Germanic barbarians who, in his opinion, should serve as a model for them.

In the early medieval Frankish empire, marital fidelity was by no means a matter of course for men of the nobility. Bishops and popes also lived out their sexual needs. Of Charlemagne it is known that he fathered children with at least six wives. He allowed his daughters to enjoy themselves sexually, although he forbade them to marry. Karl was heavily criticized by the church for his free handling of his sexuality.

Monogamy was also not prescribed for the Germanic peoples. There is evidence that in the Frankish nobility polygamy was common. So sat down Karl Martell, the son of Pippin the Middle, as ruler, although his mother Chalpaida is considered an insignificant concubine next to Pippin's main wife Plectrud in research. The divorce was possible with the Teutons, unlike in Christianity. In connection with events from the 9th century in Denmark, the Arab author Ibn Dihja reports that wives could leave their husbands when they wanted, and that this would be before the introduction of Christianity free love been common.

Also with regard to the Remarriage After the death of a spouse, the Teutons had completely different ideas than in Catholic Christianity. This led to a conflict between the Irish missionary Kilian (d. 689) and the pagan Duke Gozbert, who had married his brother's widow, which was forbidden under canon law. Since Kilian had warned Gozbert to separate from his wife, Gozbert had him slain.

The implementation of Christian ideas about marriage

Although the elite of the Franconian Empire had officially adopted Catholic Christianity as early as 500 AD, Concepts of marriage changed slowly in the early Middle Ages. At the latest in the high Middle Ages, however, the Christian sexuality regulations prevailed.

Views like the one that the main purpose of marriage is the procreation of offspring, that lust is a sin and consequently that unmarried people have no right to live out their sexuality, run through the entire Middle Ages and modern times until today. But one should realize that the demonization of sexuality not a Christian invention is. Mediated through Christianity, anti-sexual views from the Stoic and Platonic philosophy and from ancient Gnostic religions are carried over into our time. In addition, there was a variety of philosophical directions and religions in late antiquity, not all of which rejected marriage and the exercise of sexuality.

Sources and literature used:

  • Arab reports from envoys to Germanic royal courts from the 9th and 10th centuries. Translated into German by Georg Jacob. Berlin / Leipzig 1927 (PDF).
  • Denzler, Georg: The forbidden pleasure. 2000 years of Christian sexual morality. Munich / Zurich 1991. *
  • Drecoll, Volker Henning / Kudella, Mirjam: Augustin and Manichaeism. Tübingen 2011. *
  • Markschies, Christoph: The Gnosis. Munich 2010. *
  • Morgenstern, Matthias: Judaism and Gender. Berlin 2014. *
  • Pauler, Roland: Charlemagne. The way to the imperial coronation. Darmstadt 2009. *
  • Saar, Stefan C .: marriage - divorce - remarriage. On the history of marriage and divorce law in the early Middle Ages (6th-10th centuries). Berlin 2002.
  • Schnabel, Eckhard J .: Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: Historical-Theological Interpretation. Wuppertal 2014.
  • Schulz, Matthias: Riddle of the holy whores: In: Der Spiegel 12/2010.
  • Tacitus: Germania. Latin / German. Translated and edited. by Manfred Fuhrmann. Stuttgart 2000. *

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Posted by BjörnCategories Culture, Philosophy, Religion, Popular BeliefsTags Church, Philosophy, Sexuality

About Björn

Studied German studies, grew up in northern Germany, in Franconia for fifteen years. History is my biggest hobby and in this blog I document some of the knowledge that I have read. Show all articles by Björn