Master of the Underworld: Sex Magick from the Top Perspective

(7 p.m., April 14, ten years ago. My living room.)

One hour before the circle is cast, I sit crosslegged in front of a large mirror with my greasepaint kit and breathe deeply. I let my spine straighten and relax, center myself. Make myself empty, ready to be filled with a deeper presence. It isn't exactly true that I don't bottom. I just don't bottom to anything human.

I begin to make up one-half of my face; white paint, black deeply etched around one eye, the skull's teeth drawn onto my lips. I find this is a good way to bring down whatever deity of death and darkness needs to come through me. Other times I might use costume alone, or just open my flesh and let him/her come through without aid of props. I like the props, though. They provide a transition between the everyday reality of life and religious space. I've always enjoyed the aspect of SM that is sacred theater.

Tonight I'm channeling Her, the Lady of Death, and so I put on the long black robe that swirls around me, girding on the knife and the elaborately braided whips that my shaman-lover made for me. I can hear her in the next room, chanting something, doing her own preparations; she will be naked and ready when I come in, ready to descend to the depths. I don't know exactly when the moment is that I stop being just me and become Her (or Him, more usually) as well; it's like slipping underwater without thinking and then realizing you can breathe there.

I've been sworn to the Dark Goddess and the Lord of the Dead since I was four years old, possibly since before I was born. I do remember Her, though; coming to me as a child in a dream/vision and informing me very clearly that I belonged to her for this lifetime, that much of what I would go through would be training me to be a worthy tool for Her. In the years that followed I fought, ran from, suffered through, and finally accepted this calling; now it seems natural, like a second skin beneath the first one. Being a sadist, a top, is just one of the many ways that She has sharpened and honed me for her use.

There has been a lot of good discussion lately in the leather-SM community as to the spiritual intensities experienced while bottoming. Research has sprung up, linking SM with shamanic practices such as the Sun Dance, the Hindu Kavandi ceremony, and other altered-state-through-ordeal rituals of older traditions. As my wife and I are members of the small but growing pagan clergy in this country, and as we're both devout practitioner of SM (especially in the context of sex magick), we're excited by this trend. It mirrors connections that have been fundamental to us since the first time I picked up a whip and she knelt to it.

There has also been a small but vocal backlash that sees the "spiritualizing" of SM as a plea for social legitimacy, and a capitulation to the antisexual mores of the wider society, giving us an "excuse" to do something we really do only to get off. Although I don't necessarily agree, I can see the inherent danger in trying to emphasize those things that might be more acceptable to the "new agers" and downplaying the socially unacceptable, the sex and darkness and dissolution and fear. These are part of what make us what we are, and all the rainbow plastic floggers and Melanesian tattooes in the world will not hide it from the Outsiders. It may, however, obscure the real path for us if we're not careful.

I think we should all just start admitting that there are two reasons why anyone does SM - sex and catharsis. Both are good, and deserve respect. There's nothing wrong with doing it to get off. Doing it for catharsis isn't something you'd be able to manage every night anyway. You'd exhaust yourself emotionally inside of a week, and burn out. It's something to be saved, like my grandmother's Sunday dress, for special. And special it is.

But if you read descriptions of "spiritual" SM experiences, you'll notice they're all from the point of view of the bottom. (So is most SM porn for that matter.) Why? Where did the unspoken assumption come from that the bottom's experience is what's *really* happening, and the Top is...well, what is the Top supposed to be in these circumstances? An impersonal avatar of doom? A technician who humbly assists the bottom in achieving their endorphin-enhanced psychic gyrations? Why is everyone so reluctant to talk about this? When I get a bunch of Tops together and ask about how a bottom can help them to achieve a catharsis -- and what that catharsis feels like, anyway -- I get a lot of hemming and hawing and sidelong glances. If it's so hard to talk about, it must be something terribly powerful. Something that might even rend the fabric of our realities.

I enter the circle my beloved has cast with slow, measured footsteps; her collar lies in my hand. Skulls stare from the four corners of the room. Far more than cheap art, they are reminders of her mortality, of the impermanence of the flesh. A multitude of candles burn -- in high places, well away from the range of my whips -- and incense smokes in the air. "Are you ready to begin the descent, Walker Between Worlds?" I/She asks her.

She looks at me, and she knows who she speaks with. I can see it in her eyes, which she quickly lowers. "I am," she says clearly.

"Are you willing to suffer to learn?" She assents, and is collared. "This is to show whom you serve, whose tool you are," I tell her. My wife, too, has a calling, and was claimed in a vision by Her. She is a healer and a nurturer, not an easy task, and these periodic visits to the underworld within keep her from straying too far into a morass of everyday details and worries. Not to mention revealing her fears to her in such a way that she cannot repress them.

We will enter by the South Gate tonight. She is hooded and bound with red cords, her long hair braided out of the way, her wrists secured overhead. Her legs are spread and fastened to a stretcher bar because I know she feels so much more vulnerable to me that way. She requests a gag, something to sink her teeth into, and it is granted. I raise a thick yellow candle above her. "What is the first mystery of fire?" I ask her, knowing she cannot reply. "The first mystery of fire comes from the East," the goddess within me speaks, "and it is the lightning strike." Hot wax splashes across her naked breasts, and she gives a muffled scream. "The call to awakeness," I tell her.

The next candle is red and even larger. "The second mystery of fire comes from the south, and it is anger, the righteous wrath that burns." Red wax splashes across her genitalia. She doesn't like being hurt there, although it isn't specifically disallowed, and I watch her struggle with a flash of rage and then allow the pain to take her, giving in to it.

The third candle is blue and narrow; I move around to her back and let the wax run in little trickles like rivers down her shoulder blades. "The third mystery of fire," I tell her, "comes from the west, and it is steam, humidity, the sweat of your body, the waiting and discomfort that seems like a forever agony but which will fuel and direct your energy." She is crying by the time I am done, making little sobbing noises.

The fourth candle is green and I splash it onto the back of her thighs, her calves, her ass. "The fourth mystery of fire comes from the north, and it is the hearthfire, the warmth of tribe and family." I blow out the candle and press myself against her, letting her feel another kind of warmth, while chips of multicolored wax rain down. "You'll remember this," I whisper into her ear.

If you get experienced players into a discussion of the top's spiritual practices, you'll usually get folks suggesting two possible paths out of this dilemma. One is to switch periodically in order to get one's cathartic experience. This is a great option if you're a switch. If, however, bottoming doesn't do anything for you -- and libidoes are such persnickety things that we rarely have any say over what does or doesn't do anything for us -- then this isn't an option. In my area -- the East Coast scene -- not only is switching acceptable, but it seems that the majority of scene players are switches to one extent or another. (In fact, the very first play party I went to I was informed loftily by one couple that switches are "more evolved" than polarized Tops and bottoms.) I've found that when I bring up the issue of how to make a scene as spiritually cathartic for a Top as it is for a bottom, I'm advised to switch since that's the shaman's path, the way to get in touch with "real" transformation.

Some players will also make vague references to tops "going along on the bottom's trip with them" or having the bottom "transform the scene for the top". My questions usually are: transformed into what? How would a bottom do this, and where can they learn to do so? Classes and discussions about "how to do SM" seem to be mostly techniques for the Top to use on the bottom. It's assumed that you don't have to know how to do anything to be a bottom, and that being "experienced" as a bottom means little more than being able to take a lot of pain, kneel when ordered, and maybe give good head. No one takes bottoms aside and discusses with them how to transform a scene for a Top.

The Scene is a place where inner monsters are honored. That doesn't mean that they are allowed to run rampant, but they are acknowledged, respected, and offerings are made to them. A bottom's monster may be the part of them that wants someone else to make the decisions, that wants to be small and protected and grovel on the floor at the feet of a greater power. Top monsters are fetishized even more than bottom monsters, often into archetypes too rigid and inhuman for the actual flesh-and-blood Tops to imitate without arduous effort. Yet fetishizing a Top doesn't get them there....that mysterious "there" that no one seems to be able to map the way to, but you always know when you've been to it.

What does the bottom have to do for the Top? The answer is scary. They have to not only respect the Top's inner monsters but deify them, see them as gods that they serve as shamans. Is anybody out there squirming uncomfortably yet? No, don't speak. It's true. The Top's spiritual path is to become, for one small time out of time and space out of space, a deity. So how does this happen?

(8 p.m., November 8. 5 years ago.)

Tonight I am Him. I wear the mask with the great upcurving goat's horns and the long fringes tied with bone beads. I don my leather jacket, animal skins to suggest our animal roots, black because this aspect of Him is the Lord of the Underworld -- Hades, Arawn, Yama, Baphomet, Valraven, the dark side of Pan. In place of my leather chaps I wear leggings of fur that end in goat's cloven hooves. Where She is solemn, He smiles at me from the mirror -- a terrifying smile.

When I transitioned from female to male, taking hormones and getting surgery, I found that She receded to a further position (although She still takes me sometimes) and Her consort takes me more and more. I was born medically intersex and raised female, but even though I now have a beard and a flat chest and I'm sirred on the street, I do not forget that I am what I am -- both at once. Nothing, no surgeries or hormones from either direction, no political polemic or intellectually chosen "identity" will ever change that basic fact. My lover and wife is also bigendered; raised male, she has lived as a woman for fourteen years. No one we know is quite sure of our sexual preference, but we know who we are -- and we can be anyone we need to be in the theater of sacred sex.

My chest bears a great scar, going from scapula to scapula, three-quarters of the way around my chest. It is the scar from my bilateral mastectomy, and to me it is a mark of pride, not of mutilation. When I awoke on the operating table with a hundred and four stitches and lighter by eighteen pounds, I'd never had anything stronger than an ibuprofen in my life. I discovered later that evening that I don't respond to painkillers -- neither codeine, nor Percoset, nor Demerol did anything for the terrible pain. The medical staff didn't know what to do for me, but my wife did. Helping me to breathe regularly, she walked me through the process of responding to pain, learning to ride it and go with it. I'd bottomed before, occasionally, but never very hard, and this level of pain was all new to me. And there would be no safeword, no way to stop it until the healing had gone far enough for the severed nerves to calm down.

The next three days were the greatest physical ordeal I have ever gone through, before or since. It was a three-day Sun Dance: I cried, I breathed, I sang, I beat a drum, I screamed my pain, I had visions, I spoke to gods, I breathed some more. She, who I had guided so many times, guided me now. I came out the other side remembering the experience not as a trip to hell but as a trip to Hel....but only because we were both experienced in ritual SM and its techniques.

My gaze moves from my scars to lower down. At my groin is a harness handmade of leather and hung like a loincloth with soft furs; a tail dangles down behind it. Mounted on the front is a phallus my wife has lovingly carved from an elk antler. It belongs to Him; I stroke it, with his permission, and then, like a gift, it becomes mine for the night as well. I am Guide and Guardian, delver into the wealth of the depths and psychopomp of the endorphins. Those whom I love, says Baphomet, I chastise with many rods....

The first step belongs to the Top, and it could be considered the prepwork. First you have to convince yourself that you deserve to be a god, if only for an hour. That you'd be a great one, a worthy one. Some magical traditions, such as the African Yoruba religions and certain European pagan traditions like my own, teach how to be safely "ridden" by traditional deities. It's consensual, although you rarely get to choose who takes you; more likely you just get chosen.

If this sort of thing isn't for you, that's fine; it's a difficult and rare sort of altered state. An easier and more accessible route is simply to deify yourself. Don't try to be the deity Athena, or Hades, or Thor. You're trying to picture what you'd be like if you, just you, were divine. Why do you think the ancient bards roared things like "I am a stag of seven tines! I am a hawk on a cliff!" and so on? Think up titles for yourself -- Mistress of Discipline, Giver of Pain and Mercy, Master of Ordeals, or whatever is personal to you.

The next steps are not things that the Top can do alone, and this is an unspoken sore point for many Tops. We are encouraged, by many bottoms and by the culture at large, to never show a vulnerability, but in stating one's needs one shows what could be perceived as a weak point. And yet, if you don't state your needs, they don't get met. It's a nasty catch-22 we're in, if we fall for the standard Top script. It's also somewhat embarrassing to admit how dependent we are on bottoms, and the way they perceive and define us. "We bottoms get defined by what Tops say we are in a scene," said a friend of mine once. "If you call me a slut, I'm more likely to be one." Bottoms define Tops in the same way. Actively working with your perception of someone, while engaged in an act requiring as much intimacy as SM, has far-reaching results. A Top can only become a god when their bottom worships them as the god/dess they are.

Note that I said "the god/dess they are", not the deity the bottom might like to see them as or what stern archetype is floating around inside their heads. Fetishizing or objectifying a Top is certain to sabotage their path to transcendence. Not that it isn't fun to be objectified now and again, but in order for the Top to be deified, they must be truly seen by the bottom to some extent. This requires that the Tops unbend and open up enough to actually show the bottoms something of themselves, which is a difficult thing for some stiff-necked Tops to manage. The bottom must be present, truly present and reactive, during the part of the scene that is structured for the Top's path. (This may entail that parts of the scene where the bottom is going off on his/her own trip in an endorphin-aided journey to the underworld be taken care of first, or saved until afterwards.) The bottom must make it clear to the Top that he/she sees the top clearly, including -- and especially - their monster, and finds that unique creature worthy of worship.

By worship I do not mean mindless drooling over bits of anatomy. I mean the act of turning over one's self and will for that moment to your God/dess, to do what they will with it. I mean sacrifice, offered up to your deity. It may require the bottom to endure things they dislike, or that are difficult for them, since if it's easy to give it's not a sacrifice. The greatest gift you can give a Top is the struggle that you make with yourself at the edge of some limit. We Tops like to push our own limits too, and those limits often revolve around greed and consensuality; to push the bottom, force them, or to let them struggle with it themselves. Tempting and playing with that self-control in ourselves, riding the narrow edge of danger, is exhilarating to us. It is like riding a storm, or surfing a tsunami, and it produces its own kind of (adrenalin-inspired? Who knows?) chemical high. In order to get it, we need bottoms who are able to go to their own limits, because we can't hit ours until they hit theirs first.

A relatively empathic Top may never voice this need, this fact to a bottom that they care about, because it's such a hard thing to ask of someone. Well, it's said now and the cat is out of the bag. No one said that this path would be easy.

The eastern gate, Gate of the Winds, is usually easy for her, but today she's struggling with it. The handmade cat in my hands moves in a figure-eight, delivering a steady rain of blows to her shoulders and ass, spreading hot redness across her skin. I won't let up until she safes or gets through the struggle, and I know she needs this from me, needs me to be just ruthless enough to allow her to really challenge herself. Sometimes the Gate of the Winds is whips, sometimes it's mild strangulation play, making her very aware of her own breath.

I watch her, and my cock is hard in my other hand from seeing her suffering. Sadism is a weird thing. It seems to have to cause or reason, which makes me wonder if it's as hard-wired as any other sexual preference. It isn't just about dominance; that's a separate, more psychological pleasure for me. Seeing someone suffer physically in a sexual situation goes right to the groin for me, bypassing the rational in a white-hot lightning strike. I don't even have to be in control sometimes to make it happen. Tie me up and I'll be bored and annoyed. Tie me up and stand over me and cut yourself with a knife and I'll be a lot more interested. Hammer a nail through your genitalia and I might just come from watching you. It's a fetish. When used properly, it can also be a useful tool.

She's found the door now, and she's through it. I can tell because her body changes, relaxes; she thrusts her ass out for the blows instead of pulling away. A few minutes of endorphins, of pleasure, and then it's time to move to another gate, one even more challenging. I ungag her and let her drink some water out of the chalice, telling her quietly that we are moving to the west gate, Gate of the Holy Waters. She groans, but does not protest. This is the hardest one for her; it contains such much that she doesn't like but will take for me. First, the ice; she hates cold things. I hold freezer-cold chains to her sensitive parts and she screams; she'd rather be beaten. Then the knife. The moment she feels it against her throat she whimpers and goes completely still.

She's terrified of knives. She was attacked, once, by a man with a knife, and once a stabbing victim ran down the street bleeding and collapsed on our doorstep. It's not that she isn't consenting to do this -- I own several beautiful blades for this very purpose that she gave me herself -- but it's very, very hard for her. It took months to train her to be still and not jerk away in her terror. Now she stays carefully in one place, but her voice raises to a high wail as I trace her breast, her nipple, down her thigh, across the back of her knees and her taut hamstrings, over her genitals.

"You can feel you blood pounding in your veins, can't you?" I whisper to her. She sobs, trying desperately to control the heaving of her chest as I bring the blade higher again. "You contain all the holy waters of the world within you. What if I were to spill them?" My knife poises against the hollow of her throat and she is frozen in time, breathing heavily. She knows what I want, knows that I won't take it unless she asks me to, wants it herself with some part of her being.

"Yes," she says, her voice breaking in the middle of the word. It's what I want to hear. I move to her back and make the small cut on her upper shoulder, drink of her, taking my nourishment from her body. It's almost a sort of orgasm for me, taking her energy in with her life's fluids. The cut is tiny and I only get a drop or two, but my rational mind does not want to harm her. The monster within me wants exactly that -- to slice her open, gut her like a fish, wallow in her Holy Waters, take her down to death with me. The God Within is poised in a trinity between the two, knowing and appreciating Death and yet understanding that it does not have to be physical to be powerful and transformative.

After He has feasted on the communion of her blood, I take her down and clean her up, putting antiseptic on the cut. We are bodily fluid monogamous and she is the only I can do this with. It is time for the North Gate, which I usually save for last because it is easy for both of us, being a good hard fucking.

The Top's path is also much more context-dependent than the bottom's. Not that bottoms don't need mood and context, but due to the nature of the hard physical stimulation that comes up in a scene, it's possible for a masochist to get "there" only on sensation, assuming they have a skilled technician/Top. It's not so easy for the opposite number. Tops have to learn to be honest about the context they need, and what kind of sacred theatre the bottom can assist them with. A good Top learns to be alert to bodily clues, sensing how things are going with the bottom long before the safeword comes. This is necessary for the bottom's physical safety, of course. In my opinion, far too few bottoms have applied themselves as equally to the "reading" of their Tops, nor worked out a system of responses to ascertain, without breaking the context/theatre, if there is some need the Top is not articulating for whatever reason.

I also find that Tops starve themselves for physical contact during a scene, sometimes out of fear of vulnerability, sometimes out of preoccupation with the technical aspects -- whips and ropes and checking the bottom's welts, etc. Periodic physical contact will keep a Top from distancing themselves and getting caught up in a mire of distracting thoughts, which will eventually pull them off the path. A bottom can remember this and take it to heart: When you beg to be touched, and it is granted, it is not only you who benefits.

A bottom needs to split their consciousness somewhat in order to do this properly. The left brain needs to be aware but in reserve, holding safe words, issue of consent, and knowledge of limits at the ready. The right brain needs to get into a state where what is foremost in their consciousness is that consent is irrelevant. They obey their God/dess not because they have chosen to do so, but because to do otherwise would be unthinkable, inconceivable, because it is the most natural thing in the world to do. They must be both deeply into one state and able to pop into the other at need. A difficult thing, to be sure, and again, something Tops may be reluctant even to articulate as a need.

A possible paradigm for this state of being may be seen in the way that modern polytheists worship. When we kneel before our altars and invoke a deity, we may or may not believe such a being exists. We may tell ourselves that it is merely an archetype in the back of our own minds. Yet we've learned that if we pray for strength while keeping skepticism in the front of our thoughts, it won't come. Our brains aren't structured that way. We try to be rational creatures, but underneath it all we are still children, gaping at the wonder of the universe. If we don't suspend our disbelief to some extent, at least temporarily, the strength or whatever else we are asking for simply won't happen.

The same sort of attitude must be practiced by the bottom who is interested in helping a Top achieve catharsis sex rather than "getting off" sex. Your actions, energy, and especially your body must reflect an utter surrender, with no defenses left against your beloved God/dess. At the same time, some part of you has to be aware and waiting to keep you and your boundaries safe. Tops must realize that needs are sacred, holy. Needs feed you. Needs held within feed on you. Needs spoken become a work of magick. Speak them, and then afterwards, say aloud, "I have spoken," as if you'd just created the earth and everything in it. It will be the first step on a path of dark glory. And maybe, if we all get together and start talking about that path, we'll soon be able to feel our way out to the point where we can map it. You never know.

"Her garden the graveyard, her passion the storm,
Her love is as deep as the void without form,
Her kiss is the taste of sweet blood on the knife,
For out of the darkness comes life....."

--from "Hymn to the Dark Goddess", Raven Kaldera 1996