SEX, DRUGS AND HINDU GODS:
THE STORY OF THE PSYCHEDELIC VENUS CHURCH
(Copyright c1998 by Michael Marinacci. All rights reserved.)
During its short, volatile life, the Psychedelic Venus Church was the ultimate hippie religion. Emerging during the post-Woodstock period, when the counterculture's spiritual hungers were increasingly exploited by Eastern ascetics, Mansonesque authoritarians and retrograde Jesus People, the PVC dared hold high the hippies' original pagan ideals, promoting free sex and cannabis consumption as a pleasurable path towards peace and enlightenment.
Ironically, this loosely-organized sex-and-drugs cult grew out of a search for an Eastern guru. After the Maharishi made temporary converts of several Beatles and a Rolling Stone in 1967, many young Americans traveled to India looking for holy men to show them the Way.
One of the seekers was a San Franciscan named Willie Minzey. In November 1967, Minzey found himself in the holy city of Benares and discovered the Shaivites, a Hindu sect that worshipped Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.
The Shaivites were notorious throughout India for their superhuman consumption of hashish. To them, getting as high as possible was the quest for Godhead. They impressed Minzey, and he joined up.
Ritualistically dedicated and marked by the Hindi hash-heads, Minzey returned to his home in San Francisco. There he set up a personal temple to Shiva, and founded the Shiva Fellowship, with the expressed purpose of promoting the deity's worship to North Americans. He held public rituals in the Golden Gate Park "Panhandle" every Sunday, where he and fellow Shaivites raised a cloud of cannabis smoke as they chanted prayers to Indo-Aryan gods.
Minzey's mission came to a swift end on April 16, 1969. That Sunday he was arrested after one of his open-air services and charged with distributing marijuana to minors -- apparently, a ten-year-old had shared tokes in the ceremony. Minzey was convicted, and served five years in a California prison. Leaderless, the Shiva Fellowship disintegrated.
Many of Minzey's followers soon regrouped around a San Francisco State University graduate student named Jefferson Poland. At 26, Poland was already a celebrity in another controversial area: sexual liberation. Six years earlier, he had founded the League for Sexual Freedom in New York City, after two young anarchist women introduced him to the joys of nudism and recreational sex.
The League made itself notorious in the mid-Sixties, picketing for the cause of erotic freedom. In February 1964, Poland and some avant-garde Living Theatre actresses demonstrated for legal prostitution at the Greenwich Village women's prison, chanting "We love you prostitutes, oh yes we do..." to the tune of the then-current Beatles tribute.
Eighteen months later, Poland and two female friends protested California's clothing-required beaches by swimming nude at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. NEWSWEEK magazine and the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE gave the protest wide coverage, featuring photos of the naked trio emerging from the waters before hundreds of leering, cheering spectators.
But the exposure hurt. Poland and his pals were busted for "swimming without proper attire," and sentenced to ninety days time (suspended) and six months probation.
Like so many others of the time, Poland felt the sting of America's atavistic postwar Puritanism. And like other hip young people, he noted how two things seemed to be in the forefront of the forces for social change: sex and drugs.
Poland was one of the first counterculture figures to make the a connection between sexual liberation and psychedelics. As early as 1962, he had promoted free-fucking and marijuana legalization with a San Francisco anarchist group. Later, he noted with interest and approval how much dope-smoking went on at SFL-organized skinny-dips and student-ghetto orgies.
In his book, THE SEX MARCHERS (Los Angeles: Elysium, 1968), Poland said that the truly free human being "routinely expectsto have five or six orgasms every night; if you have only one, your friends solicitously inquire about your health. If this seems excessive or hard to believe, then think about fucking behind marijuana (if you've done so)."
By 1969, Poland was thinking about it quite a bit, along with the millions of other Americans who'd discovered the sensual joys of sex while stoned. As a member of the ill-fated Shiva Fellowship, he had delved into cannabis use for meditation and prayer, and had noted the deeply sexual nature of Shaivite and Kalian Hinduism (a favorite chant of their devotees was, "Hare Lingam! Hare Yoni!" -- literally, "Hail Cock! Hail Cunt!"). There was a potent brew here, a triple combination of drugs, sex and pagan spirituality that Poland thought would give the Woodstock Nation a Mother Church.
On November 24, 1969, the Sexual Freedom League's sixth birthday, Poland and an SFL associate known as "Mother Boats" founded the Psychedelic Venus Church. The Church defined itself as "a pantheistic nature religion, humanist hedonism, a religious pursuit of bodily pleasure through sex and marijuana (sic)." Its prime deity was "the sex goddess Venus-Aphrodite...in her psychedelic aspect. We see her presiding over nude orgies of fucking and sucking and cannabis: truly venereal religion."
Poland injected radical politics into the group as well. After all, it was 1969, and the legacy of the Chicago riots, Nixon and the Vietnam War had thoroughly politicized the counterculture. Against them, the PVC saw itself as part of "the spiritual and cultural revolution sweeping North America," and opposed warfare, racism and ecological disaster. Not surprisingly, its favorite political slogan was, "Make love not war!"
His promises of grass, sex and revolution were perfect for the time and place. By 1971, the Church had signed up over 1,000 members scattered among the Bay Area's freak tribes, most recruited through either the Sexual Freedom League, ads in underground papers, or word of mouth. Such counterculture celebrities as poet Tuli Kupferberg, journalist Ed Sanders, White Panther leader/MC5 manager John Sinclair,and Neo-American Church Chief Boo Hoo Art Kleps could be found on the PVC's membership rolls. Around that time, Poland confidently predicted that if the Church's rate of growth remained constant, Psychedelic Venusians would outnumber Catholics by around 2001.
The Church went so far as to distribute free marijuana to potential members. A stamped, self-addressed envelope sent to the PVC's Berkeley, California PO Box would return a few days later, bearing two joints and a letter that told the recipient how to smoke the "holy religious sacrament," recommending that they "turn on" with a lover for maximum benefit. Poland signed the form letter "The Rev. Jefferson Fuck Poland," and is said to have unsuccessfully attempted to legally change his name to this.
Membership in the PVC cost $5 a year, and entitled the neophyte Venusian to attend Friday Church ceremonies. Usually held at members' houses or apartments, the services began with ritual sharing of cannabis. A liturgy was then read, generally either erotica, vintage lefty agitprop from the IWW songbook, or both.
Things really got going afterwards, when attendees were asked to "strip or leave." The naked worshippers who remained performed "sensitivity exercises," then partied until the wee hours. Poland was careful to limit attendance at these affairs to male-female couples and gay males; years of organizing Sexual Freedom League orgies had taught him how mobs of horny single men could drive away even the most uninhibited females.
The most important ritual was the "Genital Sacrifice," held during the seasonal equinoxes and solstices. For the ritual, two volunteer "Sacrifices" -- one male, one female -- were stripped naked and blindfolded, then laid out on an "altar" where their genitals were smeared with warm honey. Then, after an invocation of Kali and Shiva, the assembled worshippers lined up and took turns licking the honey off the "Sacrifices"' privates, afterwards sharing cannabis and dancing nude to psychedelic rock.
Needless to say, the PVC's beliefs andpractices were controversial even in the free-and-easy early 70s. Pop occult author Hans Holzer, in his book The New Pagans, sniffed that the PVC's full-tilt hedonism was embarrassing the "serious" white-light New Age cults of the period. An early pan-pagan ecumenical group expelled the Church from its ranks when its activities became known to the old-school occulto-Puritans that led the coalition.
Poland himself, like his mentor Willie Minzey, was busted during one of the group's cannabis smoke-ins at Berkeley's notorious People's Park, though he was let off with a slap on the wrist. However, several PVC-sponsored public nude rock dances held around Berkeley and San Francisco went off with nary a hitch.
Ultimately, the PVC was doomed by internal conflicts and changing times. Mother Boats, Poland's second-in-command and chief organizer, left in 1972 to take an extended round-the world trip; without hisattentions, much of the membership drifted away. The Bay Area was becoming increasingly inhospitable as well; the Summer of Love was by now a distant memory, and the Berkeley street culture that had nurtured the Church was more and more the domain of runaways, criminals and crazies.
By 1974, the Church had lost three-fourths of its 1971 membership, claiming barely 250 members. At the end of the decade, the group was defunct, though its influence is still felt in the Bay Area's "magickal" and neo-pagan spiritual underground.
After a twenty-year hiatus in sunny San Diego, Poland has recently returned to his old Bay Area haunts. He's still running nudist and sex-freedom-related activities, albeit in a much lower profile than he did during his PVC heyday. A few years ago, he donated many boxes of personal files and papers to the University of California's Bancroft Library, where they are kept in the special-collections reserve, and make fascinating reading for counterculture historians.
What with the recent upsurge in "sex-positive spirituality," hemp culture and PoMo spirituality, the Psychedelic Venus Church's hedonistic hagiography seems strangely more relevant than every. Shall the Aphrodite's blissfully, stoned, naked children rise again?
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(Copyright c1998 by Michael Marinacci. All rights reserved.)