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Herodotus and Strabo on Babylonian Temple Prostitution

“There are two other “historic” accounts of sexual activities in and around the Babylonian temples, both of which have unduly influenced modern historians. One was written by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. and purports to describe religious prostitution in the temple of the Goddess Mylitta; the other was written by the Roman traveler Strabo some four hundred years later, confirming Herodotus. Here is Herodotus’s account:

“Every woman born in the country must once in her life go and sit down in the precinct of Venus [Mylitta], and there consort with a stranger…. A woman who has once taken her seat is not allowed to return home till one of the strangers throws a silver coin into her lap, and takes her with him beyond the holy ground…. The silver coin maybe of any size….

The woman goes with the first man who throws her money, and rejects no one. When she has gone with him, and so satisfied the goddess, she returns home, and from that time forth no gift however great will prevail with her. Such of the women. . . who are ugly have to stay a long time before they can fulfil the law. Some have waited three or four years in the precinct.”

There is no confirmation besides Strabo’s for this story and there are no known “laws” regulating or even referring to this practice. Herodotus may have mistaken the activities of prostitutes around the temple for a rite involving every Assyrian virgin.

Another of Herodotus’s stories, told to him by Babylonian priests, seems to have more historic foundation. It described a high tower in the temple of Marduk, at the top of which the high priestess dwelt in a room with a couch, in which she was nightly visited by the god.

The story somewhat parallels a historic account, dating from the first millennium B.C., which describes how the Neo-Babylonian King Nabu-naid dedicated his daughter as high priestess of the Moon god Sin. He surrounded the building in which she lived with a high wall and furnished it with ornaments and fine furniture.

This description would be consistent with what we know of the living conditions of some of the royal high priestesses and with the belief that the god visited them nightly, just as he nightly ate the meals prepared for him.

Herodotus cites this as an example of “temple prostitution,” and modern historians of prostitution repeat the tale after him, treating his accounts as facts. I interpret the function of the priestess as a significant example of sacral sexual service, which may have been actually carried out or may have been symbolically reenacted.

From the conflicting interpretations of the evidence we have about the activities of women in temple service, it is difficult to arrive at an understanding of these women’s social role. What earlier was a purely religious cultic function may have become corrupted at a time when commercial prostitution already flourished in the temple precincts.

Sexual intercourse performed for strangers in the temple to honor the fertility and sexual power of the goddess may customarily have been rewarded by a donation to the temple. Worshipers regularly brought offerings of food, oil, wine, and precious goods to the temple to honor the deities and in the hope of thus advancing their own cause.

It is conceivable that this practice corrupted some of the temple servants, tempting them to keep all or some of these gifts for their own profit. Priests may also have encouraged or permitted the use of slave women and the lower class of temple servants as commercial prostitutes in order to enrich the temple.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 243-4.

Assur, National Deity of Assyria

“Supreme over the old Babylonian pantheon rises the figure of a new god, the national deity of Assyria, its impersonation Assur. Assur is not merely primus inter pares, merely the president of the divine assembly, like Merodach; he is their lord and master in another and more autocratic sense.

Like the Yahveh of Israel, he claims to be “king above all gods,” that “among all gods” there is none like unto himself. In his name and through his help the Assyrian kings go forth to conquer; the towns they bum, the men they slay, the captives they take, are all his gifts.

It is to destroy “the enemies of Assur,” and to lay their yoke upon those who disbelieve in his name, that they load their armies into other lands; it is his decrees, his law, that they write upon the monuments they erect in conquered countries.

The gods of Babylonia are invoked, it is true; their old Babylonian titles are accorded to them; they are called upon to curse the sacrilegious in the stereotyped phrases of the ancient literature; but it is Assur, and Assur alone, to whom the Assyrian monarch turns in moments of distress; it is Assur, and Assur alone, in whose name he subdues the infidel. Only the goddess Istar finds a place by the side of Assur.

It is not difficult to account for all this. In passing from their native homes to Assyria, the Babylonian deities lost that local character which was the very breath of their existence. How far they owe their presence in Assyrian literature to the literary class, how far they had been brought from Babylonia in early days by the people themselves, I am not prepared to say.

One fact, however, is clear; in becoming Assyrian the Babylonian gods have lost both their definiteness and their rank. The invocations addressed to them lack their old genuine ring, their titles are borrowed from the literature of the southern kingdom, and their functions are usurped by the new god Assur.

It is almost pitiable to find Bel-Merodach invoked, in phrases that once denoted his power above other deities, by the very kings who boast of their conquests over his people, or who even razed his city to the ground.

The Assyrian, in fact, occupied much the same position as an Israelite who, while recognizing the supremacy of his national God, thought it prudent or cultivated to offer at the same time a sort of inferior homage to the Baalim of Canaan.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 122-3.

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablets IV and V, Slaying of Khumbaba

“The IVth tablet is concerned with a description of the monster with whom the heroes are about to do battle.

Khumbaba, whom Bel had appointed to guard the cedar (i.e., one particular cedar which appears to be of greater height and sanctity than the others), is a creature of most terrifying aspect, the very presence of whom in the forest makes those who enter it grow weak and impotent.

As the heroes draw near Eabani complains that his hands are feeble and his arms without strength, but Gilgamesh speaks words of encouragement to him. It may be noted, in passing, that the word Khumbaba is of Elamite origin, a fact which has led certain authorities to identify the monster with an Elamite dynasty which anciently dominated Erech, and which came to grief about 2250 BCE.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the connexion between the mythical encounter and a definite historical event; but it may at least be presumed that the bestowal of an Elamite designation on the monster argues a certain enmity between Elam and Babylon.

The next fragments bring us into the Vth tablet.

The heroes, having reached “a verdant mountain,” paused to survey the Forest of Cedars. When they entered the forest the death of Khumbaba was foretold to one or other, or both of them, in a dream, and they hastened forward to the combat.

Unfortunately the text of the actual encounter has not been preserved, but we learn from the context that the heroes were successful in slaying Khumbaba.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 166-7.

Neo-Babylonian Categories of Priestesses

“While most of the information about en priestesses comes from the Old Babylonian period, there are many references to nin-dingir priestesses in the Neo-Babylonian period in Ur and Girsu.

In the age of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) such priestesses could live outside the cloister, but their reputations were carefully guarded.

Next in rank to the en and nin-dingir came the naditum priestesses.

The word naditum means “left fallow,” which is consistent with the evidence that they were forbidden childbearing. We know a good deal about the naditum priestesses of the God Shamash and the God Marduk during the first dynasty of Babylon. They came from the upper levels of society; a few were king’s daughters, most were daughters of high bureaucrats, scribes, doctors, or priests. Naditum of the God Shamash entered a cloister at a young age and stayed unmarried.

The cloister in which they lived with their servants consisted of a large complex of individual buildings within the temple. The cloister in the temple of the town of Sippar has been shown by excavation to have also contained a library and school and a graveyard. The cloister housed up to two hundred priestesses at a time, but the number of naditum gradually declined after the age of Hammurabi.

Naditum brought rich dowries to the temple at the time of their dedication to the god. On their death, these dowries reverted to their families of birth. They could use these dowries as capital for business transactions and for loaning out money at interest, and they could leave the cloister in order to take care of their various business concerns.

Naditum sold land, slaves, and houses; made loans and gifts; and managed herds and fields. We know the names of 185 female scribes who served in the temple of Sippar. From the proceeds of their business transactions the naditum regularly made offerings to the gods on festival days.

Since they could not have children, naditum often adopted children to care for them in old age. Unlike other women of their time, they could will their property to female heirs, who, most likely, were family members also serving as priestesses.

Naditum of the God Marduk were uncloistered and could marry but were not allowed to have children. It is this group of women which is particularly the subject of regulation in the Codex Hammurabi (hereafter referred to as CH). A naditum could provide children for her husband by giving him a slave woman or a low-ranking temple servant called sugitum as a concubine or second wife.

Hammurabic law elaborately provides for the inheritance rights of such children, which may indicate the importance of the naditum in the social order.  It could also indicate that their social position had become somewhat precarious during Hammurabi’s reign or that it was undergoing some kind of change.

The latter fact may explain the inclusion of CH 110, which metes out the death penalty for an uncloistered naditum who enters an ale house or runs such an establishment. If the “ale house” implies, as the commentator seems to think, a brothel or an inn frequented by prostitutes, the obvious meaning of the law is that a naditum is forbidden all association with such a place.

She must not only live respectably but must also guard her reputation so as to be above reproach. The need for recording such a law may indicate a looseness of morals among the cultic servants. It also indicates, as we will discuss below, an increased desire on the part of the lawmakers (or of the compilers of laws) to draw clear lines of distinction between respectable and nonrespectable women.

Kulmashitum and qadishtum were lower-ranking temple servants, usually mentioned together in the texts. The distinction between them is not well understood. Their inheritance rights are specified in CH 181, according to which they are entitled to one-third of their inheritance out of the paternal estate if they were not given a dowry upon entering temple service.

But they only hold use rights in their portion of the inheritance as long as they live. Their inheritance belonged to their brothers. Driver and Miles interpret the fact that the inheritance of these temple servants reverts to their brothers as indicating that they were not expected to produce children.

This supposition seems contradicted by the evidence from a number of sources that qadishtum not infrequently served as paid wet nurses and must, therefore, themselves have had children. They may have lived outside the cloister and married after they had spent a certain period of time in temple service. Or they may have been prostitutes while in the temple service.

If so, their employment by wealthy people as wet nurses would indicate that their social role was not held in contempt. To make matters even more confusing, there are texts in which the Goddess Ishtar is herself called a qadishtu.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 240-3.

Nebo, God of Prophecy

“A knowledge of Babylonian letters and learning was accompanied by a knowledge of the Babylonian god of letters and learning.

In Assyria, Nebo was honoured as much as he was in Babylonia itself. The Assyrian kings and scribes might be silent about the name of Merodach, but the name of Nebo was continually in their mouths.

His name and worship passed even to the distant Semitic tribes of the west. The names of places in Palestine in which his name occurs, proves that the god of prophecy was adored by Canaanites and Moabites alike. Moses, the leader and prophet of Israel, died on the peak of Mount Nebo, and cities bearing the name stood within the borders of the tribes of Reuben and Judah.

When the Israelites entered upon their literary era, the old name of roch, or “seer,” was exchanged for the more literary one of Nēbi, or “prophet.”

The Semites of Babylonia provided Nebo with a wife, Tasmitu, “the hearer.” She helped to open and enlarge the ears which received the divine mysteries her husband’s inspiration enabled his devout servants to write down.

The revolution which transferred the learning of the Babylonians from the Accadians to the Semites, transferred the patronage of the literary class from the old god Ea to his younger rivals Nebo and Tasmit.

[ … ]

The Semites of Babylonia thus closely resembled their brother Semites of Canaan in their fundamental conception of religion. As the Canaanite or Phoenician had “lords many,” the multitudinous Baalim who represented the particular forms of the Sun-god worshipped in each locality, so too the gods of Semitic Babylonia were equally multitudinous and local–Merodach, for example, being merely the Bel or Baal of Babylon, just as Mel-karth (Melech-kiryath) was the Baal of Tyre.

But the parallelism extends yet further. We have seen that the rise of the prophet-god in Babylonia marks the growing importance of literature and a literary class, just as the beginning of a literary age in Israel is coeval with the change of the seer into the prophet.

Now the literary age of Israel was long preceded by a literary age among their Phoenician neighbours, and its growth is contemporaneous with the closer relations that grew up between the monarchs of Israel and Hiram of Tyre.

What Israel was in this respect to the Phoenicians, Assyria was to Babylonia. The Assyrians were a nation of warriors and traders rather than of students; their literature was for the most part an exotic, a mere imitation of Babylonian cuiture.

In Babylonia, education was widely diffused; in Assyria, it was confined to the learned class. We must remember, therefore, that in dealing with Assyrian documents we are dealing either with a foreign importation or with the thoughts and beliefs of a small and special class.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 119-122.

Eabani Laments the Loss of His Animal Nature

“The feast of Ishtar was in progress when they reached Erech. Eabani had conceived the idea that he must do battle with Gilgamesh before he could claim that hero as a friend, but being warned (whether in a dream, or by Ukhut, is not clear) that Gilgamesh was stronger than he, and withal a favourite of the gods, he wisely refrained from combat.

Meanwhile Gilgamesh also had dreamed a dream, which, interpreted by his mother, Rimat-belit, foretold the coming of Eabani. That part of the poem which deals with the meeting of Gilgamesh and Eabani is unfortunately no longer extant, but from the fragments which take up the broken narrative we gather that they met and became friends.

The portions of the epic next in order appear to belong to the Ilnd tablet. In these we find Eabani lamenting the loss of his former freedom and showering maledictions on the temple-maiden who has lured him thither. However, Shamash, the sun-god, intervenes (perhaps in another dream or vision; these play a prominent part in the narrative), and showing him the benefits he has derived from his sojourn in the haunts of civilization, endeavours with various promises and inducements to make him stay in Erech—

“Now Gilgamesh, thy friend and brother, shall give thee a great couch to sleep on, shall give thee a couch carefully prepared, shall give thee a seat at his left hand, and the kings of the earth shall kiss thy feet.”

With this, apparently, Eabani is satisfied. He ceases to bewail his position at Erech and accepts his destiny with calmness. In the remaining fragments of the tablet we find him concerned about another dream or vision; and before this portion of the epic closes the heroes have planned an expedition against the monster Khumbaba, guardian of the abode of the goddess Irnina (a form of Ishtar), in the Forest of Cedars.

In the very mutilated Illrd tablet the two heroes go to consult the priestess Rimat-belit, the mother of Gilgamesh, and through her they ask protection from Shamash in the forthcoming expedition. The old priestess advises her son and his friend how to proceed, and after they have gone we see her alone in the temple, her hands raised to the sun-god, invoking his blessing on Gilgamesh :

“Why hast thou troubled the heart of my son Gilgamesh? Thou hast laid thy hand upon him, and he goeth away, on a far journey to the dwelling of Khumbaba; he entereth into a combat (whose issue) he knoweth not; he followeth a road unknown to him.

Till he arrive and till he return, till he reach the Forest of Cedars, till he hath slain the terrible Khumbaba and rid the land of all the evil that thou hatest, till the day of his return—let Aya, thy betrothed, thy splendour, recall him to thee.”

With this dignified and beautiful appeal the tablet comes to an end.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 164-6.

Origins of the Sacred Marriage Rite

“In the Old Babylonian period, the daughters of kings and rulers were appointed as high priestesses of the Moon-God or of the Goddess Ishtar.

The en or entu priestesses were the counterparts of male high priests. They wore distinctive clothing, a cap with raised rim, a folded garment, jewelry, and a staff, the same insignia and garments worn by the ruler.

They lived inside the sacred shrine, had charge of temple management and affairs, performed ritual and ceremonial functions, and were usually unmarried. The nin-dingir priestess in ancient Sumer had a similar role.

Assyriologists believe that it is this class of women who annually participated in the Sacred Marriage, impersonating or representing the goddess. The basis for the ritual of the Sacred Marriage was the belief that fertility of the land and of people depended on the celebration of the sexual power of the fertility goddess.

It is likely that this rite originated in the Sumerian city of Uruk, which was dedicated to the Goddess Inanna, earlier than 3000 B.C.

The Sacred Marriage was that of the Goddess Inanna and either the high priest, representing the god, or the king, identified with the God Dumuzi. In one typical poem, the encounter is initiated by the goddess, who expresses her eagerness for union with her lover. After their union, the land blossoms forth:

“Plants rose high by his side,

Grains rose high by his side… .”

The goddess, happy and satisfied, promises to bless the house of her husband, the shepherd / king:

“My husband, the goodly store house, the holy stall,

I Inanna, will preserve you for,

I will watch over your house of life.”

The annual symbolic reenactment of this mythical union was a public celebration considered essential to the well-being of the community. It was the occasion of a joyous celebration, which may have involved sexual activity on the part of the worshipers in and around the temple grounds.

It is important for us to understand that contemporaries regarded this occasion as sacred, as mythically significant for the well-being of the community, and that they regarded the king and the priestess with reverence and honored them for performing this “sacred” service.

The Sacred Marriage was performed in the temples of various fertility goddesses for nearly two thousand years. The young God-lover or son of the goddess was known as Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, Baal, and Osiris in various languages.

In some of these rituals, the sacred union was preceded by the death of the young god, symbolizing a season of drought or infertility which ended only by his resurrection through his union with the goddess. It was she who could make him alive, who could make him king, and who could empower him to make the land fertile.

Rich sexual imagery with its joyous worship of sexuality and fertility permeated poetry and myth and found expression in statuary and sculpture. Rites similar to the Sacred Marriage also flourished in classical Greece and pre-Christian Rome.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 239-40.

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