Herodotus and Strabo on Babylonian Temple Prostitution

by Esteban

“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.