Neo-Babylonian Categories of Priestesses

by Esteban

“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.