Prostitution is Not the Oldest Profession

by Esteban

“Two other classes of female temple servants can be briefly noted. One was the group of secretu, mentioned in the Codex Hammurabi in connection with inheritance laws. They were women of high rank, who probably lived cloistered.

Finally, there was a class of harimtu, who were prostitutes attached to the temple. These may have been daughters of slave women, and they were under the supervision of a minor temple official. It is unclear whether such women were considered to belong to the temple harem.

Given that the Sippar texts list only eleven such women, it seems likely that they were slave women owned by priests or priestesses. These slaves’ commercial earnings, like those of other slave workers, were turned over to their owners, who may then have given these sums to the temple.

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Some linguistic evidence sheds light on the actual development of prostitution. The Sumerian word for female prostitute, kar.kid, occurs in the earliest lists of professions dating back to ca. 2400 B.C. Since it appears right after nam.lukur, which means “naditu-ship,” one can assume its connection with temple service.

It is of interest that the term kur-garru, a male prostitute or transvestite entertainer, appears on the same list but together with entertainers. This linkage results from a practice connected with the cult of Ishtar, in which transvestites performed acts using knives.

On the same list we find the following female occupations: lady doctor, scribe, barber, cook. Obviously, prostitution, while it is a very old profession, is not the oldest. Prostitutes continue to appear on several later lists of professions in the Middle Babylonian period.

On a seventh-century B.C. list there appear a variety of female entertainers, as well as transvestites, along with a midwife, nurse, sorceress, wet nurse, and “a gray-haired old lady.”

Prostitutes are listed again as kar.kid and by the Akkadian term harimtu. It is very interesting that among the twenty-five scribes on this list, there is no female scribe and that the doctors include no female doctors.

The earliest references on clay tablet texts connect harimtu with taverns. There is a sentence that reads, “When I sit in the entrance of the tavern, I, Ishtar, am a loving harimtu.” These and other references have led to the association of Ishtar with taverns and with both ritual and commercial prostitution.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 244-5.