Controversy Over Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia
“Having proved that neither the nor the qadištu nor the nu-gig are to be reckoned as sacred prostitutes, it remains necessary to prove that there was no such institution as sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia in spite of its widespread reputation among scholars, to which I would like to return in the conclusion.
Their investigations are tainted by certain perceptions. Their primary problems concern their epistemological approaches and historical methodologies. First is the unproven assertion of this institution.
For example, Astour states that “Babylonia [was] the classical land of sacral prostitution …. Sacral prostitution existed in Israel and Judah until the implementation of the religious reforms of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.” This fallacy is repeated ad nauseam in many general discussions of sacred prostitution. In 1987, the Encyclopedia of Religion entry for “hierodouleia” comments:
Contemporary scholarship uses the expression sacred prostitution to refer to a sexual rite practiced in the ancient Near East. In the temples of Ishtar, Astarte, Ma, AnShita, and Aphrodite, for example, women, often virgins, offered themselves sexually to strangers. Sometimes the temples were staffed by such “sacred prostitutes.”
Such allegations first appear in the work of Herodotus (The Histories, 1.199) whose view of Mesopotamian culture was considerably biased and whose speculations have been elaborated by Strabo in his Geography (16.1.20), and by other classical authors. Of the scholars cited above in note one, a majority have investigated this source and have realized it was the only source for claiming sacred prostitution, and discarded it on these grounds.
When scholars discuss an institution without any attempt to define it, we must conclude that their methodology is questionable. The term “sacred prostitution” is employed for any sexual practice within the “sacred sphere”; the sacred prostitute can be a priestess who participated in a “sacred marriage,” a laywoman, such as Herodotus’s Babylonian woman, who once in her life has to offer herself to a stranger for money in the temple of Aphrodite, a priestess whose caring for the gods included offering them sexual services, or a laywoman who participated in organized, ritual sexual activities.
It is obvious that a definition of terms is mandatory. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “prostitution” is “the action of prostituting or condition of being prostituted. . . the offering of the body to indiscriminate lewdness for hire,” from late Latin prostituere, “to place before, to expose publicly, offer for sale, to act as a prostitute.”
“Sacred prostitution” would, therefore, be the act of offering the body to indiscriminate lewdness for hire in the sacred sphere, ritual, or place. None of the above scholarly definitions fits this definition with the exception of that originating with Herodotus!
For these reasons, some writers, such as Fisher and Lerner, differentiate “cultic sexual service” from “commercial prostitution”; the former discriminating and without payment, and the latter indiscriminate and with payment.
For Mesopotamia, we have clear and explicit evidence of the profitable profession of the prostitute, the harimtu. Her place of work is usually the tavern. Inanna and Ishtar both act as patroness of the tavern and its inhabitants. The profession of prostitution is designated harimūtu.
However, in the city of Sippar in the Old Babylonian period, this status and its prerogatives are held by men as well as women, husbands as well as wives. These prerogatives are designated as those of a goddess; but whether it can be inferred from this statement that there is any relationship to the temple and its cult is impossible to determine from the evidence.
From economic texts, we could conclude that silver may have been exchanged during the fulfillment of these prerogatives or from the sale of these offices as any other office. Because of the dearth of information concerning the status of harimutu and our lack of knowledge concerning the temple’s part in the regulation of the tavern/brothel and the prostitutes that congregated there, it might be better to give a more generalized definition of “prostitution” in Mesopotamia.
Consequently, I would suggest that a “prostitute” is one who is outside the culturally defined bounds of controlled sexuality.”
Joan Goodnick Westenholz, “Tamar, Qēdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 82, No. 3 (July, 1989), pp. 260-2.