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Tag: Fertility

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.

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.

The Attis Cult and the Baptism of Blood

“Tammuz died with the dying vegetation, and Diarmid expired when the hills apparently were assuming their purple tints. The month of Tammuz wailings was from 20th June till 20th July, when the heat and dryness brought forth the demons of pestilence. The mourners chanted:

He has gone, he has gone to the bosom of the earth,

And the dead are numerous in the land….

Men are filled with sorrow: they stagger by day in gloom …

In the month of thy year which brings not peace hast thou gone.

Thou hast gone on a journey that makes an end of thy people.

The following extract contains a reference to the slaying of the god:

The holy one of Ishtar, in the middle of the year the fields languish…

The shepherd, the wise one, the man of sorrows, why have they slain?…

In his temple, in his inhabited domain,

The child, lord of knowledge, abides no more…

In the meadows, verily, verily, the soul of life perishes.

There is wailing for Tammuz “at the sacred cedar, where the mother bore thee,” a reference which connects the god, like Adonis and Osiris, with tree worship:

The wailing is for the herbs: the first lament is, “they are not produced.”

The wailing is for the grain, ears are not produced.

The wailing is for the habitations, for the flocks which bring forth no more.

The wailing is for the perishing wedded ones; for the perishing children; the dark-headed people create no more.

The wailing is also for the shrunken river, the parched meadows, the fish pools, the cane brakes, the forests, the plains, the gardens, and the palace, which all suffer because the god of fertility has departed. The mourner cries:

How long shall the springing of verdure be restrained?

How long shall the putting forth of leaves be held back?

Whither went Tammuz? His destination has already been referred to as “the bosom of the earth,” and in the Assyrian version of the “Descent of Ishtar” he dwells in “the house of darkness” among the dead, “where dust is their nourishment and their food mud,” and “the light is never seen”–the gloomy Babylonian Hades.

In one of the Sumerian hymns, however, it is stated that Tammuz “upon the flood was cast out.” The reference may be to the submarine “house of Ea,” or the Blessed Island to which the Babylonian Noah was carried. In this Hades bloomed the nether “garden of Adonis.”

The following extract refers to the garden of Damu (Tammuz):–

Damu his youth therein slumbers …

Among the garden flowers he slumbers; among the garden flowers he is cast away …

Among the tamarisks he slumbers, with woe he causes us to be satiated.

Although Tammuz of the hymns was slain, he returned again from Hades. Apparently he came back as a child. He is wailed for as “child, Lord Gishzida,” as well as “my hero Damu.”

In his lunar character the Egyptian Osiris appeared each month as “the child surpassingly beautiful;” the Osiris bull was also a child of the moon; “it was begotten”, says Plutarch, “by a ray of generative light falling from the moon.”

When the bull of Attis was sacrificed his worshippers were drenched with its blood, and were afterwards ceremonially fed with milk, as they were supposed to have “renewed their youth” and become children.

The ancient Greek god Eros (Cupid) was represented as a wanton boy or handsome youth. Another god of fertility, the Irish Angus, who resembles Eros, is called “the ever young;” he slumbers like Tammuz and awakes in the Spring.

Apparently it was believed that the child god, Tammuz, returned from the earlier Sumerian Paradise of the Deep, and grew into full manhood in a comparatively brief period, like Vyasa and other super-men of Indian mythology. A couplet from a Tammuz hymn says tersely:

In his infancy in a sunken boat he lay.

In his manhood in the submerged grain he lay.

The “boat” may be the “chest” in which Adonis was concealed by Aphrodite when she confided him to the care of Persephone, queen of Hades, who desired to retain the young god, but was compelled by Zeus to send him back to the goddess of love and vegetation.

The fact that Ishtar descended to Hades in quest of Tammuz may perhaps explain the symbolic references in hymns to mother goddesses being in sunken boats also when their powers were in abeyance, as were those of the god for part of each year.

It is possible, too, that the boat had a lunar and a solar significance. Khonsu, the Egyptian moon god, for instance, was associated with the Spring sun, being a deity of fertility and therefore a corn spirit; he was a form of Osiris, the Patriarch, who sojourned on earth to teach mankind how to grow corn and cultivate fruit trees.

In the Egyptian legend Osiris received the corn seeds from Isis, which suggests that among Great-Mother-worshipping peoples, it was believed that agricultural civilization had a female origin.

The same myths may have been attached to corn gods and corn goddesses, associated with water, sun, moon, and stars.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

A Baptism in Blood

” … Such, then, appears to have been the annual solemnisation of the death and resurrection of Attis in spring.

But besides these public rites, his worship is known to have comprised certain secret or mystic ceremonies, which probably aimed at bringing the worshipper, and especially the novice, into closer communication with his god. Our information as to the nature of these mysteries and the date of their celebration is unfortunately very scanty, but they seem to have included a sacramental meal and a baptism of blood.

In the sacrament the novice became a partaker of the mysteries by eating out of a drum and drinking out of a cymbal, two instruments of music which figured prominently in the thrilling orchestra of Attis. The fast which accompanied the mourning for the dead god may perhaps have been designed to prepare the body of the communicant for the reception of the blessed sacrament by purging it of all that could defile by contact the sacred elements.

In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull.

For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a new-born babe. The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god, namely at the vernal equinox. At Rome the new birth and the remission of sins by the shedding of bull’s blood appear to have been carried out above all at the sanctuary of the Phrygian goddess on the Vatican Hill, at or near the spot where the great basilica of St. Peter’s now stands; for many inscriptions relating to the rites were found when the church was being enlarged in 1608 or 1609.

From the Vatican as a centre this barbarous system of superstition seems to have spread to other parts of the Roman empire. Inscriptions found in Gaul and Germany prove that provincial sanctuaries modelled their ritual on that of the Vatican. From the same source we learn that the testicles as well as the blood of the bull played an important part in the ceremonies. Probably they were regarded as a powerful charm to promote fertility and hasten the new birth.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion  (1922)
Chapter 34:: The Myth and Ritual of Attis, np.

Snake Kings

“The myths of the heroes of Athens, from Cecrops to Theseus, show them as kings, that is as functionaries, and, in primitive times, these functionaries assume snake-form. The daimon-functionary represents the permanent life of the group.

The individual dies, but the group and its incarnation the king survive. Le roi est mort, vive le roi. From these two facts, of group permanency and individual death, arose the notion of reincarnation, palingenesia.

Moreover, since the group included plants and animals as well as human members, and these were linked by a common life, the rebirth of ancestors and the renewed fertility of the earth went on pari passu.

Hence the Intichiuma ceremonies of Central Australians, hence the Revocation of ghosts at the Athenian Antkesteria. Gradually, as the group focussed on its king, the daimones of fertility, the collective ancestors, focussed on to an Agathos Daimon, a spirit of fertility, again figured as a snake.”

Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis–A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 1912. P. xiv.

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