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Tag: Gerda Lerner

Controversy Over Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia

“Having proved that neither the 6jldV7m5Fkw9GXSaqZbeOnvYF_6NXGaMDVY-No3wtPY  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 “hierodouleiacomments:

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.

The Harlot Civilizes the Wild Man Enkidu Using Sex

“The existence of various occupational groups connected both with cultic sexual service and with commercial prostitution tells us little about the meaning these occupations held to contemporaries.

We can try to learn something about that by looking at the earliest known poetic myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The poem, which describes the exploits of a legendary god / king, who may actually have lived at the beginning of the third millennium BCE, has survived in several versions, the most complete of which is the Akkadian version, apparently based on earlier Sumerian tales written during the first millennium BCE.

In the poem, Gilgamesh’s aggressive behavior has displeased his subjects and the gods:

“Day and night [is unbridled his arrogance] . . . .

Gilgamesh leaves not the maid to [her mother],

the warrior’s daughter, the noble spouse!”

The gods create a man, “his double” Enkidu, to contend with Gilgamesh. Enkidu lives in harmony with the animals in the woods: “He knows neither people nor land.”

After Enkidu is discovered by a hunter and flees, the hunter seeks counsel as to how to tame him. He is told to get a harimtu. The hunter brings her to the woods, tells her what to do:

“and he [Enkidu] possessed her ripeness.

She was not bashful as she welcomed his ardor.

She laid aside her cloth and he rested upon her.

She treated him, the savage, to a woman’s task,

as his love was drawn unto her.”

After mating with her for six days, Enkidu finds that the wild beasts are afraid of him: “He now had [wi]sdom, [br]oader understanding.” The harlot advises him:

“Come, let me lead thee [to] ramparted Uruk,

To the holy temple, abode of Anu and Ishtar,

Where lives Gilgamesh.”

Enkidu agrees and the harlot leads him to Gilgamesh, whose best friend he becomes.

In this myth the temple harlot is an accepted part of society. Her role is honorable; in fact, it is she who is chosen to civilize the wild man. The assumption here is that sexuality is civilizing, pleasing to the gods.

The harlot does “a woman’s task;” thus she is not set off from other women because of her occupation. She possesses a kind of wisdom, which tames the wild man. He follows her lead into the city of civilization.

According to another Gilgamesh fragment, which has only recently been published, Enkidu later regrets his entry into civilization. He curses the hunter and the harimtu for having removed him from his former life of freedom in nature.

He speaks an elaborate curse against the harimtu:

“I will curse you with a great curse…

you shall not build a house for your debauch

you shall not enter the tavern of girls….

May waste places be your couch,

May the shadow of the town-wall be your stand

May thorn and bramble skin your feet

May drunkard and toper (ed note: someone who drinks alcohol to excess) alike slap your cheek.”

The nature of this curse tells us that the harimtu who mated with Enkidu lived an easier and better life than the harlot who has her stand at the town wall and is abused by her drunken customers.

This would confirm the distinction we made earlier between the women engaged in various forms of sacral sexual service and commercial prostitutes. Such a distinction was more likely to have existed in the earlier period than later.”

Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, 1986, pp. 245-6.

Prostitution is Not the Oldest Profession

“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.

[ … ]

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.

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.

Neo-Babylonian Categories of Priestesses

“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.

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.

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