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Tag: harimtu

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.

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