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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 Rites of Ishtar

“Her worship was a reflexion of that worship of nature which underlay the Semitic conception of Baalism. The fierce passions excited by an Eastern sun found their expression in it.

Prostitution became a religious duty, whose wages were consecrated to the goddess of love. She was served by eunuchs and by trains of men and boys who dressed like women and gave themselves up to women’s pursuits.

Ishtar in terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BC., Eshnunna. Currently in the Louvre. Department of Near Eastern antiquities, Richelieu, ground floor, room 3, case 6 Accession numberAO 12456 Purchased 1930 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ishtar_Eshnunna_Louvre_AO12456.jpg

Ishtar in terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BC., Eshnunna.
Currently in the Louvre.
Department of Near Eastern antiquities, Richelieu, ground floor, room 3, case 6
Accession number AO 12456
Purchased 1930
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ishtar_Eshnunna_Louvre_AO12456.jpg

Istar, in fact, had ceased to be the “pure” goddess of the evening star. The other elements in her hybrid character had come to the front, aided by the Semitic conception of the female side of the divinity. She was now the fruitful goddess of the earth, teeming with fertility, the feminine development of the life-giving Sun-god, the patroness of love.

The worshipper who would serve her truly had to share with her her pains and pleasures. Only thus could he live the divine life, and be, as it were, united with the deity. It was on this account that the women wept with Istar each year over the fatal wound of Tammuz; it was on this account that her temples were filled with the victims of sexual passion and religious frenzy, and that her festivals were scenes of consecrated orgies.

The Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). The figure in the relief was sometimes identified with Lilith, based on a misreading of an outdated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Modern research has identified the figure as either Ishtar or Ereshkigal. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

The Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). The figure in the relief was sometimes identified with Lilith, based on a misreading of an outdated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Modern research has identified the figure as either Ishtar or Ereshkigal.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

As the worship of the goddess spread westward, the revolting features connected with it spread at the same time. The prophets of Israel denounce the abominations committed in honour of Ashtoreth and Baal within the sacred walls of Jerusalem itself; the Greek writers stand aghast at the violations of social decency enjoined as religious duties on the adorers of the oriental Aphroditê; and Lucian himself–if Lucian indeed be the author of the treatise–is shocked at the self-mutilation practised before the altar of the Syrian goddess of Hieropolis.

From Syria, the cult, with all its rites, made its way, like that of Attys-Adonis, to the populations beyond the Taurus. At Komana in Kappadokia, the goddess Ma was ministered to by 6000 eunuch-priests, and the Galli of Phrygia rivalled the priests of Baal and Ashtoreth in cutting their arms with knives, in scourging their backs, and in piercing their flesh with darts.

The worship of the fierce powers of nature, at once life-giving and death-dealing, which required from the believer a sympathetic participation in the sufferings and pleasures of his deities, produced alternate outbursts of frenzied self-torture and frenzied lust.

There was, however, a gentler side to the worship of Istar. The cult of a goddess who watched over the family bond and whose help was ever assured to the faithful in his trouble, could not but exercise a humanising influence, however much that influence may have been sullied by the excesses of the popular religion.

But there were many whose higher and finer natures were affected only by the humanising influence and not by the popular faith. Babylonia does not seem to have produced any class of men like the Israelitish prophets; but it produced cultivated scribes and thinkers, who sought and found beneath the superstitions of their countrymen a purer religion and a more abiding form of faith.

Istar was to them a divine “mother,” the goddess who had begotten mankind, and who cared for their welfare with a mother’s love.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 266-7.

Origins of the Sacred Marriage

” … The Great Mother goddess was worshipped from the earliest times, and she bore various local names. At Comana in Pontus she was known to the Greeks as Ma, a name which may have been as old as that of the Sumerian Mama (the creatrix), or Mamitum (goddess of destiny); in Armenia she was Anaitis; in Cilicia she was Ate (‘Atheh of Tarsus); while in Phrygia she was best known as Cybele, mother of Attis, who links with Ishtar as mother and wife of Tammuz, Aphrodite as mother and wife of Adonis, and Isis as mother and wife of Osiris.

The Great Mother was in Phoenicia called Astarte; she was a form of Ishtar, and identical with the Biblical Ashtoreth. In the Syrian city of Hierapolis she bore the name of Atargatis, which Meyer, with whom Frazer agrees, considers to be the Greek rendering of the Aramaic ‘Athar-‘Atheh–the god ‘Athar and the goddess ‘Atheh. Like the “bearded Aphrodite,” Atargatis may have been regarded as a bisexual deity.

Some of the specialized mother goddesses, whose outstanding attributes reflected the history and politics of the states they represented, were imported into Egypt–the land of ancient mother deities–during the Empire period, by the half-foreign Rameses kings; these included the voluptuous Kadesh and the warlike Anthat.

In every district colonized by the early representatives of the Mediterranean race, the goddess cult came into prominence, and the gods and the people were reputed to be descendants of the great Creatrix. This rule obtained as far distant as Ireland, where the Danann folk and the Danann gods were the children of the goddess Danu.

Among the Hatti proper–that is, the broad-headed military aristocracy–the chief deity of the pantheon was the Great Father, the creator, “the lord of Heaven,” the Baal. As Sutekh, Tarku, Adad, or Ramman, he was the god of thunder, rain, fertility, and war, and he ultimately acquired solar attributes.

A famous rock sculpture at Boghaz-Köi depicts a mythological scene which is believed to represent the Spring marriage of the Great Father and the Great Mother, suggesting a local fusion of beliefs which resulted from the union of tribes of the god cult with tribes of the goddess cult.

So long as the Hatti tribe remained the predominant partner in the Hittite confederacy, the supremacy was assured of the Great Father who symbolized their sway. But when, in the process of time, the power of the Hatti declined, their chief god “fell… from his predominant place in the religion of the interior,” writes Dr. Garstang. “But the Great Mother lived on, being the goddess of the land.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 267-8.

The Names of the Great Mother

“THE dawn of history in all parts of Western Asia discloses the established worship of a nature-goddess in whom the productive powers of the earth were personified. 1 She is our Mother Earth, known otherwise as the Mother Goddess or Great Mother. Among the Babylonians 2 and northern Semites she was called Ishtar: she is the Ashtoreth of the Bible, and the Astarte of Phœnicia. In Syria her name was ‘Athar, and in Cilicia it had the form of ‘Ate (‘Atheh). At Hierapolis, with which we are primarily concerned, it appears in later Aramaic as Atargatis, a compound of the Syrian and Cilician forms.

In Asia Minor, where the influence of the Semitic language did not prevail, her various names have not survived, though it is recorded by a later Greek writer as “Ma” at one of her mountain shrines, and as Agdistis amongst one tribe of the Phrygians and probably at Pessinus. These differences, however, are partly questions of local tongue; for in one way and another there was still a prevailing similarity between the essential attributes and worship of the nature-goddess throughout Western Asia.

The “origins” of this worship and its ultimate development are not directly relevant to our present enquiry; but we must make passing allusion to a point of special interest and wide significance. As regards Asia Minor, at least, a theory that explains certain abnormal tendencies in worship and in legend would attribute to the goddess, in the primitive conception of her, the power of self-reproduction, complete in herself, a hypothesis justified by the analogy of beliefs current among certain states of primitive society.

However that may be, a male companion is none the less generally associated with her in mythology, even from the earliest historical vision of Ishtar in Babylonia, where he was known as Tammuz. While evidence is wanting to define clearly the original position of this deity in relation to the goddess, the general tendency of myth and legend in the lands of Syria and Asia Minor, with which we are specially concerned, reveals him as her offspring, the fruits of the earth.

The basis of the myth was human experience of nature, particularly the death of plant life with the approach of winter and its revival with the spring. In one version accordingly “Adonis” descends for the six winter months to the underworld, until brought back to life through the divine influence of the goddess. The idea that the youth was the favoured lover of the goddess belongs to a different strain of thought, if indeed it was current in these lands at all in early times. In Asia Minor at any rate the sanctity of the goddess’s traditional powers was safeguarded in popular legend by the emasculation of “Attis,” and in worship by the actual emasculation of her priesthood, perhaps the most striking feature of her cult.

The abnormal and impassioned tendencies of her developed worship would be derived, according to this theory, from the efforts of her worshippers to assist her to bring forth notwithstanding her singleness. However that may be, the mourning for the death of the youthful god, and rejoicing at his return, were invariable features of this worship of nature. It is reasonable to believe that long before the curtain of history was raised over Asia Minor the worship of this goddess and her son had become deep-rooted.”

Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, Lucian’s the Syrian Goddess, A Translation of De Dea Syria  with a Life of Lucian, 1913, pp. 1-4.

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