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Tag: Prostitution

Sacred Prostitution is an Amalgam of Misconceptions

“If prostitution is defined as occurring outside the cultural bounds of controlled sexuality, then controlled coitus within the sacred sphere is not prostitution.

The existence of the so-called sacred marriage ritual during which ritual intercourse seems to have been performed once a year during the New Year’s festival in the latter half of the third millennium and the beginning of the second millennium as symbolic of the union of the divine and human realms does not indicate any ritual promiscuity.

Any cult-related sexual activity simply does not exist outside of sacred marriage rites. Arnaud supposes that the misconception of sacred prostitution arose through the confusion which existed because the lines between sacred sphere and secular sphere were not always kept, and that the temples included underlings of doubtful morality with close ties to groups at the edges of society.

Thus, he maintains that prostitution was a frequent activity without the temple collecting any revenue from it.

In addition to the methodological issues, there are factual inaccuracies abiding in the secondary studies based on dated Assyriological treatments of pertinent information. It is unfortunate that scholars who have been interested in this problem lack access to the original sources. Much confusion has arisen over misunderstood words.

There are two approaches to the question of the existence of sacred prostitution. The first is the argument from silence: there are no legal regulations, administrative documents, or any other record of such a practice. In the absence of positive evidence, the second approach analyzes the negative evidence against sexual activities within the sacred sphere.

Testimony comes from prohibitions and the dire fates which will befall those who commit such transgressions. The words, “if he ate unwittingly what is taboo to his god, if he had intercourse with the priestess of his god . . .,” appear in the confessionals of a penitent sinner.

Sexual offences and the trespassing of sancta are linked in that they are both sins committed against the property of the gods. For the exorcist, there exist diagnostic omens explicating the reasons for the medical predicaments of the patient:

“The embraces given to the entu priestess are discovered by a way of association when a man’s tongue is tied and he cannot speak. Sexual intercourse with a priestess provokes a swollen epigastrium, a feverish abdomen, diseases of the testicles and a scaly penis.”

Thus the issue of sacred prostitution comes down to the accuracy of Herodotus, and much doubt has been cast on his statements. Arnaud has attempted to trace the origins of Herodotus’s statements. He blames the Mesopotamian scribes for misunderstanding their own traditions.

According to Arnaud, those traditions concerned past important cultic functions attributed to women, while the contemporary first-millennium women were relegated to performing household tasks or were prostitutes hanging around the temple precinct, especially in the Aramaized cult of Istar / Inanna of Uruk. The scribes could have speculated upon the debased venal cult, and their speculations could have resulted in the cultic prostitution fiction given to Herodotus.

Thus, this chapter in the annals of historical research, whereby a generalization derived from an ancient fiction coupled with the projection of a modern ideology of women onto historical data becomes fact in scholarly discourse, can now be deleted. “Sacred prostitution” is an amalgam of misconceptions, presuppositions, and inaccuracies.”

Joan Goodnick Westenholz, “Tamar, Qēdēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 82, No. 3 (July, 1989), pp. 262-3.

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.

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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