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Tag: Sacred 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.

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.

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.

Specialization of the Priesthood

” … The growth of the temple organizations along the lines above set forth naturally resulted in a differentiation of priestly functions. Besides a number of general names for priest, such as sJiangu, enu, “votary” and ummdnu (expert), with gradations of rank as indicated by the title shangu makliTihu, “high priest”, we find over thirty classes of priests recorded in the material at our disposal.

The “exerciser” (mashmashu or dsMpu) is separated from the “diviner” (baru, literally “inspector”), and these two from the “singer” (zammeru), “anointer” (pashishu), and “musician” (Ualu, lallaru, naru, etc.) and from the “snake charmers” (mushlakhkhu) , who formed a class by themselves and perhaps had other functions than the name suggests. Each of these had numerous subdivisions such as “libationist” (ramku, nisakku), “anointer” (pashishu), [5] “dream interpreter” and “oracle” (sha’ilu) and others such as urigallu, and the abkallu, abarakUu, whose exact functions still escape us. [6]

Women also took a large part as priestesses of one kind or another in the temple service [7] as singers, “howlers” (chanting the lamentations), musicians, exercisers and furnishing oracles. We find also several classes of holy women leading a secluded life in special homes which would correspond to our cloisters and nunneries, and who were regarded as constituting in a measure the harem of the god to whose service they were dedicated.

Some of these were “sacred prostitutes”, and it is in connection with this class of priestesses that rites were practised in the temples which, while probably regarded as purely symbolical to promote fertility among mankind and in the animal world, were unmistakably obscene, or at least degenerated into obscene rites.

In addition to the purely religious duties in connection with the temple service, the priests were also the scribes, the judges and the teachers of the people all three functions following naturally from the religious point of view involved in writing, in legal decisions and in knowledge in general.

The tradition once established, the priests continued to act as the official scribes in the case of the thousands upon thousands of legal and commercial documents that have come down to us from all periods, though, to be sure, in later days we occasionally come across a scribe who does not appear to have been a temple official.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 272-3.

Sacred Harlotry

” … They worshipped Baal of the Lebanon, who may well have been Adonis, and at Amathus on the south coast they instituted the rites of Adonis and Aphrodite, or rather Astarte. Here, as at Byblus, these rites resembled the Egyptian worship of Osiris so closely that some people even identified the Adonis of Amathus with Osiris.

[ … ]

” … it is possible that a native goddess of fertility was worshipped on the spot before the arrival of the Phoenicians, and that the newcomers identified her with their own Baalath or Astarte, whom she may have closely resembled.

If two deities were thus fused in one, we may suppose that they were both varieties of that great goddess of motherhood and fertility whose worship appears to have been spread all over Western Asia from a very early time. The supposition is confirmed as well by the archaic shape of her image as by the licentious character of her rites; for both that shape and those rites were shared by her with other Asiatic deities.

Her image was simply a white cone or pyramid. In like manner, a cone was the emblem of Astarte at Byblus, of the native goddess whom the Greeks called Artemis at Perga in Pamphylia, and of the sun-god Heliogabalus at Emesa in Syria. Conical stones, which apparently served as idols, have also been found at Golgi in Cyprus, and in the Phoenician temples of Malta; and cones of sandstone came to light at the shrine of the “Mistress of Torquoise” among the barren hills and frowning precipices of Sinai.

In Cyprus it appears that before marriage all women were formerly obliged by custom to prostitute themselves to strangers at the sanctuary of the goddess, whether she went by the name of Aphrodite, Astarte, or what not. Similar customs prevailed in many parts of Western Asia. Whatever its motive, the practice was clearly regarded, not as an orgy of lust, but as a solemn religious duty performed in the service of that great Mother Goddess of Western Asia whose name varied, while her type remained constant, from place to place.

Thus at Babylon every woman, whether rich or poor, had once in her life to submit to the embraces of a stranger at the temple of Mylitta, that is, of Ishtar or Astarte, and to dedicate to the goddess the wages earned by this sanctified harlotry. The sacred precinct was crowded with women waiting to observe the custom. Some of them had to wait there for years.

At Heliopolis or Baalbec in Syria, famous for the imposing grandeur of its ruined temples, the custom of the country required that every maiden should prostitute herself to a stranger at the temple of Astarte, and matrons as well as maids testified their devotion to the goddess in the same manner.

The emperor Constantine abolished the custom, destroyed the temple, and built a church in its stead.

In Phoenician temples women prostituted themselves for hire in the service of religion, believing that by this conduct they propitiated the goddess and won her favour. “It was a law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate.” At Byblus the people shaved their heads in the annual mourning for Adonis. Women who refused to sacrifice their hair had to give themselves up to strangers on a certain day of the festival, and the money which they thus earned was devoted to the goddess.

A Greek inscription found at Tralles in Lydia proves that the practice of religious prostitution survived in that country as late as the second century of our era. It records of a certain woman, Aurelia Aemilia by name, not only that she herself served the god in the capacity of a harlot at his express command, but that her mother and other female ancestors had done the same before her; and the publicity of the record, engraved on a marble column which supported a votive offering, shows that no stain attached to such a life and such a parentage.

In Armenia the noblest families dedicated their daughters to the service of the goddess Anaitis in her temple of Acilisena, where the damsels acted as prostitutes for a long time before they were given in marriage. Nobody scrupled to take one of these girls to wife when her period of service was over. Again, the goddess Ma was served by a multitude of sacred harlots at Comana in Pontus, and crowds of men and women flocked to her sanctuary from the neighbouring cities and country to attend the biennial festivals or to pay their vows to the goddess.

If we survey the whole of the evidence on this subject, some of which has still to be laid before the reader, we may conclude that a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshipped under different names but with a substantial similarity of myth and ritual by many peoples of Western Asia; that associated with her was a lover, or rather series of lovers, divine yet mortal, with whom she mated year by year, their commerce being deemed essential to the propagation of animals and plants, each in their several kind; and further, that the fabulous union of the divine pair was simulated and, as it were, multiplied on earth by the real, though temporary, union of the human sexes at the sanctuary of the goddess for the sake of thereby ensuring the fruitfulness of the ground and the increase of man and beast.

At Paphos the custom of religious prostitution is said to have been instituted by King Cinyras, and to have been practised by his daughters, the sisters of Adonis, who, having incurred the wrath of Aphrodite, mated with strangers and ended their days in Egypt. In this form of the tradition the wrath of Aphrodite is probably a feature added by a later authority, who could only regard conduct which shocked his own moral sense as a punishment inflicted by the goddess instead of as a sacrifice regularly enjoined by her on all her devotees. At all events the story indicates that the princesses of Paphos had to conform to the custom as well as women of humble birth.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1922, Adonis in Cyprus, np.

Sacred and Ritual Copulation

“We would take the copulation of goats with women in an Egyptian temple (reported by Herodotus) on a sacred, ritual level.”

–W.H. Roscher, Pan and the Nightmare: Ephialtes–A Pathological-Mythological Treatise on the Nightmare in Classical Antiquity, & An Essay on Pan by James Hillman, 1972. Pp. xxxviii. (James Hillman, “An Essay on Pan.”)

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