“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.