Did Sacred Prostitution Really Exist in the Ancient Near East?
What is Sacred Prostitution?
Sacred prostitution or if you prefer temple or cultic prostitution is the practice of housing prostitutes in a religious temple and having them perform sexual activity within a religious framework. Sacred prostitution is mostly associated with pagan cults as their religion is considered to be more crude and primitive.
The ancient pagan temples would house plenty of males or females to serve as prostitutes and have sexual intercourse with people coming to worship as a form of fertility rite. Among its many benefits were: attracting visitors to the temple, raising money for it, and of course the main benefit--it legalized a central sex market and gave it a religious foundation, this ensured the continuation of this practice as it was not done for pleasure, but for the gods.
That such an institution existed in the ancient world was actually a widely held belief among historians and biblical scholars alike in the beginning of the twentieth century; it was known mainly through the biblical and classical sources which suggest that the ancient pagans were involved in such practices. Recently however, many scholars, appalled by such indecent behavior and uncomfortable with the thought of an entire culture engaging in such despicable rites, have tried to deny that sacred prostitution ever existed, and some have even been so brazen as to call it a myth. In this hub I will demonstrate that this is no myth, and that contrary to those who deny it, Sacred prostitution was widely practiced in the ANE.
Note: I will only bring evidence on the existence of sacred prostitution in the ANE but not in Rome or Greece (or any other unrelated geographical region), though there is lots of evidence that it existed there as well i will not discuss it here since the subject is too wide and it deserves a separate article.
Recently, many scholars, appalled by such indecent behavior and uncomfortable with the thought of an entire culture engaging in such despicable rites, have tried to deny that sacred prostitution ever existed, and some have even been so brazen as to call it a myth.
The Biblical Sources
Unfortunately, nowadays biblical evidence is not valued by many scholars. They believe that the bible is prejudiced and biased against pagans, that it wishes to paint a different picture of the pagan culture and the Canaanites who occupied the land before the Israelite conquest, and therefore cannot be trusted. As for me, I highly value the bible and believe that the authors were not trying to deceive us but to portray the Canaanites the way they were. Furthermore, as we shall see, in most cases it won’t even make a difference whether the biblical statements are true or not, since the terms alone, that are used in the OT, say enough about the existence of such practices.
The reason I devote a section for the biblical evidence is because it has been the main source of evidence for thousands of years. Long before ancient texts have been unearthed to provide hard core evidence the biblical commentators have taken these passages as reference to cultic prostitution (though they didn’t understand the exact nature of these practices) and it has so been interpreted for many centuries. But now brazen scholars have attempted to refute these claims and to turn the whole subject on its head. Though I’m not capable of refuting their claims in such a short article, I wish to give the reader a basic understanding of the subject and to show that a straightforward reading of the bible gives us a more realistic picture, one that will reveal how daily life really was in the ancient world.
To start with one such reference, it is found in the book of 1 Kings 14:24. The author recounts all the evil deeds that the Israelites did like their neighboring Canaanites (other nations whom the Lord has driven out before them).
“Judah did evil in the eyes of the Lord. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than those who were before them had done. 23 They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. 24 And even the qades was in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”
Now we have good evidence that the term "qades" mentioned here refers to a male prostitute. This term is found a few times in the OT and it is almost always accompanied by the term zonah (prostitute). For example Hosea rebukes the nation harshly stating “for the men themselves go aside with zonot (prostitutes) and sacrifice with qedesot” (cultic prostitutes). Also in the story of Tamar and Judah (Genesis chapter 38), the former dresses like a zonah (Genesis 38:15 “And Judah saw her, and thought she was a zonah”) and seduces him, Hirah his friend asks the townspeople if they saw a harlot/qedesa passing by:
‘Where is the qedesa who was at Enayim by the wayside?’ And they said ‘There was no qedesa here’. So he returned to Judah and said ‘I have not found her, and also the men of the place said “There has not been here a qedesa”.
Here too, zonah is synonymus with qedesa (female cultic prostitute). The Septuagint the oldest translation of the bible (predating the birth of Christ) also translates these terms accordingly. The traditional Hebrew sources too understood the term qades as someone engaged in homosexual intercourse (see Sanhedrin 54b). This is further proof that it is the only proper translation of this word. Returning to the verse in Kings, we have clear testimony that the Canaanites stationed cultic prostitutes all over the land and in their temples, the Israelites strongly influenced by their pagan neighbors caught on to it (this practice sure looks appealing) and incorporated the qedesim in their religion. See also 2 Kings 23:7 where the connection between the qedesim and the temple/cult is more evident. It states that among their duties was to weave vestments to adorn the statue of Asherah a famous and beloved fertility goddess of the Cannanites and the consort of the Ba'al. (Figurines of Asherah depict her holding her breasts demonstrating her fertility prowess.) Now it becomes clear that the qedesim were cultic figures and also served as prostitutes; putting one and one together, the obvious conclusion is that they practiced sacred prostitution. Another point, qds literally means holy, so the literal translation of qades and qedesa would be holy man and holy woman, since they served as cultic prostitutes they were considered holy or sacred because of their association with the temple and the gods.
Another reference to the existence of sacred prostitution is a passage in Deuteronomy 23:18-19
“There shall be no qedesa of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a qades of the sons of Israel. 19 You shall not bring the hire of a zonah or the wages of a keleb into the house of the Lord your god in payment for any vow; for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your god.”
Here too these two verses flow naturally together. While the first one forbids the existence of sacred prostitutes the second one forbids the use of their wages as payment for ones vow. The term keleb always means dog, but in such a context the meaning is unclear; some interpret it as male prostitute (this appears to be the name of cult personnel receiving payments in the temple of Astarte) and some as something else entirely. But regardless of the meaning of keleb, qedes and qedesa are surely a reference to cultic prostitution as we have seen that they are synonymous with zonah in multiple places in the OT. Here again we have proof that sacred prostitution was practiced in Ancient Israel. It is interesting to note that the terms qedes has been found in other ancient texts as the Ugaritic texts, there the texts employ the plural form of qdsm and are usually followed by the term khnm (priests). However, these texts tell us nothing about the role of these qdsm so it cannot help us determine their role, but it is clear that they are dealing with a cultic personnel subordinate to the priests. And as the biblical verses confirm.they are most likely male prostitutes
Scholars who still wish to deny its existence must resort to radical ideas such as emendations or errors in the biblical text or come up with other individual theories that would explain the existence of these terms, but their efforts are in vain, these passages have so been understood for hundreds of years, and it is undoubtedly the most simple translation of the terms; Occam’s razor surely applies here. And as we shall see now there is many more extra-biblical evidence that sacred prostitution was a reality in the ANE.
In ancient society sex is not frowned upon or shunned but worshiped as one of the forces of nature, it is discussed openly and liberally; in such a society it is only natural that sexual actions would be incorporated within the religious cultural rites.
The Sacred Marriage
Now that we have established that the OT most likely refers to cultic prostitution we can turn to the extra-biblical evidence that are even more explicit than the biblical and provide even stronger evidence for its existence.
The sacred marriage rite practiced in Mesopotamia, though it doesn’t prove that sacred prostitution existed ipso facto, nevertheless it will give the reader an idea of how the ancients regarded sexual intercourse and its relationship with ancient Near Eastern religion. This rite concerns the marriage of Innana and Dumuzi. Innana was the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sex and fertility; what the goddess Venus was for the Romans she was for the Sumerians. In order to ensure fertility of the land Inanna, the ancients believed, would have to have sexual intercourse with the god Dumuzi, this sacred (or lustful) union would enable the abundance of crops upon which the ancient civilization depended. So in a form of sympathetic magic the Sumerians concocted a rite in which the sexual union of Innana and Dumuzi would be fully enacted. With their actions they hoped to force the union of the gods to fertilize the land. For the role of Dumuzi they chose the king, since he was himself a demi-god and was also expected to protect and provide for the land and ensure fertility of the crops. And a nugig female played the role of Inanna. The term nugig is ambiguous and while some interpreted it as sacred prostitute, others have described it as a woman of high rank. The woman who played the role of Innana was not significant and so was not recorded, and it is not important for our study either. In the beginning of the New Year this rite would be enacted in the temple of Innana.
“The Sacred Marriage began with a journey and procession by the king to the giparu of Inanna´s temple, the site of the marriage, and the preparation of the bride by washing, anointing and adorning. The procession and meeting of the partners was accompanied by the singing of love songs and other festivities, and finally, a great wedding banquet celebrated the marriage. But the core of the ritual was an act of sexual congress between the king and the goddess figure. To the holy lap of Inanna, the king went with lifted head (proudly), as a desired, awaited partner rather than as a supplicant. He came to the great fertile bed, which had been set up for the ritual, strewn with grasses and covered for Inanna. There, in bed, Inanna gazed at him with shining countenance, caressed him and embraced him. This sexual union was intended to promote the fertility of the land.” () Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, In the Wake of the Goddesses: women, culture and biblical transformations of pagan myth
One of the texts that have been used to reconstruct the ritual is The Iddin-Dagan Hymn, there the sexual nature of this union is clearly described:
“The king approaches the pure lap with lifted head,
With lifted head he approaches the lap of Inanna.
Amaushnungalanna lies down beside Her,
He caresses Her pure lap.
When the Lady has stretched out on the bed, in the pure lap,
When Inanna has stretched out on the bed, in the pure lap,
She makes love to him in Her bed,
She says to Iddin-Dagan, "You are surely my beloved."
The language of the Shulgi Hymn is even more explicit, there we find the expressions like "by his fair hands my loins were pressed", "he ruffled the hair of my lap", "he laid his hands on my pure vulva".
And in another hymn called “Plow my vulva” we find this:
“Dumuzi waited expectantly. Inanna opened the door for him. Inside the house she shone before him. Like the light of the moon. Dumuzi looked at her joyously. He pressed his neck close against hers. He kissed her.
"What I tell you Let the singer weave into song. What I tell you, Let it flow from ear to mouth, Let it pass from old to young: My vulva, the horn, The Boat of Heaven, Is full of eagerness like the young moon. My untilled land lies fallow. As for me, Inanna, Who will plow my vulva? Who will plow my high field? Who will plow my wet ground? As for me, the young woman, Who will plow my vulva? Who will station the ox there? Who will plow my vulva?"
"Great Lady, the king will plow your vulva? I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva."
"Then plow my vulva, man of my heart! Plow my vulva!"
Though some scholars have wanted to say that the king did not have sex with a woman and that they only laid down a statue of Innana next to the king and the sexual union was only imagined, this forced interpretation cannot explain the overwhelming amount of sexual language used in these hymns. Furthermore, if we start allegorizing these hymns and questioning their veracity then there will be no way of telling anymore what is real and what is only fancy talk, perhaps the whole rite never existed and the texts only describe the heavenly union of the gods that brought fertility upon the land. But no one has gone thus far to claim such a radical idea! The simplest reading of these hymns is that the king is having sexual intercourse with another real human partner representing Innana.
That a sexual act should be the focal point of the New Year ceremony should not come as a surprise, since were dealing here with an ancient practice that most probably predates civilizations, and the civilization itself is primitive and has not yet formulated a clear set of moral values (for instance child sacrifice was rampant in Israel until much later). In ancient society sex is not frowned upon or shunned but worshiped as one of the forces of nature, it is discussed openly and liberally; in such a society it is only natural that sexual actions would be incorporated within the religious cultural rites. It is high time for scholars to realize that the culture in the ANE was vastly different than ours, that there is wide cultural rift separating us from our ancient ancestors, and it is simply unfair to force our morals upon them.
It seems that the cult of Inanna/Ishtar attracted all kinds of sexual perverts and was the ancient hub of sin and indulgence for males and females alike.
The Extra-biblical Evidence
One of the most commonly referred evidence for the existence of sacred prostitution in the ANE are the Nuzi tablets. In one of the curses recorded there we find: “Let him consign his seven daughters to Ištar as whores”. Ishtar the Mesopotamian counterpart of Innana is portrayed as a whore and patron of the prostitutes. In one of the hymns Ishtar proudly brags: “Whenever I stay in the doorway of the drinking-house, I am the whore that the man knows”. In another hymn of praise the language is more suggestive:
“Gather together for me the men of your city, And let us go to the shade of the city wall. Seven on her neck, seven on her hips, Sixty plus sixty are satisfied by her vessel. The men become exhausted, but not Ištar: ‘Men! Set upon my fine vulva!”
This is the goddess to whom the curse of the Nuzi tablets refer to. The man will consign his seven daughters unwillingly to Ishtar’s temple as whores. The only way to explain this phrase is by sacral prostitution. This confirms once more that cultic prostitution really did exist in the ANE.
In another Assyrian contract which threatens and curses anyone that would break the agreement includes this: “He must give seven kezrus and seven kezertus to Ištar who dwells in Arba-il.” kezru and kezertus almost certainly refers to sacred prostitutes as it is always found in the context of harlotry and prostitution. Here we have further evidence that the temple of Ishtar housed prostitutes. Another thing we can deduce from this is that cultic prostitutes were not highly regarded in the ancient world, in both texts the prostitutes are portrayed in a negative light and are considered a curse rather than a blessing.
Herodotus the ancient Greek historian also testifies that this job was not coveted by the prostitutes themselves. According to his account every woman in Babylon had to give herself away for prostitution once a lifetime (even the noble women who detested it) and that while serving in the temple as a prostitute it was considered a sin to turn down a man asking for sex:
“The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta”. It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.”
Most scholars think this is highly exaggerated and take his account with a big grain of salt. However, we may conclude that there is a kernel of truth here, and that this practice was widespread even between the women of high rank and that they considered it a good sign to be laid once a lifetime in the temple of Ishtar.
Innana/Ishtar was the goddess of love and fertility so it is only natural that such rites were associated with her. The male priests of Innana/Ishtar were known as the gala or kurgara, they spoke in the dialect which was traditionally reserved for women and also cross dressed and performed war dances in the temples before her. Naturally they were also involved in homosexual intercourse. In fact the name gala was written using the signs “penis+anus”. Akkadian omen texts instruct men to have sexual intercourse with the assinnu (male prostitute similar to the gala) in order to obtain luck. It seems that the cult of Inanna/Ishtar attracted all kinds of sexual perverts and was the ancient hub of sin and indulgence for males and females alike.
In another Epic the dark orgies of Ishtar are longer elaborated on:
“As to Uruk, the dwelling place of Anu and Ištar,
a city of kezertus, of strumpets and whores,
whom Ištar deprived of husbands and has left them to themselves,
the Sutians, men and women, yelled.
They rouse up Eanna, the cult actors and singers,
whose manhood Ištar turned into womanliness
in order to strike people with religious awe,
those who carry a dagger and a razor, a scalpel and a flint knife,
who transgress taboos to delight Ištar’s heart.”
The temple of Ishtar is clearly described as home for the prostitutes, a place where the people may transgress the social taboos (of a sexual nature of course) to her hearts delight.
Ishtar herself is portrayed in a sexual manner in the famous Burney relief (see image below),
“In the centre is a naked woman with horns on her head, identifying her as a goddess, standing on two lions, a typical stance for Ištar. Under her horned crown we see a fringe of hair, and hair was a sign of a woman’s sex appeal. A stone model of a woman’s ‘wig’ is inscribed ‘female sex appeal’. On the relief she holds up both hands showing that she is carrying ‘the staff and the ring’. These were interpreted as instruments for measuring the land and therefore signs of peace. Around her neck she wears a necklace, possibly made from particular egg-shaped jewels. A Sumerian text says these are the gems that hang round the neck of a whore.” (Marten Stol, Women in the Ancient Near East)
This concludes our study of this subject. By now it has become exceedingly clear that cultic prostitution was a reality in the Ancient Near East, one wishes to deny it must vindicate countless texts that clearly point in this direction. On the other hand, we can make peace with the fact that ancient cultures were not like ours and that their system of ethics and morality were vastly different than ours; in reality this only adds to the beauty of culture and makes our history all the more colorful.