Sacred Prostitution: True or False?

Sex, Drugs, and Religion

A very anachronistic, but beautiful, image of Ishtar, whose temple allegedly hosted sacred prostitutes. Lewis Spence/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

One of the most confusing, yet fascinating, sub-topics of love and sex in the ancient world is the  “sacred prostitution” in the ancient Near East. The “holy whore” archetype is intrinsically appealing because of the dichotomy inherent therein – the contrast between the image of the individual as a sacred and therefore chaste person, and the supposedly profane nature of offering sexual services – or, to be frank, the brazenness of sexuality.

This motif has appeared time and time again, whether in the Bible itself (arguably) or the writings of classical authors who viewed the East as barbarian and exotic, and even in interpretations of Mesopotamian cultic practices. But did it really exist?

Coitus for the Creed

Historian Jerrold S. Cooper defines "sacred prostitution" as “1) the performance of sexual acts as part of the cult by temple personnel; and 2) the performance of sexual acts by temple personnel or others hired by members of the general public, with the proceeds or a part thereof going to the temple.”

But did sacred prostitutes really exist? Scholarly views fluctuate. Stephanie L. Budin argues that “sacred prostitution never existed in the ancient Near East but rather was a fabricated idea based on allegations made by classical authors and mistranslation by scholars of cultic terminology.” But others question such a definitive statement.

They wonder if the parameters of the defininition of “sacred prostitution” might sometimes be too constricting and therefore not inclusive of all temple activities.  In that case, “sacred prostitution,” as defined by different individuals past and present, could well have existed.

But let’s dive into what some of the ancients themselves said – here are some of the most often-cited accounts.

Let's Talk About Babylonian Sex

Perhaps the most famous version comes from Herodotus’s Histories, and it reads thus: “Now the most shameful of the customs of the Babylonians is as follows: every woman of the country must sit down in the precincts of Aphrodite once in her life and have commerce with a man who is a stranger.” Most women do this, he says, and in “the sacred enclosure of Aphrodite [perhaps referring Ishtar through religious hybridization] sit great numbers of women with a wreath of cord about their heads; some come and others go; and there are passages in straight lines going between the women in every direction, through which the strangers pass by and make their choice.”

The stranger gives her a silver coin, then say, “I demand thee in the name of the goddess Mylitta,” another Babylonian goddess Herodotus understood to be the local “equivalent” of Aphrodite. She can’t refuse the coin and is obligated to have sex with the stranger, and “after that she departs to her house, having acquitted herself of her duty to the goddess, nor will you be able thenceforth to give any gift so great as to win her.” If a woman is unattractive, says Herodotus, she may linger at the temple for years until someone chooses her.

This type of temple sex happened at Cyprus, too, home of Aphrodite.

Women were similarly forced to have sex with strangers in Syria, according to Lucian in De Dea Syria. If they refused to mourn Aphrodite’s consort Adonis by shaving their bodies, they had to “stand for the space of an entire day in readiness to expose their persons for hire. The place of hire is open to none but foreigners, and out of the proceeds of the traffic of these women a sacrifice to Aphrodite is paid.”

Getting Dirty in Greece

Sacred prostitution wasn’t limited to the East, apparently. Writes Strabo, the Greek city of Corinth prospered due to courtesans at the temple of Aphrodite. He writes, “And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess.

And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich…”

He adds of Eryx in Sicily, “It has a temple of Aphrodite that is held in exceptional honor, and in early times was full of female temple-slaves, who had been dedicated in fulfillment of vows not only by the people of Sicily but also by many people from abroad; but at the present time, just as the settlement itself, so the temple is in want of men, and the multitude of temple-slaves has disappeared.” 

In 464 B.C., Xenophon of Corinth said he’d dedicated one hundred women to Aphrodite if he won a race in the Olympics. He won two competitions and the Greek poet Pindar composed an ode in celebration. He celebrates the victory and the ladies, saying, “Mistress of Cyprus [Aphrodite], here to your grove/Xenophon has brought a hundred-bodied herd of grazing girls/Rejoicing in his fulfilled vows.” 

Interestingly, prostitutes seemed to feel tied to Aphrodite, as Alexis of Samos notes when he says that the temple of Aphrodite on the island was “dedicated by prostitutes who had accompanied Perikles when he besieged Samos, as they had made a good profit from their charms.” Whether those women were prostitutes involved willingly in a sacred rite or prostituted out for a sacred right, though, is up for contention.

Booty in Babylon?

If the Greeks and Romans said the Eastern and Greek cities had prostitution, what did the Near Eastern folks themselves say? There are hints of sacred marriages in ancient Mesopotamian ritual, in which the king of a city-state was bound ritually to – and symbolically, or literally, consummated – a relationship with the chief priestess of that city’s patron goddess. This echoes the union of Inanna and Dumuzi in order to promote fertility and harmony in the environs.

The Bible references more than one qedeshah, often translated as “sacred prostitutes,”  who apparently popped up in Israel and Judah for centuries. Historian Edward Lipinski opined that qedeshah refers to women involved in Ashtoreth worship , whom, because the biblical writers weren’t crazy about Ashtoreth’s fertility rites, they demonized as prostitutes.

But others argue the exact opposite, stating that “the outcome/service demanded by buyers and supplied by sellers is sexual pleasure,” and sexual activity did not necessarily relate to fertility.  As Budin notes, “the claims to the existence of sacred prostitutes depend on the translation of words that are not as blatant as [the Greek term] hetaira.”

But words scholars have long translated as “prostitute" have been reconsidered. Harimtu is now understood as the “legal category of the single woman properly belonging outside the patriarchal system,” according to Julia Assante, as cited in Hennie J. Marsman’s Women in Ugarit and Israel. Interestingly, one line from a text stating "I am a kar-kid [a word often taken to mean "prostitute"], one who knows the penis,” has been variously interpreted as pertaining to an independent woman who likes sex, or a prostitute, two very different extremes.

It’s worth noting that both prostitutes and women outside the male-driven system are individuals who derive their self-definition away from the traditional patriarchy. The latter structure, especially in Greece, might find threatening and worth demeaning. Assante claims in her article “The Kar.Kid/Harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman?” that these demonizations of women men couldn’t place within their narrow definitions may have been the product of the Victorian historians, as “the notion of Mesopotamia’s sexual freedom … was anachronistically based on the 19th century version of it … Philologists and art historians read the unmarried woman attested in cuneiform as prostitutes, sacred or secular.”

Perhaps, as other scholars claim, prostitution was just another means of normal commerce in which temples engaged. George L. Hersey alleges in passing that sacred prostitution was just the norm in Babylon and was even a tourist attraction. Basically, Babylon was a religious Amsterdam, where sex was a commodity. In an article, Morris Silver observes, “At one limit of the practice of sacred prostitution, temples employ prostitutes and directly sell their services to the public.” Silver admits that “Assante has succeeded in discrediting an almost reflexive sexualization of female cultic roles,” but says it would be unwise to dismiss that sexuality entirely.

Indeed, one can reconsider even Herodotus’s supposed Orientalization of Babylonian sexuality, as Cooper notes, because he also praises the Babylonians in addition to denigrating them. The “wise” activities he cites have no written evidence, Cooper says, but the “dirty” one – i.e., sacred prostitution – does. And the evidence for concrete definitions for certain words as “prostitute” are clear, indicates Cooper, contrary to the nuances suggested above.

No sexual activity related to the temple can be inferred verbatim from the surviving cuneiform texts, but can be inferred, he says, from instances like a seal impression from Ur possibly depicting a live sex show. This, and other depictions of cultic prostitution, are investigated in depth in Cooper's stellar essay “Sex and the Temple.”  

Cultic Conclusions

Ultimately, whatever the truth of sacred prostitutes' existence, perhaps Marvin L. Chaney summarizes this dilemma best in his essay “Accusing Whom of What? Hosea’s Rhetoric of Personality.”  There, he notes how limited the actual primary texts from the Near East is and the idea of “cultic prostitution,” as he terms it, “has made far too facile and simplistic an equation of female cultic personages, female deities, and sacralized sexuality…”

The individuals accused of practicing sacred prostitution may not have thought of themselves in these discrete categories or have conflated them all together. That is not to say that sexuality didn’t exist in antiquity, but just that the existing evidence, whether from Orientalizing Western writers or the limited primary sources in Mesopotamia, doesn’t provide a portrait of sacred prostitution, as it has been previously defined.

Additional Reading

Here's some scholarship, in addition to the items mentioned and linked to above, on every aspect of sacred prostitution.

Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. "With This Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity." Gender & History 9.3 (1997): 480-503.

Budin, Stephanie Lynn. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Day, John. "Does the Old Testament Refer to Sacred Prostitution and Did It Actually Exist in Ancient Israel?" Biblical & Near Eastern Essays: Studies in Honor of Kevin J. Cathcart. Eds. Carmel McCarthy and John F. Healey. New York: T&T Clark International, 2004. 2-21.

Faraone, Christopher A., and Laura K. McClure, eds. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Hooks, Stephen M. Sacred Prostitution in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Cincinnati, OH: Jewish Institute of Religion, 1985.

Leick, Gwendolyn. Sex and Eroticism in the Ancient Near East. New York: Routledge, 1994.