Priestesses and Prostitutes


One rather controversial idea presented in a book I read recently was that temple prostitution didn’t actually exist. I’m not sure if she was referring just to the Arabian Peninsula, or proposing that it didn’t happen anywhere. There’s apparently a vocal minority arguing this point, and I can’t say I’ve studied the topic enough to know whether there’s any validity to their argument. One of the earliest writers to mention this activity is Herodotus, who insisted that EVERY woman in Mesopotamia and parts of Cyprus was forced to have sex at the temple of Inanna at least once in their lives, and couldn’t refuse any man who gave them money, regardless of how little it was.

Weren’t these also cultures in which virginity was pretty much necessary for a woman to get married? So, while I don’t know for sure, it seems likely that Herodotus’ account was based on hearsay. That, however, doesn’t mean that temple prostitution wasn’t a thing at all, just that it was more likely the prostitutes would have been dedicated to the job, and hence presumably not married.

The Epic of Gilgamesh has a priestess have a whole lot of sex with the wild Enkidu in order to civilize him, which would presumably count as a positive portrayal, contrary to much of the other evidence that was written by opponents of the practice.

There’s also the difference between sex to raise money for the temple and sex as part of a religious ritual, the latter of which could only loosely be called prostitution. This would have included the practice of the sacred marriage, in which a priestess would take on the role of a goddess in order to pass on her blessings to the king through sexual intercourse.

Assuming the priestesses didn’t have any choice in the matter, it was a form of sexual slavery. I’ve seen indications that something similar still occasionally happens in India. The Bible mentions temple prostitutes in Judah, with the writers clearly disapproving of the practice. Certainly, seeing something sacred in sexuality is hardly unusual. A lot of ancient myths make the gods extremely sexual beings, although some are perpetual virgins. People who take religious vows to abstain from sex, like the Vestal Virgins of Rome or modern nuns, are sort of the opposite side of the coin.

After all, making sex something forbidden is putting as much emphasis on it as making it mandatory. The early Judean objection to sacred prostitution might have been as much because their religion was centered around a fiercely male deity with no female counterpart (at least in what became mainstream practice) or history of having sex with mortals, his later dalliance with the Virgin Mary notwithstanding.

There doesn’t seem to have been any particular stigma against concubines, unless they were followers of other gods. I have to suspect that reviving sexual practices in places of worship would increase attendance, but obviously the participants would have to be willing.

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This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Judaism, Middle East, Mythology, Religion, Semitic, Sexuality and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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