Amarna kings and incest in the Egyptian royal family

Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten with Nefertiti and 3 of their daughters. Image A. Sinclair, Berlin museum.

Let’s start with the phrase that one can come across on Facebook groups or internet forums pretty much the moment a photograph of an Amarna period relief is posted:  At least one bright spark will pop up and claim - ‘Akhenaten looks like he did because his family practiced generations of incest.’

Or that other old chestnut: ‘he had a congenital disease that was caused by inbreeding’.

This idea is a modern myth of sorts perpetuated by the general public, the media and even some publications that I personally find is a good illustration of the argument for not accepting everything you meet at face value.

I say ‘face value’ because at first glance it is a valid generalisation, Egyptian kings had a policy of marrying their sisters or close family members, pretty much in the same way western European royal families had a taste for breeding into the one gene pool for about a thousand years. 

Simple - keep the power close.

And we all know how well that worked out for their health, don’t we?  

So the basic premise is okay - from the Egyptian point of view marrying a princess to the male heir was the logical thing to do, particularly when the Egyptians did not make a habit of making dynastic marriages with their allies like European and Mesopotamian states. 

This latter custom was a major no-no in Egypt, and is known to have been rejected by Amenhotep III in a diplomatic letter from around 1370 BCE.  They simply didn't do it.

The father of Akhenaten, Amenhotep III, with his chief queen Tiye. British Museum, image Wiki.

Collecting foreign princesses on the other hand was totally fine and it was one of Akhenaten’s dad’s favourite hobbies … these women then disappear into the court and are never heard from again.  They were never given positions of seniority, or became chief queen, which must have been really disappointing for their ambitious royal daddies in say Babylon or Hatti. 

So remember this, Egyptian kings were not monogamous, they had more than one wife, and their children were therefore produced by more than one source.

However, if you take the assumption that all Egyptian kings were inbred and apply it to Akhenaten, the 10th pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, the same claim gets shaky.  Particularly when it is applied to explain his health or how he was depicted in artistic programs. 

One - because ancient Egyptian art was not photographically or biologically accurate, it was about what these kings wanted the gods and their court to see …. You know, propaganda combined with religious belief.

Two - because we actually have little evidence for sibling marriage for many of the 18th Dynasty kings.

Except this obvious one - 

This lady was sister of her brother and mother of an heir, queen Ahmose Nefertiri.
Image A. Sinclair, Berlin Museum.

Nitty gritty – 18th Dynasty royal genealogy
Today’s post is a very brief explanation with an equally brief genealogy that shows how this argument for Akhenaten is faulty.  

As a side note I have not listed all kings in direct succession to make my image less confusing.  This means that Hatshepsut and Smenkhkare-Neferneferuaten are not listed because their marriages produced no king and royal succession went sideways.

So first of all, one can assume that the basic premise is correct - from the evidence available to us today it is known that a few kings of the 18th Dynasty definitely married their sisters and these women of royal birth ruled Egypt as its chief queen.

We know this for a fact for the first 2 kings of the 18th Dynasty: Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I both married their sisters, but only Amenhotep I was the son of siblings, his marriage(s) produced no male heir and the early royal line tapers out in about 1500 BCE when he dies.

The next king and ancestor of the rest, Thutmose I, was likely not directly related to the previous kings, he may have been a descendant of the family, or his queen Mutneferet may have been, to justify his ruling Egypt, but we do not know this for sure.  If either of the two earlier kings was his father, he would have said so, but he only ever names his mum on his monuments.

Therefore if Thutmose I and Mutneferet were related it would have been by having royal blood, they were not siblings.

I am not sure I can make it any clearer.

They in turn produced Thutmose II who was married to his half sister Maatkare Hatshepsut.  But that marriage produced daughters and the next king, Thutmose III, was a son of another wife, Iset. Thutmose III was crowned pharaoh as a child, so his stepmum ruled Egypt with him until he was of age.  He was incidentally married to one of his half sisters as per protocol, but again, this marriage produced no heir.

Instead Thutmose III produced the next royal heir, Amenhotep II, with a wife called Merytre Hatshepsut, who was the daughter of a temple priestess, and their son similarly produced his heir Thutmose IV with a minor wife named Tiaa.  Thutmose IV produced his heir Amenhotep III with a queen by the name of Mutemwiya, who may have been related to an important priestly family from Akhmim. 

That is 5 kings, no sons via sisters or incest so far.

Which brings us to Amenhotep III and his great queen Tiye, who was definitely not a princess, because we know who her parents were.  Tiye’s mum and dad were buried with much pomp in the Valley of the Kings and were happy to name their daughter and her rank repeatedly, they were Yuya and Tjuya, and from that important priestly family in Akhmim.  

Amenhotep and Tiye produced two male heirs, but the eldest died and his younger brother Amenhotep IV, the main topic of today, inherited the throne. He changed his name to Akhenaten and took as chief queen a lady now famous called Nefertiti. She too is not known to have been a member of the royal family, and currently a popular argument for her background is that she may have been a daughter of the same priestly family as her mother-in-law Tiye, but evidence to confirm this is lacking.

Meritaten, daughter of Akhenaten, it says so up on the right.  Image A. Sinclair, Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Daughter of a king
The important evidence that argues that none of these women was the sister of their husband is that none bore the formal title sat nezu/nzw ‘daughter of a king’ in their honours given to them by their proud sons or husbands on monuments.   

‘Daughter of a king’, or ‘king’s wife’, or ‘mother of a king’, were the most important titles a woman could hold in Egypt, nobody is going to forget to say this.

This absence of the female title argues decisively that not one of these ladies was the biological sister of their husband.  Therefore, according to the available evidence every royal ancestor of Akhenaten going back 6 generations was not the outcome of a brother-sister marriage. 

sat nzw

After Akhenaten, there is compelling scientific evidence that Tutankhamen was the son of genetically close parents, but this finding has not been confirmed by correlation tests and, if correct, these parents could have been a brother and sister, or full cousins, the jury is still out on that verdict. 

Tutankhamen incidentally also produced no healthy heir with his chief queen and likely royal sister, and the main 18th Dynasty royal line ends there, while the dynasty itself ends with unrelated rulers, Ay and Horemhab.

The trick with combining incest with a culture that has a high infant mortality rate is, it actually wasn't that easy to get a healthy heir to live long enough to rule the country, assuming one was produced of course.

So, sorry, there undoubtedly was a bit, but no rampant incest practiced in the 18th Dynasty Egyptian royal family, not when it comes to producing healthy kings anyway.  Inbreeding was not in any way responsible for the physical characteristics of the Akhenaten on his monuments.

Art, it was art damn it.

Andrea Sinclair

Sources and further reading
Dodson, A.  2014. Amarna Sunrise: Egypt from the Golden Age to the Age of Heresy.  American University in Cairo.
Dodson, A.  2009. Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, Ay, Horemhab and the Egyptian Counter Reformation.  American University in Cairo.
Dodson, A. and D. Hilton 2004. The Complete Royal Families of Egypt.  Thames & Hudson.
Roehrig, CH. 2005. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh - 'Genealogy of Hatshepsut's family'.  Yale.

Who were the ancient Egyptian Shemsu Heru kings, or ‛followers of Horus’?

Horus of Behedet, the winged sun disk.  Image A. Sinclair 2017

I am only nominally into the prehistoric of Egypt, as my real preference has always been that of Sumer, the Uruk period.  As it happens it is only serendipity that I did not do my studies there, but the professor of Near Eastern studies was on leave and I knocked on another door entirely, so now I am in the Late Bronze Age. 

But rather than talk about the vagaries of my life, today I am going to look at the Egyptian Predynastic, or at least some mythology about it.  A quick internet search of ‘Shemsu Hor’ will supply my motives for writing this, as it will result in an abundance of nonsense from pseudo-history websites, often all joined by a common passion for the word Ancient.

If you are ‘lucky’ it will also link you to free-to-read books from the dawn of time, which is also my motivation for writing this.  Out of copyright is often a curse, because the general public and lazy journalists have access to scholarship that is out of date and embarrassingly flawed, oh, and often racist to boot.  

So today I am going to walk you through the history of scholarship on the followers of Horus, the Shemsu Heru or Shemsu Hor, legendary proto-kings of ancient Egypt, beginning with the reliability of the Greek historian Manetho.

But before we go there you are getting a very brief overview.

Source Perseus Digital Library

Pharaonic Egypt is measured from the 1st Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, beginning around 3000 BCE, which probably represents the point that Egypt was unified under one king, and it lasted about 2700 years until the 31st Dynasty when the final king was deposed by Alexander’s armies in 332 BCE.  Although to be purist it could be the 27th Dynasty when the Persians conquered Egypt.

Regardless, this dynastic system was how the Hellenistic historian Manetho wrote up the kings of Egypt, and this tends to be how Egyptologists differentiate the various families, kingdoms and eras chronologically, even now, because classics has always been the foundation of Egyptology.

In Egyptian state symbolism there was great emphasis on Egypt as two separate regions united together under a strong king: these two halves were northern or Lower Egypt (Delta region) and southern or Upper Egypt (south of Cairo).  The Upper and Lower refer to travelling up or down the Nile river.  The ancient Egyptians really liked the idea of united duality: chaos and order, wild desert and fertile Nile valley, north and south kingdoms, dual kings.

Version of Manetho by Syncellus (9th century CE).

Horus (‘Ḥrw’or ‘Ḥr- Heru or Hor) was a very important falcon god associated with the sun in the Egyptian pantheon, but he took many, not always related, forms, particularly in the early periods.  There was not one Horus in Egypt, rather there were a few, who could have different characters and actions, and could be sons of the underworld god Osiris, or of the sun god Re.  These get mixed and matched and merged together in the later periods.

We are interested here in the falcon headed god who was associated with kingship from about the early Middle Kingdom in Egypt; the son of Re, Horus of the region of Edfu (Behedet), and in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, the Horus of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis).  The Egyptian king was always considered son of the sun god, a semi-divine incarnation of Horus.

Manetho in the Excerpta Latina Barbari (8th century CE).

Manetho – Aegyptiaca   Book I
Manetho wrote his history of the kings of Egypt in the 3rd century BCE during the Hellenistic period, well after the pharaonic period, however no copies of his original text have survived.  This means that when a text says ‘Manetho wrote’ – they actually mean ‘Syncellus said that Eusebius said Manetho wrote …’, or ‘the Armenian version of Eusebius said that Eusebius said that Manetho said …’

So the example of artistic licence here is any source stating that these texts were written in the 3rd century BCE, when in fact most were written around a 1000 years later by Christian monks from copies of copies.  Oh and the copies do not match each other, unsurprisingly, so when Manetho is quoted as saying ‘this many years’ or ‘this god king’ the writer is citing the text they like best, and ignoring the rest, assuming they are not simply improvising.

The Armenian version of Eusebius (13th century CE)

The golden age of kings
To make this as brief as possible, for the period before human kings Manetho wrote of 3 earlier mythical eras; firstly Egypt was ruled by the gods (the number and gods vary) usually ending with Orus (Horus) – then came demigods (ημιθεοι) – and after these the manes or spirits of the dead, νεκυες οι ημιθεοι (‘half-divine dead’), who ruled for 5,813 years (Armenian Eusebius) or 2,100 years (Excerpta Latina Barbari).

The translator of the LOEB edition Waddell (1940) then adds a footnote: ‘These are perhaps the Shemsu Hor of the Turin Papyrus - men of the falcon clan whose original home was in the western Delta, had formed an earlier united kingdom by conquering Upper Egypt’. 

So to begin – the followers of Horus or Shemsu Heru (Šmśw Ḥrw) are never mentioned in any version of Manetho.

Wilkinson 1879 Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians 
I am starting my history of modern scholarship with Sir Gardner Wilkinson because this is a ‘highlights of’ and he is a good place to start for misinformation about this topic.

He opens his 3 volume work with an historical overview of pharaonic Egypt and a problematic discussion of race in which the words ‘Nigritic’ and ‘Aryan’ get an airing.  He also throws in the theory of 4 ancient races that honestly will have to get its own article, as the pseudos love it.  His racially motivated narrative then develops into a discussion of whether the Egyptians were native to north-east Africa, or were asiatics or arabs. The biblical story of Ham is used to support this. 

He plonks for the invasion option, citing the shasu en har, or followers of Horus as the primitive peoples who lived in Egypt before the pharaonic Egyptians drove them from the country, however his writing is unclear and I cannot exclude that he actually meant that the followers were the invading ‘Egyptians’ … either way, ouch.

This sets the tone in Egyptology for the next 50 years.

Maspero 1894 – Dawn of Civilisation: Egypt and Chaldaea
Gaston Maspero in writing his history of Egypt and Babylon in a nice evocative manner a few years later made the rookie mistake of choosing to open a chapter on Egyptian political structure with a little licence, stating that the ‘Great Sphinx Harmarkhis has mounted guard over the Giza plateau’s northern extremity since the time of the Followers of Horus’.

This one piece of poetic embroidery has since supplied pseudo-numpties with fuel for an argument that the sphinx must therefore be older than the pyramids … ‘look Maspero said it (125 years ago) … it must be true’ (see Ancient Code 2015, or Hancock and Bauval 1997, who milk this angle and go on to misrepresent what he wrote).

Awesome use of manipulative language, two thumbs up guys.

The sphinx is btw about 500 years later than the end of the Predynastic, and it was carved sometime during the 4th Dynasty (2520-2392 BCE), only people with no background in archaeology argue this point.  Maspero was perhaps thinking of the followers of Horus that are mentioned in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts.

But earlier, his brief mention of the followers of Horus assumes that they were the military entourage of the god Horus during his exile and in the battles for control of Egypt with the god Typhon (Seth).  These followers were then deified after death by their grateful master.  He cites the names on the Turin king-list and adds a dash of creative transliteration; calling them the ‘Shosûû Horû, but sensibly notes that for the pharaonic Egyptians these kings lived beyond the point where history reached.

Maspero is also the original source of the claim that the followers were blacksmiths.

Ummm, Andrew, Edfu temple is in Upper Egypt.

Budge 1902 – A History of Egypt
The director of the British Museum in the Victorian era EAW Budge based his interpretation of the prehistoric period on Manetho, using mainly the versions by Eusebius and Panodorus, stating that the eras of reign of gods and demigods, ‘primeval chiefs’ or ‘heads of tribes’, were about 12,843 years or 11,831/2 years long. 

Then he airily states there can be no doubt that the Spirits of the Dead of Manetho were the Shemsu Heru mentioned in ancient Egyptian literature.  He goes on to add insult to injury by arguing these followers of Horus were chiefs of a race who came to Egypt from the east via the Delta and brought ‘a higher grade of civilisation’ to Egypt by conquering the aboriginal north-east African race and then ruling in Upper and Lower Egypt. 

This idea that an advanced race introduced technology and civilisation to Egypt is now debunked and with Wilkinson is a textbook example of western colonialism at its most arrogant.  It is also perpetuated today by pseudo sources such as Ancient Origins (2017) Ancient Pages (2017), Andrew Collins (2002) and Graham Hancock/Robert Bauval (1997).

Palermo Stone Predynastic kings of Lower Egypt. Image from Wikipedia (Abhandlung 1902)

However, Budge almost hits the nail on the head by assuming that the Abydos tombs excavated in 1900 could have belonged to these ‘followers’ who were the kings of Upper Egypt: Khent, Te/De, Re and Ka.  For Lower Egypt he cites kings on the Palermo Stone king-list; Mekha, Uatch-Nar, Neheb, Thesh, Tau, Ṭesau, Seka, . 

Some names must be taken with a hefty spoon of salt, his transliterations are often obsolete, so for the list above from left to right: king of the red crown Mekhet, Wadjbu or Wenegbu, Neheb, Tjesh, Tiu, Khaiu, Seka.

The Palermo king-list btw does not match any version of Manetho for the Predynastic kings and none of these kings are known from any other sources.

Sayce 1903 The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylon
A year later Sayce repeated the foreign conquerors thesis by claiming these followers of Horus and a historical king Horus were probably invaders from Babylonia, which is epic when you consider the Sumerians were running Mesopotamia in about 3500 BCE.  These, probably coincidentally quite white heroes, conquered the primitive races and created civilisation in Egypt. 

We call this diffusion theory: where western scholars tried to prove that civilisation began in one place and then spread west towards Europe by conquering or migration to neighbouring primitive cultures.  This theory went out of circulation in archaeology between 1950 and 1970.

Sayce also reinforced the career choice that is still sometimes employed (by amateurs) for the ‘Shesh Hor’ – that the followers of Horus were blacksmiths – ‘mesniu’.  Your first warning bell btw should be the old fashioned word ‘blacksmith’, because in archaeology we prefer to use ‘metalworker’ or even ‘smith’ for this job skill.

This name, mesnu (msnw), is from the ‘Legend of the Winged Disk’ that describes the battles of Horus and Seth and is written on the walls of the temple of Horus Behedety at Edfu in Upper Egypt.  Firstly, it should be emphasised that this is a post-pharaonic mythological text from the same period as Manetho, or later (Edfu was built between 300-142 BCE). 

I am guessing this guy did not get the memo in 1918

Secondly, the translation of msnw is incorrect. 

The followers of Horus were called ‘the harpooners’ and they are depicted at Edfu with him wielding harpoons and knives against the hippopotami that represented Seth and evil.  This isn’t exactly new news, in 1918 Kurt Sethe refuted the translation of mesniu as ‘blacksmith in ‘Die Angeblichen Schmiede des Horus von Edfu’ (‘The Alleged Blacksmiths of Horus at Edfu’).   

Msnw, which is determined with a harpoon sign, not a crucible (for metalworkers), has been translated this way for about 100 years.


Sorry no blacksmiths, no ironworkers.

Many early 20th century writers have repeated this error and a few later ones as well. 

Pro tip: if someone claims the Shemsu Heru were blacksmiths you can assume they used an early text, regardless of whether they cite a later publishing date (an old trick).   Hancock and Bauval (1997) for example used Maspero (above) and every Dover re-edition of EAW Budge they could track down.  Budge died in 1934, he definitely was not publishing between 1969 and 1980.

The same text by Budge and Fairman.  What a difference 20 or so years can make in Egyptology.

Sethe 1905 – Beiträge zur Ägyptische Geschichte
Kurt Sethe was a solid linguist and is a much safer source than say Budge, Wilkinson or Maspero.  He therefore approached the topic from that point of view.  His transliteration and interpretations are for his era still valid - the Šmśw-Ḥr (Shemsu Hor) ‘those who follow Horus’ or ‘successors of Horus’ or even ‘servants of Horus’.  

In this he briefly summarised earlier findings with the conclusion that these Shemsu Hor were the kings who succeeded a king Horus in the Predynastic period after the supposed rule of the 9 great Ennead gods.  Their successors therefore being the lesser Ennead, who were the half gods and half-divine spirits of Manetho.

But he tweaks the model with the statement that the term ‘shems’ – Šmś may be translated as ‘follow’, but it was also used to express ‘to serve (a king)’, therefore the Šmśw-Ḥrw must have been beings who served Horus and filled in the time between the god king and the first dynastic king Menes.  

Two kinds of followers, from the Tombos inscription of king Thutmose I, ca 1500 BCE

However, the word can be used for ‘worship’, as well as ‘follow’, or ‘serve’, and the followers of Horus could have been human men who worshipped the god.  A Middle Kingdom text from Asyut names the followers as gods with the bodies of jackals – from this he emphasises that these kings were deified after death.  

Therefore they were Manetho’s dead half-divine kings.

From real dead kings of the Egyptian Predynastic Sethe moves to his own argument that the Shemsu Heru were in fact the prehistoric rulers of Upper and Lower Egypt at Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) and Pe (Buto).  He then equates them with the ancestors of kingship, the Souls of Nekhen and Pe, and suggests that they were later also associated with the Sons of Horus.

Scene from Edfu temple in Budge 1912

Budge 1934 – From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt
Mr Budge approaches the followers differently 30 years later, by basically dumping the blacksmiths, and arguing that these mythical beings were hawk or jackal headed divinities, whose names were written with jackal or hawk standards and the signs for the bow and throwstick.  This assumption is  based on the writing of the name in the Pyramid Texts, and on depictions of the Souls of Nekhen and Pe. 

However, here he says the Shemsu were the companions of Horus of Edfu, whom he assumes was a real prehistoric king, or they were the kings who immediately followed his reign.  He contradicts Sethe rejecting the argument that the Souls of Nekhen and Pe were the Shemsu Heru. These instead must have been the early kings of those cities, while the followers were the royal successors of Horus.  

Confused yet?  That is basically how the topic was handled 100 years ago: by trying to fit later sources like Manetho, the scant textual evidence and some actually archaeology together, when they don’t match, all the other important pieces are missing, and it is likely both Manetho and the late Egyptian texts have errors.

The Shemsu Heru from the Turin king-list. Helck 1956.

Helck 1956 ‛Untersuchungen zu Manetho und den Ägyptischen Königslisten’
Wolfgang Helck was a kick-ass linguist of a few generations back who used the same sources, but sensibly emphasised the vast difference between the many late classical texts (like Manetho) and the actual ancient Egyptian evidence, which led him to a discussion of how early the Egyptians documented time and years of kingship. 

He began with the introduction of the bi-yearly cattle count and the royal procession through Egypt to record this event which was instituted in about the 3rd Dynasty (2584-2520 BCE).  The procession was incidentally also called the shemsu Heru, but this time it refers to the ‘following/procession of Horus (the king)’, who was considered to be the earthly incarnation of Horus.  

Another thing that people may mix up, including no doubt the pharaonic Egyptians, shem – ‘follow’ was a relatively common term, as both a verb and noun, just like in English, and it was a title that also applied to the retinue of the king.

Shemsu/followers of king Niuserre from the Sun Temple of Niuserre near Giza.
5th Dynasty, Old Kingdom.  Image from Borchardt 1907, pl 16

After the beginnings of record keeping in Egypt, the earliest document that lists kings is the Royal Annals, which includes the famous Palermo Stone.  The various fragments from this monument date from the 5th Dynasty, ca 2392-2282 BCE.  However, the Palermo Stone is the only useful fragment to us and it names 7 kings of Lower Egypt for the Predynastic (already mentioned with image above for Budge 1902). 

The Palermo Stone does not mention the Shemsu Heru (nice try Ancient Code), but much of the text is missing.

Translation from Goedecke 1996.

After this king-list, Helck introduced the evidence from the 18th Dynasty, which is around 1000 years later than the pyramids; on the Tombos stele of king Thutmose I (ca 1500 BCE), and later from the Turin king-list papyrus (19th Dynasty, ca 1250 BCE).  Both texts briefly mention the Shemsu Heru as being early kings of Egypt. 

So by the 18th Dynasty at least, they were an integral part of the mythological past, and were believed to have ruled in the time after the rule of the gods, however the term had also evolved to apply to any loyal follower of the king's retinue, who from his service to the living Horus could become a follower after death. 

Helck also rejected Sethe’s theory that these kings were the early kings of Nekhen and Pe, citing the Papyrus Prisse as support (12th Dynasty, ca 1800 BCE). However, this source actually contributes little to the issue, as it is a brief reference to the followers of Horus in a how-to-guide for correct behaviour for a man from the Instructions of Ptahhotep.

Middle Kingdom, translation from VA. Tobin 2003.

Gardiner 1961 Egypt of the Pharaohs
Nearly ten years later another giant of Egyptology Alan Gardiner devoted a few pages to the Predynastic by repeating what we know from Manetho, that Egypt was ruled by gods, half gods and souls of the dead before the Old Kingdom.  From there he moves to the names on the Turin papyrus and says these must be the followers of Horus who Sethe ‘rightly diagnosed’ to have been the early kings of Nekhen and Pe, but he gets a jab in by saying Sethe supplies little supporting evidence.

This oversight is then fixed by citing an unspecified Roman period papyrus (only 3000 years away from reality) that states that the souls of Nekhen were followers of Horus as kings of Upper Egypt, and the souls of Pe were these as kings of Lower Egypt (‘as Griffith pointed out orally to the present writer’, cos in 1961 this was totally cool, nowadays peer reviewer no. 2 would hang you out to dry for it).

Anyway, from Manetho’s versions, Sethe’s 1902 article, and an unnamed Roman papyrus Gardiner concluded in 1961 that two separate ancient kingdoms ruled Predynastic Egypt in the south at Nekhen and the Delta at Pe before 3000 BCE and before the unification of the state under king Menes.

Edwards 1970 Cambridge Ancient History
Another big name who opens his chapter on the Early Dynastic with a careful statement that: ‘Tradition and a substantial body of indirect evidence suggest strongly that Egypt, in the period immediately preceding the foundation of the first Dynasty, was divided into two independent kingdoms.’  A northern kingdom at Pe, and a southern kingdom in Upper Egypt at Nekhen near Edfu, both of which possessed important sanctuaries of the falcon-god Horus, the patron god of kings.

He goes on to cite the Palermo stone and Turin king list, sensibly emphasising that these texts are largely lost and ‘what remains is difficult to interpret’.  He sites all the sources given so far including the unspecified Roman era papyrus of Gardiner, while also making it very clear that he assumes this is a very late confusion of the followers of Horus with the souls of Nekhen and Pe. 

Finally, he turns to archaeology and cites the two Predynastic kings that were known from archaeological records at that time; Ka and Scorpion, whom he assumes therefore could have been the model for Shemsu Heru kings.

Pinch 2002 – Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
Geraldine Pinch sums up the 21st century approach to the prehistoric narrative by placing it under mythical time lines along with the other late Egyptian myths of the deeds of the god Horus.

She names 9 akhu spirits who were associated with the governorates of Buto (Pe), Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) and Heliopolis (Iunu), whom the Egyptians believed ruled Egypt after the gods in the Predynastic period. These akhu also included lesser kings called the followers of Horus and together – are quasi myth – part of ancient Egyptian mythical time.

She emphasises the reign of the god Horus was the prototype for Egyptian kingship, an idyllic time where evil was unknown, and therefore it served as the model for all Egyptian kings in the pharaonic period, who also represented Horus and divine kingship on earth, and who were tasked with maintaining universal order.

Which finally brings us to the most important source for the followers of Horus.

Reconstruction of the Turin king-list in standard hieroglyphs. You want columns 1-3.  Image from Wikipedia.

Ryholt 2004 ‒ The Turin King-List
The Turin king-list is not a royal canon, but rather a list of about 300 kings regardless of favour or character written on a 2nd hand papyrus, probably as scribal practice.  Written in hieratic on the back of a tax list and dated to the reign of Ramses II (13th century BCE), it was probably based on tradition and copied from earlier copies that were not without errors. 

It is very fragmentary due to severe damage while travelling on a donkey in the 1800s.  A lot of names are lost, what remains are mostly damaged.  This papyrus is a list of Egyptian kings from the mythological period to historical dynasties up to the New Kingdom.  They are loosely divided into 3 groups; god-kings, akhu spirits and historical kings. 

1) Gods and demi-gods – Ptah, Geb, Osiris, Seth, Horus, Thoth, Maat, Amen are listed (in Column I-2 more than half the names are lost).  Horus is named 3 times, Seth twice, and a king called Shemsu at line 2.4.

Dual king Shemsu in hieratic. Line 2.4. Image from website.

2) Spirits /akhu kings (Columns 2-3.9) are all damaged. Two Shemsu Heru are named on line 3.8 and 3.9, but the ‘akh’ is missing and assumed to be there.  The names are damaged and the year numbers may be incomplete; 3.8 (reign 3420? years) & 3.9 (3200? years).  Again, these akhu are assumed to be Predynastic kings, but not to be historically accurate, rather a part of mythological time.

3) The historical section of the list begins with Menes, the first king of the 1st Dynasty.  The historical king names do not match Manetho particularly well, he has errors, this has errors.  But the groups of early divine kings match the later text in a general way.

Therefore, from what little info is supplied there in the Ramesside period, the kings who we know predated Menes all may have been the akhu kings or the models for the Shemsu Heru – that is the Dynasty 0/Naqada III kings like Scorpion, Crocodile, Iry-Hor, Ka and Narmer (who may be Menes). 

However, the Turin list does not match any of the early kings on the Palermo Stone, nor the versions of Manetho, and it has errors for later kings.

So in fact there is no complete or absolutely accurate king-list from pharaonic Egypt. 

40,000 years, I must have missed that ... oh and the gods of the first time,
the ‘moment of creation’ were Atum, Shu and Tefnut.

In conclusion
The documentation of kings and of year names was developed in Egypt long after the Predynastic period, so any and all prehistoric kings were never accurately recorded in pharaonic Egypt.  Therefore the later records may have been based on oral legends, or simply devised to explain the Shemsu Heru’s function within religious myths, temple ritual and within Old and Middle Kingdom funerary texts. 

By the New Kingdom (1500 BCE) there had been plenty of opportunity for ideas to evolve, and for misinformation to be passed down formal and informal channels, which continued to accumulate more than 1000 years later, by the time of Manetho.  Then Manetho’s Aegyptiaca itself disappeared and became a series of garbled anecdotes from the Roman and early Christian periods.

This is the point where academics began in the early 1800s when trying to untangle Egypt’s history.  

Therefore, if we ignore the later anecdotes, there is very little evidence of these Shemsu Heru kings from pharaonic Egypt.  A brief reference in the Turin papyrus mentions akhu spirits who were kings of Egypt after the gods and before the dynastic kings and another names a god king called ‘follower’.  The Palermo Stone simply names 7 kings of Lower Egypt.

New Kingdom, Epigraphic Survey, OIP 102, 1980.

The followers of Horus in turn became a metaphor for a loyal servant of the king and honourable nobleman in Middle Kingdom instruction texts (Ptahhotep).  New Kingdom courtiers hoped to become ‘a follower’ after death, like the official Kheruef had written in his tomb at Thebes. Thutmose I bragged on a piece of state propaganda that what he had done for his followers had not been seen since the rule of the followers of Horus.

In earlier Old Kingdom funerary texts, particularly the Pyramid Texts of the 4th Dynasty, the followers of Horus are gods who cleanse the deceased, provide natron salt for purifying his speech and they voice their approval for him to join the gods.  They rally beside Horus and the deceased king in the rituals for regeneration and in the eternal feud with chaos and the followers of Seth.

Which is totally consistent with ancient Egyptian thought, once a king died he joined the gods, he then became part of the universal cycle of order and the battle with chaos.  The distant Predynastic kings who ruled parts of Egypt before it was unified, became the stuff of legend, and like the mythologies of many ancient cultures their numbers of reign were made awe-inspiringly long.   

They were not blacksmiths.

Magical pasts are attractive to humans and the Egyptians of 1200 BCE and 300 BCE were as receptive to myth, fantasy and tales of idyllic pasts as the millions who subscribe to pseudo-history websites and hungrily buy their embellishments of meagre evidence.  But the Egyptians had a better excuse, this was their belief system, how they thought the universe worked.  We don't have this excuse.

Although I must confess the Shemsu Heru are a perfect opportunity for ringing those pseudo cash registers, as there is very little actual evidence of them, if you ignore the out of date texts that fraudsters rely on to vamp up their stories.  All we really know is that the ancient Egyptians, like nearly any other culture, believed their mythical early kings were gods or divine spirits of the royal dead, beyond that little else. 

I don't know about you, but this bullshit unsettles me

So you can basically make anything up under those circumstances, like the followers of Horus were initiates in an elite academy of astrologists at Heliopolis (Graham Hancock/Robert Bauval), reptilian illuminati aliens (Chris Thomson), alchemists of an advanced civilisation from 10,000 BCE (Andrew Collins/William Henry), keepers of alien sacred knowledge (Ancient Pages/Collins), 15 metre tall giants (Ancient Origins), invented the pyramid and sphinx in an earlier Atlantian age and brought civilisation to the primitive natives (Ancient Code/Pages/Hancock/Collins,/Bauval)

… and so on. 

And due to lack of any images to put with these stories you can instead pad them out with fan fiction artwork that looks like it was stolen straight out of a computer game…. or more likely Pinterest.

The punters will love it.

Andrea Sinclair

PS: Seriously guys, stop believing books written in 1900 are accurate.  Publishers today publish these cos it’s dirt cheap, and they prefer to avoid paying royalties to a living and learned author.  Before you buy that cool book on ancient Egypt, please check its first edition date.

And hey, who hasn’t started with Budge?  I understand, honestly... we all started there... I bought every Dover reprint at the age of 15, and read them til they were grubby, but apart from availability and cool pictures, he is pretty useless if you are genuinely interested in the ancient world.  

And to the pseudos who are still citing obsolete translations from 1905, and esoteric nonsense from 1923, upgrade your sources, you lazy (and cheap) shits.

Aliens from the stars brought technology and civilisation to Egypt, sound familiar?

Further reading and sources

Pseudo, esoterica and ‘blacksmiths’
B. Brown 1923.  The Wisdom of the Egyptians: The Story of the Egyptians, the Religion of the Ancient Egyptians.
A. Collins 2002.  Gods of Eden: Egypt’s Lost Legacy.
J.S. Gordon 2015.  Esoteric Egypt.
G. Hancock and R.G. Bauval 1997.  Message of the Sphinx.
W. Henry 2006.  Oracle of the Illuminati.
Ancient Code 2016.  ‘Shemsu Hor, the Celestial architects of the Great Sphinx, an 800,000 year old  monument.’ & ‘Turin Royal Canon: An Ancient Papyrus that proves ‘Gods ruled over Ancient Egypt.’
Ancient Pages 2017.  ‘Mysterious Shemsu Hor – Followers of Horus were Semi-Divine Kings and Keepers of Sacred Knowledge in Predynastic Egypt.’
Ancient Origins 2017.  ‘The Giants of Ancient Egypt, Part 1, A Lost Legacy of the Pharaohs.’

Out of date, colonialist, racist and unreliable, but oh so retro
EAW. Budge 1902.  A History of Egypt I.
EAW. Budge 1909.  Liturgy of Funerary Offerings.
EAW. Budge 1912.  Legends of the Gods. 
EAW. Budge 1934.  From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt.
G. Maspero 1894.  Dawn of Civilisation: Egypt and Chaldaea.
WM. Müller 1918.  The Mythology of all Races: Egyptian Mythology.
AH. Sayce 1903.  The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylon.
IG. Wilkinson 1887.  Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians.

Actually worth reading
A. Dodson and D. Hilton  2004. The Complete Royal Families of Egypt.
IES. Edwards 1970.  Cambridge Ancient History.
Epigraphic Survey 1980. The tomb of Kheruef, Theban Tomb 192. OIP 102.
HW. Fairman 1935.  ‘The Myth of Horus at Edfu.’ JEA 21.
A. Gardiner 1961.  Egypt of the Pharaohs.
H. Goedicke 1996.  ‘The Thutmosis I Inscription near Tomas’. JNES 55.
W. Helck. 1956.  ‚Untersuchungen zu Manetho und den Ägyptischen Königslisten’. In Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens 18.
G. Pinch 2002.  Handbook of Egyptian Mythology.
K. Ryholt 2004.  The Turin King-List’.  Ägypten und Levante 14.
K. Sethe 1905.  ‘Beiträge zur Ägyptische Geschichte’. In Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens 3.
VA. Tobin 2003. ‘The Maxims of Ptahhotep’. In The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry.
WG. Waddell 1940.  Manetho with an English translation by WG. Waddell. LOEB.
RH. Wilkinson 2003. The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.

Annals/king-lists online website of talented amateur Peter Lundström (caution; his translations of royal names can contain minor errors):

The myth of sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia, or another reason why Herodotus needs a clip behind the ear

Goddess or temple prostitute?  These ivory furniture inlays have been called both in the past and illustrate the flaws of hanging on to out of date ideas.  South Syrian style ivory, 8th century. Image © Metropolitan Museum (57.80.11).

Catchy title eh?

It is always a challenge to create a caption that captures what I wish to say AND that will be searchable in Google.  But this one was no challenge, because ‘Mesopotamian sacred prostitution’ will get hits.  Too many hits actually, to an array of dubious sites, ludicrous when you consider it is largely a myth created by a few not unbiased ancient writers and then reinforced by James George Frazer in 1911.

Yet this is a myth that is not supported by any archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia for the period from say 3000 BCE to the conquest of Alexander in 320 BCE, it is instead largely argued from information written between about 700 BCE and 200 CE. 

And the most important influence on this myth today is a paragraph from Herodotus.

Herodotus Histories, Chapter I:199

Herodotus (484-425 BCE) - Historia
Herodotus was a cultural ‘historian’ from Halicarnassus, a Greek settlement in south western Anatolia during Persian rule, however on the basis of what little is known about him, he is believed to have travelled widely and ultimately settled in Athens in Greece.

The Histories (historia actually means to learn from ‘inquiries’) was written in the mid 5th century BCE and is a concoction of  travel guides, history and tall fisherman’s tales all gleefully thrown together in a narrative ostensibly designed as a political history of the ancient eastern Mediterranean.  Herodotus is therefore variously dubbed ‘the father of history’ or the ‘father of lies’ for obvious reasons, depending on your inclination.

The topic here, Herodotus’ critique of Babylonian sexual morals, is contemporary with the invasion of Greece, when the Persian empire was a major player on the Near Eastern stage, and was pushing relentlessly in directions that the Greeks in the Aegean found highly problematic. 

Here’s your first issue, the Near Eastern empire was a major political and military threat at that time, this will have coloured his approach somewhat.

So what did Herodotus write about sacred prostitution in Babylon?

 ‘The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with a male foreigner at least once in her life ….. 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 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.’ ... Histories 1.199.

Herodotus opens his anecdote with phrasing that emphasises his lack of impartiality; αἴσχιστος τῶν νόμων … I would translate it … ‘most shameful of customs’, which is btw pretty rich coming from a male Greek historian, a resident of an ancient culture with an appalling track record for the treatment of women and slaves.

Anyway, this is the earliest and most influential piece of evidence on the topic of sacred prostitution, and in it Herodotus states that Babylonian women of the 5th century BCE were forced to have sex, not with strangers btw, but with foreign men, at the temple of Aphrodite (Ishtar or Nanaya) in Babylon once in their lifetime. 

There is incidentally no written evidence of this custom from Babylon itself.  But Herodotus cannot take all the blame for this farce, as other classical scholars took his example and passed it on.

A 19th century western fantasy largely based on Herodotus and Biblical models
with a healthy dash of Neo-Assyrian palace for tone.  ‘Babylonian marriage market’,
Edwin Long 1875. Image Wikipedia.

Strabo (63 BCE-23 CE) - Geographica
The writer Strabo while hailing from the Black Sea region lived most of his life in Rome in the early empire.  In his Geography he largely repeats Herodotus’ account, but he also adds an interesting variation on cult practices in Egypt.  Apparently the Egyptians of the 1st century consecrated young unmarried socialites at the temple of Amen for the purposes of consorting with strangers.

‘to Zeus (Amen) who is held in the highest honour, they dedicate a maiden of greatest beauty and most illustrious family and she prostitutes herself, and cohabits with whatever men she wishes, until the natural cleansing of her body takes place; and after her cleansing she is given in marriage to a man; but before she is married, after the time of her prostitution, a rite of mourning is celebrated for her.’ ... Geography 17.1.46

His snippet about Babylon is brief and basically rehashes Herodotus’ anecdote in a cursory manner

‘There is a custom for all Babylonian women to have intercourse with foreigners. These repair to a temple of Aphrodite accompanied by many attendants and a crowd. Each woman has a cord placed around her head.  A man approaches a woman and places in her lap as much silver as he thinks worthy; he then leads her away from the sacred grove and has intercourse with her.  The silver is considered to be consecrated to Aphrodite.’ … Geography 16.1.20

So Strabo brings nothing new to the table about Babylonian customs and throws in a completely unsubstantiated claim about Roman period Egypt, which incidentally has never had any influence on Egyptology, but the slur on Babylon has stuck.

Greco-Roman period figurine of a Near Eastern naked goddess, most likely Nanaya, goddess of love, 
who was associated with the moon in this period. Image © Louvre (AO 20131).

Lucian of Samosota (120-180 CE) – De Dea Syria
Lucian is much later than the previous gentlemen, having been alive and kicking in the 3rd century of the Roman Empire well after all the cool kids, like Julius Caesar, Augustus or Nero.  He was a Roman citizen from Commagene, a small state in what is now south eastern Anatolia, however, he was well travelled and spent much of his life in various parts of the empire.

The Syrian Goddess is considered to be a critique of the cult practices of the temple of the chief goddess (Hera/Atargatis) at Hierapolis (‘Holy City’), in northern Syria during the Roman era, however, among all the anecdotes relating to this temple he makes no mention of ‘sacred prostitution’, rather his brief quotable quote is about Byblos in what is now Lebanon.

Here is your first problem, he wasn’t a fan, rather Lucian of Samosota was a satirist, which makes his critique biased, perhaps in a humorous way, I am not entirely sure.  And he was also not writing in any period we would associate with a major Mesopotamian ancient culture – in fact he was 700 years later than Neo-Assyria or Neo-Babylonia and 2000+ years later than the Sumerians. 

Therefore anything he does say contributes nothing to what we know about Sumerian or Akkadian cult practices, it might, I repeat might, bear some relation to Neo-Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian - but only if their sources backed this up.  In fact it is still disputed whether his book provides evidence of Levantine cult in Roman occupied late antiquity.

Still from the silent film Intolerance, a Babylon slave market, based mainly on the Edwin Long painting.

What did he write? - De Dea Syria  - The Syrian Goddess
In the city of Byblos in the Levant at the temple of the Byblian Aphrodite secret rites were performed annually for Adonis, her dying and reborn lover.  These rites were introduced to Byblos , not from Assyria, but from the city of the sun (Heliopolis) in Egypt by the Phoenicians.  As a part of the rituals mourners shaved their heads like the Egyptians did for the god Apis.

‘Of the women who shrink from this and do not wish to shave (their heads), these must stand alone over a day in the agora and consort with foreigners. Then the payment is given as an offering to Aphrodite.’ ... De dea Syria 6

So let’s take this at face value: In around 150 CE at a temple to ‘Aphrodite’ women were reputedly punished for not observing local religious rituals by having sex with foreign men.  Assuming this practice is correctly reported, it is neither taking place in Mesopotamia, nor is this prostitution per se.  They, like the women of Herodotus and Strabo are not having sex in a professional capacity, here it is a local form of punishment.  I suspect it is not even part-time prostitution.

And incidentally at no point do the authors use the terms ‘sacred prostitution’, nor do they use any ancient terms for prostitutes, like pornai, or sacred servants - hierodouloi.

Now your obvious question ought to be, how are these libellous anecdotes from a Greek and two Roman period writers so influential on this topic? 

The answer is firmly placed in modern 19th century scholarship where much of what was understood about the ancient Near East was based on classical texts and on the Christian Bible (another biased source). Basically because we had little else then. 

In around 1850 for example the western world had just discovered the ruins of Neo-Assyrian palaces in Iraq and had little original archaeological evidence to go on (they were too busy looting the sites for giant lamassu), so these much later written texts dominated their interpretation, and just to be clear, their own cultural values did too.

A nice example for not trusting secondary sources.

The evidence from Mesopotamia
There currently isn’t any evidence that sacred prostitution was practiced within Mesopotamian sanctuaries in the 3rd and 2nd millennia.  At a stretch it could be argued that ritual based sexual activities may have occurred at some time at certain temples over a 3000 year period, but this is based on a given measure of what that phrase might mean, and in western scholarship this assumption is often based on texts describing the hieros gamos, the ‘sacred marriage’.

The hieros gamos also comes courtesy of Herodotus, but James George Frazer subsequently reinforced this idea in his book, The Golden Bough, in the early 1900s.  In Book II he cites another passage from Herodotus for Babylon, and Strabo for Egypt (above) to argue the universality of this ‘barbarous’ religious practice, and its comparison to the rites of Diana at Nemi in Roman Italy.

I might add he paraphrases the originals freely and inserts manipulative touches like ‘might have no intercourse with no mortal man’ to both Herodotus and to Strabo.  However, his work was enormously influential until the late 20th century, when anthropologists began getting pickier about actual evidence. Do not get me started on how racist and western colonialist his writing is.

It is no service to the democratic spread of information in this day that Frazer’s book has never been out of publication and is still more accessible to the public than up to date research on ancient Mesopotamian cult.


Hieros gamos: the sacred marriage at the Esagila of Marduk 

‘In the last tower there is a great shrine; and in it stands a great and well-covered couch, and a golden table nearby. But no image has been set up in the shrine, nor does any human creature lie there for the night, except one native woman, chosen from all women by the god, as the Chaldaeans say, who are priests of this god.  These same Chaldaeans say (though I do not believe them) that the god himself is accustomed to visit the shrine and rest on the couch, as in Thebes of Egypt, as the Egyptians say.’ ... Herodotus - Histories 1.181.5-182.1

God and priestess
First of all Herodotus’ description here is misleading, as this ‘native woman’ is not passive, she will have been a powerful figure, the high priestess of the Babylonian state god Marduk, who was literally married to her master and who will have performed the appropriate annual and daily religious rituals with his earthly manifestation, the statue in his shrine.  These women were usually the daughters of kings.

Calcite disk of Enheduanna, high priestess and wife of the moon god Nanna at Ur in the Akkadian period, ca 2350 BCE. University of Pennsylvania Museum (U 6612). Image Wikipedia.

In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia the god was believed to reside in their statue in the holy of holies of a sanctuary and this ‘living divine image’ would be daily washed, fed, dressed and anointed with oils.  When a god travelled to another city, or went to war it was in fact their statue carried before the army, or in procession at festivals, no doubt it was this figure that a high priest or high priestess ritually married.  

And note I also said high priest, as important goddesses married their high priests, who were often kings, Mesopotamian gods were equal opportunity employers. 

Priest king and goddess
In the Neo-Babylonian period (early 1st millennium BCE) there are also royal records that recount that the Babylonian king as representive of the god Marduk ritually consorted with the goddess Ishtar during the 10th day of the New Year Akitu festival.  This goddess will also most likely have been her most senior priestess, if this ritual was ever actually performed between real people. 

Because ,beyond the quite extensive research that is available of the complex rituals associated with cult statues, evidence for the hieros gamos from Mesopotamia itself is predominantly textual and consists of religious myths, the festival ritual and royal rhetoric, none of these may be assumed to be historically accurate sources. 

All of these; cult ritual, religious myth, royal protocol may be considered culturally specific and also potentially rhetoric rather than fact.  But more to the point, they have nothing to do with prostitution.

Translation from ORACC - Q005644 - Sargon I 2001.

Archaeological evidence
Yet if you go to any light or medium-weight article on the topic of sacred prostitution they will cobble together bits of quotes from those texts I have cited above by Frazer, Herodotus, Strabo, and Lucian, often misquoting them btw, because they used Google, and then to prop up this evidence they will cite the myth of the hieros gamos as proof that sacred prostitution was practiced in Mesopotamia.

Sacred marriage ≠ sacred prostitution, get a grip guys.

To prove the already rather weak point they invariably throw in some images of the goddess of kingship and sensual desire, Ishtar (with or without clothes), or her symbols, with the timely addition of some Old Babylonian erotic plaques that show couples having intercourse, or some plaques of nude or semi nude female figures. 

Erotic plaques from Babylon (left) and the Ishtar temple at Assur (right). Middle and Late Bronze Ages.
 Images © Pergamon Museum, Berlin (VA Bab 03576 & VA Ass 04244).

However, none of these examples contribute anything to the rationale that sacred prostitution existed, they are just fluffy padding.  Images of intercourse or nudity are not evidence of prostitution or promiscuity.

Sex and nudity ≠ prostitution 

Metal, clay and faience votive plaques of naked female figures, male and female sexual organs and erotic plaques were left as offerings at cult centres of gods and goddesses from the 3rd to the end of the 1st millennia in Mesopotamia.  They will also have been kept at household shrines, or carried as apotropaic amulets.  Some were probably worn as jewellery. 

Clay mould made naked female figurines from Susa. Middle Elamite, Late Bronze Age.
 Image © British Museum (91825).

Because they are small, portable, easily reproduced and often made from less costly materials they are considered to be representative of popular belief and cult across the ancient Near East. The clay naked female plaques for example cannot be argued to be goddesses of any description due to their having no specific divine attributes, however, that they are fertility figures is also a simplistic rationale.

Naked ≠ baby making

This assumption too is somewhat out of date, instead the naked figurines have been argued to be physical expressions of female sexual desire, sensuality and physical attractiveness, something that has incidentally not been a topic of interest to researchers before the end of last century.  In fact, it took way to long for some bright spark to suggest they might actually be designed to express female values about their own sexuality.

Therefore, post as many nude figurines or erotic images as you like, these objects provide no support to an argument for the existence of sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia in antiquity, or even mundane prostitution, unless you are, let’s call it, struggling with your own demons, or from a culture that has issues with its own sexuality, or both.

And if that is the case, you may want to avert your eyes now.

Faience votive genitalia from Babylon. That's right kids, the Mesopotamians did not just offer their gods female genitalia in temples, penises were also de rigueur.  Late Bronze Age. Image © Pergamon museum Berlin: (VA Bab 01630.001-3).

Mesopotamian sacred prostitution
To wind up, there is little or no ‘on the ground’ evidence for this practice, if you exclude the anecdotes from a few biased classical Greek and Roman writers and take the images of half dressed women or erotica out of the equation.

However, ‘sacred prostitution’ is a highly suitable topic for this blog, for I am not just interested in artistic licence within art history or the media, or the charmless fantasising of modern history fraudsters, I am also interested in the use of artistic licence with language.  In this case we are viewing down the line licence; from cuneiform to biblical Hebrew across to ancient Greek, Latin and finally to modern English.

And once in English a gleeful enthusiasm for salacious synonyms.

So by artistic licence here I actually mean subjective misrepresentation.  Often based on the translations of texts.  Very rarely do disparate languages actually have direct crossovers for their words, particularly for cultural ideas, and just to be clear ‘prostitution’ is a culturally specific idea.  So is brothel, or priest, or even marriage.

This is without even dealing with the use of hyperbolic English wording in early translations and contemporary media to quite literally ‘sex up’ the topic; like ‘shocking’, ‘disgusted’, ‘eyebrow raising’, ‘virgin’, ‘harlot’, or ‘promiscuous’ (see Ancient Origins below). 

In fact, it is particularly impressive how many obsolete and old fashioned terms for common prostitute get dusted off on these occasions; classics like harlot, strumpet or doxy that otherwise rarely see the light of day.

Yoffee 2004,

And, I would add, these are words that bear little or no relationship to the terms they are translating, like harimtu (‘separate one’), qadshu (‘holy one’), kezertu (‘one of curled hair’) or naditu (‘fallow or childless one’). 

Terms that are now thought to indicate ancient religious roles for women that were independent of marriage and childbearing, roles that were often associated with different activities and rank at sanctuaries and temple complexes, will have evolved over time and whose exact sacral nature is still disputed within academia. These women's sexual activities within these roles are a matter of debate.

As one brief example, the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, princess Enheduanna, the world's earliest female poet, was naditu priestess of the sky god An and high priestess (and wife) of the moon god Nanna.  In terms of social status she was ranked somewhere just below her father, the king. It would be a stretch to make her fit into Herodotus and Frazer’s model of Mesopotamian promiscuity, languishing on a couch like a harem concubine at the top of a ziggurat.

Yet these terms, including naditu, are often still translated as ‘harlot’, ‘strumpet,’ or ‘prostitute’ in contemporary lexica and publications. Presumably because the writers feel an irrational need to vary their vocabulary.

Source Online Etymological Dictionary.

‘Tis a pity she’s a whore’
So lets just look at this term ‘sacred prostitution’ that ultimately stems from 19th century classical scholarship, a field that was almost entirely consistent of quite pasty European men from well-to-do Victorian families, who no doubt had very particular ideas of what the words prostitution and harlot entailed. 

Think of say any novel by Charles Dickens...

Then try to squeeze the goddess who led armies into battle and assigned kingship in Mesopotamia into the phrase ‘the harlot Ishtar’ (harimtu).

Now you have done this, let’s go back to the English word ‘prostitution’. 

This word has no value range for any type of religious activity in English.  You can plonk the word ‘sacred’ or ‘temple’ on to the front of it, but the basic value determinedly remains.  This word points the reader unconsciously or consciously in a specific derogatory and socially negative direction.

You can dress it up any way you like.  It is a term for a recognised profession that provides sexual intercourse of some description for a given fee.

Source Online Etymological Dictionary.

This value in English is subjective and irrelevant to the sexual values and religious practices of another culture, ancient or modern.  Before 700 BCE no Near Eastern culture had a monetary based economy, not Egypt, not Sumer, nor Akkad, nor Amorite Babylon, none of them used money, instead the king and state controlled the movement of people, food and goods. 

It is therefore still a matter of debate whether independent commercial activity occurred in Mesopotamia before 1200 BCE, so it would be interesting to know how it was possible to run a tavern that provided sexual services as a sideline, unless these were state affiliated, or is this how the running of sanctuaries and temples were imagined?

And if so this will have borne little relationship to the model that the English words inn, brothel and prostitution evoke.

Yoffee 2004,126.

However, the issue here is not the existence or non-existence of prostitution in Mesopotamia, in fact I don't actually care.  Rather it is the determined perpetuation of the myth of sacred or temple prostitution that grinds my gears.

Sexual intercourse or ritual marriage performed by individuals consecrated to a god as part of religious ritual at sanctuaries and temples bear absolutely no relationship to commerce, assuming that these ever occurred in ancient Mesopotamia, which incidentally we cannot prove at present. 

So kindly put Herodotus and your puritanical values aside when you study ancient cultures, and watch your damn language (if you must write about it). 

Andrea Sinclair

On the Net
JH. Stuckey 2005. at Matrifocus. ‘Sacred Prostitutes’
Not overly up to date, but Stuckey does a reasonable job of tackling this myth, while bearing in mind she and the blog are influenced by the now discredited neo-pagan myth of a great mother goddess.

Sumerian Shakespeare has written 8 articles on this topic, lowlights being:
2018. ‘Babylonian Temple Prostitutes’
2019: ‘Babylonian Prostitutes’
SS applies his customary one-eyed approach and argues that clay naked female plaques from 2nd millennium Mesopotamia show temple prostitutes, due to their posture (cupping their breasts in their hands), panties (lol, panties were invented when?), and semi-nudity (gasp).  His version of Herodotus is ‘creative’, and his outrage at H for suggesting his beloved Babylonians were immoral is predictable, but inconsistent, because he totally buys the sacred prostition myth.  He applies ill-informed reasoning to argue his case and uses inappropriate absolutist language with a healthy dash of modern sex worker terms.  His glee at having identified these figures as prostitutes in 2019 is somewhat tempered by the knowledge that Henry Frankfort got in ahead of him 80 years earlier (1939).

Ancient Origins 2016. ‘Lost in Translation? Understandings and Misunderstandings about the Ancient Practice of “Sacred Prostitution”’
Ancient Origins run with a smutty approach, the writer Fisher simultaneously dismisses academic critics of the myth and misrepresents their numbers (‘a fraction’), while gleefully pretending his article is impartial. The source for much of his information appears to be a book by neo-pagan Barbara G. Walker from 1983, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.  Her statements about the etymology of ‘harlot’ and Ishtar also being called Har are complete fiction.  These errors are perpetuated in later alternative scene publications citing her book, and in this AO piece (not citing her or the derivatives).

Academics who reject or question the myth of sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia: D. Arnaud, J. Assante, SL. Budin, J. DeGrado, JG. Westernholz, M. van de Mieroop, B. Menzel.

But don't just trust me, read some of these:

J. Asher-Greve and D. Sweeney 2006. ‘On Nakedness, Nudity and Gender in Egyptian and Mesopotamian Art. In Images and Gender, OBO 220.
J. Assante 1999.  ’The kar.kid/harimtu; Prostitute or Single Woman?’ Ugarit-Forschungen 30.
J. Assante 2007.  What Makes a ‘Prostitute’ a Prostitute? Modern Definitions and Ancient Meanings.’ In Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World.
J. Assante 2009.  ‘Bad Girls and Kinky Boys: The Modern Prostituting of Ishtar, her Clergy and her Cults.’ In Tempelprostitution im Altertum.
Z. Bahrani, 2001. Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia.
M. Beard and J. Henderson 2002.  With this Body I Thee Worship: Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity.
K. Benzel 2013. ‘Ornaments of Interaction: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age’, In Cultures in Contact from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium.
SL. Budin 2008.  The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity.
S. Cornelius 2004. ‘A Preliminary Typology for the Female Plaque Figurines and their Value for the Religion of Ancient Palestine and Jordan’.  JNSL 30.
J. DeGrado 2018.  ‛The qdesha in Hosea 4:14: Putting the (Myth of the) Sacred Prostitute to Bed.’  Vetus Testamentum
B. Pongratz-Leisten, 2008. ‘Sacred Marriage and the Transfer of Divine Knowledge: Alliances between the Gods and the King in Ancient Mesopotamia.’ In Sacred Marriages: The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity.
M. Stol 2016.  Women in the Ancient Near East.
JG. Westenholz 1989.  ‛Tamar, Qedeša, Qadištu and Sacred Prostitution’. Harvard Theological Revue.
 J. Weingarten blog 2013-4. ‘Sex Play in Ancient Canaan’ (I-III). Zenobia: Empress of the East.
N. Yoffee 2004.  Imagining Sex in an Early State.’ In Myths of the Archaic State.

The long dead classicists are available at Perseus Digital Library - Tufts
Herodotus - Histories Book II
Lucian - The Syrian Goddess (only in Greek)
Strabo - Geography Book I

Sitchin’s rocket in the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy

Painting of the west wall in the tomb of Huy by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s), Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. If yo...