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  These ivory furniture inlays have been called both in the past and illustrate the flaws of hanging on to out of date ideas.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.
Sesquiotic, 2020 at Strong Language blog. ‛Little Dears -
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...