|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 These ivory furniture inlays have been called both in the past and illustrate the flaws of hanging on to out of date ideas.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).|
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.
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).
|Still from the silent film Intolerance, a Babylon slave market, based mainly on the Edwin Long painting.|
|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.
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.
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).
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).
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).|
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.
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.
And if so this will have borne little relationship to the model that the English words inn, brothel and prostitution evoke.
But don't just trust me, read some of these:
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.
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.
J. Weingarten blog 2013-4. ‘Sex Play in Ancient Canaan’ (I-III). Zenobia: Empress of the East.