Sacred prostitution, temple prostitution, cult prostitution, or religious prostitution is a sexual ritual consisting of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity performed in the context of religious worship, perhaps as a form of fertility rite and divine marriage (hieros gamos). Scholars have long considered such practices to be customary in the ancient world.
Some scholars prefer the term sacred sex to sacred prostitution in cases where payment for services was not involved. The Greek term hierodoulos or hierodule has sometimes been taken to mean sacred holy woman, but it is more likely to refer to a former slave freed from slavery in order to be dedicated to a god. The Hebrew term qedesha is often translated literally as temple holy one.
Ancient Near East
Ancient Near Eastern societies along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers featured many shrines and temples or houses of heaven dedicated to various deities. According to the 5th-century BC historian Herodotus, the rites performed at these temples included sexual intercourse, or what scholars later called sacred sexual rites:
The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But 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 the 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. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.
A number of other ancient authors corroborate Herodotus's account. By their testimony it appears that not only in Babylonia and Cyprus, but throughout the Near East, ancient societies encouraged the practice of sacred sexual rites. The British anthropologist James Frazer accumulated citations to prove this in a chapter of his magnum opus The Golden Bough (1890–1915), and this has served as a starting point for several generations of scholars. However, Frazer took his sources mostly from authors of Late Antiquity (i.e. 150 – 500 AD), not from the Classical or Hellenistic periods. This raises questions as to whether the phenomenon of temple sexual rites can be generalized to the whole of the ancient world, as earlier scholars typically did.
The Hittites practiced sacred prostitution as part of a cult of deities, including the worship of a mated pair of deities, a bull god and a lion goddess, while in later days it was the mother-goddess who became prominent, representing fertility, and (in Phoenicia) the goddess who presided over human birth.
The research of Daniel Arnaud, Vincienne Pirenne-Delforge, and Stephanie Budin has cast the whole tradition of scholarship that defined the concept of sacred prostitution into doubt. Budin regards the concept of sacred prostitution as a myth—arguing that the practices described in the sources simply never existed. A more nuanced view, espoused by Pirenne-Delforge, suggests that ritual sex did exist in the Near East, but not in the Greek or Roman worlds in classical or Hellenistic times.
According to the noted Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer, kings in the ancient Near Eastern region of Sumer established their legitimacy by taking part in a ritual sexual act in the temple of the fertility goddess Ishtar every year on the tenth day of the New Year festival Akitu.'
The practice of sacred prostitution has not been substantiated in any Ancient Near Eastern cultures, despite many popular descriptions of the habit. Scholars generally believe that a form of sacred marriage ritual or hieros gamos was staged between the king of a Sumerian city-state and the High Priestess of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare, but no certain evidence has survived to prove that sexual intercourse was included. Along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers there was a temple of Eanna, meaning house of heaven in Uruk.
The temple housed priestesses of the goddess, but some modern historians say there is no evidence that they performed any kind of sexual services in any cult.
In the Code of Hammurabi
In Hammurabi's code of laws, the rights and good name of female sacred sexual priestesses were protected. The same legislation that protected married women from slander applied to them and their children. They could inherit property from their fathers, collect income from land worked by their brothers, and dispose of property. These rights have been described as extraordinary, taking into account the role of women at the time.
In the Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible uses two different words for prostitute, zonah (זנה) and kedeshah (or qedesha) (קדשה). The word zonah simply meant an ordinary prostitute or loose woman. But the word kedeshah literally means consecrated (feminine form), from the Semitic root q-d-sh (קדש) meaning holy or set apart. In spite of the cultic significance of a kedeshah to a follower of the Canaanite religion, the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that cultic prostitution had no place in Israelite or Judahite religion. Thus the Hebrew version of Deuteronomy 23:17-18 tells followers:
None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh.
You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (zonah) or the wages of a dog (kelev) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.
Stephen O. Murray writes that biblical passages ban qdeshim and link them with gods and "forms of worship detested by orthodox followers of Yahweh". Celia Brewer Sinclair has written that "the ethical demands of the covenant preclude worshiping Yahweh in licentious sexual rites (sacred sexual rites )". Male priests who engaged in (homosexual) sacred prostitution were called kadesh or qadesh (literally: male holy one); the word evolved semantically in ancient Hebrew to take on a similar meaning to sodomite. The Hebrew word kelev (dog) in the next line may also signify a male dancer or prostitute. Some scholars see the injunctions against foreign worship, including male sacred prostitution, as possibly the original cause of what would later become Judaism's condemnation of homosexuality.
In the Book of Ezekiel, Oholah and Oholibah appear as the allegorical brides of God who represent Samaria and Jerusalem. They became prostitutes in Egypt, engaging in prostitution from their youth. Ezekiel condemns both as guilty of religious and political alliance with heathen nations.
In other texts
According to the contemporary Christian writer Eusebius, the Phoenician cities of Aphaca and Heliopolis (Baalbek) continued to practise temple prostitution until the emperor Constantine closed down the rite in the 4th century AD.
Very little evidence for sacred prostitution in Palestine exists outside the Hebrew Bible. However, for corresponding Mesopotamian cultures all prostitution could be seen as sacred, because sexual acts were seen as a natural force personified in the Mesopotamian goddess. It was also the only form of economic activity in which a woman could earn a good income.
In the Greek-influenced and colonized world, "sacred prostitution" was known in Cyprus (Greek-settled since 1100 BC), Sicily (Hellenized since 750 BC), in the Kingdom of Pontus (8th century BC) and in Cappadocia (c. 330 BC hellenized).
In 2 Maccabees 6:1-4 the ‘Greek’ rulers of Jerusalem (king Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire in Anatolia, Syria and eastward) are accused of desecrating the Jerusalem Temple and calling it the temple of Olympian Zeus and bringing prostitutes (hetairai) into that Jerusalem Temple and having sex with them there:
- The Gentiles filled the temple with debauchery and revelry; they amused themselves with prostitutes and had intercourse with women even in the sacred court.
In some parts of ancient India, women competed to win the title of Nagarvadhu or "bride of the city." The most beautiful woman was chosen and was respected as a goddess. She served as a courtesan, and the price for a single night's dance was very high, within reach only for the king, the princes and the lords.
Medieval and modern India
In Tantric Buddhism, Yab-yum is the male deity in sexual union with his female consort. The symbolism is associated with Anuttarayoga tantra where the male figure is usually linked to compassion (Karuṇā) and skillful means (upāya-kauśalya), and the female partner to insight (Prajñā).
Maithuna is a Sanskrit term used in Tantra most often translated as sexual union in a ritual context. It constitutes the main part of the Grand Ritual of Tantra known as Panchamakara, Mahābhūta, and Tattva Chakra.
Maithuna refers to male-female couples and their union in the physical, sexual sense and is synonymous with kriya nishpatti (mature cleansing). Just as neither spirit nor matter by itself is effective, but both working together bring harmony, so is maithuna effective only when the union is consecrated. The couple becomes divine for the time being: the female and male are Shakti and a Shakta respectively. The scriptures warn that unless this spiritual transformation occurs, the union is carnal and sinful.
Candi Sukuh is a 15th-century Candi of Indonesia located on the western slope of Mount Lawu a sacred place for worshiping the ancestors, nature spirits and the sexual union of the fertility cults. Monuments include a standing lingga, now in the National Museum of Indonesia. The lingga statue has a dedicated inscription carved from top to bottom representing a vein followed by a chronogram date equivalent to 1440. The inscription translates "Consecration of the Holy Ganges sudhi in ... the sign of masculinity is the essence of the world."
In Southern India & eastern Indian state of Odisha, devadasi is the practice of hierodulic prostitution, with similar customary forms such as basavi, and involves dedicating pre-pubescent and young adolescent girls from villages in a ritual marriage to a deity or a temple, who then work in the temple and function as spiritual guides, dancers, and prostitutes servicing male devotees in the temple. Human Rights Watch reports claim that devadasis are forced into this service and, at least in some cases, to practice prostitution for upper-caste members.
Various state governments in India enacted laws to ban this practice both prior to India's independence and more recently. They include Bombay Devdasi Act, 1934, Devdasi (Prevention of dedication) Madras Act, 1947, Karnataka Devdasi (Prohibition of dedication) Act, 1982, and Andhra Pradesh Devdasi (Prohibition of dedication) Act, 1988. However, the tradition continues in certain regions of India, particularly the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Deuki is an ancient custom practiced in the far western regions of Nepal where a young girl is offered to the local temple to fulfill an earlier made promise to gain religious merit. The girl serves the temple as a prostitute, similar to India's devadasi tradition. The practice is in decline, but girls are still dedicated. The child of a Deuki is known as a Devi.
Mesoamerica and South America
The Maya maintained several phallic religious cults, possibly involving homosexual temple prostitution. The Aztec god Xochipili (taken from both Toltec and Maya cultures) was both the patron of homosexuals and homosexual prostitutes. The Inca sometimes dedicated young boys as temple prostitutes. The boys were dressed in girls clothing, and chiefs and headmen would have ritual homosexual intercourse with them during religious ceremonies and on holidays.
Despite claims that the Aztecs practiced widespread homosexuality and sexual deviance, there is much evidence that reveals that Aztec society was generally unaccepting of homosexual practices. Aztec society was a very conservative society that punished sexual deviance with excruciatingly painful sentences. Homosexuals had their colons ripped out forcefully. Effeminism, homosexuality, and adultery was forbidden in Aztec law (although not true for other Mesoamerican cultures). Only female prostitution was tolerated, and religious prostitution was widespread as concubines also doubled as human sacrifices.
Xochiquetzal was worshiped as goddess of sexual power, patroness of prostitutes and artisans involved in the manufacture of luxury items.
The conquistadores were horrified by the widespread acceptance of homosexuality, ephebophilia, pederasty, and pedophilia among Mesoamerican and South American peoples, and used torture, burning at the stake, mass beheadings, and other means to stamp it out both as a religious practice and social custom.
Revisionist criticism of "widespread sacred prostitution"
Recently some scholars, such as Robert A. Oden, Stephanie Lynn Budin and others, have questioned whether sacred prostitution, as an institution whereby women and men sold sex for the profit of deities and temples, ever existed. Julia Assante believes that the classical view of temple prostitution is more of a construct of the 19th-century Western European mindset than a true representation of the facts.
While there may well have been some religious prostitution in the temples of Inanna/Ishtar, Assante suggests that the concept of the 'sacred marriage' (hieros gamos) has been misunderstood. It was previously believed to have been a custom whereby the king coupled with the high priestess to represent the union of Dumuzid with Inanna (later called Ishtar). It's much more likely that these unions never occurred but were embellishments to the image of the king; hymns which praise Middle Eastern kings for coupling with the goddess Ishtar often speak of him as running 320 kilometres, offering sacrifices, feasting with the sun-god Utu, and receiving a royal crown from An, all in a single day. One scholar comments: "No one, to the best of my knowledge, has been so wooden-minded to propose that human actors played the role of Utu and An at the banquet". Not all authors are convinced, however.
Recent Western occurrences
In the 1970s and early 1980s, some religious cults practiced sacred prostitution as an instrument to recruit new converts. Among them was the alleged cult Children of God, also known as The Family, who called this practice "Flirty Fishing". They later abolished the practice due to the growing AIDS epidemic.
In Ventura County, California, Wilbur and Mary Ellen Tracy established their own temple, the Church Of The Most High Goddess, in the wake of what they described as a divine revelation. Sexual acts played a fundamental role in the church's sacred rites, which were performed by Mary Ellen Tracy herself in her assumed role of High Priestess. Local newspaper articles about the Neopagan church quickly got the attention of local law enforcement officials, and in April 1989, the Tracys' house was searched and the couple arrested on charges of pimping, pandering and prostitution. They were subsequently convicted in a trial in state court and sentenced to jail terms: Wilbur Tracy for 180 days plus a $1,000.00 fine; Mary Ellen Tracy for 90 days plus mandatory screening for STDs.
- Schulz, Matthias (2010-03-26). "Sex in the Service of Aphrodite: Did Prostitution Really Exist in the Temples of Antiquity?". Spiegel Online. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
- Stephanie Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2009); more briefly the case that there was no sacred prostitution in Greco-Roman Ephesus by S.M. Baugh (1999) http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/42/42-3/42-3-pp443-460_JETS.pdf; see also the book review by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, April 28, 2009.
- Herodotus, The Histories 1.199, tr A.D. Godley (1920)
- J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, abridged edition (1922), Chapter 31: Adonis in Cyprus; see also the more extensive treatment in the 3rd edition of The Golden Bough, volumes 5 and 6 (published 1914). Frazer's argument and citations are reproduced in slightly clearer fashion by Fernando Henriques, Prostitution and Society: a study (3 vols., London : MacGibbon & Kee, 1962-1968), vol. I, ch. 1.
- Herodotus and Strabo are the only sources mentioned by Frazer that were active prior to the 2nd century AD; his other sources include Athenaeus, pseudo-Lucian, Aelian, and the Christian church historians Sozomen and Socrates of Constantinople.
- Nagendra Kr Singh, Divine Prostitution page 6, (1997)
- Fernando Henriques, Prostitution and Society: a study (3 vols., London : MacGibbon & Kee, 1962-1968), vol. I, ch. 1.
- S.N. Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer.
- Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.55 and 3.58
- James Frazer (1922), The Golden Bough, 3e, Chapter 31: Adonis in Cyprus
- é-an-na = sanctuary ('house' + 'Heaven'[='An'] + genitive) [John Halloran's Sumerian Lexicon v. 3.0 -- see link below]
- Modern-day Warka, Biblical Erech.
- Budin, Stephanie Lynn, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity
- Assante, Julia 1998. "The kar.kid/[kh]arimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence," Ugarit-Forschungen; 30:5-96
- Assante, Julia 2003. "From Whores to Hierodules: the Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals," pp. 13-47 in Ancient Art and Its Historiography, edited A. A. Donahue and Mark D. Fullerton. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University
- Yamauchi, Edwin M. 1973. "Cultic Prostitution: a Case Study in Cultural Diffusion," pp. 213-222 in Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon, edited H. Hoffner. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Kevelaer
- The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine By Nancy Qualls-Corbett
- Associated with the corresponding verb zanah.
- Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon results for zanah (Strong's H2181), incorporating Strong's concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857)
- Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon results for qĕdeshah (Strong's H2181), incorporating Strong's Concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857).
- Also transliterated qĕdeshah, qedeshah, qědēšā ,qedashah, kadeshah, kadesha, qedesha, kdesha. A modern liturgical pronunciation would be k'deysha.
- Murray, Stephen O. (2002). Homosexualities. University of Chicago Press. p. 295.
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- Lexicon results for kelev (Strong's H3611), incorporating Strong's Concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857).
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- Kamala Devi The Eastern Way of Love, pp. 19-27, Simon & Schuster, 1977 ISBN 0-671-22448-4
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- Anti-Slavery Society. Child Hierodulic Servitude in India and Nepal
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- Mendelssohn, Kurt. Riddle of the Pyramids. Paperback ed. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1986. ISBN 0-500-27388-X; Estrada, Gabriel S. "An Aztec Two-Spirit Cosmology: Re-sounding Nahuatl Masculinities, Elders, Femininities, and Youth." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 24:2 & 3 (2003).
- Taylor, Clark L. "Legends, Syncretism, and Continuing Echoes of Homosexuality from Pre-Columbian and Colonial Mexico." In Male Homosexuality in Central and South America. Paperback ed. Stephen O. Murray, ed. San Francisco: Instituto Obregon, 1987. ISBN 0-942777-58-1
- Guerra, Francisco. The Pre-Columbian Mind. Burlington, Mass.: Academic Press, Inc., 1971. ISBN 0-12-841050-7
- Flornoy, Bertrand. The World of the Incas. Trans. by Winifred Bradford. New York: Vanguard Press, 1956; Scott, George Ryley. Phallic Worship. London, Luxor, 1966; Brundage, Burr Cartwright. Lords of Cuzco: A History and Description. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967; Murra, Victor. The Economic Organization of the Inka State. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1980. ISBN 0-89232-118-0.
- Clendinnen (1991, p.163); Miller & Taube (1993, p.190); Smith (2003, p.203)
- Robert A. Oden (1987), The Bible Without Theology: The Theological Tradition and Alternatives to It, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-06870-X. pp 131-153.
- Stephanie Lynn Budin (2008), The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-88090-4. Preview: pages 1-10. Mailing-list discussion on some classical and near-East references.
- Recent papers skeptical of cult prostitution in the Ancient Near East
- Assante, Julia. 2003. "From Whores to Hierodules: The Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals." Pp.13-47 in Ancient Art and Its Historiography. Edited by A.A. Donahue and M.D. Fullerton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- John Day (2004), Does the Old Testament Refer to Sacred Prostitution and Did it Actually Exist in Ancient Israel? in Carmel McCarthy & John F Healey (eds), Biblical and Near Eastern Essays: Studies in Honour of Kevin J. Cathcart. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 2-21
- Sweet, R. "A New Look at the 'Sacred Marriage' in Ancient Mesopotamia," in E. Robbins and S. Sandahl, eds., Corolla Torontonensis. Studies in Honour of Ronald Morton Smith (Toronto, 1994) 85-104.
- Williams, Miriam (1998). Heaven's Harlots. New York: William Morrow/ Harper Collins. p. 320. ISBN 978-0-688-17012-7.
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- Cleugh, James Oriental Orgies: an account of some erotic practices among non-Christians. London: Anthony Blond, 1968
- Hierodulic Servitude
- Stuckey, H. Johanna. "Sacred Prostitutes". MatriFocus. 2005 vol 5-1.
- Deuteronomy 23:18-19, and a discussion
- Jenin Younes (2008), Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Israel