Sacred sex and temple prostitution

I was planning to write about this myself some time, but Mary Harrsch has done such a great job that you should read her excellent summary on whether sacred sex was practiced in ancient times.

Sacred sex is the idea that some temples - invariably dedicated to Aphrodite or the local equivalent - had in-house prostitutes whose service was considered part of the worship. Whether it ever actually happened is very controversial.

I have no choice but to form a definite opinion because I must describe these temples in my books! Particularly the Artemision at Ephesus which appears in the second book, and for which there's a claim of temple prostitution. (And my view is there wasn't.)

Most mention of this subject comes with the sound of ideological axes grinding in the background. Which makes Mary's article so valuable, because it's actually even handed.


Arlee Bird said...

I suppose I could certainly image sex as an integral part of certain religions, but in the sense of prostitution I don't know. Any thing is possible.

Arlee Bird from the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge

Gary Corby said...

Hi arlee,

The canonical example is in Herodotus, where he says that at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon they had the shameful custom by which every woman, once in her life, was required to have intercourse with the first stranger who threw "a silver coin" into her lap. The money went to the temple.

Whether this is true is very doubtful for classical times.

Loretta Ross said...

Not that this says anything about classical times, but doesn't the Epic of Gilgamesh mention temple prostitution? In the first tablet, I think? Enkidu was seduced by a temple prostitute as the first step towards civilizing him.

I remember reading and being very impressed by Robert Silverberg's novel, which I guess was called "Gilgamesh The King", though I swear I remember it being "I, Gilgamesh" It's interesting to me as one of the earliest "Buddy Story" prototypes.

Gary Corby said...

It does indeed, Loretta!

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest books in the world, written about 4,000 years ago and set in ancient Mesopotamia. Temple prostitution appears in the epic. In fact, the plot for the first third of the epic doesn't work unless there are temple prostitutes. Case closed for bronze age Mesopotamia.

Herodotus is the one who makes the famous claim for temple prostitutes in Babylon in his own time. But by then, the religion of the Persian lords around Babylon was Zoroastrianism, and it's extremely unlikely that the highly moral Zoroastrians would have tolerated temple prostitutes anywhere near them.

My personal theory, unsupported by anything, is that Herodotus was aware of some fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which he reported as contemporary truth.

Loretta Ross said...

Your theory makes a great deal of sense. Might there also have been an element of propaganda involved?

I do wonder, though. While Herodotus clearly felt that temple prostitution was immoral, would the Greeks of several centuries before his time have agreed? Their sexual mores were decidedly different from ours.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta. I expect you're right about the propaganda.

Except for Corinth (and even that sole example raises the blood pressure of some moderns), there is zilch evidence that the Greeks at any time practiced sacred prostitution.

The Greek position was certainly very different to ours! They saw nothing wrong with prostitution per se. What I think Herodotus found shameful was the forced prostitution of citizens. But with slaves, that's like, obviously okay.

skepticlawyer said...

I always got the impression that the rites attached to Cybele in the Roman world were very similar to the Devadasi system that was prevalent in pre-Islamic India. Devadasi women still exist, but their traditional high status within Indian society has been undermined by the two 'missionary monotheisms', Christianity and Islam.

However, when reading about Cybele (or the Devadasi), the picture didn't come across to me as one of prostitution, but of religiously sanctioned activity where people of both sexes could engage in 'approved' sex with a non-spouse for 'release' (within the temple grounds, which gives a clue as to where the prostitution stories started). Everyone involved was a citizen (or relatively high status), and after they'd worked it out of their system, they went back to their normal position in society. Anthropologists refer to this kind of thing as 'entering the liminal state', and it seems to be widespread in non-monotheistic cultures.

Ramsay Macmullen (in one of his studies of Christian persecution of paganism) points out that the early Christians particularly hated Cybele; this cultural practice would explain why. The Muslims and British flipped their wigs when they encountered it in South India in the 15th and 18th century respectively, in large part because the women maintained their high status within Roman/Indian society.

Just goes to show that before we started importing religion from the Middle East, we were all Indo-European...

Gary Corby said...

Thank you, skepticlawyer! That was incredibly educational because I'd never before heard of the Devadasi system.

Now that I have, it does seem similar to how I personally imagine the ancient Babylonian system might have worked. How very cool!

And you're right, we were all Indo-European back in the good old says...