"Woman at the Window,"
often interpreted as a prostitute, sacred or not, soliciting clients,
but actually, in all likelihood, the Mesopotamian goddess Kilili,
an associate or aspect of Inanna/Ishtar. One of many such ivory
inlays of the same motif found in Mesopotamia, but probably made
in Phoenicia/Canaan. Dated about 900 BCE. ©
S. Beaulieu, after Shepsut 1993:115.
An "improbable percentage of the population [of Mesopotamia and
Syria-Canaan] must have been either secular or religious prostitutes of
some sort," wrote Beatrice Brooks in 1941 (231).
She was drawing conclusions from the writings of predominantly male scholars
who accepted without question the concept of "sacred, cult, or temple
prostitutes." Female temple functionaries, they maintained, regularly
engaged in sexual intercourse in return for a payment to their temples.
Female devotees of Inanna/Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality
and love, were "immediately" suspect of such behavior (Assante
1998:6). Until recently, most scholars took this view for granted,
and some still do.
In the nineteenth century, scholars thought Mesopotamia to be a hotbed
of "naïve and primitive sexual freedom" (Assante
1998:5-6). Members of the then-new discipline of anthropology,
such as Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough fame, made matters
worse by presenting for readers' delectation the orgiastic rites of fertility
cults (Assante 2003:22-24; Oden 2000:136-138).
The result was a fertility-cult myth which took hold among scholars (Stuckey
2005:32-44; Assante 2003:24-25; Lambert 1992:136). A number of
ancient sources were ultimately responsible for the concept of "sacred
prostitute": the Hebrew Bible; later Greek writers like Herodotus
(ca.480-ca.425 BCE), Strabo (ca.64 BCE-19CE), and Lucian (ca.115-ca.200
CE); and early Christian churchmen. They greatly influenced later writers
(Oden 2000:140-147; Assante 1998:8; Henshaw
1994:225-228; Yamauchi 1973:216).
Herodotus reported a "wholly shameful" custom by which every
woman "once in her life" had intercourse near the temple of
Aphrodite (Ishtar) with the first stranger who threw "a silver coin"
into her lap (Herodotus 1983:121-122,I:199).
Similarly, Lucian described the punishment of women who declined to shave
their heads in mourning for Adonis: "For a single day they [had to]
stand offering their beauty for sale
[in a] market
to foreigners only, and the payment [became] an offering to Aphrodite
[Astarte]" (1976:13-15). The
Christian writers accused pagans of indulging in orgies in honor of Aphrodite,
ritual pre-marital sex, and "cult prostitution" (Oden
It is true that much ritual activity in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean
focussed on promoting the fecundity of the land. In early Mesopotamia,
for instance, the "Sacred Marriage," with its fertility focus,
could possibly have involved a "sacred prostitute."
with staff, possibly a priestess or queen. Ivory plaque carved on
both sides. Probably a furniture inset. Pupils of eyes inlaid with
glass. Megiddo, Israel. Dated about 1350-1150 BCE. ©
S. Beaulieu, after Pritchard 1969:38, Fig. 125.
Webster's English Dictionary defines a prostitute as, first, "
a woman who engages in sexual intercourse for money; whore; harlot";
a man who engages in sexual acts for money"
(1996:1553). According to one scholar,
"Cultic prostitution is a practice involving the female and at times
the male devotees of fertility deities, who presumably dedicated their
earnings to their deity." The "Sacred Marriage" rite was
one of "the motives of the practice, particularly in Mesopotamia,"
where the king had intercourse with "a temple prostitute" (Yamauchi
The assumption that "sacred prostitution"
had not only occurred, but had happened in the context of fertility cults,
resulted from the Hebrew Bible's "deliberate" association of
qedeshah, "sacred / consecrated woman," with
zonah, "prostitute"Obviously, most scholars did
not distinguish between ritual sex and sexuality for pay (Cooper
forthcoming). However, ritual sex would not have been prostitution
even if the act produced an offering for a temple (Lambert
1992:136). Rather, it would have been an act of worship.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word normally translated "sacred or cult
prostitute" is qedeshah/qedeshot (feminine
singular/ plural) and qadesh/qedeshim (masculine singular/plural).
These four titles do not occur very often in the Hebrew Bible (Henshaw
The root qdsh means "set apart, consecrated" (Brown,
Driver, and Briggs 1978 (1953):871-874).
For the most part, the terms occur in books from Deuteronomy through to
II Kings, the so-called Deuteronomistic History, which is especially nationalistic,
polemical, and denunciatory of Canaanite religion (Oden
2000:131,132; Olyan 1988:3). The assumption that "sacred prostitution"
had not only occurred, but had happened in the context of fertility cults,
resulted from the Hebrew Bible's "deliberate" association of
qedeshah, "sacred/consecrated woman," with
zonah, "prostitute" (Bird
Seated North Syrian
lady holding a goblet. Perhaps a priestess or a queen, who would
also have been a priestess as a result of her queenship. Fragment
of ivory carving found in Assyria, but probably made in Syria-Canaan.
© S. Beaulieu, after
Shepsut 1993:168, fig.62.
Thus, an important category of cult functionary called qedeshah
existed in Canaan (Henshaw 1994:235-236).
Otherwise, why would the Bible need to discredit such women? Their function
in Canaanite religion is not known, but they were "consecrated women,"
When the archives of Ugarit, an ancient Semitic-speaking city in Syria,
began to be interpreted, it quickly became evident that the religion of
Ugarit was similar to the Canaanite religion vilified in the Hebrew Bible.
Thousands of clay tablets dated to the Late Bronze Age, 1300-1200 BCE
(Astour 1981:4), were found to
contain, among other things, lists of gods, offerings, and religious functionaries
(del Olmo Lete 1999; de Tarragon 1980).
None of the priestly titles in the texts is grammatically in the feminine
gender (de Tarragon 1980:7,8,139ff.),
but they could have included women if the masculine form included the
feminine, as it used to do in English.
Lady from Mari
in northern Mesopotamia, now in Syria. Probably a priestess. Detail
of main figure in a procession depicted in white shell inlay on
slate. Found at Mari. Dated c.2600-2400 BCE. ©
S. Beaulieu, after Shepsut 1993:33, Fig. 7.
The word qdshm, "consecrated ones," designated important
functionaries: "... we find [them] listed second after the khnm
`priests' " (Henshaw 1994:222-225;
de Tarragon 1980:134,141; Yamauchi 1973:219). Qdshm had
high status, could marry and establish families, and could hold other
offices (de Tarragon 1980:141).
There is no suggestion that the ritual role of the qdshm was sexual,
nor, indeed, is there any evidence to date of "sacred prostitution"
at Ugarit (de Tarragon 1980:139,140; Yamauchi
In Mesopotamian lists, the Semitic word kharimtu, usually translated
"prostitute," was often written with, or close to, the titles
of female cultic personnel. As a result, the latter became "tainted"
by proximity (Assante 1998:11).
Thus not only qadishtu but other female cultic titles were translated
"sacred or temple prostitute" (Assante
The Mesopotamian Semitic titles which have usually been translated as
"sacred prostitute" include naditu, qadishtu,
and entu (Oden 2000:148-150; Assante
1998:9; Lambert 1992:137-141). In general, naditu priestesses were
high-status women who were expected to be chaste (Assante
1998:38-39; Henshaw 1994:192-195). At Sippar in Old Babylonian
times (ca.1880-1550 BCE), they included royal and noble women (Harris
1960:109,123ff.). There is no evidence that a naditu's duties
included ritual sex (Oden 2000:148).
The title qadishtu, "holy, consecrated, or set-apart woman,"
has the same root as the Hebrew qedeshah (Assante
1998:44-45; Henshaw 1994:207-213). After scholars have carefully
scrutinized "extensive evidence of [the qadishtu's] cultic and other
functions" (Gruber 1986:139),
it is clear that the qadishtu was no "cult prostitute" (Oden
2000:149). Indeed, it is likely that most Mesopotamian priestesses,
with one possible exception, were expected to be pure and chaste.
probably a high priestess, found in the Ishtar temple at Mari in
northern Mesopotamia. Alabaster statue. Dated c.2600-2400 BCE.
© S. Beaulieu, after
Shepsut 1993:33, Fig. 6.
The one exception might have been the entu, whom the Sumerians
called Nin.Dingir "Lady Deity" or "Lady Who Is Goddess"
(Henshaw 1994:47; Frayne 1985:14).
If the "Sacred Marriage Rite" ever involved human participants,
this priestess might, as "Inanna," have had ritual intercourse
with the king. However, the entu had very high status (Henshaw
1994:46) and, according to Mesopotamian law codes, had to adhere
to "strict ethical standards" (Hooks
1985:13). Whatever else she was, she was not a prostitute.
For a certain period, the "Sacred Marriage" was an important
fertility ritual in Mesopotamia (Frayne
1985:6). As a result of the king's participation, whatever form
it took, he became Inanna's consort, sharing "her invaluable fertility
power and potency" (Kramer 1969:57),
as well as, to some extent, her divinity and that of her bridegroom Dumuzi.
Unfortunately, no text tells us what happened in the temple's ritual bedroom,
not even whether the participants were human beings or statues (Hooks
1985:29). However, in a persuasive article, Douglas Frayne argues
that, at least in early times, the participants were human: the king and
the Nin.Dindir/entu (Frayne 1985:14).
In the "Sacred Marriage" material, the female participant is
always called Inanna (Sefati 1998:305),
so her human identity is obscured. That is not surprising, for I suspect
that, during the ritual, the only female present was Inanna. What I am
suggesting is that the Nin.Dindir/entu was a medium. Through talent
and training, she went into a trance and allowed Inanna to take over her
body. Then the goddess could actually be present during the ritual. To
a greater or lesser degree, the king could similarly have embodied the
One of a large
number of terracotta images of lovers on beds found in Mesopotamia.
Often understood as connected to the "Sacred Marriage" rite, with
the woman seen as a "sacred prostitute." Dated to the third millennium
BCE. © S. Beaulieu,
after Teubel 1984:117, Plate 19
A medium is "
a social functionary whose body only, the person's
awareness suppressed while in an ecstatic state, serves as a means for
spirits to assist and/or communicate with members of the medium's group
in a positive manner" (Paper 1995:87).
The "witch of Endor" in the Hebrew Bible (I Samuel 28:7-25)
was likely a medium, and other ancient examples include the oracular priestesses
through whom Apollo spoke at Delphi and the Maenad devotees of Dionysus
(Kraemer 1989:49). Today mediums
function in many religions: for instance, Chinese, Korean, African, and
African-Christian of the Americas (Paper
1997:95,104-107,222-226,303; Sered 1994:181-193). Interestingly,
the majority of contemporary mediums are female (Paper
Ancient Mesopotamia, like most other cultures, had its prophets and seers
(Westenholz 2004:295). A number
of them probably worked through trance. Indeed, "
religious functionaries, that is, those whose religious functioning involves
trance, are virtually ubiquitous in human cultures" (Paper
forthcoming). So it would not surprise me to discover that the
Inanna of the "Sacred Marriage" rite was actually properly named,
for the goddess was using the body of a willing and devout ecstatic and
priestess, who was certainly not a "cult prostitute." On the
contrary, she would have had extremely high status and have been deeply
revered, for she was chosen of the goddess. Finally, then, the identity
of the human female participant in the ritual is irrelevant. She was Inanna!
"Tragically," says one contemporary scholar, "scholarship
suffered from scholars being unable to imagine any cultic role for women
in antiquity that did not involve sexual intercourse" (Gruber
1986:138). However, recent scholars are fast setting the record
straight. Even if ancient priestesses were involved in ritual sex, even
if they received offerings for their temples, they were not prostitutes
but devotees worshipping their deity.
- On Herodotus's "wholly
shameful" Babylonian custom, Tikva Frymer-Kensky comments: "No cuneiform
text supports the idea that the women of Assyria or Babylon did this."
She adds that Herodotus wanted to demonstrate "the superiority of
Greeks" and, possibly, "to show the horrible results that could follow
if proper women were not kept as guarded and secluded as they were
in Greece"(Frymer-Kensky 1992:200). Significantly, late commentaries
such as that of Herodotus are the "most explicit texts describing
sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia" (Yamauchi 1973:216).
- For examples of qedeshah,
see Gen.38:21-22, Dt.23:18; of qedeshot, see Hos.4:14;
of qedesh, see Dt.23:18, 1K.22:46; of qedeshim,
see 1K.14:24, 1K.15:12, 2K.23:7 The Jewish Publication Society translation
of the Hebrew scriptures renders the female term "cult prostitute"
and "prostitute," the male term "cult prostitute" and "male prostitute"(Tanakh
- The King James Bible
translates qedeshim as "sodomites."
- Some scholars are even
questioning the translation of term zonah as meaning "common
prostitute, whore, harlot." See Assante 2003:39, note 31.
- Assante, Julia 1998. "The kar.kid/[kh]arimtu,
Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence,"
- Assante, Julia 2003. "From Whores
to Hierodules: The Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female
Sex Professionals," 13-47 in Ancient Art and Its Historiography,
edited A.A. Donahue and Mark D. Fullerton. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge
- Astour, Michael C. 1981. "Ugarit
and the Great Powers" 3-29 in Ugarit in Retrospect: Fifty
Years of Ugarit and Ugaritic, edited Gordon D. Young. Winona Lake,
- Bird, Phyllis 1989. "`To Play the
Harlot': An Inquiry into an Old Testament Metaphor," 75-94 in
Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited Peggy L. Day.
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress
- Brooks, Beatrice A. 1941. "Fertility
Cult Functionaries in the Old Testament," Journal of Biblical
- Brown, F., S.R. Driver, and C.A. Briggs,
editors 1978 (1953). A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament....
- Cooper, J. S. forthcoming. "Prostitution,"
Reallexikon der Assyriologie. 1932--. Founding eds. Erich Ebeling
and Bruno Meissner. Berlin/Leipzig: de Gruyter
- del Olmo Lete, Gregorio 1999. Canaanite
Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit. Bethesda,
- de Tarragon, Jean-Michel 1980. Le Culte
a Ugarit d'apres les textes de la pratique en cuneiformes alphabetiques.
- Frayne, Douglas 1985. "Notes on the
Sacred Marriage Rite," Bibliotheca Orientalis 42:5-22
- Frazer, James G. 1981 (1890). The Golden
Two Volumes in One. New York: Gramercy
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva 1992. In the Wake
of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation
of Pagan Myth. New York: Free
- Gruber, Mayer I. 1986. "Hebrew Qedeshah
and her Canaanite and Akkadian Cognates," Ugarit-Forschungen
- Harris, Rivkah 1960. "The Naditu
Woman," 106-135 in Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppenheim,
edited E. Reiner. Chicago: University of Chicago
- Harris, Rivkah 1961. "The Naditu
Laws of the Code of Hammurapi in Praxis," Orientalia n.s.
- Harris, Rivkah 1975. Ancient Sippar:
A Demographic Study of an Old-Babylonian City (1894-1595 B.C.).
Istanbul: Historisch-Archeologisch Institut
- Henshaw, Richard A. 1994. Female &
Male, the Cultic Personnel: The Bible and the Rest of the Ancient
Near East. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick
- Herodotus 1983. The Histories,
translated A. de Selincourt, revised A.R. Burn. New York: Penguin
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in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union
College Ph.D. dissertation, unpublished
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Hebrew Text. New York: Jewish Publication Society
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A. Falk and Rita Gross. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
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Marriage: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer.
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des Alten Orients, edited V. Haas. Konstanz: Universitatsverlag
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