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"Sacred Prostitutes"

"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).[1] 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 … open 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 2000:142-144).

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."

Canaanite dignitary 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"; second, "… 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 1973:213).

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 1994:218-221).[2] The root qdsh means "set apart, consecrated" (Brown, Driver, and Briggs 1978 (1953):871-874).[3] 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 1989:76).[4]

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," probably priestesses.

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 1973:219).

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 2003:32).

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.

Enthroned lady, 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 god Dumuzi.

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 1997:95).

Ancient Mesopotamia, like most other cultures, had its prophets and seers (Westenholz 2004:295). A number of them probably worked through trance. Indeed, "… ecstatic 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.


  1. 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).
  2. 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 1988).
  3. The King James Bible translates qedeshim as "sodomites."
  4. 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," Ugarit-Forschungen 30:5-96
  • 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 University
  • 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, IN: Eisenbrauns
  • 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 Literature 60:227-253
  • Brown, F., S.R. Driver, and C.A. Briggs, editors 1978 (1953). A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament.... Oxford: Clarendon
  • Cooper, J. S. forthcoming. "Prostitution," Reallexikon der Assyriologie. 1932--. Founding eds. Erich Ebeling and Bruno Meissner. Berlin/Leipzig: de Gruyter
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  • de Tarragon, Jean-Michel 1980. Le Culte a Ugarit d'apres les textes de la pratique en cuneiformes alphabetiques. Paris: Gabalda
  • Frayne, Douglas 1985. "Notes on the Sacred Marriage Rite," Bibliotheca Orientalis 42:5-22
  • Frazer, James G. 1981 (1890). The Golden Bough… 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 18:133-148
  • Harris, Rivkah 1960. "The Naditu Woman," 106-135 in Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppenheim, edited E. Reiner. Chicago: University of Chicago
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  • Yamauchi, Edwin M. 1973. "Cultic Prostitution: A Case Study in Cultural Diffusion," 213-222 in Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon, edited H. Hoffner. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Kevelaer

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