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Sacred prostitution

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Sacred prostitution

Sacred prostitution, temple 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; however, more recent scholarship has cast doubts on this picture, based on doubts about the reliability of ancient sources.[1]

Some scholars prefer the term "sacred sex" to sacred prostitution, in cases where a payment for services was not involved. The Greek term hierodoulos or "hierodule" has sometimes been taken to mean "sacred prostitute", but it is more likely to refer to a former slave freed from slavery in order to be "dedicated" to a god.[1] The Hebrew term qedesha, is often translated as "temple prostitute".

Ancient Near East

Inanna/Ishtar depicted wearing the ceremonial headdress of the high priestess

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 prostitution:

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” (that is the Assyrian name for Aphrodite). 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.[2]

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 prostitution. The British anthropologist James Frazer accumulated citations to prove this in a chapter of his magnum opus The Golden Bough (1890-1915),[3] 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.[4] This raises questions as to whether the phenomenon of temple prostitution can be generalized to the whole of the ancient world, as earlier scholars typically did.

The research of Daniel Arnaud, Vincienne Pirenne-Delforge, and Stephanie Budin[1] 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.[1]

Tradition distinguished two major forms of sacred prostitution: temporary prostitution of unwed girls (with variants such as dowry-prostitution, or as public defloration of a bride), and lifelong prostitution.[5]

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.[6]'

The Roman emperor Constantine closed down a number of temples to Venus or similar deities in the 4th century AD, as the Christian church historian Eusebius proudly noted.[7]

Sacred marriage

The practice of sacred prostitution has not been substantiated in any Ancient Near Eastern cultures, despite many popular descriptions of the habit.[8] 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 were many shrines and temples dedicated to Inanna. The temple of Eanna, meaning "house of heaven"[9] in Uruk[10] was the greatest of these.

The temple housed priestesses of the goddess, but there is no evidence whatsoever that they or any other women performed any kind of sexual services in any cult.[11][12][13][14]

In the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible uses two different words for prostitute, zonah (זנה)‎[15][16] and kedeshah (or qedesha) (קדשה)‎.[17][18] The word zonah simply meant an ordinary prostitute or "loose woman".[16] But the word kedeshah literally means "consecrated" (feminine form), from the Semitic root q-d-sh (קדש)‎ meaning "holy" or "set apart".[17]

Whatever 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 Judaism. 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".[19] Celia Brewer Sinclair has written that "the ethical demands of the covenant preclude worshiping Yahweh in licentious sexual rites (sacred prostitution)".[20] 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".[21] The Hebrew word kelev (dog) in the next line may also signify a male dancer or prostitute.[22] 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.[21]

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.[23]

In other texts

The Akkadian counterpart of Inanna was Ishtar, and the Canaanite equivalent was Astarte, whom the Greeks accepted under the name of Aphrodite. The Roman equivalent was Venus.

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.[7]

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, sacred prostitution was known in the city of Corinth where the temple of Aphrodite employed a significant number of female servants, hetairai, during classical antiquity.

Hellenized world

In the Greek-influenced and -colonized world, "sacred prostitution" was known in Cyprus (Greek-settled since 1100 BC), Sicily (hellenized since 750 BCE), 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.

Ancient Rome

Ancient India

In some parts of ancient India, women competed to win the title of Nagarvadhu or "bride of the city."[24] The most beautiful woman was chosen and was respected as a goddess. She served as a courtesan,[25] 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


Loving Couple, Maithuna, Eastern Ganga dynasty, 13th century, Odisha, 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).[26]

A relief of yonilingam on the floor of the Candi Sukuh entrance

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, Panchatattva, 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).[27] 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: she is Shakti and he is a Shakta. The scriptures warn that unless this spiritual transformation occurs, the union is carnal and sinful.[28]

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.[29] 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."[29]


In Southern India, devadasi is the practice of hierodulic prostitution, with similar customary forms such as basavi,[30] 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.[31]

Various state governments in India have enacted laws to ban this practice prior to India's independence and since. 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.[32] However, the tradition continues in certain regions of India, particularly the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.[33]

A similar practice of Kāmamudrā often involved immature girls, and was criticized as only benefiting the tulkus.[34][35][36]


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.[37] The practice is in decline,[38] but girls are still dedicated. The child of a Deuki is known as a Devi.

Central and South America

This image from the Ichpōchtli, goddess of love, marriage, flowers, art, music, women, magic, spinning, fertility, sex, weaving, and changes.

The Mayans maintained several phallic religious cults, possibly involving homosexual temple prostitution.[39][40] Aztec religious leaders were heterosexually celibate and engaged in homosexuality with one another as a religious practice, temple idols were often depicted engaging in homosexuality, and the god Xochipili (taken from both Toltec and Mayan cultures) was both the patron of homosexuals and homosexual prostitutes.[40][41][42][43] 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.[44][45]

Xochiquetzal was worshiped as goddess of sexual power, patroness of prostitutes and artisans involved in the manufacture of luxury items.[46]

The conquistadores were horrified by the widespread acceptance of homosexuality, ephebophilia, pederasty, and pedophilia among Central 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.[40]

Revisionist criticism of "widespread sacred prostitution"

Recently some scholars, such as Robert A. Oden,[47] Stephanie Lynn Budin[48] and others,[49] 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.[50]

While there may well have been some religious prostitution centred around 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).[51] 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".[52] Not all authors are convinced, however.[51]

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.[53]

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.[54] 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.[55][56]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Stephanie Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2009); see also the book review by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, April 28, 2009.
  2. ^ Herodotus, The Histories 1.199, tr A.D. Godley (1920)
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Fernando Henriques, Prostitution and Society: a study (3 vols., London : MacGibbon & Kee, 1962-1968), vol. I, ch. 1.
  6. ^ S.N. Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite: Aspects of Faith, Myth and Ritual in Ancient Sumer.
  7. ^ a b Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.55 and 3.58
  8. ^ James Frazer (1922), The Golden Bough, 3e, Chapter 31: Adonis in Cyprus
  9. ^ é-an-na = sanctuary ('house' + 'Heaven'[='An'] + genitive) [John Halloran's Sumerian Lexicon v. 3.0 -- see link below]
  10. ^ Modern-day Warka, Biblical Erech.
  11. ^ Budin, Stephanie Lynn, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity
  12. ^ Assante, Julia 1998. "The kar.kid/[kh]arimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence," Ugarit-Forschungen; 30:5-96
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ Associated with the corresponding verb zanah.
  16. ^ a b Blue Letter Bible, (Strong's H2181)zanahLexicon results for , incorporating Strong's concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857)
  17. ^ a b Blue Letter Bible, (Strong's H2181)qĕdeshahLexicon results for , incorporating Strong's Concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857).
  18. ^ Also transliterated qĕdeshah, qedeshah, qědēšā ,qedashah, kadeshah, kadesha, qedesha, kdesha. A modern liturgical pronunciation would be k'deysha.
  19. ^ Murray, Stephen O. (2002). Homosexualities. University of Chicago Press. p. 295. 
  20. ^ Sinclair, Mashal; Brewer, Celia (1989). A Guide Through the Old Testament. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 71. 
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ (Strong's H3611)kelevLexicon results for , incorporating Strong's Concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857).
  23. ^ Oholibah
  24. ^ Spectrum lead article, The Sunday Tribune, Dec 24, 2000
  25. ^
  26. ^ Keown, Damien. (2003). A Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 338. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860560-9.
  27. ^ Kamala Devi The Eastern Way of Love, pp. 19-27, Simon and Schuster, 1977 ISBN 0-671-22448-4
  28. ^ Omar Garrison Tantra: the Yoga of Sex, p. 103, Causeway Books, 1964 ISBN 0-88356-015-1
  29. ^ a b Ann Rasmussen Kinney, Marijke J. Klokke and Lydia Kieven (2003). Worshiping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java. University of Hawaii Press.  
  30. ^ Anti-Slavery Society. Child Hierodulic Servitude in India and Nepal
  31. ^ Human Rights Watch. Caste: Asia's Hidden Apartheid
  32. ^ United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Thirty-seventh session: 15 January – 2 February 2007
  33. ^ "`Project Combat' launched to eradicate `Devadasi' system". The Hindu. 2006-01-30. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  34. ^ Jack Kornfield. (2000). After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path Bantam Dell Pub Group, New York, ISBN 978-0-553-10290-1.
  35. ^ 實地訪問不丹佛母:朱巴·基米雅
  36. ^ 藏教密宗双修真是你“古子文”这样描写的吗?
  37. ^ Asia Sentinel: Nepal: Girls First, Goddesses Later
  38. ^ Anti-Slavery Society: Child Hierodulic Servitude in India and Nepal
  39. ^ Thompson, John Eric Sidney. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. 2d ed. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8061-0301-9
  40. ^ a b c Greenberg, David. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. ISBN 0-226-30628-3
  41. ^ Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Library Reprints, 2008. ISBN 1-4227-8345-6; Trexler, Richard C. Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Paperback ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8014-8482-0; Keen, Benjamin. The Aztec Image in Western Thought. Paperback ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8135-1572-6; Idell, Albert. The Bernal Diaz Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
  42. ^ 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).
  43. ^ 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
  44. ^ Guerra, Francisco. The Pre-Columbian Mind. Burlington, Mass.: Academic Press, Inc., 1971. ISBN 0-12-841050-7
  45. ^ 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.
  46. ^ Clendinnen (1991, p.163); Miller & Taube (1993, p.190); Smith (2003, p.203)
  47. ^ 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.
  48. ^ 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.
  49. ^ Recent papers skeptical of cult prostitution in the Ancient Near East
  50. ^ 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
  51. ^ a b 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
  52. ^ 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.
  53. ^ Williams, Miriam (1998). Heaven's Harlots. New York: William Morrow/ Harper Collins. p. 320.  
  54. ^ article about Wilbur and Mary Ellen Tracy, with photograph of subjectsWeekly World News
  55. ^ New York Times: "Religion Based On Sex Gets A Judicial Review," May 2, 1990
  56. ^ Star-News, December 25, 1991

Further reading

  • Henriques, Fernando, Prostitution and Society, 3 vols. (London : MacGibbon & Kee, 1962-1968), vol. I: "Primitive, Classical and Oriental".
  • Cleugh, James Oriental Orgies: an account of some erotic practices among non-Christians. London: Anthony Blond, 1968

External links

  • 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
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