The "ugliest custom" in Babylon, the historian Herodotus wrote (who is believed to have lived between circa 490 to 425 B.C.), was the widespread practice of prostitution in the Temple of Ishtar. Once in their lifetimes, all women in the country were required to sit in the temple and "expose themselves to a stranger" in return for money.
"Rich and haughty" women, the ancient Greek historian railed, arrived in "covered chariots."
The Persians on the Black Sea were apparently involved in similarly nefarious activities. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, "virgin daughters," hardly 12 years old, were dedicated to cult prostitution. "They treat their lovers with such friendliness that they even entertain them."
There are many such reports from classical antiquity. Tribes from Sicily to Thebes are believed to have indulged in perverse religious customs.
The Jews were also involved in such practices. There are about a dozen passages in the Old Testament that revolve around "Qadeshes," a word for female and male cult practitioners. The Bible calls them "lemans" and "catamites." In the Fifth Book of Moses, male prostitutes are prohibited from donating their "dogs' money" to the House of Yahweh.
Twentieth-century researchers eagerly seized on the references, which were often mysterious. Soon it was considered a fact that priests in the Eastern World performed forced defloration. It was said that there was "dowry prostitution" and "sexual copulation at the cult site."
Temple sex, according to the "Encyclopedia of Theology and the Church," was a "moral and hygienic plague spot on the body of the people."
But is this true? More and more academics are now questioning the erotic fables of the ancients.
Were Erotic Tales Exaggerated?
Newly discovered cuneiform tablets paint a more defused picture, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the academics of earlier decades exaggerated the subject. For example, there is not a single piece of evidence proving that the ritual of forced defloration existed.
A fraction of female gender researchers take a more radical view. They dispute holy prostitution altogether, calling the whole thing a pack of lies.
According to a new book on the subject, it all began when a few Greek writers concocted defamatory, dirty customs about foreign peoples, as evidence of their moral "damnability." In the modern age, the author writes, this filth developed into a "research myth."
Julia Assante, an American scholar of the ancient Orient and the leader of the movement, is convinced that sacred whores are merely products of "male fantasy."
But for moderate scholars, this interpretation goes too far. Although they also question some of the overblown academic opinions of the past, they insist that the phenomenon existed. They believe that there were once:
- Temples that operated brothels on the side;
- Temples in which girls held the highest offices of the priesthood, even before their first menstruation;
- Professional harlots who donated their own money to cult sites, such as a site devoted to the goddess "Aphrodite Porne."
A bitter debate is unfolding, as Assyriologists with feminist leanings squabble with old-school professors. While the former consistently denounce the theories of temple prostitution as nothing but lies, the latter, citing Sumerian grammar, seek to defend their supposedly "patriarchal perspective."
Street Prostitution in Ancient Times
There is, however, agreement on the subject of ordinary street prostitution in ancient times. Wearing garish makeup and yellow shawls, the whores of Athens advertised their charms at the foot of the Acropolis. Special "flute girls" offered to play the aulos for their customers before boldly getting down to business.
Rome's street prostitutes charged four aces (the equivalent of about 10, or $14). Messalina, a famous call girl, became empress when she married the Emperor Claudius.