Sacred prostitution

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Sacred prostitution, temple prostitution, or religious prostitution is a sexual ritual consisting of prostitution or other sexual intercourse performed in the context of religious worship, often as a form of fertility rite.


Ancient Near East

Inanna/Ishtar depicted wearing the ceremonial headdress of the High Priestess

In the Ancient Near East along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers there were many shrines and temples or "houses of heaven" dedicated to various deities documented by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories[1] where sacred prostitution was a common practice.[2] According to Samuel Noah Kramer in The Sacred Marriage Rite, in late Sumerian history kings established their legitimacy by taking part in the ceremony in the temple for one night, on the tenth day of the New Year festival Akitu.[3] It came to an end when the emperor Constantine in the 4th century destroyed the goddess temples and replaced them with Christianity.[4] The practice is well disputed among scholars, partly due to doubts cast on the histories of Herodotus.[5]


The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was the first to state that the ancient Mesopotamians practised temple 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 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.[6]

Sacred Marriage

Sacred prostitution has not been substantiated regarding any Ancient Near Eastern cultures, despite many popular descriptions of the habit.[7] It is a general belief among scholars 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 to date there is no certain evidence 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"[8] in Uruk[9] was the greatest of these. The temple housed priestesses of the goddess, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any kind of sexual services were performed by them or other women included in any cult.[10][11][12][13]

In the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible uses two different words for prostitute, zonah (זנה)‎[14][15] and kedeshah (קדשה)‎.[16][17] The word zonah simply meant an ordinary prostitute or loose woman.[15] But the word kedeshah literally means "consecrated (feminine form)", from the Semitic root q-d-sh (קדש)‎ meaning "holy" or "set apart".[16]

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 Yahwism. Thus Deuteronomy 23:18-19 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'[18]

Celia Brewer Marshall, and Celia B. Sinclair have written that 'the ethical demands of the covenant preclude worshiping Yahweh in licentious sexual rites (sacred prostitution)"[19]

The meaning of the male form kadesh or qadesh is not entirely clear.[20] The Hebrew word kelev (dog) in the next line may also signify a male dancer or prostitute.[21]

In other texts

The Canaanite equivalent of Ishtar was Astarte, and according to the contemporary Christian writer Eusebius temple prostitution was still being carried on in the Phoenician cities of Aphaca and Heliopolis (Baalbek) until closed down by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century.[4]

In Ancient Greece, known cases of "Sacred prostitution" were in Sicily, in the Kingdom of Pontus Cyprus, in Cappadocia, and the city of Corinth where the temple of Aphrodite housed a significant number of servants at least since the classical antiquity. In 464 BC a man named Xenophon, a citizen of Corinth who was an acclaimed runner and winner of pentathlon at the Olympic Games, dedicated one hundred young girls to the temple of the goddess as a sign of thanksgiving. We know this because of a hymn which Pindar was commissioned to write (fragment 122 Snell), celebrating "the very welcoming girls, servants of Peïtho and luxurious Corinth".[22] Strabo writing during the Roman period, states that the temple had formerly, during the Greek period, hosted more than a thousand sacred slave-prostitutes (VIII, 6, 20).

In 2 Maccabees 6:1-4 the Greek rulers of Jerusalem are accused of bringing prostitutes (hetairai) into the 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 Greece

Ancient Rome

Ancient India


Loving Couple, Maithuna, Eastern Ganga dynasty, 13th century Orissa, 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).[23]

The symbolism of union and sexual polarity is a central teaching in Tantric Buddhism, especially in Tibet. The union is realized by the practitioner as a mystical experience within one's own body.[24] Yab-yum is generally understood to represent the primordial (or mystical) union of wisdom and compassion.[25]

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).[26] 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.[27]

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.[28] 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."[28]


In Southern India, devadasi is the practice of hierodulic prostitution, with similar customary forms such as basavi,[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] However, the tradition continues in certain regions of India, particularly the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.[32]

A similar practice of Kāmamudrā often involved immature girls, and was criticized as only benefiting the tulkus.[33][34][35]

In some parts of ancient India, Nagarvadhu "bride of the city" was a tradition where women competed to win the title.[36] The most beautiful woman was chosen as the Nagarvadhu and was respected like a goddess. She served as a courtesan,[37] and the price for a single night's dance was very high, within reach only for the king, the princes and the lords.


Deuki is an ancient custom practiced in the far western regions of Nepal where a young girl is offered to the local Hindu 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.[38] The practice is in decline,[39] but girls are still dedicated. The child of a Deuki is known as a Devi.

Central and South America

The Mayans maintained several phallic religious cults, possibly involving homosexual temple prostitution.[40][41] 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.[41][42][43][44] 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.[45][46]

A Marigold/tapestry depicting Ichpōchtli

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.[41]

Revisionist criticism of "widespread sacred prostitution"

Recently some scholars, such as Robert A. Oden,[48] Stephanie Lynn Budin[49] and others,[50] have questioned whether sacred prostitution, as an institution whereby women and men sold sex for the profit of deities and temples, did in fact ever actually exist at all. 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.[51] 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 in fact 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).[52] 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 also 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".[53] Not all authors are convinced, however.[52]

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.[54]

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.[55] Local newspaper articles about the Neopagan church quickly aroused 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.[56][57]

See also


  1. ^ Herodotus, The Histories 1.199, tr A.D. Godley (1920)
  2. ^ See, for example, James Frazer (1922), The Golden Bough, 3e, Chapter 31: Adonis in Cyprus
  3. ^ "Encounters In The Gigunu". Retrieved 2010-05-23. 
  4. ^ a b Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.55 and 3.58
  5. ^ Stephanie Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  6. ^ Herodotus, The Histories 1.199, tr A.D. Godley (1920)
  7. ^ James Frazer (1922), The Golden Bough, 3e, Chapter 31: Adonis in Cyprus
  8. ^ é-an-na = sanctuary ('house' + 'Heaven'[='An'] + genitive) [John Halloran's Sumerian Lexicon v. 3.0 -- see link below]
  9. ^ Modern-day Warka, Biblical Erech.
  10. ^ Budin, Stephanie Lynn, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity
  11. ^ Assante, Julia 1998. "The kar.kid/[kh]arimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence," Ugarit-Forschungen; 30:5-96
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ Associated with the corresponding verb zanah.
  15. ^ a b Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon results for zanah (Strong's H2181), incorporating Strong's concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857)
  16. ^ a b Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon results for qĕdeshah (Strong's H2181), incorporating Strong's Concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857).
  17. ^ Also transliterated qĕdeshah, qedeshah, qědēšā ,qedashah, kadeshah, kadesha, qedesha, kdesha. A modern liturgical pronunciation would be k'deysha.
  18. ^ Murray, Stephen O. (2002), Homosexualities, University of Chicago Press, p. 295, 
  19. ^ Marshall, Sinclair, Celia Brewer, Celia B, (1989), A Guide Through the Old Testament, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 71,,&hl=en&sa=X&ei=AQqoT9TTL87e8QPC26jpBA&sqi=2&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=sacred%20prostitution&f=false 
  20. ^ Anderson, Ray Sherman (2001), The shape of practical theology: empowering ministry with theological praxis, InterVarsity Press, p. 267, ISBN 978-0-8308-1559-3, 
  21. ^ Lexicon results for kelev (Strong's H3611), incorporating Strong's Concordance (1890) and Gesenius's Lexicon (1857).
  22. ^ (French) Trans. Jean-Paul Savignac for les éditions La Différence, 1990.
  23. ^ Keown, Damien. (2003). A Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 338. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860560-9.
  24. ^ Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. "Yab Yum Iconography and the Role of Women in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism." The Tibet Journal. Vol. XXII, No. 1. Spring 1997, pp. 12-34.
  25. ^ The Marriage of Wisdom and Method By Marco Pallis
  26. ^ Kamala Devi The Eastern Way of Love, pp. 19-27, Simon and Schuster, 1977 ISBN 0-671-22448-4
  27. ^ Omar Garrison Tantra: the Yoga of Sex, p. 103, Causeway Books, 1964 ISBN 0-88356-015-1
  28. ^ 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. ISBN 0-8248-2779-1. 
  29. ^ Anti-Slavery Society. Child Hierodulic Servitude in India and Nepal
  30. ^ Human Rights Watch. Caste: Asia's Hidden Apartheid
  31. ^ United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Thirty-seventh session: 15 January – 2 February 2007
  32. ^ "`Project Combat' launched to eradicate `Devadasi' system". The Hindu. 2006-01-30. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ 實地訪問不丹佛母:朱巴·基米雅
  35. ^ 藏教密宗双修真是你“古子文”这样描写的吗?
  36. ^ Spectrum lead article, The Sunday Tribune, Dec 24, 2000
  37. ^
  38. ^ Asia Sentinel: Nepal: Girls First, Goddesses Later
  39. ^ Anti-Slavery Society: Child Hierodulic Servitude in India and Nepal
  40. ^ 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
  41. ^ a b c Greenberg, David. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. ISBN 0-226-30628-3
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ 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).
  44. ^ 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
  45. ^ Guerra, Francisco. The Pre-Columbian Mind. Burlington, Mass.: Academic Press, Inc., 1971. ISBN 0-12-841050-7
  46. ^ 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.
  47. ^ Clendinnen (1991, p.163); Miller & Taube (1993, p.190); Smith (2003, p.203)
  48. ^ 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.
  49. ^ 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.
  50. ^ Recent papers skeptical of cult prostitution in the Ancient Near East
  51. ^ 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
  52. ^ 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
  53. ^ 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.
  54. ^ Williams, Miriam (1998). Heaven's Harlots. New York: William Morrow/ Harper Collins. p. 320. ISBN 978-0-688-17012-7. 
  55. ^ Weekly World News article about Wilbur and Mary Ellen Tracy, with photograph of subjects
  56. ^ New York Times: "Religion Based On Sex Gets A Judicial Review," May 2, 1990
  57. ^ Star-News, December 25, 1991

Further reading

External links