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HIERODOULEIA . Contemporary scholarship uses the questionable expression "sacred prostitution" to refer to a sexual rite practiced in the ancient Near East. In the temples of Ishtar, Astarte, Mâ, Anahita, and Aphrodite, for example, women, often virgins, offered themselves sexually to strangers. Sometimes the temples were staffed by such "sacred prostitutes." Their actions were ritual components of the cult of the goddess in question. In ancient Greece, the word for such women was hierodoulē, or "sacred servant." The term used here, hierodouleia ("sacred service"), refers to the ritual.

This survey will exclude practices associated with such terms as bacchanalia, saturnalia, and orgy, which refer to the temporary loosening of sexual restraints that occurs frequently in many societies all over the world during certain festivals, rites of passage, and other types of religious observances. In the current state of scholarship on the topic of cultic sexual activity, it would be premature to try to establish any correlations between such practices and the more institutionalized forms of cultic sexual activity.

The present discussion is limited to the institution of hierodoulēs, as distinct from profane or exclusively commercial prostitution. The distinction between the two imposes itself on the basis of both historical and ethnographic evidence. One of the earliest existing legal written documents for the ancient Near East is the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which specifies a severe punishment for a female hierodoulē who goes to a tavern (the word tavern is considered by scholars to be synonymous with the word brothel). More than three thousand years later, the female servants-cum-courtesans (devadāsī s) of the temple of Jagannātha in Puri, Orissa (India), are forbidden still even to walk in the streets frequented by common prostitutes.

The Babylonian evidence indicates that a distinction between cultic and profane sexuality is both ancient and persistent. It is very possible that the distinction became blurred or perhaps even totally obliterated in the minds of most Westerners because in the Hebrew scriptures the term used for the cultic sexual activity of both male and female temple servantsznh, "to prostitute oneself"is also used to refer to apostasy (Hos. 2:7, 4:15; Jer. 2:20, 3:6, 3:8; Ez. 16:15, 23:3, 23:19; Is. 57:3). Sexual cultic activity became for the monotheist Yahvists synonymous with abandoning the worship of Yahveh and turning to false gods. Apostasy in the Bible is considered to be the worst of sins, hence terms referring to cultic sexual activityprostitution, harlotry, and whoredom took on extremely negative connotations.

This attitude toward cultic sexual activity seems not, however, to have always existed or to have been established easily. Authors of the Hebrew scriptures mention the existence and activity of hierodoulēs, both male (qodesh ) and female (qedushah ), even in the Temple at Jerusalem. Scholarly research has detailed the efforts of the prophets throughout the history of the ancient Israelites to oust such a custom from their midst. It seems to have been finally eradicated only after the fall of Jerusalem (586 bce) and the Babylonian exile. The eventual triumph of a monotheist Yahvistic religion took place in a polytheistic cultural environment radically different in its religious orientation. According to the Old Testament scholar Walter Kornfeld, the disappearance of this institution was of primary importance to the establishment of the Yahvistic religion. Cultic sexual activity was an essential aspect of religions that venerated a mysterious life-power manifesting itself in a cyclic manner, following the rhythms of nature, which was most often conceived of as feminine. This configuration contrasts markedly with religions that revere a single masculine god who reveals himself at specific moments in history. However, this female life power seems to have survived in altered form in the mystical Jewish tradition in the form of the Shekhinah, the female presence of God. In medieval cabalistic Jewish circles, sacred ritual sexual union between husband and wife was performed to bring about the reunification of the male aspect of God and the Shekhinah.

Some form of cultic sexual activity was practiced by temple servants of both sexes in most of the cultural areas of ancient West Asia. In Mesopotamia the earliest evidence (mostly textual) comes from Sumer, where the cult of the goddess Inanna (Ishtar) was prominent and was associated with such activity. In a hymn written about 2300 bce by the high priestess of the moon god at Ur and called the Exaltation of Inanna, that goddess is referred to as "the hierodule of An" (An was the highest god of Sumer). Other Sumerian texts show that temples to Inanna had at their service many temple prostitutes. The goddess Inanna transformed herself into the Semitic Ishtar with the Akkadian conquest of Sumer during the third millennium bce, and the women who carried out the sexual aspect of that goddess's cult were called ishtaritu. Given the characterization of Inanna as a hierodoulē, it is likely that the women temple servants were considered to be living embodiments of the goddess. Such a conjecture is reinforced by ethnographic evidence on the devadāsī s (female servants of a deity) of India.

In Puri, the devadāsī s of the temple of Jagannātha are considered to be the living embodiments of Jagannātha's wife Lakmī. Lakmī is a goddess of prosperity, abundance, and well-being, and the devadāsī s who, laden with precious ornaments, dance and sing twice daily in the temple are the visible signs of the goddess's wealth. Their sexual activity as courtesans links them to well-being, since erotic pleasure is considered one of the foremost expressions of that state. They represent the auspiciousness of the married state and embody the active sexuality of the non-widowed wife.

The textual evidence from Mesopotamia seems to point toward a similar identification between the hierodoulē and the married woman. Both wore a veil in imitation of Ishtar, who is always represented wearing a veil. In India also, both devadāsī s and married women cover their heads with the end of their sari, a gesture often described as wearing a veil. In paragraph 127 of the Code of Hammurabi, hierodoulēs are said to be protected from molestation in the same way as a married woman. Another parallel between the institution in Mesopotamia and in India is that in both, the consecrated women live in their own houses. Even though the devadāsī s are concubines of the king and the priests, they cannot be said to be part of a male establishment. They invite whom they please to their own houses. The devadāsī s, like the ishtaritu, are not supposed to procreate; they adopt girls to succeed them. In paragraph 178 and subsequently, the Code of Hammurabi speaks only of the adopted children of the temple servants. Similarly, the prosperity and abundance for which the devadāsī s stand are the general prosperity of the land and the well-being of the realm: they are specifically not meant to be fertile. The devadāsī s are well versed in the ars erotica as well as in music, dance, and literature: a wealth of textual evidence in India depicts them as often extremely well educated not only in the arts but in philosophy as well. In Indian epic literature (c. third century bcethird century ce), the courtesans embody the wealth, refinement, and culture of the prosperous and well-ruled city.

A similar role is played by a harlot in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest and most widely diffused works from ancient Mesopotamia (some of its versions date from the beginning of the second millennium bce). Gilgamesh, the ruler of the city of Uruk, abuses his people; a goddess named Aruru creates a half-man, half-animal creature named Enkidu to subdue Gilgamesh. Enkidu lives in innocence with the animals in the forest. A harlot is sent to humanize him; she makes love to him and teaches him how to behave as a human being. He is brought into the city of Uruk and eventually tames Gilgamesh, who ceases to mistreat his people. Thus the active sexuality of the prostitute results in well-being for the inhabitants of Uruk.

This story has a close parallel in the myth of yśga, in Indian literature. This sage, who had a horn on his forehead, was born of a female doe who drank the seed a sage had spilled in a pond. yśga grows up in his father's forest hermitage, eating berries and roots and never seeing other human beings. In a neighboring kingdom, a terrible drought plagues the realm because of the misconduct of the king. The king is advised that the only way to save the inhabitants from starvation is to bring yśga into the city. Only the city courtesans are able to do this. One of them cleverly seduces the horned forest dweller, introducing him not only to erotic pleasure but to cooked food, clothes, and other refinements of city life. When she and yśga enter the city, rain pours from the sky, to the great joy of the people. The active sexuality of the courtesan isas in the Mesopotamian examplethe instrument that safeguards the well-being of the king and the community.

In both stories, the courtesan represents human culture and is able to transform a semi-wild creature into a civilized human being. The similarity between the two stories may be a result of the archaeologically well-established fact of extensive contacts between ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilization of Northwest India (c. fourth to second millennium bce). Even though more than a millennium separates the end of the Indus Valley civilization from the earlier portions of the epics, scholars have traced many features of later Hindu civilization to the earlier, pre-Aryan, agrarian Indus Valley civilization. The hypothesis that temple prostitution may be one such historical continuity from the earlier period must be entertained, especially in view of the striking similarities between the ancient Mesopotamian practices and the Indian institution.

Another complex of ideas embodied in cultic sexual activity is that of the transference to the king of the fertile power of the goddess. The king, both in ancient Mesopotamia and in Hindu India, was regarded as the guarantor of the fertility of the land and its people, and in general of the prosperity and well-being of the realm. In order to carry out this function, the king had to receive this power from a woman. In ancient Mesopotamia the power was transferred through the sacred marriage (hieros gamos ) ritual, one of the most widely documented rituals for a period of over two thousand years. The earliest accounts come from Sumer in the early third millennium bce. Essentially, the rite consisted of ceremonial and public sexual intercourse between the king, representing the goddess's consort Dumuzi (the Akkadian Tammuz), and a representative of Inanna, most likely a high priestess, head of the temple hierodules. The point of the intercourse is not procreation but the assurance of abundant crops and the goddess's endorsement of the king's ability to rule.

In Puri, the king, who before the Muslim and British conquests ruled a large empire (until the second half of the sixteenth century), through the coronation ritual is symbolically infused with female generative powers. More literally, the devadāsī s, who are the living embodiments of Lakmī, infuse the king with the fertile powers of the goddess. This is accomplished in the sexual act when the woman's sexual fluids, containing her power of life (śakti ), enter the man's body via his sexual organ. In the Hindu case, the sacred marriage rite is carried out not literally but symbolically during the king's coronation and every year afterward.

Besides cultic sexual activity carried out by females, ancient Mesopotamian texts speak of male hierodoulēs who represented the goddess's consort Dumuzi. These men were eunuchs who dressed in women's clothes and engaged in cultic homosexual activity. Dumuzi and his transformations into the Phoenician/Canaanite Baal, the Syrian/Greek Adonis, the Phrygian and Lydian Attis, and the Egyptian Osiris were consorts/sons of the goddess. The Mesopotamian Inanna similarly transformed herself into the corresponding figures of Asherah, Astarte/Aphrodite, Cybele, and Isis.

Common to the mythology of these deities is the theme of the self-castration of the male god and his subsequent death and stay in the underworld, from which the goddess rescues him, bringing him back to life. The death of the god often corresponds in the myth to the barrenness of nature, whose fertility is restored by the goddess's reunion with her consort. An early Babylonian hymn likens Tammuz to plants that quickly fade. This theme is carried down through the millennia and finds expression in the Greek ritual celebrating the death of Adonis, called the Adonia, during which female courtesans sowed certain seeds in baskets that they placed on the rooftops. There the plants quickly germinated and grew in the summer heat but just as quickly faded, since their roots had no time to grow strong. These "gardens of Adonis" metaphorically represent the young god's sterility, since the plants wilt before they can bear fruit, thus echoing in concrete ritual action the mythical theme of the god's self-castration. Certain Roman authors (Servius, Ovid) report that in the Phrygian and Lydian (Asia Minor) cult of Cybele and Attis, male devotees castrated themselves during certain festivals while in a state of trance brought about by dance and music. They then became temple servants of the goddess, wore women's clothes, and engaged in cultic homosexual activity.

The cult of Cybele was brought to Rome in 204 bce by official decree. Following military difficulties with their enemy Hannibal, the Romans consulted the sibylline oracles, who admonished them to bring the image of the West Asian goddess (a black stone) to Rome. This was done with great ceremony, and the goddess was installed on the Palatine hill. Her eunuch priests, called Galli by the Romans, followed the customs of their cult of origin in Asia Minor. The cult of Cybele in Rome survived until the fifth century ce.

The interdiction against transvestism in the Hebrew scriptures (Dt. 22:5) is understood by most scholars as being part of the larger movement against fertility cults. The fact that sterile transvestite eunuchs are symbolically linked to the seasonal renewal of the earth's fertility is attested in several of the myths concerning Ishtar and Tammuz. It is also confirmed ethnographically by a similar phenomenon in India, that of the male transvestites generally known as hijra s. For these transvestites, found all over North and South India, self-castration is a caste duty (dharma). It is carried out in a ritual context: the neophyte is seated in front of a picture of the goddess Bahuchara Mata and repeats her name while the operation is being performed. This constitutes the traditional initiation into the hijra community. In the myth about this goddess, she cuts off one of her breasts, offering it in place of her body to bandits who would ravish her. By castrating themselves and dressing as women, her devotees achieve a special identification with her.

Most hijra s are homosexual prostitutes; their most important religio-cultural function is to sing and dance in houses where a male child has been born. The hijra s confer fertility, prosperity, and health on the child and its family. The hijra s' connection to the fertility of the landand not only to that of the peopleis preserved in one of the stories they tell, a story strikingly similar to that of the seduction of the ascetic yśga by a courtesan. Drought was plaguing a kingdom, and only the personal visit by the king to two hijra s visiting his city was able to bring about the rains. The parallelism between the institution of the hijras and the sacred eunuchs of the ancient eastern Mediterranean is remarkable. As in the case of the parallelism with female cultic sexual activity, the existence at some period in history of contact between the two areas cannot be excluded.

The institution of the transvestite hijras and that of the female temple courtesans exhibit the seemingly paradoxical link between sterility and general fertility. The devadasi s and, according to the available evidence, the ancient West Asian female hierodoulēs are not supposed to procreate; they adopt children but do not give birth to them. The eunuchs have sacrificed to the goddess their reproductive capacity. Their sexual activity is sterile. A study of the rituals and myths of the courtesans of the temple of Jagannatha in Puri leaves no doubt that it is their sexual activity that ensures general well-being and prosperity. The evidence concerning the hijra s and the ancient West Asian sacred eunuchs points to a similar conclusion. The sacrifice of one's reproductive capacity is symbolically akin to death; the link is particularly clear in the myths of the self-castration of Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis, which is soon followed by death. The paradox of general fertility brought about by the sexual activity of persons who have sacrificed their own fecundity may have to be understood as one symbolic expression of the widespread sacrificial theme of renewed life through death.

The ancient eastern Mediterranean/West Asian region and the Indian subcontinent are not the only areas of the world where sexual cultic activity is practiced. Unfortunately, the reports by ethnographers on the subject are rather spotty, and not enough information is available to attain a satisfactory understanding of these practices. Some form of sacred prostitution has been reported for various groups in West Africa. A. B. Ellis, in The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa (London, 1890), reports that in Dahomey the female priestesses who have been dedicated to a deity are considered to be his wives; they do not marry, and they engage in prostitution. They are known as kosi, a term derived from kono, meaning "unfruitful," since a person so dedicated and any child born to her are lost to their natal lineage and belong to the deity. These women wear a special type of dress and cover their breasts, unlike other women, a peculiarity they share with ancient Indian courtesans, the only women with covered breasts in the painted frescoes of the Ajanta caves (c. seventh and eighth centuries ce). The priestesses of the python god Dangbi are distinguished from those of other deities by having their own organization. Through a trance possession by the python god, any female can join this organization. Her person then becomes sacred and inviolate. These women live together in separate houses and are accorded great personal freedom.

Farther to the east, among the Ibo in what is today Nigeria, the earth goddess had an important shrine in the town of Nguru. Amaury Talbot noted (in Some Nigerian Fertility Cults, Oxford, 1927) that about three hundred women had been given to the shrine as virgins. They practiced cultic sexual activity, mostly with sterile men who came to the shrine to pray for increased virility. These women were not supposed to procreate; any child born to them was exposed.

Farther to the west, Ellis reports (in The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa, London, 1887) the existence of a form of sacred prostitution among the coastal tribes of what is today Ghana. The gods are served by both priests and priestesses. The priests marry, but the priestesses do not, since they are, as in India, considered to be married to the deity. These women dance, enter into trance, and prophesy. They have sexual relations with men of their own choice, who are reported to live with the priestesses for the duration of the relationship. The ethnographic record is spotty on the subject, and these African examples are probably not the only instances of institutionalized cultic sexual activity on that continent.

The presence of both transvestite males engaging in homosexual activity and of women who were sexually free has been reported for pre-Conquest Mesoamerica and for Borneo. In the capital of Teocolhuacán, on the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico, founded by descendants of the Toltec, temples had attached to them male transvestites and women who engaged in some form of cultic sexual activity. In Borneo, several groups have initiated priests and priestesses into some form of prostitution. Among the Posso-Todjo Toraja, the Olo Nyadju, the Olo Dusun, and the Kayan, most of the initiated priesthood are women. The members of the priesthood receive their ritual knowledge from spirits of the sky world. Both priests and priestesses have specialized knowledge of garden magic and of healing. Priestesses conduct the ghosts of the dead, especially those of chiefs, to the land of the dead. They also perform ceremonies concerned with house building. The priests dress as women and act as homosexual prostitutes, and the priestesses act as public prostitutes.

In addition to forms of cultic sexual activity that are practiced regularly by certain men and women, there are cases in which sexual activity is engaged in only during a certain period. The North African Awlad Nāʾil tribe descends from a famous sixteenth-century saint. The women of the tribe are priestesses of saints' shrines. At puberty they go into towns and practice prostitution until they have accumulated a satisfactory dowry. They then return to their villages and marry; no opprobrium whatsoever is attached to their method of accumulating wealth. Edmond Doutté reports (in Magie et religion dans l'Afrique du Nord, Algiers, 1908) that when the French colonial administration tried to interfere with such practices, the whole population protested vigorously, insisting that to eradicate or curtail the custom would be detrimental to the production of abundant harvests. This example could represent a historical continuity, since Augustine (City of God 2.4) reports that the Semitic mother goddess was worshiped in North Africa under the names of Astarte and Tanit. During their festival days, female devotees engaged in sacred prostitution. Similarly, Herodotus notes (1.199) that in Paphos (on Cyprus) women used to prostitute themselves in the service of Adonis/Tammuz before marrying, and Justin writes that they did this to accumulate money for a dowry.

The North African premarital exchange of sexual services for wealth is similar to a custom observed in the Palauan archipelago in the western Pacific (part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands). After attaining puberty, young girls are sent by their mothers to serve as concubines in the men's clubhouse of another village for three months to a year. In payment for their services, the men send money to the girls' families. This system of temporary prostitution generates an important network of economic exchanges between villages. The institution is also viewed as a form of magical protection for the village in which the women take up temporary residence. This is conveyed in Palau by placing on the gable of the men's house a statue of a nude female prominently displaying her genitalia. The myth explaining the origin of such a figure states that the woman was a concubine in the men's house and therefore from another village. The men from her natal village are classified as her brothers, and for them to gaze on her nakedness would be a grave sin. The men's clubhouse on which such an image is displayed is therefore protected from raids by the men from the villages of its resident female visitors.

A comparative study of institutions involving cultic sexual activity by males and females, on either a permanent or semi-permanent basis, has not been undertaken. The subject is not free from a negative bias, in all likelihood rooted in the ancient association between apostasy and cultic sexual activity.

See Also

Gender Roles; Hieros Gamos; Homosexuality; Sexuality.


A useful summary statement of research on the topic of hierodouleia is an article by Walter Kornfeld in volume 8 of the Supplément to the Dictionnaire de la Bible, entitled "Prostitution sacrée" (Paris, 1972); the article covers only the ancient eastern Mediterranean/West Asian area. In a book edited by Carl Olson entitled The Book of the Goddess Past and Present (New York, 1983), there are some excellent articles relevant to this topic; in particular, Judith Ochshorn's "Ishtar and Her Cult" (pp. 1628) deals specifically with the hierodules; Renée Salzman's "Magna Mater: Great Mother of the Roman Empire" (pp. 6067) has excellent information on Cybele's Roman cult and her eunuch priests; and Steve Davies's "The Canaanite-Hebrew Goddess" is a good introduction to the topic of goddess worship by the ancient Israelites. A general reassessment of the terms usually translated as "prostitute" (mostly "secular prostitute") in the ancient Near East is provided in Julia Assante's "The Kar. Kid/Harimtu: Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence," Ugarit-Forschungen 30 (1998): 596; and Gonzalo Rubio's "¿Vírgenes o meretrices? La prostitución sagrada en el Oriente antiguo," Gerión 17 (1999): 129148 deals more specifically with cultic prostitution in the ancient Near East. On the Greek rituals of the Adonia carried out by the courtesans of Aphrodite's temple, Marcel Détienne has written an innovative and fascinating work entitled The Gardens of Adonis (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1977).

On the Shekhinah as the female life force, see Gershom Sholem's chapter "Shekhinah: The Feminine Element in Divinity" in On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah (New York, 1991). On the sexual ritual itself see Seymour J. Cohen, ed. and trans., The Holy Letter: A Study in Jewish Sexual Morality (Northvale, N.J., 1994).

As for ethnographic studies of contemporary practices, for Eastern India see Frédérique Apffel-Marglin, Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri (Oxford, 1985). For South India, consult Saskia KersemboomStory Nityasumangali: Devadāsī Tradition in South India (Delhi, 1987). For a historical look at women's role in South Indian temples see Leslie Orr's Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu (New York and Oxford, 2000). On the reform movement in India that led to the eradication of this institution, see Kay K. Jordan, From Sacred Servant to Profane Prostitute: A History of the Changing Legal Status of the Devadāsī s in India (Delhi, 2003). For a comprehensive study of courtesans in Indian literature through the ages, one must consult Moti Chandra's The World of Courtesans (Delhi, 1973). Johann Jakob Meyer's work on women and sexuality in the epics, Sexual Life in Ancient India, 2 vols. (London, 1930), is a classic. A reliable ethnographic study of male transvestites (hijra s) in India is Serena Nanda's Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India (Belmont, Calif., 1990, 1999).

FrÉdÉrique Apffel-Marglin (1987 and 2005)