A rite or form of worship connected with certain fertility cults. It is first attested historically for ancient Babylonia, where it appears in a fully developed form in the Code of Hammurabi and is assumed as a traditional institution in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The practice is to be explained as an act of acknowledgment for the blessings of fertility to the great Mother Goddess or Goddess of Love and as an expression of a desire for their continuance. It is necessary to distinguish two forms of sacred prostitution. Every Babylonian woman was expected before marriage to serve at least once as a prostitute in a temple. After fulfilling this obligation, she was free to return home and was held in esteem for having offered her virginity to the goddess. The more typical prostitutes were the hierodules who engaged more or less permanently in their profession within the temple precincts and whose earnings were a source of temple revenue. However, their service was regarded as an essential part of the cult.
Imitative magic was combined with religion in this fertility cult and was evident especially in the annual sacred marriage between the king or high priest and a priestess. The priestess, however, should not be identified with the ordinary hierodules; she had a special status. This marriage was intended to symbolize in a realistic way, and to guarantee, the reawakening of the great cosmic forces of nature and their promotion of fertility in plants, animals, and men.
Sacred prostitution had a wide distribution in the area influenced by Babylonian civilization, in Canaanite religion, in Egyptian religion, in the cult of the Great Mother of Asia Minor, and in the cult of Aphrodite at Corinth. Male prostitution of this kind is also found, but to a rather limited degree. There is a survival of sacred prostitution connected with certain temples in modern India.
Bibliography: b. thum, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 3:1041–42. w. von soden, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 5:642–643. d. g. hogarth and g. a. barton, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 1908–27) 6:672–676. w. j. woohdouse and w. crooke, ibid. 10: 404–408.
[m. r. p. mcguire]