Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sacred prostitution

Sacred prostitution or temple prostitution is the practice of engaging in sexual intercourse with clients for a religious or sacred purpose. As with secular prostitution, a fee is usually charged, though in this instance a portion is remitted to the temple or to the religious authorities. A person engaged in such behavior is sometimes called a hierodule. Given the religious and cultic significance of the practice, modern connotations of the term prostitute may or may not be appropriate.

Aspects of temple prostitution have been found in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, ancient Greece, pre-Columbian America, modern India, and elsewhere. Because of the importance of the bible in our civilization, the references embedded in the Hebrew bible form the central focus of the following discussion.

We begin our discussion with a consideration of the Qedeshim or Kedeshim, the male hierodules that figure in the Hebrew bible--so often neglected in favor of their better-known female counterparts.

Let us review the facts that have been generally accepted, at least until recent years.

Qadesh (pl. qedeshim) is a Hebrew term that literally means "holy or consecrated one." Formerly rendered "sodomite" (as in the King James Version) it is more accurately translated as "male cult prostitute" in modern translations of the scriptures. It is a key term for understanding a major aspect of same-sex behavior in ancient Israel. The word occurs as a common noun at least six times (Deuteronomy 23:18, I Kings 14:24, 15:12 and 22:46, II Kings 23:7, Job 36:14). According to Warren Johansson (whose analysis in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality I follow in the succeeding paragraphs), it can also be restored on the basis of textual criticism in II Kings 23:24 (= Septuagint of II Chronicles 35:19a) and in Hosea 11:12. These passages all ostensibly designate foreigners (non-Israelites) who served as sacred prostitutes in the Kingdom of Judah, specifically within the precincts of the first Temple (ca. 950-622 B.C.).

That these men had sexual relations with other males and not with women is proven by Hosea 4:14, which castigates the males exclusively for "spending their manhood" in drunken orgies with hierodules, while their wives remained at home, alone and unsatisfied, and by the reading of Isaiah 65:3 in the Qumran manuscript: "And they (m. pl.) sucked their phalli upon the stones."

Their involvement in Canaanite polytheism, an obvious rival of the monotheistic Yahweh religion, fostered the biblical equation of homosexuality with idolatry and paganism and the exclusion of the individual engaging in homosexual activity from the "congregation of Israel," an exclusion persisting in the fundamentalist condemnation of all homosexual expression to this day.

To understand that the condemnation of the qadesh was a cultic prohibition and the self-definition of a religious community, not a moral judgment on other acts taking place outside the sphere of the sacral, it is necessary to see the qadesh or male hierodule (with the qedishah as his female counter­part) in his historical and cultural setting, as a part of Northwest Semitic religion on the territory of the Kingdom of Judah down to the reforms of King Josiah (622 B.C.). The commandments forbidding male same-sex activity on pain of death in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) were, in all likelihood, added only in the Persian period (first half of the fifth century BCE specifically). Critical scholarship generally dates the Holiness Code to the beginning of that period, but Martin Noth in his influential commentary on Leviticus (Philadelphia, 1965) ascribes this part of Leviticus to a time slightly after 520 BCE, when the new and reformed Jewish religion set about throwing off all the associations believed responsible for the catastrophe of 586, the destruction of the first Temple and the exile of the bulk of the population of Judah to Babylon. The proof of the later origin of the verses indicated above is the prophetic reading ("haphtarah") for the portion of the Torah including Leviticus 18, namely Ezekiel 22:10-11, a comparison of which shows that Ezekiel was alluding to a text which in the final years of the First Commonwealth began with Leviticus 18:7 and ended with 18:20, as if to say "You have committed every sexual sin in the book."

Derrick Sherwin Bailey, in his Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London, 1955), argued that the qedeshim "served the female worshipper.” However, it is unlikely that women were admitted to the Temple, then or later, and all parallels from the religious life of antiquity, from Cyprus to Mesopotamia, involve male homosexual connection. Designations for the male prostitute in Hebrew and Phoenician are "dog" {kelebh) and "puppy" (gar), notably in Deuteronomy 23:17, where the kelebh is set in parallel to the zonah "(female) prostitute." In Isaiah 3:4 the word ta'alullm is rendered effeminati by St. Jerome; it means "males who are sexually abused by others," = German Schandbuben. Another likely reference is Isaiah 2:6, the closing hemistich of which Jerome translated etpueris alienis adhaeserunt, while the Aramaic pseudo-Jonathan Targum euphemistically renders the text "And they walked in the ways of the gen­tiles," in which the Hebrew verb has an Arabic cognate that means "they loved tenderly." InHosea 11:12a slight emendation, together with comparison again of the Arabic meaning of the verb in the first half of the parallel, yields the meaning "And Judah is still untrue to God/but faithful to kedeshlm."

The preceding analysis, deriving from the careful work of Warren Johansson, is somewhat technical. Yet Johansson goes on to pose some more general questions.

“How could male prostitutes fit into the scheme of Northwest Semitic - specifically Canaanite - religion during the First Commonwealth? Foreign as the notion is to the modem religious consciousness, the worship of Ishtar and Tammuz was a fertility cult in which union with the hierodule consecrated to the service of the goddess was thought to have magical functions and powers. Such hierodules could be either male or female, and the singular qadesh in I Kings 14:24 is to be taken as a collective, meaning ‘hierodules as a professional caste’ who were ‘in the land,’ practicing their foreign rites. The males may even have been eunuchs, though the context of Job 36:14 ‘Their soul dieth in youth, and their life at the hierodules' age’ suggests that they were adolescent prostitutes [not unlike] the bar or street hustler of today. Furthermore, place names containing the element Kadesh, such as the one in Genesis 14:7, which also was called Enmishpat "Spring of Judgment" indicate the locales of shrines whose personnel had both erotic and mantic functions. This is independently confirmed by the glosses on the Septuagint renderings of qadesh and qedeshah in Deuteronomy 23:18.”

I turn now to the broader context, which is succinctly detailed in the Hebrew Bible itself. Deuteronomy 23:17-18 warns:

“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 (keleb) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

Here the two sacred prostitutes, male and female, are brought into parallel. Similarly, with their secular counterparts. The whole forms a perfect chiastic square.

In my view, nothing could be clearer. Nonetheless, during the last few decades several schools of revisionism have arisen that strive to deny the historicity of sacred prostitution in the ancient Middle East.

Robert A. Oden (The Bible without Theology, Urbana, 1999) holds that the concept of sacred prostitution is an invention, a kind of slander without foundation, designed to embarrass the Israelites' neighbors. This claim recalls the controversial assertion of William Arens (The Man-Eating Myth, 1980) that the ascription of cannibalism to tribal and early historical peoples is simply a manifestation of prejudice. In his view, there is no evidence supporting the widespread belief that cannibalism has been a socially accepted practice in certain cultures. Let us not mince words. Arens' claim is clearly absurd. As the years have gone by, archaeologists and anthropologists have presented masses of evidence that has surfaced showing that all around the world there have been societies in which cannibalism has been a commonplace ritual practice. Arens’s denialism seems to have been motivated by a kind of political correctness, one that seeks to deny any aspersions that might be cast on cultures that were formerly thought to be savage, but are now hailed as paragons of third-world virtue. Similar motivations seem to lie behind the denial of the reality of sacred prostitution in ancient Israel.

The most massive assault on the idea so far stems from the classical scholar Stephanie Lynn Budin in her book The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity” (Cambridge. 2008. On page one she states her thesis in peremptory fashion: "Sacred prostitution never existed in the ancient Near East or Mediterranean.”

Most reviwers are inclined to accept Budin’s contention that some of the of the texts commonly cited to refer to sacred prostitution actually do not do so. These texts may have something to do with prostitution, but not the special form of it being considered here. That is the case, it seems, with texts by Pindar, Strabo, Klearkhos, Justinus, Valerius Maximus, which Budin parses in great detail.

But so what? These texts stem from classical antiquity, where sacred prostitution has never been held to be of central importance. The key area is the ancient Middle East, and here Budin falls down. She relies on the renderings in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (published in 1969) as a point of reference. Yet this outdated publication has been replaced by other, more accurate translations, which she seems not to have consulted. She does use the standard Sumerian and Akkadian dictionaries, but cherry-picks the evidence so as to omit judgments by other scholars that terms in those languages do in fact refer to sacred prostitution.

There are more general problems. Budin narrowly defines sacred prostitution as always requiring a direct quid-pro-quo. A specified portion of the money received must be rendered to the deity. However, sacred prostitution has not always worked this way, as evidence from modern India suggests. One observer reports, for example, having encountered a male prostitute who frequented the precinct of a Hindu temple. This man suggested that sexual congress with him would partake of the sacred, but there was no question of his tithing to the temple.

Another dubious technique Budin employs is the argumentum e silentio. Because excavations and other research have not found uncontrovertible evidence, she thinks that the practice did not exist. This claim is hardly persuasive: no archaeological evidence has been found to confirm or deny the existence of Saul, David, and Solomon but most laypeople--and quite a few scholars--stubbornly continue to believe in their existence. Archaeology does not respond to questions of this kind.

Space does not permit further review of these revisionist arguments, which are proliferating. Ir is my view that, aa regards the Hebrew bible, they fail completely.

However, let us play devil's advocate. If sacred prostitution was a myth, why was it invented? The Early Christians did indeed have a motive to cast aspersions on pagan decadence. However, the revisionists (taking their cue from Edward Said) ascribe the main element in the supposed invention to 19th-century Orientalism, which ascribes strange erotic practices to the Middle Eastern “Other.”

One may acknowledge that such prejudices played some role. However. they must be set aside in a dispassionate examination of the issue. The revisionists have not done this.

What, one may ask, are the reasons underlying their insistent denial? One, I suspect, is simple prudery. It is much nicer to regard the qedeshot and qedeshim as harmless functionaries and bureaucrats than as sex workers remitting a portion of their earnings to the temple. Feminist concerns also seem to play an important role. Sex-trafficking is an ugly reality in the world today. It should be stamped out. But nothing is gained in this cause by denying historical realities.

UPDATE (Feb. 9, 2010). A friend kindly brought to my attention a review and summary of a recent book containing the papers of a conference on the subject recently held in Germany. The summary appeared in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review for 2010.02.18. The book is: Tanja S. Scheer (ed.), Tempelprostitution im Altertum: Fakten und Fiktionen. Oikumene Studien zur antiken Weltgeschichte Bd. 6. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2009. Pp. 415. ISBN 9783938032268. €59.90. It was reviewed Kathrin Kleibl (

The gathering appears to have been a summit meeting to promulgate, once again, the unconvincing revisionist view that ancient temple prostitution is simply a "myth." There has never been such a thing, ever. This faction accomplishes their vanishing act by concentrating on fringe phenomena in the Greco-Roman world, a realm that has never been regarded as the central focus of the institution, and on the dubious fantasy of Herodotus concerning women in Babylon, which does not deserve serioius consideration--except as a kind of ancient pornography.

Apparently the organizers slipped up with one guest, an Indian scholar who documented almost three millennia of sacred prostitution in the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, I witnessed this myself when I was accosted by a male sex worker in 1992 at the sacred site of Khajaraho.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know from my own studies that they had both male and female Sacred Prostitutes, - however - you said -

"That these men had sexual relations with other males and not with women is proven by Hosea 4:14,"

They did have male/male Sacred Sex, but Hosea 4:14 uses the female form, not the male. So it does not prove it.

I translate fourteen as -

Hosea 4:14 Nevertheless I will not bring charges against your daughters for their adultery/Idolatry, nor against your brides when they commit adultery/idolatry, BECAUSE you equally with them commit adultery/Idolatry, you go astray just as they, to the Qedeshah (Female Sacred Prostitutes) with offerings, and the people don't discern the decline.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know from my own studies that they had both male and female Sacred Prostitutes, - however - you said -

"That these men had sexual relations with other males and not with women is proven by Hosea 4:14,"

They did have male/male Sacred Sex, but Hosea 4:14 uses the female form, not the male. So it does not prove it.

I translate fourteen as -

Hosea 4:14 Nevertheless I will not bring charges against your daughters for their adultery/Idolatry, nor against your brides when they commit adultery/idolatry, BECAUSE you equally with them commit adultery/Idolatry, you go astray just as they, to the Qedeshah (Female Sacred Prostitutes) with offerings, and the people don't discern the decline.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

not forgetting he people involved and their contribution to the then society is a misnomer.

all things are just a thought away

12:22 AM  

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