©2019 by Kaytlin Bailey and Justine McLellan. 

  • Justine McLellan

Ishtar, the Whore-Goddess

Updated: Feb 5, 2019


The practice of sacred sex appears to have occurred all over the ancient world. In Syria, women sold either their hair or their bodies to serve a the goddess Astatare. In Carthage, penniless girls worked in the temple to save up for a dowry. In Lydia, a Greek inscription found at Tralles, shows that the practice of religious prostitution survived as late as the second century of our era. It records that a woman, Aurelia Aemilia, served God by selling her body in a temple, and that her mother and other female ancestors had done the same before her. This story was engraved on a marble column on a sacred temple, and reveals that no stigma was attached to the practice. In Armenia, the noblest families dedicated their daughters to the service of the goddess Anaitis in her temple at Acilisena, where they acted as prostitutes before they were given in marriage.


In Mesopotamia, Ishtar was worshipped as the goddess of fertility, war, love, desire, and prostitutes. Her son, with whom she had a volatile and incestuous relationship, represented the seasonal harvest cycle. She was thought to be born a virgin each morning, and laid down a whore every night.


Some scholars believe that prostitution was “invented” in the temples of Ishtar, or The Whore of Babylon, as the goddess explicitly encouraged sex work both inside and outside her temples. However, like hunting or fruit picking, trading sex for something of value predates us as a species.


Many cultures throughout human history have developed fertility rituals that symbolically married agriculture with shepherding during harvest. The earliest texts describing these rites dates to 2800 BC. Ishtar, the goddess of agriculture, was played the high priestesses in their temple, and kings would enact the role of the shepherd. They would then copulate to celebrate the sexual process that brought both grain and people into being. Thanks to this celebration of the fertility of the womb, the fecundity of the earth would be secured.

This ceremony was only one of many sacred sex acts happening in Ishtar’s temples. The majority of her priestesses, holy women who at times had paid sex to serve the goddess, were also considered mystical therapists, healers, and helpers of men with sexual issues. Priestesses did not engage in quick tricks but rather ritualistic ceremonies, sacred sexual procedures. Some sources claim that it was expected of every woman in Babylon to, at least once in her life, sleep with a stranger at the temple as a prostitute and donate the money she earned to the temple. According to Herodotus, most Babylonian women lost their virginity this way.


He claims that women from all social classes spent time as sacred sex workers before their marriages. While this did not disqualify them from being considered marriageable, Babylonian laws distinguished priestess prostitutes from the harimtu, free prostitutes who worked outside the temple. The former were able to wed after their stint at the temple, while the Harimtu were legally prohibited from getting married. However, both groups were recognized as servants of the goddess of love.


Ever the equalitarian, Ishtar was the deity of all prostitutes: both priestesses and harimtu. She was rumored to enjoy showing up at the tawdriest taverns to befriend the poorest sex workers, announcing that they mirrored her own divine nature.

Not unlike the courtesans of 17th century Venice [Link to Veronica Franco Article], aristocratic temple priestesses had more freedom than their married civilian counterparts. For example, priestesses had the legal right to own both property and slaves, while civilian women were property commanded by their husband. Fathers even had the authority to decide if their daughters were to get married, sold as slaves, or sent to the temple.


If a girl was sent to the temple, she learned to sing, dance, and honor the deity. The temples accomplished much more than fertility rites; not unlike the Christian convents of Europe that would appear thousands of years later, they also served as schools and residences. However, unlike Christian convents, Ishtar temples were centers of knowledge concerning reproduction and sexuality; priestesses were the nurses and sacred sex therapists of these early societies.


Temples also served as banks, civic centers and markets. Thanks to the ancient world being economically and socially oriented around temples, priestesses were very powerful. They even loaned money; a priestess at Ishtar’s temple in Lydia is said to have loaned King Croesus the initial funds that led to him accumulate his legendary wealth.


The temples of Ishtar employed sacred prostitutes who, it was believed, had a civilizing effect on men coming from war. In the 4,000-year-old epic Tale of Gilgamesh, a wild man raised by animals named Endkidu spent six days and seven nights with a harlot, Shamhat. She taught him, amongst other things, table manners, personal hygiene, how to show tenderness and feel compassion. According to Rivkah Harris, “the intermediate role of the prostitute in transforming Enkidu from one at home with nature and wild animals into a human being is crucial.” As prostitution was a “a prime representative of urban life,” it was only logical that a sex worker would have the skill set to educate the wild man into how to engage with humans.


Roman emperor Constantine destroyed Ishtar’s temples, abolished sacred whores, and built Christian churches in their place, because he believed that they posed a threat to civil tranquility or morality.



SOURCES


Nils Johan Ringdal's "Love for Sale; A World History of Prostitution"


Raine Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future


Jane McGrath and Candace Keener's "Mesopotamia: The First Civilization"


Zac Fanni's "A History Of Prostitution: How Old Is The Sex Trade?"


History on the Net's "Sacred Marriage and Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia"


Miriam Wasser's "The Trouble With Sex: Why Phoenix Goddess Temple Founder Insists She's a Priestess, Not a Prostitute"


Maggie McNeil's "Whore Goddesses"