Introduction to the Near East
The Near East describes the land stretching from Northern Africa to the Middle East. Mesopotamia, is a specific a region within the Near East, encompassed the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The map below depicts the geography of the ancient Near East.
Mesopotamian religion followed a pantheon of gods and goddesses that reflected the forces of nature. Important deities included Ishtar (Inanna), the goddess of war, love, fertility, and lust. The importance of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent was represented by fertility gods/goddesses. Temple priestess and sacred prostitutes were emblematic of these deities.
Temple prostitution, or sacred prostitution, refers to ritual sex used for religious purposes. Temple prostitution was common in the Near East. Both male and female prostitutes were active participants of ritual sex. High priestesses were believed to be the physical manifest of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Sacred prostitutes engaging in fertility rites encouraged the agricultural prosperity of the land, as they had the blessing of Ishtar. Payment for ritual sex was ceremonial, and complementary to the intercourse.
Read more: Lesson Plan: The Epic of Gilgamesh
A notable record of temple prostitution is the Epic of Gilgamesh. The holy prostitute, Shamhat, is sent by the god Shamash to seduce the wild man Enkidu. The priestess’s intercourse with Enkidu is an effort to civilize him.
Take a priestess, child of pleasure –
When he goes to the wells
He will embrace the priestess
And the wild beasts will reject him.
(Tablet One, The Epic of Gilgamesh)
The Sacred Marriage
“Sacred marriage” refers to the ritual union of the gods, with human participants symbolizing deities. Historians believe that sexual intercourse was involved in sacred marriages in the Near East. Kings, representing the might and justice of Mesopotamian gods, coupled with high priestesses. Often, these high-ranking priestesses were symbols of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, war, fertility, and lust. Kings could validate their rule by solidifying their bond with the physical representation of the fertility goddess. These sacred marriages sought the blessing and appeasement of Inanna. Ritual sex was believed to bring agricultural prosperity to the reigning king’s city.
Stone carvings of Inanna show a naked goddess with curved hips and breasts. The roundness of her body suggests fertility, and the ability to conceive.
Semitic people of the Near East engaged in ritual sex to appease Ba’al, the god of fertility, weather, seasons, and wind. Both male and female prostitutes were engaged in ritual sex to encourage Ba’al to ensure favorable weather conditions necessary for agriculture.
In the stone relief above, the Ba’al is shown with horns and holds a plant. The horns show the importance of the domesticity of animals, like cattle and goats. The propensity of agriculture is mirrored in the plant held in his hand. Mesopotamian people would have been eager to please a god they believed was dynamic to farming.
Human Sexuality Today
In today’s Western civilization, sex is overshadowed by negative stigmas and stereotypes. In particular, the concept of women and sex are frowned upon. Women are shamed for promiscuity, despite the prevalence of intercourse in popular media and advertising. Though the access to pornography, sexual education, and suggestive ads has increased with the advent of the internet, human sexuality is not often addressed in modern Western civilization. Today, sex workers and prostitutes are not guaranteed safety or workers’ rights by the law.
In recent years, sex workers’ rights groups, like Amnesty International, The World Health Organization, and the Global Alliance in Trafficking Against Women, have fought to ensure the basic human rights of disadvantaged sex workers. Prostitutes and adult entertainers are often victims of abuse and human trafficking. These interest groups seek the decriminalization of prostitution, in the effort to guarantee sex workers’ protection under the law, property rights, and health care. Too often, the negative connotations associated with sex jeopardize the welfare and health of women around the world. Modern society can learn from the ancient worship and acceptance of intercourse as a natural aspect of life.
- “Baalbek Temple Prostitutes and the Holy Prostitution for Baal.” Ancient Destructions. Last modified July 19, 2012. www.ancientdestruction.com/baalbek-temple-prostitutes-holy-prostitution-baal
- Barker, Melissa. “The Sacred Marriage Ritual of the Sumerians and the Kings that Practiced it.” Third Year Study, University of South Africa, 2013. www.academia.edu/6101327/Sacred_Marriage_ritual
- Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. An Illustrated Dictionary: Gods, Demons, and symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Texas: Eighth University of Texas Press, 1992.
- Murphy, Catherine. “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.” Amnesty International. Published August 14, 2015. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/