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Jews and Sacred Prostitution in Ancient

The concept of sacred prostitution is an old one and the idea of institutionalized sacred
prostitution is derived from the translation of Greek, Roman and jewish texts in particular.
Sacred prostitution is very simply when female followers of a cult or religion are required; by
virtue of that belonging to that following, to prostitute themselves for a specified period of time
or until a certain object has been attained.

We should be clear however that sacred prostitution very specifically means that money changes
hands for the sexual intercourse whether it is or is not a nominal sum (the proceeds naturally
went to the cult or religion concerned). Another point we should make clear is that sacred
prostitution is not the same thing as ritual sex. Ritual sex is specifically sex performed as part of
a religious ritual and is not paid for. (1) Sacred prostitution is sex that is part of a religious ritual
that is actually paid for. (2)

Having got the troublesome matter of specifying the difference between sacred prostitution and
ritual sex out of the way. We can turn to the matter of jewish involvement with it. Interestingly
enough jews have long been associated with the practice in popular literature as one popular
author on the subject of the occult shows in his barely concealed longing to meet sacred jewish
prostitutes (3) although even he has to admit there were others besides jewesses involved. (4)

There has also been a significant amount of skepticism in academia as of the last decade or so
about the concept of the sacred prostitute. Stephanie Budin among others has been highly critical
of the concept and has argued extensively that it relies on the mistranslation of various different
terms due to confirmation bias. (5) Budin's argument is solid enough, but it ignores the fact that
we know without dispute that ritual sex occurred in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria and

It is difficult to believe that this element of ritual sex was not exploited by the priesthoods
concerned to act as a revenue stream into their own coffers, especially when we consider that
psychoactive substances appear to have been a major element of ancient and classical religious
experience (implying the generally sensual empirical basis of ancient and classical religion
incidentally). Budin rightly suggests that sacred prostitution was not as widespread as has often
been asserted (which is common sense really), but it is equally absurd to suggest that sacred
prostitution is a myth precisely because several sources do refer to sacred prostitution per se as
being an activity undertaken in some cultic and religious contexts.

For our purposes however it is enough to state that the heartland of sacred prostitution has
always been considered to be Syria and Palestine with the practice having started in
Mesopotamia. (6) It should also be stated that according to Eusebius of Caesarea (among others):
the practice of sacred prostitution was still being maintained in Syria and Palestine till the fourth
century AD. (7)

The evidence that defines the practice among the jews is found primarily in the Tanakh and a
single other documentary source: the Letter of Jeremiah (which is sometimes included in the
book of Baruch as its last chapter).

The book of Deuteronomy in the Torah tells us that:

'There shall be no cult prostitute of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute
of the sons of Israel. You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a male prostitute,
into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow; for both of these are an
abomination to the Lord your God.' (8)

While in the second book of Kings in the Tanakh we are told that:

'And he [Hilkiah] broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of
the Lord, where the women wove hangings for Asherah.' (9)

The Letter of Jeremiah also relates thus:

'And the women, surrounded by cords, sit in the streets burning bran. Whenever someone of
them,being drawn off, sleeps with someone of the passers-by, she humiliates her neighbour,
because her neighbour was not as worthy as herself and did not have her cord torn.' (10)

Now in the above it is clear that while sacred prostitution was not part of the 'orthodox' (i.e. pure
monotheistic) worship of Yahweh per se: the jews did practice it in ancient Israel whenever they
slipped into the worship of other gods as was frequently the case. This is probably so in part
because Canaanite religion; from which Yahweh and Judaism ultimately derive, included a
significant element of ritual sex within it (11) as well as certainly having sacred prostitution as
part of the sacred rites. (12)

Deuteronomy is good evidence of such a practice among the jews precisely because it takes the
time and trouble to specifically forbid it and all that is associated with it (such as the donations of
the fees to his temple). Had it not been a frequent practice associated with slippage into
polytheism from monotheism then it is difficult to see why this would have been explicitly

A reading of 'cult prostitute' as being a religiously profligate Israelite; as Budin proposes, is
difficult to justify here because of the explicit nature of the language. Therefore the evidence of
Deuteronomy must stand and as Smith implies sexual intercourse as part of the worship of
Yahweh is not impossible and actually even quite probable. (13)

Budin's reading seems far more reasonable in relation to the passage in the second book of Kings
precisely because the second part of the passage 'where the women wove hangings for Asherah'
doesn't fit with the knocking down of houses of male cult prostitutes. It makes much more sense
for 'male cult prostitutes' in this context to mean religiously profligate Israelites precisely
because the women are acting as priestesses for Asherah, but yet the men in the same passage are
supposedly literally prostituting themselves (which begs the question why the women aren't
doing so as well).

The 'prostituting' concerned then in all probability means religious prostitution not sacred

The Letter of Jeremiah is more contentious given that Budin's analysis of the document is
tenuous at best as she assumes (without justifiable reason) that the author of the Letter simply
took Herodotus on his word and also meant 'cult prostitute' in the context of being religiously
profligate. (14) Her argument unfortunately falters as soon as we consider that while it is true
that the author of the Letter may have included the material to attack paganism as immoral and
depraved: it is difficult to see why he would have done so had the practice not been either well-
known or still in practice.

After all: if one is going to attack something and searching for evidence to support your case.
One still has to consider whether or not the charge is going to be believable and suggesting
widespread sacred prostitution among non jews as well as religiously profligate jews in general
is a very dangerous proposition for the credibility of ones argument. For the simple reason that if
it wasn't widely-known or still in practice then you are going to look like a sexually-repressed
puritanical lunatic.

It is also worth noting that the Letter; if considered as a condemnation of pagans and pagan
religious practices for a primarily jewish audience (as opposed to something written for a non-
jewish audience), is still good evidence for sacred prostitution in large part because if it had not
been a known practice among both jews and non-jews (whether it be historic or current) then it
would have not per force been believable to them as an argument in and of itself.

This means that for the jews of the time that the Letter was composed (no later than 100 BC due
it being discovered at Qumran) then sacred prostitution must have been a well-known or
observable practice to them.

This is something that Budin; in her haste to call sacred prostitution a myth, overlooks
incidentally in so far as the general concordance of Herodotus and the Letter (i.e. in general with
some of the specific details matching) could be due to the fact that they are both describing the
same observable practice.

This would make sense since we know that ritual sex was part of the practice of cults associated
with the geographic locale as well as Yahweh himself. (15) It would also explain the general
agreement but also the differences in the small details: given that Herodotus was writing from
informants as a rule, while the author of the Letter in all probability wrote from personal
experience. (16)

Thus we can see that sacred prostitution almost certainly existed among the jews in antiquity
since the textual sources clearly indicate that there were some jews who engaged in the practice,
which was also considered a wider part of the prostitution of jews to polytheism (i.e. other
gods/the worship of idols etc).


(1) Wilfried Lambert, 1992, 'Prostitution', p. 136 in Volkert Hass (Ed.), 1992, 'Aussenseiter und
Randgruppen: Beitrage zu einer Sozialgeschichte des Alten Orients', 1
Universitatsverlag: Konstanz
(2) Edwin Yamauchi, 1973, 'Cultic Prostitution: A Case Study in Cultural Diffusion', pp. 212-
214 in Harry Hoffner (Ed.), 1973, 'Orient and Occident: Essays presented to Cyrus H. Gordon',
Edition, Kevelaer: Neukirchen-Vluyn
(3) Gordon Wellesley, 1975, 'Sex and the Occult', 1
Edition, Corgi: London, p. 25
(4) Ibid; also Sarah Pomeroy, 1994, [1975], 'Goddesses, Whores, Wives, & Slaves: Women in
Classical Antiquity', 1
Edition, Pimlico: London, p. 201
(5) Stephanie Budin, 2003, 'The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity', 1
Edition, Cambridge
University Press: New York, pp. 48-57
(6) Julia Assante, 2003, 'From Whores to Hierodules: The Historiographic Invention of
Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals', pp. 22-25 in Mark Fullerton, A. Donohue, 2003,
'Ancient Art and its Historiography', 1
Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York
(7) Eusb. Caes. Vita Cons. 3:58
(8) Deut. 23: 17-18 (RSV) (Note that I have used 'Male Prostitute', but the term can also mean
'dog'. Male prostitute however makes a lot more sense with dog as implied invective.)
(9) 2 Kings 23: 7 (RSV)
(10) Let. Jer. 43 (Budin, Op. Cit., p. 103)
(11) For example see John Day, 2002, 'Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan', 2

Edition, Sheffield Academic Press: New York, pp. 138-142; 179
(12) Ibid, p. 204
(13) Mark Smith, 2001, 'The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background
and the Ugaritic Texts', 1
Edition, Oxford University Press: New York, p. 247
(14) Budin, Op. Cit., pp. 107-111
(15) Smith, Op. Cit., pp. 87-94
(16) On this also see John Day, 2004, 'Does the Old Testament refer to Sacred Prostitution and
did it actually exist in Ancient Israel?', pp. 2-21 in Carmel McCarthy, John Healey (Eds.), 2004,
'Biblical and Near Eastern Essays: Studies in Honour of Kevin J. Cathcart', 1
Continuum: New York
Posted 1st September 2013 by Karl Radl
Labels: Ancient Israel anti-Semitism 2.0 Canaanite Religion Deuteronomy jews jews and sex
Judaism Letter of Jeremiah prostitution Ritual Sex Sacred Prostitution Stephanie Budin Yahweh