Love for Sale
A World History of Prostitutionby Nils Johan Ringdal
“Contains enough scholarly detail to allow one to employ the “I read Playboy for the articles’ defense.” –Jared Paul Stern, New York Post
An authoritative and entertaining world history of “the world’s oldest profession,” from the Whore of Babylon and Mary Magdalene to The Happy Hooker and the contemporary sex-worker movement
The exchange of sex for money is often cited as “the world’s oldest profession” and is certainly the most controversial: from Eve and Lilith to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, the prostitute has been a lightning rod for changing notions of love, sexual identity, morality, and gender. Now eminent historian Nils Johan Ringdal delivers an authoritative and entertaining world history of this most maligned, and most persistent, form of human commerce, from the Whore of Babylon and Mary Magdalene to The Happy Hooker and the contemporary sex-worker movement.
Beginning with the epic of Gilgamesh, the Old Testament, and ancient cultures from Greece to India and beyond, Love for Sale takes the reader on a tour through the entire recorded history of prostitution around the globe up to the modern red-light district. It shows how different societies have viewed and dealt with prostitutes–for example, how ancient Greece and Rome incorporated them into several social echelons, even the priestess class; how the rise of the courtesan in nineteenth-century Europe shaped literature (with Zola’s immortal Nana), fashion, the arts, and the modern sensibility. It uncovers the first manuals of sex and seduction, and tells the stories of the British Empire’s campaigns against prostitution in India and about the “comfort women” who served the armies in the Pacific theater of World War II. It closes with the rise of the sex-workers’ rights movement and ‘sex-positive” feminism, and a realistic look at the true risks and rewards of prostitution in the present day.
Love for Sale spans a wide historical swathe armed with a lively wit and no-nonsense grasp of sex that recalls Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae.
“Contains enough scholarly detail to allow one to employ the “I read Playboy for the articles’ defense.” –Jared Paul Stern, New York Post
“[An] entertaining look at attitudes toward the “world’s oldest profession”. . . . [Ringdal] uses his subject as a springboard for exploring the ever-changing notions of love, sexual identity, morality and gender among various cultures.” –Nan Goldberg, Newark Sunday Star-Ledger
“[An] enlightening and entertaining piece of work. . . . A survey of the world’s oldest profession, which becomes, in effect, a sexual history of the world . . . A heady romp through the ages and under the covers . . . [that] dances from the escapades of Paris’s legendary Nana, to the . . . preppie call girls of 1980s Manhattan without missing a beat . . . Social history at its poppiest.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Ringdal assembles a wealth of fascinating facts to render a panoramic view of the complex global history of prostitution. Writing with respect, candor, and wit. . . . Ringdal’s admiration for successful prostitutes is tempered by his tacit recognition that most prostitutes’ lives are wretched at best.
” –Donna Seaman, Booklist
“[Ringdal] has succeeded admirably in covering his topic to an astonishingly great extent. . . . A well-balanced and varied description of a phenomenon that is almost as ancient as mankind.” –Weekendavisen (Denmark)
“From Mary Magdalene to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, prostitution has remained a controversial topic for centuries. This big, thick book covers all one needs to know about the topic, and then some. From ancient Greece to Amsterdam’s red light district, the author details the changing preconceptions of sex for commerce. For a historical text, Ringdal writes with some plucky zing. The reader gets serious anecdotes next to humorous ones–and a smattering of soundbites in between.” –National Post
“Nils Johan Ringdal brings the reader along on a knowing and well-documented journey, full of fascinating details, through the international history of sexual commerce.” –Morgenavisen Jyllandsposten (Denmark)
“An excellent book, to which I give my warmest recommendation.” –Ekstra Bladet (Denmark)
The Whore of Babylon
She bears the name The Whore, the first prostitute we encounter in world literature. She appears in the four-thousand-year-old epic Gilgamesh. Like all superheroes, Gilgamesh is solitary, handsome, and brave, and in addition, a prince. His sexual appetite is enormous; he leaves no young maiden in peace, and hardly any young lad, either.
The people of his land must possess deep insight. They understand that Gilgamesh is so sex-mad simply because he is bored, and they pray to the gods to let him meet his equal. Thus, Enkidu comes to life, a man as big and strong as Gilgamesh, slightly shorter, although he looks more muscular and has a far hairier body. The nameless harlot enters the story next. She is called Harimtu, in ancient Babylonian, a term the lawgiver Hammurabi uses to refer to a low-class prostitute in one of Ishtar’s temples.
Ishtar is an exciting and dangerous deity, simultaneously goddess of love and war. She is the daughter of the moon god, related to the superior gods and considered Queen of Heaven.
Her main symbol is the planet Venus. She was venerated as both the morning and the evening star; she was born anew as a maiden every morning but became a whore every evening. As goddess of war, she is depicted with sword, bow, and quiver. She rides a lion, and is often depicted with several arms.
In Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates, different ethnic groups ruled in ancient times. The Sumerians built the first civilization, before the Babylonians took power, followed by the Assyrians, until the neo-Babylonians took over again. But religiously, the area remained stable, and although the Sumerians called the goddess Innana, she remained one and the same. She certainly lacked female rivals in the world of the gods. Some low-status goddesses were associated with birth and the role of mothering, but they were worshiped only locally, under simple names like Mama and Baba. The women in Ishtar’s service helped the men who offered money to her temples, with the sacred powers of their bodies, yet the way in which the aristocratic women served her remained more of a holy secret. Ishtar calls herself protector of all prostitutes, including those who offered their bodies in doorways outside the temples or tempted the men in taverns. But when the goddess speaks about herself as a harlot, it has little to do with paid sex: She would make love to any man she happened to desire.
Enkidu lived out on the steppes as a savage until one day he encountered the harlot from Ishtar’s temple in Uruk. He spent six days and seven nights with the harimtu woman, who lavished him with love of all kinds: maternal devotion, tenderness, mystical transcendence, and orgiastic sex. She also taught him to break bread and to drink wine, to clean and to take care of his body. This was far more than a quick screw; it amounted to an intensive course in civilization. Ishtar herself had authorized the harlot who educated the savage. After one intense week, all traces of savagery were gone: Enkidu had become civilized and prepared for life in urban society.
The Woman bared her Breasts,
Untied her Loincloth and opened her Legs,
And he took Possession of her Comeliness.
She used not Restraint, but accepted his Ardor,
She put aside her Robe and he lay upon her.
She used on him, a Savage, a Woman’s Wiles;
His Passions responded to her.
For six Days and seven Nights, Enkidu
Approached and coupled with the Prostitute.
After he was sated with her Charms,
He set his Face towards his Game “
Enkidu hastened after them, but found his Body bound.
His Knees failed, when he tried to hunt his Game.
Enkidu had become weak, his Speed not as before.
But he had Intelligence. And wide was his Understanding.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu of Gilgamesh: “He is a fabulous man, bursting with strength and ability to spread happiness.” By now both heroes were eager to meet each other. Gilgamesh had a dream in which a star fell from the heavens, so big he could not lift it. But he was able to bend over it, as over a woman. He also dreamed of an ax. In the old Babylonian text, the reader encounters wordplay, since the words for star/man and ax/male prostitute sound almost identical. Gilgamesh’s mother explained diplomatically that her son was about to meet his peer.
But two such heroes cannot become friends without a colossal brawl. It did not end before both found out that they were equal in strength and courage. The people were exultant, because Gilgamesh had finally met his match. The women prepared the bed, and the heroes kissed each other, became best friends, and planned to carry out great deeds–together. They continued to seduce young maidens and occasional lads, but at a less hectic pace than before. Their friendship had obviously tamed them both.
The Gilgamesh epic is drawn from versions dating from the Old Babylonian period, around 1800 b.c., and the following Assyrian times, but it was not known by the Greeks and the Romans, and it seems to have been forgotten for millennia. None of the texts we know today is complete, so different versions have been reconstructed based on Assyrian, Old and New Babylonian texts. The heroic poem might have a tiny base in real history, since the Sumerians were ruled by a king named Gilgamesh between 2750 and 2600 b.c., but it cannot be considered a historical text. Nevertheless, it is an extremely useful source for understanding social and sexual relations, love, respect, and violence between man and man, and between man and woman. Of utmost importance are what the poem explains about the goddess Ishtar and the sexual assistance offered by women in and around her temples.
Prostitution came into existence in its first and Western variety in and around Mesopotamian temples. There the temple was the city, the earthly residence of the god or goddess. There a deity received food and clothing, was washed, cared for, adored, and worshiped.
Most activities were concentrated around the temple. The building and maintenance of the irrigation system necessary for agriculture and other prerequisites for large-scale society were conducted from there. Markets grew up in front of the entrance. But economic activities also took place inside, where the grain silos and the tax offices were located. A god or goddess provided protection; money and precious metals were placed in locked chests and stored in the inner sanctum. Fees were paid, much as when one rents a safe-deposit box in a modern bank. The priests and priestess would loan money, too. Interest was given. The love goddess’s temple in Lydia loaned King Croesus the initial money that enabled him to achieve legendary wealth.
Large temples were equipped with a stepped tower made of bricks, up to 150 feet high. At the top was a minuscule temple for naditu, highborn priestesses qualified for especially intense communication with the deity. An old Sumerian text quotes the goddess of love and fertility:
Who wants to plow my Womb?
Who wants to plow the Grain that grows so high?
Who wants to make my moistened Fields bear Fruit?
The answer from the god who was her relative and lover reads:
Mighty Wife, the King wants to plow your Womb.
God and the King will do it together.
The naditu high priestesses took part in sacred weddings, hieros gamos, at which a king enacted the masculine part. The fertility of the earth would be secured through a symbolic sexual act between the earth’s regent and the woman who represented the goddess. These rites were most common before and during the grain harvest; they were closely linked to the change of seasons and the grain that was sown and ripened: Like the grain, humans lived through fertilization, birth, and death.
Fearless theoreticians have proposed that sacred weddings in Mesopotamian temples have taken place since 6500 b.c. But the oldest text describing such rites dates “only” from 2800 b.c. and recounts how a high priestess waits outside the lapis lazuli–embellished door in front of the most holy of holies. A husband is expected–God and King in one person. The moment he arrives, the priestess leads him into the holy sanctum, where their symbolic wedding takes place. There are no witnesses, but even the lowliest of temple servants knows the sacred ceremony. These rites are normally interpreted as religious state ceremonies linked to a fertility cult. Some feminist scholars have seen them as a symbol of male dominance, since the king can bed any woman he so desires in his realm.
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Infidels and visitors to Mesopotamia from neighboring societies may have already perceived the religious rites as more erotic and promiscuous than the participants did. But as the centuries passed, the male in the rites was replaced by a stone symbol representing the god, a fact that weakened the most sexual aspect of this most holy of rites.
We have still no absolute knowledge about how widespread the sacred weddings were under the Old Babylonian and later rulers of Mesopotamia. The great generalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries knew much less than we do today, guessed at more, but were fearless in their theory and strong in their faith. What they believed represented a long tradition in itself, dating back to Herodotus, who wrote during the fourth century b.c. and founded the first Western comprehensive work of geography, anthropology, and history. Herodotus was learned and much traveled, interested and informed, and took great pleasure in recounting the strange behaviors of people to the east of Greece; in 440 b.c. he had even visited Babylon.
Biblical myths, psalms, and chronicles refer to Babylon with discernible religious pathos. The biblical texts have encountered critical readers since they were collected and canonized. Herodotus, “the father of history,” met criticism in his own lifetime and was accused of inventing cock-and- bull stories to titillate his readers. But even as the centuries passed and the criticism was repeated, it never seemed to destroy the impression of Herodotus as a profound and reliable observer. Why, then, do we believe in Herodotus and not in the Bible? Because he seems to please and entertain his readers? Because he satisfies our prejudices? The most basic answer is simply that for a very long time, there was scarcely any reader who totally lost faith in this man.
In one of his most cited passages, Herodotus recounts how he personally observed Babylonian women copulating with unknown men in the temples of Ishtar. “And every woman did it,” at least once in her lifetime. Most young maidens lost their virginity this way. But for the most ugly girls, this could take years, Herodotus concludes, most amusingly.
In Syria, Herodotus reported, women had to cut and sell their hair, or to offer their bodies for money and bring their earnings to the love goddess, whom they called Astarte. She had a son, Adonis, who also was her lover, and in the fall, there was a ritual ceremony mourning his death. Everybody wept for the god and attacked one another with fists and whips. In the spring, a joyful feast symbolized Adonis being born anew. His statues were adorned with phalluses, while the women again sold either their hair or their bodies and subsequently donated their earnings to the temple.
Carthage, in North Africa, was founded by emigrants from Phoenicia and therefore counted among the lands “to the East” by both Greeks and Romans, who considered this culture akin to the Babylonian and the Syrian. All poor girls of Carthage had to serve some years in the temple of the love goddess to earn themselves a dowry, something rich girls received from their parents. The Phoenicians placed the temples to their love goddess on high cliffs along the coast–to help seafarers and their ships enter a port in the vicinity, reveals the Roman historian Valerius Maximus. He may be right. The problem is that most Greek and Roman narrators drew historical conclusions retrospectively, interpreting the past with fantasy and the stamp of their own historical period.
The ancient Babylonian empire that we glimpse through the Gilgamesh epic had run its course around 1200 b.c. On its heels came the Assyrians, followed by the New Babylonian empire. When Herodotus visited Babylon, it had fallen under Persia. But to what extent did this Babylon resemble the Mesopotamian culture of one or two millennia
Greek and Roman historians placed great store in the resemblance among the “barbarians’ of Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, and Carthage. Today’s researchers emphasize the differences between the various cultures and are skeptical of all statements where findings from one period or culture are validated over a greater region or over a longer time span. But for thousands of years, historians had little more knowledge about conditions and people of the past than the great narratives had given them. Gradually, archaeologists of the the nineteenth and twentieth centuries discovered papyrus manuscripts, clay tablets with religious inscriptions, tax records, lists of professions, laws from different periods, house equipment, and religious statues. This established new, much more exact knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia. Herodotus will still be read, just as the Bible will. Today we stand freer in relation to him than ever, but we may still trust him more than the Bible. However, while quite a few anecdotes have been whittled away, his better reports are accepted, reformulated, and clarified.
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Bride-price and dowry are two customs that, each in its own way, have influenced the parties in a marriage. Bride-price reflects societies concerned with women primarily as labor power. When a father gives up a daughter, he is compensated in the form of payment for her labor, which, by virtue of her marriage, he and his family are losing. But a daughter sold off as a bride has brought nothing of her own into the marriage.
Dowry can be seen as recognition of a daughter as the inheritor to part of her parents’ property. While sons often have to await their fathers’ death before they inherit, the daughter receives her share in the form of the dowry, a direct or long-term payment from her family to her husband’s family. This makes her more attractive as a partner, and a dowry can be seen as a guarantee for the woman. If she threatens to annul the marriage, her relatives can demand the return of their valuables.
But both dowry and bride-wealth have checks and balances. If a bride was expensive, it could take time to pay for her, which gave the expensive bride more freedom in the meantime. Phoenicians and Syrians gave their daughters dowries, while the Israelites paid for their brides. In Mesopotamia both bride-wealth and dowry seem to have been practiced side by side; Assyrian times have been so thoroughly studied that we know the customs in great detail and clearly see class difference reflected in the different customs. While the higher classes obtained brides with dowries, often including their own personal slaves, those who had less paid for their brides.
But Mesopotamian women did not enjoy particularly great freedom. A man who seduced another man’s wife was not punished but fined. He then had to transfer a woman from his household to that of the man he had offended. There appears to have been no concern for the women involved. Men made the decisions and controlled the property within the family. Even women from the aristocracy had no jural protection for themselves or the wealth that stemmed from their dowry, but they could hand over the dowry to their children, if they so desired, before the husband’s death. Divorce did occur from time to time, at the initiative of some few aristocratic women.
Both family and marriage did provide strong subordination, even of women of the aristocracy, and the fathers decided whether a daughter should get married or serve in a temple. We hardly know what the women wanted or preferred. But it is likely that some thought themselves better off with a life in a temple.
The poor seldom provided dowries for their daughters. They could sell the daughter as a bride or a slave but just as well send her to a temple. If the daughter was comely, the priests or priestesses would take an interest in her care and upbringing. In the temples of Ishtar, young girls learned to dance and sing to the honor of the deity and conduct themselves with modesty. The temples allowed for much more than fertility rites; they served as schools and residences, like the convents in Europe thousands of years later.
The temples of Ishtar were centers of knowledge about birth, birth control, and sexuality. Not only kings got to stay with the priestesses. Both aristocrats and men of lower rank hired women from the temples and made offerings to the goddess in return. Perhaps a man who spent time with a woman in service to the gods felt that sacred powers flowed over his body and his mind.
Religious inscriptions recount that many temple women possessed a power that could heal sexual problems and illnesses among men. Temple women were therefore nurses and sacred sex therapists. Magic texts that dealt with ‘satisfactions of the heart” were recited to make men healthy and strong. The magic oil used in massages was made according to an esoteric recipe known only to the women of the temples.
The young girls in the temples washed and anointed the divinity. As they grew older, they sang and danced and could be hired out to men whose eye they had caught. All the temple women, both the priestesses and their young assistants, did as they were asked in the honorable service of the goddess. Set against such a religious and myth-enshrouded background, a term like prostitute can give too many simple and modern connotations and summon ideas about quick tricks instead of sacred procedures.
The low-class prostitutes in taverns and inns lived beyond the temple walls in their own houses, called gag”, under the supervision of an older woman with a closer connection to the temple; some of the poor prostitutes seem to have worked in the temples earlier on as well. Sumerian clay tablets from 2400 b.c. show that the goddess of love considered herself linked both to whores at the inns and to male prostitutes, and publicly, she was associated with “high” ritual sexuality, roadhouse prostitution, and male prostitution.
Male prostitution seems to have just as old a link to temple rites and religious life as female, but to date, no one has managed to clarify this relationship fully. Some of the male prostitutes in Mesopotamia were eunuchs, priests who had ritually castrated themselves in submission to the goddess or another god. But since most priests dressed alike, some might have been called eunuchs without being such. A male prostitute could be a eunuch priest, a former priest, or only have a vague relation to the priests.
An aristocratic temple priestess had more freedom than her married cousins. She had the legal right to her own possessions, so she could buy and sell property and slaves. Also, the temple women of lower rank might be seen as having more freedom than married women. But were they any better off? A recently discovered Gilgamesh fragment recounts that Enkidu later reencountered the harlot who had tamed him. In the meantime, he had become confident and grown used to the urban way of life, but he was not convinced that civilization was better than life in the natural condition. Enkidu said that city life was worst for the harlots: many had to serve tramps and drunkards and could be beaten and tormented.
Old Babylonian laws distinguished clearly among the priestesses in temples, their assistants in service to the temple, and free prostitutes outside the temples. All three were in the service of the goddess of love; none of them lived the traditional roles of housewives or daughters. But some of the married women, in both the aristocracy and the lower classes, had spent some childhood and teenage years in the temples before their marriage. Their temple years did not disqualify them as wives, though several laws declared that men were forbidden to marry the poorest
prostitutes who lived outside the temples. Assyrian laws did not allow poor prostitutes to wear veils or head coverings, while aristocrats, free women, and female slaves always had either a head covering, a veil, or both.
Poor girls who were brought up in the temples could earn themselves a little nest egg, a dowry, and thereby became more attractive than other low-class girls. But they might also pick up less attractive customs. It might be either good advice or a prejudiced warning behind this fatherly advice engraved on a clay tablet from four thousand years ago:
Do not a marry a Harlot,
For she has with many lain,
Nor a Priestess of the Temple
Who is consecrated to the Gods,
Nor a Temple Maiden,
Who has so many gratified,
She will leave you in a Pinch,
And her Words shall scorn your Name.
The mighty Mesopotamian goddess of love and war has continued to impress men and women thousands of years after her heyday. She is the oldest female deity of whom we have myths and records, and she has been considered the original goddess in whom all Indo-European peoples believed, during a lost era when women were said to dominate the world and God was of the female gender.
Archaeologists have found female goddesses with strongly developed breasts, thighs, and posteriors from the Middle Eastern, Western European, Russian, and Indian Neolithic periods. Primordial Venuses have been found over four times more often than male gods. The idea about one sole original goddess has had many adherents throughout different periods of history.
The Greeks and Romans venerated Aphrodite and Venus and, as the centuries passed, identified them increasingly with one another. As the Romans began to equate gods from regions even farther away with gods who already were well known, they declared that the Phoenicians had called Venus by the name Astarte. Already Herodotus had identified Ishtar with Astarte in Syria and Ashera in Canaan, Cybele in Phrygia, and Aphrodite in Asia Minor. The Romans turned this into dogma because they built their empire with the explicit ambition to unite and reconcile different cultures and religions. Over the years, all goddesses of the East were gathered up into one common deity–Magna Mater.
Even in far-off India, they worshiped goddesses resembling Ishtar and Venus. Hindu goddesses might be called Devi, Durga, or other names, but they were all seen as avatars of the same goddess. North and northwest of the Roman Empire, on Celtic, Nordic, and Germanic ground, fertility goddesses of other names were worshiped: Nerthus, Fr”ya, and Bamba. The planet Venus was known as the morning and evening star all the way from Scandinavia to India. So, although languages differ, the goddess of fertility remains the same.
In one way or another, all mother or love goddesses shared the habit of incestuous love relationships with a son or other close relative who also became a fertility symbol. In the myths, this male figure often died and was resurrected, in association with the seasonal drought and rain, with the sowing, growth, and harvesting of the grain. The half-subordinate son/lover/relative would be called Fr”y, Osiris, Priapus, Eros, Adonis, Attis, Baal, Tammuz, or Shiva.
Studies on the relationship between feminine and masculine nature open for speculative explanations of this: Mother Earth is stable. The masculine principle has an inherent tendency toward erection, release, and collapse. These characteristics intrinsic to the male body and psyche can easily be understood in correspondence to the cycle of the seasons, and of life.
There is evidence that priestesses were central to the cult of the mother goddess right across the Indo-European cultural region, and it has been argued that this was appropriate because women most resembled the goddess. A woman’s fertility and life-creating abilities gave her a natural priority of communication with the deity. This is why women became priestesses and oracles and performed entrancing dances with ritual sexual overtones.
It is exciting to let history start out with an original matriarchy and a mother cult that only much later was supplanted–or rather, defeated– by warlike men who countenanced male gods. Feminist researchers have found themselves especially attracted to the proposition that women were dominant in the oldest societies and the first religions. This position also seems to contain in itself a proof: What happened in the past can be repeated in the future. This proves that women’s liberation is possible, and indeed a realistic political goal.
There is a strong feminist ambition and rich theological creativity behind the idea of one primordial female god. How much evidence, then, do we have to support the idea of one original mother goddess being worshiped all over the Indo-European linguistic area, from Ireland to India, in the earliest times? It is extremely difficult to say. More than ten thousand years passed between the earliest veneration of the goddesses and the times when various cultures developed the writing and languages that identified the goddesses under different names, then qualified them further through clothing, adornments, or the animals that bore them. Accordingly, to prove the existence of an original and more or less homogeneous goddess via empirical arguments is almost insurmountable.
Modern historians of religion consider all attempts to conflate old religions speculative and in strong contradiction to the empirical values and scientific methods that are the hallmarks of their discipline. They stress the individual character of the respective goddesses and place great weight on their differences, iconographically, culturally, and historically, and question even the least pretentious version–that the mother goddess in the Middle East was one and the same.
Everyone must have the freedom to believe in a god and to make her female–and, for example, call her the Great Mother. It still remains possible to concoct a primordial, feminist monotheism. But it is as impossible to prove that the mother goddess was at one point in history the one and only as it is to maintain today that there is only one God and that He is a male.
An empirical approach still allows us to state that the cults of the mother and the love goddess, however strong or extensive they originally were, declined in inverse proportion to the growth of cities and the prevalence of wars. In the days of yore, Ishtar was certainly a lady of great power, and was possibly worshiped with greater intensity and more rites than all goddesses elsewhere and at later points in history. But no one can claim unambiguously that she was the one and only primeval goddess. Questions about the gender of God and the origin of women’s oppression thus have to be left behind as questions of faith.
Fortunately, prostitution is not a question of theology but a social phenomenon that can be limited, defined, weighed, and measured. Historians should approach it practically and trace it according to proof. An empirical approach in no way diminishes our curiosity about Ishtar, since we know that it was around her temples that history’s earliest prostitution sprang up.
Ancient Egyptian papyrus and wall paintings, myths, and texts contain a variety of references to prostitution. But in Egypt, this phenomenon has never attracted the same attention as in Mesopotamia. This is because prostitution seems to be a younger, imported phenomenon, not a genuine or original element in Egyptian culture.
Ancient Egypt had very few fertility cults, and no goddess was as powerful as the male gods. Their leading female deity, Hathor, was a dangerous moon goddess linked to both life and the kingdom of death. But Egypt, too, had priestesses, and women predominantly worshiped Hathor. If distinctly sexual rituals existed around her or other gods, they can’t have played the same role as in Mesopotamia. As prostitution gradually developed in Egypt, it did so independently of their own religion, and rather under influence from Mesopotamia and the cultures to the east.
Egypt was aristocratic and slave-based, but freeborn farmers played a greater role there than farther to the east. The lack of strong goddesses did not prohibit royal and aristocratic women from enjoying more freedom. Women had their own property and great freedom in the choice of husbands, including non-Egyptians. There was a ripple effect from elite women down to the class of farmers, who tended to be monogamous and faithful. Moreover, there are no traces of female infanticide, an absence that distinguishes Egyptian culture as far more woman-friendly.
Murals and burial-room paintings frequently portray women, and many in unusual roles: dining, and vomiting, at purely female banquets; fighting in the streets; trading in the markets. Their role in the household and as caretakers of children was highly emphasized. Male homosexuality is expressed through the well-known mythical story about Horus being seduced by his uncle Seth. But as with prostitution, Egyptian homosexuality seemed to be less widespread than in Greece and Mesopotamia. When sources from the New Kingdom give evidence of temple prostitution, this is seen as an influence from Mesopotamia.
Along with every new queen from the East came a new wave of cultural and religious influence. Isis was originally a local and unimportant goddess, but she would, as time passed, be linked by the priests to Osiris as wife and mother, due to foreign influence. In the New Kingdom, from 1600 b.c., Isis had become an independent mother goddess and started to be portrayed with her son Horus in her arms. Eventually, a love goddess also arrived. In the Middle East, this goddess would commonly be portrayed standing upright on a lion. Her wandering toward Egypt caused her to lose the lion as a mount; instead, she was given a lion’s head, since they traditionally saw the gods with animal heads.
Later Egyptian papyrus depicts slave prostitutes painting their lips and couples in coital positions that suggest the male is engaged with a prostitute. A grave painting from Thebes shows a woman having intercourse while she plays a flute, a complex physical act requiring years of training. Late Egyptian narratives deal with the buying and selling of sex, and some parables mention prostitutes and clients by name. Moral stories reveal young men’s experiences in a bordello; in proverbs, older men advise the younger to stay away from the public houses, ignore all the street prostitutes, marry, and settle down to family life. But all this moral literature dates from late periods of Egyptian history, after many generations of intermarriage between pharaohs and princesses from Mesopotamia.
Herodotus probably never visited Egypt, and Strabo stated that he wrote ‘more nonsense about Egypt than the East.” In any case, his reports seem to be relevant only for the centuries before his own lifetime. Herodotus might be correct in his statement that the Greek prostitute Rhodopis was the most economically successful in the profession through all the ages of Egypt. It may even be true that she managed to build herself a pyramid from her earnings. But when Herodotus says that two so completely different pharaohs as Cheops in the Old Kingdom and Ramses twelve centuries later both built pyramids with money earned by their daughters’ sale of sex, it is certainly nonsense. At its best, it might be used as an indicator for lack of stigma on prostitution in the Egypt of the last millennium b.c.; or that daughters of pharaohs made the most of their considerable freedom.
When Alexandria finally became the new capital of Egypt, in Hellenic and Roman times, prostitution reached great proportions, while women of all classes enjoyed lesser freedom. The goddess Isis would now be venerated around the Mediterranean, and religious paintings from these years portray her in flight with Horus in her arms. Quite often Isis is depicted seeking refuge in a bordello or healing the son of a bordello madam. But both Isis and the bordellos she visited bore few if any traces of the real ancient Egypt. They were mirroring a new Mediterranean culture where the Greeks had rescored an old song, from Mesopotamia.
Earlier generations of historians seldom stressed that the cultic duties in Mesopotamia’s temples differed, and that the division of labor between women in the temples was considerable. When all women in the temples were depicted as temple prostitutes, this was a serious injustice to the existing hierarchy among the women.
Mesopotamia’s temples were as class-divided as the society around them. Women from the aristocracy held title to the high priestess positions, and their sisters and cousins married the elite men of civil society. The high priestesses held property, were conspicuous in their clothing, wore noble headdresses and expensive jewelry. Ishtar was considered both virgin and whore, was venerated for both qualities, and needed priestesses of both kinds. Ishtaritu, a small group of highborn priestesses, lived in celibacy, while aristocratic women who took part in the holy rites were called naditu. The majority of the priestesses were qadishtu, a middle stratum who served as mystical therapists and helpers of men with sexual problems. To equate qadishtu with “courtesan,” or luxurious whore, might be a secular misinterpretation, since the word clearly signifies “holy woman.” This holiness has, on the other hand, led feminists to argue against the term temple prostitute. But why does a sexually explicit task for one make an aristocratic priestess less holy than her virgin cousin?
Low-class prostitutes–harimtu–frequented the saloons and taverns; they might have been purchased as slaves, and they might end their days as beggars. Perhaps fewer of the poorest prostitutes had a connection to the temples than was previously believed. Their temple connections weakened over a longer time span. Some modern feminist scholars question calling poor prostitutes temple women and openly admit their intention to tone down the sexual aspects of Mesopotamian deity worship. One might detect both upper-class arrogance and Victorian morality behind such intentions. It is also an insult to the goddess Ishtar!
Queen Semiramis is one of the few Old Babylonian women about whom there appears to be biographical data, above all because the Hellenic writer Ctesias penned her biography. He maintained that she was a prostitute who married King Ninos–the founder of Nineveh, who promoted the use of eunuchs, and devised the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. An Italian assyrologist has convincingly demonstrated that Semiramis probably is a mythical figure that Ctesias conflated with Samuramat, an Assyrian queen from around 800 b.c. In any case, if the Babylonian queen did exist, she probably would have participated in ritual sexual acts in her capacity as high priestess. To call any of them an ex-prostitute is a tendentious anachronism naively overtaken from the Greeks, who, in their enmity against the Persians to the east, painted all Easterners as barbarians and all their queens as whores. But modern feminists who want to rescue Mesopotamia’s temple women from millennia of men’s bad press commit a similar ideological mistake in portraying Mesopotamian priestesses on the level of today’s modern women.
The goddess Ishtar even today speaks to us through old religious texts, in all her promiscuity as self-described whore. She showed up alone at the cheapest taverns and befriended the poorest prostitutes, saying that they mirrored something in her own divine nature. Ishtar was sexy and fertile but is not, strictly speaking, a mother goddess. She never gave her two sons so much as a thought, and thus became more of a bachelor’s woman. But it is not always plain sailing to be a love goddess; for Ishtar was active and importunate and had strong, unrestrained individual lusts. As a result, she went through so many men that she could terrify even the most courageous. Ishtar once also lusted after Gilgamesh, according to the epic. But the superhero turned down the goddess of love, with the following devastating commentary:
You are like an Oven whose Fire is going out,
A Door of Rushes that opens to the Storm,
A Castle that tumbles down on the Hero’s head,
A Shoe that causes a Man to stumble.
Which Lover can please you for all Time?
Which Mate do you not find odious?
When Ishtar was brushed off in such a manner, she replied in full fury, “Woe to you, Gilgamesh! Woe and disaster to you who insult me so!” Whereupon the two best friends Gilgamesh and Enkidu abandoned her, going off arm in arm. It is perhaps not difficult to guess what the goddess devised as the best way of getting even: Enkidu had to die!
Gilgamesh mourned over his friend’s corpse for seven days: “Oh, Enkidu, you were the sword at my side, the bow in my hand, the dagger at my shoulder.” For a long time Gilgamesh felt that life was no longer worth living: “He dresses his brother in bridal white ” His howl is that of the lioness who has lost her young.”
It has been a long time since the glory days of Mesopotamia, but the view of prostitution that we encounter in the Gilgamesh epic is surprisingly current. Enkidu had to die when the goddess so decreed, and he understood the fate that awaited him a few moments before he lay in the arms of death. In wrath, he slung out a curse on Ishtar and all her prostitutes. Who does not feel for a young, vigorous hero whose life ebbs away long before his time? But perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect is that young Enkidu’s last, desperate utterances, four thousand years ago, were such an accurate prophecy:
Oh, you sly Woman of the Night,
Approach and hear your Fate.
I curse you. Until the Eve of Times:
The Streets shall be your Home.
On tired Legs shall you stand in Shadow.
The thirsty and the drunken smite you “
Oh, Harlot, you Servant of Men,
Kings and Princes shall love you.
Young Men release their Belts.
While the Old smile in their Beards.
For Riches you shall both make and destroy.
For you, the fertile Wife will be forsaken.
While Priests shall wed you to the Gods.
Copyright ” 1997, 2004 by Nils Johan Ringdal. Danish edition ” 1998 by Tiderne Skifter. Translation copyright ” 2004 by Richard Daly. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.