Temple/Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamia 24grammataTemple/Sacred Prostitution
in Ancient Mesopotamia Revisited
Religion in the Economy*
Morris Silver, New York

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In Ugarit-Forschungen 30 and elsewhere, Assante vigorously argues on behalf of three striking and rather novel propositions : (1) There is no Sumerian or Akkadian word meaning “prostitute / sex professional”; (2) Evidence for Mesopotamian prostitution adduced by “patriarchally” oriented scholars actually refers to the sexual activity of “single women / women without a husband”; (3) There is no evidence for “sacred” prostitution in Mesopotamia. The present paper reconsiders the evidence within the framework of a simple economically oriented model of temple/ sacred prostitution. Assante’s findings are rejected as inconsistent with important evidence. The main conclusion is that the Inanna/ Ishtar cult was involved, directly or by means of agents, in the production and sale of sexual services.
It is suggested that sexually explicit rituals, myths, and hymns of goddesses were employed to increase the demand for the services of cultic prostitutes. The analysis is based primarily on literary texts. However, legal texts provide suggestive evidence that cults derived income from the sale of sexual services. More generally, it is seen that open-minded consideration of the seemingly narrow problem of prostitution casts new light on fundamental questions concerning the role
of religious institutions in the ancient Near East.
Assante (1998, 10) maintains “Until now, philologists have not recognized a
word in Sumerian or Akkadian that conveys the idea of the single woman, a
social phenomenon that seems to incorporate a rather large group of females in
various periods of antiquity.” For the unfortunate result Assante (1998, 10)
blames “the patriarchal system scholars have developed and imposed on the
study of ancient Mesopotamia [which] had no room for such a legal category”
(cf. Budin 2006, 83). This claim has merit and, together with Assante, Diakonoff
(1986) deserves credit for challenging the “patriarchal” perspective. Assante has
succeeded in discrediting an almost reflexive sexualization of female cultic