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Religious prostitution

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Religious prostitution, the vulgar epithet for hieros gamos, is the practice of having religiously motivated sexual relationships. A woman engaged in such practices is sometimes called a temple prostitute or hierodule, though modern connotations of the term prostitute cause interpretations of these phrases to be highly misleading.

It was revered highly among Sumerians and Babylonians. In ancient sources (Herodotus, Thucydides) there are many traces of hieros gamos, starting perhaps with Babylon, where each woman had to reach, once a year, the sanctuary of Militta (Aphrodite or Nana/Anahita), and there have sex with a foreigner, as a sign of hospitality, for a symbolic price.

A similar type of prostitution was practiced in Cyprus (Paphos) and in Corinth, Greece, where the temple counted more than a thousand prostitutes (hyerodules), according to Strabo. It was widely in use in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honour of the goddess ‘Ashtart. Presumably by the Phoenicians, this practice was developed in other ports of the Mediterranean Sea, like in Erice (Sicily), in Locri Epizephiri, Crotone, Rossano Vaglio, Sicca Veneria and other towns. Other hypotheses regard Asia Minor, Lydia, Syria and Etruscans.

It was common in Israel too, but some prophets, like Hosea and Ezekiel, strongly fought it; it is assumed that it was part of the cults of Canaan, where a significant proportion of prostitutes were male.

According to the Bible, the Canaanite peoples had a system of religious prostitution. This is seen, for example, in Genesis 38:21, where Judah asks Canaanite men of Adulam "Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side?". The Hebrew original employs the word "qedsha" in Judah's question, as opposed to the standard Hebrew "zonah". The word "qidsha" is derived from the root Q.D.Sh, which signifies uniqueness and holiness; thus it probably represents a religious prostitute, a term uncommon among the Israelites, but known to them from the neighboring people and used in communication between them.

It is also thought that the pagan priests called qedeshim (the masculine form of "qedsha") in the Torah regularly engaged in homosexual acts. The phrase "mahir kelev", "the pay of a dog" (Deuteronomy 23:18-19) refers to the payment to a male prostitute. Male prostitutes in that time and place usually serviced men, not women. Moreover, Leviticus 18 contains a number of prohibitions regarding sexual relations with different people (some of them incestuous) that are thought to be relevant to Canaanite habits of religious prostitution inside family. These passages are often cited by conservative Christian denominations as indication of proscription against same-sex relations (homosexuality and bisexuality).

In Greece, Solon instituted the first Athen's brothels (oik`iskoi) in the 6th century BC, and with the earnings of this business he built a temple dedicated to Aprodites Pandemo (or Qedesh), patron goddess of this commerce. The Greek word for prostitute is porne, derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), with the evident modern evolution. The procuring was however severely forbidden.

There is a practice in southern India called "devadasi". It involves adolescent girls from villages to be married to a deity or a temple. After they reach puberty they are made to practice prostitution for upper-caste members. This practice was made illegal in 1988.

In the 1970s and early 1980s some religious groups were discovered practicing sacred prostitution as an instrument to make new adepts. Among them was the Children of God/The Family cult who called this practice "Flirty Fishing". This practice was later abolished in the new religious movement.

Some practitioners of Neopagan religions such as the Lilian tradition, the OTO, and Wicca incorporate sex into their religious practice.

See also

Last updated: 11-01-2004 09:13:56