A Blessing on you and your home on this Equinox…. I love the Fall. The change, the beauty the heady feeling of mortality. The mixture of heat and coolness, the sunsets… Portland is blessed by the beauty that you find here. Amazing really.
Must go, a very large edition today, so enjoy it and take your time….
On The Menu:
The Original Whore with the Heart of Gold
In Honour of The Equinox: The Poetry of Gary Snyder
Art: Lord Frederick Leighton
How the Sacred Prostitute Fell from Gace, and How She May Return
by Levana Lindentree and Bestia Mortale
Finally he reached the portico after the hot, dusty wait outside, laid his silver in the salver. He was shown to a room where he could shake off the dust, wash, comb, scent himself, then to the courtyard, paved with pink marble. Doves scattered as he found a couch, their wings shuffling the air, which smelled of flowers. A fountain played, and in the distance someone tuned a stringed instrument, the liquid notes blending with the falling water.
Then she entered: face soft and grave, hair dressed high, a gown of thin silk bound about her, showing dark her areolas, her brush of pubic hair. She came up to him, held out her hand; deep black eyes met his. He found himself trembling, from fear or desire he couldn’t tell.
She led him to a small room, darkened, with a red-shaded lamp, a low bed. This was the moment he’d longed for, working in the delta, his family’s fields. She took him into her arms, golden arms smelling of honey, the wealth of her hair poured out over him, and he knew the Goddess had come to him. Surely this feeling was Hers, this liquid weight of sensation, this woman’s body stroking his, melding to his, running now with scented sweat and juices. He felt the God take him, and his uncertainty fell away.
The sacred whore appears in the earliest records, integral to society when humans were first gathering in cities and learning to write. The major work of the oldest known author, the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, is a paean to the hierodule (sacred whore) of heaven, the goddess Inanna, Wendy Mulford writes in Love Poems by Women. In Babylon, center of the Akkadian civilization that adopted Sumer’s customs after conquering it, women prostituted themselves to all comers for the glory of Ishtar, a later cognate of Inanna. Still later, in ancient Greece and Rome, temple prostitution flourished. Cultures from Japan to Africa have honored the sacred whore.
Things are different now. In most world cultures today, prostitution, far from being sacred, carries by definition a weight of shame: “Prostituted” has come to mean, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “devoted to base or unworthy purposes, debased by venality, as in prostituting one’s talents.” How could you sink so low as to prostitute yourself? People across the political spectrum agree prostitution degrades women, destroys family values, is disgusting, sad and a symptom of social decay. Both the women who sell their bodies and the men who buy them must suffer pathetically low self-esteem, conventional wisdom says, because what woman with any self-respect would willingly be a whore? What kind of loser would pay to have sex with such a woman?
How did the sale of sex go from paying to enter paradise to paying for something vile? If we can make ourselves one with the gods by intake of food and drink – an idea that far predates Christian communion – how much more so through sex, in its full regalia of joy, pleasure and emotional healing. And what exactly is wrong with money changing hands for it? We pay even for sacred food and drink, for ritual wine and bread have to come from somewhere. Why did the archetype of the sacred whore fall from grace?
First, consider – what do we really mean by “prostitution?” If we define it simply as sex carried out in exchange for money or other material reward, we have the problem that “sacred prostitution” is used to describe activities ranging from sex for a fixed rate of pay, to sex for gifts or cash whose value varied widely (in Babylon, according to Herodotus, the goddess’s women could not turn away a stranger, whatever price he proffered), to ritual promiscuity in which no money changed hands. Some consider sacred prostitution to include the “hieros gamos,” the sacred marriage, “the traditional reenactment of the marriage of the goddess of love and fertility with her lover, the young, virile vegetation god,” as Nancy Qualls-Corbett puts it in The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine. Certainly the duties of the ranking hierodule often included celebrating the sacred marriage, the forerunner of the Craft’s Great Rite, with the king or high priest.
Perhaps we could distinguish mundane prostitution (sex for material reward alone) from sacred prostitution (sex for spiritual reward, perhaps accompanied with material reward). Ancient cultures at times made such a distinction in their laws and social attitudes, but generally during a period of transition. As long as sex was understood to be a sacred act, there was no need to emphasize the distinction between sacred and profane prostitution. When sex came to be regarded as potentially dangerous and shameful unless sanctified, such a distinction became useful, but often such attitudes evolved into the concept that sex was a patrilineal breeding function of no sanctity at all. As Merlin Stone points out in When God Was a Woman, patrilineal cultures tend to abhor sacred prostitution, because in it inheres a lack of concern for paternity. Children conceived by the Goddess do not know their fathers.
A useful definition of prostitution is further complicated by considering just how widespread prostitution really is. As evolutionary biologists have documented in recent years, the exchange of sex for material reward is common throughout the entire animal kingdom, because of its evolutionary advantage. Among the insects, birds, fish and mammals that practice sex for pay, the female makes a much larger reproductive investment than the male; “eggs are expensive, sperm is cheap,” as Natalie Angier writes in The Beauty of the Beastly. The female redresses the imbalance in some measure during courtship by requiring nuptial gifts of food, shelter or other resources from her suitors.
This practice is compatible with the kind of cooperative child care we call monogamous behavior. Helen Fisher describes in The Anatomy of Love how primate and human females alike have been observed to seek gifts in exchange for “adulterous” sex outside of monogamous relationships, gifts that greatly improve their children’s chances of survival. Their mates tolerate and even pimp the females for the gifts’ sake. Thus the roots of prostitution, and sacred prostitution, lie as deep as the animal kingdom. In our own culture, in spite of the jealousy fomented by patriarchal morality, many husbands tolerate or even encourage some promiscuity on their wives’ part once primary bonds have been established.
In view of the extent of sex for pay, it’s no joke that whoring’s called the oldest profession. It is also one of the world’s oldest documented forms of worship. Sacred prostitutes turn up in some of the oldest Sumerian records. Evidence from a Sumerian seal, described by Iris Furlong in “The Mythology of the Ancient Near East” in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, edited by Carolyne Larrington, shows sacred marriage rites may have been performed in Sumer before the middle of the third millennium B.C. – more than 4500 years ago. Later Sumerian writings give these duties to sacred prostitutes of the rank “nu gig,” and documentary evidence definitely shows sacred marriage including the ranking holy prostitute as a Sumerian ritual drama by the end of the second millennium B.C. Ruler and priestess replayed this drama yearly in the cities Ur and Isin for more than two millennia, until the 20th century B.C.
Sumer and Akkad celebrated the sacred marriage ritual at the Spring Equinox, then the New Year, after the return of the god Dumuzi or Tammuz from the underworld. This feast of collective pleasure involved the whole populace and lasted many days, according to At Mann and Jane Lyle in Sacred Sexuality. Everything in the rite was designed to stir the senses; men and women anointed themselves with essences, paints and jewelry, toasted the goddess and her bridegroom with wine and danced serpentine dances to lyre, flute and drum. Hierophants and priestesses performed libations and sacrifices and burned as incense cinnamon, aloes and myrrh.
At the ritual’s peak, the king approached the temple with offerings of oil, precious spices and delectable foods to tempt the goddess. He mounted to the goddess at the temple summit as the crowd chanted poetry. The ritual was performed as an allegorical masque, according to Furlong, including speaking parts and probably music; the king played the part of the god Dumuzi (“faithful son”), and a priestess of the highest rank played the goddess Inanna or Ishtar in a ritualized enactment of the divine coupling.
The poetry of the ritual, translated from the Sumerian Gudea Cylinders, circa 3000 B.C., reflects an attitude toward sex, and sexual spirituality, much different than that prevailing in Western culture today. Consider this is sacred poetry, a goddess speaking to a god (ellipses indicate breaks or unknown words in the original):
When for the wild bull, for the lord, I shall have bathed,
When for the shepherd Dumuzi I shall have bathed,
When with … my sides I shall have adorned,
When with amber my mouth I shall have coated,
When with kohl my eyes I shall have painted,
Then in his fair hands my loins shall have been shaped,
When the lord, lying by the holy Inanna, the shepherd Dumuzi,
With milk and cream the lap shall have smoothed…,
When on my vulva his hands shall have laid,
When like his black boat, he shall have… it,
When like his narrow boat, he shall have brought life to it,
When on the bed he shall have caressed me,
Then shall I caress my lord, a sweet fate I shall decree for him,
I shall caress Shulgi, the faithful shepherd, a sweet fate I shall decree for him,
I shall caress his loins, the shepherdship of all the lands,
I shall decree as his fate. (Quoted by Qualls-Corbett)
In similar Sumerian poetry, Inanna cries:
My vulva, the horn,
The Boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
Dumuzi answers her:
Great Lady, the king will plow your vulva.
I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva.
Then plow my vulva, man of my heart!
Plow my vulva! (Quoted by Qualls-Corbett)
The sacred marriage as a rite acted on many levels. On a physical level, it renewed fertility. The Sumerians, according to Furlong, considered their ruler responsible for agricultural prosperity, and all sexual reproduction on earth, vegetable, animal and human, depended on his intercourse with the goddess. The sacred marriage also legitimized the king’s power; without it, Mann and Lyle write, he was not considered fit to rule. His leadership ability was directly linked to his consummating his marriage with the goddess.
Furthermore, on a deeper level, the ritual was based on psychological need, Qualls-Corbett writes. The sacred marriage, symbolizing the union of opposites, represents the need for wholeness, on the level of the individual psyche and also, we may hazard, on that of the group. It brings together in equal status the masculine and feminine; it grounds spirit and spiritualizes earth. Certainly any rite that continues for more than 2000 years must speak to the human spirit. The sacred marriage furthermore was not limited to Sumer but was found in different forms throughout the ancient Mediterranean.
The sacred marriage was the realm of the highest ranked sacred prostitute, the nu gig (“pure or spotless”), but under the Akkadian conquerors of Sumer, sacred prostitutes made up an entire complex hierarchy. According to Mann and Lyle, the top-ranking “entu,” possibly parallel to the nu gig, wore special caps and jewelry and carried a ceremonial staff like that of the ruler. “Naditu” formed the next hierarchical level and came from the highest families in land. Known for their business acumen, they played an essential role in the Akkadian economy.
“Quadishtu,” the “sacred women,” fell next in line, with “ishtaritu,” who specialized in dancing, music and singing. The dance of the women of Ishtar can be considered the mother of the belly dance. Its components, like the belly dance’s, included snake-like and vigorous hip and pelvic movements, the wafting of veils, descents to floor and the ritual wearing of a sash, linked to the girdle that was Ishtar’s symbolic emblem.
What prompted the formation of this female hierarchy that danced and made love for the Goddess? Cultures where the sacred prostitute figured prominently were usually matrilineal and female-focused, writes Qualls-Corbett, and considered nature, eroticism and fertility the core of existence. Sacred prostitution there was a logical development of the Earth Mother cult: If in sacred marriage a ranking man and woman’s intercourse makes land and animals fecund, why not extend that ritual to all, so everyone can help seek the Goddess’s blessing? Further, if sex is seen as a sacrament, sexual acts are an obvious and natural form of general worship.
Sacred prostitution may also be linked to the tribal custom, found variously throughout the world, wherein a young girl’s virginity is offered to an appointed tribal member who cannot become her husband. The defloration ceremony initiates the girl into tribal membership and is offered to the chief deity of the tribe. A decadent vestige of this custom is found in the medieval “droit de seigneur,” wherein the lord of manor had the right to the first night with any bride in his demesne.
Perhaps also sacred prostitution stemmed from practical considerations. In a Goddess-centric society, a life in Her service might be a logical alternative for women who didn’t want to pair-bond. Men might well seek out such priestesses, and casual liaisons pleasing to the Goddess might become an official service as time went on. In a sex-positive society, the office of providing sexual companionship and healing to people in need seems an obvious one. If sexual consultation lines got too long, and other jobs were neglected, asking for pay would redistribute resources and further honor the Goddess.
Wherever the post of the sacred prostitute came from, societies of which she was part sang her praises. Sumerians considered the art of ritual love-making one of the great gifts of the gods. The legend of Inanna and Enki, in which Inanna lays claim to the sacred rules or orderings of life that confer sovereignty among the gods, lists the sacred sexual customs as one of these vital rules. She brings these rules to civilize the people of Erech, the city most devoted to her, and her trophies include civilization and culture, music, crafts, judgment and truth as well as the art of civilized love-making and the office of the sacred prostitute.
One Sumerian tablet refers to Erech, Inanna’s city, as the city of “courtesans and prostitutes,” Stone writes. There, one of the duties of Her priestesses, considered incarnations of the goddess, was to make love to strangers. Another Sumerian fragment describes Inanna sending the maiden Lilith, the “hand of Inanna,” to gather men from the street to bring to the temple. Lilith in other Sumerian myths figures as an enemy of Inanna, and in Hebrew myths she is the first wife of Adam, who refused to be sexually submissive and became a demon who stole children.
In contrast to Lilith’s fall, the Sumerians and early Akkadians saw the sacred prostitute as a civilizing influence. In the epic of Gilgamesh, set by its writers in the second quarter of the third millennium B.C., according to Furlong, the “harimtu,” or sacred prostitute, figures prominently as such.
In this epic, the earliest found version of which is the Old Babylonian, written between 1800 and 1600 B.C., the wild man Endiku is sent to live on the steppe outside Gilgamesh’s city, Uruk. There he romps with the wild animals and tears up the huntsmen’s traps. The aggrieved hunters come to Gilgamesh planning Endiku’s capture; Gilgamesh suggests getting a harimtu to lure him. A harimtu agrees to do so and when Endiku appears lays “bare her ripeness,” opening her garments. This technique works like a charm. Endiku makes love to her for the next six days and seven nights.
After this experience, Endiku is tamed. He finds he can no longer communicate with the wild animals, who now flee from him. But he has gained in wisdom and understanding. He goes to the harimtu and asks advice as to what to do next; she suggests he go to the city and says she will introduce him to Gilgamesh. However, she cautions, he first must learn how to act in the king’s court. She offers to teach him social graces, including in Furlong’s interpretation how to eat with utensils, and he accedes. She leads him “like a child” to food and drink, at which he stares, but he manages to quaff seven pitchers of beer before he is ready to go to Uruk.
As Furlong writes, it appears the harimtu who prepared Endiku was not only sexually attractive but also cultured, educated and well qualified as a tutor. But, just as Lilith fell, the sacred prostitute as civilizer became less important in the Gilgamesh epic as it was rewritten over time. Furlong writes that in the version of the epic written 1000 years after the Old Babylonian, the description of Endiku’s education has become much shorter, and the harimtu is no longer shown as an educator.
Furthermore, in both the older and newer versions of the epic, Gilgamesh insults the great goddess Ishtar herself. She has wooed him, offering gifts, but Gilgamesh replies vituperatively, comparing her to a back door that does not keep out the wind, a leaky water-skin that drenches its carrier and a shoe that pinches. He lists her many lovers and underlines that these men all ended up in the underworld. Endiku also insults Ishtar, which is too much for the gods, who consign him to a long, slow death.
What Ishtar offers Gilgamesh, Furlong points out, is the standard sacred marriage. Gilgamesh’s insulting reply can be interpreted as an argument against the principle of sacred marriage, wherein the king’s right to reign depends on Ishtar’s favors. Furlong explains that the sacred marriage was a Sumerian royal ceremony, while the author of the Gilgamesh epic was writing in Akkadian, under the aegis of the conquerors. The Gilgamesh epic thus quite possibly folds in a political lampoon aimed at an outmoded, discredited concept of kingship.
The earlier Sumerians wouldn’t have treated a whore-goddess so. In a Sumerian myth including the same characters, Gilgamesh and Endiku are on warm and friendly terms with Inanna.
The Akkadians adopted many customs of their conquered country, but it is clear their civilization was more patriarchal than the earlier Sumerian culture. Ishtar, however, remained their tutelary goddess, lady of love and war, all-powerful. As the Whore of Babylon, Ishtar proudly oversaw the continuing tradition of sacred prostitution, announcing “A prostitute compassionate am I,” according to Barbara G. Walker’s The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Ishtar thus was the original whore with the heart of gold. One of her titles was the Great Goddess Har, Mother of Harlots. Her priestesses had healing powers; a clay tablet from Nineveh says harlot’s spittle cures eye diseases. Her high priestess, the Harine, was spiritual ruler of her city of Ishtar. “Har” can be read as a cognate of the Persian houri and Greek hora, and may also be the origin of “harem,” which formerly meant a temple of women or sanctuary.
Under Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi, legislation protected the rights and good name of sacred whores, Qualls-Corbett writes. They were protected from slander, as were their children, by the same law that upheld married women’s reputations, and they could inherit property from their fathers and receive income from land worked by their brothers. Notice, however, the law implies that slander, presumably the slander that the sacred whore is a common prostitute, is enough of a danger that harimtu must be protected, and notice too that patrilineal inheritance is the norm. Though special houses were set aside for sacred prostitutes, residence there was not compulsory. However, if a sacred prostitute lived outside these houses, she could not open a wine shop on the pain of death – just as, at Déjà Vu or Razzmatazz today, by law liquor and erotic dancers can’t mix. Perhaps the Babylonian hierodule’s wine shop would have made her office too similar to that of the profane prostitute, who frequented taverns, Qualls-Corbett theorizes. We see the distinction between whores sacred and profane has become important in Babylon.
In another aspect of sacred prostitution, Herodotus recorded that in the third century B.C., as an offering to Ishtar, “Babylonian custom… compels every woman of the land once in her life to sit in the temple of love and have intercourse with some stranger… the men pass and make their choice. It matters not what be the sum of money; the woman will never refuse, for that were a sin, the money being by this act made sacred (quoted by Qualls-Corbett).” The stranger was viewed as an emissary of the gods, and when he tossed his coins into a woman’s lap, he ritually said, “May the goddess Mylitta make thee happy.” The money went to the woman but was an offering to the goddess in return for partaking in the rite, Qualls-Corbett says. Herodotus added, “After their intercourse she (the woman) has made herself holy in the sight of the goddess and goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her.” By the third century B.C., profane prostitution was clearly considered shameful.
It is interesting to consider the progression that took place after the Akkadians conquered Sumer, as a matrilineal culture that openly honored a sexual goddess with sexual rites was gradually transformed into a male-dominated culture where sex was more and more considered dangerous and/or shameful. This same transformation occurred in the three ancient civilizations that most directly influenced modern Western culture, namely Judea, Greece and Rome.
Why? The easiest answer is that as militaristic patriarchies established patrilineal descent, female promiscuity could no longer be permitted to threaten men’s knowledge of paternity. For a man to be sure he was father of his children, the argument goes, he had to restrict access to his women. He had to make it bad and wrong for his women to have sex with anyone but himself. Any religion that encouraged female promiscuity had to be opposed.
This explanation is compelling in its simplicity and economic force, but it is not altogether psychologically satisfying. It explains political repression, but it does not explain the shame and fear so commonly attached to sex after the goddesses were discredited.
Joseph Campbell, in The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, suggests a more subtle psychological and intellectual explanation when he writes “we are going to find, throughout the following history of the orthodox patriarchal systems of the West, that the power of this goddess-mother of the world overthrown by her sons, is to remain as an ever-present threat to their castle of reason.” Perhaps it was the Oedipal feelings of the sons, combined with their left-brain orientation, that so turned them against their lascivious mothers.
Michel Foucault pointed out in The Use of Pleasure, however, that systems of sexual austerity in classical Greece were not really directed at women:
Women were generally subjected (excepting the liberty they could be granted by a status like that of courtesan) to extremely strict constraints, and yet this ethics was not addressed to women . It was an ethics for men: an ethics thought, written, and taught by men, and addressed to men – to free men, obviously. A male ethics, consequently, in which women figured only as objects.
Foucault’s observation suggests this ethics was not addressing men’s mothers, or wives, but themselves, their own sexuality. The fascinating subtext in the development of Jewish, Greek and Roman attitudes towards sex is that without the guidance of female divinity, men were terrified of their own sexual obsessions. And it makes a certain sense. Don’t we all know that Boys are only interested in One Thing? And once they get It, they don’t want It any more?
From this perspective, the ecstatic self-castration practiced by priests of Cybele and Astarte in Roman times does not really fit the Freudian model of a castrating mother. It was not the goddess, after all, but the hermaphroditic monster Agdistis who inspired Attis to chop off his testicles, and his followers in their frenzies presumably took the same inspiration. Granted, sacrifice was often associated with the fertility rites of spring, but the idea of voluntarily sacrificing one’s balls seems peculiarly male; it is men, not women, who feel such ecstatic ambivalence about them.
Moreover, precisely this kind of ascetic abnegation of sexuality characterized the male-dominated religious cultures of the time. Pliny, like the Pythagoreans before him, admired the virtues he ascribed to elephants: They were strictly monogamous and had sex only once every three years, and then only to beget children. Over and over, we find male ascetics in Judea, Greece and Rome teaching that sex for pleasure, and particularly masturbation, can weaken a man in ways reminiscent of but worse than actual emasculation.
Why so often in history do we find that female spirituality honors sex as sacred, while male spirituality finds it degrading, weakening, impure and sinful? Margaret Mead offers some clues in her remarkable study, Male and Female. For men, physical sexuality focuses on the moment of ejaculation, whereas a woman’s physical sexuality is much more broadly integrated into her life, including menstruation, orgasm, intercourse, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. Through the normal course of their lives, women can automatically build a sense of sexual identity and achievement, even against the opposition of their culture, whereas ejaculation alone can never be enough for a man. Mead writes:
In every known human society, the male’s need for achievement can be recognized. The recurrent problem of civilization is to define the male rôle satisfactorily enough so that the male may in the course of his life reach a solid sense of irreversible achievement, of which his childhood knowledge of the satisfactions of childbearing have given him a glimpse.
There is another factor as well. Although both genders share many emotions surrounding sex, including love, tenderness, nurturing and the kind of testosterone-induced arousal pejoratively referred to as lust, men live with testosterone levels from 30 to over 100 times higher than those of women, on average. Trish Thomas in Issue 5 of Future Sex writes of a female-to-male transsexual named Max, who describes his emotional changes after taking male hormones:
I [now] understand why men are the animals that they are. You see sex in so many places that it’s not necessarily meant to be. I see a pretty woman walking down the street and I can’t keep my eyes off her. I don’t even realize that I’m staring. Then I think to myself, Well what’s wrong with that, I just think she’s good-looking.
Sex for men is like a buzzer that keeps going off whether or not you want it to, making it hard to integrate sex into the rest of life. Where sex is concerned, men, not women, are at the mercy of emotion they cannot control.
In Goddess-centric cultures, then, where women’s sexuality was primary, it is not surprising sex was approached with confidence, nurturing and fertility proudly combined with pleasure. Conversely, as the Father-Warrior God became dominant, in Judea, Greece and Rome, it makes sense that the priests of the new order would try to quell such an insistent internal threat to the hero’s self-discipline. Interestingly enough, though, in all three cultures, the explicitly male intellectual culture that emerged victorious continued to coexist with a “secret,” perhaps no less powerful female culture that did not seek to declare dominance.
Consider the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, from which a great deal of our Western revulsion for harlotry derives. At the end of “The Hebrew God and His Female Complements” in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, Athalya Brenner writes:
Gender issues in the Hebrew Bible can hardly be redeemed for feminists. On the whole, the Good Book is a predominantly M[ale] document which reflects a deeply-rooted conviction in regard to woman’s Otherness and inferiority. The post-reading sensation I experience focuses on the bitter taste in my mouth. This is my heritage, I cannot shake it off. And it hurts.
As she observes, Jewish patriarchal religion was in intimate competition for more than 1000 years with the sex-positive Mother-Goddess religions of its near neighbors. In Exodus 34:12-16, the Father-God tells Moses:
Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you. You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Ashe’rim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they play the harlot after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and one invites you, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods.
Similarly, Numbers 25 describes violent struggles against the harlotry of the Moabites (Ruth was a Moabite), beginning:
While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods.
In Leviticus, the Father-God’s pronouncements to Moses about sexual conduct include the exhortation “Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot” and stipulations such as that Aaron’s priestly sons must marry only virgins, not harlots or divorcees and that “the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned by fire.” Throughout, we encounter the patriarchal language of shame, defilement, lewd nakedness (male nudity being the most forbidden), sin and iniquity. When the Father-God describes to Ezekiel the quasi-symbolic harlotry of Samaria and Jerusalem, His revulsion at their defilement has a sensuous specificity:
They played the harlot in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. (Ezekiel 23:3)
As Brenner points out, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible was written by males for males: What it records is the religion of Jewish men. It has been common to assume that the religion of Jewish women was the same, for was Israel not a prototypical patriarchy? But the Bible often suggests that in fact Jewish women actually were “other” in their religion, following the Mother-Goddess in various forms while their fathers and husbands disapproved, sometimes harshly, sometimes petulantly, but seldom effectively.
When Hosea wrote in the eighth century B.C., for example, taking the role for himself of the Father-God, he identified his harlot wife Gomer with the people of Israel: even then, the identity of the nation was that of its women, its wicked harlots, the devotees of the Mother-Goddess. Hosea describes Her rites (4:11-14):
Wine and new wine take away the understanding. My people inquire of a thing of wood, and their staff gives them oracles. For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the harlot. They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains, and make offerings upon the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, because their shade is good. Therefore your daughters play the harlot, and your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with harlots, and sacrifice with cult prostitutes
Although it is the men’s books in general of the Hebrew Bible that have survived to influence our modern outlook, there is one women’s book, the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, that provides direct testimony to the spirit of the Jewish women’s mysteries. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, in The Myth of the Goddess, recognize Inanna’s sacred marriage in such beautiful verses as (6:10): “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” They point out that the verse, “I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5), refers back to the black night ruled by the Goddess, filled with mystery, wisdom and the power of regeneration, rather than to the later Iron Age darkness associated with fear and evil.
What the Hebrew Bible testifies above all is how widely sexual veneration of the Mother-Goddess spread throughout the Near East; it had become, as Brenner writes, an integral part of Mediteranean culture in the first millenium B.C.. Just as the strictly clothed nomadic Jewish warriors held up their Father-God against Her in Palestine, so the naked, phallus-admiring Greek warriors fought it on different ground in the Peloponnesus.
Unlike the Hebrews, the Greeks did not rely on their religion for justification of patriarchal laws and practices; instead, they developed powerful military, atheletic and intellectual subcultures that gave life meaning for their men and excluded their women. Sacred prostitution was always widely practiced in Greece, particularly in the temples of Aphrodite, most famously in her birthplace Cyprus and in Corinth. In Corinth, she was known as “Aphrodite the Courtesan” and “Aphrodite Who Writhes,” and Strabo in the first century B.C. says 1000 sacred prostitutes worked in her temple there, the same number at Mount Eryx in Sicily. But the proud priestesses of love had in most cases been replaced by slaves, and though Hesiod said the sacred prostitutes, or Horae, “mellowed the behavior of men,” their function was more to serve men’s pleasure than to enoble them through sacred contact with the Goddess.
The Greeks had been influenced early on by Crete, where the celebration of sacred marriage was a central rite of a rich, Goddess-centric civilization, as Baring and Cashford describe. Although the Myceneans borrowed much from Crete, and the Homeric pantheon was evenly divided between male and female deities, the Myceneans were already a warlike culture dominated by male heros, and mother Hera quickly became a jealous, petty-minded wife, subordinate to Zeus in a most imperfect marriage. By the 6th century B.C., Solon’s laws in Athens gave no rights to women, reducing wives to the status of servants. Common prostitutes were forced to distinguish themselves from wives by dress and behavior, and their children were explicitly denied legitimacy and citizenship. Of all Hellenic women, only the high courtesans known as “hetaerae” seem to have retained the legal and political rights of male citizens.
Not only that, but Greek intellectuals and spiritual leaders from Pythagoras to Plato championed the rigorous control of sexual feelings. Virtue lay in abstaining.
And yet, as in the Jewish case, it seems that true sexual reverance of the Goddess was not as rapidly or thoroughly defeated as legal, intellectual and political history would suggest. All the hints we have suggest that the older Goddess-centric attitudes were perpetuated in secret in the mystery cults. In the mysteries of Eleusis, which the writer Diodorus said came from Crete, where they were an open festival, it appears Demeter took the role played by Inanna in Sumer, ruling the endless cycle of death, fertility and rebirth, and consummating a sacred union. Of her mysteries, Mann and Lyle quote the Bishop of Amaseia, in the 5th century A.D.: “Is there not performed the descent into darkness, the venerated congress of the hierophant with the priestess, of him alone with her alone? Are not the torches extinguished and does not the vast and countless assemblage believe that in what is done by the two in the darkness is their salvation?” The wild maenads of Dionysus, too, were not only dangerous, but also lascivious. And as late as 150 A.D., the women of Corinth took strangers as lovers on the feast day of Adonis. Greek women, it appears, did not readily submit to the debased and powerless roles prescribed for them.
Rome provides a third version of the same general story. In early Rome, reverence for the fertility goddess was given great importance, and the famous Vestal Virgins may initially have been sacred prostitutes, according to Mann and Lyle. Vestal Virgins possibly underwent a form of secret marriage ceremony involving the Pontifex Maximus, who initiated them into their role as brides of the city, and the phallic deity of the Palladium. Over time, however, the meaning of the word “virgin” changed from signifying an unmarried woman to meaning an unsullied female who was patriarchal property, and the Romans developed a prudery reminiscent of the Victorians. This is not to deny the soulless and often cruel debauchery whose perverse attraction drew so many Victorians to become Latinists, but rather to point out that the Romans themselves exalted a stoic abstinence they did not necessarily practice.
But sacred prostitution lingered in Rome. Among profane prostitutes, according to Mann and Lyle, remnants of sacred sexual rituals remained. A certain class of prostitutes, “lupae,” or she-wolves, attracted clients with wailing howls; remember that the wolf is the symbol of Mother Rome. Underlining the link between sexual ecstasy and death, the “busturariae” worked in graveyards, providing sex on tombstones and funeral mourning services. The cult of Isis in Rome may have practiced sacred prostitution, Mann and Lyle write, and a cult pattern of sacred marriage emerges, according to Walter Burkert in Ancient Mystery Cults. Certainly Isis’ cult wielded a great following among profane whores.
In the Roman province of Anatolia, Cybele’s birthplace (now Turkey), Strabo records sexual worship in the first century B.C. He reports that children born from sacred prostitution were considered legitimate and were given the name and social status of their mothers. “The unmarried mother seems to be worshipped,” he writes, according to Stone. In an Anatolian inscription from 200 A.D. a woman named Aurelia proudly announced she had served in temple by taking part in sexual customs, as had her mother and all her female ancestors.
As for ancient European veneration of the sacred whore, we can only guess at it. Nothing direct comes down to us, only scattered reports from the conquering Romans. However, Celtic mythology hints at sacred marriage rites. In Ireland, the king traditionally married the land, personified by one of three sovereignty goddesses. In Scotland, the Queen Hermutrude was said to have granted her lovers kingship, yielding her kingdom with herself. The legend of King Arthur also contains possible evidence of sacred sexual rituals. Lancelot and Mordred contend with Arthur for his kingship, including, importantly, the favors of Guinevere. If Guinevere was the sacred whore, standing in for the initiatory goddess, it was she who held true power. In Germany, Guinevere’s name is “Cunneware,” meaning female wisdom. As late as medieval times, a law was required in Germany to prevent people’s building a “hörgr,” a house of holy whores, according to Walker.
The Celtic and witch holiday of Beltaine celebrates a sacred marriage feast, crowning a May King and Queen, also called the Lord and Lady or John Thomas and Lady Jane. On May Eve, men and women go to the woods to make “green-backs,” as Shakespeare puts it. From the woods, they bring home the May, hawthorn blossoms, then dance around the phallic Maypole.
Beltaine celebrants decorate the Maypole with ribbons and flowers, just as the pine tree of Attis was decorated with ribbons and violets, Baring and Cashford point out, another connection being that, after the Julian calendar was instituted, May Day was Attis’s time of death and resurrection. The Green Man, connected with the May King, could be a descendent of Dumuzi, also called the “Green One.” The British Morris dancers may be the last descendants of the Anatolian Corybantes, orgiastic dancers of Cybele.
In the non-Western world, among the Ewe-speaking people of the former African Slave Coast, girls ages 10 to 12 trained in temples and served priests and seminarians as sacred whores, according to Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Japan has a tradition of “Holy Mothers,” according to Walker, promiscuous priestess-shamanesses who enter shrines to lie with priests possessed by the god’s spirit.
In the Southern Provinces of India, large numbers of women performed as sacred whores, according to Funk and Wagnalls. They made a symbolic marriage to the gods, and their duties included dancing before the gods as well as prostitution. In India’s Central Provinces, temple dancing girls with similar duties, initiated after a bargain with their parents, were dressed as brides and married to a dagger, walking several times around a central post. In Hyderabad, Hindu girls married Siva and Krishna and were called the gods’ servants. The Hindu devadasis, human copies of the lascivious heavenly nymphs, were promiscuous priestesses who lay with priests possessed by the god’s spirit, Walker writes. Indian Tantric rites both Hindu and Buddhist incorporate sex; the Tantric word for sacred harlot is “veshya,” possible a cognate of Vesta, the name of the Roman hearth-goddess.
Tantra has seen some recent popularity in the United States, but no more does the sacred whore ply her trade. Even as an archetype – that is, a numinous image forming part of the inherited psychic structure of all people – the sacred whore hasn’t much currency in the Western world today. Current attitudes toward the strong, sexual female swing heavily toward the negative; witness the popularity of such movies as Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, all movies in which archetypally strong, sexual women figure as destructive forces and where possible are duly punished. Though it’s been 2800 years since Hosea, we still need to chastise our lewd women.
The sacred whore is, by contrast, a constructive archetype. The sacred prostitute is a dynamic, transformative, ecstatic facet of the feminine, writes Qualls-Corbett; her dynamism pushes the boundaries of the individual psyche in a positive way, and she is linked to Eros, to ecstasy, to liberation from group convention, to being taken temporarily beyond yourself in a way that even after broadens your experience of life.
She is connected to the goddess, but, importantly, she is not the goddess herself. “We can amplify the meaning of the goddess and realize the psychological implications of the image,” Qualls-Corbett writes, “but… it can never be fully integrated into consciousness. We cannot enter the realm of the gods or identify with their power; that leads to insanity, to the overwhelming of the human ego.” On the psychological level, just as on the level of ritual, the sacred prostitute works as the goddess’s mediatrix. She brings the ecstatic, liberating qualities of the goddess into the material world, where we can integrate them into life.
For women, she provides a role model, an image of one initiated into mysteries, who has achieved connection with the goddess of love. Qualls-Corbett calls this achievement analogous to the process whereby a woman frees herself from identification with the role of the father’s daughter. Afterward, Qualls-Corbett writes, “the woman is no longer bound by the collective conscious attitude of the ‘old king’ father principle.” One feels a certain presence in such a woman’s company, Qualls-Corbett writes, “a combination of joy and wisdom. She is ‘one-in-herself,’ free of the confines of convention; she lives life as she chooses.”
For men, the archetype of the sacred prostitute provides a channel through which sexuality can be positively integrated into life. Through her, sex is offered to the Goddess; all that frightening, obsessive, testosterone-driven instinct can be directed toward the divine female, who can take it, and who can transform it. As Sallie Tisdale writes in Talk Dirty to Me, the work of the sacred prostitute “has the potential to tease the true anxiety men feel about women, the anxiety they hide in brutality or simply bravado, tease it up to the surface to be transformed into something else – desire, affection, rest, wonder.” Once safe, sexuality can become the art of love.
The sacred prostitute can be seen also as an aspect of a man’s anima, the internal feminine, muse and avatar of spirituality and gentle eroticism. To connect with her energy modifies a man’s image, of himself as well as of women. The sacred prostitute within brings a man joy, laughter, beauty and an openness to love and sexuality and connects him also to creative impulses on all levels, pouring across boundaries to rejuvenate all of life.
The archetype of the sacred prostitute hasn’t disappeared from the world of men; Qualls-Corbett writes she occurs frequently in her patients’ dreams. But it’s also clear she’s far from top dog among Western society’s archetypes. Power, wealth and technology are what drive the world today; that’s what you’ll find on the front page. Even pagans have qualms about worshipping the goddess of love: What would the neighbors think? What would my mother think – Levana wonders – if I reported to her the antics of the Beltaine Aphrodite shrine? I would be lying if I said I didn’t care.
Yet the sacred prostitute is powerfully attractive as an archetype. The dancer in the temple, she who smiles; golden-limbed, smelling of honey, generous with sexual pleasure shot through with spiritual ecstasy: Who can deny her appeal? She holds us in her arms, takes us through dark places into light; she leads us out of ourselves, into better, stronger versions of who we could be.
Where is she in the world today? We’re not the only ones looking for her. Annie Sprinkle, whose work includes the luminous video Sluts and Goddesses, and Carole Leigh, a.k.a. the Scarlot Harlot, interviewed in this issue, spring quickly to mind. Despite, or perhaps in reaction to, the offensive of the anti-pornographers of the Christian Right and the sex-negative feminist wing, writers such as Pat Califia, Carol Queen, Susie Bright and Sallie Tisdale have entered the hierodule’s territory. Still, you can’t walk down to the corner with the price in your hand, as you could in Sumer, and find the temple of the sacred whore.
You can find mundane prostitutes, though. The streetwalker and call girl, and their more legal sex-industry sisters the exotic dancer and the sexual masseuse, are the most numerous now of Inanna’s children. To pretend their jobs, especially that of the street hooker, are universally pretty and fun would be a bad joke. Their work seems fraught with dangers: Porn stars get AIDS; prostitutes, especially those with pimps, get strung out on drugs. Conversely, addicts on the street often wind up hooking; few not alienated or desperate choose street prostitution as a livelihood, since in our society it’s considered one of the lowest forms of down and out. Prostitution, especially on the street, can also be violent.
Is such danger and degradation necessarily the case? No. We see from earlier civilizations that prostitution can be considered an art, that the position of the whore can be raised as high or higher than that of the matron. Assuming the acts of sex haven’t changed since ancient Sumer, what does differ? The attitude of society toward the whore, reflected in every facet of life, from daily interaction, to the legal system, to spirituality. The scorn of society adds considerably to the violence done to prostitutes, Tisdale writes; a prostitute becomes a throwaway woman, and it’s nearly impossible to get a conviction for a man who rapes her. Furthermore, as Tisdale notes, “People who believe sex work is by definition bad, because it must by definition be exploitive, can rationalize extremely punishing behavior to save sex workers from themselves.”
“‘”Doing sex work is damaging,” people say. “Giving all those blowjobs is damaging, it’s degrading,”‘” mimics Samantha Miller, head of the prostitute’s union COYOTE (for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), in Tisdale’s book. “‘I think society’s attitude toward blowjobs is what’s degrading. Not the actual act.’”
Even in our society, the debased face of prostitution is not the only one, or even the most prevalent one. “‘That really down-and-out, do-anything-for money kind is about five percent’” of U.S. prostitution, Miller says; she adds, “‘I can’t tell you how much bigger and how much more underground prostitution is than anybody knows about or seems to have been willing to talk about.’” Tisdale says of social worker Martha Stein, who studied a group of prostitutes for four years, “Stein was surprised to find all her stereotypes defused. She found happy, attractive, healthy, prosperous prostitutes, many of whom worked part-time as whores and in their other lives were students or housewives.”
Working prostitutes acknowledge whoring can be a healing, generous art. Tisdale quotes prostitute Jackie Daniels: “‘I have people I’ve been seeing for years…. It’s very much like a therapist-patient or doctor-patient relationship . We will probably always need doctors, we will always need counselors, therapists, psychic healers and advisers in the same way that we will always need prostitutes. These are sex experts, sexual healers.’”
“‘When these people (customers) come to you, they’re coming to you not only for sexual release – which is often the easiest part – but with emotional needs as well,’” Tisdale quotes another prostitute, Alex. “‘Some are lonely. It’s almost as though they want a mommy for half an hour. It’s weird because often I’m half their age, and here they are like little babies suckling at my breast, getting nurtured…. Men come to me who are just dying to be touched. Paying any kind of attention to their body is so nice.’” Tisdale compares the role of the prostitute to that of the nurse.
Even in this society, prostitutes feel the minstry of the sacred whore. “‘I really believe there are some people who truly, truly love the work, a hundred percent of the time, and there’s nothing they’d rather do,’” Alex says. “‘And then there’s some people like me – sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t…. Sometimes I love it and I have a great time and feel like I’ve done something nice for another. I’ve been paid well for it and there’s respect on both sides. Sometimes it’s like the best kind of work I’ve ever done.’”
Part of reacknowledging the sacred whore is redeeming the office of the mundane prostitute, acknowledging the important work she does for us all. But can we truly bring back the sacred whore? Can we call her up out of myth, past the veils of past time that obscure 2000 years? What would she do for us?
It’s worth trying, because we need her. We need her partly to reduce our high-tech stress. In cultures that practiced occasional ritual prostitution either as an initiation, as in Babylon, or in periodic festivals, the license probably helped reduce societal tensions, Funk and Wagnalls says. The more sexually permissive the culture, the lower the rate of crime, Anodea Judith writes in Wheels of Life.
We need the sacred prostitute on a psychological level as well. She is the guardian spirit of a certain kind of passion, a passion we need to balance the dark engines of power that run rampant in our world. We need her depth; as Qualls-Corbett writes, “Paper hearts and baby cupids hardly suffice; they are symbols of a sentimental romanticism which merely fulfills ego desires.” The sacred prostitute holds between her thighs a source of vital energy, as Qualls-Corbett writes:
“As older images (such as the sacred prostitute), … symbolizing the communion of sexuality and spirituality, become inaccessible to our conscious understanding, so a source of vital energy escapes us…. Jung writes that the loss of an archetype ‘gives rise to that frightful discontent in our culture.’ Without the vital feminine to balance the collective patriarchal principle, there is a certain barrenness to life. Creativity and personal development are stifled.”
In individual psychological work, once the image of the sacred whore was made conscious in patients’ lives, Qualls-Corbett found a noticeable change in attitude. Though fears came up, and relationships altered, patients’ rigid attachment to collective attitudes loosened, and they gained greater creativity in their approach to life problems, finding new solutions. A sense of humor, previously buried, often came to the fore. A new erotic, exhilarating dimension appeared.
Our society as a whole could use to loosen up so. The sacred prostitute is part of our heritage as humans, long buried now; if we resurrected her, she could open for us a new path forward, a new choice springing green in a barren landscape, a way of reconnecting with our bodies, our sexuality, our creativity, and with ecstasy, a way we too could be reborn.
How many miles to Babylon?
Fourscore miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again. (Nursery rhyme)
Let’s hope so.
In Honour of The Equinox: The Poetry of Gary Snyder
Beat-up datsun idling in the road
shreds of fog
almost-vertical hillsides drop away
huge stumps fading into mist
soft warm rain
Snaggy, forked and spreading tops, a temperate cloud-forest tree
hung-kuai red cypress
That the tribal people call kisiabaton
this rare old tree
is what we came to see.
from No Nature by Gary Snyder. Copyright© 1992 by Gary Snyder.
At Tower Peak
Every tan rolling meadow will turn into housing
Freeways are clogged all day
Academies packed with scholars writing papers
City people lean and dark
This land most real
As its western-tending golden slopes
And bird-entangled central valley swamps
Sea-lion, urchin coasts
Into the aromatic almost-Mexican hills
Along a range of granite peaks
The names forgotten,
An eastward running river that ends out in desert
The chipping ground-squirrels in the tumbled blocks
The gloss of glacier ghost on slab
Where we wake refreshed from ten hours sleep
After a long day’s walking
Packing burdens to the snow
Wake to the same old world of no names,
No things, new as ever, rock and water,
Cool dawn birdcalls, high jet contrails.
A day or two or million, breathing
A few steps back from what goes down
In the current realm.
A kind of ice age, spreading, filling valleys
Shaving soils, paving fields, you can walk in it
Live in it, drive through it then
It melts away
For whatever sprouts
After the age of
Frozen hearts. Flesh-carved rock
And gusts on the summit,
Smoke from forest fires is white,
The haze above the distant valley like a dusk.
It’s just one world, this spine of rock and streams
And snow, and the wash of gravels, silts
Sands, bunchgrasses, saltbrush, bee-fields,
Twenty million human people, downstream, here below.
from No Nature by Gary Snyder. Copyright© 1992 by Gary Snyder.
Milton by Firelight
Piute Creek , August 1955
“Oh hell, what do mine eyes with grief behold ?”
Working with an old
Singlejack miner, who can sense
The vain and cleavage
In the very guts of rock, can
Blast granite, build
Switchbacks that last for years
Under the beat of snow, thaw, mule-hooves
What use,Milton , a silly story
Of our lost general parents, eaters of fruit ?
The Indian, the chainsaw boy
And a string of six mules
Came riding down to camp
Hungry for tomatoes and green apples.
Sleeping in saddle-blankets
Under a bright red night-sky
Han River slantwise by morning.
In ten thousand years the Sierra
Will be dry and dead, home of the scorpions.
Ice-scratched slabs and bent trees.
No paradise, no fall,
Only the weathering land
The wheeling sky,
Man, with his Satan
Scouring the chaos of the mind.
Too dark to read, miles from a road
The bell-mare clangs in the meadow
That packed dirt for a fill-in
Scrambling through loose rocks
On an old trail
All of a summer’s day
The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog
I pull out your blouse,
warm my cold hands
on your breasts.
you laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
hot iron stove.
bring in the axe, the rake,
we’ll lean on the wall
against each other
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark