Thursday, April 21, 2011

Orgies-R-Us: Sex, Lies, and Prostitutes in Canaanite Religion

The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin, 1633-4
Temple prostitution and Canaanite religion go together like water and oil. Wait, water and oil don’t mix? Then yes, I have the correct metaphor. It may be common knowledge that the Canaanites practiced temple prostitution and sacred sex, but it was also common knowledge once that the earth is flat. Here we’ll be looking at evidence and historiography for sacred sexuality in ancient Canaan, and applying what this means in modern Paganism and modern Canaanite religion today.

Before taking a closer look at the issue, let’s consider provisional definitions for three aspects of sacred sexuality:

• Sacred Prostitution, Temple Prostitution
Budin defines sacred prostitution as “the sale of a person’s body for sexual purposes were some portion (if not all) of the money or goods received for this transaction belongs to a deity. […] At least three separate types of sacred prostitution are recorded in the Classical sources. One is a once-in-a-lifetime prostitution/or sale of virginity in honor of a goddess.[…] A second type of sacred prostitution involves women (and men?) who are professional prostitutes and who are owned by a deity or a deity’s sanctuary. finally, there are references to a temporary type of sacred prostitution, where the women (and men?) are either prostitutes for a limited period of time before being married, or only prostitute themselves during certain rituals.”1

• Hieros Gamos, the “Sacred Marriage”
Encyclopedia Britannica defines hieros gamos as “sexual relations of fertility deities in myths and rituals, characteristic of societies based on cereal agriculture, especially in the Middle East. At least once a year, divine persons (e.g. humans representing the deities) engage in sexual intercourse, which guarantees the fertility of the land, the prosperity of the community, and the continuation of the cosmos.”2 Typically, it is believed that this act occurs between a king and a priestess representing a goddess, thereby symbolically conferring the king’s authority and the deities’ blessing.

• Sacred Sex, Ritual Sex
These two “catch-all” phrases refer to sexual intercourse performed in a religious setting, or for religious reasons, or both. As such, they are broad terms which encompass both sacred prostitution and hieros gamos.

Temple Prostitution and Sacred Sex: Scholarship
After years of research, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is unlikely that temple prostitution, heiros gamos, or sacred sex existed formally in Bronze Age Canaanite religion. What I find interesting is that I came to my conclusions prior to reading Stephanie Budin’s work The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, in which she draws similar conclusions based on an argument akin to mine.3 To me, this demonstrates that there is worth in reexamining the long-held notion of temple prostitution and sacred sex in Canaanite religion specifically and in ancient Near Eastern religions in general. The information on sacred sex in Canaan can be traced to the following items, or a combination of these items:

1) Biblical polemic
2) Herodotus, or other Classical bias4
3) Victorian scholars, especially the Frazerian Myth and Ritual School5
4) Other scholars who rely on 1, 2, or 3. (Scholars like Albright, Gordon, Gaster, et cetera), their theories, and their resulting translations of primary texts
5) Further scholarship or translations that build on work from scholars in item 4.

Refutation of Evidence
1) Information from the Bible is inaccurate in regards to historical fact--biblical authors had a particular story to tell and told it in the way they needed to. They weren’t interested in preserving unbiased historical accuracy for the ages.6 There may be grains of truth in biblical texts, but they are only grains and they are difficult or impossible to separate from narrative.

In another layer of meaning, the ancient Israelites likened their relationship, their covenant, with their chief god as similar to a marriage contract.7 A polytheist was considered a “whore” because a polytheist who worships gods other than the chief god of the Israelites commits a breach of the marriage-like covenant and is therefore symbolically “whoring” himself to other gods and committing an act of spiritual adultery.8

2) Modern scholars often take Herodotus’s accounts critically.9 His history on the subject of sacred prostitution is viewed as about as accurate as the history told by the Bible, and these Classical sources are not first-hand accounts nor are they primary sources.10 It is likely that his tale about how every Babylonian woman was mandated to serve as a temple prostitute and required to have sex with the first man to toss a coin in her lap, is a tall tale. The notion of
being forced to have sexual relations because of a state religious mandate is in opposition to rights of personal freedom. Indeed, it’s a form of theocratic government-sanctioned rape. It is not liberation when a person is told what she must do with her own body--on a related note, tales of Cybele and Attis supposedly involve self-castration: I don’t see volunteers eager to reconstruct this practice.

3) The sexually repressed Victorians allowed their own fascinations colored their theories, theories which have formed the basis for other scholarship. The Victorians developed and added to what they “knew” from biblical propaganda and Classical authors’ secondary accounts, then emphasized themes of fertility as represented by sexuality.11 In addition, the scholars of this time and into the early twentieth century supported the biblical notions of Canaanite religion as “depraved.”12 Yet we know from primary texts that the Canaanites had a sense of ethics similar to their Israelite and Phoenician descendants.13

4) These ideas on sacred sexuality as applied to ancient Canaanite culture came about before primary texts on Canaanite religion—written records from the rediscovered city of Ugarit—were excavated and translated.14 However, the first translations of these primary texts demonstrate a presupposition of these early concepts and biases. Early translators took into account the theories of sacred sexuality and fertility at the time and fished for evidence to prove the concept, which would verify Classic scholars and the Bible. This is bad scientific theory: one’s hypothesis should not presuppose a foregone conclusion and a scholar should not examine and interpret the evidence with a conclusion in mind.

5) Scholars rely on previous scholarship, and if the previous scholarship is problematic, it is incumbent upon the scholars to examine and resolve the problems. However a good dose of common assumption (the old “everybody knows...” and “it’s common knowledge...” argument) causes these problems to remain unexamined and often unknown. Without reexamination, scholars build on a house of cards. Sacred sex in Canaan has been a common assumption for so long that some scholars don’t bother to footnote where they get this idea, but when it is footnoted it’s from a combination of items 1-4. Any scholar who doesn’t do independent research often must rely on another scholar who likely makes use of items 1-5 and thus she unknowingly perpetuates the same misinformation as do the scholars who come after her.15

What we end up with is circular reasoning and a self-perpetuating historiographical mess.

Elusive Prostitutes and Sacred Marriages: Evidence?
The primary Canaanite material mentions one class of priests that has been labeled as temple prostitutes by later scholarship, and there is one ritual text that if read in a particular fashion is thought to reflect a heiros gamos

The “Sacred Prostitutes”: QedeshimThere’s a term in Ugaritic which also occurs in Hebrew: q-d-sh (קדש ), most often vocalized as qedesh, qodesh, qadish, or qedesh; also as q-d-sh-m ( קדשם) the qedeshim (Hebrew) or qadishuma (Ugaritic)--the “-im” or “-uma” makes the word plural, the words qedeshah or qadishtu are the feminine singular forms of this word. This term is often translated as “hierodule,” i.e. “sacred prostitute.” The root word, q-d-sh translates as “holy, consecrated” and implies a sense of sacredness, of being set apart, and is used to identify clergy.16 To discredit polytheistic clergy, biblical scribes pair the word qadesh with the word zona, which means “prostitute.”17 Using the terms qadesh and zona together in a poetic technique called parallelism gives the impression that the terms are connected even if they are not: consider President G.W. Bush saying 9-11, Al Qaeda, and Iraq frequently together. The reason for the qadesh = zona equation originates from the biblical notion that a polytheist commits spiritual adultery by worshipping gods other than the chief god of Israel.18

All we know for certain about the qadish-priests comes from Canaanite-Ugaritic primary texts: the qadish-priests sing. They serve as cantors or as the choir, and possibly also as diviners.19 We have musical scores20 left behind from the city of Ugarit so I think it is unlikely that “sing” or “hymn” was a euphemism for sex. Nowhere and in no way do primary texts from Canaan associate qadish-priests with sacred sex.

In Ugaritic texts, the use of the word qadish or qadishuma is always masculine, thus we have no way of knowing whether this word includes females among this clergical class or not. Branching out beyond Canaan and into Mesopotamia, we have some evidence of qadishtu-priestesses: a qadishtu-priestess was of upper class; she could marry or be independent but she was typically disallowed from having children.21 She worked primarily as a midwife.22 A Mesopotamian unmarried naditu-priestess outranked the qadishtu-priestess; the naditu was expected to refrain from sex and she may have lived in a cloister.23 If the qadish-priests were serving in a primary capacity as sexual functionaries, then it’s likely that the scribes would have noted this in a more obvious way, as forthright as the Ugaritans were regarding sex and their deities.

A Sacred Marriage?
One text found amidst a body of about one thousand five hundred and fifty texts, if read with a preconceived assumption of sacred sexuality (see items 1-5 above), may indicate a hieros gamos. The text says: “On the nineteenth day of the month, you are to prepare the bed of Pidray with the king’s bedcovers.” One enigmatic sentence in one text amidst over a thousand texts. The rest of this text concerns to offerings during the month.24

There is no clear indication of what is taking place nor how the activity is carried out. If this is a hieros gamos, is the king having sex with a priestess—even though there is no solid evidence yet of priestesses except perhaps the king’s mother in Canaan?25 Is the sex purely symbolic, such as a Wiccan chalice-and-wand or athame practice? Or is this a practice where the king sleeps in a specially prepared bed to facilitate oracular dreams, and there is no sex either physically or symbolically occurring? We simply know too little to speculate. And to say that this text is solid proof of heiros gamos is to overstate the evidence.

Through Modern Eyes
I think some modern Pagans may forget that not only does sex = pleasure, but also sex = fertility, not just earth/land fertility, but human fertility. It seems some become fixated on the pleasures of sex (understandably so!), or tied to wanting to be and feel sexy. Some folks feel that they are incorporating the fertility aspect by honoring the growth of fields, fruits, and such. It is interesting to note that the theory of sacred sexuality as assuring the fertility of the land came about in the late 19th century CE, and may not have been originally an ancient idea after all.26

But I think some forget about human fertility: man + woman = baby. In the ancient world, birth control methods weren’t as reliable as modern methods, so heterosexual sex often resulted in pregnancy and birth and society would have to face legal and social concerns regarding children born of unions with hierodules.

Adultery was a punishable offense, especially for women, in ancient Near East and Middle East societies.27 Having a baby before marriage wasn’t exactly thought of as ideal, either. We should consider that at least in ancient Israelite culture, a man would be required to marry an unwed woman if he raped her.28 In ancient times, another man may not have wanted to marry a rape victim because he is unsure that a child born is his offspring and not the child of another man. If the unfortunate woman could not find a husband because of rape, she could become destitute because women often relied on their husbands for financial stability. At least having the rapist take care of her financially meant she wouldn’t be poor and starving on the streets, so this was a form of restitution, albeit an imperfect one.

The same rule about marriage likely applies if premarital sex was consensual, also because another man couldn’t be certain that the offspring was his otherwise.29 I think that an ancient Middle Eastern or Near Eastern man might have balked at the idea of nurturing and feeding an heir that wasn’t his own, unless he had no children and chose to adopt.

Some would point out that there was a caste of male hierodules who would have sex with men (these were the qedeshim, as explained above), so sex may not necessarily lead to offspring. As discussed above, the idea of qedeshim as hierodules (male or female) is mistaken. In addition it’s likely few ancient men would have been thrilled at a government-imposed obligation to have sex with the first man who would throw a coin in his lap, either.

If sacred prostitution were widespread and pervasive, legal codes should also demonstrate evidence.30 Law should answer questions such as: What to do with the children born of these unions? How were state orphanages organized, or were there laws requiring a man to adopt a child born of his union with a sacred prostitute (but then again, how would he know it was his child?). Must a husband to adopt the child his wife conceived while she served as a sacred prostitute? If a woman were unmarried, would her father or future husband have to adopt the baby? Would an unmarried woman be able to get married after serving her duties and possibly having a baby, or would she be looked upon no longer as marriageable? Canaanite and Mesopotamian records don’t mention these issues; another argument of silence, but the silence of primary texts is damning enough to cast doubt on a “common” and “widespread” practice. It’s clear that animal sacrifice and honoring moon phases are common Canaanite practices: primary texts document these practices plentifully,31 but there’s nothing about sacred sex.

In conclusion, the evidence and primary texts simply do not support the claims of sacred sex or temple prostitution in ancient Canaan.

Reevaluating Women and Sacred Prostitution in Paganism
It seems that in some circles of modern Pagandom, sacred prostitution is a sacred cow. And in reexamining whether or not sacred prostitution has an ancient precedent, people get as upset as if one brought up the “burning times” issue. Tempers rise and people may start flinging around the label “prude” as venomously as once others flung the label “whore.” That’s still indicative of defining a woman (or a goddess) through her sexuality, and only in two mutually exclusive categories: that has never been healthy. It is even now unhealthy; and it further obscures honest examination of the issue.

The concept of temple prostitution does not sexually liberate women because it continues the emphasis on a woman’s sexuality instead of focusing on a woman as a whole being and her many roles. Indeed, these questions don’t appear nearly as often for men as for women. As Budin concludes, “In the efforts to find a spirituality that values the (female) body and its sexuality, members of the New Age movement (and others) have retrojected this desire onto what is apparently the only comparable ancient institution. And, in so doing, they have completely re-created the myth. Although this recreation may serve positive psychological functions in modern times—several attestations do indicate this—it only serves to hamper the study of the actual ancient evidence.”32

Canaanite Revivalist Community and Sacred Prostitution
As for what I think all this means to the Canaanite religion revivalist/Natib Qadish community, specifically:

I’m suspicious that on occasion some folks seek modern Canaanite religion in hopes that we’ll declare a sexual free-for-all in the glorious name of a mythic past. There’s been too much biased information out there for too long, and I wonder if because of this accidental misinformation or out-right propaganda some people hope that we’re Orgies-R-Us. Some may consider modern Canaanite religion because they want to defy the establishment and their religious roots, Western culture, or authority; and/or want something ancient and religious to legitimize what they already do sexually. In my opinion, changing religion primarily just to rebel doesn’t usually make for a good reason to convert, and neither does sex. If people need a historic religious precedent --i.e. permission--to make natural human decisions about sexuality, then they may not be as disassociated from values they seek to reject.

The evidence for temple prostitution, heiros gamos, and sacred sex in Canaan simply cannot support the fantastical claims, thus sex rites were not likely a part of Canaanite religion and are not a part of modern pagan Canaanite religion today.

Final Thoughts
If people want to have modern sacred sexual rituals without any claim to Canaanite practices, that’s great—whatever shakes their sistrums.

However, modern claims asserting a historic Canaanite precedent for sacred sex are misinformed, claims of a modern Canaanite sexual clergy are misinformed, and claims of enacting Canaanite religious sexual practices are also misinformed. Despite genuineness of any practitioners and the best of motives, any modern sex rite based on “ancient Canaanite religion” is misleading. With all the confusion throughout scholarship, it understandable that these misinterpretations happen and that people are unknowingly misled.

I think we have to entertain the idea that if sacred sex was not occurring in the deities’ ancient temples and religion, then perhaps the deities do not want these practices their modern sacred temple spaces or religious practices. Simply because Bronze Age Canaanite religion has no evidence for temple prostitution or sacred sex doesn’t make sex any less sacred, pleasurable, wonderful, and honored by the deities than it already was and still is.

Endnotes for Orgies-R-Us: Sex, Lies, and Prostitutes in Canaanite Religion
1 Stephanie Budin. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, USA, 2008, p. 3.
2 Encyclopedia Britannica, Online:
3 Budin defines three kinds of sacred prostitution, as listed above in the definition of the term “sacred prostitution,” and she concludes that “sacred prostitution never existed in the ancient Near East or Mediterranean.” (p.1)
Although I am not ready to make such a sweeping conclusion based on my limited knowledge, It is my conclusion that there is no evidence that any one of these three categories of sacred prostitution Budin listed existed in ancient Canaanite religion of the Bronze Age as exhibited in primary texts, and in addition to this there is also a lack of evidence of heiros gamos or sacred sex in general in an ancient Canaanite religious context.
4 For a further exploration and refutation of sacred prostitution in other Classical sources such as Lucian, Jeremiah, the Pindar fragment, Strabo, Klearkhos, Justinus, and Valerius Maximus, see Budin, Chapters 5-8.
5 See Budin 287-289 for examining how refuting sacred prostitution was less like through Victorian thought than its acceptance. See also Budin 312-315 for a further treatment on sacred prostitution and scholar James G. Frazer.
6 Jonathan N. Tubb. Canaanites. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1998, p. 16-17.
7 Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East. E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2003, p. 114, 116.
8 Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd Enlarged Edition. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI, 1990, p. 284.
9 Marsman 497-8. Herodotus dismissed as Greek propaganda.
10 Budin 12: “…there were, in fact, no references to sacred prostitution that claimed ‘we’ did it [i.e. primary sources]. Texts and inscriptions that referred to sacred prostitution in the here and now were either mistranslations or misattributions of the reference. (For example, Pindar did not refer to the prostitutes with whom he was drinking as sacred; Athenaios did, some 600 years later. …)”
11 Dever 216-7; Marsman 497-8.
12 Mark S. Smith. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1-1.2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands, 1994, p. xxvii.
13 Gregorio del Olmo Lete. Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 2004, p. 156, 158.
14 About 1550 Ugaritic texts have been discovered since the first excavations began in the area in 1928: these texts include about 50 poetic literary texts detailing mythology, and the rest concern themselves with ritual, omens, medicine, governmental administration, and scribal exercises. Pierre Bordreuil and Dennis Pardee. A Manual of Ugaritic. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, USA, 2009, p. 9.
15“…the myth of sacred prostitution is quite tendentious, and Mayer Gruber was quite apt in describing it as a computer virus ‘copied from gook to book.’” Budin 17.
16 Stanislav Segert. A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1984, 1997, p. 199.
17 Marsman 497.
18 For a full exploration of the association of zona (whore) with qadish (priest), and an in-depth treatment of polytheistic worship as a form of “adultery” in the Bible, see Budin 35-42.
19 See Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, USA, 2002, p. 38 for primary source material, see also Pardee 271-272, entries for “qdš” and “sing.” For further treatment of the term qadishtu as used in context in Mesopotamia, see Budin 23-4, for Canaanite and early Israelite context see p. 34-35.For further information, see also Marsman 520.
20 See or or for various interpretations of the same musical score of a Hurrian hymn from Ugarit.
21 This priestess role appears in Akkadian and Hebrew texts, but not in Ugaritic. Marsman 520. See also Budin, 23-6.
22 Marsman 501-3.
23 Marsman 501-3. For more information about the Phoenician Kelev, kalbu, kalbim, kelevim, or kalbuma, which mean “dog” or “dogs,” either the zona = kalbu, like the zona = qedesh equation is used in the Bible to discredit them, and/or it is likely that they are simply dogs, see Budin 47. The only time “dog” is mentioned in Ugaritic ritual texts—to my knowledge—is when Yarikh the moon god is likened to a dog in a marzichu text. Yarikh’s actions are clearly described as those of a dog waiting under the table for scraps, and this text takes place outside official temple context, so it cannot reflect a practice of temple prostitution. For this marzichu text, see Pardee, p. 168.
24 Pardee 98. For a further discussion of the Bed of Pidray text as a heiros gamos, or instead equally likely as an oracular rite, see Pardee p. 96-7.
25 Ahlström in Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995, p. 586.
26 Budin 328.
27 Budin 32. Sometimes adultery was punishable by death, Marsman 173.
28 Marsman 716.
29 Marsman 83, 462,
30 “The extreme concern shown by the legal documents over the legitimacy and parentage of children strongly argues against the notion that there was an entire potential class of bastards functioning invisibly in Mesopotamian society.”Budin 32.
31See Pardee’s text Ritual and Cult at Ugarit for several examples of offering, animal sacrifice, and monthly celebrations.
32 Budin 333.


  1. A good article :-)

    I do have a professor at college who said in class once that, although he also does not believe that sacred prostitution or anything like that was a widespread practice, that there was a temple in Nippur I think (but I'm not sure) where primary sources do indicate sacred prostitution to have taken place. And they even indicate that the women with enough money at their disposal could hire a stand-in to perform the duty in her place. Apparently some stand-ins where professionals. I'll ask him about it when I see him again. This is in southern Mesopotamia though.

  2. I would love to see this article. If you find it again, please send it my way. Thanks!

  3. I have to admit to having been more willing to accept sources indicating that this was done in Canaan. Especially in a society and among people who are getting over the comparative sexual restrictiveness of Abrahamic religion, such tales of sexual rites seem both refreshing and well, titillating.
    But really, you don't need a religious justification to, ah, shake your sistrum (or let someone else shake it)
    or [insert *tee-hee* other sexual euphemisms using ancient objects here. Or here. Or there, just make sure to use lube!].

    Now, by ithyphallic Min and by Amun Kamutef,and by Bull of His Mother, Nebet-Hetepet, what you REALLY need a religious justification for is to REVILE sexuality as sinful and bad! ;)

    P.S. Smite you later!

  4. "-on a related note, tales of Cybele and Attis supposedly involve self-castration: I don’t see volunteers eager to reconstruct this practice." Once again, trans people throughout history suffer erasure at the hands of modern scholars. Your ignorance and flippant transphobia regarding the priestesses of Cybele casts a doubt on the reliability of the rest of your article.

    1. Hello, Jeanne. When I say "I don't see volunteers eager to reconstruct this practice," I am stating that I am unaware that there are people in our day and age who specifically reconstruct this practice, doing this act "specifically in honor of a deity" and *specifically in the context of honoring a deity*, rather than doing these acts for many other reasons and then perhaps honoring a deity in the act more as an afterthought. If there are folks who do reconstruct this practice and do it *specifically for honoring the deity* in a context *specifically for the purpose of dedicating oneself to that deity* I would value this knowledge.

  5. "The notion of
    being forced to have sexual relations because of a state religious mandate is in opposition to rights of personal freedom. Indeed, it’s a form of theocratic government-sanctioned rape. It is not liberation when a person is told what she must do with her own body" And your point is? lol, ancient Mesopotamia was not a liberal democratic society. Exploitation of human beings took place, especially women. Maybe I am misinterpreting you, but you seem to imply that just because such a practice would go against our humanistic values, therefore it could not be possible that such practises took place?

    1. ...and my point is this: Many people of our day and age tend to look through "rosy glasses" at a (theoretical) ancient governmental requirement such as this as a "form of sexual liberation"--an attitude which I have seen on more than one occasion. A governmental mandate to engage in sex is not a form of "sexual liberation." Absolutely exploitation of people took place in many forms throughout ancient history (and plenty in modern history as well)--my critique is aimed at modern folk who would look at this (alleged?) ancient governmental mandate as "liberation." There is plenty in ancient history which goes against our values today; to assume that something didn't take place in ancient history because our values differ today would be erroneous. I am not using modern values projected onto the past to conclude that "sacred prostitution" was unlikely. I conclude that such a practice *was not likely* to have taken place because the *evidence* for it taking place is faulty.