Ritual Prostitution, Sacred Prostitution, Temple Prostitution
It is no exaggeration to say that ritual prostitution - also called temple- or sacred
prostitution - was known to cultures on each and every continent of planet Earth. Most famous
and most often published are the known facts from and about the cultures bordering the
Mediterranean Sea, be they European, African, or Near Eastern. But also India, Oceania, and the
Americas know their "sacred harlots", whatever local name or titles they may have responded to.
Although in the course of time many of these may have become less sacred and more commercial,
the beginnings of this custom were quite certainly religious. Often the line between ritual,
secular, or bridal prostitution is difficult to draw; and customs that involve ritual
promiscuity also often overlap with this present subject of inquiry.
Follows a small list of examples from different continents:
1. Far East
In India, temple prostitution was a requirement for all Santal girls at Telkupi Ghat, who were under the obligation to be a public prostitute at least once in their lives; similar to the duties prescribed for all women of Babylon. Among the caste of weavers in Tamil Nadu, it is regarded as proper and normal that at least one daughter of the family be dedicated to the service of the god as one of his hierodules, and the girls are vowed to such service from birth. Southern India also knows the bayaderes, or nautch girls, who are part prostitutes part temple dancers similar to the devadasis; all of which are so-called wives of god - and/or the king.
A special case is the Kumari puja, a ritual defloration involving young virgins, and the Nila Tantra requires that such a kumari (virgin) be given a "fee in gold, silver or pearls".
[Banerjee, S. C. A Brief History of Tantra Literature. Calcutta, 1988. p.251]
Apart from this, the involved devotee is held responsible for all expenses of the girl’s future marriage.
See also Veshya (India).
2. Near East and Europe
Historians such as Strabo (63 BCE–21 CE) and Herodotus (484–420 BCE) have supplied us with a long list of peoples and places where ritual prostitution has been practiced. They claim, however, that such practices did not happen in Greece and Egypt. This is simply a chauvinist notion and an apologetic attempt at concealment, which can easily be proven to be false. They tell us that such practices had been known in Armenia, throughout Assyria, and among the Canaanites and the Jews; in Lydia (Turkey) and at Carthage (North Africa), Eryx (Sicily) and Pontus (on the eastern shore of Black Sea). Other sources inform us of its occurrence at Mecca, the ghowazi, and in Egypt (Briffault, vol. 3, p. 214).
In Greece, the goddess Cotytto was a guardian of prostitutes; and most famous are the priestesses of Aphrodite - several times named as goddess of prostitutes - and her temple in Corinth (Greece); a city famous for its legions of both sacred and secular prostitutes. On the island of Cyprus, too, the temples of Aphrodite were served by such women. Farther west, among the Romans, we find sacred hierodules on the Italian mainland and in Sicily; with the goddesses Acca Larentia and Venus being thus worshipped.
3. The Americas
Among the Tahu tribe of western Mexico, the girls designated for the sacred office of priestess were held in high esteem and were consecrated with much ceremony at great annual festivals, when all tribal chiefs of the area were present. After the public celebration, with songs and dances, the girl retired to a special hut "and the chiefs went one by one to lie with her and all the others who wish to do so follow them" (Castaneda de Nacera, quoted in Briffault, Vol. 3, p. 214). Having thus become priestesses and ritual prostitutes, for the rest of their lifetimes these women never refused anyone who payed a certain amount. Even after they may have married, permitted after a number of years, this obligation undertaken at their consecration did not end.
5. North Africa
Not only in India do certain clans or castes regularly and traditionally bring forth ritual prostitutes. The women of the Algerian clan of the Walad ’Abdi practiced this profession and were regarded as holy. However, here it somewhat resembles secular prostitution; as the social standing and prosperity of the whole clan depend upon their services. The fact that these women are thought "holy", however, shows the religious roots of the practice and is certainly to be prefered to anything our modern, "civilized" countries have "achieved".