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Marriage, Divorce and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia

The most shameful custom,” Herodotus called it. He was writing, in his account of the events leading up to the war between Greece and Persia, about the goings-on at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon, in which, he claimed, once in her life every woman had to accept the sexual advances of a stranger in exchange for a silver coin in order to fulfill a duty to the goddess.

The most shameful custom the Babylonians have is this: every native woman must go sit in the temple of Aphrodite, once in her life, and have sex with an adult male stranger. Many of them disdain to mix with the rest, on the high horse of wealth, and so drive to the temple on covered carriages, taking their stand with a large retinue following behind them. But many more do as follows: they sit in the sanctuary of Aphrodite, these many women, their heads crowned with a band of bowstring. Some arrive while others depart. Roped-off thoroughfares give all manner of routes through the women and the strangers pass along them as they make their choice. Once a woman sits down there, she does not go home until a stranger drops money in her lap and has sex with her outside the temple. When he drops it he has to say “I call on the goddess Mylitta.” Assyrians call Aphrodite Mylitta. The money can be any value at all—it is not to be refused, for that is forbidden, for this money becomes sacred. She follows the first one who drops money and rejects none. When she has had sex, she has performed her religious dues to the goddess and goes home; and from that time on you will never make her a big enough gift to have her. All those who have looks and presence quickly get it over with, all those of them who have no looks wait for a long time unable to fulfill the law—some of them wait for a three- or four-year spell.

This is the fifth and last of the Babylonian customs Herodotus found especially worthy of mention. The first and second, which Herodotus deemed the wisest and second wisest customs, involved a bride market with two auctions (one a straightforward bidding for the most beautiful, the other a Dutch auction for the ugliest [1.196]) and a method of medical diagnosis and treatment by which the Babylonians (whom he claimed had no physicians) laid out their sick in the public square to solicit and take the advice of all passersby who had ever suffered from similar ailments (1.197). The third custom noted by Herodotus is that the Babylonians bury their dead in honey (1.198). And the fourth custom of the five described is a post-coital ritual purification involving incense and washing (1.198).

It is certainly no accident that two of the five “customs” involve illness and death and the other three sex and marriage. These are the hot topics, those that attract and hold the attention of an audience. But, as is now generally accepted among scholars, Herodotus was not talking about a historical Babylon at all, but about the non-Greek “other,” about the “anti-type of the Greek polis” by which the Greek population could define itself (Beard and Henderson 1998, 56–79; Kurke 1999). Nonetheless, his fantasies or musings found a receptive audience in antiquity, were echoed in Strabo (16.1.20) and in the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch) 6:43, and retain their prurient appeal even to a modern audience. Although there is not a single modern piece of scholarship that gives any credence at all to any of Herodotus’s other “Babylonian customs”—whether wise or shameful—his story about the ritual defloration and sexual accessibility of common women in the sacred realm (“Babylonian sacred prostitution”) remains stubbornly embedded as an accepted fact in the literature…

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This essay is an excerpt from the BOOK

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