Tag Archives: Ancient & Classical Literature

The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stephanie Lynn Budin.

Budin The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

A few words to describe Budin’s The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity: scholarly, thorough, agonistic, persuasive. As is obvious from the title, the author provides a revisionist approach to a matter that has been taken as factual in many modern histories of the ancient world. Readers should note that she defines sacred prostitution in a very circumscribed fashion, to mean “the sale of a person’s body for sex, where some or all of the money is dedicated to a deity” (261)–of the sort described most notably in Herodotos’ account of Babylon. She does not evaluate the likelihood or possibility of temples as places of sanctioned erotic assignation, or sexual sacraments such as hierogamies, nor does she argue against the sexual element in the worship of the generative powers in antiquity.

According to Budin, the modern expositions of the “sacred prostitution” myth gather their initial steam at the outset of the 19th century, with key inflections occurring later in the contexts of Frazerian anthropology and Neopagan religion. She recounts the origins of skepticism on the issue among scholars studying the ancient Near East, and describes the tenacity of the notion among classicists. 

Most of the book is given over to close examinations and contextualizations of the putative evidence from ancient sources. These are tackled in roughly chronological sequence from Herodotos on. Within the chronology, they are often sorted by geography. This organization permits the collation and comparison of accounts regarding Corinth specifically (260-265), or, say, Heliopolis (276-283). 

In many cases, Budin demonstrates that sacred prostitution has been a matter of misguided inference, and that it actually fails to appear in many texts often-cited to support its reality. In those cases where it does appear, it is unsupported by firsthand testimony, and can be explained in terms of accusational rhetoric and/or quasi-historical fabulation. Even then, the tendency to view it as an actual phenomenon (rather than a rhetorical product) owes more to modern interpreters than to ancient efforts to deceive.

Budin has certainly done her homework. One of the passages I found most impressive and intriguing was her philological re-estimation of the term hierodule. While the prevalence of the sacred prostitution hypothesis has led classicists to understand this term almost uniformly as designating a temple slave with typically sexual duties, Budin demonstrates from scholarship grounded in primary materials that the more likely significance of the term is to describe a former slave who had been manumitted through a mechanism of religious authority (184-189). 

The book is replete with intriguing references. Not only is the immediate topic of great interest, but the whole affair serves as an excellent cautionary example of how a robust historical consensus can be constructed on the basis of shockingly weak primary evidence, to the point where revision like Budin’s is called for.