Tag Archives: Ancient history

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.

How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs

How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself by Mark Collier and Bill Manley, illustrated by Richard Parkinson, from University of California Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room. There is a more recently revised edition than the one in the collection.

Mark Collier Bill Manley How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs from University of California Press

“Can you imagine yourself visiting a vast Egyptian monument and puzzling over the hieroglyphs inscribed on its walls? Have you stood awestruck before an ancient tablet in a museum case, wishing you could read the inscription for yourself?

With the help of this practical step-by-step guide, museum-goers, tourists, and armchair travelers can learn the language and culture of ancient Egypt.

Mark Collier and Bill Manley’s novel and straightforward approach is informed by years of experience teaching Egyptian hieroglyphs to non-specialists. They use clear and attractive drawing of actual inscriptions displayed in the British Museum and concentrate on the kinds of monuments readers might encounter in other museum collections—especially funerary inscriptions, coffins, and tomb scenes. Each chapter introduces a new aspect of hieroglyphic script or Middle Egyptian grammar and provides practical exercises to improve reading skills.

The supporting notes led insight into the concerns, rituals, and daily experiences of the authors of ancient texts. The material touches on topic ranging from the pharaonic administration to family life in ancient Egypt to the Egyptian way of death. With this book as our guide, you will be able to confidently translate hieroglyphs found on Egyptian art and artifacts in museums around the world.” — back cover

Delphi

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World by Michael Scott, from Princeton University Press, is a recent release that may be of interest [HT Corinthian Matters].

Michael Scott Delphi from Princeton University Press

“The oracle and sanctuary of the Greek god Apollo at Delphi were known as the ‘omphalos’—the ‘center’ or ‘navel’—of the ancient world for more than 1000 years. Individuals, city leaders, and kings came from all over the Mediterranean and beyond to consult Delphi’s oracular priestess; to set up monuments to the gods in gold, ivory, bronze, marble, and stone; and to take part in athletic and musical competitions. This book provides the first comprehensive narrative history of this extraordinary sanctuary and city, from its founding to its modern rediscovery, to show more clearly than ever before why Delphi was one of the most important places in the ancient world for so long.

In this richly illustrated account, Michael Scott covers the whole history and nature of Delphi, from the literary and archaeological evidence surrounding the site, to its rise as a center of worship with a wide variety of religious practices, to the constant appeal of the oracle despite her cryptic prophecies. He describes how Delphi became a contested sacred site for Greeks and Romans and a storehouse for the treasures of rival city-states and foreign kings. He also examines the eventual decline of the site and how its meaning and importance have continued to be reshaped right up to the present. Finally, for the modern visitor to Delphi, he includes a brief guide that highlights key things to see and little-known treasures.

A unique window into the center of the ancient world, Delphi will appeal to general readers, tourists, students, and specialists.”