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Archive for December 23rd, 2010

The scientific mind is atrophied, and suffers under inherited cerebral weakness, when it comes in contact with the eternal woman—Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite, and the last and greatest deity of all, the Virgin. –  Henry Adams

In ancient Rome today was Larentalia, the festival of an apotheosized courtesan named Acca Larentia; she was referred to as the “most noble whore” and was sometimes associated with Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.  As I discussed in my column of November 3rd there were a number of Roman goddesses who were associated with prostitution; Bona Dea’s rituals included what we would now call “two-girl shows”, Flora’s involved public orgies, Fortuna Virilis was worshipped by dedicated acts of low-class prostitution in public baths, and Ceres and Isis allowed streetwalkers to entertain their clients in the temples.  But the most important Roman whore-goddess was of course Venus, goddess of love and beauty and, in her aspects of Venus Erycina (Venus of Eryx) and Venus Volgivava (Venus the Streetwalker), patroness of all whores.

The Roman Venus was a complex goddess of many faces, including Venus Felix (Lucky Venus), a protective aspect, and Venus Genetrix (Ancestral Venus), one of the patrons of Rome due to the Caesars’ descent from her through her son Aeneas.  It is likely that this complexity is due to Venus actually being a fusion of a native Italian goddess with the Etruscan goddess Turan and the Greek Aphrodite, who had a much more unified sphere of influence.  Aphrodite was the goddess of love and sex and the patroness of prostitutes, and her temples were home to some of the last true temple prostitutes in the Western world (though it is possible the institution existed in a limited form in Roman temples of Venus and Isis).  Though in the classical era temple prostitutes were mostly slaves, in earlier times they were free-willed priestesses in the ancient tradition.  It is certainly possible that some of the lore taught to young hetaerae in the gynoecia had been handed down from the sacred whores of the Homeric period, and was in turn passed on to the venerii of Rome.

Yet though Aphrodite was unencumbered by the wide range of duties which befell her in later days as Venus, she still partook of the darkness inherent in sexuality and some of the myths surrounding her hearken back to a time when sex was bound up with the fertility of the crops and sex-goddesses were also vegetation goddesses.  The most important of these was of course the myth of Adonis, the young and virile lover of Aphrodite, who was gored in the groin by a wild boar and died; the goddess mourned over him, then descended into the underworld to restore him to life.  Adonis of course represents vegetation, cut down in the autumn by the scythe, then restored through human nurturance in the spring.  As you have probably already guessed, the winter solstice was the time at which his cult changed from mourning his death to looking forward to his rebirth; it may also interest you to know that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over a cave that was originally a shrine to Adonis.

Students of mythology will recognize the close resemblance between the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis and that of Isis and Osiris, but this may simply be due to the fact that they represent the same natural process; Aphrodite was previously called Astarte, under which name she was worshipped all over the eastern Mediterranean (especially Phoenicia and Cyprus).  Sacred prostitution first entered the Greek world via her cult, and though as Aphrodite she was only the lover of the war god (Ares), as Astarte she was a war-goddess in her own right.  But Astarte was really only the Phoenician form of the goddess’ older Babylonian name: Ishtar, goddess of love, fertility and war and the courtesan of the gods.

Though Ishtar had been worshipped by sacred prostitution in her earlier incarnation as the Sumerian Inanna, the practice reached its height in Babylon (which is perhaps why the goddess is remembered in Christian mythology as the Whore of Babylon).  Besides the many full-time temple whores (ishtaritu), some sources indicate that every Babylonian woman was expected to perform the rite with a stranger at least once in her life.  But unlike the popular modern view of prostitution as degradation, the ishtaritu and other women who made this spiritual pilgrimage were honored as following in the footsteps of the goddess, who is quoted on a tablet as saying “a compassionate prostitute am I.”  One of her bynames, Har, is said to be related to the word “harlot” and possibly even “whore”.  The act of sacred prostitution was a way for women to identify with the goddess and thereby receive her blessing of fertility, and for men to be blessed via conjugation with Ishtar’s representative, the sacred whore.  And though the fertility aspect was in later times assigned mostly to other goddesses, in Ishtar’s time it was her responsibility alone; one of her most important myths tells how she descended into the underworld to rescue her dead lover, the vegetation-god Tammuz, who was either killed by a bear or, in some versions, by a thoughtless act on Ishtar’s part.

The whore-goddess became less cruel as she aged; while Venus was merely capricious Aphrodite was fickle and catty, Astarte was actually warlike and Ishtar could be downright treacherous; clearly this cruelty was tied to her fertility aspect, because it decreased over time as she abdicated those duties to other divinities.  So as we might expect, in her earliest remembered form (the Sumerian Inanna) she is so volatile and callous that it is she who causes the death of her husband Damuzi and thereby triggers the death of the vegetation.  Inanna was held so responsible for fertility that her high priestesses regularly had ritual sex with the king in order to make the crops grow and to anoint the king with Inanna’s blessings.  But they were not the only ones doing so; sacred prostitution in Inanna’s service was so celebrated in Uruk that it was called “the city of the courtesans”, and was believed to be particularly blessed by the goddess.  And every Akitu (New Years Day), which fell on the vernal equinox, the high priestess would prostitute herself to some lucky young man and attempt to conceive a sacred child by him.  This later evolved into a tradition that all married couples would have sex on that day in order to conceive children under the goddess’ special blessing.

But though the goddess named Inanna, then Ishtar, then Astarte, then Aphrodite and finally Venus is the best-known and most widely-worshipped of the whore-goddesses, there are others as well.  Besides the Roman ones mentioned in the first paragraph there was Basileia, a minor goddess who protected prostitutes and courtesans in Pandemos; Cotytto, who performed the same function in Thrace, Illyria and Dacia; Belili, a minor goddess of Sumeria & Babylon (sister to Damuzi/Tammuz) later worshipped by the Canaanites as Belit; Bebhinn was the Celtic goddess of pleasure and was worshipped by pre-Christian Irish prostitutes, and Xochiquetzal was the Aztec goddess of both prostitutes and pregnancy.  In addition to these, the Hindu god Shiva and his wife Shakti have been worshipped for millennia by the devadasis (“servants of god”), who are both temple dancers and sacred prostitutes who convey the divine female energy to male worshippers through ritual sex.  Devadasis were highly respected; like Catholic nuns they were considered married to the gods, and like courtesans had education and privileges denied to other women.  Some were essentially high-priced “temple courtesans” who entertained an exclusive clientele.  And though thanks to British influence India has made numerous attempts to prohibit temple prostitution (the devadasi system was completely outlawed in 1988), thousands of devadasis continue the practice today anyway; they are the last remnants of a once-respected tradition, the only true sacred prostitutes left in a world which prefers to think of sex as dirty and humiliating rather than recognize it as a gift of the Divine.

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