Wherever we find evidence of human culture, we find evidence of prostitution. When the earliest known human societies emerged in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, the sex trade evolved alongside temples, customs, markets and laws.
Beginning in the third millennium B.C, the Sumerians, the first major inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, worshipped the goddess Ishtar, a deity that would remain a constant throughout Mesopotamia’s Babylonian and Assyrian empires.
Ishtar was the goddess of love and war, symbolized by the planet Venus, and was born anew as a maiden every morning only to become a ‘whore’ every evening – the etymology of the word lying in the Indo-European root meaning ‘desire.’
Ironically, Mesopotamian religious practices gave birth to the prostitution trade, as women in Ishtar’s service would help men who offered money to her temples with the ‘sacred’ powers of their bodies. Achieving a priority of communication with the goddess of their fertility, only women enjoyed this religious position.
Thus Ishtar temples became knowledge centres concerning birth, birth control, and sexuality. Priestesses became the nurses and sacred sex therapists of these early societies. Men of all rank could hire these women and, in turn, make an offering to the goddess from whose temple the prostitute came.
The king would also take part in certain sacred sex rituals with the high priestesses in conjunction with grain harvests: the fertility of the earth was secured through a ritual that celebrated the fertility of the womb. The king, regent of the earth, and priestess, regent of the goddess, coupled in this highly symbolic manner that celebrates the sexual process that brought both grain and people into being.
Thus Ishtar became known as the protector of all prostitutes. Prostitution, or at least the religious prostitution involved in these sacred sex rituals, existed without taboo or prohibition, as evidenced in some of our species’ earliest literary works.
- India’s complex history of prostitution has, at one time or another, featured around nine different tiers of sex workers. At the bottom, you’d find devadasis, originating from the untouchable caste.
- Unwillingly sold by their parents at ages as low as four, these women are forever pledged to the goddess of fertility, Yellamma. As they’re unable to marry mortal men, they work until they’re no longer considered young and attractive, and are cast out to live the remainder of their lives as beggars.
- At the highest tier was the ganika. Masters of 64 types of performing arts, ganika had an extensive knowledge of music, painting, theatre, and poetry.
- Whereas common prostitutes found themselves residing in overcrowded brothels, these elite courtesans took residence in well-furnished homes and even had their own servants. Since they stood as women of not just beauty, but refined intellect and skill, they were respected enough to be brought to public functions, such as festivals and parties.