02 July 2011

Holy Hookers and Historical Myths...

I first  heard about Sacred Prostutution a few months before I started university, in an episode of Neil Gaiman and Jill Thompson's 'Brief Lives' storyline in Sandman. The episode, touching on themes that Gaiman would later explore far more fully in American Gods, was at least in part about happens to gods when people stop believing in them. In this case, the Babylonian goddess Astarte, or Ishtar, has been reduced to working in an American strip club, soaking up the 'worship' offered her by her drooling clients.
Temple Prostitution is first attested in the pages of Herodotus, and at the time I first heard of it, I didn't know quite how delightfully unreliable Herodotus is. I happen to like him a lot, and work with him constantly, but one needs to sample him with the saltshaker at the ready. Herodotus talks about sacred prostitution as part of a discursus on Babylon in the first book of his Histories, where he says:
'There is one custom among these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give himself to a strange man.* Many of the rich women, who are too proud to mix the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages with a whole host of servants following behind, and there wait; most, however, sit in the precinct of the temple with a band of plaited string round their heads -- and a great crowd they are, what with some sitting there, others arriving, others going away -- and through them all gangways are marked off running in every direction for the men to pass along and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her. As he throws the coin, the man has to say, 'In the name of the goddess Mylitta' -- that being the Assyrian name for Aphrodite. The value of the coin is of no consequence; once thrown it becomes sacred, and the law forbids that it should ever be refused. The woman has no privilege of choice -- she must go with the first man who throws her the money. When she has lain with him, her duty to the goddess is discharged and she may go home, after which it will be impossible to seduce her by any offer, however large. Tall, handsome women soon manage to get home again, but the ugly ones stay a long time before they can fulfil the condition which the law demands, some of them, indeed, as much as three or four years.'

I was thinking about this recently when I yet again came across someone on the Internet warbling about temple prostitution in ancient Corinth. This is, I'm afraid, a common trope in lazy Christian preaching, and someday I'll get round to tracking down why it's so popular. The guts of the issue is this: Saint Paul, in chapters five to seven of his First Letter to the Corinthians, has a lot to say about sexual immorality in Corinth, and so all too often when people talk about this they wheel out cliches about how Corinth was particularly notorious in the ancient world as a centre of sexual vice, and how the huge temple of Aphrodite had thousands of sacred prostitutes and was the corrupt heart of Corinth's decadence. Sometimes you'll even hear rubbish about how Paul's comments at I Corinthians 11 about women covering their hair were driven by his desire that long-haired Christian women not be confused with long-haired prostitutes from the Temple. 

This, frankly, is poppycock, and one of those things that set my teeth on edge. Sure, there's a lot of argument about what means what in ancient history, but you don't need to dig into the real research to find out how ridiculous it is that anyone should be holding that first-century Corinth was a bastion of cult prostitution. The whole idea is a modern myth, based on a spectacularly stupid and lazy reading of the following passage from Strabo's Geography, in which Strabo talks of how fabulously wealthy and powerful Corinth used to be, and after talking of Corinth's famously rich eighth- and seventh-century rulers, says:
'Again, Demaratus, one of the men who had been in power at Corinth, fleeing from the seditions there, carried with him so much wealth from his home to Tyrrhenia that not only he himself became the ruler of the city that admitted him, but his son was made king of the Romans. And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, "Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth."'
The son in question, for what it's worth, was Tarquinius Priscus, reputedly Rome's king between 616 and 579 BC, so what Strabo should be understood as saying here is that Corinth had been incredibly wealthy six hundred years before he wrote, and that back then the temple of Aphrodite was so rich it had a thousand temple prostitutes. That things were rather different in Strabo's own day are immediately apparent to anyone who bothers to read the next paragraph, in which Strabo comments at some length on how the former grandeur of the city is apparent when one looks at its ruined defensive walls and the remains of a building so badly ruined that he cannot tell whether it was a great palace or temple. He specifically says that the city of his own day is a new city, rebuilt by the Romans.

This, of course, would hardly be surprising to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of ancient history or archaeology. Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans under Lucius Mummius in 146 BC, and was only reestablished as a city in 44 BC when Julius Caesar, shortly before his assassination, ordered it be rebuilt as a Roman colony. Over the following century, during which it became the capital of the new Roman province of Achaea, Corinth grew in size and once again became a thriving port city, albeit a Roman one, very different from the Greek one of centuries earlier. Like any other port, prostitution was common there, but we've no evidence whatsoever that suggests it was vastly more common in Corinth than in Massilia, Ostia, Alexandria, Brundisium, Piraeus, or any other first-century Mediterranean port.

Given how easy it is to find this out, I've got to a point where I have no patience with people who trot out this kind of rubbish. It's one thing for people in the pews to believe it; it's another for preachers in the pulpits to propound it. All teachers, of whatever sort, have an obligation to honesty and lazily repeating this kind of claptrap shows at best a cavalier attitude to historical reality. Temple Prostitution didn't exist in the Corinth of Saint Paul. It's as simple as that.

To be honest, whatever about the arguments that sacred prostitution never existed in the Mediterranean world, I'm very sceptical that Corinth at any rate was ever a centre for such a practice. A trip to the site should start one wondering, to begin with, not least because the ruins of the temple of Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth don't look like they could have been associated with a hundred temple prostitutes, let alone a thousand. Herodotus, talking about how disgraceful Babylonian temple prostitution is, and saying that a similar practice prevails in Cyprus, doesn't make any mention of Corinth; indeed, if cult prostitution was common in any major Greek city,  Herodotus would hardly have thought Babylonian temple prostitution so remarkable. It seems that the absolute most that could be said about Corinthian prostitution, even in the city's heyday, was that as a city with two ports, Corinth was a city with no shortage of prostitutes, and that all of Corinth's prostitutes were protected by the goddess Aphrodite, to whom they paid honour, but that in no way were their sexual relations associated with -- let alone performed in -- the temple.

* That's an unfamiliar man, not one who was notably strange, whether in appearance, manner, or way of life. Just, you know, in case you wondering.

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