men and female prostitutes from ancient Sumer to medieval Europe

Men historically have much more commonly paid for sex than women have. That’s consistent with social devaluation of men’s sexuality relative to women’s sexuality, along with continuing repressive regulation of men’s sexuality. Men paying women for sex, however, has not been a consistently functioning social institution across history. Female prostitutes’ treatment of men generated much more vigorous written protest in medieval Europe than in ancient Sumer.

In Sumer about four thousand years ago, the goddess Inanna was figured as a prostitute. Inanna, known as the “Queen of Heaven,” was an extensively honored goddess. She was also regarded favorably as a prostitute:

When I sit by the gate of the tavern,
I am a prostitute familiar with the penis,
the friend of a man, the girlfriend of a woman.
I am milk of the god. I am preeminent in the mountains.
I am milk of the god, of Dumuzid. I am preeminent in the mountains.

{ kan4 ec2-dam-ma-ka tuc-a-ju10-[ne]
kar-ke4 mu-lu mu zu me-e-jen-[na]
mu-tin-na gu5-li-ni munus-e ma-la-ga
dijir-ra ga-jenmi kur-ra dirig-ga-jen-[na]
dijir-ra ddu5-mu-zid-da ga-jenmi kur-ra dirig-ga-jen-[na] }[1]

Men and women didn’t regard Inanna the prostitute with animosity. She was their friend. Like milk, she was nourishing. She was both a prostitute snatching men from taverns and a goddess of grandeur:

They cannot compete with you, Inanna.
As a prostitute, you go down to the tavern and
like a ghost who slips in through the window, you enter there.
Inanna, you lady of all the divine powers, no deity can compete with you.
Here is your dwelling, Lady of the Palace. Let me tell of your grandeur!
When the servants let the flocks loose,
and when cattle and sheep are returned to cow-pen and sheepfold,
then, my lady, like the nameless poor, you wear only a single garment.
The pearls of a prostitute are placed around your neck,
and you are likely to snatch a man from the tavern.

{ dinana nu-mu-e-da-sa2-e-ne
kar-ke42-dam-ma mu-un-ed3-de3-en
dgidim ab-ba šu2-šu2-ka ma-ra-ni-in-ku4-ku4-de3-en
dinana nin me šar2-ra-me-en diĝir nu-mu-e-da-sa2
dnin-e2-gal-la ki-ur3-zu mu-ĝal2 nam-maḫ-za ga-am3-dug4
kuš7 maš2-anše du8-du8-a-ba
gud udu tur3 amaš-e gi4-a-ba
nin-ĝu10 mu nu-tuku-gin7 tug2 dili im-me-mur10
NUNUZ kar-ke4 gu2-za i-im-du3
2-dam-ta lu2 mu-dab5-me-en }[2]

Inanna was both a palace lady and an ordinary woman prostitute. That surely worked to raise the status of the latter. Moreover, Inanna behaved in the way an ordinary prostitute would and probably charged similar prices:

— Your hand is womanly, your foot is womanly,
your conversing with a man is womanly,
your looking at a man is womanly.
As you rest against the wall, your patient heart pleases.
As you bend over, your hips are particularly pleasing.
— My resting against the wall is one lamb.
My bending over is one and a half giĝ.
Do not dig a canal. Let me be your canal!
Do not plow a field. Let me be your field!
Farmer, do not search for a wet place, my precious sweet.
Let this be your wet place, …
Let this be your furrow, …,
Let this be your desire!

{ šu-zu munus-am3 ĝiri3-zu munus-am3
inim lu2-da bal-e-zu munus-am3
igi lu2-ra bar-re-zu munus-am3
zag e2-ĝar8-da gub-bu šag4 sud-zu i3-sag9
gam-e-de3 ib2-ib2 i3-sag9-sag9
e2-ĝar8-da gub-bu-ĝu10 1(DIŠ) sila4-am3
gam-e-ĝu10 1 1/2 giĝ4-am3
id2 na-an-ba-al-le id2-zu ḫe2-me-en
a-šag4 na-an-ur11-ru a-šag4-zu ḫe2-me-en
mu-un-gar3 ki duru5 na-an-kiĝ2-kiĝ2-e
[ze2]-/ba\ kal-la-ĝu10 ki duru5-zu ḫe2-am3
[X (X)]-e ab-sin2-zu ḫe2-am3
X tur-tur-me aš2-zu ḫe2-am3 }[3]

While the value of “one and a half giĝ” isn’t clear, “one lamb” was probably an asset that many men possessed or could readily steal. In fact, Inanna explicitly served poor men:

She who makes … for the poor, whose play is sweet,
the prostitute who goes out to the inn,
who makes the bedchamber delightful,
who is food to the poor man,
Inanna, the daughter of Suen,
arose before him like a bull in the land.
Her brilliance, her stellar brightness, like that of holy Šara,
illuminated for him the mountain cave.

{ ukur3-e NE-NE ĝa2-ĝa2-da ešemen dug3-ga-am3
kar-ke42-dam-še3 ed2-da ki-nu2 dug3-dug3-ge-da
ukur3-e niĝ2 gu7-da-ni
dinana dumu dsuen-na-ke4
gud-gin7 kalam-ma saĝ mu-na-il2
me-lem4-ma-ni kug dšara2-gin7
muš3-a-ni ḫur-ru-um kur-ra-kam ud mu-un-na-ĝa2-ĝa2 }[4]

In a well-ordered society, men, like women, are entitled to basic human needs such as food and sex on feasible terms. Marriage was probably a relatively expensive way for a Sumerian man to be able to have sex with a woman. In ancient Sumer, Inanna represented sex made available to poor men on comparable terms to food. Inanna was thus a divine representation that parallels Solon’s wise public provision for men’s sexual welfare in ancient Athens. More generally, female prostitutes in ancient Sumer had the highly favorable status of being associated with the goddess Inanna.[5]

Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer

Inanna as a prostitute goddess apparently influenced small, mass-produced terracotta plaques found in non-elite residential areas in ancient Sumer. One standard design consists of a man having sex with a woman from the rear while she drinks beer. This design suggests a man providing an important material good (beer) to a woman in exchange for her allowing him to sexually penetrate her.[6] That’s a stark depiction of heterosexual relations. Such non-mutual relations could easily turn exploitative and antagonistic. The ancient Sumerian terracotta plaques plausible function as talismans to make what was regarded as mundane sexual relations auspicious and harmonious by associating them with the widely honored prostitute goddess Inanna.

Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer. She affectionately strokes his face.

Men regarded female prostitutes much less favorably in medieval Europe than in ancient Sumer. The twelfth-century Latin poet Hugh Primas, also known as Hugh of Orléans, complained bitterly of prostitutes unjustly exploiting men. The eminent twelfth-century poet known as the Archpoet figured a whore swallowing him like a whale had swallowed the prophet Jonah. The thirteenth-century Old French Guide for fools {Chastie musart} extensively protested women trading sex for material goods. Perhaps the most extensive and close-to-the-people protest against prostitutes comes in the Old French Salemon and Marcoul. Marcoul of Salemon and Marcoul begins with abstract denunciation of prostitutes of the sort found in medieval clerical texts:

From the whore come evil
and deadly wars
and the peril of humanity.

{ De putain sourt maus
et guerre mortaus,
et peril de gent. }[7]

Such claims associate the medieval European whore with Babylon in the biblical Book of Revelation: “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth {Βαβυλὼν ἡ μεγάλη, ἡ μήτηρ τῶν πορνῶν καὶ τῶν βδελυγμάτων τῆς γῆς}.”[8] The biblical Whore of Babylon reversed the moral value of Inanna as a prostitute in ancient Sumer.

Female prostitutes in medieval Europe weren’t merely condemned as figures of the Whore of Babylon. Marcoul condemns the prostitute for mundane offenses such as theft:

He who trusts a whore
will be left
with neither coat nor cape.

{ Qui putain croira,
ne li remaindra
ne cote, ne chape. }

Associated with taverns, whores didn’t serve poor men, but exploited men to get alcoholic drinks:

If a whore has no wine,
she seeks by artifice and guile
to get something to drink.

{ Quant pute n’a vin,
art quiert et engin
comment ait a boivre. }[9]

While Sumerian literature admired a prostitute’s beauty as she bent over, Salemon and Marcoul associated a bent-over prostitute with sexual intercourse crudely represented and the repulsiveness of a fart:

A whore well bent over
is well ready
to fuck and to fart.

{ Pute bien corbee
est bien aprestee
de fouture et de poirre }

A primary sense of the Old French Salemon and Marcoul is of men embittered through bad experiences with prostitutes:

He who honors a whore
in the end cries,
when he perceives his situation.

{ Qui putain honeure
en la fin pleure,
quant il s’aperçoit }

Unlike in ancient Sumer, female prostitutes in medieval Europe weren’t understood as friends to men and women. Female prostitutes in medieval Europe were perceived to exploit men. Men protested bitterly about such exploitation and urged other men to treat prostitutes badly.[10]

In medieval Europe, men’s protests against female prostitutes existed apart from authoritative Christian morality. Salemon and Marcoul ends with the rogue Marcoul (Marcolf) preceding the wise Salemon (Solomon):

Here ends Marcoul and Salemon,
which isn’t worth a big turd.

{ Explicit Marcoul et Salemon qui
ne vaut pas un grant estron. }

Salemon and Marcoul wasn’t written to promote Christian moral values of chastity and fidelity. It doesn’t condemn prostitution itself, but mainly laments prostitutes exploiting men. It offers a wry voice of men’s sexed protest in despair.

Medieval European culture lacked a friendly, compassionate prostitute goddess such as Inanna in ancient Sumer. In medieval Europe, the Virgin Mary was more honored than any god or goddess. She jealously loved men and was extraordinarily merciful towards men. Nonetheless, she remained a virgin. Esmerée in Jean Renaut’s twelfth-century romance Galeran de Bretagne and other warm-hearted medieval women showed compassionate concern for men’s sexual welfare. Such women, however, were too few to shape medieval European prostitution. Many men in medieval Europe weren’t satisfied with the non-commercial heterosexual opportunities available to them. They sought prostitutes. Without widely honored representations and norms of prostitution, relations between men and female prostitutes came to include a quagmire of exploitation and antagonism.[11]

Modern Western societies offer even less support for heterosexual relations than did medieval Europe. Christianity in medieval Europe honored men’s seminal blessing, the fully masculine son of God born of a woman, and marriage as a conjugal partnership with the marriage example of Sarah and Tobias. Such understandings have largely vanished from public consciousness. Now popular singer-dancers such as Rosalía figure themselves as whore goddesses, but with little concern for promoting men’s sexual welfare. Leading public institutions such as the British Museum celebrate divine and demonic feminine power while willfully subordinating men.[12] Modern societies should aspire to more delightful, more fruitful heterosexual relations than existed in medieval Europe. Publicly promoting the prostitute goddess Inanna, extensively honored in ancient Sumer, might be the best feasible path forward.

Goddess Inanna (Ishtar) on seal from the Akkadian Empire

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] A šir-namšub to Inana (Inana I) (t.4.07.9) Segment A, vv. 20-4, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). Inana is a variant for the more common spelling Inanna.

Inana and Enki credits Inanna with bringing to the world sexual intercourse, kissing, and prostitution:

you have brought with you sexual intercourse,
you have brought with you kissing,
you have brought with you prostitution

{ [jic3 dug4-dug4] ba-e-de6
jic3 ki su-ub ba-e-de6
nam-kar-kid2 ba-e-de6 }

Segment J, vv. 37-9, cuneiform transliteration (simplified slightly) and English translation from ETCSL Prostitution, here associated with sexual intercourse and kissing, is merely a type of sexual relation.

In The Golden Bough (first edition published in 1890), James Frazer imagined in ancient western Asia a “great mother Goddess” and “sacred marriage {ἱερὸς γάμος}”:

we may conclude that a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshipped under different names but with a substantial similarity of myth and ritual by many peoples of Western Asia; that associated with her was a lover, or rather series of lovers, divine yet mortal, with whom she mated year by year, their commerce being deemed essential to the propagation of animals and plants, each in their several kind; and further, that the fabulous union of the divine pair was simulated and, as it were, multiplied on earth by the real, though temporary, union of the human sexes at the sanctuary of the goddess for the sake of thereby ensuring the fruitfulness of the ground and the increase of man and beast.

From Chapter 31, “Adonis in Cyprus,” of Frazer (1922). “Sacred marriage” quickly evolved into the concept of “sacred prostitution.” Frazer imagined master narratives of cultural history and projected them across cultures and time. Frazer’s work is more useful for studying Frazer and his time than for understanding ancient historical cultures. For some relevant analysis, Larsen (2014), Chapter 2.

[2] A hymn to Inana as Ninegala (Inana D) (t.4.07.4), vv. 104-13, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL. For clarity, I’ve replaced Ninegala, in this context an epithet for Inanna, with its meaning “Lady of the Palace.”

Budin insisted about harimtu / KAR.KID:

Since the work of J. Assante {Assante (1998)}, it is now more commonly {sic; “more commonly” shouldn’t be confused with “commonly”} recognized that these terms refer not to prostitutes, but to single women not under the authority of a father. That is to say, they are women whose lives and sexuality are not regulated by a male authority figure. These women certainly may have been prostitutes, or even merely promiscuous, but there is no clear evidence that they are necessarily professional prostitutes per se.

Budin (2008) p. 26. The claim “there is no clear evidence that they are necessarily professional prostitutes per se” is plausible, given modern understandings of “professional.” But that’s consistent with interpreting harimtu / KAR.KID to mean “prostitute” within a context that favors that meaning. The electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (ePSD2) lists 152 instances of “karkid,” which it defines as “prostitute.”

Budin and others who also insist on a narrow, highly culturally circumscribed meaning of “prostitute” nonetheless assume a universal, transcultural significance of “under the authority of a father” and “patriarchy.” The specification “women whose lives and sexuality are not regulated by a male authority figure” is far from clear. Most persons would regard women’s sexuality as an aspect of women’s lives. Rulers of ancient Mesopotamia were nearly uniformly men (“male authority figure”). Nonetheless, both women and men have always been intimately involved in regulation of women’s sexuality, as well as regulation of men’s sexuality. Arguments assuming the significance of “patriarchy” to women’s sexuality in ancient Mesopotamia are merely artifacts of currently dominant ideology. Arguments based on “patriarchy” are neo-Frazerian. They should have no place in reasoned, fact-based analysis.

[3] A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H) (t.4.07.8), vv. 16-26, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL. Inanna and Enki, in Alster’s reading, describes third-personally Inanna bowing down and showing her “marvelous vulva.” Alster (1993) p. 20.

To serve her argument that “there are no terms for prostitutes and prostitution” in Sumerian, Assante declared these lines to be interpolations:

My resting against the wall is one lamb.
My bending over is one and a half giĝ.

A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H), vv. 21-2. Specifically, Assante claimed:

Just as there are no terms for brothels or bordellos in cuneiform, there are no terms for prostitutes and prostitution. In fact, as I have previously noted elsewhere, the only unambiguous evidence for prostitution are two interpolated lines in a Sumerian hymn to the goddess Nanâ. Significantly, there is no mention of a kar.kid in this text.

Assante (2007) p. 129 (internal footnote omitted). Nanâ (Nanaya) was a Mesopotamian goddess of love. The version A manuscript of this text describes it as a balbale of Inanna rather than a balbale of Nanaya. Inanna elsewhere is described as a kar.kid / prostitute. See other Sumerian texts quoted above. Cooper observed of Inanna here:

She does not explicitly say here that she is a kar-kid “prostitute,” though she does so in other compositions (¶ 7), and it can reasonably be assumed that this is what is portrayed here.

Cooper (2006) p. 14 (para. 3), referring to A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H), vv. 21-2.

In Assante’s long, tendentious article on “prostitute” in ancient Mesopotamia, these verses are discussed in the final textual page, mainly in a footnote. She offered so-called “evidence” that these verses are interpolated: one surviving cuneiform version of the text includes them, while another doesn’t. In addition, she perceived in these verses “comic cynicism incongruous” with the rest of the text. Assante (1998) p. 86, n. 237. These are weak arguments that an interpolation exists.

Assante seems to have used “interpolation” to mean that scholars should ignore the verses. She offered no insight into where, when, and why such an “interpolation” appeared in the ancient cuneiform tablet. Budin cited A balbale to Inana as Nanaya (Inana H), vv. 21-2, lauded Assante (1998) without any critical analysis, and sought to shut down discussion (“This chapter should not have to be written.”). Without good reason, Budin effectively gave these verses no significance. Budin (2021) p. 21 (the first page of Chapter 2, “Ḫarīmtu”). Cf. Cooper (2006) and Cooper (2016).

[4] Lugalbanda in the mountain cave (t., vv. 173-9, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from ETCSL.

[5] Some ancient Mesopotamian texts disparage prostitutes. For example, a surviving text from ancient Sumer declares:

You should not buy a prostitute: she is a mouth that bites.

{ [kar]-/ke4\ na-an-sa10-sa10-an ka u4-sar-ra-kam }

The instructions of Šuruppag (t.5.6.1), v. 154, cuneiform transliteration and English translation from ETCSL. For other examples, Cooper (2006) pp. 13-4. Texts surviving from about 4000 years ago obviously aren’t a representative sample of what was said or written at the time. Given praise for the revered goddess Inanna as a prostitute in ancient Sumer, disparagement of prostitutes was less likely to be written. Yet some literary example could have survived if it had existed. No highly literary nor extensive disparagement of prostitutes has survived in Sumerian literature. That absence should be given significance in evidence-based analysis.

“Sacred prostitution” in ancient Mesopotamia has been an issue of scholarly controversy in recent decades. Ideological master narratives, so evident in Frazer’s Golden Bough, are also prominent in the recent debate about sacred prostitution. Driven by a modern, ideological understanding of patriarchy projected onto ancient Mesopotamia, Budin made the domineering claim, “There were no scared prostitutes in the ancient Near East.” Budin (2008) p. 47. But Budin didn’t rule out the existence of “sacred sex.” Id. pp. 4, 8, 18. For arguments that sacred prostitution of some sort existed in ancient Mesopotamia, Cooper (2016) pp. 223-4, and Morris (2019). Recognizing representations of the revered goddess Inanna as a prostitute doesn’t entail any judgment about the existence of sacred prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia.

Budin’s more recent work is far more narrowly ideological than James Frazer’s Golden Bough. Budin defined harimtu / KAR.KID as the “Freewoman”:

The ḫarīmtu isn’t just a Freewoman: She is the embodiment of androcentric claims to the female body, played out in academia. … History, as Samuel Noah Kramer put it, began in Sumer. So did the Freewoman. Although not dedicated to the arts or deities, not a culture-bearer instead of a child-bearer, the kar.kid/ḫarīmtu was the first woman recorded in the texts as being free of male control and in charge of her own sexuality. She was not a prostitute. She couldn’t even be called a whore, because the idea, and thus the insult, did not yet exist.

Budin (2021) p. 58. This particular ideological construction of history actually began about fifty years ago. As a basic empirical matter, almost all the nominal rulers in ancient Mesopotamia were men, whom women almost surely strongly influenced. Moreover, men contributed to constructing all of ancient Mesopotamian culture and civilization. Arguably no man or woman in ancient Mesopotamia was “free of male control.” Similarly, no woman or man was “free of female control.” The woman “in charge of her own sexuality” is presumably masturbating.

Budin is now delivering lectures as an Archaeological Institute of American Lecturer. The Archaeological Institute of American is:

North America’s largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world.

Budin’s lecture abstract on “The Problem with Prostitutes” declares:

As a matter of fact, it would appear that there was no prostitution at all {sic} in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt, and that the profession {sic} came into being only in the Iron Age.

From webpage on Archaeological Institute of American’s website. Julia Assante, in contrast, is active in providing psychic readings and liberating ghosts. Prostitution certainly is a perennial and fundamental human temptation!

[6] Such plaques could fit within the palm of one’s hand and were ubiquitous in residential areas. Assante (2002a) pp. 2, 15. A man having sex from behind (coitus a tergo) with a woman drinking beer is “the longest lasting and the most widespread of the sexual varieties” of Old Babylonian plaques. Assante (2002b) p. 31. The woman isn’t a deity, because deities in Old Babylonian plaques are always depicted with horned crowns. Cooper (2016) p. 218, n. 19. Assante characterized these plaques as magical and as intended to entice the goddess Inanna’s favor and also to protect a person’s house and to make it auspicious. Assante (2002b) pp. 27, 47. Above I provide a more specific interpretation consistent with those generalities.

[7] Salemon and Marcoul, Version A, stanza 1, vv. 5-7 (citation form: A.1.5-7), Old French text and English translation from Stadtler-Chester (2022) pp. 25, 439. Nearly identical verses occur in Salemon and Marcoul B.1 and G.1. The stanzas consist of a statement of Salemon (Solomon), followed a response from Marcoul (Marcolf). Such dialogue exists in the Latin stream of the tradition, known as Solomon and Marcolf.

Salemon and Marcoul dates from no later than the thirteenth century. The work survives in at least ten manuscripts. Id. p. 22. An English translation, made about 1527, includes a version of A.1.5-7:

Because of a whore, all affliction,
death, war, and great grief
come soon again.

{ For a hoore all myschefe
Mortalyte, warre and great grefe
commeth soone agayne. }

“The Sayinges or Prouerbes of King Salomon, with the answers of Marcolphus, translated out of frenche in to englysshe,” vv. 118-20, source text from Sanger & Ziolkowski (2022) p. 90, my English modernization. This text seems to be alluding to Helen of Troy.

Subsequent quotations from Salemon and Marcoul are similarly sourced. In some cases I’ve modified Stadtler-Chester’s English translation to follow the Old French more closely in my understanding of it. The quotations above are Salemon and Marcoul A.7.5-7 (He who trusts a whore…); A.8.5-7, similarly G.9, H.29 (If a whore has no wine…); A.16.5-7, similarly B.28 and G.15 (A whore well bent over…), A.3.5-7, similarly B.30 (He who honors a whore…), A.coda (vv. 326-7) (Here ends Marcoul and Salemon…).

[8] Revelation 17:5.

[9] In the early thirteenth-century Old French play The Well-Mannered Man of Arras {Courtois d’Arras}, the prostitute Pourette meets the Courtois of Arras in a tavern and exploits his naiveté and kindness. For an English translation, Axton & Stevens (1971).

[10] Salemon and Marcoul associates a whore’s love for a man with his abuse of her:

The whore is lost
if she’s isn’t well beaten
and often mistreated.

Mistreat the whore,
and keep her under foot,
then she will hold you dear.

{ La pute est perdue
s’ele n’est bien batue
et souvent foulee

La putain foulez
et sous pié tenez,
dont vous avra chier }

Salemon and Marcoul A.21.5-7 and A.29.5-7. Similarly, A.38.5-7 and likewise in other versions of Salemon and Marcoul.

[11] Similar exploitation and antagonism is evident in present-day academia. Budin noted:

Personal anecdote: A few years ago the soon to be ex-wife of a friend decided to get into gender studies. She quickly came to two obvious, irrefutable conclusions: 1) There is no such thing as binary sex or gender and all such categories are fluid and dynamic; 2) Men are assholes. She never saw the contradiction.

Budin (2020) p. 16, n. 12. Budin attempted to refute point 1, while Budin’s work largely put forward ideology associated with belief in point 2. See, e.g. Budin (2021). Budin apparently didn’t perceive the inaptness of projecting such ideology onto ancient Mesopotamia.

[12] Modern literature on female prostitutes is drenched in hostility toward men and men’s heterosexual desire. Consider, for example, an analysis of prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia:

Males in Mesopotamia married relatively later than females, resulting in a pool of young single men, and there were male travelers, military personnel, and workers away from home, yet most women — other men’s wives and daughters, and religious celibates — were not sexually available. Demand was there. On the supply side, there were destitute vulnerable women — the widows and orphan girls whom rulers traditionally claimed to protect — as well, no doubt, as wives and daughters from impoverished families who saw no other alternative, and dependent women whose parents or owners might earn income from their sale of sexual favors. A socially sanctioned outlet for male desire was necessary to protect proper wives and daughters from improper advances or attacks; hence, the Middle Assyrian Laws required that married women appear veiled in public, but forbade prostitutes from doing so, visually marking the sexually approachable and the unapproachable.

Cooper (2016) pp. 211-2, internal references and footnotes omitted. This analysis depicts “demand” for heterosexual sex as arising only from men. It assumes that wives, daughters, and religious women never seek illicit sex, and that illicit sex results only from men’s “improper advances or attacks.” Medieval literature makes clear that such analysis is totally unrealistic. Cooper, whose scholarship doesn’t explicitly draw from the anti-meninist tradition, shows with his analysis of prostitution the extent to which men’s gender position has been largely understood through ignorance, bigotry, poor-dearism, and gynocentrism.

[images] (1) Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer. Fired clay plaque made about 1800 BGC in present-day southern Iraq. Preserved as British Museum number 116731. The British Museum has made the source image available under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. A cast for a similar plaque is BM 116661. Here’s a similar Old Babylonian sexual plaque, and another one, but without beer. (2) Old Babylonian plaque: man from behind sexually penetrating woman drinking beer. She affectionately reaches back and strokes his face. Fired clay plaque made between 2000 and 1500 BGC. Found in Tello (ancient Sumerian city of Girsu) in present-day southern Iraq. Preserved as item AO 16681; T 1496 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Source image used in accordance with U.S. fair use law and Louvre Terms of Use. Another Old Babylonian plaque shows a man and woman musician having sex. See Louvre Museum, item AO 16924 ; L.51. Old Babylonian plaques also show a man and woman vigorous embracing sexually face-to-face. See Metropolitan Museum (New York), accession # 1974.347.1. (3) Goddess Inanna (Ishtar) on seal from the Akkadian Empire. The seal (full image here) was made between 2350–2150 BGC. Inanna, wearing a horned helmet and weapons on her back, is dominating with her foot a lion held on a leash. The star of Shamash is depicted to Inanna’s right. Item preserved in the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa (formerly the Oriental Institute) of the University of Chicago, USA. Source image thanks to Sailko and Wikimedia Commons.


Alster, Bendt. 1993. “Marriage and Love in the Sumerian Love Songs.” Pp. 15-26 in Daniel C. Snell, Mark E. Cohen, and David B. Weisberg, eds. The Tablet and the Scroll: Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Assante, Julia. 1998. “The kar.kid/harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence.” Ugarit-Forschungen. 30: 5–96.

Assante, Julia. 2002a. “Style and Replication in ‘Old Babylonian’ Terracotta Plaques: Strategies for Entrapping the Power of Images.” Pp. 1-29 in Oswald Loretz, Kai Metzler and Hans Peter Schaudig, eds. Ex Mesopotamia et Syria Lux: Festschrift für Manfried Dietrich zu seinem 65 Geburtstag. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 281. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Assante, Julia. 2002b. “Sex, Magic and the Liminal Body in the Erotic Art and Texts of the Old Babylonian Period.” Pp. 27-51 in Simo Parpola and Robert M. Whiting, eds. Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East. Actes de la XLVIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Helsinki, 2-6 July 2001). Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project.

Assante, Julia. 2003. “From Whores to Hierodules: the Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals.” Chapter 2 (pp. 13-47) in A. A. Donohue and Mark D. Fullerton, eds. Ancient Art and its Historiography. Cambridge University Press.

Assante, Julia. 2007. “What Makes a ‘Prostitute’ a Prostitute?: Modern Definitions and Ancient Meanings.” Historiae. 4: 117-132. Alternate source.

Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Budin, Stephanie. 2008. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Review by Deming (2010) and by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge.

Budin, Stephanie Lynn. 2020. “Sex and Gender and Sex.” Mare Nostrum: Estudos sobre o Mediterrâneo Antigo. 11(1): 1–59

Budin, Stephanie Lynn. 2021. Freewomen, Patriarchal Authority and the Accusation of Prostitution. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Review by Josué J . Justel and by Mali Skotheim.

Cooper, Jerrold S. 2006. “Prostitution.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie (RlA). 11: 12–21.

Cooper, Jerrold S. 2016. “The Job of Sex: The social and economic role of prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamia.” Pp. 209-227 in Brigitte Lion and Michel Cécile, eds. The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient near East. Boston: De Gruyter.

Deming, Will. 2010. “Review of The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity by Stephanie Budin.” The Journal of Religion. 90(4): 591-3.

Frazer, James George.1914. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Third Edition. Part IV. Adonis, Attis, Osiris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion. Volume 1. Volume 2. London : Macmillan & Co.

Frazer, James George. 1922. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged ed. New York: Collier Books.

Larsen, Timothy. 2014. The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Silver, Morris. 2019. Sacred Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World: From Aphrodite to Baubo to Cassandra and Beyond. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag. Excerpts: “Sacred Prostitution: Overview and Conceptual Foundations” and “Temple/Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia Revisited.”

Sanger, Edward, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds. 2022. “The Sayinges or Prouerbes of King Salomon (Modern English).” Chapter 4 (pp. 81-91) in Ziolkowski (2022).

Stadtler-Chester, Mary-Ann. 2022. “Salemon and Marcoul (Old French)” and “Old French Texts of Salemon and Marcoul.” Chapter 2 (pp. 21-65) and Appendix 3 (pp. 439-479) in Ziolkowski (2022).

Ziolkowski, Jan M. ed. 2022. Solomon and Marcolf: Vernacular Traditions. Cambridge, MA: Department of the Classics, Harvard University.

2 thoughts on “men and female prostitutes from ancient Sumer to medieval Europe”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *