Sacred Prostitutes: a jaw-dropping story

Naiara Leão
4 min readJan 9, 2018
Barbie Aphrodite

“The most shameful of the customs among the Babylonians is this: It is necessary for every local woman to sit in the sanctuary of Aphrodite once in life to “mingle” with a foreign man.”

The sentence above, from Herodotus, leaped out to my eyes in the middle of a reading in a way that it was impossible to move on without thinking about it. Is Herodotus saying that women were forced into prostitution in the name of a goddess? Could you imagine living with a “sentence” like that on your shoulders?

Intrigued, I started a small research and quickly found more evidence. Justinus and Valerius Maximus, Roman writers of the early centuries, described the custom of sending brides to prostitute in the temples of Venus (equivalent to Aphrodite in the Roman pantheon) in Cyprus and in Sicca (present-day Tunisian territory) to collect dowry money. Paid sex with priestesses was also a thing, just a regular habit in the ancient world, according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. The money would go to the temple, of course.

On the report of the Greek historian Strabo (I A.C), the Aphrodite temple in Corinth (Greece) had once had more than a thousand sacred prostitutes at the same time; the one in Eryx (Sicily) had sex slaves to serve travelers in practically uninhabited region.

I was shocked, but then came the cold shower. Although sacred prostitution has attracted historians for a long time and generated several academic investigations, the current understanding is that things are not quite like that.

The ritual sex

In Ancient Greece, Aphrodite was the goddess of fertility, love, and joy. This is important for us to understand that, on her behalf, brides would prostitute themselves to bring luck to their marriage. A trousseau set up with money earned in sacred prostitution would be even more blessed than a common one. By providing love and pleasure in the name of the goddess, these brides would attract happiness and luck to themselves.

Now, in the priestesses’ case, sex would be one out of many forms of worship to Aphrodite / Venus / Myllita (depending on the place the name of the deity changes, but their characteristics are basically the same). That is why many scholars do not see this type of intercourse as a…

Naiara Leão

Nomad. PhD student of Religion, early Christianity and Women's and Gender Studies. Follow my IG @academicanomad