3 May 2007

Babylonian whores

I'm always fascinated by how different cultures understand things we easily take for granted, like sexuality, because it can be so radically different from everything we may be accustomed to in our own culture. As I might have hinted before, learning history is simply the act of visiting another culture in the past, like a vacation through time rather than space.

Here's an interesting quote from Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia by Jean Bottéro that adds to my blog rants on sexuality in ancient times (p.123-124):

"Since homosexual love was perfectly tolerated in the land, provided that it did not harm anyone, it should not be surprising to see professional homosexuals here, as if to balance the 'religious' prositutes mentioned above, the assinu, the kurgarru, the kulu'u, and even, on occasion, the kolû, who had rather a bad reputation in this regard, although we do not really know why. Nor do we know under what conditions they expressed their profession or their duties. But we occasionally see them dressed as women, holding strictly feminine accessories (such as a spindle) in their hands in addition to manly weapons, as if to point out their sexual ambiguity, and taking part, at least in honor of Ištar, in ritual, ambiguous, or lascivious dances. They were not, however, firmly integrated into the clerical corps, and their specific designation referred above all to their condition and to their way of making love."

Before I continue let me just say that "professional homosexual" is unfortunate wording, making it sound as though homosexuals do nothing but have sex all day and that some even go professional. [Pause for laughter...] Within the greater context of the paragraph though, the author is talking about prostitutes as a whole, some of which happen to be homosexual.

Putting aside the risky wording, Jean mentions three terms in the Babylonian language referring to specialized types of prostitutes. John Barclay Burns from George Mason University published in The Journal of Religion & Society the article Devotee or Deviate with more detail on what exactly these terms meant as part of a larger explanation of sexuality in Ancient Israel and the Old Testament:

"Sources from Mesopotamia testify to the existence of male cult figures whose sexuality was confused or liminal and who engaged in various sex-related practices. One text refers to the sinnišānu, literally, 'woman-like,' who went into a tavern and agreed to divide his earnings, presumably with the tavern-keeper. Taverns were permitted places of resort for prostitutes of both sexes. The assinnu was a member of Ishtar’s cultic staff with whom, it seems, a man might have intercourse, whose masculinity had become femininity (Erra IV 55-56; CAD, A: 341). The effeminate kulu'u, not a zikaru, a 'real' man, and the transvestite kurgarrû sang, acted, and danced in the worship of Inanna/Ishtar. The kulu'u was certainly regarded as a male prostitute in the saying, amat LU kulu'u u: ha-rim-ti URU, “the word of the male or female prostitute of the city” (CAD, K: 529, 557). W. G. Lambert argued that there was a fair amount of evidence for a cluster of male types notorious for their femininity and that they served as prostitutes. One of these, the assinnu, lacked libido, either from a natural defect or castration (152-53). M. Nissinen pointed out that the cuneiform signs used for assinnu were UR.SAL, 'dog/woman,' evidently an insulting designation (32). Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the cognate Akkadian word for dog, kalbu, was ever employed as a metaphor in this precise context."

And thus we come full circle by ending it off with Old Testament sexuality. The picture above is old religious art portraying the so-called "Whore of Babylon" as it was written in the book of Revelation, a symbol of decaying morals. As we can tell by this wording alone, there was a sense of moral supremacy in regards to sexuality throughout the biblical scriptures and a constant war between misunderstood foreign moralities and their own. Sound familiar in the modern day?


  1. Dear Glen,

    Interesting article on historical mentalities towards other sexualities than the supposed "default". I, myself, am quite fascinated by sexuality in the Germanic world; passive homosexuality is quietly tolerated but frowned upon, active homosexuality is forbidden by law!
    Therefore in the early sixth, late fifth century we find in the Pactus legis Salicae probably one of the first European (non-classical) perjorative terms for homosexuals: quinthuc as a gloss for "concagatus" (concacatus with romance lenition), probably to be read as *kuinta- (cognate to Dutch kont), derived from *kwenō "woman". Maybe, someone should collect all our evidence for IE mentalities towards sexuality and write a PhD-thesis on it... :)

  2. Hey Peter,

    "Maybe, someone should collect all our evidence for IE mentalities towards sexuality and write a PhD-thesis on it... :)"

    That's just begging to be written, I agree. There'd be a lot to cover, not just homosexuality, but transvestism, prostitution (ritual or otherwise), bisexuality, oh hell, even beastiality. (Oh stop the snickering, folks. It's all human nature and I'm not sorry.) The article could be filled with all sorts of other raunchy perversions that stuffy people like to censor too.

    Following these tawdry lines of thought, it reminds me of a book I was browsing in a bookstore that I just couldn't put down. If I recall it was Roman Sex by John Clarke. I never knew the Romans had so many odd interests!