Mythology of Sex

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The Mythology of Sex by Sarah Dening

Chapter 3 Sex in Ancient Civilizations Sumeria: Ihe Earliest Records

MYTH, RITUAL AND SEXUALITY were almost inseparable in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest deity, the creator-goddess Nammu, meaning "the sea," was believed to have been responsible for creation by giving birth to both heaven and earth. In a later era, the myth changed. Nammu was supplanted by the hero god Marduk who, having killed her, cut her down the middle and used half of her body to make the sky. The more familiar, and historically far more widespread, myth of a masculine god as the supreme creator of the world was now in place. Although it is impossible to account definitively for this development, it was probably the result of invasions of hostile tribes whose values were predominantly masculine into the areas populated by the early, settled, goddess-worshipping people.

Such was the importance of the gods in early Sumerian times that what was considered morally right was for the people almost wholly identified with what was ritually correct. For instance, it seems that the gods were quite indifferent to the fact that widows and orphans fared very badly and suffered oppression. Yet they were in the habit of becoming very angry if their worshippers ate ritually impure food. The entire Sumerian culture which dates back to about 5000 BC, was largely underpinned by ritual, much of it explicitly sexual in nature.

The Sumerians were the first literate people, and their written remains provide a glimpse into their world view. Some of the clay tablets, fragments and seals which they inscribed exist to this day, to tell fascinating stories, including the fragmentary story of Inanna. Of all the deities, most of whom were personifications of various aspects of nature, Inanna was the most revered for a long period. Hers was the realm of love and procreation, in which she was a forerunner of Anath of Canaan, Isis of Egypt, and the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, with whom she is sometimes identified. Inanna herself, it is clear, rejoiced in her sexuality. The story tells how, "When she leaned back against the apple tree, her vulva was wondrous to behold." She herself speaks of making love with her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi, in rhapsodic terms:

"He shaped my loins with his fair hands,

The shepherd Dumuzi filled my lap with cream and milk,
He stroked my pubic hair,
He watered my womb.
He laid his hands on my holy vulva.
He caressed me on the bed."

She addresses him tenderly as "dear to my heart" and "honeysweet" and is explicit in her desire:

"Bridegroom, let me caress you,

My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey filled,
Let us enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey"

Some experts believe that the references to "honey" may well be the origin of our "honeymoon" or "honey month."

The sexual union of Inanna and Dumuzi was the prototype of the Sumerian custom of the "sacred marriage." which was ritually performed at the New Year festival. This rite later became widespread in other societies, notably Babylon and Greece. In its Sumerian form, the high priestess, known as the "Entu," in order to ensure the renewal of fertility throughout the land, would ceremonially mate with the high priest or king, who personified the life force of the earth. In fact, as far as we can tell, the kings of Sumeria may literally have been sons, fathers and consorts of the high priestesses. As the representative of the goddess the priestess would, through sexual union with the king, bestow her divine power upon him, thereby making him fit to rule. In the ceremony itself, it fell to the priestess to take the initiative and grant her heavenly favors, thereby furthering life. For his part the god-king had to bring her offerings and await her pleasure: ultimate power was in her keeping. Any child born of such a union was considered to be half-human and half-divine.

Further fragments of the Inanna story emphasize the importance to the people of this ceremony. It was the successful performance of the sacred marriage that guaranteed the renewed growth of all human, animal and plant life:

"The people of Sumer assemble in the palace,

The house which guides the land.
In order to care for the life of all the lands,
The exact first day of the month is closely examined...
So that the New Year ís Day, the day of rites,
May be properly determined,
And a sleeping place be set up for Inanna."

Inanna is often depicted resting her foot on the back of a lion, offering the king the symbolic objects indicating his ruling power. Lions, when associated with feminine deities, represent the undomesticated, fierce, aggressive aspect of the female. Often such goddesses incorporate a dual nature, the other side of their character manifesting compassion and, gentleness. The Buddhist deity Tara is another example. Although primarily benevolent and merciful she is often represented as a fierce, warlike goddess. But it is precisely because of her lion-like power that she is able to confront dangerous forces and this gives her the ability to protect her followers from suffering.

From other tablets we learn that the Sumerians, by present-day Western standards at least, had very little modesty about sex. In the context of the myth of Inanna, with its delight in the erotic encounter, this comes as no surprise. The signs or hieroglyphs representing male and female were simplified drawings of the sexual parts whilst a married person was signified by the juxtaposition of the two. Incantations make it clear that masturbation, alone or with a partner, was a popular technique for enhancing potency. This attitude is about as far removed as it could be from the much later myth prevalent in Victorian times which, as we shall see, considered the practice more likely to drive its proponent insane. Often a man could achieve an erection only by rubbing his penis, or having it rubbed, with a special mixture of oil known as puru-oil. It seems likely that this special oil was mixed with pulverized magnetic iron ore and pulverized iron, no doubt to provide additional friction so as to be more stimulating.

Anal intercourse was practiced and there is no evidence to suggest that it was considered taboo. The "Entu-priestesses" allowed such intercourse during sexual rites in the temples if they wished to avoid pregnancy. Other tablets report homosexual anal intercourse. Both sexual intercourse and prostitution were believed to form part of the divine laws which had governed the universe from the days of its creation and were known to the Sumerians as me.

The importance ascribed to the goddess was reflected in the position enjoyed by women within society. Early in Sumerian times, as would happen later in both early Egypt and Crete, women were not confined tothe home but instead had a role to play in public life. This was especially true of the priestesses, who owned property and transacted business. Property from family estates was inherited equally by sisters and brothers. A daughter, when she married, was given a dowry that she was allowed to keep in the event of a divorce.

Sometime around 2300 BC, all this began to change. The laws inscribed on the tablets changed and, as the status of women deteriorated, their menfolk took a more authoritarian role. A woman might still own property but it was no longer hers to dispose of freely. Now she must first consult her husband and obtain his permission. This would have been unthinkable during the time when the worship of Inanna as giver and supporter of life was paramount and women, as her representatives, were therefore accorded respect and social position. It can be no coincidence that by this later stage, both Inanna and other female Sumerian deities had lost the high position they once enjoyed.

By the time of the Code of Hammurabi, formulated between 1792 and 1750 BC, the position of women had obviously been greatly eroded. The crimes recorded on the tablets which now outnumbered all others were those of witchcraft and female adultery. According to the Code the accused woman was subjected to the ordeal of the river. If she survived being thrown into a river, she was absolved from any crime. Were she to drown, however, this was considered to be proof of her guilt. This way of ascertaining her guilt or otherwise had a continuing influence for hundreds of years. In Europe, women accused of witchcraft were subjected to similar ordeals by water up until medieval times.

From a much later period comes another myth, the Sumero-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which examines the question of why man must suffer and die. Central to the story is the close friendship of its two heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Although it is impossible to know with any certainty whether their relationship was homosexual, erotic feelings are certainly implied. Gilgamesh has a dream in which he foresees the arrival of a strange being whom he will embrace "like a wife," and soon after he meets Enkidu and becomes his friend.

Later they meet the goddess Ishtar, who offers to marry Gilgamesh, promising him untold delights. He, however, preferring his friend Enkidu, rejects her advances in a deeply insulting way, referring to her in derogatory terms:

"Thou art but a brazier which goes out in the cold:

A back door which does not keep out blast and windstorm;
A palace which crushes the valiant..."

Enraged, Ishtar asks her father to create a heavenly bull to destroy the insolent hero. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull and Enkidu throws its organs into Ishtar's face. This is too much for the assembly of the gods, who decide that Enkidu must die. This will be the punishment that Gilgamesh must bear. Later, Enkidu is allowed to emerge from the underworld for a visit and Gilgamesh begs him to reveal what death is like. Enkidu's answer, reluctantly given, implies the former existence of a physical relationship between them:

"That which you cherished,

that which you caressed,
and which brought happiness to your heart,
like an old garment is now devoured by the worms.
That which you cherished,
that which you caressed
and which made your heart glad,
is today covered in dust."

Given that myths tend to reflect aspects of the culture prevalent at the time, we may surmise that intimate relationships between men were not considered unusual. This could perhaps be expected in a society where archaeological evidence has shown that women had, by now, a very inferior role. Dual standards existed for married life, where a wife might be put to death for adultery, while a husband was free to enjoy as many women as he chose, provided he did not seduce the wife of another man.

Patriarchal values were indeed increasing in importance at this time, especially in the northern area of Sumeria known as Akkadia, later called Babylonia. This region was inhabited by Semitic tribes in whose view a woman was entirely the possession of her menfolk. So much was this the case that fathers and husbands had the power of life and death over their wives and daughters. The birth of a son was counted as a blessing but an unwelcome daughter might be left, exposed, to die. Not only was a daughter unable to inherit property but she could with impunity be sold into slavery by the men responsible for her. Needless to say, these peoples had no priestesses. As we shall see, this attitude that devalued women had great significance in the later development of Judaism.

Babylon: Home of Sacred Prostitution

Often associated with the Sumerian goddess Inanna and sometimes interchangeable with her was Ishtar, the great goddess of Babylon, who had two main functions. Although the goddess of love and sexuality, she was in another aspect a fierce war goddess, sometimes depicted riding on a lion. Also called Mother of Harlots and the Great Whore of Babylon, she declared of herself, "...a prostitute compassionate am I." Her holy city of Erech was known as "the town of the sacred courtesans." In no way, therefore, was prostitution in the Babylonian era considered a shameful profession. On the contrary, temples to Ishtar were inhabited by sacred prostitutes or priestesses known as ishtartu or Joy-Maidens, dedicated to the service of the goddess. Their sexuality was seen as belonging to her, to be used therefore only in the sacred rites undertaken in her worship. Indeed, the original meaning of the word "prostitute" was "to stand on behalf of," that is, to represent, the power of the goddess. Curiously perhaps, from a contemporary standpoint, Ishtar was often referred to as "Virgin," implying that her creativity and power were self-engendered and not dependent upon a masculine power.

Forbidden to marry in the ordinary sense of the word, the ihtaritu undertook instead the practice of the sacred marriage. Central to this rite was the idea that divine energy was released at the moment of sexual union, where masculine phallic power was received into the feminine embace.

Like Inanna, Ishtar was considered responsible for the power of sexuality and its manifestations. A saying attributed to her makes this clear, "I turn the male to the female. I am she who adorneth the male for the female; I am she who adorneth the female for the male." Sexuality, as the vehicle by which life both physical and psychic was brought into the world, was considered to be a sacred act. What is more, gods and goddesses, as we have seen in the story of Inanna, were believed to enjoy blissful sexual relationships. Human beings, therefore, through sexual intercourse might attain something akin to the state of divine ecstasy. In some temples, only a priest would be allowed to represent the Moon God, symbol of masculine divinity. He would have intercourse with the ishtaritu or another woman whose role was to embody the feminine power of the goddess. Sometimes the woman in question would be one wishing to be initiated into the mysteries of the Great Goddess. She would accordingly sacrifice her virginity in the temple by enacting the sacred marriage, often with the priest but at other times with a representation of the divine phallus. Perhaps the much later custom of droit de seigneur, the right of a feudal lord to have sexual relations with a vassal's bride on her wedding night, was an echo, albeit much distorted, of these ancient religious practices. Some priests, however, although holding office in the temple, would be unable to perform the rite on account of having been castrated. Their devotion to the goddess was such that they had sacrificed their sexuality to her as a way of promoting new life. This practice was later taken up by the Canaanites and in Greece by the priests of Cybele.

What gave the rite of sacred marriage its spiritual significance was its impersonal nature. Those taking the roles of priest and priestess were acting not as man and woman in a human relationship but as incarnations of a divine being. In this way, the participants could expect to have a direct experience of the power of the Great Goddess and feel deeply enriched and energized as a result. Any child born of the union would, as in Sumerian custom, belong to the temple.

In many temples, the priestesses would undertake the sacred marriage with any male worshipper who wanted union with the goddess. The man, whom the priestess had not met before and would not meet again, spent the night with her in the temple precincts. Their intercourse would put him in contact with the rejuvenating energy of the Goddess, mediated through her priestess who would bestow on him an ecstatic experience. For the priestess, the sexual act represented a ritual offering to the goddess. A very real benefit was therefore enjoyed by all concerned, not least the temple itself which could expect to earn considerable income from such worshippers. As a result, priestesses often engaged in commerce and might be involved in import and export, land management, and other profitable endeavors. The modern brothel of our own culture, with its "madam," might perhaps be seen as a somewhat pale reflection of the temple of Ishtar. Apart from their sexual and commercial activities, temple prostitutes demonstrated considerable gifts in other areas. Because their natural secretions were considered to have a beneficial effect, they were greatly respected as healers of the sick. One clay tablet dating from this era tells us that diseases of the eye can be cured by a harlot's spittle. These women also acted as seers and were skilled in sorcery and prophecy.

The sacred priestesses were not alone in undertaking sexual rites in the temple. Any number of other women, including those from the highest families in the land, would also prostitute themselves in the temple at least once during their lifetime. Indeed, there was at one stage a law which required a woman to do so before she married. This was a precautionary measure to deflect the wrath of the goddess, for she did not hold with monogamy. The Greek historian Herodotus gives us an excellent, if not wholly approving, description of the practice:

"The worst Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land once in her life to sit in the temple of love and have... intercourse with some stranger... the men pass and make their choice. It matters not what be the sum of money; the woman will never refuse, for that were a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. After their intercourse she has made herself holy in the sight of the goddess and goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are tall and fair are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfill the law: for some of them remain for three years or four."

For a contemporary person such an attitude is very strange indeed. But in its pure form, a deeply spiritual significance was attached to these rites. The goddess, because she presided over fertility, represented the creative power which is an essential aspect of all female beings. By sacrificing her sexuality to the deity, a woman was offering herself as a vehicle for the divine energy. The experience of abandoning herself in this way evidently engendered a sense of spiritual fulfillment which was more important to her than either sensual satisfaction or even human love. Temples to Ishtar, at Erech and other places, were also served by male prostitutes. They were referred to as men "...whose manhood Ishtar has changed into womanhood." Attitudes toward homosexuality, however, seem to have changed at a later stage of Babylonian culture. The Middle Assyrian Law Tablets, dating back to the twelfth century BC make it clear that some kinds of homosexuality, at least, could lead to castration:

"If a seignior lay with his neighbor, when they have prosecuted him and convicted him, they shall lie with him and turn him into a eunuch."

In a culture which laid great stress on the duty to procreate, to the extent that a woman's barrenness constituted grounds for divorce, we can deduce that any crime for which castration was the punishment must have been considered extremely serious. As in most civilizations, incest of any form was strictly forbidden:

"If a man violates his own mother, it is a capital crime. If a man violates his daughter, it is a capital crime. If a man violates his son, it is a capital crime."

Life within the temple precincts was, of course, just one aspect, albeit a central one, of Babylonian culture. An ordinary woman did not enjoy the reverence and exalted position ascribed to the sacred prostitute, her legal position being on the whole inferior to that of her menfolk. Nevertheless, a surprisingly wide field of employment was open to her. As early as the third millennium BC there are records of women working as scribes, hair dressers, shopkeepers, spinners, brewers, diviners, and at numerous other occupations. As a wife, a woman was circumscribed by laws definitely favoring her husband. It was quite within his rights to divorce her for being a spendthrift although he could, if he chose, pardon her should she commit adultery. Although a man was allowed only one legal wife, he was at liberty to take concubines if he could afford them. Should the official wife prove unable to bear children, her husband was at liberty to divorce her. Her only alternative, if he would accept it, was to find another woman for her husband who could assume this role.

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