Prostitution in Mesopotamia

Prostitution discussions span a wide breadth of issues especially cultural and economic aspects. Despite its tag as the “oldest profession” in the world, coming up with a representative definition has proved challenging (Edlund and Korn 183). Although some definitions have attributed prostitution to sexual intercourse for monetary gains, such definitions could wrongfully implicate wives who get into marriage as a source of livelihood (Edlund and Korn 183). Similarly, definitions equating prostitution with promiscuity could fail to capture such individuals as concubines or call girls, who, in other perspectives, would be regarded as prostitutes (Edlund and Korn 183). An analysis of prostitution as represented in the agrarian era, however provides insight into the origin and institutionalization of prostitution in society. The subject of this paper is thus to highlight the evolution and history of prostitution in Mesopotamia.

Prostitution, by its reference as oldest profession in the world, could imply it is a naturally occurring social phenomenon. Its rarity in sexually accommodating communities however deprive it the status of a natural occurrence in society (Lerner 236). Such latter observations have led to suggestions of prostitution being an outcome of regulation of sexuality (Bloch qtd. in Lerner 236). To provide a guide to the origin of prostitution, Engels (74) presented a case for its antecedent from religious beliefs, later fueled by economic aspects and enslavement of females. Analysis of the Mesopotamian society reveals such transition from sexual services informed on cultic religious perspectives, to commercial prostitution that, though initially was targeted at bringing income to the ancient temples, eventually became an avenue for  slave masters  to enlarge their resources, or for farmers to acquire loans for survival (Lerner 236- 250).

Provision of sexual services based on cultic beliefs may be traced to the Neolithic age where the adoration of Mother-Goddess or other female figurines was widespread (Lerner 238). In ancient Mesopotamia, such goddesses and the gods were perceived to be temple residents, who commanded the services of various temple workers such as priests, artisans and slaves (Lerner 238). Among the services offered to the gods and goddesses, provision of sexual services could have been a contribution for the people who perceived fertility to be a core factor for their survival (Lerner 239). In such perspectives, sexual activity that pursued was regarded beneficial to society – perceived to eliminate infertility – and sacred; a reason for its frequent referral as sacred prostitution (Lerner 239).

A second form of cultic sexual services could be evident from The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poetic myth of a legendary King, Gilgamesh, estimated to actually have lived around 3000 B.C (Lerner 245). Due to his wayward behavior, the gods create his likeness, Enkidu, to contend with him (“the Epic of Gilgamesh” 4). But Enkidu lives in the wild, until a hunter discovers him forcing him to flee (“the Epic of Gilgamesh” 7). To tame Enkidu, the hunter is advised to use a harlot, a strategy that proves successful in bringing Enkidu to meet Gilgamesh and become friends with him (“the Epic of Gilgamesh” 4, 13). In such a way, the harlot plays a noble role, that of civilizing Enkidu, a role not abhorred by society, since they needed someone like Enkidu who could tame the wayward ways of Gilgamesh (Lerner 246). Through these two examples, cult informed sexual service could have been perceived different from the commercial prostitution which later came to be regulated through such laws as the Middle Assyrian law – MAL (Lerner 245,248-250).

Although cult based sexual services may have resulted into commercial prostitution due to the rewards that may have been offered back to the temple (Lerner 244), two other factors could have had a greater contribution to development of commercial prostitution in Mesopotamia. Firstly, enslavement of women and the establishment and institutionalization of classes could have led to commercial prostitution (Lerner 247). As military conquest and occupation increased around 3000 B.C., the slave masters availed their captive women to various holders of power to assert their wealth in terms of servants and concubines (Lerner 247). Eventually, such practices were revered by the wealthy and other people at positions of influence thus creating a demand to fuel commercial prostitution (Lerner 247). Secondly, commercial prostitution could have arisen out of the abject poverty of farmers and their dependence on loans for survival (Lerner 247). Due to such dependence, farmers could leverage their children as slaves in exchange for such loans (Lerner 247). Alternatively, siblings from such poor backgrounds could choose self-employment in prostitution to evade enslavement (Lerner 247). Such latter option would probably lead to their being concubines; a status that commanded a higher respect than that of slavery (Lerner 247).  As prostitution became widespread, laws that attempted to create classes among women started coming up.

A significant legislation that depicts the attempt to identify classes among women was the Middle Assyrian Law (MAL). The provisions of MAL attempted to develop classes among women by their different treatment. According to the law women who were considered “respectable” e.g. wives, daughters of high-ranking men had to veil themselves when out in public whereas those of “lesser” status e.g. slaves or unmarried sacred prostitutes were required not to wear a veil (Lerner 247-253; Westbrook 91). Similarly, slaves who served in such “respectable” households were supposed to veil themselves when out in public in the company of their masters’ mistresses (Lerner 247-253; Westbrook 91). Failure to observe such laws were punished with increasing severity from the harlots who were not veiled to the slaves who were not veiled (Lerner 247-253).  With the stipulations of the law, men who never reported the cases of violation of the law (veiling without a status that allows one to do so) were also subject to punishment, a restitution that also aggravated where the subject of violation was a slave (Lerner 249; Westbrook 91). Such laws reveal the attempt to provide a legal solution to a moral issue, whose articulation and effect has evaded even the modern society.

Although a conventional definition of prostitution is lacking, the analysis of the practice in Mesopotamia provides a guide to its origin and evolution. This paper thus focuses on the history and evolution of prostitution in Mesopotamia. The origin of prostitution can be traced to the sexual services offered informed by cultic practices that were practiced in temples. In this respect individuals could offer such services to the gods for such reasons as fertility. As slavery became entrenched in the society, such services however changed from their cultic significance to the search for monetary rewards that were associated with the trade. For instance, farmers who needed loans started offering their children as slaves who then would be required to provide sexual services to people in authority and the military who had conquered the region. Ultimately, with the widespread practice of commercial prostitution, legislation such as MAL that aimed to demarcate women perceived to be respectable from those of lower status in society e.g. slaves were developed. Such laws, similar to modern laws targeting moral issues, faced various challenges that negatively affected their effectiveness.

Works Cited

Edlund, Lena and Evelyn Korn. “A Theory of Prostitution.” The Journal of Political Economy 110.1 (2002): 181-214. Web. 30 Jan. 2011.

Engels, Frederick. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. 1891. Intro. Pat Brewer. Chippendale: Resistance Books, 2004. Web. 30 Jan 2011.

Lerner, Gerda. “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Signs 11.2 (1986): 236-254. Web. 30 Jan. 2011.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency. Web. 30 Jan 2011.

Westbrook, Raymond. “Evidentiary Procedure in the Middle Assyrian Laws.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 55 (2003): 87-97. Web. 30 Jan 2011.

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