Temple Sex: Fertility Cults in Antiquity

As I noted in a previous post, the domestication of plants and animals — a process that began in the Old World approximately 12,000 years ago — led to a seismic shift in the way humans live.  Although this process is often described as the “Neolithic Revolution,” this phrase incorrectly suggests there was a sudden shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to sedentary living where people planted gardens and tended goats. The process was spotty and uneven.  It took several thousands of years for small agrarian villages to grow into the first city-states.  These city-states appeared first in Mesopotamia around 4,000 BC.  From this time forward city-states proliferated at an astonishing rate, and appear in India, Persia, the Levant, Anatolia, Egypt, and Greece.

These changes also entailed a seismic shift from supernatural shamanic practices (characteristic of hunter-gatherers) to organized religion.  Each and every city-state had its own gods, temples, priests, and practices.  It was a time of immense innovation and experimentation for religious beliefs and practices.

Fertility had of course always been important to hunter-gatherers; they often experienced high mortality rates and also needed the plants and animals on which they depended to renew themselves.  It is no surprise therefore that the high shamanic regard for fertility was incorporated into the first organized forms of religion in the city-states.  These city-states also depended on the fertility of people and domesticated plants-animals; they needed to sustain the substantial populations required for large-scale agriculture and nearly constant warfare.

With these things in mind, almost all city-states built temples devoted to fertility goddesses.  Because fertility is associated with sex, it appears that the temples were carnal and lascivious places.  Yesterday, the German newsmagazine Spiegel published an excellent article about sex in the temples of antiquity.  I highly recommend it — you won’t find this sort of thing in Time or Newsweek.

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