The Ancient Lineage of the Sacred Intimate
A warrior entered the Temple, and a leatherworker emerged.
Dusty from the road, sweating from exertion in the noonday sun, bruised, fresh with scars, and haunted by the things he had seen, and by the things he had done, the warrior stepped into the cool air of the Temple. A strong man in a plain robe welcomed him and led him past the fire and the pool of cool, clear water. A girl not yet of age, an oblate sister, took him to a place where smoke rose from braziers and a fierce priestess draped in robes of red gauze held him with her gaze and chanted a blessing over him. He felt as though he had stepped into a dream. The oblate then led him to a place where several of the Sisters of God bathed him, thoroughly cleansing every inch of his body. When he grew erect under their touch, they moved on, tenderly cleaning his wounds with clean, cold water and an astringent salve that stung. Another priestess came and stitched some his scars a little tighter. He winced as the bone needle pierced the redness of his wounds. There was a bitter drink, and then sleep — dreamless for the first time in weeks.
The warrior told his story to the high priestess and her consort. She was lush, smooth, and her deep, fluid gaze never wavered from him. Her consort was a rugged man, himself lined with ancient scars. The warrior related how he had left his father’s leather shop when the war was called. How he had gone proudly with the men across the river and through the hills to defeat the heathens and retake what was rightfully theirs to the great glory of Uruk. He knew what he had to tell them, but it still took some prompting. How he had been overtaken by something that was terror and rage; how he had swung his sword at the child… just a child… and as it fell and blood spiralled the hut he saw it was a girl. A little girl. And her head had rolled against the wall. It came to rest with wide, terrified eyes still looking at him, as if seeing. And even then, he saw the light go out of them, the glaze of death.
The warrior could not look at them, priestess and priest as he told his story, but he felt their love. No pity, no anger, no recrimination, no forgiveness. They saw him, they heard him, and they loved him. He knew from the great compassion of their silence that they had heard worse. Somehow he suspected that the priest himself may well have done worse. But they listened, and at the end, when he had named the other images that lingered in his head and disturbed his sleep, the priestess came forward with her hands outstretched. She drew him to his feet, and pressed her lush, warm body to his. She kissed him deeply, but he was still too tense and too terrified to respond.
At last she released him, and her consort swept him into a different kind of embrace. “We will wash the warrior from you. Welcome home, brother.”
It took several days. The women washed him five times a day, and between the ritual ablutions, they fed him with plates of fruit. They loved him. In every way, every possible way, they loved him. There were somber rituals of love, and playful afternoons as the sunlight slanted through slitted screens.
At dawn, at sunset, and at midnight, they took him to a high place where he sat with other men in silence, watching the heavens in all their vastness pass overhead.
He quickly learned the rhythm of the day, and began to anticipate the next ceremony. But, so soon, the same young oblate came and brought him before the priestess.
She lifted a cord and around his neck hung a downward pointed triangle, inscribed in its lower half with a vertical line.
“Wear this until the equinox, then put it in a place of honor. We have loved the war out of you, brother. You are the same sweet boy who worked the leather. Go, now, and bring love to your home.”
Qadesh and Qedeshah
In ancient Hebrew, the word ‘Qadesh’ (קָדֵשׁ) is a beautiful word, coming from the root verb qadash meaning ‘to consecrate.’ A Qadesh is a specially consecrated man, a Qedeshah is a specially consecrated woman, and a Qodesh is a specially consecrated thing or place.
To understand the power and importance of this word, consider Exodus 3:5:
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Holy ground. Qodesh. The very place where God resides. At the other end of the Old Testament, Isaiah uses this term to anticipate the Messiah:
When they see among them their children, the work of my hands, they will keep my name holy; they will acknowledge the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. (Isaiah 29:23)
Holy One. Qadesh.
Such a beautiful word, most commonly translated as:
Consecrated, consecrated thing, dedicated gifts, holiness, holy, holies, holy ones, holy thing, most holy, holy place, sacred, sacred gifts, sacred things, sanctuary, set apart, temple prostitute.
The lattermost usage is found in a smattering of passages forbidding the sons and daughters of Israel from taking up this profession. But it is clearly not a word for ordinary prostitution. In fact, there was such a word: ‘zonah’ — and while whores, harlots, and prostitutes were not exactly honored, it was perfectly legal work in Israel.
What, then was the problem with this ‘temple prostitute’ — what was this, and why is something normally translated as ‘sacred’ and ‘consecrated’ suddenly labeled a prostitute?
We have ample evidence, archaeological and from other ancient and classical era texts as to exactly what this was.
The Sisters of God
In 1754 BC, Hammurabi, Sixth King of Babylon, enacted a code of law, which is one of the earliest surviving legal documents in human history. In it, he enacts various legal provisions protecting the legal rights of those named ‘sister of god,’ ‘devoted woman,’ or ‘prostitute’ — they were honored members of society who had special protections against slander, specially protected property rights, and one important limitation: they couldn’t open a tavern! We can imagine that these are the Qedeshah, the sacred women, sister to God, devoted to the service of the great Goddess of Love. So long as their service is of the highest order, they have the protections of God and King. But if they stoop to common harlotry, then their protections are revoked. (The children of these sisters of god had special protections and limitations as well, including a strict ban on bad-mouthing their parents.)
Putting the pieces together, we can see that the sons and daughters of Israel are banned from serving in this role, this honored ‘sister of god’ protected by Hammurabi. Since prostitution itself is not banned in Israel, we must conclude that the Israelites correctly saw the difference between the two, and in their choice of language recognized the holiness of the servants in the temple, and forbade it — because it was to a God other than Yahweh.
So: what went on in these temples? Was this merely state-sponsored prostitution, or was there something more?
A Quick History of the Temple
We know there was a central place of Goddess in pre-historic cultures from Europe to India. Figurines of this Goddess date back to about 35,000 bc. These ample-bosomed, ample-bodied figurines suggest that the first role of Goddess was fertility — blessing families, animals, and land with rich, abundant life.
Thirty three thousand years later we begin to have a written and pictorial record, and from this written record we can see a remarkably similar development of these specially consecrated women and men expanding with civilization from Mesopotamia to include both the Mediterranean and India. Across this span of geography and history, there was a common thread in the Temples of the “Sister of God” — whether that Goddess be named Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Aphrodite, or Durga.
These priestesses had many names. In Sumeria, some priestesses were referenced as kar-kid, ‘one who knows the penis’ or ‘daughter of God.’ In Babylon, some were ḫarimtu a word of disputed translation, meaning ‘unmarried woman’ but often carrying sexual connotations. Ishtar herself was referenced as ḫarimtu (Silver, 638–641). In Assyria, the term was qadištu, or votary of the Goddess (Marsman, 500) — obviously etymologically related to the Hebrew qadesh. Tracing the etymology back, we can find the language in Hammurabi’s time to be: kadistum (f) and zikrum (m) — the temple priestesses and priests associated with sexuality (Luckenbill). In Egypt: Hemet Neter, or ‘consort of God,’ the priestess would be of noble blood, a daughter or wife to Pharoah (Morgan, 5). In the Temple of Aphrodite in Greece (especially Corinth), hetairai and hierodule. In India, devadasi, or in tantra, the veshya.
The rituals and functions of the early Temple included: promoting the fertility of land, animals, and families; training in the sexual arts and coming of age rituals; and healing, perhaps including this specialty: healing from the work of war. It is noteworthy that this Goddess was frequently known as the Goddess of love and war!
When the Greco-Roman culture overtook much of this region, the work of the Temple was shut down, and the Goddess relegated to children’s stories and superstition. When Christianity was co-opted by Rome, it’s element of sacred sexuality was also expunged. But the temple and many of its rituals did survive in one surprising form: the synthesis of spiritual practice known as Tantra. Within Tantra, many of the traditional functions of the Temple became part of the path of spiritual awakening, while retaining much of the practical function.
With the rise of Islam and its conquest of India, Tantra too was suppressed, surviving only in partial and esoteric forms (including the mystical wing of Islam: Sufism).
In the present day there is serious effort to revive and reconstitute the work of the temple, and it’s ultimate expression as a path of true awakening. (See below.)
Who Joined the Temple?
Who were the priests and priestesses that undertook this service to Goddess?
There are frequent accusations of the kinds of behavior we would today call sex trafficking: children sold to the Temple, slaves forced into sexual service, service as a form of punishment. But these accusations have no backing from the record. (That said, sexual maturity was culturally accepted at a much younger age. Menstruation was the mark of maturity for a young woman, and boys of similar age were burdened with the full responsibilities of the adult, including going to war.)
In the laws, however, we see this profession as being one marked be freedom and by choice and rewarded with privilege.
In Sumer, laws were enacted to ensure that those entering the training of the Temple had permission from their parent or guardian. In Egypt, only women of noble or royal birth would be accepted into this role. Many of the men were born into the Temple. In Greece, service in the Temple was a step up available only to experienced women. In all these cultures, including India, there was extensive training and initiation required before anyone, male or female, would be considered committed to the service. Finally, there are records of women leaving the Temple to marry or to undertake other work, so there is no indication that this was ever forced in any way. In the Greek world, one of the words for this work was Hierodule, which also meant a freed slave.
It is also very important to consider that the ancient attitudes toward sexuality were utterly unrelated to our own culture. In a culture where there was absolutely no shame about sexuality or prostitution, the work of the Temple would be the very highest rung of a prestigious ladder.
An interesting projection from our own culture may be found in a feminist critique of “temple prostitution” which attempts to refute that there was any sexual activity in any of the temples of love at all, dismissing this as a history of patriarchal fantasy rather than ancient religion. Julia Assante shook the history world with her rigorous work attempting to refute ancient traditions of sacred sexuality. In the twenty years since she launched her approach, scholarship has taken her work seriously, and acknowledged where she has brought clarity to some of the linguistic nuances of the terms used. But ultimately, this seems more a denial based in our own cultural norms than it does a clear view of the ancient world.
The Work of the Temple
Various forms of ritual, worship, and service took place in the Temple of Goddess. Academics do not fully agree on the precise nature of the role of the earliest priestesses, but even those making the case for deeply sexual work agree that there was more to the temple work than sex (Silver, p658).
Based on surviving legal and financial records, other archaeological evidence including stone carvings and painted ceramics, and a variety of literary sources, we can point to four primary functions of the Temple:
- Training in Sexual Arts;
One of the earliest recorded rituals of the Temple, and perhaps the deepest and most persistent of undertakings of sacred sexualty, was the ritual of hieros gamos — sacred marriage. This is a ritual act of sexual union, sometimes between the High Priestess of the Goddess and a corollary High Priest of the dominant masculine deity; sometimes between the High Priestess and the King of the local domain or other nobleman responsible for the wellbeing of the land; sometimes between a priest and priestess both consecrated to the goddess. The earliest purpose of the ritual is thought to have been a fertility ritual.
It is essential to understand that in the hieros gamos ritual, the union of man and woman is undertaken in a ritual by which the priestess becomes Goddess, and the priest, king, or nobleman becomes the consort God. The ritual fully evokes the divine in order for the blessing to complete.
In some of the early records, there is indication that another purpose of hieros gamos was to produce a royal heir. That is, only the union of the High Priestess and king, in this ritual of highest invocation of Goddess and God, can produce an appropriately sacred heir (Marsman, p495). Simply begetting children through marriage was insufficient. This tradition does not seem to linger through later eras. In Egyptian mythology the genders were reversed: the wife of the Pharaoh would enjoin in hieros gamos with the High Priest in order to produce an appropriately sacred heir, although it is not clear whether this was ever actually practiced (Marsman, p496).
Five thousand years later, hieros gamos is still actively taught in living Tantra, sometimes under that name, or sometimes labeled from the Sanskrit: maithuna.
Training in Sexual Arts
In various ways the Temple would prepare young people for their sexual life.
In the Sumerian hill city of Sippar, young wives would be sent to the Temple as rēdûtu — suitor or lover — in order to be trained for marriage by the ḫarīmūtu — in this case the male servants of Goddess. In many other texts the young men are similarly trained in the arts of love by the priestesses (Stol, p423).
Greek accounts from Herodotus and Strabo relate salacious stories of Babylon and Egypt. Scholars do not take these accounts seriously, as it was common practice by these and other Greek authors to exaggerate, embellish or completely fictionalize their accounts, especially when it came to denigrating other cultures. These two stories relate that all women were forced to serve as harlots in the temple. While that is almost certainly not the case, the stories may be rooted in this same practice of training young women in the sexual arts. Strabo in particular specifies that the time spent in the Temple is the time from the first menstruation to the second (Mogg), thus making it a significant coming-of-age ritual for young women to be taught by the priestesses and priests of the temple, instructed in all the arts, skills, and provided all health information they would need.
Another function of the Temple, at least in some areas, was to train courtesans of the palace. In several Mesopotamian kingdoms where there were separate words for the sexual priestesses of the Temple and courtesans of the palace, the latter went to the former for training. Only the priestesses had full legal protections.
The temples of Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite, Isis, Durga and others were unquestionably also places of healing. The servants of the Goddess were known as the first doctors, and also dentists!
Stories of sexual healing, such as the one opening this article, are ubiquitous but lacking in solid primary source evidence.
The notion of the priestesses “loving the war out of the warrior” and returning him to his community physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychically healed is a beautiful and powerful story, but can only be inferred from the known roles of the priestesses as healers and also as having a role in teaching the arts of love and in performing divine rites and rituals involving sacred union.
We don’t know exactly what those vulva/triangle necklaces were given out for… but we do know they were given out!
Lest it be thought that everything in the Temple was too dreadfully serious, or that sacred sexuality could not also be simply fun, there are pictorial accounts of orgiastic celebration, and the lyrics to a song suggest that a festival in the fourth month of the year in Babylon raucously celebrated the illicit affair between Marduk and Ishtar (Stol, 435).
In Greece, in contrast to the stodgy propaganda of Herodotus, we have the Dionysian Mysteries — a wild celebration that is commonly thought to have been a letting down of all social barriers mixing sex, wine, and possibly entheogens.
Survival via Tantra
Inanna, or Ishtar, arrived in India as Durga — a sexy, loving, warrior Goddess riding a lion… much like her Western counterpart. We know less about specific temple culture in India, but from works such as the Kama Sutra we know that the accomplishments and skills of the courtesan were immense: rising to the very highest levels in the arts of pleasure, but also including music, poetry, and science.
There is an interesting, but seemingly corrupted, survival of the Temple in India today in the form of the devadasi — described as “a thin veneer of religion” (The Guardian, 2011) — in which girls of the untouchable cast are “married” to the Goddess Yellamma at about age 12, and work as prostitutes without any serious spiritual component, until about 45, when they must survive by begging. Originally, however, the devadasi was a highly trained priestess, taught in all the arts of the Kama Sutra as well as the rituals and ceremonies of their Temple. Very much like the Sumerian tradition, the devadasi were married to God, and enjoyed special legal protection in part because they could thus never be widowed!
Tantra was not directly a continuation of the Temple. Instead, it took a very different path. What academics and historians call Tantra was a tremendous fusion of spiritual traditions, practices, and philosophies, as well as a reform movement in the religious life of India. In all its manifestations, Tantra retained a centerpiece of deep — even radical — respect for the feminine, strongly suggesting that it had important roots in the most ancient Goddess traditions. (Here is a more thorough treatment of the Origins of Tantra.)
Tantra is an embodied practice of personal liberation, and a way of living in true freedom while still fully engaged with the world. It included a rich collection of sexual iconography depicting the hieros gamos (used now for primarily spiritual purposes) and sexual rituals used to achieve liberation, integration, and to honor the Goddess, which remained at the heart and center of tantric teaching, ritual, and even philosophy.
In Tantra, the veshya held the role of this priestess, in masculine form, vesh. (The contemporary terms dakini and daka had a different meaning in classical tantra.) According to the Niruttara Tantra, the veshya was not a prostitute, or at least, no ordinary prostitute. There were different roles for the veshya — everything from a woman born to a tantric family, to a devoted Tantrika choosing a perfect path of freedom and taking as consort an accomplished tantric man, to a priestess who becomes the goddess in sexual ritual with other tantrics, to a fully realized and enlightened tantric woman. The literal translation of veshya is ‘slut.’
The tantric celebration of sexuality, the devotion to the divine feminine, and most of all, the connection of sexuality with an expression of divine action is wholly in line with the history of the Temple.
Like the rest of Temple activity, Tantra was eventually suppressed, finding expression in underground and esoteric forms into the present day.
The Qadesh in Contemporary Culture
The term Qadesh is not in common usage; and neither is kar-kid, ḫarimtu, qadištu, kadistum, zikrum, hemet neter, hetairai, hierodule, or veshya.
But the Temple has been re-established.
Western culture has its own tradition of sexual mysticism and sacred sexuality, but it is a highly discontinuous tradition, with brutal repression being the norm.
As the discovery — and in some cases, recovery — of tantric teachings around sexuality as sacred ritual and as a deeply spiritual practice, a new expression of Tantra arose, often called neo-tantra, to differentiate it from the classical lineages and texts, which are only now becoming available.
This re-emergence of Tantra birthed a new kind of Temple, and a new form of Priestesses and Priests of the Temple, most commonly called dakini (f) and daka (m), terms drawn and loosely adapted from the Tibetan tradition of Tantric Buddhism.
Inspired and influenced by this rebirth, Joseph Kramer went even further in reviving the Qadesh and Qedeshah, coining the term “sacred intimate” and narrowing the focus to just the intersection of the sexuality and spirituality in a way that made no assumptions about religious tradition or background. (Kramer also created a wholly secularized form: ‘sexological bodyworker’.)
The global emergence of dakinis, dakas, and sacred intimates is in a vibrant — but chaotic — phase. There is no great Temple, no High Priestess and her Priest-Consort. There is scant legal support in most countries, while the USA remains as actively hostile as was the Rome it reveres.
Instead, the Temple of today is found in private residences, yoga studios, and the occasional out-of-the-way shopfront location. In keeping with the isolated and digitized nature of global humanity, the “Great Temple” is virtual now, a loose alliance of practitioners who grow in cautious trust with each other. The Qedeshah and Qadesh of today may be healers or spiritual guides who discover the sexual dimension of their work; or sex workers who discover the spiritual dimension. Either way, the end result is the same:
The sacred intimates fulfill one or more of the ancient intentions: training in the sexual arts, healing, ritual, or celebration.
Because the Temple is without regulation or leadership, and because the environment is unfriendly-to-hostile, the precise offerings, the boundaries practitioners hold, and the effectiveness of any given practitioner are completely open.
Nonetheless, Western society ( which is rapidly become global society ), riddled with shame, inhibition, and addiction around sexuality is more desperately in need of the Temple than at any time in history.
Sexual trauma for both women and men is at all-time highs. The cult of the warrior is now deeply entrenched in all aspects of society, resulting in omnipresent alienation from our bodies, the land, and the divine. Both porn and Hollywood have driven our cultural expectations of sexual performance to impossible levels.
We are all expected to be accomplished courtesans; we are all told sex is dirty and that our bodies are second or third rate compared to what we see on the screen; we are all enslaved by economic necessity into single-minded devotion to (often completely disembodied) labor!
Where it Goes From Here…
… nobody knows.
But I do know this:
Human effort may bring human life to an end on this earth, but we will not end life itself. Similarly, the mechanized approach to being human will always be a battle fought against our essential nature, which is to love. To love with our hearts, our touch, our gaze, our words, our sex, and our soul. To love from the whole of our being.
Just as the Church of Rome, it’s unruly cousin (Islam), and it’s ugly younger sibling (the Protestant Reformation), struggled to eradicate sexual mysticism, so our corporatist, materialist, nationalist worldview will struggle as well. And even if this blossoming of the Temple of Love is crushed, it will arise again, and again, and again, because that is what humans are, and it is what we will always do.
Luckenbill, D. D., The Temple Women of the Code of Hammurabi (The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Volume XXXIV October 1917).
Marsman, Hennie J., Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East (Koninklijke Brill, 2003).
Morgan, Mogg, Strabo on Thebes (Luxor) Priestesses or “Sacred Prostitutes” of the West Bank Author (Academia.edu).
Silver, Morris, Temple/Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia Revisited (Ugarit Forschungen 38, 2006).
Stol, Martin, Temple Prostitution (De Gruyter, 2016).
Versluis, Arthur, The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism (Simon and Schuster, 2008).