Herodotus on sacred marriage and sacred prostitution at Babylon

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Anagnostou-Laoutides, E & Charles, MB 2018, 'Herodotus on sacred marriage and sacred prostitution at Babylon', Kernos, vol. 32, pp. 9-37Published version available from



The article compares Herodotus’ representation of “sacred marriage” and “sacred prostitution” with relevant passages in Xenophon, Diodorus, and Strabo. The representation of the “sacred marriage” ritual in ancient near eastern sources points to a venerable custom used to induce divine epiphanies but, also, to a powerful political tool that later rulers used to establish or enhance their legitimacy. Furthermore, Xenophon’s appreciation of the divine favor that eastern rulers mustered and the symbolism they used to relate it, indicates that the Greeks neither ignored nor rejected such eastern norms. By taking into account the scholarly arguments that doubt the widespread existence of “sacred prostitution” in antiquity and point to a misreading of Herodotus by later Roman authors, who read his work through the “orientalism” of their day, we argue that Herodotus does not exhibit inherent bias against the Babylonians when reporting the famous custom requiring every Babylonian woman to prostitute herself once in her lifetime. A closer reading of the text suggests that Herodotus was more interested in castigating religious prejudice regardless of the ethnicity of its practitioners.

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