Ancient Near Eastern societies along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers featured many shrines and temples or “houses of heaven” dedicated to various deities. According to the 5th-century BC historian Herodotus, the rites performed at these temples included sexual intercourse, or what scholars later called sacred prostitution:
The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta” (that is the Assyrian name for Aphrodite). It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.
A number of other ancient authors corroborate Herodotus’s account. By their testimony it appears that not only in Babylonia and Cyprus, but throughout the Near East, ancient societies encouraged the practice of sacred prostitution. The British anthropologist James Frazer accumulated citations to prove this in a chapter of his magnum opus The Golden Bough (1890-1915), and this has served as a starting point for several generations of scholars. However, Frazer took his sources mostly from authors of Late Antiquity (i.e. 150 – 500 AD), not from the Classical or Hellenistic periods. This raises questions as to whether the phenomenon of temple prostitution can be generalized to the whole of the ancient world, as earlier scholars typically did.
The research of Daniel Arnaud, Vincienne Pirenne-Delforge, and Stephanie Budin has cast the whole tradition of scholarship that defined the concept of sacred prostitution into doubt. Budin regards the concept of sacred prostitution as a myth – arguing that the practices described in the sources simply never existed. A more nuanced view, espoused by Pirenne-Delforge, suggests that ritual sex did exist in the Near East, but not in the Greek or Roman worlds in classical or Hellenistic times.
Tradition distinguished two major forms of sacred prostitution: temporary prostitution of unwed girls (with variants such as dowry-prostitution, or as public defloration of a bride), and lifelong prostitution.
According to the noted Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer, kings in the ancient Near Eastern region of Sumer established their legitimacy by taking part in a ritual sexual act in the temple of the fertility goddess Ishtar every year on the tenth day of the New Year festival Akitu.