Religion and sex don’t seem to go very well together. But that’s just because the dominant religions of our modern world, Chistianism and Islam regard sex outside of matrimony as a sin. This is not, however, the general accepted view in all religions, and we will try to show it as we explore the major religious cults, past and present, in which sex not only plays a very important role, but it is also integrated as a ritual practice.
In the Ancient Near East it is said to have been temples named “houses of heaven” dedicated to various deities in which ritual prostitution was taking place. The biggest of these temples were those built in the honour of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility and sexual desire. In Ancient Greece the temples of Aprodite were known to house female slaves who offered sexual favors for money. The Romans had several festive days dedicated to Venus like Fortuna Virilis, the “Masculine Luck’ or to the goddess Flora when prostitutes were actively participating by erotic dancing and stripping and there is no doubt that sexual pleasures were being offered in honour of the deities.
Tantric Buddhism is a branch of Buddhism that focuses on sexual union as a means of reaching the divine. Although prostitution is not explicitly encouraged, the royal courts that embraced this religion often had courtesans destined to provide sex as a service in order for the men to obtain religious gratifications. The religious context of these sexual practices made the entire ritual very complex and many rules had to be observed for a proper devotional experience. The Candi Sukuh is an Indonesian temple that best represents the reverence towards sexual desire through the very clear depictions of sexual intercourse.
Through its different and various forms and sects, Hinduims has embraced the expressions of human sexuality very openly from its beginnings. Although religious practice tries to regulate the sexual life of its devotees, it never does so in a restrictive sense. In Ancient India, there was a tradition that made the most beautiful woman a Nagarvadhu or “bride of the city”. She was regarded as a goddess herself and highly respected and she had to offer sexual services to the nobles of the city. In what regards prostitution, the devadasi is a religious tradition in the south of India where a young girl is married to a deity and has to work in its temple as a dancer, prostitute or spiritual guide. The practice is under legal scrutiny, but in spite of various attempts, it could not be stopped. In Nepal the ancient custom of deuki consists in the offering of a young girl to a temple to work there as a prostitute. It is said she will attract the favor of the gods upon her family and that sex with a deuki can cleanse the man from sins and bad luck.
Native American Religions
In the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations, sacred prostitution and especially ritual homosexuality was the norm as the various temple sculptures and depictions tend to show. They had special goddesses that were patrons not only of sexuality and fertility, but of prostitution itself, among which Ichpuchtli and Xochiquetzal are the most important. These practices were harshly repressed by the conquistadores, following the discovery of The America by the Europeans, and there are only traces of them left now.
Although not always moral and not in the best interest of the person offering the services, ritual prostitution has been a part of our society for a very long time. Sex and religion are deeply intertwined with our lives so it may be natural for them to come together. We should just be careful and know where to draw the line between exploitation and devotion.