The Priestesses of Inanna
From (the link is long gone)

A minor tradition
By Anders Sandberg

Prostitution has not always been looked down upon as it is today. Once its practitioners were the priestesses of love and sensuality, celebrating the mysteries of sex at the temples of Inanna in ancient Sumer. Later the Babylonians worshipped her as Ishtar, the goddess of the morning star. Among the Hebrews she was known as Asherah, the wife of El. Other groups in the middle east gave her other names, but her worship was widespread. But as Christianity and monotheism rose, her worship was outlawed and she was demonized. She became known only as the demon Astaroth, and her priestesses were despised.

The origins of temple-prostitution date back to ancient Sumer. Inanna was the Goddess of the city Uruk, having brought the sacred laws (the me) to the people there by stealing them from her grandfather Enki, the god of water and wisdom. She was the goddess of love, fertility and war, revered for her power and feared for her temper. She was said to have a rapacious appetite for men and didn't take "no" for an answer. Many myths tell about her revenges against lovers who refused her or people who treated her badly.

She married the mortal shepherd Dumuzi, and made him king of Uruk. From their union the land prospered, and fertility ruled. Some time later, Inanna ventured down into the Realm of Death to visit her sister Ereshkigal, the goddess of the dead, perhaps hoping to learn the secrets of the Underworld too. But when she after three days re-emerged from death, she found Dumuzi carrying on as usual, happily celebrating. In her anger she let the demons of the Underworld take him down with them. But later grief overtook her, and appealed to her sister to release her husband. Ereshkigal allowed it, on the provision that the sister of Dumuzi took his place half of the year. So it came to pass that during late summer, autumn and early winter, Dumuzi is in the realm of death and no plants will grow. On the new years day, he is released and fertility and growth yet again returns to the land as Inanna rejoices.

This is the origin of the sumerian New Year celebration, the hieros gamos, where the king ceremonially marries the priestess of Inanna. Their marriage and subsequent union recreates the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi, giving fertility to the land and power to the king. This ceremony developed, and the priestesses of Inanna became sacred prostitutes, ensuring the fertility of the land by giving themselves to the worshippers. There were also male prostitutes, representing Dumuzi for the female followers.

The cult spread with minor variations in the whole Middle East, and Inanna became known as Ishtar, Asherah, Aphrodite, Venus and by many other names. Her cult also became mixed with the cult of the Great Mother, and it is unclear where one ends and the other begins. In some areas all unmarried women had to serve at her temples a period each year, something was regarded as s privilege. The priestesses enjoyed high status, unlike most other women at the time. They may have been the origin of the well educated, intellectual courtesans which reached their height in classic Greece.

However, with the coming of the new religions the cult of Inanna lost its status. It became outlawed, her temples were destroyed or appropriated by other groups and her followers were scattered for the winds. Prostitution remained, but was no longer sacred and was instead regarded as tainted by the followers of monotheism (partially because of its earlier association with the Goddess). However, small parts of the cult survived in remote areas or in India, where it developed under Hindu influences into Tantra. Today the classic cult is almost certainly dead, but followers may remain in odd places, mainly inside the Cult of Ecstasy.



"We bring fertility to not only the land, but to the wombs, the hearts and minds of the people. Our lady Inanna brought the wisdom and power of the Sky and Earth to us, and now its our duty to follow her in her footsteps. "


Originally the priestesses belonged to their temples, which were run by the High Priestess, and sometimes some intermediary levels of priestesses. Male priests had their own hierarchy beside the female. As the cult withered away the strict organisation became more informal. Many priestesses were solitary practitioners of their arts, while others congregated together in small cliques.


The original cult feasted at each new moon, but the main celebration was the New Year celebration, when the King married the Goddess to bring about fertility and the return of spring. Beside these there were many lesser feasts, not currently known. Many revolved around the movements of the morning star in the heavens.


Not much is known about the original initiation ceremonies of the cult. It is believed that many of the priestesses were orphans which were given to the temple and fostered to their adult role. It is believed a major part of the initiation consisted of a ceremonial replay of the myth about Inanna, where the initiate had to go through the adventures of Inanna to become like her. She had to steal the sacred me from Enki and bring them to Uruk despite the monsters he sent after her. She was led through the courtship with Dumuzi, culminating in their marriage. Finally, she had to descend into the Underworld for three days and eventually triumphantly return to life.


The main chantry was of course the "House of Heaven" in Uruk, currently a ruin in modern Warka, 250 km Southeast of Baghdad. Other temples existed in most major cities in Sumer and later the whole middle east. Today none of them remain.


Prostitutes, Intellectuals, Eunuchs


Life, mainly directed towards fertility magick. Most priestesses concentrated their magick completely towards Life. In order to use the other spheres, the priestesses usually invoked other deities or asked for help from their priests. Most common was the servant of Inanna, Ninshubur, the Queen of East, who controlled the powers of Forces and Correspondence. The water-god Enki gave wisdom and controlled Mind, Time and Matter. Dread Ereshkigal ruled over death, the underworld, Spirit and Entropy.


All spheres: Song or music.
All spheres were controlled by singing or chanting the me, the sacred laws of the universe both gods and humans had to obey. In addition, the priestesses sang special invocations to the various gods depending on the purpose of the magick. Many musicians were tied to the temples to provide the correct chants, drumming or singing in the background of the ceremonies.
Life, Prime: Sex.
Spirit, Entropy: Nakedness.
Nakedness represented Inanna as she stood before Ereshkigal in the Underworld.
Mind, Time, Matter: Wine and beer.
Reminding Enki how he and Inanna drank together when she persuaded him to give her the sacred me. It is also linked to the holy taverns which surrounded the temples.
Forces, Correspondence: Invocation of Ninshubur.


Courtesan, Independent woman, Sex-cult leader.


"I Bathed for the wild bull,
I bathed for the shepherd Dumuzi,
I perfumed my sides with ointment,
I coated my mouth with sweet-smelling amber,
I painted my eyes with kohl.

He shaped my loins with fair hands,
The shepherd Dumuzi filled my lap with cream and milk,
He stroked my pubic hair,
He watered my womb.
He laid his hands on my holy vulva,
He smoothed my black boat with cream,
He quickened my narrow boat with milk,
He caressed me on the bed.

Now I will caress my high priest on the bed,
I will caress the faithful shepherd Dumuzi,
I will caress his loins, the shepherdship of the land,
I will decree a sweet fate for him."

From "The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi", translation by Samuel Noah Kramer.


Bless Growth (Life 2)

This is the most common rote ever used by the priestesses. By reciting the names of the plants, animals and people while making love to Dumuzi, they make them grow faster and become more fertile. The power of this rote is increased if it is performed with either the King (who is the personification of the land) or with a priest of Dumuzi.

The Bull of Heaven (Life 3 Mind 2 Prime 2)

When King Gilgamesh of Uruk spurned her advances, Inanna sent a frightful bull against him to destroy him. Her priestesses have learned how to turn ordinary animals into almost as dangerous weapons. By reciting the sacred me of Enki while bathing the bull in scented oils near a river, and then making love to it, they gave it enormous strength and anger against the enemies of the priestesses. Some have gone further and created animals out of clay which turn alive with the single purpose of destroying their enemies.

Escape of Dumuzi (Life 4)

According to the legend, Dumuzi managed to escape from the first attack of the demons of the Underworld as Inanna condemned him to death by turning his hands and feet into snakes, and thus escaping their grip. He escaped the second attack by turning his arms and legs into the legs of an gazelle, escaping them again. By reciting the invocation to the sun-god Utu Dumuzi is supposed to have used, a priestess can perform the same feats.

Descent into the Underworld (Spirit 4 Entropy 2)

This recreates Inanna's descent into the Underworld. The priestess ceremonially strips away her jewellery, her clothes and signs of power while reciting the "Descent of Inanna". Finally, she is completely naked and falls into a deep coma. In this state, the priestess can communicate with the spirits of the dead and see their realm. After three days she must be revived, or she will remain dead for real. However, this can only be done either if the priestess manages to return to life by herself or by the power of a full priest of Enki, sending out his servant spirits to fetch her soul back.

Anders Sandberg /


This page last updated: 03/01/2018