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CHAPTER VI. SACRED PROSTITUTION.
Mr. Darwin, in his work entitled “The Descent of Man” (vol. ii., p. 361), seems to endorse the opinion that the high honour bestowed in ancient times on women who were utterly licentious is intelligible only “if we admit that promiscuous intercourse was the aboriginal and therefore the long revered custom of the tribe,”230 and I propose, in the present chapter, to show that the fact referred to has nothing at all to do with the custom sought to be supported by it.

The examples on which Sir John Lubbock relies have been taken from Dulaure’s work on ancient religions, but they are more fully detailed in the “Histoire de la Prostitution” by M. Pierre Dufour, and they certainly form one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of morals.

According to Herodotus,231 every woman born in Babylonia was obliged by law, once in her life, to submit to the embrace of a stranger. Those who were gifted with beauty of face or figure soon completed this offering to Venus, but of the others some had to remain in the sacred enclosure for several years before they were able to obey the law. This statement of Herodotus is confirmed by the evidence150 of Strabo, who says the custom dated from the foundation of the city of Babylon.

The compulsory prostitution of Babylonia was connected with the worship of Mylitta, and wherever this worship spread it was accompanied by the sexual sacrifice. Strabo relates232 that in Armenia the sons and daughters of the leading families were consecrated to the service of Ana?tis for a longer or shorter period. Their duty was to entertain strangers, and those females who had received the greatest number were on their return home the most sought after in marriage. The Ph?nician worship of Astarté was no less distinguished by sacred prostitution, to which was added a promiscuous intercourse between the sexes during certain religious fêtes, at which the men and women exchanged their garments. The Ph?nicians carried the custom to the Isle of Cyprus, where the worship of their great goddess, under the name of Venus, became supreme.

According to a popular legend the women of Amathonte, afterwards noted for its temple, were originally known for their chastity. When, therefore, Venus was cast by the waves naked on their shores, they treated her with disdain, and as a punishment they were commanded to prostitute themselves to all comers, a command which they obeyed with so much reluctance that the goddess changed them into stone. With their worship of Astarté or Venus, the Ph?nicians introduced sacred prostitution into all their Colonies. St. Augustine says that, at Carthage, there were three Venuses rather than one: one of the151 virgins, another of the married women, and a third of the courtesans, to the last of whom it was that the Ph?nicians sacrificed the chastity of their daughters before they were married. It was the same in Syria. At Byblos during the fêtes of Adonis, after the ceremony which announced the resurrection of the God, every female worshipper had to sacrifice to Venus either her hair or her person. Those who preferred to preserve the former adjourned to the sacred enclosures, where they remained for a whole day for the purpose of prostituting themselves.

The same curious custom appears to have been practised in Media and Persia, and among the Parthians. The Lydians were particularly noted for the zeal with which they practised the rites of Venus. They did not limit their observance to occasional attendance at the sacred fêtes, but, says Herodotus, they devoted themselves to the goddess, and practised, for their own benefit, the most shameless prostitution. It is related that a magnificent monument to Alyattes, the father of Cr?sus, was built by the contributions of the merchants, the artisans, and the courtesans, and that the portion of the monument erected with the sum furnished by the courtesans much exceeded both the other parts built at the expense of the artisans and merchants.

Some writers deny that sacred prostitution was practised in Egypt, but the great similarity between the worship of Osiris and Isis and that of Venus and Adonis renders the contrary opinion highly probable. On their way to the fêtes of Isis at Bubastis the female pilgrims executed indecent dances when the vessels152 passed the villages on the banks of the river. “These obscenities,” says Dufour, “were only such as were about to happen at the temple, which was visited each year by seven hundred thousand pilgrims, who gave themselves up to incredible excesses.” Strabo asserts that a class of persons called pellices (harlots) were dedicated to the service of the patron deity of Thebes, and that they “were permitted to cohabit with anyone they chose.” It is true that Sir Gardner Wilkinson233 treats this account as absurd, on the ground that the women, many of whom were the wives and daughters of the noblest families, assisted in the most important ceremonies of the temple. This fact is, however, quite consistent with Strabo’s statement, which may have referred to an inferior class of female servitors, and considering the customs of allied peoples, it is more likely to be true than the reverse. The testimony of Herodotus is certainly opposed to that of Strabo. But the former acknowledges that he did not reveal all that he knew of the secrets of Egyptian worship, and we must, therefore, receive with some hesitation his assertion that “the Egyptians are the first who, from a religious motive, have forbidden commerce with women in the sacred places, or even entrance there after having known them, without being first cleansed.” The Greek historian adds—“Almost all other peoples, except the Egyptians and the Greeks, have commerce with women in the sacred places; or, when they rise from them, they enter there without being washed.” Whatever may be the truth as to the inhabitants of ancient Egypt, at the present day153 the dancing girls of that country, who are also prostitutes, attend the religious festivals just as the ancient devotees of Astarté are said to have done.

If we test the value of Herodotus’ evidence on the matter in question by what is known of Grecian customs, it will have little weight. Sacred prostitution at Athens was under the patronage of Venus Pandemos, who is said to have been the first divinity that Theseus caused the people to adore, or, at least, to whom a statue was erected on the public place. The fêtes of that goddess were celebrated on the fourth day of each month, a chief part in them being assigned to the prostitutes, who then exercised their calling only for the profit of the goddess, and they expended in offerings the money which they had gained under her auspices. At the height of its prosperity the temple of Venus at Corinth had, according to Strabo, one thousand courtesans. It was a common custom in Greece to consecrate to Venus a certain number of young girls, when it was desired to render the goddess favourable, or when she had granted the prayers addressed to her.

The ordinary Athenian prostitutes appear to have been dedicated to the public service, and they were forbidden to leave the country without the consent of the Archons, who often accorded it only on having a guarantee that they would return. There would seem even to have been a College of Prostitutes, which was declared useful and necessary to the state. The story of the social influence of the heter? during the palmiest days of Greece is too well known to need repetition, and it will be found fully detailed in the pages of154 Dufour. The majority of the heter?, however, were far from being in the position of Aspasia, La?s, and others, who were the friends, and even instructors, of statesmen and philosophers. Although they were allowed some of the rights of citizenship, they were often treated with implacable rigour by the Areopagus, and their children were condemned to the same ignominy as themselves. Curiously enough, the chief accusation against the prostitutes was their irreligion, and although they were priestesses in some temples, from others they were rigidly excluded.

Among the Romans the prostitute class held a much lower position in public opinion than with the Greeks, and for a long time its members were treated as below the attention of legislators, and were left to the arbitrary regulation of the police. They were classed with the slave population as civilly dead, and, having once become “infamous,” the moral stain was indelible. Dufour says, as to the religious character of Latin prostitution155—“The courtesans at Rome were not, as in Greece, kept at a distance from the altars. On the contrary, they frequented all the temples, in order, no doubt, to find their favourable chances of gain; they showed their gratitude to the divinity who had been propitious to them, and they brought to his sanctuary a portion of the gain which they believed they owed to him. Religion closed its eyes to this impure source of revenue and offerings; civil legislation did not intermeddle with these details of false devotion, which concerned only religion; and, thanks to that tolerance, or rather the systematic abstention from judicial and religious control, sacred prostitution preserved at Rome nearly its primitive features, with this difference, nevertheless, that it was always confined to the class of courtesans, and that, instead of being an integral part of worship, it was a foreign accessory to it.” According to some Roman writers, however, Acca Laurentia (the foster-mother of Romulus and Remus), in whose honour the Lupercales were instituted, was a prostitute, and the fêtes of Flora had a similar origin. The goddess of flowers was originally a courtesan, who made an enormous fortune, which she left to the state. Her legacy was accepted, and the Senate, in gratitude, decreed that the name of Flora should be inscribed in the fastes of the state, and that solemn fêtes should perpetuate the memory of her generosity. These fêtes always preserved a remembrance of their origin, and were accompanied by the most scandalous scenes, which were publicly enacted in the circus.

The religious prostitutes of antiquity find their counterparts in the dancing girls attached to the Hindoo temples. These “female slaves of the idol” are girls who have been dedicated to the temple service, often by their own parents, and they act both as dancing girls and courtesans. Notwithstanding their calling, they are treated with great respect, and such would seem always to have been the case, if we may judge by the ancient legend which relates that Gautama was entertained at Vesali by a lady of high rank who had the title of “Chief of the Courtesans.”234 No doubt the attention paid to the appearance and education of the temple prostitutes156 has much to do with the respect with which they are treated, the position accorded by the ancient Greeks to the superior class of heter? being due to an analogous cause.

Bishop Heber says, in relation to the Bayadêres of Southern India, that they differ considerably from the Nautch girls of the Northern Provinces, “being all in the service of different temples, for which they are purchased young, and brought up with a degree of care which is seldom bestowed on the females of India of any other class. This care not only extends to dancing and singing, and the other allurements of their miserable profession, but to reading and writing. Their dress is lighter than the bundle of red cloth which swaddles the figuranté of Hindostan, and their dancing is more indecent; but their general appearance and manner seemed to me far from immodest, and their air even more respectable than the generality of the lower classes of India.... The money which they acquire in the practice of their profession is hallowed to their wicked gods, whose ministers are said to turn them out without remorse, or with a very scanty provision, when age or sickness renders them unfit for their occupation. Most of them, however, die young.” The Bishop adds,157 “I had heard that the Bayadêres were regarded with respect among the other classes of Hindoos, as servants of the gods, and that, after a few years’ service, they often marry respectably. But, though I made several inquiries, I cannot find that this is the case; their name is a common term of reproach among the women of the country, nor could any man of decent caste marry one of their number.”235 The courtesans of Hindostan do not appear to be attached to the temples, but Tavernier relates that they made offerings to certain idols, to whom they surrendered themselves when young to bring good fortune.

The chief facts connected with religious prostitution have now been given, and it remains only to show that this system has nothing to do with any custom of communal marriage, or promiscuous intercourse between the sexes, such as it is thought to give evidence of. Sir John Lubbock says that the life led by the courtesans attached to the Hindoo temples is not considered shameful, because they continue the old custom of the country under religious sanction. This statement, however, is wholly inaccurate, as the former existence of the custom referred to cannot be established. The social phenomena which are thought to establish that mankind has passed through a stage of promiscuity in the intercourse between the sexes are capable of totally different interpretation. The ease with which any doctrine or practice, however absurd or monstrous, will be accepted, if it possesses a religious sanction, would alone account for the respect entertained for religious prostitutes. But among a people who, like the Hindoos, view sexual immorality for personal gain with abhorrence, such a calling, if it were based on so barbarous a custom as communal marriage, would inevitably lessen rather than increase that sentiment. On the other hand, if the religious position accorded to the temple prostitutes is connected with ideas which have a sacredness of their own, the158 respect will be greatly increased. And thus, in fact, it is. Probably no custom is more widely spread than the providing for a guest a female companion, who is usually a wife or daughter of the host. Such a connection with a stranger is permitted even among peoples who are otherwise jealous preservers of female chastity. This custom of sexual hospitality is said to have been practised by the Babylonians in the time of Alexander, although, according to the Roman historian, parents and husbands did not decline to accept money in return for the favours thus accorded. Eusebius asserts that the Ph?nicians prostituted their daughters to strangers, and that this was done for the greater glory of hospitality. So, also, we find that at Cyprus the women who devoted themselves to the good goddess walked about the shores of the island to attract the strangers who disembarked.

In the earliest phase of what is called sacred prostitution it was not every man who was entitled to enjoy its privileges. The Babylonian women, who were compelled to make a sacrifice of their persons once in their lives, submitted to the embraces only of strangers. In Armenia, also, strangers alone were entitled to seek sexual hospitality in the sacred enclosures at the temple of Ana?tis, and it was the same in Syria during the fêtes of Venus and Adonis. Dufour was struck by this fact, and, speaking of it, he says, “It may be thought surprising that the inhabitants of the country were so impressed with a worship in which their women had all the benefit of the mysteries of Venus.” He adds, however, that the former were not less interested than the latter in these159 mysteries. “The worship of Venus was in some sort stationary for the women, nomadic for the men, seeing that these could visit in turn the different fêtes and temples of the goddess, profiting everywhere, in these sensual pilgrimages, by the advantages reserved to guests and to strangers.”

Besides hospitality, the practice of which is, under ordinary circumstances, an almost sacred duty with uncultured peoples, there was another series of ideas associated with the system of sacred prostitution. In the East, the great aim of woman’s life is marriage and bearing children. We have a curious reference to this fact in the lament of the Hebrew women for Jephthah’s daughter, which appears to have been occasioned less by her death than by the recorded fact that “she knew no man.” When she heard of the vow made by her father, she said to him, “Let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.” The desire of the wife, however, is not merely for children, but for a man-child, the necessity for which has given rise to the practice of adoption; another custom which Sir John Lubbock believes to support his favourite doctrine of communal marriage. In India adoption is practised when a man has no son of his own, and it has a directly religious motive. Sir Thomas Strange shows that the Hindoo law of inheritance cannot be understood without reference to the belief that a man’s future happiness depends “upon the performance of his obsequies and the payment of his [spiritual] debts.” He who pays these debts is his heir; and, as160 “offerings from sons are more effectual than offerings from other persons, sons are first in order of succession.” Hence to have a son is to the Hindoo a sacred duty, and when his wife bears no children, or only daughters, he is compelled by his religious belief to adopt one. We can understand how anxious for a son women must be where those ideas prevail, and this anxiety has given rise to various curious ceremonies having for their object to prevent or cure sterility. Some of these, which have been described by Dulaure and other writers, existed in Europe down to a comparatively recent period. In India, and probably in some other Eastern countries, they are still practised both by wives who have continued childless and by newly-married women, the latter offering to the Linga the sacrifice of their virginity.

This desire for children led to offerings being made to ensure the coveted blessing, and to vows to be performed on its being obtained. The nature of the vow would undoubtedly have some reference to the thing desired; and, as related by an old Arabian traveller in India, “when a woman has made a vow for the purpose of having children, if she brings into the world a pretty daughter, she carries it to Bod (so they call the idol which they adore), and leaves it with him.” The craving for children was anciently as strong among Eastern peoples as it is at the present day, and it is much more probable that this, rather than a habit of licentiousness, either of the women themselves or of the priests, led to the sacrifice at the shrine of Mylitta. If we are to believe Herodotus, the Babylonian women were in his time noted for161 their virtue, although at a later period they would seem to have lost that characteristic.

The desire for children is directly opposed to the feeling which would operate in the case of communal marriage, where parents and children, having no special relation, no one would have any particular interest in preserving the issue of such intercourse. Among the uncultured peoples of the present era who the most nearly approach in their sexual relations to a state of communal marriage, the indifference to children is often apparent. Infanticide is very general, and abortion is often practised by the women to enable them to retain the favour of their husbands. The sacred prostitution, which is intimately connected with the craving for children, must, therefore, have originated at a time when a considerable advance had been made in social culture.

It would not be surprising if the ancient Babylonish custom had, of itself, resulted in a system of sacred prostitution. The act of sexual intercourse was in the nature of an offering to the Goddess of Fecundity, and a life of prostitution in the service of the goddess might well come to be viewed as pleasing to her and as deserving of respect at the hands of her worshippers. We have an analogous phase of thought in the Japanese notion, that a girl who enters the Yoshiwara for the purpose of thus supporting her parents performs a highly meritorious act. In Armenia, as we have seen, children were devoted by their parents to the service of the great goddess for a term of years, and those who had received the most numerous favours from strangers were the most eagerly sought after in marriage on the expiration of162 that period. That dedication was in pursuance of a vow, which no doubt, like the vows of Indian women at the present day, would at first have relation to some sexual want, although thank-offerings of the same character would afterwards come to be presented by the worshippers of the goddess for blessings of any description. Thus Xenophon consecrated fifty courtesans to the Corinthian Venus, in pursuance of the vow which he had made when he besought the goddess to give him the victory in the Olympian games. Pindar makes Xenophon thus address these slaves of the goddess: “Oh, young damsels, who receive all strangers and give them hospitality, priestesses of the goddess Pitho in the rich Corinth, it is you who, in causing the incense to burn before the images of Venus and in invoking the mother of love, often merit for us her celestial aid, and procure for us the sweet moments which we taste on the luxurious couches where is gathered the delicate fruit of beauty.”

The legitimate inference to be made from what has gone before is that sacred prostitution sprang from the primitive custom of providing sexual hospitality for strangers, the agents by which it was carried out being supplied by the votaries of the deity under whose sanction the custom was placed. Assuming its existence, and the strong desire on the part of married women for children, which led them to sacrifice their own virginity as an offering to the Goddess of Fecundity, or to dedicate their daughters to her service, we have a perfect explanation of the custom of sacred prostitution. The duty of these “servants of the idol” would include the furnishing of hospitality to the strangers who visited the shrines and fêtes of the163 deity. These pilgrims became the guests of the deity, and she was bound to furnish them with the same hospitality as that which they would have met with if they had been entertained by private individuals. The piety of her worshippers enabled her to do this, either by devoting their daughters for a limited period to this sacred service, in return for which the reward of fecundity would be looked for, or by presenting them absolutely to the goddess in return for favours received at her hands. It is not surprising that among peoples having such notions, the temple courtesans were regarded with great respect, nor that those who had acted in that capacity with success were eagerly sought after as wives. It is more difficult to understand how sexual hospitality should have come to be placed under divine sanction. The difficulty vanishes, however, when the light in which the process of generation is viewed in the East is considered. That which by us is looked upon as due to a passionate impulse, was anciently (except among certain religious sects), and is still to the Eastern mind, an act of mysterious significance. The male organ of generation was the symbol of creative power, and the veneration in which it was held led to practices which to a modern European are nothing but disgusting, although to the Semite they partake of a purely religious character.

To pursue this subject further would be to enter upon the wide field of Phallic worship. Sufficient has, however, already been said to prove that sacred prostitution is only remotely connected, if at all, with communal marriage. The only apparent connection between them is the sexual hospitality to strangers164 which the former was established to supply; but the association is only apparent, as the providing of that hospitality is perfectly consistent with the recognition of the value of female chastity, and is quite independent of any ideas entertained as to marriage.

In conclusion, I may add that the opinion expressed by Sir John Lubbock,236 that the Grecian het?r? were more highly esteemed than the married women, because the former were originally countrywomen and relations, and the latter captives and slaves, is not consistent with the facts of the case. Any one conversant with the social customs of ancient Greece will be able to give a totally different explanation of that phenomenon. Marriage with foreign women was forbidden, and thus captives and slaves furnished the Greeks with concubines and prostitutes, while their wives were taken from among their own countrywomen. Even such was the case in the earliest heroic ages, when, says Mr. Gladstone, the intercourse between husband and wife was “thoroughly natural, full of warmth, dignity, reciprocal deference, and substantial, if not conventional delicacy.” The same writer says: “The relations of youth and maiden generally are indicated with extreme beauty and tenderness in the Iliad; and those of the unmarried woman to a suitor, or probable spouse, are so portrayed, in the case of the incomparable Nausicaa, as to show a delicacy and freedom that no period of history or state of manners can surpass.”


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