Marriage And Women In Ancient Babylon
Buying a wife after she had prostituted herself
In his Histories, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described a lot of unique traditions of many populations. Among all of them, the Ancient Babylonian Marriage Market, where women were sold to both rich and poor men, and the Sacred Prostitution of Mylitta are two of the most interesting.
The Babylonian Marriage Market
Babylon was a really strange city. What if I tell you that there was a marketplace where men could buy a young woman?
In the first book of the Histories Herodotus wrote that:
Once a year, in every village, this is what the Babylonians used to do. They used to collect all the young women who were old enough to be married and take the whole lot of them all at once to a certain place. A crowd of men would form a circle around them there. An auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale. He used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one. They were being sold to be wives, not slaves. All the well-off Babylonian men who wanted wives would outbid one another to buy the good-looking young women, while the commoners who wanted wives and were not interested in good looks used to end up with some money as well as the less attractive women.
All of the young women of a village were taken to a marketplace. Here a crowd of men circled them. Then an auctioneer got every woman to stand up near each other. Starting from the most attractive, he organized an audition to sell them.
Rich men bought the most beautiful ones at high prices, while the poor men took the least beautiful without paying for them: instead, they were paid themselves! Everyone, even a stranger, could have bought the woman he wished.
Strange as it may be, this custom wasn’t unique to the Babylonians. It was also practiced by the Veneti, an old Illyrian tribe, who lived in the northeastern part of Italy near the Adriatic Sea.
However, this tradition didn’t last forever. After the Persians conquered Babylon, many Babylonian men couldn’t afford anymore to spend their money to buy a wife. So, they were constrained to prostitute their young daughters: an even worse and misogynist fate than to be sold in a market.
As for the Veneti, we have no information about the old evolution of this practice, so we can’t tell when it disappeared.
The Sacred Prostitution in the Temple of Mylitta
Connected to the Marriage Market, there was another tradition that all Babylonian women were supposed to follow. According to their society, they should have gone to the temple of Mylitta (the Greek Aphrodite) and have intercourse with at least one stranger, prostituting themselves. They couldn’t leave the temple before accomplishing this rite.
The origin of this tradition is still unknown, but some researchers think it was connected to sacred prostitution to mark the passage to puberty. So all of the women were required to accomplish this tradition to become effective wives… at least according to Herodotus.
There is an important fact to keep in mind. Not everyone today considers Herodotus to be a reliable source for this tradition. Even if other ancient writers, like Strabo, wrote about this practice, historians like Stephanie Budin considers them to be unreliable for many reasons. So it may be possible that this entire custom it’s false, or at least only in part.
Anyway, Herodotus, without hiding his disapproval, wrote that:
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 at least 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.” 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 fulfill the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four.
Basically, all Babylonian women, both rich and poor, were supposed to go to the temple of Mylitta. Here they would have waited until a stranger had chosen them: then, after having had intercourse with him, they would have been free. They couldn’t refuse, because the tradition was sacred.
However, not every woman managed to fulfill this rite in time. Some of them, as Herodotus stated, were constrained to stay in the temple for many years before being chosen by a stranger man.
In the end, this tradition (luckily) disappeared. Isn’t it strange to think that this custom, if true, alongside with the Marriage Market, was considered to be normal by an entire population?
- Herodotus, The Histories: 1.199
- Strabo, Geography: 6.2.6; 8.6.20; 11.14.16; 12.3.36; 16.1.20
- James Frazer, 1890. The Golden Bough
- Budin, S. 2008. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity