On Akrokorinthos, the high rocky citadel of Korinth, Aphrodite was installed as a goddess of the city, probably under the rule of the Bakchiad aristocrats in the eighth century. As in other early cults of Aphrodite, she was depicted with weapons and had the title Ourania, signs of her Near Eastern affinities.18 The
Korinthian cult, however, differed from most other Greek cults of Aphrodite because the goddess owned slaves who worked as prostitutes. According to the traditional scholarly view, the practice of “sacred prostitution” originated as a fertility rite, and is attested in relation to Ishtar and Asherah. For example, a class of women known as ishtaritum is described in a Babylonian text alongside courtesans “whose favors are many” and prostitutes “whose husbands are legion.”19 On the other hand, this interpretation of certain Mesopotamian cultic functionaries has been vigorously criticized as a scholarly construct, overly reliant on nineteenth-century assumptions about “fertility cult” in the ancient Near East. While the vast textual evidence from cuneiform tablets reveals a bewilderingly large variety of female cultic personnel, some of whom are regularly mentioned alongside prostitutes or in contexts that hint of sexuality, they offer no clear-cut example of a “cultic prostitute,” and it is likely that this conceptual category simply does not correspond to the more nuanced and complex roles of Mesopotamian women in relation to their goddesses.20
Not surprisingly, the practice of “sacred prostitution” at Korinth has also been called into question, since it was assumed to derive directly from the cult of Ishtar. In the Greek instance, however, the evidence is much more convincing, and it is important to keep in mind that prostitution for Aphrodite need not be an exact imitation of any Near Eastern model. It could have been based on Greek (mis)understandings of the roles of female cultic personnel in the Near East, or it could even be an independent development. Athenaeus remarks (13.573d) that it was the practice of individuals to “render” hetairai (courtesans) to Korinthian Aphrodite in payment of vows when their prayers were fulfilled. An example was Xenophon, a citizen who vowed one hundred girls to the goddess in return for victory at the Olympic games. He commissioned Pindar to write a song (fr. 122 Snell-Maehler) for the thanksgiving sacrifice, attended by the girls:
Young women, hospitable to many, handmaidens of Peitho in rich Korinth, you who burn the golden tears of pale incense; often you fly in your thoughts to Aphrodite Ourania, the mother of Loves. She gave to you, girls, without blame, to pick the fruit of soft youth on beds of desire. With necessity, all is good. . .
Strabo (8.6.20) reports that both men and women dedicated sacred slaves, or hierodules, to the goddess, and that the sanctuary at one time owned more than a thousand of these courtesans, who were a major source of income.21
As a thriving port and trade depot, Korinth was famous for its prostitutes. Sanctuaries were often expected to be self-supporting, and their income usually derived from estates belonging to the resident deity. In this case, the goddess profited from one of the main industries of Korinth, the sex trade, through her ownership of slaves who worked as prostitutes. Most, if not all of these slaves must have worked near the harbors, rather than on the Akrokorinthos itself. To modern ears, this arrangement sounds incompatible with “the sacred,” yet there is further evidence that the prostitutes of Korinth had a special relationship with Aphrodite. It was an ancient custom that whenever the city had great need, it recruited as many prostitutes as possible to participate in the supplication of the goddess. The most famous instance occurred in 480 when, with the Persian invasion at hand, the hetairai of Korinth prayed to Aphrodite on behalf of the Greeks and the Korinthian soldiery.22 Still, there is no evidence that Aphrodite’s prostitutes acted as priestesses of the goddess, or that consorting with them was in itself a religious act, so “sacred prostitution” is probably a misnomer for their role.