I teach the same material year after year, and it never gets old, in part because I like it so much, and in part because I’m always discovering new things. This year, during a discussion of the Code of Hammurabi, my students fixated on the laws in that dealt with the concept of the “Sister of a God.” I had to confess that I didn’t know exactly what was going on with this expression, and had to retreat to my spiel about how there are no right answers in history and even professionals are often deeply divided on what documents mean. On the surface, “sister of a god” would suggest something equivalent to our own concept of a nun – that is, a woman dedicated to the service of a god, who acquires a certain social capital in return for accepting restrictions on what she can do. This is seemingly reflected in law 110:
If a “sister of a god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.
Taverns being disreputable places, and religious women thus forbidden to associate with them. See also law 127:
If any one “point the finger” (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and cannot prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair.)
Here “sisters of a god” are on the same level as wives, with their honor (presumably their reputation for sexual continence) entitled to legal protection.
But then there is the strange case of law 179:
If a “sister of a god,” or a prostitute, receive a gift from her father, and a deed in which it has been explicitly stated that she may dispose of it as she pleases, and give her complete disposition thereof: if then her father die, then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases. Her brothers can raise no claim thereto.
What is going on – nuns on the same level as prostitutes? Is this a law applying to “unmarriageable” women, whether for an honorable reason or a dishonorable one? Or does “sister of a god” actually mean something else? (The Mesopotamian practice of temple prostitution allegedly featured people having sex on the top of the ziggurat, so that the god would get excited and send rain. This is probably an urban legend, but always makes students sit up and pay attention! I suppose that it’s possible that women devoted to the god were not required to be celibate the way that nuns are).
Other laws refer to temple-maids and temple virgins (181), and to a “wife of Mardi of Babylon” (182). Are these then different from the “sister of a god”? Are these the real “nuns,” in our sense of the term, with “sister of a god” being a euphemism for prostitute – and the prohibition of them entering taverns was a law to prevent taverns from becoming even more disreputable than they already were? Or do we embrace the power of “and” – that prostitution was indeed a sacred profession, and a “sister of a god” could not sell her product to just anyone?
It seems that that might indeed have been the case. I’ve looked through what books I have and the best answer I can find is provided by Georges Roux (Ancient Iraq, third edn., 213-14):
Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the temples of female deities. There is no doubt, however, that the temples of Ishtar, the goddess of carnal love, were the sites of a licentious cult with songs, dances and pantomimes performed by women and transvestites, as well as sexual orgies. In these rites, which may be found shocking but were sacred for the Babylonians, men called assinu, kulu’u, or kurgarru – all passive homosexuals and some of them perhaps castrates – participated together with women who are too often referred to as “prostitutes.” In fact, the true prostitutes (harmâtu, kezrêtu, shamhâtu), such as the one who seduced Enkidu, were only haunting the temple surrounds and the taverns. Only those women who were called “votaress of Ishtar” (ishtarêtu) or “devoted” (qashshâtu) were probably part of the female clergy.
Fascinating stuff – although I would not be surprised if there are competing theories out there.