IX - The Sacred Prostitute

In the incantation to the pine—resin quoted in the last chapter, the “little ones” were said to have been engendered by “a sacred prostitute”.


This cultic office was well known in the ancient world. It is usually assumed that the woman dedicated herself to the service of the god as a sexual partner in some imitative ritual designed to stimulate the generative faculties of the fertility deity.


Doubtless in many of the cults she did perform such a function, copulating before the altar with the priests or other male worshippers at certain festivals. However, that this was not her only form of service, or even necessarily her prime function, is indicated by the vegetation reference of the kukru incantation.


In the Bible, the cultic title is used in one case when the woman plays the part of a common whore, where Tamar seduced her father-in-law at the roadside (Gen 38), but elsewhere the sacred prostitute plays her proper religious role, and is associated like her sister of the kukru incantation with hills and trees. Thus Hosea describes the apostate Israelites as harlots,

“sacrificing on the tops of mountains, making offerings upon the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth, because their shade is good”.

(Hos 4:13 - Heb. 14).1

The Old Testament speaks also of male cult prostitutes, called otherwise “dogs”. It is more likely that these persons were sodomites than that they served the female worshippers as counterparts to the feminine cult prostitutes. In which case the epithet “dog” is not necessarily a term of abuse, but merely descriptive of their manner of copulation.2


It is perhaps significant that one of the Sumerian terms for “chanter-priest” is GALA, elsewhere meaning “womb”, with a semantic equivalent, USh—KU, literally, “penis-anus”. Their prime purpose may then have been as a means of providing or extracting semen for cultic purposes, particularly for the priest’s anointing as a symbolic “phallus” before the god, a “christ”.

However that may be, it is the vegetative function of the female cult-prostitute that must engage our main attention.


In the kukru incantation, she is credited with engendering the “little ones” from the tree’s “menses”, the resin. Bearing in mind the phallic form of the sacred mushroom, it is reasonable to assume that her task was to “seduce” the little “penis” from the ground by sexual wiles.


Josephus tells us that to stop the Mandrake “shrinking away from the touch” and to make it “stand still” one was required to pour upon it the menses and urine of a woman.4


Where the cult prostitute was herself present this was probably achieved directly, involving exposing her genitals to that part of the ground where the mushroom was thought to lie dormant. Self-exposure of a menstruating woman for vegetative purposes is elsewhere recorded. Pliny says that, in order to utilize the harmful effect menses was believed to have upon “caterpillars, worms, beetles and other vermin”, menstruants “walked around the cornfield naked”, and the vermin fell to the ground.


It was said that the discovery of the effects of menses in this respect was made initially in Cappadocia,

“owing to a plague there of Spanish fly, so that women... walk through the middle of the fields with their clothes pulled up above the buttocks”.5

There are indications that it was considered necessary to make some sort of booth or covering for the witch and the magic plant during the seduction. Hosea in the passage just quoted specifies that the sacred prostitutes practiced their art under trees where “the shade is good”. Ezekiel, in a most interesting passage describing the activities of female necromancers, speaks of some kind of full-length veil by which they “ensnared souls” (Ezek 13:18).


The Holy Plant had to be uprooted under cover of darkness, “lest the act be seen by the woodpecker of Mars” (perhaps a folk—name for the red—topped Amanita muscaria),6 or the sun and moon .7 Among the Accadian magical texts is an instruction for the uprooting of the tigilla, the bolt- or phallus-plant, or mushroom. We have already met the Sumerian original of this name, UKUSh-TI-GIL-LA, a jumbled version of which gave the Greek name Glukuside, Glycyside, for the Holy Plant.8

Go, my son [it reads], the tigilla, which springs up of its own accord in the desert — when the sun enters its dwelling, cover your head with a cloth, and cover the tigilla, surrounding it with flour, and in the morning before sunrise root it out of its place, and take its root...9

The necessity for covering oneself and the magic plant during the process of taking it from the ground, reminds one of another of those apparently banal asides of Josephus when describing the mysterious Essen.


In the midst of an important passage about their manner of discipline, he turns aside to tell us exactly how they perform their natural functions:

they dig a trench a foot deep with a mattock — such is the nature of the small axe which they present to the neophytes — and wrapping their mantle about them, that they may not offend the rays of the deity, they squat above it.


They then replace the excavated soil in the trench. For this purpose they select the more desolate places. And although this discharge of the excrements is a natural function, they make it a rule to wash themselves after it, as if defiled.10

Everything here except the ritual purification is decreed in Jewish Law (Deut 23:12W.), and is no more than commonsense camp hygiene. There seems no point at all in the astute author wasting space describing this normal practice unless he means to convey another of his tidbits of secret information for those who want to look beneath the surface.


The reference to the “rays of the deity” and the lustration might give substance to the idea. The shading by veil or booth of the mushroom-seeker was accompanied by other means of magical protection. Reference is made to drawing circles round the plant and its plunderer with a sword, the metal itself being considered fraught with supernatural power.11


Another form of protection was to sprinkle flour round the plant, as the seeker of the tigilla was instructed in the Accadian incantation. In this case the encirclement offered some measure of protection and the flour was a token of compensation to the earth for its rape, as Pliny says when Asclepius, another name for the sacred fungus, is taken:

“it is a pious duty to fill in the hole with various cereals as an atonement to the earth”.12

It is the same principle at work when the seers offered atonement to the Pine on taking the precious resin called Eileithyia, the “menses” 13


The fundamental principle of fertility philosophy was that of balance, as we have previously noted14


To take any of the fruits of the earth necessitated some measure of compensation or sacrifice to the god. To be effective this return payment should be at least qualitatively equivalent to the gift received, so that only the best of the harvest, the first— reaped of the corn and first-born of the animals, was suitable. In the case of an especially powerful plant like the sacred mushroom, an atoning substitution posed special problems.


Since the fungus was the god himself made manifest on earth, no atoning sacrifice by mortals could suffice.


The seeker could only bring along with him the Holy Plant itself or some symbol of it, and this is probably the explanation of a curious phrase in Josephus’ description of the seizing of the Mandrake:

“to touch it is fatal unless one succeeds in bringing along the thing itself, the root, hanging from one’s hand”.15

The verb he uses, epiphero, elsewhere refers to the bringing of a dowry by a bride to her husband, or the supplying of his own rations by the soldier himself during a campaign. In other words, only the god can atone for himself, and herein lies the basis of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and Atonement, which we must examine afresh in its cultic context in a later chapter.


Ezekiel in describing the necromantic ritual of the witches, says they fastened “magic bands” (kesãtöt) on their wrists, and with them “trapped souls like birds” (Ezek 13:20). This rare word is related to the Sumerian KI-ShU, meaning some kind of magical imprisonment, but we have to look to Greek for its precise significance. In the form kistë, Latin cista, it appears as a container used in certain mystery rituals of the Dionysiac cult, supposedly for the carrying of secret implements.


In fact, wherever the cista is graphically represented it is shown as a basket from which a snake is emerging. Thus on sarcophagi inscribed with Bacchic scenes, the cista is shown being kicked open by Pan and the snake raising itself from the half-opened lid.16


The snake is an important feature of the Dionysiac cult and imagery.


The Maenaçls of Euripides’ Bacchae have serpents entwined in their hair and round their limbs, and the snake was the particular emblem of the Phrygian Sabazios (Sabadius) with whom Dionysus is identified.17 It is not difficult to see the reasoning behind the ancient connection between the serpent and the mushroom, which played such a large part in mushroom folk-lore and mythology.


Both emerged from holes in the ground in a manner reminiscent of the erection of the sexually awakened penis, and both bore in their heads a fiery poison which the ancients believed could be transferred from one to the other.

“If the hole of a serpent”, writes Pliny, “has been near the mushroom, or should a serpent have breathed on it as it first opened, its kinship to poisons makes it capable of absorbing the venom. So it would not be well to eat mushrooms until the serpent has begun to hibernate.”18

The prime example of the relation between the serpent and the mushroom is, of course, in the Garden of Eden story of the Old Testament. The cunning reptile prevails upon Eve and her husband to eat of the tree, whose fruit “made them as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4). The whole Eden story is mushroom-based mythology, not least in the identity of the “tree” as the sacred fungus, as we shall see.19


Even as late as the thirteenth-century some recollection of the old tradition was known among Christians, to judge from a fresco painted on the wall of a ruined church in Plaincourault in France (pl. 2). There the Amanita muscaria is gloriously portrayed, entwined with a serpent, whilst Eve stands by holding her belly.20


The Bacchic cista and Ezekiel’s witches’ “magic bands” were, then, probably meant to represent the lower “cup” of the mushroom volva, the little “basket” from which the stalk of the fungus emerged, like a snake being charmed from its box. In this conception lies the origin of such stories as Moses, the “emergent serpent”, as now we may understand his name to mean,21 in his papyrus ark, and Dionysus and Jesus in their “mangers”, in essence, “covered baskets”.22


As objects attached to the wrists of the sacred prostitutes at the mushroom—raising ceremony, these replicas of the matted volva, perhaps already divided to reveal the emergent mushroom stem, were probably intended to offer a kind of imitative encouragement to the dormant fungus to open and reveal itself.

The ability of a woman even by her physical presence to induce a man’s sex organ to stir into life apparently without any control on its owner’s part, must have been a source of great wonder to the ancients. It was sorcery, and as such viewed with apprehension and distrust by men generally, not unmixed with religious awe. This was particularly the case with those mystic orders which made use of the sexual power of women for their secret rites.


Of the Essen Josephus says:

“They do not, indeed, on principle, condemn wedlock and the propagation of the human race, but they wish to protect themselves against woman’s wantonness, being persuaded that none of the sex keeps her plighted troth to one man.”23

Of that order of Essen who did marry, he says:

“They think that those who decline to marry cut off the chief function of life, the propagation of the race, and, what is more, that, were all to adopt the same view, the whole race would very quickly die out.


They give their wives, however, three years’ probation, and only marry them after they have, by three periods of purification, given proof of fecundity. 24 They have no intercourse with them during pregnancy, thus showing that their motive in marrying is not self-indulgence but the procreation of children.” 25

One is reminded of the Church’s oft—reiterated edict that the purpose of marriage is the procreation of children. It comes as something of a shock to us in the Western world, after centuries of religiously inspired puritanism, to learn that the ancients attributed the greater inclinations towards sexual indulgence to women.


It was said that the seer Teiresias was chosen by Zeus and Hera to decide on the question whether the male or the female derived most pleasure from sexual intercourse. He replied that “of the ten parts of coitus, a man enjoys one only; but a woman’s senses enjoy all ten to the flill”.26


However that may be, there is no doubt that the sexual power of women was vital to the mystery cults, and accounts in large measure for their attractiveness to women from the earliest times. It also has much to do with the antagonism towards sexuality generally and the distrust of women displayed by the later Church, and the readiness with which supposed witches were hounded by Christians until quite recent times.


The telepathic control over people’s minds exercised by such females; known the world over as “the evil eye”, came originally from .this ability to arouse men’s passions. The Latin fascinus, from which our “fascination” comes, as well as meaning “bewitching”, was also the proper name of a deity whose emblem was the erect penis, and this indeed, as we can now appreciate, is the original source of this word and the Greek baskanos, “sorcerer”.27


It was believed that the malign influences of “fascination”, which came to be extended to any form of mental dominance, could be averted by wearing on the person a model penis, rather as the Christian symbol of the Cross is currently displayed by those within and without the Church to ward off evil. The worship of Fascinus was entrusted to the Vestal Virgins,28 a further indication of the sexual nature of their sacred fire. A similar connection between sexual influence and sorcery appears in the derivation of our word “magic”.


Its immediate source is the Latin magus, representing the Old Persian magush, the title of a religious official whose power of mind and body earned him a reputation for sorcery. We have met the Magi earlier as one of the prime sources in the ancient writings for plant names and medicinal folk-lore. Their title may now be traced to a Sumerian phrase for “big-penis”, and seen to be cognate with the Greek pharmakos, “enchanter, wizard”, from which comes our “pharmacist”.29


Women, then, had an important part to play in the mushroom cult.30 It made them at once respected and feared.


Their power over men and particularly over the male organ seemed magical, and the technical term for this influence, “fascination”, became extended to any form of mental dominance, usually of a malign character. Details of the way in which the cultic prostitutes drew forth the lat phallic mushroom can only be deduced from names and scattered references in literature. But one term seems continually in evidence in describing their activities, “lamentation”.


Just what this implies in its religious sense is the subject of our next chapter.

Back to Contents