Human sexual and religious practices are diverse in history.
What is commonly counted vice, may once have been considered virtue. The opposite is also true. But this variation in moral practices does not mean that morals are worthless; it only shows the ingenuity with which human society has adapted itself to the needs of its environment. In every society, some norm must be settled on, and accepted by all.
The experience of time confirms the relative worth of one practice over another; and despite our modern priggishness and righteous judgments, longevity confers some measure of positive social utility.
It is a common metaphor to equate moral laxity with the word “Babylon.” In the eyes of the ancient historians, there was a good reason for this association. The ancient Greeks and Romans were unsettled by some of the sexual practices they encountered between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
A strange feature of Babylonian religious life was the practice of “sacred prostitution.” Herodotus describes it in this way (I.199).
Every native woman is obliged, once in her life, to sit in the Temple of Venus [his name for the temples of Ishtar and Marduk, the native Babylonian gods], and have intercourse with some stranger. And many disdaining to mix with the rest, being proud on account of their wealth, come in covered carriages, and take up their station at the temple with a numerous train of servants attending them…When a woman has once seated herself there she must not return home still some stranger has thrown a piece of silver in her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple…The woman follows the first man that throws, and refuses no one. But when she has had sex and absolved herself from her obligation to the Goddess, she returns home…Those that are endowed with beauty and symmetry of shape are soon set free; but the ugly are detained a long time, from inability to satisfy the law, for some sit in wait for a space of three or four years.
The practice is also mentioned in Strabo’s Geography (XVI.1.20). We are not quite sure what purpose this ritual would have served; perhaps it was a relic of the old tribal taboo of the shedding of blood (i.e., intercourse with a virgin).
To this day, anthropologists tell us, some primitive tribes employ such rituals as a sort of “preparation” for the physical requirements of marriage. There may also have been some religious need to present an “offering” to the gods. The association of religious sites with prostitution was common in the ancient Near East: it is found in Phrygia, Syria, and Israel as well. Perhaps also it was a logical extension of the other commercial uses for which ancient temples were put to use: money-lending and the bartering of goods were often conducted around such places.
All things considered, the offering of a maid’s chastity seems far more humane than the human sacrifices which the Carthaginians and Phoenicians offered to their god Baal.
The practice was abolished by and edict of Constantine around A.D. 325.