The Stories of the Courtesan Across Cultures and Times   Leave a comment

Chapter 1

The very beginnings: The Story of early human sexuality and Sacred Sexuality  (What happened before the Courtesan)

“….Because the ancients saw the universe and its origins as creative- they saw it all as a fusion or intercourse of forces of nature-with most ancient cultures seing male and female aspects of a powerful creative force.

“All major religion has a sect which devotes itself to mysticism which in turn tries to explore deeper concepts behind sacred sexuality and the practical integration of sprituality and sexuality…”

(Michael Mirdred , )

The Courtesan and how she came about has a very, very early history and contexts and this is what I want to explore in this short chapter.

Sex and Spirituality: Two sides of the Coin

Many  people are aware that spirituality and sexuality are two sides of the same coin, and at the very beginnings of human history, whilst grappling with both these sides of our natures, early humanity saw connections with nature and her forces,  seeing creativity there and within themselves. Often times, because so many of us live in urban areas, we fail to see this connection with nature, the constellations at night, the sea tides,  alongside the cycles of natures, and the awareness of similar cycles within ourselves.

Many cultures  across the world, in ancient times used this awareness, and developed them into philosophies and rituals, some of which still exist today. They looked at how sexual energy could be used, to convey greater healing, greater well being, greater fertility and greater harmony, within their environment. Sciences and arts developed to devote time and energy to honour the sexuality and spiritual of self and communities,. say Midred.

This could  have included,   healing rituals, or even sexual/sensual expression to mimic the cycles of nature and what the early humans saw, within the skies, supernovae, constellations and weather.

Within this, a whole host of rituals, ranged from prayer rituals, dance, herbal medicines,  shamanism,   temple dancers,  worship of gods and goddesses (particularly Mother Goddesses) the work of ancient priestesses, spiritual paths (Tantra and Taoism- see below) and others, all evolved, purely to keep staying connected with nature and life. Sex was not only an expression of pleasure and release, but a vehicle of creativity/fertilty, the life force and general well-being. It was “conscious sex” ( my words)

Sex as Healing: Tantra, Taoism etc.

The ancient Lemurians, in Hawaii (Midred),  were using vibrational healing ( an early form of Reiki, perhaps) and aromatherapy, for example, as part of their healing rituals; Tantra is indeed one of the oldest forms of preserved sexual healing and wholeness, sex incorporated into spiritual practice for a wholeness of mind and body- otherwise known as sacred sex/sexuality (Midred). There is also Taoism (Daoism)  and its practices from Chinese  philosophy, with its similar approaches.

Tantra, from  the  Hindu  religion , seeks to connect all things, to find unity from the universe to within oneself, in order to find a deeper spirituality in oneself and the world. Tantra, means a tool to weave (with) “Tan” expand/weave (Sanskrit) and “Tra”(Sanskrit)  tool.

Many believe Tantra came from yoga postures, which relax, strenghten and help liberate /expand mind consciousness. Mirdred says: “Many of the physically challenging positions of Tantric love -making are actually yoga postures for personal awakening.” (Mirdred).  The whole point of  all of  this, is that postures and poses, held for long enough with correct breathing, can help to transform oneself on a profoundly deeper level- improving one’s health, one’s perception, awareness of barriers and limitations

Taoism, which developed in China, after Tantra, sees sex as one of eight spokes on the (Taoist) wheel, says Mirdred. Sexual energy can be transformed into healing, resulting into better health and “potential immortality”, encouraged by enhancing partnerships (with the emphasis on pleasing both the partner and oneself) and mastering sexual energy to develop greater sensitivity and spiritual receptivity. Both practices are serious spiritual paths, and are not for  just focusing on sexual organs, but to get to the very essence of a person’s being.

Tantra and Taoism work on the principle of balance of either male and female (Tantra) or fire /male and water/female (Taoism)  which complement each other when they find each other- creating a union (or yoga, Sanskrit). Tantra seeks women’s sexual and spiriutal energies as Shakti ( Sanskrit “to be able to, or empower”)  which is limitless, and once awakened, the force can be channelled creatively and to heal. Shakti can be seen as an agent for change, fertility. Tantra says men have shakti too, but is in its “potential, unmanifest form”( Wikipedia, Shakti).

Legends , Folk tales about Sexuality

From these times, many legends, stories and folk tales originated concerning the nature of  human sexuality, sensuality and love, across the cultures.  In fact, almost every culture has a story based on these things( Metzner, Green Psychology) . Many sprung up, after monotheism became a dominant religion in particular areas(Metzner).

We have  Cupid and Psyche (Ancient Greek – eroticism and spirituality equally honoured in an adult realtionship)

Diana and Actaeon ( Ancient Greek-  where sexual desire destroys self, when one does not take time to honour and cherish the other , appropriately)

Shakti and Shiva ( Indian- balance between male and female, creating unity, energies found in all men and women)

Dionysious ( Roman/Ancient Greece divine ectasy, in terms of feeling abundant joy and enjoying the senses fully, as an expression of being alive,and experiencing spiritual liberation, or the shadow side of being physically addicted to things

This chapter is just a brief introduction to outline the context to early human sexuality, as there is a lot more  detailed research that I’ve not been able to insert in, . I will get to the crux of sacred sexuality, which hinged very much on Goddess workship and the various rituals/practices, emanating from this and links the above with the full notion of sacred sexuality.

Goddess worship: The Black Goddesses and the Black Madonnas

Goddess worship was widespread across many ancient cultures, and although it included gods in the mix, the philosophy was about the Divine Female, as expressed with Shakti; the fertility and creativity. Earth and nature were essentially seen as femaile, due to the abundance of life, that was given forth.  Goddess workship existed for thousands of centuries, well before it started to evolve in more male-orientated religion and then ultimately monontheism ) worship of one god, which preceded many patriarchical ( rule of the Fathers/male dominant) societies.

“Goddesses were worshipped along with the gods, in the context of them being allied to nature,” says Metzner,(Green Psychology)”where sacredness existed everywhere -fairies, nymphs, elves…”

In more detail, he states, that gods and goddesses could be communed with, via prayer, dance, shamanism, oracle reading, chants, feasts, plants and herbs. In all, goddesses harked back to a time of pre-patriarchal cultures of many cultures.

In areas of the Mediterranean Sea, Black goddesses worship, sprung up, arriving from Ancient Egypt and found counterparts in Phygia (the godess Cybele), Sumer (the goddess Inanna) Israel (Lilith) and further afield in India (Kali).  Black was associated with deep, rich fertile soil, abundant life along the River Nile , in Egypt. Due to this,the colour white, became the colour of reverse- that is death and mourning (Metzer).

Goddess worship often involved devotees of workers and dancers, serving them , in temples and other places of worship, which I shall talk about later. All the goddesses mentioned, above, were goddesses of fertility, abundance, safe guarders of women in childbirth,( which could result in a mother’s  or baby’s death).  Lilith in particular was designated to female sexual automomy and protection in childbirth.

In Roman Empire  times, specific goddesses were linked to specific cities. Paris had devotees of Isis (introduced by the Romans, from Egypt), Lyons was dedicated to Cybele, and Marseilles to Artemis.

Going into a little more detail , we see the devotees of these goddesses, developed their rituals and workship. In India/Pakistan, we see the development of the Devadasis, or temple women. Other civilisations had young dancing temple girls, who worked in the service of the gods and goddesses. “In the temple of Corinth, we are told, hundreds of prostitutes lived in the…. temple” (Metzner), and their main income was derived from dancing and ritual love making with worshippers.

I have used the word prostitute for the first time here- however, the context, is so very different , from what it is today, where it is far more pejorative and judgemental and so far removed from spiritual intentions. it also suggests that these women were paid and were highly professional. It also shows how far removed from the notion of sacred prostitutes, or even sex as healing and transformative. So far removed, indeed, from how sex is depicted in mainstream media and culture, across many cultures in the world, to date. Today, most societies see prostitution, as something of a necessary /unnecessary evil,  driven by men, where both female and male prostitutes are seen to be exploited, or victims of associated crime/abuse/drug abuse/corruption/abuse of power and power dynamics. indeed, how far have societies come……..

At some point sex evolves from being sacred to profane.

Sacred Prositiutes in all ancient temples, were highly developed in   ritualised sexual healing  as explored earlier in this chapter: sex as connection/ union/spiritual healing and well being-  but not in a pejorative sense. Temple prostitutes, temple dancers were often priestesses too,  priestesses of sacred sex, where they were medicine women, wise women, as well as spiritual, psychic advisers. It was also certain, that these women were given a lot of respect, given the spiritual work that they did, on behalf of their community.

The ancient story of Enkiddu, a monster who terrorised the countryside, was made a civilised man,  when the goddess Ishtar sent her priestesses to find him, have sex with him and civilised him, shows a legend of how sex was used as a healing, loving tool.(  In fact, we can see how temple dancers, priestesses all evolved later on to become precursors of the courtesan proper, which will be looked at, in more detail.

During the course of my studies of Women’s Studies, during the 1990’s, I came across the Hite Report (Shere Hite) which spoke about a gradual shift from female centred goddess worship, to the more male centred /identified god worship, where religion became far more associated with male power and male identity.

Hite suggests that many civilisations while aware of that pregnancy led to child birth, they were not aware that male sperm was needed to fertilise the egg. Up till that point, the first families were headed by a woman, her sisters and brothers, maybe her aunts and mother- and children were looked after by this family. This was why matrilinity (lineage through the  female side of the family. Patrilinity is the lineage from the father) was the main family form, and is now only existant in very few socities across the world, such as the Touareg. Their matrilineal form is gradually dying out.

Once societies realised the  male contribution, the veneration of the goddesses changes somewhat. It meant too, that religion gradually became both male centred and in some places, eventually, monotheistic.

Monotheistic religions tried to eliminate the practice of goddess worship (competition)and in doing so, the goddess were linked with the shadow side and reversals of what they represented:  goddesses became synonymous with child sacrifice, excessive sexuality, debauchery, sex that was immoral ( sacred sex became unholy, sacred prostitutes lost their sacred status, and were seen as immoral, in having sex outside ordained marriage, goddesses such as Artemis/Diana, were labelled witches, Lilith was a rebellious, disobedient whore, with Ishtar and Inanna labelled as whores).

Women’s sexuality, in the main, was tied to reversal of the sacredness of the goddesses, and  so had to fit in with this new version of patriarchical sexuality, which in as much was tied to the property rights. Sexuality outside of that remit, was a  no-no, or became embeeded into  a society’s mind set, as not socially or morally acceptable. If a man knew he was the father of a  male child, he could pass on property to him, and continue the system of male dominance and inheritance (Hite).

Some how, the goddess worship, could not quite die out with Christianity. Folk stories and legends about sacred sexuality ( Diana and Achaeton, Cupid and Psyche etc) still lived on, and the black goddesses evolved,  across Europe, within Catholic Church worship, as Black Madonnas. The Black Madonna (read Isis of Egypt/Africa ) was the Virgin, but eventually worship of her was finally destroyed, so what was left , was,  are the icons/images of the Black Madonna and Child (Metzner) that we still see today, in Europe.

The Devadasis ( Servant of God – Sanskrit)  and proto Courtesan status.

I will now go back to the sacred temple dancers and workers of the ancient world, focusing on India/Pakistan, where they resided.

These were dancing girls, given to, or working in the many temples, in India/Pakistan in service to the goddesses and gods. What is interesting about the devadesis, is although they are not mentioned in the major Hindu scriptures (Vedas/Upanishads) specific temple duties are laid down in the Puranas- that is what women working in the temples should do, from day to day. The rituals laid down, and practised, included the temple servants/dancers dressing, bathing the deities’ statues and forms in the temples, also dancing for, singing to and playing musical instrument  to the deities’ statues. The latter duties were the dancers’ main duties, for which they were paid for.

Smaller temples employed workers to clean temples and create garlands of flowers for the gods and goddesses’statues and images. By the 7th CE, the devadasis system was firmly  established in India/Pakistan. Seven types of devadasis developed in the temple system:

1. self dedicated temple worker, who  gave her self in the service of a deity,

2. a worker purchased to work for the temple,

3. servants employed for supporting  a family, at the temple,

4.servants/devadasis employed to dance in the temple ,

5. women/girls  that had been abandoned at the temple, and taken in to  work,

6. servants appointed by the temple for specific/dedicated work,

and 7. servants donated by kings/nobles to work for their designated deity at the temple.

6 and 7 were the two absolutely dedicated to a deity, and could not marry a man (married to the deity) but had to often cater for the emotional and sexual needs of their donor/employer. Any ensuing children from these unions, became workers at the temples, often skilled musicians if sons, and skilled dancers if daughters.   This last fact, is especially interesting, because those skills were in effect, being preserved, and dances such as the Bharanatyam, were being kept alive and transferred to the royal courts. These children carried on their mother’s lineage of art and spirituality, and actually became the custodians of fine arts, classics, Sanskrit and local languages.

Maybe, this indeed forms the very beginnings of what we could call Courtesan ( albeit in India/Pakistan) We can also see that  proto -courtesan and sacred prostitutes most certainly shared a very common link and lineage, with the work that they did.

Sacred Dance: The role of dance in sacred sexuality, rituals and worship
“Bal-Anat is the combination of two words, a French word and also a Mesopotamian word… Anat is the benevolent Mother Goddess.. I like to think a positive …god.. she is the patron of women in childbirth. Bal (is) dance- Dance of the Mother Goddess”, said Jamila Salimpour( 1926-)  a highly influential pioneer of Middle Eastern dance  teaching methodology and performance in the USA.

She headed a Middle Eastern/Bellydance style troupe, called Bal Anat, during the late 1960’s,  and in fact, drew a lot of her creative, innovative choreographies, from research on ancient societies, Middle Eastern cultures, 1930-40’s Egyptian dance films, Orientalist paintings. Middle Eastern dance or belly dance/Danse Orientale, is the oldest recorded dance in the world, with evidence of movements found on cave paintings, across the world (indicating a universality , all over the world,  at one time,  with movements that have been far afield as the South Pacific ( eg Hawaii)  and in many African dances, and yet remained for centuries, with variations,  in the Middle Eastern cultures, Buonaventura). It has been said that bellydance has its roots in imitating the movement of child birth, a dance ritual to aid the safe passage of a new born, and to support the mother giving birth ( Buonaventura et al).

Before I go further , I am going, to in fact, dedicate this part of the chapter, to two pioneers, Jamila Salimpour  and Iris Stewart, author of” Sacred Woman , Sacred Dance”,  because both have commented on the spiritual role and sacred origins of dance and reminded all of us, of this.

They , amongst others , deserve credit for this, as they touch upon the  deep psychology of human beings, in that dance, as one of the ultimate methods of non verbal, unconscious communication,has been  a vehicle for both spirituality,  spiritual practice/ritual,  celebration, as well as the every day ( folk dance sequences, social dances and so on ) and now, more recently, in some cultures,  personal, individualistic expression.

“Today, we primarily think of dance as a form of entertainment or a way to exercise or socialise. There was a time when dance was considered the way to commune with the divine, a part of life’s journey,” says Stewart. Stewart’s book “Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance ” was the first book , that seriously tackled  the spiritual origins of all dance, showing how women often expressed that side and were an important part of it all.

While Buonaventura’  work on belly dance “The Serpent of the Nile” , talks about the history  and cultures of bellydance, Stewart exclusively focuses on pre-history/ancient history of dance and all the detailed research that shows up here.

Jamila’s  own dance research, into the past, allowed her to teach and perform a mixture of fantasy and truth, as dancers to a Mother Goddess, Anat. As follows  there were serpentine dances,  with  gently writhing, nonchalant snakes, as archived from film footage of Bal Anat ( ; Tunisian style folk dances, with water jars on heads and twisting hips; dances with wild spinning  into back bends , before dropping onto the ground, motionless;  powerful , proudly shimmying  ,rebellious soloists with coins/coin belts and undulating stomachs,  almost harking back to  ancient Minoan/Crete  dancing girls…

All these dances were infused with a sense of empowerment and stunning beauty,as well as  with the Second Wave Feminist Movement,  impacting across Europe and the USA, at that time . These dances evoked both the Mother Goddess and the Women’s Movement at the time:  Jamila  indeed captured the audience’s and future dancers’ imaginations and gave them something to think about.

Stewart’s book explores in detail how dance was dedicated to the goddesses, the divine, and how it celebrated the year’s calendar, and the rhythms of human life. “Dance  is a language that re-unites the body, mind and spirit… Sacred dance was most valued in goddess worshipping cultures, where women served as priestesses and healers, dance was an integral part of religious ritual and ceremonial expression including Judaism and Christianity,” comments Stewart.

There were circle dances, birth rituals, ecstatic dances, dances for loss and grief ( either in groups or in dividually) “that allow(ed) women to integrate the movement of faith, healing and power into their daily lives”( Stewart). Dance was also a very, crucial part of the priestess’s role.

The priestess was, in addition to all the roles she performed ( as mentioned earlier in this chapter) was a healer/nurse/midwife, and used song , dance and rhythm for healing, psyshological transformation. They often wore special jewellery , costuming, amulets, as well as veils, headresses, and became the keepers of the ceremonies that took place ( Griselda Steiner  and Stewart).

As time went on, the priestesses’ and women’s sacred dances were relegated to just spectacle and visual colour. It seemed to have occurred, when goddess worship moved towards the god/father centred religion ( Hite, Steiner and Stewart).

This then was the start of when sexuality split “from the natural flow of life and used as afunction of belonging to the patriarchial tribe”( Steiner). Hite echoes this, when the ancients recognised the role of father in procreation. And as seen, earlier, in this chapter, the role of the goddess and her values were reversed/demonised.

Interestingly,  enough, though,  dance , was part of spiritual worship, in many parts of the Christian world, including Spain, during the 15th century. An early Christian sect, the Gnosis in Greece/Turkey and ancient Rome, travelled across Europe and danced and sang about the Universe as Dancer, a metaphor for God): “….the Universe belongs to the Dancer, Amen/He who does not know the dance, does not know what happens, Amen” , taken from the Gnosis book of Acts 1, Steiner /Stewart )

Dance, to reiterate,  was indeed  a main form of worship expression;the Goddess, whatever name she took or was known by, was the Dancer, herself: the Creatrix of rhythm of seasons, as seen by the ancients. Sarasvasti, a Hindu Goddess is shown with a lute. Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes (Hawaii) is  seen as a patron of dance..: “In the old religions of the Middle East, India, China, Japan, Africa and Greece, the goddess may have been a dancer..” (Griselda Steiner)

Dancing, as worship, became frowned upon, when the clergy felt it was far too sensual/sexual and worldy ( Stewart), so women were banished from dancing in public. They had to dance at home.  Dance’s power had to be curtailed, as the sex instinct and expression is far too powerful, and forbidding dance is one way of clamping it down.

Says the Catholic Women’s Network, in reviewing “Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance”,”Teresa of Avila, who founded 17 convents, had her nuns dance and play instruments.”

Stewart adds that as dance has changed over time from celebrating spirituality/sexuality, then folk/community dance ( evoking communality, shared values,a social calendar, and so on) , she tells us not to forget that dance still transcends, and allows us true, deep relaxation, joy,  duende ( spirit) ,momentarily losing oneself from life’s worries, releasing us into our true selves, as witnessed by so many dances in the world,  , such as the Zar, the Guedra,  of Africa and the Middle East, trance dances, the dance of the Roma (“Gypsies) with Flamenco (Andalucia) and many of their other dance forms in other countries (Balkans, Turkey, Upper Egypt, etc). In essence, what Stewart is describing, an almost ecstatic, Dionysion state that we could obtain, when dancing- and yes, it comes from the spiritual…..

When we now look at how courtesans developed over time, the link with dance and art becomes even greater, and in many ways, the fact that dance/art have been kept alive by courtesans, is no accident. The link between sacred prostitutes and courtesan is no accident. Hopefully, this evolution has made more sense and a context to the Courtesan has been given.

So, in conclusion to this chapter, we have tried to look at the early history and development of human sexuality- the agents, who in using nature, as a model, worked on sexuality as a vehicle for transformation, healing and well being,  and ultimately as community cohesion, as well as fostering inter connectedness with nature.

I have tried to show, how sacred sex manifested itself in healing rituals, dance, song, prayer , worship of goddesses and gods, and ultimately Mother goddess, and the role of sacred prostitutes, temple dancers and priestesses and how these have shaped the development of the courtesan.  But not before the ideals/ideas of sacred sexuality changes are changed forever.

The next chapter will look  very briefly at prostitution in early societies,   monotheism and its precursor, and monotheism and sacred sexuality, to give their side to the story.


Buonaventura Wendy     The Serpent of the Nile

Catholic Women’s Network ( review of Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance,

Hite Shere     The Hite Report

Metzner Ralph     Green Psychology

Mirdred Michael

Steiner Griselda   ( Review of Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance) “It makes me want to dance” ( )

Wikipedia     Shakti



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