Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

To understand this fully, we must appreciate the fact that the term “virgin” did not mean to the Classical world what it means to us. The Romans distinguished between virgo, an unmarried woman, and virgo intacta, a woman who had never known a man; the Greeks likewise. To them, a virgin was a woman who had kept her personal autonomy, instead of submitting herself to the narrow, caged life of marriage. It was, one may say, a psychological virginity which was meant. It was the married woman who had sold her independence, who had lost her virginity. Moreover, to sleep with a god was held actually to restore virginity, as Philo and Plutarch record. (Cf. Donne’s “Nor ever chaste, except thou ravish mee“. This idea was also implicit in the conception of the Brides of Christ.) (122)

The religions which developed these ideas were all based on a maternal figure, found under different names throughout a great part of the Near East. To the Phoenicians she was Astarte; to the Phrygians, Cybele; to the Babylonians, Ishtar; to the Thracians, Bendis; to the Cretans, Rhea; to the Ephesians, Artemis; to the Canaanites, Atargatis; to the Persians, Anaitis; to the Cappadocians, Ma. But though her names differ, her attributes are the same — she is always the mother who succours and helps, and who bestows fertility. This composite figure was generally known as Magna Mater, the great mother, and it was said that she was mother of all the other gods. (79) The Egyptians, too, had their mother deity in Isis: she was also the succourer, the compassionate, but the concept of Isis was developed to a higher level of sophistication than that of the goddesses mentioned earlier.

These deities were not decomposed; so that the same goddess could represent both virginity and fulfilment, both mother and prostitute. This is why Ishtar, the mother, can say of herself “A prostitute compassionate am I”. She is the mother who offers her tenderness to any of her sons who needs it. This double aspect was also expressed in such images as that of the — dark and bright phases of the moon. (122)

From these ideas developed the notion that all women should, at some time or other, offer themselves to the deity: for this; purpose they would, in a spirit of solemnity and holy awe, present themselves at the temple. In some cases, it would be the priest who, as god’s representative, would come to them in the in darkness; in others they must wait in the temple grounds until some man chose them. It was clearly understood that, whoever he was, he was the vehicle of the deity. Europeans in India, where similar customs still exist, have often reported with indignation that the priests practise a gross deception upon the worshippers, pretending to be the deity: they imagine that this is simply the crude device of a venal priesthood to obtain sexual satisfaction. Actually, everyone concerned fully understands that it is the priest, physically speaking, who performs the ritual act, but they believe him to be divinely empowered to do it.