THE HOLY WHORE

A Woman’s Gateway to Power
By Cosi Fabian

[Editor’s Note: I originally found out about Cosi Fabian from the film 1 Giant Leap where the filmmakers interviewed a sacred prostitute [click to http://www.hopedance.org/community-media/videos/29-1+giant+leap+*+Sex*?userid=64]. What she said kept ringing in my ears. When it came to editing this issue on Sexuality I decided to look her up. Due to internet technology I soon found out that she had a piece called The Holy Whore in an anthology called Whores and Other Feminists (edited by Jill Nagle) published by Routledge in 1997. The following comes from that book.]

At the age of forty-two I became a prostitute. The impetus was unemployment and disgust at the women’s labor market, but my motivation was the continuation of my quest for wholeness and meaning. My inspiration was the qadeshet, the “sacred prostitutes” of our ancestors’ temples.

This seven-year experiment has paid off magnificently: by using pre-patriarchal models of female sexuality as a noble, even divine, power I have constructed a life that is extraordinarily sweet – and pertinent to all women. To say nothing of confounding most of our preconceptions around both female and male sexuality.

But I will start this story seven years before I took the great leap into Whoredom, back when I staggered through the door of a 12-step meeting and started my ongoing recovery from alcoholism (which is, along with a certain flamboyance and good legs, part of the Fabian legacy).

Carl Jung wrote of alcoholism, “(it is) the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” The “twelve step programs” are unique in that they offer a pragmatic, effective spirituality without a theology. If one does not like the Christian undertones – and this agnostic hated them – one can construct a theology of one’s own. And I did.  For me, a great gift of this approach to recovery was the practical guidance in taking that vague, alienating “spiritual thirst” and transmuting it into the ability to negotiate my daily life and its accrued pain with integrity and grace – and without a large brandy.

So I shifted my quest from bottle to library, where I began my continuing search for a mythos and attendant morality, which would express and inspire me as a woman. To an extent my spirit resonated to Native American and Asian prayers, but this driving force of my life was still without words, without shape, without story. As a woman whose spiritual force was matched by a sexual joy I still was without a noble framework.

Then I picked up a copy of “The Politics of Women’s Spirituality” and read Carol P. Christ’s introduction to her essay, co-written with Charlene Spretnak: “Women’s stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious. She is closed in silence.”

This same strong volume introduced me to feminist historian Merlin Stone and her book “When God Was a Woman”. Stone, along with Barbara Walker and her “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets”, threw me the line I so desperately needed. For here was a version of The Divine that not only was female, but also wondrously, gloriously sexual. It was in these and other histories of the ancient Near East – the cauldron of the contemporary religions which still govern our lives, laws and souls – that I discovered sex as prayer, dance as worship – and the “Sacred Prostitutes”.
The Temple Harlot is as old as writing itself, for it is in humankind’s first – cuneiform – writing that I found the Qadesha, the sacred one, and her Great Goddess Inanna – “Queen of Heaven and Earth”.  In translations of Mesopotamian hymns I was introduced to the young goddess thus:

“Inanna placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head.
She went to the sheepfold, to the shepherd.
She leaned against the apple tree, her vulva was wondrous to behold.
Rejoicing at her wondrous vulva, the young woman Inanna applauded herself.

She said:
‘I, the Queen of Heaven, shall visit the God of Wisdom…’.
Inanna set out by herself.” – (WOLKSTEIN AND KRAMER)

Yes! Here were the “stories” that Carol Christ was talking about. Stories long silent. Stories that made virtues – by elevating to divine status – precisely the characteristics that had, since early childhood, condemned me as “bad girl”: social initiative, a sense of the profound worthiness of my sexuality, independence, adventurousness.

I had “come home”.

And I wanted to know more. The sexual aspects of the great goddesses – Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Ostera –  in their original, ‘pre-patriarchal’ concepts have been difficult to unveil. There are centuries of Greco-Christian values muddying our view of “The Radiant Star, Lady of the Evening”, Inanna (we know her as “Venus”). Her priestesses, who included sex in their religious duties, have been even more sullied by our core, Christian values which essentially place the burden of The fall of man and the death of the Christ upon the sexual, and seductive, power of woman. Religious or not, Christian or not, all women are distorted by this veil of shame, hidden from ourselves and each other.

But there was a time – most of human history – when the “Wondrous Vulva” was venerated. We see the unmistakable triangle on cave walls. We enter the long barrows of Europe through the vulvic gateway to the sanctuary of the womb interior. We still see one of the most ancient symbolic representations of the vulva in the lilies that adorn churches at Easter – betraying its pagan roots as a “Springtime sacrificial festival named for the Saxon Goddess Eostre, or Ostara, a northern form of Astarte.” (Walker) Lilies were sacred to Astarte and Easter is still set by the pagan – lunar – calendar.

Menstruation – called by the ancients “the time of dreams and visions” – has been demonized along with our sexuality. Still it is presented to us in terms of “sickness”, and “failed pregnancy”, rather than as an “endocrin symphony” which attunes us to the rhythms of our world. Yet the magical power of “the wise wound”, entrained with the moon and tides, gave humankind – gave women which our first “mystification of nature”, our first rituals and religion.  The word “ritual” itself carries this connotation: in Sanskrit “R’tu” meant both ‘menses’ and ‘appointed time for sacrifice”. Women’s bodies were the first calendars, they were “cosmic order” incarnate.

Spiral dances carry the memory of the dance of earth and heaven, as did the Sacred Prostitutes of Ptolomaic Egypt, the horae, who marked the passage of time when they danced the sun god Ra safely through the gateways of the night. They were called Ladies of the Hour. The dancing priestesses were banished, but their rituals and nomenclature survived: in Medieval Europe the orderly passage of time was marked by nuns and monks by the reading of a “Book of Hours” – specific prayers for specific times.

The hora leads us to the root of the word “whore”, and my pride in that noble title. To quote Barbara Walker, “ As Mother of Harlots, Ishtar was called the Great Goddess HAR. Her high priestess the Harine was spiritual ruler of ‘the city of Ishtar’. HAR was a cognate of the Persian houri and the Greek Hora, also the origin of “harem”, which used to mean a Temple of Women, or a sanctuary.”

The elaborate and formalized costuming of a prostitute, even that of streetwalkers, has its ritual origins. “Adornment” was part of their sacred duty to embody the magnificence and power of the Goddess. No where are the use of cosmetics more derided than in Academia (especially “Women’s Studies”) yet this symbolic decoration of the female, indicating her divine powers, connect us to the Greek idea of cosmetikos – the ordering principle of the world.

A Temple Harlot by the name of Shamhat who plays a significant role in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, replays this profound gift – the teaching of a conscious, sentient life – as opposed to non-conscious survival. This is her story:

Once upon a time, there was a young king – the strongest man in the land – whose name was Gilgamesh. But there was a problem: the strongest man in the land was totally out of control – enslaving the men and claiming the maidens for his own pleasure. He was abusing the power given him by the Gods, had become Tyrant, not Saviour.

The people were in despair: who could challenge and tame this rogue king? They asked Aruru, Mother of the Gods, to create a foil for Gilgamesh to temper his harmful strength. So the Goddess “pinched off a piece of clay, cast it out into open country. She created a primitive man, Enkidu the warrior.” (McCall)

But there was still a major problem – Enkidu was wild, primitive. Covered with shaggy hair, he ran and drank with the animals, “He knew neither people nor country; he was dressed as cattle are.” (McCall)

If Enid was to temper the king, he must first be tamed, be civilized, himself. Who could educate the wild brute, prepare him for his role as companion and confidante to Gilgamesh?

The Ancients still remembered what we have now forgotten – that it is woman who brought man from animal consciousness into a sentient, social and moral existence.

And the quintessence of woman in her ritual, empowered, cosmic state was – and is – the Temple Harlot! Some say it was the goddess herself who placed Shamhat by the oasis water.  Some say it was a hunter frustrated by Enkidu. Either way, the next time Enkidu came gambolling down to drink at the water’s edge, Shamhat was waiting.

And Enkidu’s life – and consciousness – would never be the same! “She reveal(ed) to him her many attractions” (McCall) and Enkidu came running right over. They lay together for six days and seven nights, after which time the “wild man” tried to return to his animal- companions and his former state of innocence. But the animals now feared him, for Enkidu had been changed:

“(he) had been diminished, he could not run as before.
Yet he had acquired judgment, had become wiser,
He turned back; he sat at the harlot’s feet.
The harlot was looking at his expression,
And he listened attentively to what the harlot said.”

And so Shamhat speaks to him of the glories and delights of Gilgamesh’s city where is fate awaits him as companion to the handsome king. She shows him how to shave and dress himself then takes him by the hand and leads him to the gates of the city so in need of his – now civilized – strength.

It was this understanding of women as a gateway to transformation – through a combination of sexual ecstasy, formal ritual and informal teaching – that the Sacred Prostitutes embodied as incarnations of their goddess. A goddess considered to be the source of kingship in pre-patrilineal times. In Sumer, in the third millennium B.C.E., the High Priestess bestowed kingship upon her temple bed at the height of the new year festivities.  Indeed, the Hieros Gamos, or “Sacred Marriage” was an important rite in most of the major religions of the western World, surviving even Christianity’s pogrom in rural areas of Europe into the last century.

How refreshing to discover guiding religious metaphors (and all religions are metaphors, as Joseph “follow your bliss” Campbell always reminded us) in which female sexuality can save rather than damn humankind – so different to Christianity’s opinion of Eve and all her “daughters”.

To switch to a modern metaphor, Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Jungian understanding of the gods and goddesses now understood as “archetypes” was also crucial in my long struggle for an honorable sense of myself and a fulfilling life. In her now classic “The Goddesses in Every Woman” I found a psychological mirroring that did not pathologise my sexuality but placed it in the context of Aphrodite who “inspired poetry and persuasive speech, and symbolized the transformative and creative power of love.”  Here, I for the first time heard the ancient Greek word hetaira woman – the highest class of prostitute or courtesan – “who was educated, cultured, and unusually free for a woman of those days… A type of woman whose relationships with men have both erotic and companionship qualities… The Hetaira fertilizes the creative side of a man and helps him in it.”

For seven years I undertook what was essentially a “religious education”: I immersed myself in myth and history. I explored The New Physics and mediaeval Catholic mysticism, contemporary French philosophy and modern American psychology. I kept going to meetings. Life was better than I had ever known it – I was of value in my community and at peace with my gods.

Yet there was still a sense of loss, still a feeling of something within me being betrayed. As my internal life developed it was becoming increasingly obvious that my external world – I worked in advertising – bore very little relation to anything that was meaningful to me.

Then I was “downsized”. At first I panicked, forgetting I hated my job! However, it gradually dawned on me that to put myself “back down the pit” (the phrase that kept running through my head at the time) would be to abandon myself far more cruelly than anything visited upon me by family and lovers. I had a strong sense that I would die, metaphorically if not literally, and I had fought too long to give up now. And I so desperately wanted to write – to develop my poetry, to use my journalism skills in a joyful way. Maybe go to Art College, as I had wanted as an adolescent.

What to do?

With a strong sense of pre-patriarchal values in place, sexwork was an obvious area to investigate, although I knew no one and had no idea where to find pertinent information – it is a felony for one woman to tell another how she might benefit from her sexual skills at the expense of men.  (There’s a feminist issue for you.)

All I knew about contemporary prostitution was what the average person does – very little. (I’ve heard it said, “Everyone has an opinion on prostitution. No one knows anything about it!”). Television and movies told me it was dangerous, but I knew only too well that I could rely on myself in crisis, that I didn’t lack physical courage.  Besides, my historical research had demonstrated to me the lies that had enslaved me – the odds were they were still lying about the ‘dangerous’ nature of women’s autonomous sexuality. This was definitely a path to be explored consciously on behalf of all women, and I was unusually qualified in that I am without family – no parents, spouse, siblings or children (no one to shame by association). What had been a bed of loneliness could be transformed into a flight for freedom.

I did know I possessed a vital and experienced sexuality, but at forty-two I was understandable concerned about my age. Plus I had all the usual anxieties of a woman – breasts too small, butt too fat, hair too thin. My experience was to prove my mother right when I bemoaned my non-classical face – personality is more important that looks!

What concerned me most was my ominous sense of the irrevocability of this move, this flight “beyond the pale”. I had always been an iconoclast and an outsider, but to become a prostitute would truly cast me out of our society, and maybe cost me my friends and future partners. If I became a whore I would, to all intents and purposes, have no recourse under law – criminal or civil – for any investigation of my life could prove disastrous. As an immigrant renter I stand to lose both home and country. Mothers are even more vulnerable – they risk losing the very children they are working to feed and clothe.

But the more I mulled the possibilities over, the more compelling was the idea of re-claiming this ancient office.  I had to do it. If not me, who else?

There is a key mythic figure – a patron saint of “bad girls” and feminists – whose stories cradled and inspired me in my transition. All women need her, she is our banished shadow sister, she is ourselves. She is everything men fear in women. Meet Lilith.

With her wings and bird feet she harkens back to the pre-historic icons of Old Europe. She stands on two peaceful lions, the horned crown of godship tall on her head.  She is guarded by Screech owls and her braceletted hands hold the divine measuring implements. Long earrings hang from under the waves of her hair on to her breasts. She is young, shapely.

Captured thus in stone by a Mesopotamian sculptor over four thousand years ago, an ambivalence already exists about her potent combination of sex and power: she appears in sacred hymns as both a sacred prostitute who lured men into the goddess Inanna’s temple and as an uncontrollable demon who fled to the wilderness when Gilgamesh – and patrilineal kingship – colonized both temple and goddess.

Jungian Barbara Black Koltuv, in her THE BOOK OF LILITH, write: “A woman, in order to grow and develop psychologically, needs to integrate Lilith’s qualities of freedom, movement and instinctuality. Lilith is that quality in a woman that refuses to be bound in a relationship. She wants not equality and sameness in the sense of identity and merging, but equal freedom to move, change, be herself.”

Always defiant, always wild, always sexual, Lilith has been in exile ever since – glimpsed only as “night hag”, or “succuba”, or “witch”, or “vampire”. Or “harlot of hell”. Here’s how she entered the stream of Judeo-Christian mythology:

Eve was not the first woman created! According to hebraic tradition ‘made by God’ was – Lilith. She was created from blood and dust, as was Adam before her, and so felt herself to be his equal.

So originally it was “Adam and Lilith” in the Garden of Eden!

Everything was fine between them, until it was time for sex. For then Lilith incurred the wrath of God and Adam for an act of great defiance: she refused to lie beneath Adam in the ‘missionary position’ insisted upon by the patriarchs. (Lilith preferred what the historians call the “woman-superior position” – and I call the “Isis Squat”)

Lilith would not relent.

“’Out, out of the Garden!’ cried God.
‘Out’, said Adam.
And so Lilith was banished. She went to live in the caves by the Red Sea, where she coupled with demons. Presumably in any position she wished.

If Lilith could choose exile over submission to values she opposed, so could I. And I did.

It was the best move I ever made. I had found my vocation.

As it turned out, my naiveté was a saving grace. For without contemporary practical advice I had to look to my own research, my own vision, for guidance in the powers and duties of a Qadesha. Incense is always lit, candles burn and a silent prayer is said. The men, and occasionally women, leave their offerings on the altar. I conduct myself with dignity and respect my clients who in return have displayed a great sweetness to me.

It’s not like the movies.

Contrary to our culture’s Judeo-Christian portrayal of the sexual dynamic between men and women as being one fraught with danger and loathing, my experience over the years has been one of joy, abundance. Rather than inviting rape and murder by being overtly (you can’t get more overt) sexual it would seem that my anonymity offers men a rare chance to be vulnerable, receptive, grateful – what some might call “feminine”.  I’m not talking “dominance” or “sexual slavery”; I’m talking about an honorable interaction between two intelligent adults seeking relief from our manic world.

I’m talking about men – your husbands and boyfriends – who only feel able to open up to the depth of their need for ‘the body and culture of woman’ with a stranger.

For it is only here, in my bed and body, that they receive unconditional love. It is only here, in my temple room, that their passion is received without shame. Indeed, this absence of shame, this sense of the integrity of the “wondrous vulva”, is the most salient ‘skill’ that I bring to my work. Guided by Bolen’s idea of the Aphroditic woman as being the guardian and inspiration of the poetic soul, I talk to my clients of their dreams, their lost creative pleasures. I encourage them in their talents and receive the depths of their wounds. I surround us both with beauty: rich hangings, icons, art and opera. I access the soul through the senses, using the mind as pathway.

The rage I felt for so many years over the theft of my history and soul has transmuted into the delicate gift of compassion. I am no longer afraid of men, of man, or god – is their anything more vulnerable than a naked man with a hard-on? From the beginning it seemed only fair that if I were to claim sacred lineage for my desire, then I must grant the same to men. And as they worshipped the wondrous vulva, I in turn approached each man as “the fascinum”, the “sacred phallus”, the “anointed one”, the Christos.  My work has infused me with tenderness for men – is there anything more sweet, more vulnerable, than a naked man with an erection?

It is important to know one can do – and not do – anything one wants in this work. One can be – or not be – anyone one wants.

To reassure those readers envisioning some woo-woo, self-delusional hippie at work here, rest your minds: I do screen clients vigorously – for intelligence and humor and respect. As a friend remarked, this could well be why I have never been ‘set up’ by the police! I do not, beyond a change of name, in any way dissemble as to my true nature. If anything, I am most alive, most me, when I am with a client.  I have clear boundaries – deflecting infatuation and neediness. I know what are and are not my responsibilities. I am not afraid of conflict and will assert my ‘rules’ when necessary. And I can change those rules whenever I need to.

Yes, there are days when I am distracted or under the weather, when I feel there is no energy with which to dance.  No one was more surprised than me to discover that a quick and silent prayer (“Help!”) in the direction of my altar and its temple memories and I find myself laughing, moving, resonating to some force greater than me.

My experience has brought me a self-forgiveness and self-respect that echoes Mary Magdalene on her sisters in this profession, “Not only are we compassionate of ourselves, but we are compassionate of all the race of mankind”. As my experience has pervaded my acculturated mind, I have come to see the honorable – sacred – origins of male sexuality.  Where else, unfortunately, than Penthouse can men find the most ancient image of all – the wondrous vulva?

I now realize that, as a feminist, I was “demonizing” male sexuality and character as women had been demonized. It is essential that we stop this cultural “cycle of abuse”.

An astounding quality of these stories of Inanna, and Lilith, and Shamhat, these myths of pussy and power, is that they have worked in my life consistently – despite an inconsistent faith. Whether approached as historical precedents, active archetypes or divine metaphors. It is the stories themselves that have guided and shaped my life.

And the lives of many other women. For five years now I have been teaching in small groups and large halls and time and time again a woman will approach me, often in tears of gratitude, and say,  “I always knew there was something else. I’ve had dreams…”.

In my classes I have watched as women expand their minds and spirits, reclaim their strengths, find their creative talents, all in the name of the “Sacred Prostitute” and her Goddesses.  My own creativity – so long frozen – has burst forth in a riot of art and writing. I have found the immutable place within that is untouchable, that is free. That is good.

It would appear that my problem, women’s problem, with the clichéd “lack of self esteem” (and indeed I felt less than an ant fourteen years ago) is not so much the “esteem” part of the equation, but the “self”. Once I rediscovered, and revived, my true self – the esteem was automatic.

When I started to impose internal and external order upon my life by “getting sober”, there were many festering wounds to be cleaned and healed. Some of these wounds I share with many women: rape, alcoholism, denied education; some were particular: the protracted dying of my father, the suicide of my mother, the survival – and witnessing – of a ghastly a plane disaster, my experiences as a mescalita in Chiapas.

But the greatest wounding of all was the theft of my spiritual-sexual-creative core by our “male-voice” culture. Without my core self in its uncorrupted form I was without voice, without connection to the culture around me. (How telling that I had to become a prostitute, outlawed by our androcentric society, to discover and express my WomanVoice).

I would like, at this point, to honor the woman who has engendered so much important research into the nature of contemporary girls and women: Dr. Carol Gilligan. Her work has been diminished into the trite ‘take your daughter to work’ day, but the original published research indicates a complexity of loss that no day with Dad at work is going to repair.

With her associates at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, Dr. Gilligan has mapped girlhood and showed the extent of what women surrender at the “wall of Western Civilization”.  Pertinent to this essay are three findings in particular:

– Girls display an innate sense of morality, which is “care based”. Boys display a “principle-based” morality.

It is the latter morality, which makes the laws – and morals – which define women’s lives in what Gilligan calls our “male-voiced” culture. (INA DIFFERENT VOICE – Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, 82)

– Before puberty – menstruation and sexuality often accompanied by a great expansion of the religious sense – “girls’ voices (show) clear evidence of strength, courage, and a healthy resistance to losing voice and relationship…(they) take difference and disagreement for granted in daily life.” Then girls loose this clarity, experiencing “a giving up of voice, an abandonment of self, for the sake of becoming a good woman and having relationships.”

In other words – in order to be loved on the terms of our male-voiced culture, which reflect a different reality, women lose “their vitality, their resilience, their immunity to depression, their sense of themselves and their character”.  (MEETING AT THE CROSSROAD – Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, 92)

– Thirdly, women perpetuate this “adaptation skill” upon their daughters and students.

This last dynamic, learnt experientially by researchers approaching their girl subjects, is the most chilling of all.  This loss of self in the name of relationship is no longer necessary. Neither the girl nor adult will be stoned to death for defying male authority. We must stop teaching our girls to be “good” – It is killing our spirits, corrupting our intellects, stressing our bodies. It is a conditioned survival skill that no longer is necessary – neither us nor our children will die if we defy male authority.

The paradox of my becoming a prostitute is that it is my eleven-year old who has leapt to life – something innocent, “virgin”. (I use “virgin” as Bolen, Harrison and Briffault – meaning “one unto herself”.) Ritual, stage, art, astronomy, history, costume, design, writing – these were the delights of my childhood. And these are the delights that spark my life now.

And it is a sweet life – both deepening and expanding. I am proud to study with Judy Grahn (“Blood Bread and Roses”, “Queen of Wands”, “Another Mother Tongue”) and Betty Meador (“Uncursing the Dark”). I have the money to buy books and the time to read them. There is beauty in my home and life, and life no longer fragmented but a cohesion of spirit and work and sex and art and companionship. I am in a position to honor both the sun (heading for park or beach when the weather demands it) and moon (I have chosen to sacrifice money to honor my menstruation by a deep retreat, invoking the “time of dreams and visions”, re-charging my energy.) Even my doctor who was initially horrified at my career move has been impressed of the extraordinary improvement in my trauma-damaged health.

I can truly say: “I am proud – and happy – to be called ‘whore’.”    •

The article was written ten years ago. Cosi Fabian is now virtually retired from both sexwork and teaching.  However, having taken a few years to successfully address PTSD and fibromyalgia, she is again writing and producing art.  Among other projects are contributions to a Metaformic Theory text book for New College of California.