Fine art nudes. This image is 'Nymphaeum' by the 19th-century French Academic painter William Bouguereau.
 
More about pagan sex and nudity
Go Sacred exhibitionists: Baubo, Iambe & Sheila-na-gig
Go First civilizations: Sex goddesses Ishtar and Isis
Go The Greco-Roman world: Aphrodite and Venus
Go Naked spirits: Nymphs, Graces and divine seductions
Isis in ancient Egypt,
Ishtar in Middle East

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Celebrating sexuality:
Fertility goddesses

Civilization's
first deities:
Proudly naked

   In the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean, nearly every religion included a fertility goddess, symbol of sex, beauty and love. In the Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, she was called Astarte or Ishtar.
   The Egyptian goddess Isis fulfilled a similar role. One of the essential Egyptian myths involved Isis's sexual intercourse with her resurrected husband Osiris. She is often depicted naked, and sometimes raising her skirt to show off her vulva.
   The naked beauties shown at left are an ivory Ishtar, her crescent moon headdress a symbol of fertility and woman's monthly sexual cycle; an ancient Greek bronze Aphrodite; Botticelli's famous Renaissance view of Venus being born from the sea; and three contemporary nudes to prove that the Venus ideal remains alive and well.
This carved relief of Astarte pictures her with horses, a symbol of power in ancient Mesopotamia.
This carved relief pictures Astarte in her divine role as 'Mistress of Horses, Lady of the Chariot.' Horses were a symbol of power in ancient Mesopotamia.
Go to galleries featuring
naked women with horses
The Canaanites showed Astarte riding astride a horse in her role as a war goddess. This position combines power with sexual stimulation, as any modern horsewoman knows. Women and horses remain a powerful combination, with mystical and erotic
significance.
Sacred shimmy
Common women of Babylon, like these depicted in a mid-20th-century painting, were expected to perform one act of ritual sex in the temple of Ishtar. Once a woman had sex with a stranger or foreigner, she was free to return home and marry.
Photo from AllOver30.com

Naked pagans:
nudity and
sex in
ancient
religions

 


 

The Middle East:
Astarte or Ishtar

Women and horses remain a powerful combination, with mystical and erotic significance.
      The Semitic societies of the ancient "Fertile Crescent" shared a pantheon of closely related gods and goddesses, which had different names and slightly varying attributes in different places.
An alabaster figurine of a naked Ishtar A naked Ishtar
of alabaster.
    The goddess of sex and fertility was called Inanna by the Sumerians, the oldest civilization in southern Mesopotamia, now Iraq. The Babylonians, later and farther north, knew her as Ishtar. Along the Mediterranean seacoast, the peoples of Canaan -- later to be known as Israel or Palestine -- worshipped her as Astarte.
    The prophets of the new monotheistic and patriarchal religions waged holy war against the goddess and the sexual freedom she represented. They slandered her as "The Whore of Babylon."
    Those who honored her used such titles as Mother of the Fruitful Breast, Queen of Heaven, Light of the World, Creator of People, Mother of Deities and River of Life. Ishtar/Astarte/Inanna was closely associated with the moon and its life-giving cycles of light, darkness and fertility.
 


  This golden Astarte figure holds serpents, whose movements are suggested in the undulating movements of what is now known as the belly dance. Contemporary dancer's images from BareMaidens.com

  Dance as a holy
erotic sacrament

    The name "Sacred Whores" was no insult for the women who served in Ishtar's temples. They held positions of high honor in Babylon, Assyria and other Middle Eastern cultures.
A reproduction of an ancient drawing shows Ishtar raising her skirt to expose her belly and vulva, a possible reference to the sexual dances of the goddess's temple prostitutes.     These holy women demonstrated their sexuality through a direct ancestor of today's belly dance. Its characteristics included miming sexual intercourse and childbirth through hip and pelvic movements, a serpentine sinuousness, and the use of veils and hip-sashes. These girdles were symbols of Ishtar. By first enclosing and then revealing the sex organs, they clearly partook of their sexual power.
    Ishtar's sacred harlots had a hierarchy of rank. In Babylon, the "Entu" were the equal of priests and secular rulers. The "Naditu" were aristocratic women who were conducted important business "on the side" in addition to their sacred sexual duties. Lowest ranking were the "Qadishtu," considered sacred women and the "Ishtaritu," typically singers, dancers or musicians.
    All shared the duty of conducting ritual sexual intercourse with male worshippers in the temples, especially during the spring equinox and new year's holiday named for Ishtar.
  Until the Eighth Century B.C., dancers in the Middle East performed nude. The hip-belt or sash was a symbol of Ishtar. These photos show modern amateur belly dancers in the act of removing their sashes to finish the dance naked as temple dancers did three millenia ago. From abbywinters.com

 


Ordinary women shared temple harlots' sexual duties

  Common women of Babylon, like these depicted in a mid-20th-century painting, were expected to perform one act of ritual sex in the temple of Ishtar before marrying.
    The amateur prostitute's sexual experience meant that she had become holy in the goddess's eyes. She returned home in a sanctified -- and presumably happy -- state. The ecstasy of orgasm was considered a sign of mystical connection with the goddess.
      Every woman in Babylon was required, once in her life, to have sex with a stranger in the temple of Ishtar. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported, "The men pass and make their choice. It matters not what be the sum of money; the woman will never refuse ... the money being by this act made sacred."
    The Phoenician cities in Canaan, Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, also required their women to become prostitutes for a day, sharing sexual favors with foreign guests during the spring new year's festival.
    The holiday survives as "Easter," a name that derives from "Ishtar." The early Christian fathers co-opted this popular springtime celebration, including such obvious fertility symbols as eggs, rabbits and flowers, but de-sexualized it.
    The hymns and sacred erotic poems of Mesopotamia revere the power and inspiration of human sexuality, celebrating it as an indivisible quality of divinity.
 
A seated stone figure of Astarte might have presided over erotic dancing and ritual sex in her temple.   A modern equivalent of the seated goddess. Photo from abbywinters.com
A seated stone figure of Astarte might have presided over erotic dancing and ritual sex in her temple. The goddess is depicted naked, with prominent breasts. Her pose is echoed in this modern nude from abbywinters.com. Sex and spirit, the essence of the life force, combined at the core of Mesopotamian religion.
 


Fertility and flesh meet in simple goddess pictures

  An image of Ishtar with prominent breasts, belly and buttocks, universal symbols of fertility and female sexuality.   As with primitive sexual images from thousands of years ago, ample female flesh of breasts, belly, hips and buttocks still conveys powerful sexual magnetism. Photo from AllOver30.com   Another naked image of Ishtar     Ample flesh of the female breasts, belly, hips and buttocks of the Babylonian Ishtar effigy at left closely resembles Paleolithic carvings 20,000 years older.
    The exaggerated sexual characteristics of these primitive female figures are thought to represent fertility.
    Though at odds with conventional modern notions of beauty, a large woman's naked body, proudly displayed, can convey a powerful sexual magnetism. Photo from AllOver30.com.
    The simple clay figure on the left was probably made for an ordinary citizen, while the exquisite carved Ishtar on the right undoubtedly belonged to an aristocrat or a temple. Both share the gesture of the outstretched right hand.

 

Sex goddess flaunted her breasts and exposed vagina

  The vagina of this Ishtar figurine has been polished smooth by the touch of thousands of fingers, inserted for good luck.
A sacred Ishtar plaque
  Archaeologists call the display of breasts on this fertility symbol 'The Ishtar Pose.'
Ishtar fertility symbol
  A modern model calls attention to her breasts and vulva as in ancient Ishtar images. Photo from BareMaidens.com
Photo by BareMaidens.com
  This woman's pose mimics ancient Mesopotamian fertility symbols, emphasizing the breasts. Photo from AllOver30.com
Photo by AllOver30.com
  Flaunting the breasts is a sexually inviting pose with origins that go back thousands of years. Photo from Met-Art.com
Photo by Met-Art.com
 
Touching the goddess's naked body was a sacred rite
Symbolic of fertility and sexual desire, called "Mother of the Fruitful Breast," figures of the goddess Ishtar were found in temples, shrines and private homes throughout the ancient Middle East. In the example to the left, the vagina is worn and polished by the touch of thousands of fingers, inserted for good luck. The goddess was so frequently shown explicitly offering her bare breasts, archaeologists call this "The Ishtar Pose." This feature is still common in contemporary erotic imagery and nude dance performances.


Modern artistic echoes
of goddess worship

Today's erotic artists still celebrate the female nude's beauty and sex appeal.
  This nude female figure from the second century BC shows
Greek influence after Alexander the Great's conquests
brought Hellenistic culture to Mesopotamia. Ishtar,
like Isis in Egypt, began to resemble the Greek
sex goddess Aphrodite.
  This stone figure of Inanna, the Sumerian version of the fertility/sex goddess, displays her breasts in the typical 'Ishtar pose.'
The Sumerian sex goddess Inanna shows breasts, typical 'Ishtar pose.'
  Exotic dancers in strip clubs or models in erotic photography duplicate ancient 'Ishtar pose,' presenting their breasts to the onlooker's gaze.
Presenting her breasts to the onlooker's gaze, modern model duplicates the pose.
  This nude female figure found in Iraq dates to the second century BC.

The 'Reclining Nude' has been a subject for sculptors, painters and photographers since Hellenistic times. This photo from Met-Art.com
The 'Reclining Nude' has been a subject for sculptors, painters and photographers since Hellenistic times. This photo is from Met-Art.com.
 


  Figures of Inanna/Ishtar (above and below) from southern Mesopotamia feature a girdle or waist sash that symbolized the goddess' sexual power. It remains a part of the modern belly dance, which preserves much of the ancient fertility rites.
Ishtar's exaggerated sexual characteristics symbolize fertility.
  Ishtar is shown in all her power, naked on the back of a lion, accompanied by owls.
Ishtar is shown in all her power, naked on the back of a lion, accompanied by owls, in this ceramic relief from around 2000 B.C.
  Twenty-first Century sex goddesses are more likely to exert their power without such gaudy props. This photo from Femjoy.com.
Twenty-first Century sex goddesses are more likely to exert their power without such gaudy props. Photo by Femjoy.com.
 


Isis was often shown in a maternal role, nursing her son Horus.
Isis and Horus
  Egypt's Isis represented sex, fertility and growth
 
  The goddess Isis shown naked, her bare breasts ready to nourish her son Horus
  No shame in naked bodies
    The goddess Isis was Egypt's ruler of fertility and sexuality. She was often portrayed nude, as in these sculptures, and frequently in a maternal pose, her bare breasts nourishing her infant son Horus.
This effigy shows the goddess Isis nude  
    The Egyptian creation myth has a grief-stricken Isis reconstructing her murdered husband Orisis from dismembered body parts. She had to create a new penis to replace the original, which was lost in the Nile and swallowed by a fish. Her sexual intercourse with the resurrected Osiris was the beginning of the human world, Egyptians believed.
    Sacred 'prostitutes' devoted to Isis advertised themselves through dress and makeup. These women used red lip paint; they might wear blue fish-net dresses or go totally nude, both in the temple and on the street.
    One theory among Egyptologists is that sacred sexual activity was a coming-of-age ritual for women, required before marriage. A similar idea is that young virgins joined traveling performing troupes, often performing naked or semi-nude. During their time with these groups, they had their first sexual encounters. A girl who became pregnant would leave the troupe to head home to her family with proof of her fertility. Motherhood was venerated, so pregnancy gave women higher social status.
      Upper-class Egyptians didn't go naked in public, as members of the working classes did, but their garments typically served more to focus attention on the body than to hide it.
    This golden statue of the scorpion goddess Selket shows how pleated, semi-transparent cotton dresses clung to every curve and fold of a woman's body.
 


Partying naked in ancient Egypt
Women worked nude as entertainers, servants, farmers
   
    Nudity was routine in ancient Egypt, certainly not a reason for shame. Female house servants, dancers, acrobats and sacred "prostitutes" spent their days -- and nights -- totally or partially naked.
      Party scenes from original Egyptian paintings were the basis for this 20th-century illustration (below) of how naked women served and entertained nobility and the wealthy.

Nudity was casual, common and accepted in ancient Egypt, as seen in this scene of a party in which dancers, musicians and waitresses work naked or in transparent gowns.
  This is an original Egyptian painting depicting nude and semi-nude female entertainers, which was the basis for the painting at left.

    Some entertainers dressed in see-through cotton gauze. Others, like servant women, wore only a belt or waist chain.

This is an original Egyptian painting depicting nude and semi-nude female entertainers, which was the basis for the 20th-century illustration at left. This fragment of an Egyptian statue shows how sheer dresses ornamented the body without hiding it.
Sheer dresses didn't hide body.
 


  This Egyptian wall painting shows clothed musicians accompanying nude dancers.
    Outside the upper classes, many jobs required nudity. Fishermen, farm workers, manual laborers and the poor were usually nude. In the Old Kingdom, essentially everybody except the nobility and priests was nude all the time. This painting, from a later era, shows clothed musicians accompanying dancers, who wore nothing except an ornamental belt around the hips. Virgins may have had their first sex while working as entertainers.
 
Dancing naked was an honored occupation in the world's first civilization. Modern dancers emulate their Egyptian precedessors. Photo from BareMaidens.com. Click to see more.   Dancing naked was an honored occupation in the world's first civilization. Modern dancers emulate their Egyptian precedessors. Photo from BareMaidens.com. Click to see more.
Dancing naked was an honored occupation in the world's first civilization. Modern dancers, as in "gentlemen's clubs," emulate their Egyptian precedessors in pleasing an audience. These photos are from BareMaidens.com
 


Musical messages
of sexual identity
    With Isis as their model, Egyptians had no taboos about nudity. In such a hot climate, clothing had no practical purpose except as a status symbol for the wealthy. It accentuated and ornamented the body. Women's clothing typically fit tightly and often showed every detail of the body beneath.
    A luxurious approach to hygiene included using perfumed oils as skin moisturizers and for shaving. Egyptians prized cleanliness, despising "dirty" foreigners. Both men and women removed all their body hair by plucking and shaving. Our contemporary fashion for clean-shaven genitals would seem normal to ancient Egyptians.
  Giving honor to the goddess

'A Prayer to Isis' is the name
of this 1892 print. Musicians
in ancient Egypt typically
worked naked; clothing
was seen as a status
symbol reserved for
adults of the nobility
and upper classes.
Photo by
Femjoy.com
    Lifting her skirt to show off her genitals, this 2nd Century B.C. Isis is influenced by the Greek tale of Baubo. In one version, Baubo flashed her naked pussy for Isis, in mourning for Osiris. This made the goddess laugh, then bring her lover back to life. By the Hellenistic age, it was Isis doing the flashing.
 


    Traveling female entertainers apparently also functioned as midwives, and were associated with deities related to childbirth. In one myth, Isis and the goddesses Nephthys, Meskhenet and Heqet traveled in disguise as performers. They carried musical instruments with sexual overtones, the sistrum and menat, and offered their services to help a woman through a difficult labor.
    These performers sang love songs and erotic poems. This branch of Egyptian literature shows that women were free to express their own sexuality and desire. Sexual intercourse was referred to frequently in Egyptian writing, much as overtly sexual images, including male figures with erect penises, were common in Egyptian art.

Egyptians' standards of cleanliness required that women routinely shaved off all their pubic hair.
Egyptians' standards of cleanliness required shaving all their pubic hair.
  This European print from 1892 shows an Egyptian musician and a young apprentice offering a  prayer to Isis. Musicians were often nude in Egyptian society, children nearly always.  


As two cultures mixed, Isis morphed into Aphrodite
Goddess evolved under Greek influence

  In the 2nd Century BC, the influence of Hellenistic culture in Egypt led to these Isis figures that strongly resembled the Greek Aphrodite.  

Depictions of Isis took on a more naturalistic look as artists mimicked Greek styles. The goddess sported increasingly elaborate headdresses during the Ptolemy dynasty, whose last ruler was Cleopatra.
  In the 2nd Century BC, the influence of Hellenistic culture in Egypt led to these Isis figures that strongly resembled the Greek Aphrodite.
The goddess appears to be "standing at attention." It looks as if all these women are presenting themselves for our inspection.
 
This modern model, whose pose echoes these Hellenstic Isis-Aphrodite statues, is from abbywinters.com   Just as the Egyptians were inspired by the sight of their nude goddess, so we are now inspired by admiring the bodies of these contemporary nude models. Photos from abbywinters.com.
  This modern model, whose pose echoes these Hellenstic Isis-Aphrodite statues, is from abbywinters.com


This European erotic engraving from 1892 suggests the Victorian era's fascination with ancient Egypt and its liberated attitudes toward sexuality
and nudity.
A naked civilization is a humane civilization
Egypt survived for thousands of years, despite wars and conquests, with a culture that accepted and embraced sexuality as a divine attribute and human essential. Nudity was common and universally accepted. Could it be that the central role of sex in Egypt's civic religion was exactly why that nudity didn't threaten its culture? Our body-phobic society has a lot to learn from those who came before us.
  Isis still
inspiring
our lust

An Egyptian Isis statue from the 2nd Century B.C. shows the native goddess taking on characteristics of the Greek Aphrodite. In a break with the Egyptian preference for totally shaving the body, this goddess has visible pubic hair.

  This European engraving from 1892 suggests the Victorian era's fascination with ancient Egypt and its liberated attitudes toward sexuality and nudity.
 
    The body proportions of this Isis-Aphrodite statue at left are highly realistic, and the pose more natural than in older, purely Egyptian artistic styles. It is a Hellenistic piece from the Ptolemy period, 2nd or 3rd Century B.C.
    In its frank and direct sexuality, it is similar to these photos of amateur models striking identical poses. Both models share the ancient goddess's long blonde hair.
    The young woman in the center more closely matches the native Egyptian preference for a clean-shaven pussy. The model on the right shares the statue's Greek-influenced preference for leaving the triangle of pubic hair intact.
    Either approach focuses our gaze on the genitals, which were an explicit object of worship for the pagan ancients of Egypt and Mesopotamia. We still consider them worthy of reverence.
    The naked models here are from abbywinters.com, which shares that reverence for the joy and thrill of female sexuality, openly and honestly displayed.
  This modern model, whose pose echoes these Hellenstic Isis-Aphrodite statues, is from abbywinters.com
Photo by abbywinters.com
  This modern model, whose pose echoes these Hellenstic Isis-Aphrodite statues, is from abbywinters.com
Photo by abbywinters.com
  Next:
Aphrodite, Venus and the Greco-Roman sex-goddess tradition
Go to Pagans Part 3

Previous:
Baubo and Sheila: female exhibitionism in legend and stone
Go to Pagans Part 1

Coming soon:
Nymphs and the Graces: naked female mythological characters



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