Visiting divine prostitutes

One spring, a century before, Lucian of Samosata saw …

But I did see in Byblos a great temple of Aphrodite of Byblos, in which they perform ceremonies in honor of Adon … 

Adon, Aphrodite’s lover, was killed in their land …

and in memory of that misfortune every year they beat their breasts and mourn and perform the ceremonies, making solemn lamentations throughout the country. And when the breast-beating and weeping is at end, first they make offerings to Adon as if to a dead person; and then, on the next day, they proclaim that he is alive and fetch him forth into the air …

A bloodied river told them when to celebrate …

And in the land of Byblos is another marvel, a river flowing out of Mount Lebanon into the sea, which is called the Adon. Every year it becomes blood-red, losing its natural hue, and when it flows into the sea, it reddens a large part of it; and this is a signal for mourning to the inhabitants of Byblos.

For they say that on those days, Adon is being wounded up on Mt. Lebanon, and his blood as it comes into the water alters the river and gives the stream his name …

At the top of the river was an ancient sanctuary …

Then I went up onto the Lebanon from Byblos, one day’s journey, because I learned that an ancient sanctuary of Aphrodite which Cinyras founded was there; and I saw the temple and it is an ancient one.

Constantine saw the same sanctuary from afar …

while residing in the imperial palace of his own fair city, discover as from a watch-tower a hidden and fatal snare of souls in the province of Phoenicia. This was a grove and temple, not situated in the midst of any city, nor in any public place, as for splendor of effect is generally the case, but apart from the beaten and frequented road, at Aphaca, on part of the summit of Mount Lebanon, and dedicated to the foul demon known by the name of Venus.

and destroyed it …

in obedience to the imperial command, these engines of an impure superstition were immediately abolished, and the hand of military force was made instrumental in purging the place.

Constantine does seem to have destroyed some temples, those associated with the persecution of his Christians. But why demolish this sanctuary? It played no role in their suffering. Its isolation presented no obvious challenge. Eusebius says it was demolished because …

unlawful commerce of women and adulterous intercourse, with other horrible and infamous practices, were perpetrated in this temple as in a place beyond the scope and restraint of law.

It wasn’t the main sanctuary of the goddess in the area. From Lucian’s account, that was the temple in Byblos itself, presumably positioned for splendor of effect. And there, very publicly, mourners shave their heads and all women who will not let themselves be shaved pay this penalty: that for a single day they proffer themselves for sale of their beauty; but the market is open only to all foreigners, and the payment becomes an offering to Aphrodite. Kinda unlawful commerce of women and far from the only one.

Perhaps one line of the Church Historian accounts for his emperor’s choice …

These proceedings, however, could not escape the vigilance of our august emperor, who, having himself inspected them with characteristic forethought

So the august emperor was once a votary of the goddess, once climbed her mountain top, just to see what should be removed in the distant future. What foresight!

And the sanctuary hasn’t been totally forgotten and thanks to Lucian, the temple in Byblos gets an odd mention too.

Leave a Reply