“The Oldest Profession in the World”: Prostitution or Gardening?

Former president of the United States Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) allegedly once said, “Someone once said that politics is the second-oldest profession. I’m beginning to think it bears resemblance to the first”, unfavorably comparing politicians to prostitutes.

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“Sorrow” by Vincent Van Gogh (1882), Van Gogh is reported to have encountered Sien Hoornik (the lady posing for this drawing) wandering the streets of The Hague with her five-year-old daughter Maria Wilhelmina in January 1882. She was destitute and pregnant, with addictions to alcohol and tobacco and reportedly working as a prostitute. 

Sex workers are rightly avoiding the term “prostitute” because of what we equate with it (dirty men, sadness, a woman selling her body, etc. Perhaps even its comparison with politicians?). It’s a word filled with a great deal of cultural baggage, and none of it good. Research after research have shown that our damaged view of the “prostitute” is far from real, but we persist in trying to define and classify this figure as such throughout history. Despite the old adage, prostitution is not “the oldest profession in the world”. Anthropologist George Peter Murdock of Yale University found that prostitution did not occur in many so-called primitive cultures, but the medicine man was universal. Mary Breckinridge, an American nurse midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, have suggested that midwifery is the oldest profession, “The midwife’s calling is so ancient that the medical and nursing professions, in even their earliest traditions, are parvenus beside it”. I often find myself getting mildly irritated when I hear prostitution being referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”. It is not. I would actually argue that the world’s oldest profession is gardening, but trying to work out what is the “oldest” profession is actually something of a wild goose chase as professions (and money) are recent inventions.

Homo sapiens have been roaming around the world for around 200,000 years, and the earliest evidence of coined money dates back to 640BC in Lydia, Asia Minor. Even the systems of bartering products, rather than currency, rely largely on the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops, and this dates back to about 9000 BC. This means that we managed to live quite happily without money for much of human history. Given that money is perhaps the most influential factor on how we live our lives these days, it is sobering to note that the only value that money really has is what we as a society collectively connect to it. At the end of the day, “money” is bits of paper and metal disks, which we have all agreed upon, are unique. We lived perfectly well without it before our ancestors decided that the gold rocks were nicer to look at than the other rocks.

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“Socrates finds his student Alcibiades at heterai” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 – 1902)

But let us ignore that for a bit and talk about gardening. The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia were already urban and literate around 3000 BC and the evidence for their gardens comes from written documents, pictorial sculpture and archaeology. The 7th century BC Assyrian King Assurbanipal (King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from the death of his father Esarhaddon in 668 BC to his own death in 631 BC) is seen on a sculpture featuring his wife, sitting on a couch beneath the vineyards, attended by musicians. Trophies of conquest are on view, including the dismembered head of King Elam hanging from a fragrant pine branch. The Babylonian text of the same time is divided into parts, as though it were showing soil beds with names of medicinal, vegetable and herbal plants written in each square.

At Mari on the Middle Euphrates (c. 1800 BC), one of the great courtyards of the palace is crossed by elevated walkways of baked brick; the king and his entourage will dine there. At Ugarit (c. 1400 BC), there was a stone water reservoir, not centrally positioned as in later Persian gardens, since the central feature was probably a tree. On a larger scale, royal hunting parks were set up to house the exotic animals and plants that the king had collected during his international campaigns. King Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1000 BC) mentions goats, oxen, asses, two-type deer, gazelle and ibex, proudly saying “I numbered them like flocks of sheep.”

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“Morning mood at the lake of Karnak” by Karl Wuttke (1849 – 1927). The sacred lake of the Karnak Temple was dug by Tuthmosis III (1473-1458 BC). It is lined with stone wall and has stairways descending into the water. The lake was used by the priests for ritual washing and ritual navigation.

The history of ancient Egyptian gardens, like all aspects of Egyptian life, relied on the Nile and the network of canals that drew water from it. Water was hoisted from the Nile in leather buckets and carried to the gardens on the shoulders, and later, starting about the 4th century BC, it was raised from the wells by hoists with counter-balancing weights. The early gardens consisted of planting beds divided into squares by earthen walls, so that the water could soak into the soil rather than be lost. The gardens belonged to the temples or to the residences. Secular gardens were situated near the river or canals and were primarily used for growing vegetables. Beginning in the New Kingdom, the gardens were connected to more spacious homes and were often surrounded by walls. Temple gardens were used to grow some vegetables for rituals, Palace Gardens first appeared in Egypt just before the Middle Kingdom (2035–1668). These gardens were very large in size and were arranged in geometric patterns. The ponds in the palace gardens were enormous and numerous. In the second millennium BC, King Snefer ‘s garden pond was wide enough for boats to be rowed by twenty oarsmen. The rulers of ancient Egypt, such as Queen Hatshepsut (1503–1482 BC) and Ramses III (1198–1166 BC), used pots to bring back to Egypt new kinds of trees and flowers found during their conquests in Libya, Syria and Cyrene.

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Pond in a garden. Fragment from the Tomb of Nebamun, 1400 BC

Ancient Indian gardens are listed in several ancient Hindu texts, including Rigveda (1500–1200 BC), Ramayana and Mahabharata. Buddhist accounts mention the bamboo grove that King Bimbisara gave to the Buddha. Digha Nikaya, a Buddhist text, also mentions Buddha living in the mango orchard of the Jivaka monastery, donated by the physician Jivaka. The inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BC) mention the establishment of botanical gardens for planting medicinal herbs, plants and trees. They had pools of water, grid patterns, and chattri pavilions.

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A border of trees, palms and herbaceous plants from a Roman garden in the 1st century AD. Coloured photographic reproduction of a wall painting, c. 1891.

Sumerian documents dating back to the c. 2400 BC is the first recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation. They describe the temple-brothel run by Sumerian priests in the town of Uruk. Now, if we want to be a little divisive, we should take holy prostitution into account. Sacred prostitution is a ritual consisting of paid intercourse conducted in the sense of religious worship, probably as a type of ritual of fertility or hieros gamos (“divine marriage”).The Old Near East was home to several shrines, temples or “houses of heaven” dedicated to various gods. The 5th-century BC historian Herodotus’ account and some other testimonies from the Hellenistic era and Late Antiquity indicate that ancient societies fostered the tradition of sacred sexual rites not only in Babylon and Cyprus, but in the Near East. Herodotus writes:

“The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta”. It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.”

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A visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria. Dated somewhere between 490 – 480 BC

So how did prostitution become the “oldest profession in the world”?

“The oldest profession in the world” did not start to acquire its association to prostitution until 1889. But, in fairness despite my preference to gardening, there are a lot of other professions that can legitimately claim to be the “oldest” profession such as farmers, horticulturalists, barbers, engineers, gardeners, the military, doctors, nurses, teachers, priests, and even lawyers.

Perhaps the earliest recorded claim to be the world’s oldest profession was made on behalf of tailors. The Song in Praise of the Merchant-Taylors from 1680, which was routinely performed at pageants at the Lord Mayor’s Show if the current mayor of London happened to belong to the tailors’ guild, began:

“Of all the professions that ever were nam’d,
The taylor’s, though slighted, is much to be fam’d’:
For various invention, and antiquity,
No trade with the tayler’s comparèd may be:”

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“Phyrne” by Francesco Barzaghi (1839-1892). Phyrne was (born c. 371 BC) was an ancient Greek courtesan (hetaira), from the fourth century BC. She is best known for her trial for impiety, where she was defended by the orator Hypereides.

After pointing out that Adam and Eve made garments for themselves, and were therefore tailors, it continued:

“Then judge if a tayler was not the first trade.
The oldest profession, and they are but raylers,
Who scoff and deride men that be merchant-taylers.”

(Again. To be fair, I should also note that by that logic Adam was put into the garden of Eden and given the task to tend to it and was therefore a gardener.)

The Irish poet Henry Brooke (1701–1783) declared that humbugging (i.e. scamming) was the oldest profession:

“Of all trades and arts in repute or possession,
Humbugging is held the most ancient profession.”

The phrase began to be associated with prostitution in the last decade of the nineteenth century following Rudyard Kipling’s short story about an Indian prostitute, On the City Wall (1889). Kipling writes: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”

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“Campaspe taking off her clothes in front of Apelles by order of Alexander”, by Auguste Ottin (1811-1890). Campaspe was a supposed mistress of Alexander the Great.

Perhaps due to our tendency to attribute the best qualities to men and believe in the worst qualities in women, this became the one association that sticks, apparently, because five years later, in a scathing article on the morals of the aristocracy in the mass circulation Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 July 1894, the reference was repeated:

“In ancient Rome, under the empire, ladies used to go to baths to meet a certain class of men, while men resorted thither to meet a certain class of ladies. The ladies belonged to what has been called “the oldest profession in the world”, a profession which is carried on in Piccadilly, Regent street, and other parts of London with great energy every night …”

In the same year the Pall Mall Gazette reported a speech in which “Mrs. Ormiston Chant … implored us to stand shoulder to shoulder and destroy what Kipling has called ‘the oldest profession in the world'”.