“Fertility” and the Regeneration of Life by Carol P. Christ


Prehistoric and indigenous religious traditions are often disparagingly mischaracterized as primitive fertility religions, concerned not with higher morality, but rather with the processes of reproduction of humans, animals, and plants. When these religions feature a Great Mother Goddess, it may be assumed that these religions are primarily focused on birthing human babies. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Indeed, archaeologist Marija Gimbutas discovered that in the symbol systems of Old Europe, the Goddess is only rarely imaged as pregnant or giving birth. Nor is She portrayed solely in human form. Rather, She is portrayed with a bird head, wings, and a plethora of other animal and plant features. If She is a Great Mother Goddess, She is revered as the Source of Life, not simply as a mother of human babies. Gimbutas states that in Old Europe the Goddess was worshiped in as a symbol of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. Gimbutas said these societies were matrilineal and probably matrilocal. Recent research into matrilineal and matrilocal egalitarian matriarchies provides insight into the values of prehistoric societies. The Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia are matrilineal and matrilocal, with family ties being traced through the mother line and land being held communally and in perpetuity by the maternal clan. Though the Minangkabau trace their ancestry through their mothers and grandmothers, it is important to note that, as Peggy Reeves Sanday discusses in Women at the Center, it is not birth or the ability to give birth that is celebrated as the highest value, but rather the nurturing of the weak and the vulnerable.

The Minangkabau understand that giving birth to babies is not sufficient to ensure the continuation of the clan. Babies must be taken care of by others or they will die. Thus, it is the care and concern of mothers for their children, characterized as love and generosity, that are understood to be the highest values. In the Minangkabau culture, both males and female are taught to emulate the values of mothers. There are no gender binaries and no gender specific personality types: to nurture life with love and generosity is the highest value for both sexes.

Nurturing life is not limited to the human sphere. The same love and generosity that is given to human babies must also be directed to weak and vulnerable domesticated plants and animals if the community as a whole is to survive and thrive. In the Minangkabau society, the maternal clan owns the land, and women are the primary nurturers of weak and vulnerable plants and animals. Yet men and boys are expected to embody the values of mothers: nurture, love, and generosity in all the roles they undertake, including caring for children. From this it is clear that the Minangkabau should not be characterized as following a primitive fertility religion, concerned only with simple the reproduction of life. Instead, it should be characterized as promoting a higher value: the nurturing of the weak and the vulnerable through love and generosity in order that life as a whole may continue.

In patriarchal cultures founded in relation to war and private property, nurturing the weak and the vulnerable is not considered to be the highest value. Nurturing the weak and the vulnerable is relegated to the realm of the female which is considered lesser than the male. In the male realm, the value of sacrifice, particularly self-sacrifice on the battlefield or through ascetic discipline is considered a higher value than nurturing of life. Immortality is promised as a reward for self-sacrifice. Holidays celebrating battles and the heroes of war and those celebrating saints are considered more important than mothers’ days.

It is high time to rethink the hierarchy of values we have inherited from patriarchal cultures, especially now when the continuation of life is threatened by war and global climate change. Perhaps we can recognize that nurturing the weak and the vulnerable really is the highest value—a value that can and should be practiced by all people, not just by women and girls. Nurturing the weak and the vulnerable is necessary if birth is to lead to life and death is to be followed by regeneration. To speak of fertility Goddesses is a mistake. The Goddess who is celebrated as the Source of Life has the power to give birth and to ensure that life will continue for the clan and for nature as a whole despite the deaths of individuals. The mother’s power to nurture life through love and generosity is understood to be a reflection of the power of the Source of Life.

After having been promised immortality or reincarnation by patriarchal religions, many of us are returning to religions that celebrate the powers of birth, death, and regeneration: the continuation of life, not for the individual, but for the generations that will follow. Blessed be!

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who lives in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.



Categories: Academics, Earth-based spirituality, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess

Tags: , , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Yes, yes, yes! Love and nurturing are precisely what are lacking in the patriarchal, death-dealing governments led by wannabe presidents-for-life all over the world. Exactly what are lacking in the U.S.’s current so-called government, which is made up primarily of rich white guys who don’t give a damn about anything but their wallets. Thanks for this post. It’s perfect for today.

    I hope every member of this FAR community and everyone who reads these posts votes to change at least the do-nothing (except spread the Covid) government as much as we can. I voted last week and deposited my ballot in the dropbox outside the Long Beach Senior Center. Let’s all vote for change and rebuilding.

    Bright blessings to us all. Hopefully we can bring some blessing back into the world. Carol, I hope you’re feeling better and healing. You’re obviously still thinking and writing. Hooray!

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  2. Another important and insightful post! Thank you! When the creation of new life is no longer commodified, it also becomes clear that taking care of people and other living beings who may be physically weak and vulnerable, including children, but also others, also provides for their contributions of other kinds for the common good of all. For example, I’ve always found that the perspective, life experience, and knowledge people in later years give to their communities far outweigh the financial cost of providing services. I think this is true of children, with their own kind of wisdom as well as hope for the future, and others needing special nurturing. Ensuring a diversity of strengths, as egalitarian matriarchies do, makes for much stronger societies.

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    • Carolyn, your comment reminds me of my Croning ceremony. I invited my immediate family and my closest friends. The central part of the ceremony was a discussion of wisdom, since I was declaring myself a “wise woman.” It was a fascinating conversation that touched on many types of wisdom, but especially the wisdom of youth/children and the wisdom of elders, as well as the importance of a diversity of viewpoints (i.e. a diversity of people) to really understand wisdom. Yes! I look forward to your talk with Karen Tate this coming Wednesday!

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      • Thank you so much for your thoughts! Just a note — I was looking forward to my conversation with Karen Tate, too! Voices of the Sacred Feminine is a wonderful podcast! But my talk has had to be canceled and will be rescheduled to a date yet to be determined. I just thought I’d mention that so you and others weren’t looking for it on Wednesday.

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  3. Your posts about egalitarian matriarchies stir memory and vision, longing and determination. Thank you. Blessed Be and Blessed Bees!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. (The Great Mother) “She is portrayed with a bird head, wings, and a plethora of other animal and plant features. If She is a Great Mother Goddess, She is revered as the Source of Life, not simply as a mother of human babies.”
    I remember being struck by this portrayal when I first discovered the goddess – she nurtures all living things – children were simply one aspect of the whole.
    This portayal liberates us from terminal motherhood and allows us as both women and men to put the focus on nurturing the weak and the vulnerable. This attitude is not only about sanity it is about survival.
    If there was ever a time to NOT have more children it is NOW.

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  5. I love this post, Carol. It reminds me of an argument I had with a former minister of mine in which I had difficulty understanding his point of view. Of course, it was exactly what you describe in your first paragraph, i.e. that prehistoric and indigenous religions are/were not about higher moral concerns, but only about nature. I think the fact that these religions include all of nature, not just humanity, is also part of the problem. Despite progress in realizing that nature is important to us, most Americans still see nature as something separate from humanity and less important than us. Deriving morality from nature seems antithetical to the “higher moral ground” of humanity. Add to that the fact that many of these religions are goddess-centered, and patriarchy can’t deal with them at all. That’s why they are seen as “fertility cults,” demeaning the religions by associating them with women and with a natural act that all animals perform.

    Hoping you are recovering well, I’m sending bright blessings your way.

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  6. Oh, Carol, how much I like this essay, especially the conclusion!

    “After having been promised immortality or reincarnation by patriarchal religions, many of us are returning to religions that celebrate the powers of birth, death, and regeneration: the continuation of life, not for the individual, but for the generations that will follow. Blessed be!”

    You have put into words what I feel in my heart.

    Blessed be.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post Carol, Love how you point out that babies need care, as do the environment we live in. And that our modern patriarchal religions focus on immortality and reincarnation – what a in contrast! Amen, amen, amen to your conclusion!

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  8. I muse:
    A legitimate goal of nurturing is to strengthen … make the weak strong. But how strength once achieved is used makes a difference. Too often patriarchy exclusively sees strength as the means to destroy. As a woman, I value the strength I possess that allows me to make independent choices … to create. The world needs strong women.

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  9. Amen, Carol! Indigenous focus on life and fertility instead of death and destruction. Thank you!

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