reproduction myths

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reproduction myths provide many alternative accounts of procreation and birth in classical mythology. By challenging the need for contact between the two sexes, Greek myths of the fifth and fourth centuries bc express unease about the need for women as a means to continue the human race. While medical texts of the fourth century bc debated whether men simply planted their seed in the field which was the female body, or whether women too contributed seed to the formation of an embryo, myth presented many far more imaginative variations on reproduction. The goddess Hera, angry at the repeated infidelities of her husband Zeus, conceived Hephaistos, the god of fire and metallurgy, not by being impregnated, but by eating lettuce: Zeus ate Metis (whose name means ‘cunning intelligence’), so that the daughter she was carrying, Athena, was born fully-grown from the head of her father, thus being as free from female influence as possible. Hephaistos, the child of an all-female conception, was the only ‘midwife’ at this all-male reproductive event, by opening Zeus' head with his axe. Athena later rejected marriage for herself, remaining a virgin forever, and was represented in male armour. The nearest Athena came to motherhood was when Hephaistos tried to rape her. Because he was lame, he was unable to catch her, but instead ejaculated on her leg. Athena wiped off his semen, which fell on mother Earth who, in due course, produced a son, Erichthonios — thought to be the first king of Athens. Dionysos was born from his father's thigh. Greek mythology seems particularly concerned to deny the female. In the otherwise similar central African myth of Lianja, it is from his mother's thigh that the fully-grown and armed culture-hero emerges.

In the account of creation in Genesis, the first woman — Eve — is created from the rib of the first man, Adam. Graeco-Roman creation myths include the moulding of the first woman, Pandora, from earth and water by the gods, with each giving her a different gift. Hephaistos, whose attendance at abnormal births seems to be almost de rigueur, does the initial moulding of the raw materials. In the accounts of the creation of Pandora, the external appearance of the female body is seen as deceptive, with the adornments given to the first woman acting to conceal the reality within, in particular her possession of ‘the mind of a bitch’.

An alternative Greek myth involves a first man, Deucalion, with his wife, Pyrrha, repopulating the earth after a flood by throwing stones over their shoulders. Autochthony, the belief in ‘birth from the earth’ which occurs in the Erichthonios story, was also found in the mythology of ancient Thebes, where the population emerged from the earth after the teeth of a dragon were sown there. An East Indonesian myth claims that Timor emerged from the sea in two pieces; a huge vagina opened up in the earth, and the first people climbed out of it.

Helen King

See also creation myths; Greeks; metamorphosis; mythology and the body.