fertility rites

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fertility rites The promotion of the generative powers of earth, water, and human, animal, and fish populations is a common concern of major religions and small-scale cults the world over. In this general sense Christian farmers praying for a bountiful harvest, Muslim prayer leaders seeking to hasten the rains, and ‘magicians’ of the Trobriand Islands, chanting harvest charms to enrich ‘the belly of the garden’, pursue similar objectives despite varied ritual styles. These types of performances have existed in human cultures for thousands of years. Palaeolithic societies of hunter-gatherers from the Pyrenees to the shores of the Black Sea fashioned figurines and cave images dedicated to feminine and masculine, human and animal powers of fertility. In the third and fourth millennia bce, small scale societies of farmers in forested Europe and on central Mediterranean islands, as well as the complex palace societies on Crete, active participants in maritime commercial networks, created order from ceremonies dedicated to deified powers of procreation and renewal. Further archaeological evidence from the Italian peninsula and Sicily in roughly the same period reveals the existence of elaborate fertility cults centred in caves. These employed symbols of a ceremonial hunt to promote the fertility of domestic animals, plants, and humans in everyday life, and linked to notions of an afterlife in another world, perhaps itself subterranean. In the Roman world, the festival of Saturnalia marked the death and propelled the rebirth of the sun, the seasons, the fertile powers of fields and bodies, and indeed the social order itself, as slaves and servants temporarily assumed positions of power in a festive season of controlled misrule. Many aspects of this festival were assimilated in Christian celebrations of Christmas, in particular the ritual disorder overseen by lords of misrule, and became a significant source of conflict after the Reformation. Yet on the Rogation days of the Easter cycle, down to the modern period, many Christian priests, Protestant and Catholic, led local processions around the boundaries of parishes praying for absolution of sins and for divine blessings on local fields and harvests — a variation of ancient festivals known as Terminalia, dedicated to the guardians of boundaries and fields.

Several important debates in the social sciences resulted from efforts to understand this historical interrelationship among religious systems. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a search for the origins of culture and social order led to the isolation of fertility cults and rituals as the most primitive human efforts to make sense of the world and the cosmos. The British anthropologist and folklorist ( Sir) James Frazer (1854–1941) interpreted early human societies as using fertility cults and their magical power in efforts to renew the generative powers of the natural world. Frazer labelled these systems ‘magic’ — as ‘nothing but a mistaken application of the very simplest and most elementary processes of the mind’ — and differentiated them from religion, which he saw as a later stage of cultural development. Frazer and many contemporaries viewed the notion of personal agents, characteristic of religion, as more complex than the ‘simple’ observations of magic: observations perceived as closer in principle if inferior in practice to the modern natural sciences. More recent scholars prefer to examine how the terms ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ have been used politically in the past to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate uses of claims to supernatural power. This approach has been especially fruitful in the study of European witchcraft, now seen in part as an assault on the ritual inheritance of the ancient past in the Christian culture of early modern Europe.

As applied to the human body, fertility rites tend to open the system to the influence of powerful external forces and to situate the reproductive and recuperative powers of the body in a hierarchic relation to the unseen forces of the cosmos that are understood to surround it and to influence its functions. Among the Kasena of northern Ghana, male elders present wives newly arrived in the family compound before the altar of the ancestors and sacrifice chickens in exchange for the power of the ancestors to give children. A similar use of ancestral power has been observed in Chinese patrilineages, despite a distinctive symbolism and ritual. In Cantonese funerals, daughters-in-law cover their abdomens in cloths of green — the color of spring, growth, and fertility — and rub their bodies against the coffins, exposing themselves to the pollution of death to attract the procreative power of the deceased. In this context, as in many others, the ends of fertility are interrelated with the rites of death. The Christian churches of early modern Europe sanctioned prayer as the primary means to marshal spiritual power for reproductive ends, although Catholic communicants were also encouraged to believe that their participation in the Eucharist could, among its other miraculous powers, ease a pregnancy or end barrenness. In addition, early modern Europeans could have recourse to a variety of unsanctioned or ‘magical’ techniques to promote or restrict fertility. A variety of plants, such as coriander, saffron, and satyrion, stimulated erection or — to use the terms of humoral physiology and cosmology that defined the potency of these remedies — supplied heat to cold semen and thus increased male virility; according to the same principles, a woman's powers of conception might be enhanced by drinking potions of powdered hare's womb, sparrow's brain, or wolf's penis, by wearing amulets of lodestone or quail's heart, or by walking in the shadow of a ‘lusty’ woman; on the other hand, if children were not desired, ligatures, amulets, and charms, such as the teeth or fingers of a dead child or the testicles of a weasel, might be used in sexual intercourse to inhibit procreation.

These substances harnessed the invisible forces of the cosmos in order to secure a desired outcome amid the myriad uncertainties and dangers of sexual relations. Knowledge of the principles and the use of the techniques of this process sometimes but not invariably belong to a class of specialists. Bronislaw Malinowski observed in the taytu gardens of the Trobriand Islands that the performance of fertility rites — if not the knowledge of their operations — belonged to an official class of ‘garden magicians’. In early modern Europe, by way of contrast, a rudimentary knowledge of ‘magical’ means to address issues of health and fertility ranked among conventional domestic arts, dominated though not monopolized by women. Particular neighbours might acquire reputations for superior skill in such arts and accumulate a local clientele — perhaps inspiring fears of witchcraft in the process — but this expertise did not amount to office.

Many forms of fertility rite use simple forms of association to build a complex metaphysics of generation. These associations have been classified as the two laws of sympathy: (i) the law of similarity ensures that ‘like acts on like’, ‘opposites act on opposites’. Accordingly, a ligature or knotted cord will produce impotence or inhibit procreation, and water will overwhelm dryness to produce rainfall; and (ii) the law of contact dictates that objects once joined share a special sympathetic relationship, even when separated. Consequently, the middle finger of an aborted child will retain a power to limit fertility, and the shadow of a ‘lusty’ woman will communicate her fertility to the barren. Recent scholars have used these ‘laws’, which modern science would reject, to explain why preindustrial societies experienced high fertility even though they practised sometimes elaborate forms of fertility control.

Dan Beaver


Ginzburg, C. (1966). The night battles, (trans. J. and and A. Tedeschi ). Penguin Books, New York.
Malinowski, B. (1935). Coral gardens and their magic, 2 vols. Allen and Unwin, London.
McLaren, A. (1984) Reproductive rituals: the perception of fertility in England from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century. Methuen, London, New York.

See also fertility; infertility; reproduction myths.

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