Fertility and Vegetation Cults

views updated


The descriptive formulation of the subject makes a definition rather superfluous: vegetation and fertility cults are simply the rites concerned with the origin, growth, decay, death, and regeneration of created life. There is no essential difference between vegetation cults and fertility cults; the former are the specific form of the latter in the cultural (and agricultural) environment of planters and peasants.

Universality and Importance. In the history of religions these cults have an enormous importance because of their geographic universality, as well as because of their impact on the totality of religious life within the individual cultures. Although they are eminently typical of the cultures of early planters and later agricultural civilizations, they are not absent from other economic systems. The ceremonies by which hunters try to secure an abundant supply of game belong to a realm of religious experience identical with that of the sowing ceremonies in agriculture. Through their impact on the totality of religious life, for the fecundity of nature (plants, animals) is but an epiphany of the sacred power of life present in everything existing, they constitute a microcosmic participation in the life of the cosmos, ceaselessly regenerating itself.

Since religion is intimately connected with the existential situation of man in the cosmos, the central place of fertility and vegetation cults ought not to cause surprise, for they deal with the mystery of life itself: mortality and regeneration, the solidarity between all levels of existence, the necessity to kill in order to live or preserve life, etc. The cultures and civilizations of agrarian societies are really permeated with this sort of Weltanschauung that has been called "cosmobiology": the same divine rhythm that governs the universe governs and determines also human life, thus bringing it into harmony with reality through integrating it into the unity of existence. This rhythm, forcefully present to man in the constant renewal of vegetation, the process of birth and rebirth in nature, the cycle of human fertility, is connected spontaneously with the great cosmic hierophanies, each one of them commanding its own rites.

The Role of the Sky and Sky Gods. There is evidence that in most archaic cultures the sky was the great hierophany of fertility as well as of creation. This is still clear in the mythology of the Indo-Mediterranean religions, where the sky gods are somehow identified with bulls (with the earth as a cow) or with other animals that personify the male power of fecundation, such as the stallion, the ram, or the boar. Dyaus was known as suretah (good seed), and Zeus was the one who sent rain and assured the fertility of the fields. From the hierogamic union of the couple Sky-Earth, Dhyāvaprthivi, all life came forth. The earth, of course, is the Great Mother, the foundation of the universe. All things come from and return to the Tellus Mater. One of the most striking fertility cults will, therefore, be the ritual reenactment of this hierogamy, which may be consummated in the temple by the king or the priest acting as representatives of the god, and by the queen, the priest's wife, or a maiden who then sometimes remains in the enclosure of the sanctuary to continue her fertility function in sacred prostitution.

It is well known that sky gods, even when they remain as supreme beings in the religious consciousness of believers, have a tendency to become remote gods, dei otiosi. They are replaced in cult by more dynamic religious forces that represent or dispense fertility, exuberance of life, and vitality. The most important of such forces is the storm god. He is not "supreme," he does not represent the creation of the cosmos, he may even be second to the Great Goddess, being merely her spouse; but he is the Great Male, the Fecundator, the Bull, characterized by an often orgiastic and bloody cult. The rain is his sowing, and his hierophany is the ceaseless energy of biological renewal. Such are, e.g., Indra (the Sahasramuska, "the one with a thousand testicles"), Teshup and his Hittite counterpart, Enlil, Bel, and others. Similarly, the hierophany of the earth, originally cosmic, became chthonian with the appearance of agriculture. And just as the Sky God was replaced in the cult by the Fecundator-Storm God, so the Earth Mother was replaced by the Great Goddess of vegetation and harvesting (Corn Mother, etc.). Often the Storm God, the Goddess of Fertility, and their son, the God of Vegetation (the famous dying and rising, or vanishing and reappearing god), form a sort of triad in the fertility cults of agricultural societies.

These gods and goddesses of fertility are typically ambivalent, especially the Storm God: their power can be destroying as well as fecundating. Kālī, "the gentle and benevolent one," is represented as covered with blood and wearing a necklace of human skulls. This ambivalent character may to some extent explain also the ambivalent character of their cults, in which cruelty and serenity are frequently found together, although other factorsto be noted belowwere more decisive. The Earth has the capacity of giving birth unceasingly to whatever is entrusted to her, however lifeless and sterile it may be. This concept has given origin to such rites as the humi positio in childbirth, burial in the position of an embryo, burying alive as a sacrifice, etc. There is, in agricultural societies, an obvious solidarity between the fertility of the land and the fertility of woman that commands a striking homology between woman and plowland, as between phallus and plow, and between semen and rain (or seed).

The Role of the Moon, Water, and Stones. Another important hierophany in the realm of vegetation and fertility cults is the moon. Subject to the universal law of becoming, birth, growth, decline, and death, the moon governs the rhythm of life, the cycles of fertility. She is a symbol of immortality, because her death is never final. The moon gives fertility, also, because she governs the fertilizing powers of the seas and the rains. A large number of fertility gods and goddesses have a lunar character. The moon and her animal epiphanies (snake, snail, bear, dog, frog) play an important role in fertility cults. The phallic cult, e.g., is frequently connected with the moon or the snake, or with both.

Water is the great symbol of potentiality, the universal Mother, the source of everything existing, of all life and growth. Immersion rites effect a return to this state of potentiality, a reintegration into preexistence, in order to increase the potential of life that brings about a total regeneration in a new birth.

Stones, such as cromlechs and menhirs, may have the power to fertilize a sterile woman. Hence the practice of sexual intercourse in front of stones.

The Role of Plants and Trees. Plant hierophanies are very often connected with the idea of a mystical relationship between mankind and vegetation: dead heroes are changed into plants, the human race originates from a vegetable species, there is a hidden herb of immortality, etc. The tree is a most important hierophany of the living cosmos in its endless process of renewal and regeneration. The ritual importance of the cosmic tree, the axis mundi, the tree of life, is well known. Vegetation gods are frequently represented as trees. In India and Africa sap-filled trees are theophanies of divine motherhood. They are sought by women who want to become fertile and by the spirits of the dead who want to be reborn. Other rites commanded by this hierophany are: birth at the foot of a tree, placing in or going through the hollow of a tree as a cure for illness, the "marriage of trees" in order to procure fertility for a sterile woman, the ceremonial planting or burning of trees, the Maypole ceremonies, etc.

The root crop cultivators developed the central mythic theme of what has been called, since Jensen, the dema, a mythical divine or semidivine being, ritually slain, from whose dismembered body the first plants originated. Human, andsometimes by way of substitutionanimal sacrifices, in which the victim may be cut to pieces, reenact this primeval mythical event. Head hunting, cannibalism, and other bloody rites are based in this general ideology.

Ancestors and Fertility Cults. The homology between the seeds and the dead, both buried in the womb of Mother Earth, is basic for the connection of ancestors with vegetation and fertility. Chthonian fertility divinities easily absorb fertility rites, even to the point of turning them into sacrifices to ancestors. The mystery religions are based on this homology and solidarity between the dead and vegetation: redemption through rebirth follows death and disintegration in a larval mode of existence. But all vegetation cults are based on a conscious or unconscious idea that man is regenerated by sharing in the resurrection of vegetal forms of life or, at least, attains a "created" immortality, which is not an individual one but rather the endless continuance of his species.

Major Role of Fertility Cults in Agricultural Civilizations. Fertility and vegetation cults found their highest development in the religions of agricultural civilizations. One would be justified in saying that agriculture, farm labor itself, is the fertility cult par excellence. It deals with the holiness of life and actively intervenes in its process, unleashing the holy power of vegetation hidden in the womb of Mother Earth. Sowing, tilling the soil, harvesting, reaping the first or the last sheaf are therefore surrounded with rites. Some of them have a marked propitiatory nature, connected with the anxiety not to exhaust the life of nature by taking its fruits, or with the idea that the sacred forces dwelling in the vegetable world must be reconciled with the destructive human interference by the offering of the first fruits, etc. Some are intended to assist the growth of the plants and hallow the work of the farmer, such as ceremonial nakedness, seminal or phallic symbolism, and similar phenomena.

The application of human sexuality to vegetation is typical: the ritual mating of a couple, reenacting the cosmic hierogamy on plowed land, usually in the spring, in order to stimulate the creative forces of nature. Vice versa, human fertility may also be stimulated by the bio-cosmic energy present in plant life. The ritual of the hierogamy may be followed by a collective orgy that seems to have a double function: to reenact the creative union of the divine couple but also to reenter the primal, pregerminative state of chaos and dissolution from which new life will originate. Many rites are connected with the reappearance of vegetative life in the spring: the battle between winter and summer, the driving out or killing of winter, the bringing in of spring, surviving in carnival and May celebrations. They all somehow make the primeval act of generation present as the active force of periodical renewal. The basic conviction behind all these cults is that vegetation shares eminently in the creative force of life, ceaselessly manifesting itself in the regeneration of an endless variety of forms.

Bibliography: m. eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958); Images and Symbols, tr. p. mairet (New York 1961). j. g. frazer, The Golden Bough, 12 v. (3d ed. London 191115). w. liungman, Traditionswanderungen: Euphrat-Rhein, 2 v. (Helsinki 193738). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m. t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963). f. m. bergounioux and j. goetz, Les Religions des préhistoriques et des Primitifs (Paris 1958). j. j. meyer, Trilogie altindischer Mächte und Feste der Vegetation (Zurich 1937). a. dieterich, Mutter Erde (3d ed. Berlin 1925). w. schmidt, Das Mutterrecht (Fribourg 1955). c. hentze, Mythes et symboles lunaires (Antwerp 1932). La Lune, mythes et rites (Sources Orientales 5; Paris 1962).

[f. de graeve]

About this article

Fertility and Vegetation Cults

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article