Throughout history, fertility symbols have provided a restorative and fruitful focus for would-be parents. On a personal journey, Catherine Blackledge uncovers their surprising secrets and the real stories behind them...
‘Please, please, please, please, please, let me have a healthy, happy baby,’ I whispered as I placed my final offering – a fig – at the feet of the gigantic fertility goddess. It was a glorious sun-baked day in early September 2008, I was 40 and still not pregnant.
I was meant to be recovering from another harrowing 12 months of miscarriages, failed IVF attempts and gynaecological operations, but when a friend had suggested Malta as a holiday destination all I could think was, ‘I can go to the famous fertility temples there and plead with whoever or whatever to let me become a mum.’
So now here I was in Tarxien, having already viewed the mother goddess figurines in the museum in Valletta and visited the ancient sites at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Ggantija, with their curved, womb-like chambers. These sacred structures are the oldest in the world – older than the pyramids and Stonehenge – and were built approaching 4,000 years ago to revere and promote female fecundity. I had to believe their potent prehistoric images could help me too.
Everything seems worth a try when you are failing to conceive and carry a baby to term. I always wore my silver necklace in the shape of the crescent moon – associated with fertility and motherhood; I was an advocate of acupuncture, reflexology and herbal remedies too.
In this context, embarking on a personal pilgrimage to feast my eyes on as many symbols of fertility as possible felt like a perfectly sane approach. That’s why seven months earlier, on a bitterly cold and snowy February day, when the sensible option would have been to get home as quickly as possible, I’d convinced my husband to take a cross-country detour so that I could gaze on my next sheela-na-gig.
Sheela-na-gigs are perhaps the most well known fertility icons in Europe. Crafted in stone by medieval sculptors, these startling female figures proudly revealing their chiselled genitalia adorn churches and castles across the UK, western France and northern Spain. Some squat, hunkering down on their haunches; others splay their legs or place them akimbo; a couple are in the form of mermaids. Many reach back or around, twisting to enable a better view between their legs; a handful even lift their feet up to their ears. What unites the hundreds of sculptures is their utter lack of shame in displaying their womanhood.
The sheela-na-gig I was visiting on this particular day is famous for having the most generous genitals of all her sisters. Gracing the wall of Oaksey Church in Wiltshire, she stands upright and gestures with her hands towards her astonishing oval-shaped vagina, which is depicted in an abstract manner reaching from groin to ankle.
These remarkable and explicit works of art on places of worship and power have been recognised as fertility symbols for hundreds of years. Those within reach have vulvas that have been rubbed smooth or worn away after centuries of being touched by hopeful hands.
But even eye contact is said to be enough to help: the tradition surrounding the sheela-na-gig on St Michael’s Church in Oxford requires that all brides look at the figure on the way to their wedding. I couldn’t touch the sheela-na-gig on Oaksey Church, so I simply gazed on her and asked her for assistance.
The fear the threat of infertility evokes is universal. In response, every civilisation throughout history has fashioned symbols of fertility in a bid to ensure the life of future generations. Many, like the Maltese goddesses, focus on the voluptuous naked female form.
The oldest are the Stone Age Venus figurines. Some are palm-sized and appear designed to be handled and carried, while other Venuses are larger and carved into rock faces; so far over 200 have been found across Europe and as far east as Siberia. The most famous is the Venus of Willendorf, an exquisite 11cm high limestone figure who flaunts her fecund curves of breast, buttock and belly and a very realistic vagina.
Indeed, the prize for the most prolific symbol of fertility and womanhood goes to the vagina itself, or yoni (the Sanskrit word for female genitalia). The site and source from which all humanity springs is the primal fertility icon, symbolising the power of creation, of hope for the future, the origin of the world and the font of all new life.
The imagery appears to be common across cultures. In Bolivia, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador and America, stone carvings of female genitalia are associated with fertility rituals; in California it was the custom until the last century for Native American women to visit yoni stones when they needed help in conceiving.
Naturally occurring rock formations reminiscent of female genitalia are honoured too. In Japan, the genital rock forms in Kyushu are believed to bestow good luck on all in their vicinity. In Thailand, on the island of Koh Samui, two vulva-shaped rocks in the cliffs are places of prayer and pilgrimage; the best known is called Hin Yaay, the Grandmother Stone.
Many believe in the power of yoni magic. Amulets inscribed with vaginal imagery – typically two concentric ovals, or a downwards pointing triangle (the Indian symbol for the yoni) – have been used around the world in a bid to confer fertility on their owner. For anyone wishing to explore the potency of the vagina as a symbol of fertility today, the Polish artist Iwona Demko creates contemporary yoni jewellery, handbags, candles, soaps and more.
It’s not just the human body though that has proved inspirational as a symbol of fertility. Animals and plants, including figs, seed-filled pomegranates and the almond have too.
It’s thought almonds enjoy this status because of how they look. The almond-shaped oval or mandorla echoes the shape of the vagina, and indeed almonds are said to have sprung from the vagina of Cybele, the goddess of nature and mother of all living things. That’s why almonds were traditionally thrown at weddings, or coated in sugar and given as a gift to the bride and groom’s guests. We may throw confetti now, but the name itself, which derives from the Italian for small sweets, is rooted in the older custom of throwing almonds to ensure a fertile marriage.
Shells, in particular cowrie shells, are also an age-old fertility symbol because their contoured underside resembles the folds and curves of the opening of the vagina. Women in Roman Pompeii were said to wear them around their hips to increase fertility; and in ancient Egypt, cowrie shells decorated sarcophagi in a bid to promote rebirth.
However, it is the mad March hare, seen leaping and bounding as the seasons change to spring, which is the most joyful of all humankind’s fertility symbols. For centuries, wonderful stories have been passed down about the hare’s links with fecundity. The hare was sacred to the pagan fertility goddess, Eostre, whose name lives on in the Christian feast of Easter and the term oestrus.
It was the hare that laid Easter eggs, children used to be told, and it was the hare’s exuberant, thumping dance that helped the earth grow again after winter. This connection with Eostre and Easter is why today hares pop up on Easter eggs and cards and atop spring bonnets.
Until a few years ago, the hare’s status as an icon of fertility was thought to stem from these connections with Eostre and its life-renewing dance. But in 2010, scientists discovered another reason for its fecund image – the European brown hare can get pregnant while it is already pregnant.
Superconception or superfoetation, as it is called, is very rare, but hares can do it. While days away from giving birth to her brood of leverets, the expectant hare mother can conceive again.
The resulting second batch of embryo hares simply wait in her oviduct until their older siblings are born, and then move into her newly vacated uterus to complete their gestation. The hare’s fertile reputation is a valid one and, curiously, it looks like our ancestors knew of the hare’s abilities long before modern science did.
I saw my first wild hare with my husband early one morning in August 2009. Sadly, by then, I was 41 and still not pregnant. As we saw the hare we were minutes away from arriving at a new fertility clinic to try a novel type of IVF in a last, forlorn hope that this would be the time that it worked for us.
When I saw the hare I knew immediately it was going to work. This was the omen I’d been looking for. I was right. The day I saw the hare, one of the embryos placed back inside me took root and began to grow, healthily and happily. Nine months later I cradled our daughter in my arms.
I am one of the lucky ones; I will never forget that. My odyssey exploring fertility symbols is finally over. But I do still wear my silver crescent moon, and the hare will always have a special resonance for me.