Fertility Symbols

Fertility symbols hold an age-old fascination for us. A brief account of fertility symbols from different places and cultures.

For as long as human history has existed, fertility symbols have been revered. Long before we knew how babies were made, how crops grew, we knew that our existence depended on the renewal of fertility.

The Venus of Willendorf is a famous example of a Paleolithic fertility symbol, a squat little figurine of a woman with what we would now call 'child-bearing hips'. It is currently believed that she was used as an amulet for some woman, presumably in connection with fertility or childbirth. Red ochre was found on the figurine and this has been used in various cultures to symbolize blood, either as menstrual blood or as a symbol of life. Ancient Mesopotamians are also believed to have made fertility charms out of clay dolls, smeared with actual menstrual blood.

Animals and plants have always been popular fertility symbols, part of the natural world close to primitive civilizations. Many of these traditions exist even today. In India, for instance, much of the symbolism at wedding ceremonies dates back many centuries. Terracotta elephants are used as offerings for weddings in rural India, as elephants were long associated with rain. Rain, of course, brought fertility in the fields. Parrots and peacocks have also long been associated with fertility in India. The peacock dances when the rains come, to attract a mate, so it is quite easy to see where an association with fertility would have arisen. Plant symbolism in Indian tradition includes the mango and the lotus flower. Mangos, and mango leaves, have long been used in various parts of India to symbolize fertility and/or good fortune. The typical shapes in Paisley patterns are based on the shape of the mango. The symbolism of the lotus blossom can be traced back to the legend that Brahma, the creator of the world, sat on a lotus blossom while dreaming the universe into being.

The Ancient Egyptians revered cats, which were often mummified and buried with their loving owners. Cats are VERY fertile, as anyone who has had to deal with unwanted kittens will testify. Cats are also inscrutable, which probably increased their mystery and further inclined the Ancients to worship them.

The Ancient Egyptians also regarded frogs as fertility symbols. As in India, Egyptian civilization was heavily dependent on seasonal inundations, and frogs were associated with water and fertility. Every year when the Nile flooded, frogs appeared in large numbers, and lived on after the waters went down, enjoying the boggy conditions left by the receding river. Frogs usually appeared on representations of the Water Goddess and the Midwife Goddess.

Frogs were also worshipped in the Americas. In many areas in ancient times the patron goddess of fertility and childbirth was a frog or a toad. Again they were associated with the rains. One Peruvian tribe placed statuettes of frogs on hilltops to call down the rain. To the early Aztecs the great mother goddess was a toad. In representations she often appears in a squatting position, giving birth to the world.

Early Christianity was often forced to adopt or adapt pre-Christian symbolism in order to keep their converts coming to church. The arrival of Christianity certainly did not see the end of fertility symbols. Votive gifts were often brought to church up to and including the modern period, and many of these are fertility-related. I have seen film footage of European churches adorned with modern-day wax figures of babies (to pray for or thank for safe delivery) or parts of the human body (to pray for successful treatment of various disorders, the body part corresponding to the disorder).

Westerners are familiar with the Easter story, of course, but much of the symbolism of current-day Easter celebrations is not Christian in origin. The Easter bunny, the gifts of chocolate eggs, are echoes of primitive rites of spring. The name Easter comes from 'Oestre', the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility. 'Easter', as in the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, was celebrated as Passover in very early Christian times as it had been celebrated for many centuries before. Passover is celebrated in the springtime.

As pagan rituals had always occurred during springtime, for the obvious reasons of wishing to celebrate rebirth and fertility, it seems inevitable that these would have collided with the Christian church. Gradually the celebration of Passover and the pagan rituals melded together, and over time turned into what is now celebrated as Easter. The Venerable Bede, in 8th century Britain, refers to the Easter festival and states that the name comes from Oestre.

And what of the Easter Bunny? Rabbits are prodigiously fertile, and unsurprisingly have often been regarded as fertility symbols. Eggs are another obvious sign of fertility, and brightly-colored eggs have been exchanged as spring gifts in a wide range of pagan cultures, including Celtic Britain. Oestre was supposed to have been approached by a gigantic bird that wanted to be a rabbit, and when she turned him into one, in his gratitude he laid eggs each spring as a ritual offering. Hence the Easter Bunny.

It makes perfect sense that animals and plants have become fertility symbols over the centuries. And we still use them. Not only do we eat and exchange Easter eggs, but also we throw rice (or the more abstract confetti) at weddings to shower the married couple with luck and fertility. Fertility symbols are everywhere, deeply seated in our culture.

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