The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Fruitful Earth: “The Fertility Cult”
Elements of Witchcraft
Anthropological discussions of witchcraft’s origins almost inevitably refer to witchcraft as deriving from ancient “fertility cults.” Little if any explanation is ever given as to exactly what constitutes a fertility cult, as if the meaning of the term should be self-evident. To a very large extent this is because old-school anthropologists—and society in general—were uncomfortable with explicit discussion of sexuality until recent decades (and not always even now).
The use of the word “cult” is the tip-off that we are outsiders looking in. Cult is a word used by outsiders to describe a phenomenon of which they are not part and toward which they bear either ambivalence or disapproval. “Cult” in modern usage carries a negative connotation: we have religion, strange other people have cults. At best, “fertility cult” has an archaic ring evoking Orientalist images of sacred prostitution. At worst, “cult” carries sinister overtones: people must be rescued from “cults,” deprogrammed from the brainwashing kind.
Those old-school anthropologists may have been looking with outsiders’ eyes but they weren’t completely off-base or wrong: witchcraft, from its primal roots to this year’s Halloween paraphernalia, demonstrates a profound preoccupation with fertility, even if it isn’t always blatant or easily recognized. So, in plain English, what is this fertility cult?
Now, first, stop rolling your eyes. Since the emergence of the women’s rights movement, terms like “fertility cult” and the traditional preoccupation with maternity have fallen into disrepute and for good reason. Over the centuries reverence for women’s reproductive abilities evolved into a trap with women only valued for potential fertility, like some prized chicken or cow.
Although obviously reproduction is crucial to survival as a species, it may not have been the literal output, the end-results, that were worshipped but instead a perception of women’s fertility power, a female equivalent of something similar to machismo, for which (significantly) no word or name now exists—with the exception perhaps of certain understandings of “witch.” Machismo, perceived as intense male virility, almost a hyper-masculinity, is a perceived power potentially projected by men regardless of whether they are engaged in sexual activity at that moment. The dynamic power, the capacity, is always there, regardless of whether it’s used.
Likewise, women may have been understood to radiate fertility-power, for lack of a better name, whether or not they were actively engaged in reproduction. This is based on the very ancient use of contraception and abortion in areas that especially venerated sexy fertility goddesses, as well as on the image of specific female spirits of fertility, like Artemis, who emphatically and deliberately lack children. The Artemisia family of plants, which are intimately identified with witchcraft, were gifts from Artemis to humans, hence their name. They were used in ancient times as menstrual regulators: historically they have been used for either encouraging or terminating pregnancy.
To understand the ancient obsession with fertility one has to appreciate just how hard life was once upon a time. We in the modern industrialized world are buffered from so much of life’s harshness. Human remains suggest that the average Paleolithic lifespan was only about 33 years. Death was a constant presence. Hunger, thirst, illness, the dangers of a harsh environment—remaining alive was not a passive act. Death, hunger, sterility must be consciously, vigilantly, consistently warded off.
The emphasis on fertility and rebirth that one sees in the most ancient human artwork and spiritual artifacts is an act of sheer defiance. It expresses the determination to survive, to bear children and see them survive, and to ecstatically celebrate and experience every possible moment of joy wrenched from potentially bitter experience: this is the birth of spirituality, religion, and witchcraft.
At its most primal and ancient, the fertility cult, for lack of anything better to call it, acknowledges that life is precious, sacred, potentially full of joy but all too often tenuous and fraught with danger. Earth is a wonderful place; there is no better place to be but life is short and continually threatened. Life and the forces that renew and regenerate it are sacred but must be constantly, carefully, enhanced, empowered, and preserved. To remain alive, to bring forth new life, one cannot be passive. Life emerges from a balancing act between male and female forces. The world can be divided into complementary energies. There are forces that bring forth life (yin/female), there are forces that stimulate that process (yang/male). There are forces that generate fertility, understood as abundance of all kinds, as well as those that serve as obstacles and challenges.
When these forces are harmoniously balanced, life is preserved and continues to be generated. Times are good and living is comparatively easy. Earth, left alone, possesses her own balancing act but if one, whether individual or community, possesses a personal agenda with specific desired results, whether personal fertility, animal husbandry, hunting or agriculture, then the balancing act becomes more precarious. Those scales must be tipped in your favor.
The Chinese yin-yang pictogram provides a visual depiction for this philosophy. Black yin and white yang are nestled beside each other; each contains a spark of the other’s essence. They are not mutually exclusive forces but require each other to exist. They do not war with each other. Their opposition may be understood as the opposing force that permits a vaulted ceiling to exist. Each needs the other: there is no perception of black without white, no perception of cold without knowledge of heat. Disharmony arises when there is imbalance between forces, when one side threatens to overwhelm the other.
Earth’s complementary energies may be divided into affinities or affiliations. Thus women are affiliated with darkness, the moon, water, and certain kinds of magic powers. All are connected and share an essence:
If the moon’s phases are consistent and reliable, all is well.
If a woman’s phases are consistent and reliable, all is well
If a woman’s phases are inconsistent or unreliable, they can be realigned by strengthening her affinity with the moon, the tides, and other lunar forces
Women are sacred and powerful because they can give life, because their bodies reflect the lunar phases, because the emergence of womanhood and fertility is announced by the rhythmic shedding of magical blood (and in many tribal societies, just as in many offices or wherever women live closely together, menstruation becomes synchronized and frequently linked to a specific moon phase).
Women are sacred and powerful because they can magically provide nourishment from their own body in a god-like manner. Every woman thus is potentially a goddess; it is the image of the female divine brought down to life. Sparks of sacred life exist in every woman. It is no wonder that the most ancient depictions of divinity are modeled after females, whether human, animal, bird or fish.
So is this it? The fertility cult as a celebration of women? Yes and no.
Men are magic, too. It doesn’t matter how magical and god-like the female is, there’s no reproduction without men, as is clear from tales of the machinations that Amazons or other female-only societies go through in order to conceive. It couldn’t be clearer than in the ancient tale of Isis, Mistress of Magic, who has enough power to stop the sun in the sky but can’t conceive the child she is destined to bear without sexual intercourse. Isis can resurrect her dead husband long enough for a quickie, she can charm up a working gold penis because the original went missing during the resurrection process, but with all that power she is unable to conceive a child without sperm.
It doesn’t matter how fertile Earth is, if it doesn’t rain or if irrigation isn’t otherwise provided, there will be no harvest. No rain, no growth. No semen, no pregnancy. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand these simple facts.
Anthropologists debate as to whether the ancients understood the male role in reproduction. Although their understanding was certainly not as technical or analytical as the modern understanding of pregnancy and conception, based on a slew of ancient virile storm gods (Zeus, Baal, Thor, Chango) clearly some connection was made; some appreciation that men, too, are integral to conception.
Women bear but men activate, the process. Sometimes the deity manifests in the form of a dancing shamanic man (Dionysus, Shiva, Bes), while in other cases he is a primordial source of fertility, the personified irrepressible procreative urge (Ogun, Faunus, and countless horned male spirits).
Other connections were made as well. Symbols radiate power. Basic magical fertility theory involves manipulation of various powers to generate a constant, steady, healthy, beneficial flow of fertility, not just of human beings but all living interconnected beings. The ultimate symbol, sacred short-hand transcending language, is the union of human genitalia. Each depicted separately radiates a magical, protective force. Put together they magically generate life.
Images of the human genitalia rank among the oldest religious artifacts; some images still linger on the outskirts of modern religious symbolism. Often the genitals are divorced from the rest of the body and venerated independently, such as Himalayan lingams and yonis. Sometimes the whole package is left intact, as with ithyphallic statues of gods. (In plain English, this means statues depicting deities with erect, prominent, sometimes really big penises.) You don’t have to go back thousands of years; this imagery is recent too, as in the suppressed sacred genital imagery of traditional Japanese culture or that modern tourist souvenir, the Thai penis amulet.
Sometimes the imagery is more abstract, often geometric. Triangles are utilized to demonstrate the directions of genitals: upward for the male, downward for the female. The hexagram, the six-pointed Star of David, depicts their merger, the union of fire and water. The protective image of the triangle is ubiquitous in what belly-dancers call “tribal style.” You’ll see it on countless Oriental rugs and Middle Eastern amulets. It is also ubiquitous in the Western witch’s wardrobe: she is rarely shown without her peaked, triangular hat.
Representations of this sacred merger of male and female may be observed elsewhere:
The pestle in the mortar
The fire in the hearth
The stick in the broom
The broomstick between the legs
The sword in its scabbard
The foot in the shoe (think about the prominence of shoes in wedding rituals)
Other fertility motifs may be harder for the modern eye to catch, mainly because our industrialized landscape is so vastly different from those of our ancestors who, as the cliché goes, lived much closer to nature. The most prominent of these are cattle horns, which in form symbolically unite male and female generative forces. The phallic connection may seem obvious, but cattle horns are also potently linked to female generative power. Think of all those ancient cow goddesses: Hathor, Isis, Io. The very continent of Europe is named in honor of Europa who rode a bull across the sea and who is virtually always depicted holding onto one horn.
What ancient eyes were exposed to that we are missing, in addition to the ubiquitous presence of cattle, was the inside of the human body, viewed without any modern scientific context. When a body was opened up (whether because of murder, funeral or sacrificial procedure, Caesarian section, curiosity, or exploration), the resemblance of the female reproductive organs, from the ovaries, moving down the fallopian tubes into the vaginal canal, to a bull’s skull with horns was noted. The connection is very explicitly portrayed in relief on Çatal Hüyük shrine walls. Images of the parturient (birthing) goddess are placed above bulls’ skulls with enormous horns, or sometimes over just the horns alone. The female figure’s belly may be marked with a circle, emphasizing the promise that lies within. Luckily, that promise is easily, consistently, observed in the horns and so it isn’t necessary to look inside the body. Instead that promise, that symbol, may be observed on every sacred cow.
You can see those horns, that promise of generative power, in the sky too, depending upon the phase of the moon. The Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Isis are often depicted as beautiful, elegant, generous women wearing horned headdresses with a full moon held between the points. The horns within the female body are connected through essence and affinity with lunar horns in the sky, the cow’s horns on Earth and the horns of powerful female deities.
Horns on a male deity invariably indicate that he’s virile, sexually insatiable, always ready, willing and able, hot, horny. Horns on amulets, like those found amongst traditional Italian amulets, protect and generate male reproductive ability. They also ward off the Evil Eye, understood as the antithesis of fertility.
The image of the sacred cow is almost as universal as witchcraft. It’s found in ancient statuary and in cave paintings. The sacred cow survives in modern India but once upon a time it was also common in Egypt, Greece, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Middle East and throughout Africa, not to mention the traditional Native American veneration of the buffalo, a form of wild cattle. This veneration hides in the Bible too: not only in the obvious golden calf, believed to represent Hathor or her son, but also in Leah, the only innately fertile biblical matriarch, whose name may be translated as “wild cow.” Even today describing a woman as “cow-eyed,” like the goddess Hera, is still considered a great compliment in Greece, a testament to female beauty, although it doesn’t translate well into English.
It isn’t the cow or bull that is worshipped in such fertility cults—it’s the potential and promise that they so potently represent, symbolize, and epitomize that is viewed with such veneration. The fertility cult isn’t limited to awe for cattle either. Other animals were recognized as radiating profound fertility power too:
Those perceived as resembling human reproductive organs (hedgehogs, snakes, weasels)
Those perceived as being especially prolific (cats, rabbits, frogs, toads)
Those able to reproduce in the most challenging environments (snakes again, scorpions)
All of these animals will be encountered when we explore those animals most associated with witchcraft (see ANIMALS).
The basis of the “fertility cult” is that life is beautiful and precious. Earth is wonderful, sacred; there is no better place to be. Physical expression of life is sacred and worthy of regeneration and reproduction. The physical universe—Earth and her living waters, the moon, other animals, plants, spiritual entities, the very human body—all are linked in a holistic web. In the best of all possible worlds, all powers within this universe are in balance, with good health, the potential for new life as desired, happiness, and joy as the result.
It’s not all positive, however. What of those who are barren, who can’t or won’t conceive? What if your individual goals are different than those of the community? What if your vision for your future, for whatever reason, doesn’t involve reproduction? If involuntary infertility is linked to spiritual imbalance, what is the perceived impact of the individual on the community? The barren woman may be perceived as dangerous to the common good, particularly in societies where agriculture and individual fertility are intensely linked.
Because women are linked to the moon, to Earth, seeds, and growth, and because those affinities aren’t perceived as only traveling one-way, an inability or unwillingness to conceive is often understood as adversely affecting the harvest, and hence everyone’s ability to eat. A woman’s infertility may be contagious or emblematic of some kind of dangerous imbalance or spiritual violation.
The healer/shaman/witch who can remedy this situation, producing miracles, stimulating conception whether through herbalism, negotiation with the spirits or any other magical process is a valued, priceless member of society. She is also feared: if she can increase odds of pregnancy, she probably has the power to decrease or eliminate it too. Maybe someone’s infertility is her fault.
Of course, all of this postulates that fertility, sex, human bodies, existence on the Earthly plane is a good thing, and thus worthy and desirous of being reproduced. This, however, isn’t a view shared by all.