The creation of new life has always mystified and intrigued human beings. One source of this fascination is the cycle of fertility, which governs the existence of all living things. Indeed, the short period many species have to reproduce makes each fertile season extremely important. For people, finding ways to encourage fertility has been a goal for centuries. We now know that many factors affect human fertility, including age, nutrition, physical health, hormones, and genetics. Even with the advancement of medical technology in recent decades it is still difficult for some couples to conceive. It is easy to see why ancient societies would have put so much hope in magic and religion. Worship of gods and goddesses, festivals, and sacrifices have all been practiced in the hope of promoting life.
As vital to the survival of human civilization as the fertility of men and women is the fertility of crops. The time constraints of the reproductive cycle also impact agriculture. Because of the limits of seed growth, famines have killed millions of people throughout the centuries. Climate factors and disease also can destroy an entire season of crops. For example, the potato famine of Ireland in the 1840s not only killed many people but also caused mass emigration from that country. Ancient cultures learned quickly that the survival of the harvest was vital to the survival of the people.
Most cultures have had deities associated exclusively with the celebration of spring’s growth and the fall’s harvest. Before the advent of modern biological science, people could only guess at what helped to encourage life. The earliest farmers believed that their crops were inhabited by spirits that caused them to thrive or die. It was believed that the spirits were released when the plants were harvested. The harvesters began to perform rituals to thank the spirits for the crops that survived. This tradition continued and was practiced in most of the major civilizations throughout history.
In Egypt, Osiris was worshipped as the god of agriculture and was often depicted with a green face representing fertility. He was also the god of the dead, showing the Egyptian belief in the connectivity of life and the afterlife. The story of his death and resurrection was used as an analogy for the cycle of life. Every year the Nile flooded the plains and made the soil rich and fertile. During this time the Egyptian people had a festival celebrating the rebirth of Osiris and the opportunity for a new harvest to grow.
The Greek goddess Demeter was the patron of agriculture and fertility. She was believed to have taught humans how to tend the soil and raise crops. Thesmophoria was the festival held in her honor. It took place right before the harvest in hopes of achieving a bountiful return. These celebrations of life often included music, sports, and feasting. The goddess was known as Ceres in Roman times; her name translates to mean “grain mother.” Some believe that the term Mother Earth was created to describe this goddess.
Native North Americans celebrate the Green Corn Festival when the harvest is ready to be gathered. During the first few days people cleanse themselves and their homes to prepare to welcome the new crop. The festival lasts for many days and includes dancing, sports, and feasting. It is thought that the American tradition of Thanksgiving comes from colonists attending this celebration.
Every species’ primary goal is to thrive and reproduce. To accomplish this, human beings have created many rites and rituals. Pagan groups revered rabbits as symbols of fertility. Rabbits can produce several very large litters every year, and females are able to be impregnated with a second litter while still carrying a first. Early peoples were amazed and envious of rabbits’ extraordinary ability to procreate. The tradition of the Easter Bunny originated among early Christians in the incorporation of pagan spring traditions into the celebration of Easter, which occurred at the same time of the year.
The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known among the Romans as Venus, was worshipped as the personification of love, beauty, and sexuality. Her festival was the Aphrodisiac and was celebrated throughout Greece in the spring. During this time people ate and drank certain items that they believed would increase fertility. The term aphrodisiac is still used today to describe foods with these qualities. Some people believe Aphrodite’s connection with water is the reason that some seafood is considered as such. During the festival, orgies were encouraged and sexual intercourse with a priestess of the goddess was considered the highest form of worship. Hera was the goddess of marriage and motherhood and was also prayed to for help with fertility and reproduction. Her Roman counterpart was Juno.
In ancient Egypt, Min was the god of fertility and sexuality. He was worshipped as a god of the harvest but was primarily seen as bestowing sexual powers. Min is often depicted with an erect phallus. In Egypt, lettuce was believed to be an aphrodisiac and was eaten in the spring to promote reproduction. Bast, the goddess of fertility and childbirth, was represented as a woman with the head of a cat. In Egyptian society cats were believed to be divine and to have the power to give life. There were many festivals for Bast throughout the year. As with Aphrodite, some of the Egyptian fertility festivals included orgies.
In recent decades the human population has increased dramatically. Health care and food preservation technology have decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancy. Overpopulation has become more of a dilemma for the human species than the fear of extinction. Consequently, some people now use medicine and technology to shorten or even stop both male and female fertility cycles.
Jessica M. Masciello
See also Birthrates, Human; Egypt, Ancient; Life Cycle; Longevity; Mythology
Graves, R. (1955). The Greek myths: Complete edition. London: Penguin.
Wilkinson, R. H. (2003). The complete gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson.