Imagery, Ritual, and Birth: Ontology Between the Sacred and the Secular 1498548733, 978-1498548731

Every human being is born and has gone through a process of birth. Yet the topic of birth remains deeply underrepresente

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Imagery, Ritual, and Birth: Ontology Between the Sacred and the Secular
 1498548733,  978-1498548731

Table of contents :
Cover......Page 1
Imagery, Ritual, and Birth......Page 2
Imagery, Ritual, and Birth: Ontology between the Sacred and the Secular......Page 4
Copyright page......Page 5
Contents......Page 6
List of Figures and Tables......Page 8
Foreword......Page 10
Acknowledgments......Page 12
Introduction: Birth Imagery and OntologicalTransformation......Page 14
Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities......Page 24
A Male-Oriented History of Ideas......Page 25
The Influence of Puritan Ideology......Page 34
Resistance to the Topic of Birth within Feminism and Women’s Studies......Page 37
Notes......Page 41
Social Ontology and a Definition of Religion......Page 46
Determining the Secular and the Nonreligious......Page 51
Social Ontology and a Sociology of the Sacred......Page 53
The Sheela-na-gig......Page 56
A. The Sheela-na-gig as Sacred Religious Object......Page 58
The Sheela-na-gig as Sacred-Profane Religious Object......Page 62
The Sheela-na-gig as Profane Religious Object......Page 65
Notes......Page 66
The Social Ontology of Birth......Page 70
Ontology and Social Ontology......Page 73
Diagramming the Construction of Social Ontology and Objects Used in Birth......Page 76
Visualized Mental Imagery and the Philosophy of Mind......Page 82
Notes......Page 88
The Secularization of Religious Objects During Birth......Page 92
The Sheela-na-gig......Page 93
South Asian Image of a Divine Figure Giving Birth......Page 95
Tlazolteotl......Page 98
Pachamama......Page 100
Secularization of the Madonna and Child......Page 103
Egyptian Goddess Imagery......Page 109
Notes......Page 111
Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage......Page 116
Notes......Page 141
Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth......Page 146
Notes......Page 165
New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth......Page 168
Birth and Mothering as Sites of Power and Healing for Women......Page 176
Notes......Page 192
Conclusion......Page 196
Bibliography......Page 200
Index......Page 214
About the Author......Page 218

Citation preview

Imagery, Ritual, and Birth

Imagery, Ritual, and Birth Ontology between the Sacred and the Secular

Anna M. Hennessey


Lanham • Boulder • New York • London

Published by Lexington Books An imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706 6 Tinworth Street, London SE11 5AL, United Kingdom Copyright © 2019 by The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data ISBN 978-1-4985-4873-1 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN 978-1-4985-4874-8 (electronic) ∞ ™ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992. Printed in the United States of America


List of Figures and Tables


Forewordix Acknowledgmentsxi Introduction: Birth Imagery and Ontological Transformation 1 Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities

xiii 1

2 Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig23 3 The Social Ontology of Birth


4 The Secularization of Religious Objects During Birth


5 Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


6 Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


7 New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


Conclusion: Transforming the Culture of Birth through Imagery


Bibliography177 Index191 About the Author



List of Figures and Tables

FIGURES Figure 0.1 Neijing tu (Diagram of Internal Pathways), Rubbing of Stele xvi Figure 1.1 The Crowning, Judy Chicago 7 Figure 1.2 Mother No. 58, Jonathan Waller 8 Figure 2.1 A Twelfth Century Sheela-na-gig, Kilpeck, England 34 Figure 3.1 Ontological Objectivity and the Sheela-na-gig 55 Figure 3.2 Ontological Subjectivity and the Sheela-na-gig 56 Figure 3.3 Epistemic Objectivity and the Sheela-na-gig 57 Figure 3.4 Epistemic Subjectivity and the Sheela-na-gig 57 Figure 3.5 The Social Ontology of the Sheela-na-gig 58 Figure 3.6 The Ontology of Visualized Mental Imagery 62 Figure 4.1 Wood Carving of a Divine Figure Giving Birth 73 Figure 4.2 Tlazolteotl Sculpture 75 Figure 4.3 Madonna and Child, Sara Star 85 Figure 4.4 Woman of Willendorf 87 Figure 5.1 Sheela-na-gig, Birth Necklace, Jenya Levin 102 Figure 5.2 Pachamama, Earth Mother Goddess Wooden Figurine, Shawna Hawk Rose 105 Figure 5.3 Venus of Willendorf, Replica of Ancient Figurine, Joanna Hajduk 106 Figure 5.4 Faith Based Birth, Pam England 112 Figure 5.5 Celestial Mother, Pam England 114 Figure 5.6 Journeys Intertwined, Amy Haderer 115 Figure 5.7 The Crowning, Sara Star 117 Figure 6.1 Tiara and Eve Marie, Kate Hansen 127 vii


List of Figures and Tables

Figure 6.2 Living in the Body; Milk and Honey, Amanda Greavette, 129 Figure 6.3 Pregnancy, Xiaohong Zhang 132 Figure 6.4 Detail from Xiaohong Zhang’s Pregnancy on the Cover of San Diego Reader 133 Figure 6.5 Pregnancy, Wenji Billow 134 Figure 6.6 Birthing the Old Way, Silas Kayakjuak 136 Figure 6.7 Reliquary with Mother Sow II, Amy Lyn Brand 138 Figure 6.8 Godbody, Arla Patch. 140 Figure 6.9 Incision, Jody Coughlin 141 Figure 7.1 Venus Envy, Heidi Taillefer 156 Figure 7.2 Heather and Daisy, Jessica D. Clements 157 Figure 7.3 Girl in Bamboo Earrings, Anoa Kanu 163 Figure 7.4 Freebirth of Amara, Damien Leggett 166 Figure 7.5 Maternal Bliss, Shauna Wiley-Naefke 168 TABLE Table 1.1 Academic Publication Term Search: Death, Birth, Childbirth 10

Foreword Robbie E. Davis-Floyd

Images and words have a profound impact on every aspect of human existence. In the case of artwork, we can all think of a painting, photograph, poem, song, dance, or other piece of art that has at some point in time deeply affected us, and possibly our understanding of our lifeworld. As social beings, we may also find that the meaning of that imagery shifts over time for us—especially in our ever-changing globalized and digitalized world, where images can quickly take on new meaning as their social and individual context varies. In this groundbreaking book, Anna Hennessey develops a philosophical framework to uncover how the meanings of this imagery change in a collective way, sometimes drastically, during the experience of contemporary childbirth. In particular, she explores a rich variety of art and other objects used during birth to shape birth into a consciously generated personal rite of passage via the rituals women create around these images. Thus, Hennessey looks closely at how the shared meaning (or social ontology) of certain images transforms and becomes sacred to the individual through the experiences of birth. The writing and images that fill the pages of this lovely book represent a gem of innovation, exposing how replete with sacred meaning can be the rituals of childbirth as they create a liminal mandorla space between the sacred and the secular. (If you overlap two circles, the oval space formed between them is called a “mandorla.”) As a medical anthropologist with many years of experience in the study of childbirth practices and rituals as they have occurred historically and crossculturally, I am immediately drawn to the lived experiences of birth and the vast and engaging cultural material that Hennessey covers. Having the opportunity to look at more than thirty images related to birth, some of which have never been written about before, is also a treat, and I suspect that even the reader uninterested in the topic of birth will be drawn to the book by the ix



images alone. The interdisciplinary breadth of the book is of a rare nature, as it contributes widely to the humanities and bridges a range of fields including religious studies, philosophy, secular studies, art history, women’s studies, gender studies, and anthropology. It also delves into neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology, providing a fascinating exploration into what happens to the brain during the visualization of objects used during labor and birth. Hennessey highlights the need for increased academic visibility and focus on childbirth, and her book provides ample material on the intellectual import of maternal subjectivity, an area commonly overlooked and lacking in philosophical and scholarly study. Right from the beginning, the reader is awakened to the interesting bias that exists in how scholars have historically marginalized the topic of birth, and how this marginalization becomes particularly salient when we compare scholarly output on birth to that on death. Why we are drawn to study death more than birth is a topic of interest in itself, and Hennessey provides deep thought on this matter while also leaving the door open to other explanations. Beyond its impact within the academic sphere, the book is a testament to how a scholar’s interaction with a wide variety of people within the public sphere, in this case as relates to childbirth (artists, writers, doulas, midwives, mothers, and parents), can be influential in the production of a philosophy. The result is a captivating philosophy of birth in which the scholarly, the public, and the artistic are intimately woven and interconnected.


I am grateful to the editorial staff at Lexington Books, and especially to Sarah Craig. When Sarah reached out to me about the topic in 2016, her initial interest in what I was working on motivated me to get this book published. I am also indebted to the philosophy department at the University of California, Berkeley, for including me as one of their visiting research scholars while I was writing the book. In particular, the comments, critiques, feedback, and encouragement I received from philosophers and scholars who attended UC Berkeley’s Social Ontology Group meetings over the past few years have been foundational to the theoretical backbone of the book. I especially thank American philosopher John Searle, as well as Jennifer Hudin, Bahar Araz, Anne-Marie (Nannick) Bonnel, Jeffrey Kaplan, Maria Khachaturyan, Beatrice Sasha Kobow, Parviz Shokat, Klaus Strelau, Marga Vega, and Paul Young, among others. Two of my most important mentors have been Sylvester Ogbechie and Richard Hecht, professors at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who have known me since I was a graduate student. Both encouraged my investigations into the interrelationship of birth, art, religion, and philosophy very early on. I have benefited from their continued support, advice, and reading of my work over the years. In a similar vein, Robbie Davis-Floyd has been of central intellectual inspiration, not only to the ideas on birth and ritual that I write about here, but more broadly on how birth is an important topic worthy of academic investigation. I am deeply grateful for her reading of and commenting on this book. Numerous other scholars have been instrumental in providing either feedback or avenues through which I have been able to present and publish my work on birth. They include Doreen Balabanoff, Purushottama Bilimoria, Rachel Epp Buller, Susan Crowther, Ronald Egan, Charles Garfield, Alison xi



Gopnik, Jenny Hall, Martina Hynan, Ludwig Janus, Robbie Kahn, Dacher Keltner, Jonathan Lee, Lois Lee, Mar Loren, Olga Louchakova-Schwartz, Jeannette Ng, Andrea O’Reilly, Florence Pasche Guignard, Carole Paul, William Powell, Arisika Razak, Kevin Schilbrack, Rob Swigart, Thomas Verny, Robert Williams, and Yang Xiao. Friends John Achterkirchen, Sarah Babcock, Joseph Bleckman, Scott Kirschenbaum, Russell Knight, Myoungsook Park, Melanie Robinson, Cassandra Sciortino, Roger Snell, Kaitlin Solimine, Bruce Viles, Hyon Yun and Ning Zhang also provided much support at various stages of the project. Sadly, Bruce Viles and Professor Robert Williams passed away before the book was complete. There have also been numerous people connected to the broader ­birth community who have had an impact on my understanding of birth as a rite of passage. These people are too many to list, but I should say that they include all of the artists mentioned in the book, as well as members of the doula and midwifery communities, including my doula, Stacy Hattori, and my midwives, Nancy Myrick and Ami Burnham. Finally, my children Kieran and Montserrat, simply in their coming into being and everyday existence by my side, have inspired me to write this book. The work is a product of my own maternal subjectivity and these children are a deeply woven part of that. Perhaps most importantly, my husband Toni Batchelli has not only partnered with me to raise our children but has also been a pillar of strength for me throughout the years. He has read and reflected tirelessly on my writing and scholarship and forever provides me with new insight and creative thought. It is with the deepest of gratitude that I dedicate this book to him.

Introduction Birth Imagery and Ontological Transformation

Birth and death are the only two monumental events in life shared by all human beings, regardless of race, sex, national origin, culture, or religion. Scholarly attention gravitates toward the latter, however, and the underrepresentation of birth as a topic of intellectual importance persists in the academic world. This marginalization becomes particularly salient when we compare academic research on birth to that on death. After first providing evidence that there is a prioritization of death over birth in the academic world, this book looks at one particular juncture of philosophy, religion, nonreligion, and material culture as they converge around the topic of childbirth. The point of convergence occurs during contemporary rituals of birth when the ontology of art and other objects about birth alternates between religious, secular, resacralized, and sacred dimensions. “Ontology” in this context refers to the “being” of the objects, but in their social sense (their social meaning or social ontology) as opposed to their metaphysical state of existence. In preparation for labor and birth, as well as during childbirth itself, participants in the rite of passage are in many social groups around the world using a diverse range of images to contemplate and transform pregnancy, labor, birth, and mothering. The book considers a wide variety of images, exploring collective understandings of how these objects are used and perceived of during birth. An agreement that childbirth is a sacred or spiritual act, often of a nonreligious or humanistic nature, permeates the contemporary rituals of birth. Much research has shown how religious objects and the rituals that surround them involve beliefs and practices related to a superhuman reality. Such objects are sacred in the Durkheimian sense of separation from the profane or mundane world. This book shows how the realm of the nonreligious is also rich with sacred rites and objects in the context of these contemporary birth rituals. xiii



Investigating how individuals and social groups from different locations are actively using religious, secular, and re-sacralized objects during birth, the book more specifically describes three stages of ontological transformation that the object undergoes during the rite of passage, as well as a separate fourth ontological category that encompasses contemporary art images of birth. In the first stage, the object is socially understood as a religious artifact. Examples include religious figurines and other items representative of pregnancy, crowning, or giving birth that have an historical or original meaning connected to religion. When used in the contemporary context of birth, however, the ontology of these items shifts and in a second stage, the object is understood as a secular and practical tool. During this stage, women utilize the objects for the practical purposes of visualizing pregnancy and the physiological transformations that the body will undergo during the process of birth. This secular usage of the object is encouraged in midwifery manuals and elsewhere. Next, evidence shows that participants in birth, men and women, often re-sacralize these same objects before, during, and after birth. The objects are found in homemade birth altars, for example, and some are recreated and sold on the marketplace, purchased as devotional items to remind those involved of the birth experience. The ontology of the object therefore shifts again to a third stage in which it goes through a process of re-sacralization, made sacred again primarily in its ritualistic function connected to birth. Contemporary artists are also creating brand new art about birth and mothering in which they represent these secular events as divine or sacred acts in themselves. In these cases, the art object is resident to a fourth ontological status devoted exclusively to the sacred, which is entirely removed from any original religious meaning or process of re-sacralization. Over the past two decades, scholars from a wide variety of fields, including anthropology, economics, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and social science have become increasingly interested in the topic of social ontology. Social ontology examines the nature of the social world, studying how people create meaning out of the various objects and processes that make up human social life. A particular piece of paper only has meaning as money, for example, because groups of people have come to collectively understand it as such. As philosopher Brian Epstein has explained, social ontology might more aptly be described as social metaphysics, a broader term that not only catalogues the objects of the world, but also considers the very foundation upon which the social world is constructed. For the purposes of this book, the term social ontology is employed to describe how groups of people ascribe meaning to objects used in the rituals of birth, particularly as that meaning is associated with religion, secularity, nonreligion, and the sacred.



The catalyst for the book rests in the way that images and visualization coalesced for me during the births of my two children, Kieran and Montserrat. I learned through those two life events the extent to which material objects and mental images of them can have an impact on physiological and phenomenological transformations of the body during birth. This initial interest in the connection between material representation, mental visualization, and transformation of the physical body in turn led to much curiosity about birth. Later on, I realized that there is a collective interest in using imagery, including religious imagery, during many rituals of birth in the contemporary world. Though deeply marginalized within the academic sphere, maternal subjectivity is rich with philosophical and intellectual import. This book is in part a product of my own maternal subjectivity and would not have come about had I not experienced birth, both on a physiological and a cognitive level. A kernel of the book’s thesis, and the beginning of my research path toward the work’s findings, are therefore manifest in an aspect of how my children were born. During the birth of my first child, Kieran, a religious image that I had been studying in a context entirely unrelated to birth became integral to the process of my labor. This image is a Chinese Daoist print called the Neijing tu, or the Diagram of Internal Pathways [FIG. 0.1]. The print depicts an imagination of an internal landscape, including mountains, rivers, and fields, all of which encompass a profile of the human body. The print derives from a stele in Beijing, historically used to help Daoist adepts in their processes of biocultivation. A large copy of the image was hanging from my wall when I was pregnant with Kieran in 2008. During that time, I was writing my dissertation on how both material representation and mental visualization of the human body had an impact on the ideological developments of medieval China. While pregnant, I looked at the Neijing tu image every day, and one of the chapters I wrote when about five months pregnant examined that particular image as well as other such Daoist body charts. Specifically, the chapter explored the possibility that Daoists from the past looked at representations from the external world such that these representations would influence their mental imagery of the objects and in turn lead to physiological transformation of their bodies. Kieran’s birth was arduous for many reasons. One week before I was due to give birth, medical staff advised me that I would be induced on my due date. There was no problem with the baby, but the common practice at that particular location was to induce women by the due date. Resisting induction, I went through all required tests to ensure the baby’s safety during those last weeks of pregnancy. Such resistance was not easy because there was great pressure to induce, and the days crept on until I finally went into labor almost two weeks past my due date. The most relevant part of my

Figure 0.1  Neijing tu (Diagram of Internal Pathways) Rubbing of Stele, White Cloud Abbey, Beijing, China. Source: Photograph, copyright 2017, Antoni Batchelli. All rights reserved.

xvi Introduction



son’s birth story to the discussion of this book, however, has to do with the actual birthing phase of him. During a crucial moment of my labor, I closed out the external world and entered what I can only describe now as a special, meditative, internal space devoted to the birth. It was within this space that the Daoist print from my dissertation came to mind. Appropriating the imagery of the Neijing tu, I imagined a large river flowing down a mountain through my own body. I visualized a baby riding its waters and emerging from the river’s mouth. Shortly after this process of internal visualization and meditation, Kieran emerged from my actual body and was born very healthy, a giant baby at almost ten pounds and twenty-three inches long. I was also in good health. The gravity of birth and the way it is treated in the hospital has since become an important issue to me, though this issue is not the focus of this book. The focus here is on the ontology of imagery in the rituals of birth. In my own case, the Chinese print used to visualize my son’s birth has become sacred to me. Its sacredness relates to the process of birth, however, and not specifically to the practice of Daoism. My study of images, the visualization of birth, and the sacralization of images used in birth as a rite of passage began as an offshoot of my own maternal subjectivity. Evidence that there is a collective interest in using imagery in similar visualizations of birth began to surface when I became pregnant again in 2010. At that time, I was researching positive images to use in preparation for the birth of my second child, Montserrat. Each week, I selected an object, birth video, or story and would meditate on its imagery, sometimes through writing. This project led to the creation of an online image archive (, which includes descriptions of how to use imagery and visualization when preparing for labor and birth. Montserrat was born in my kitchen in the wee hours of a night in May 2011. Compared to the arrival of my son, her birth could be described as a breeze. In the days, weeks, and months leading up to labor, I referenced a wide variety of images, looking at them and visualizing what was happening both to my body and to the baby so as to encourage birth. Two midwives, a doula, and my husband were part of a supportive social circle that encouraged my visualization practices leading up to the birth. All of the images used in preparation for and during Montserrat’s birth, some of which stem from religious tradition, are now sacred to me. And yet again, this sacredness is of a nonreligious and humanistic nature. The Visualizing Birth image archive contains approximately one hundred and fifty pages devoted to representations of pregnancy, birth, and mothering. Various intellectual threads have grown from the project, including research on the extent to which the mental content of perception is an object during visualization; research on the benefits of positive imagery to the physiological process of birth; collaboration with artists who are creating new images of



birth; and providing marginalized women with images and resources to use as they prepare for birth. The main topic of this book merges with some of these interests. However, it represents a different thread of its own. The website is connected to a data analytics program that easily tracks visitor location and other information. It also connects me directly to a wide variety of readers through blog responses and email. When looking at some of the data one day in 2012, I realized that people from around the world were accessing the site to use and appropriate objects, including religious objects or objects that stemmed from a religious tradition, in preparation for their own labors and births. My study of how religious objects are used in the contemporary rituals of birth grew from this realization that the objects were being utilized in a transnational and trans-religious way. The topic of cultural appropriation or “borrowing” is relevant to the issue of how people who are outsiders of a given religious tradition utilize the objects attached to that tradition for any purpose, including as part of birth and its rituals. Academic publication on cultural appropriation has grown over the years, though much work and study on the topic remains. While some scholars assert that cultural appropriation is morally objectionable, others believe that the act of reusing objects from one culture to another can be morally neutral or even beneficial. The purpose of this book is to describe elements of the contemporary rituals of birth, and in particular how objects undergo an ontological transformation that is of a social nature. Acknowledging the issue of cultural appropriation is important and the topic is raised in this book, though it is not the focus of the work. The ethical dimension of how religious images are reused in the case of birth, as well as in other instances related to personal health, is relevant and will be addressed to some extent here, though it is in need of much more exploration and research. The book’s first chapter, Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities, provides supporting evidence of the intellectual bias for death over birth. Offering data on how today’s most influential academic institutions, organizations, and publishers treat the topics of birth and death, the chapter maps out three possible reasons for the gap: a male-oriented history of ideas, the influence of puritan ideology, and resistance to the topic of birth within feminism and women’s studies. The chapter posits that the underrepresentation of birth in scholarship and the academic prioritization of death over birth have profound implications, both ideological and actual. The chapter then opens the door to the rest of the book, which is devoted to new scholarship on the topic of birth. The Institute of Art and Ideas in the United Kingdom recently published a succinct version of this chapter (How Childbirth Became Philosophy’s Last Taboo). In chapter 2, Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig, I begin by setting the groundwork for the meanings of the terms “religion,” “secular,”



“nonreligion,” and “sacred.” The chapter considers perennial controversies within the field of religious studies, such as whether “religion” is even a real object of study, or the extent to which a concept of “the sacred” can be removed from the context of religion. This terminological foundation is necessary so that the reader understands how the transformation of objects works between these ontological groupings. After describing the categories, chapter 2 looks at one specific object, a type of Celtic figurine known as the Sheela-na-gig. As becomes clear over the course of the book, the Sheela-nagig is an excellent example of an object that undergoes ontological transformation between religious, secular, and nonreligious sacred identities within the context of birth. Discussion of the object’s historical and original form in this chapter shows the reader representation of the first order object, or the “religious object,” that falls within the book’s broader theory of ontological transformation. Chapter 3, The Social Ontology of Birth, maps out the theoretical foundation for the book, utilizing the philosophy of social ontology to explain the process through which religious objects transform ontologically when used ritualistically during birth. This chapter is of particular interest to those familiar with and involved in research on social ontology, though the material is accessible to other readers. I provide the reader with a basic outline of what social ontology is, as well as a description of the classic theory of social ontology. Within the area of social ontology, the chapter is relevant through its provision of two important aspects related to the field: First, this case study of ontological transformation in the context of birth shows how social ontology is mutable, particularly within the spheres of the sacred and the secular. Second, the chapter offers unique evidence that the metaphysical foundation upon which the classic theory of social ontology lies is problematic when we consider mental content as connected to a phenomenological transformation of the body. For readers who are less interested in social ontology or who are more interested in the categories of the birth images themselves, chapters 2, 4, 5, and 6 will be of most relevance, though the meat of chapter 3 is not complex. Chapter 4, The Secularization of Religious Objects During Birth, departs from the theoretical discussion of the earlier chapters, providing concrete evidence that religious objects do undergo an ontological transformation during pregnancy, labor, and birth when participants in birth as a rite of passage secularize them. The chapter begins by returning to the Sheela-na-gig object described in chapter 2, describing how the Sheela-na-gig’s ontology shifts away from an identification with religion during the contemporary context of birth. The material then moves on, however, providing examples of other objects whose ontologies also go through a similar transformation. In the case of each object, the chapter explores how the item’s original ontology is of a



religious nature that then transforms to the realm of the secular when used in a practical way during birth. The chapter provides evidence that this interest in using objects during birth is at this point a worldwide phenomenon of a transnational and trans-religious nature. Chapter 5, Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage, focuses on the way that the social ontology of objects used during the contemporary rituals of birth are re-sacralized in a nonreligious way. Of importance here are descriptions in medical anthropology and religious studies about both the rituals of birth and the cognitive transformations that people undergo during rites of passage. The chapter follows discussion of the objects examined earlier in the book as having gone through an ontological transformation between a religious and secular symbolic function. Shifting away from these religious and secular identifications, the social ontology of these objects is in these cases collectively recognized as encompassing a sacred meaning. This sense of the sacred is not related to religion, however, as the re-sacralized object takes on a new ontological status wherein participants in the event of birth instead associate it with an understanding that the act of birth is a sacred act in itself. Chapter 6, Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth, examines a rise in the creation of brand new art about birth in which the objects’ ontologies do not go through transformation between religious, secular, and re-sacralized identities, instead representing from the outset a nonreligious or humanistic manifestation of the sacred. These objects are part of the fourth and final ontological order of the book’s general theory of ontology and include the artwork of contemporary artists who are creating new images of women as pregnant, giving birth, or with a newborn. The chapter explores how this work relates to a communal agreement that birth is a foundational and sacred act in the human experience. The chapter also looks at artistic treatments of topics often marginalized in discussions of birth, including infertility, medical intervention, and menopause, showing how they also partake in birth’s sacred dimension. Chapter 7, New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth, shifts from a discussion of social ontology and the ritualization of objects during birth as a rite of passage, looking instead at how the rise in artistic production of images about birth and mothering in the twenty-first century correlates with the emergence of new models of feminism. These models open up space for an understanding that the act of childbirth, as well as mothering in all of its forms, is one means of empowerment for many women from around the globe. Returning to points made earlier in chapter 1, the chapter first closely examines resistance to the topic of birth from within feminism and women’s studies. Contending that this resistance is based on a logical fallacy, the chapter further maps out how some feminists have contributed to the silencing of academic



discourse on topics such as childbirth, mothering, and maternal experiences. New forms of feminism are emerging, however, as is manifest in various strands of the contemporary birth movement, including its artistic dimension. Andrea O’Reilly, a Canadian scholar of feminist theory and motherhood studies, has recently developed a theory of matricentric feminism, and this chapter examines how this form of feminism is one in which the experiences of mothers, including the experiences of those who give birth, are viewed as potential sites of power for women. The chapter also looks at the rise of the Birth Justice Movement in the United States, a movement developed by and for women of color, low-income women, and other marginalized people of the world. In certain cases, women are using art and imagery related to the birthing body to decolonize birth and defend against reproductive oppressions that are based on the inequalities of race, class, gender, and sexuality. My findings demonstrate the impact of the birth experience on a wide range of other topics within the humanities, a point discussed in the Conclusion. The scope of the book contributes to new avenues of research in the fields of religious studies, secular studies, philosophy, social ontology, art history, anthropology, women’s studies, and feminist theory. With its primary focus on how objects are used during the contemporary rituals of birth, this book sheds new light on a variety of other topics related to birth. Several of the chapters, for example, have also considered the way in which sacred objects and rituals contribute to the empowerment and healing of marginalized women and their families, an important topic deserving of much more research. Overall, the research of this book demonstrates how birth is a topic deeply connected to the intellectual, the cognitive, and the spiritual, as well as to the physiological and the phenomenological spheres of human existence.

Chapter 1

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities

The humanities study the human condition, something that begins at birth and ends in death. But if the scholarly production on these two topics is any indicator, then academics are more fascinated with death than they are with birth. The top listing that popped up when I searched under “childbirth” in Oxford University Press, for example, was “Death in Childbirth,” and searching under “birth” in the same publication brought to the top a book called “Death before Birth.” Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world. Why we choose death over birth goes much deeper than simple intrigue, however. Some investigation reveals that intellectual approaches to birth are suppressed in both active and passive ways. While one could argue that the historical domination of white men in the academy is part of the problem, the lopsided coverage of these two monumental endpoints of life is quite complex and cannot be reduced to it. Understanding the reasons behind this suppression requires a rethinking of how we address major life transitions. A quick explanation for the bias is that death is more interesting because people have yet to experience it. Anyone living has already been born, whereas death remains cloaked in mystery. But this explanation loses steam when we contemplate birth and death as they exist more broadly. How matter first came into being is just as intriguing as the question of the universe’s demise, and we become mesmerized over again at other beginnings—the beginning of our sun, our planet, life on earth, and life in general. Yet when it comes to human birth, investigative interest and philosophical approach fall precipitously within the academic realm. All of this begs the question: What is it about death that so attracts us, or is it that there’s something wrong with birth? This chapter provides evidence that the intellectual bias for death over birth is unmistakable in the humanities. It also offers reasons for the bias and 1


Chapter 1

ultimately contends that the underrepresentation of birth in scholarship, as well as the academic prioritization of death over birth, has profound implications in our human experience, both ideological and actual. The chapter makes the case that scholarship on birth should be integral to the arts and humanities. A MALE-ORIENTED HISTORY OF IDEAS Canonical Western philosophers have historically focused on universals in the human experience, including the universal of death, but they have given much less attention to birth. This is curious since the topics of gestating and being born, as well as those of pregnancy and giving birth, involve complex queries that branch into all areas of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, and political philosophy. Plato categorized pregnancy and childbirth as mere bodily functions and motherhood as a sub-rational activity, while Aristotle diminished and ignored motherhood’s import beyond its connection to biology. Thomas Aquinas devalued the acts of childbirth and motherhood, viewing the father’s influence (right down to his semen) as most foundational in the creation of a human being, and both Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau naturalized motherhood, describing it as a romantic or naturalistic endeavor as opposed to a philosophical one.1 The entire project of Martin Heidegger’s master oeuvre Being and Time (1927), revolves around a complex discussion of how true Being is realized through a process of Dasein, or “being there,” in which a lived contemplation of death, or a Sein-zum-Tode is accomplished. This Heideggerian focus on death, integral to the philosopher’s work, makes a strong mark on continental philosophy of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of whom considered issues such as pregnant embodiment in their philosophies, made much less of an impact on the field, as did Hannah Arendt who developed a theory of natality. Furthermore, these references to pregnancy and birth are often metaphorical, and none figure prominently, if at all, in discussion or teaching of the philosophical canon.2 Questions revolving around which philosophers should be included in the canon are legitimate, and it could be argued that Levinas and Merleau-Ponty are either part of its body or are equally influential of their own accord. A look at introductory philosophy materials, as well as the books most commonly used and taught within philosophy departments, however, indicates that students and readers are not exposed nearly as much to these figures as they are to those such as the Ancient Greek philosophers or other philosophers of the modern period. They are often only taught within

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the context of upper division or graduate classes on continental philosophy. Even in that context, however, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty are frequently overshadowed by other mid-twentieth-century figures, especially Heidegger. In the first volume of his epic 2,500-page Spheres project (Microspherology, 2011), Peter Sloterdijk, a groundbreaking German philosopher, has made the topics of childbirth and coming into being central to his philosophy. He even explores at length the philosophical and cultural import of the placenta. While Sloterdijk is recognized in the context of European philosophy and is taught on the European continent, his work has not yet made a profound impact on philosophical scholarship in the United States and around the world, and some scholars are not familiar with his name. There has been similar progress in the context of North American philosophy with the almost simultaneous publication of Philosophical Inquiries into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering (2012), part of Routledge’s series on Contemporary Philosophy, and Fordham University Press’ 2013 volume, Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, both of which stem from the University of Oregon’s 2009 conference, Philosophical Inquiry into Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering Conference. Some of the authors from those volumes have also published independently on the topic of birth. For example, Lisa Guenther, an associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and a prominent contributor to the Coming to Life volume, published her book The Gift of the Other: Levinas and the Politics of Reproduction through SUNY Press in 2006. However, although these publications mark important moments in the history of philosophical scholarship on childbirth, they are neither widely known nor utilized within university philosophy departments. Sarah LaChance Adams, an editor of the Coming to Life volume, uses the work in her own classes at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, but research on materials used in various philosophy courses around the country shows that courses on philosophy and birth are rare.3 In the meantime, philosophy programs around the country and abroad commonly offer classes on the philosophy of death or “death and dying.” There is also an International Association for the Philosophy of Death and Dying (IAPDD), but no balanced counterpart that studies the philosophy of birth. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains long topic entries devoted to death while birth receives no such exclusive treatment. And while there is an Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, and even a separate Oxford Handbook devoted to the theme of Death in Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, there is no equivalent to explore the Philosophy of Birth. A similar bias persists in other fields. The American Academy of Religion (AAR), the world’s largest association of religious studies scholars, has a permanent conference group on death and dying. The group’s statement of


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purpose is emblematic of how the field of religious studies not only overlooks birth but even negates it: “While death is the single certainty in every life, a myriad number of ways exist to study and approach it.”4 Simply stated, death is not the single certainty in every life. Birth is also a foundational event experienced by every being. When not overlooked, negations of the birth event in statements such as these are on the surface perplexing, but when we explore the histories attached to the topic of birth and its academic treatment, these negations become more explicable, as we shall see in due course. The AAR also provides its members with regular listings related to death and religion, including announcements about books on death, notices on teaching prizes and journalist awards to scholars who have taught or published on the topic, recommended reading lists on death, and blurbs about films on death. Neither birth nor childbirth receives similar treatment.5 Similar to the AAR, the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) is an important international collaboration of affiliate societies, members, and scholars working on the scientific study of religion, as well as the historical, social, and comparative study of religion. It currently comprises forty national and regional member associations, and four affiliated societies. Holding a highly anticipated conference every five years, this influential forum for the study of religion devotes a full session exclusively to Religion and Death. Yet, as is in the case of the AAR, there is no similar session for Religion and Birth, and it is again only on infrequent occasions that a paper on birth emerges as part of a presentation panel. The situation is almost identical in the context of religious studies teaching resources. The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, a major resource for scholars of religion, dedicates an entire category of its Internet Guide to Religion to “Death and Dying,” providing its visitors with various syllabi, course listings, and reading materials on death. There is no such category or materials listed for birth.6 Even in the areas of nonreligion and secularity, two recent topics that are particularly popular within both the historical study of religion and the social scientific study of religion, one finds little to nothing on birth. Within the bibliography of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN), for example, nothing at all is listed pertaining to birth other than one for “birth of the secular age,” another symbolic usage of the term.7 The term, “death,” on the other hand, results in a few publications relating to actual death and its relationship to nonreligion and secularity. The NSRN is a group that has become a primary hub for exploring nonreligion and secularity. In “The Stranger Guest: The Literature of Pregnancy and New Motherhood,” a 2016 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lily GurtonWachter, Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College has written about a similar gap, looking at literature about pregnancy, childbirth,

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


and parenting when compared to literature on war. Although a rich canonical literary tradition revolves around the latter, she explains, “we don’t have a familiar canon of nuanced literary or philosophical texts about the experience of having a child, even though having a child, too, is a profound, frightening, exhilarating, transformative experience at the boundary of life, an experience from which one comes back a different person.” There are many aspects of intellectual interest related to war, including the topic of victory, but the issue of mortality is intimately bound to the subject matter. Like childbirth, the topic of childhood has until very recently also been neglected and not taken seriously in our intellectual history. American professor of psychology Alison Gopnik discusses this in her book, The Philosophical Baby (2009): Children are both profound and puzzling, and this combination is the classic territory of philosophy. Yet you could read 2500 years of philosophy and find almost nothing about children. A Martian who tried to figure us out by studying Earthling philosophy could easily conclude that human beings reproduce by asexual cloning. The index of the thousands of pages in the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy had no references to babies, infants, families, parents, or fathers, and only four to children at all. (There are hundreds of references to angels and the morning star.)8

Neglecting the topic of childbirth is inevitably connected to neglecting the children themselves, a marginalized group that should actually be a priority for those interested in the foundation and future of our society. Research demonstrates that the first few years of a human’s life are the most critical in forming a human being who is capable of interacting with the world in a compassionate way. Other psychologists, such as Thomas Verny, have provided abundant evidence to show that stress affects infants, even before birth. Verny has found strong connections between high stress during prenatal, perinatal and early childhood life, and the development of childhood and adult diseases, including personality disorders such as psychopathy.9 If we want to curb such disorders, which have a broader impact on how society is managed and unfolds, more emphasis, both intellectual and actual, should be placed on the importance of childhood. As for art and art history, one would think that it would be easy to find art images of childbirth since thousands of years of art have been an integral part of human culture and development. While we do find some images in the archaeological contexts of ancient and indigenous cultures, representations of birth all but vanish in the context of “fine art” shown in art museums and galleries. There has also been a rise in some small real-world exhibitions of images involving birth or mothering, and a permanent collection devoted to themes of birth, the Birth Rites Collection, which opened in 2008 at


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Goldsmiths University in London (and recently moved to Salford University in Manchester). But these places are not easily accessed or known about, and again, we still do not see paintings or fine artwork of birth appearing in the context of traditional arts shown in major museums and galleries, pieces that are seen by many and subsequently make it into art catalogues and other publications that are widely used. American artist Judy Chicago embarked on her five-year-long “Birth Project” in the 1980s precisely because she was unable to locate images of birth when looking for them. Chicago explains the situation quite well in her 1985 book on the project: When I approached this subject matter again in preparation for the Birth Project, I went to the library to see what images of birth I could find. I was struck dumb when my research turned up almost none. It was obvious that birth was a universal human experience and one that is central to women’s lives. Why were there no images? Attracted to this void, I plunged into the subject.10

Chicago’s project comprised a series of monumental needlepoint tapestries depicting birth, created with the help of 130 needleworkers [FIG 1.1]. As successful as her exhibitions were, however, her images of childbirth are abstract and do not show the visceral, realistic aspects of birth. Jonathan Waller, a contemporary British artist, created just such realistic images, which were shown briefly in his exhibition, Birth, at the Flowers East gallery in 1997 in London [FIG 1.2]. Like Chicago, Waller had found it puzzling to realize an absence in representations of birth when looking for them, and his exhibition was devoted entirely to paintings of his wife giving birth to their first child.11 However, the exhibition withdrew some of Waller’s work based on the reaction of viewers who found it offensive. “Is Birth the last taboo subject in art?” wrote Keren David and Mark Rowe, two reporters for The Independent who covered Waller’s show, “The response to Jonathan Waller’s paintings inspired by the arrival of his daughter suggest that it may be. One picture of a woman giving birth was considered so shocking by the staff of a London gallery that it was removed from an exhibition on its opening day.”12 Through his representations, Waller had apparently crossed a line and transgressed a taboo. Few of Waller’s paintings exist online. Through mechanisms both active and passive, his art may be considered suppressed works. The absence of realistic childbirth art images cannot be attributed to a recoiling at the flesh and blood of birth. Anyone even vaguely familiar with art history knows that visceral images abound in the context of death. Wikipedia has a category called “Paintings of Death” but, as will by now perhaps come as no surprise, contains no category for “Paintings of Birth.” In looking at these images of

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


Figure 1.1  The Crowning, Needlepoint 4, 1984. Needlepoint Over Painting on Mesh Canvas, 40 ½″ x 61″ Painting on canvas by Judy Chicago with Linda Healy, Needlepoint by Frannie Yablonsky. Source: © 1984 Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Used with permission.

death, we realize that it cannot simply be a matter of queasiness with flesh and blood that keeps the subject of birth off the fine arts table. Only since the ubiquity of the internet have people been able to access contemporary images and videos of childbirth through New Media, particularly blogs and social media. But most of these images receive little publicity and are again not shown in the context of fine arts exhibitions in major galleries and museums. There are, of course, some important academic publications in the arts and humanities devoted exclusively either to childbirth or to themes related to birth. Indeed, Mircea Eliade, one of the founding figures of the field of religious studies, wrote extensively on cosmogonic and origin myths, which relate to the theme of birth, although not specifically to childbirth. This topic of the cosmogonic myth was fundamental to Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954), a work that cemented his career and participated in establishing the field of religious studies. In light of Eliade’s influence, it is curious that the study of religion did not develop more of a focus on birth and origin. Eliade was certainly also interested in eschatology, but the study of cosmogony was primary to his work. Other work foundational to any contemporary study of birth in the humanities includes classic studies especially found in the area of anthropology,


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Figure 1.2  Mother No. 58. Source: Copyright 1998, Jonathan Waller. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

such as Brigitte Jordan’s Birth in Four Cultures (1978) and Robbie DavisFloyd’s Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992), as well as in sociology, such as Robbie Kahn’s Bearing Meaning: The Language of Birth (1995). Sheila Kitzinger (1929–2015), a childbirth activist and prolific author on the topic of birth, also wrote highly influential work on cross-cultural pregnancy and birth rites, and art about birth plays a beautiful role in Kitzinger’s writings, embedded frequently in her pages, as is poetry about birth.13 Edited by Julia Chinyere Oparah and Alicia D. Bonaparte, Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth (2016) is a book that deeply broadens the field of birth studies. The work looks specifically at the situation of birth for African American women, providing abundant evidence that the maternity system in the United States is bleak for African American women and their babies. The book also includes material on the use of imagery such as poetry to empower pregnant women and build community around birth as a rite of passage in America.

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


Cultural historians such as Lee Jen-der, Charlotte Furth, Jessey J. C. Choo, and Sabine Wilms have in the past decade turned to the topic of birth and religion as it occurs within the areas of Chinese medical history and literature. In religious studies, Vanessa Sasson and Jane Marie Law edited an important volume in 2008 devoted to exploring the topic of the fetus in the world’s major religious traditions, and Pamela Klassen’s book Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America (2001) holds an important position in the field as a monograph on the sacredness of birth, in this case specifically as pertains to homebirth. Marianne Delaporte and Morag Martin are in the final stages toward the publication of Sacred Inception: Reclaiming the Spirituality of Birth in the Modern World (2017), a volume that examines modern and contemporary rituals of birth as they occur in various contexts around the globe, and Susan Crowther and Jenny Hall recently edited Spirituality and Childbirth (2017), a volume that explores aspects of spirituality, including those of a nonreligious nature, that take place during the rituals, practices, and care in birth, and religious studies scholars. Religious studies scholar Amy Langenberg has also recently completed Birth and Buddhism: Fertility, the Fetus, and the Female in Indian Buddhist Texts from the Middle Period, a book-length study of Indian Buddhist embryology and theories of birth. And most recently, Ann Duncan has explored sacred pregnancy and nonreligion, particularly as pertains to the Sacred Living Movement, a movement founded by North American author Anni Daulter. By far one of the most important recent publications on the theme of motherhood is Herbert Cole’s monumental tome Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa (2017). This work should have a reverberating impact on the way that birth and mothering are treated within the field of art history. In other areas of the humanities, the Italian philologist Maurizio Bettini published a book in 2013 (University of Chicago Press) on the symbolic associations between women and weasels across literary and visual histories, especially as pertains to the topic of childbirth in the mythologies of Ancient Greece and Rome.14 Rachel Epp Bueller, a professor of art and artist, edited the volume Reconciling Art and Mothering (2012), and some of the chapters there touch on the theme of childbirth, as well as its problematic negation from the arts. Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor H. Mair, while not focused on the topic of birth or mothering, have written Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia (2010), a fascinating book exploring a wide variety of sacred objects from ancient cultures that depict female figures displaying their genitalia. Some of these objects may have been created within the context of childbirth. These scholars and others like them are creating exciting new scholarship on the topic of birth. However, a review of library and journal resources or respected academic press catalogs used in the humanities and inclusive of research on both Western and non-Western topics, reveals that the literature


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available on death greatly outnumbers that on birth. Here are just a few examples from results found while researching the terms “birth,” “death,” and “childbirth” in some of the most well-known and influential academic publications [Table 1.1].15 In general, the term “birth” brings up about 25% to 50% fewer titles than does birth. The term “childbirth” brings up even fewer titles, averaging only about 1 percent to 3 percent of results when compared to those from the term “death.” As part of the marginalization of birth in philosophical discussion, subjective narratives from mothers have been overlooked. On the outset, this may Table 1.1  Academic Publication Term Search: Death, Birth, Childbirth Source (Press, Journal, etc.)

Term: Death

Term: Birth

Term: Childbirth

Oxford University Press (Books, Arts and Humanities) Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Journal, Religion) Cambridge University Press (Books, Religion) Cambridge University Press (Books, Philosophy) Cambridge University Press (Books, Arts) The University of Chicago Press (Books, all subjects) History of Religions (Journal, Religion) The Journal of Religion (Journal, Religion) Harvard University Press (Books, all subjects) Art Journal (Journal, Art) Princeton University Press (Books, all subjects) University of California Press (Books, all subjects) The Philosophical Quarterly (Journal, Philosophy) Philosophical Review (Journal, Philosophy) The Journal of Philosophy (Journal, Philosophy)




3600     94   78   33   1890

1463     28   35   22   1040

63     3   0   0   35

  1,173   9950   65   2752   43   44,500

  551   2421   26   768   20   13,800

  57   47   3   17   0   572

  793   199

  255   76   695  

  5   1   9  


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appear to relate to the fact that men do not experience birth or mothering and so their theories veer away from these topics. But this reason is put into question when we look at how a topic like blindness has historically been of great interest to philosophers, with major figures such as John Locke (1632–1704) and George Berkeley (1685–1753) writing about the epistemological problems that arise from cases of blindness even though they were not blind themselves.16 Like the blind subject, only the woman who experiences pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering can describe the phenomena herself. Whereas subjective experiences of blindness have been of interest to philosophers, however, the female experiences of gestation and birth have received little investigation within the field.17 Philosophical investigations of birth do occur in the work of female philosophers and thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Sara Ruddick, Adrienne Rich, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Iris Marion Young, and Julia Kristeva. However, one is more likely to find discussions of their work in the context of psychology, women’s studies, or language than within the field of philosophy. THE INFLUENCE OF PURITAN IDEOLOGY If any inner relationship between certain expressions of the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture is to be found, we must attempt to find it, for better or for worse, not in its alleged more or less materialistic or at least anti-ascetic joy of living, but in its purely religious characteristics— Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Could it perhaps be the case that not just any flesh is the problem for the viewer but, rather, a type of flesh? In The Anatomy of Disgust (Harvard University Press, 1998), William Ian Miller details examples of a pervasive human disgust with the vagina, and with genitals, as well as with orifices and bodily wastes more generally.18 He relates this disgust in part to a general Christian moral discourse on the topic of sex. Descriptions of a puritanical hold on societal perceptions of the female body in Europe and the United States have been well-documented in academic literature, and some of these perceptions pertain to negative ways in which the birthing body came to be viewed in the spheres of medicine, religion, and society. If we look specifically at the influence of Calvinism on perceptions of the female body, however, we find that its Puritan hold, both on ideology and on practice, runs much deeper than disgust. We can trace the manifestation of this ideology not only in our contemporary intellectual avoidance of the birth topic, but also in our medical practices related to birth. It is worth noting that these medical practices, which originated in the United States and Europe and are connected to Puritanism, have spread throughout the globalized world.


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In her seminal work Radical Spirits, Ann Braude provides evidence of this.19 Braude explores the terrain of nineteenth-century healthcare in the United States with a special focus on Spiritualism and its medical mediums, most of whom were women. She finds that their approaches to the female body differed greatly from those of the predominantly male, orthodox physicians of the time. These male physicians, known as “regulars,” were highly influenced by a Puritan worldview, portraying the body, and especially the female body, as prone to disease—a manner of viewing the body that strongly paralleled Calvinist understandings of the soul as unclean and marred by sin. Working closely with doctors, Protestant clergy asserted the health of women (be it of a physical or spiritual sort) to be ill and curable only through the means of male ministers and doctors: Regular doctors joined the clergy in asserting the appropriateness of women remaining within their “sphere,” the clergy basing their arguments on the Bible, the doctors basing theirs on the body. Doctors and ministers agreed that both physical and spiritual ill health in women resulted from disobedience. They prescribed obedience to a male authority figure as a cure for the degenerative tendencies of body and soul.20

Midwives, part of the heterodox model of medicine at the time, endured virtual war waging by orthodox doctors who attacked natural approaches to birth, primarily through their strong discouragement of midwife employment. Samantha Cohen Tamulis has similarly examined the history of Puritanism and conceptions of maternity in American literature. Her research, which revolves around the literature of colonial and early Republican America, shows the dramatic way in which midwifery care was eventually rejected in the birthing room during the seventeenth century and replaced by male obstetricians and the use of surgical tools from Europe.21 Cohen Tamulis contends that the arrival of forceps and other tools in the seventeenth-century birthing room stemmed directly from Puritan ideology, and that this ideology is also connected to the situation of over-medicalized birth practices today. Finding that seventeenth-century American women were for the most part willing to have doctors attend them, even if the birth process involved forceps and other tools, Cohen Tamulis provides evidence that this willingness was related to the pervasive puritan ideology of the time. Like Braude’s work, Cohen Tamulis’ shows how this ideology was foundational in the construction of a new belief system that defined a woman’s body as weak or sick, incapable of birth, and subsequently of how the female body should be treated during birth.22 Eleanor Heartney has examined the influence that Puritanism has had on the status of the body more broadly, especially in the United States and specifically in relationship to artistic representation. In Postmodern Heretics:

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, Heartney shows how the culture of the Reformation reverberates in the United States and influences a dominant puritanical approach to the body.23 She traces these approaches to English Protestantism, and contends that any display of nudity, especially when it is of a public nature, remains highly controversial.24 Nudity and a discussion of the flesh are inherently part of pregnancy, birth, and also breastfeeding. In hospitals, birthing women are often encouraged to cover their bodies and wear gowns, even during the actual birth, and public breastfeeding continues to be controversial in the United States and in other countries around the world. Puritan ideologies related to a negative view of the body more generally, therefore, must be considered as influencers in the way that birth is approached intellectually and academically. In a globalized world, western medical practices have so strongly influenced the ways that women give birth around the world that the western approach to birth is the global approach to birth.25 Large parts of the developing world, especially in Latin America and in Asia, have seen sharp increases in the use of cesarean delivery and a rise in the use of western medical interventions during birth over the past few decades.26 Thus, Puritan ideology’s connection to the medicalization of birth has affected perceptions of birth as it occurs in other parts of the world and not just in the United States and Europe. A woman’s body continues to be viewed as incapable, and this view stems from Calvinist understandings of her weakness and sinfulness. Childbirth, an experiential domain of a woman’s body, has therefore come to be related, ideologically speaking, to sin and weakness. Max Weber’s assertion that the Protestant work ethic, founded on Calvinism, was ingrained in the spirit of modern capitalism, has influenced thinkers for over a century. Mark C. Taylor, for example, has looked beyond work ethic to describe Protestant ideology as more broadly enmeshed with the postmodern condition of our contemporary globalized culture.27 Although Taylor’s analysis revolves around Lutheranism, he describes Calvinism and Lutheranism as intimately bound and at the heart of secularity, which he considers a religious phenomenon. In tracing the connections between ideology and culture, we unsurprisingly find that contemporary practices and ideas related to birth also have roots in Protestant ideology. Perhaps the same Weberian religio-cultural influence is at work not only in the “spirit of birth,” but also in the study of it. If Puritanism is at the root of how a woman’s body is viewed within the realm of western medicine, then it is plausible that this same ideology also penetrates the academic sphere, silently directing intellectual work away from the childbirth topic. Following the publication of British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read’s seminal work Childbirth without Fear (1942), a strong rejection of puritanical views of childbirth and a woman’s ability to birth grew in Europe and in the


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United States. The 1970s and the early 1980s represent a unique window of time in the history of birth advocacy, and the publication of influential books about alternative, unmedicated methods of birth flourished. The Lamaze and Bradley Methods, both developed by obstetricians during the 1940s to help women labor naturally, became used more widely by women in Europe and the United States during the 1970s, as did birth manuals such as those written by renowned American midwife, Ina May Gaskin. A resurgence of breastfeeding also occurred in the United States at the same time, which followed years of decreased breastfeeding and increased formula use during the twentieth century.28 During the 1980s and 1990s, however, the situation surrounding birth and parenting began to change globally, and for many reasons this natural birth movement became suppressed. Rates of cesarean section and other medical intervention have soared around the globe since that time. There are likely a number of influencers of this shift, not least having to do with financial profit associated with the use of technology in the birthing room.29 However, as it turns out, there are other counterintuitive reasons for scholarly resistance to birth that also grew during this time. The topic has received cool reception within the area of women’s studies, for example. One might assume that this field, of any, would embrace the topic. But as it turns out, birth is a problem for many feminist scholars due to the issue of essentialism, which refers to the generalization of a woman’s identity based on basic, or essential properties (biological or social). Even assuming that women’s studies would be a good place for promoting the study of childbirth, as I just did, is problematic. RESISTANCE TO THE TOPIC OF BIRTH WITHIN FEMINISM AND WOMEN’S STUDIES In the contexts of women’s studies and feminism, essentialism refers to the generalization of a woman’s identity based on basic, or essential properties (biological or social). Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) paved the way for discussion on essentialism within feminism. In her seminal work, the French existentialist emphasized how the understanding of a woman’s identity as intimately bound to her biology was problematic, and she rejected the concept of maternal instinct. De Beauvoir’s ideas influenced later feminists, popular and academic, including Betty Friedan, whose pivotal book The Feminine Mystique (1963) was dedicated to the French philosopher. Like De Beauvoir, Friedan rejected procreation, as well as marriage and childrearing, as the integral and necessary component of a woman’s identity, encouraging women, instead, to seek out other avenues of life, such as education and joining the workforce.

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Publication of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, often considered the catalyst for second-generation feminism in the United States, contributed significantly to how feminists, and particularly educated white feminists who have dominated the discourse, have approached the topic of childbirth over the past five decades. In 1966, as the first president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), Friedan devoted much of her work to activism, promoting causes such as abortion rights and access to reproductive health services, as well as economic justice for women in the workforce. Ideologically speaking, therefore, Friedan’s life work became rooted in removing cultural understandings that reproduction was essential to the female experience. The entire field of women’s studies grew in large part out of 1970s’ activism. Thus, in the academic sphere, feminists have devoted significant research and writing to the problem of essentialism and the relating of a woman’s identity to her biology. The childbirth topic, often connected to biology and the female body, inevitably became a sensitive issue right from the outset of the field.30 Some academic feminists identified the presence of essentialism in the ideology of the alternative birth movement, which had flourished during the 1970s (and was also associated with feminism), and became skeptical of certain feminist approaches to reproduction.31 Critics of the alternative birth movement charged natural birth proponents with promoting an understanding of a male/female binary of gender difference at work and for overemphasizing the importance of reproduction in the lives of women. One of the main problems with such a duality, they asserted, was that it played into a hegemonic male-dominated ideology already inherent in our culture.32 Postmodernism was highly influential for the growth of anti-essentialism within feminist philosophy between the 1980s and 1990s. Anti-essentialist viewpoints therefore did not develop within the confines of feminism but were instead part of the larger framework of postmodern thought as it occurred within late twentieth-century humanities. This ideology informs the work of Ellen Annendale and Judith Clark, for example, two anti-essentialist feminists who utilize the theories of postmodern heavy hitters such as Jacques Derrida, Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, and Jacques Lacan to map out a “deconstruction of gender in the context of human reproduction.”33 By the end of the twentieth century, postmodernism was the most influential movement in academic discourse of the humanities, and many would argue that it still dominates that discourse today. Thus, one could examine the extent to which postmodern ideology, broadly speaking, is also related to discussions of childbirth, and the lack thereof, within the academic sphere. A reaction to anti-essentialism in feminism did arise within the women’s movement during the late twentieth century, when the proponents of an anti-anti-essentialist agenda came forth to state that essentialism was in fact politically advantageous for women.34 Over the years, many feminist thinkers,


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including Sara Ruddick, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Iris Marion Young, and Alison Stone, have proposed various models of feminism to address the problem of essentialism while trying to move past it. Although some progress has been made in the wake of these debates surrounding essentialism, birth remains a highly sensitive topic within women’s studies. Yet another crucial issue to consider when looking at the intellectual silencing of birth is how academic mothers are treated. Mary Ann Mason, professor and co-director of the Center, Economics & Family Security at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, conducted a lengthy study over the course of a decade on how childbearing and rearing affect the academic careers of both men and women. Mason and her team published their findings in the 2013 book Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers University Press), as well as in her widely read article for Slate, “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only.” The results demonstrate that academic women who decide to have children pay a great “baby penalty.”35 In fact, childbearing and rearing often result in the end of a woman’s career, while for men, having children is a career advantage. Ultimately, the reality of these penalties plays a decisive role in how significantly less women than men in academia have children. On average, tenured women who do decide to have children are age forty when they begin a family, often having one child. Mason’s study also reveals cases in which academic women are blacklisted once they notify faculty of their pregnancies, as well as other cases in which women report how even simple discussion of having children negatively affects their job candidacy during interviews.36 The data of this research unarguably shows that women in academia are having fewer children, and that they are penalized when they do become pregnant or have children. While these facts are interesting in themselves, what seems most pertinent to the discussion here is the possibility that academic women, aware of the negative effects of pregnancy and childbearing on personal, actual, and administrative levels, could be less likely to pursue research on these topics on an intellectual or ideological level. Worthy of study is how the actual suppression or rejection of birth and mothering within the academic sphere participates in a suppression of intellectual focus and publication on these matters. Also contributing to the way that academics treat the topic of birth are the issues of reproductive freedom and legalized abortion. Abortion rights advocacy has become a central piece to the ideological portfolio of most academic liberals, not only within the area of feminism but more broadly within the humanities. Since birth is related to the topic of abortion, there is an intuitive connection that one might make between an intellectual interest in pregnancy and birth, and a stance on abortion. However, there are many other

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


philosophical issues related to birth that have nothing to do with abortion, or any other ethical issues for that matter (e.g., stem cell research, the making of designer babies), and one can be intellectually fascinated with an imagining of the beginning of life without holding an ethical opinion on the matter. Likewise, intellectual, artistic, and cultural interests in birth that span the humanities often have nothing to do with abortion or ethics. Unfortunately, this connection persists: When birth does surface as a topic of philosophical inquiry, it is usually within the sphere of ethics. It is worthy and perhaps particularly relevant to note here that abortion and other ethical issues surrounding birth effectively relate to death and dying since they pertain to the end of a thing’s existence, in this case an embryo’s, as opposed to its beginning. Thus, we again locate an intellectual focus on the end of life, or a death, and its various meanings, as at the core of the ethical discussion and debate around birth. And yet a myriad of other interesting philosophical cases exist around the birth topic. In this book, I map out a theory of ontological transition of the art object during birth as a rite of passage. This topic, which is categorically part of metaphysics, exemplifies how research on birth need not stem from the philosophical sphere of ethics. Beyond the noteworthiness of birth’s underrepresentation in the intellectual sphere, there are profound implications, ideological and actual, that result both from academia’s inability to treat birth as a fundamental topic of scholarly interest, and from its intellectual prioritization of death over birth. Death is an end, a future, or a representation of transcendence, whereas birth, by contrast, is a beginning from which life emanates and extends—a past that is intricately part of the present, a representation of being and of immanence. Ideologically speaking, then, one of the results of this academic focus on death over birth is an avoidance or dissociation with coming into being, especially as being occurs in its most physical of senses. The insinuation is that aspects such as transcendence, the afterlife, or nonbeing, are more significant for study than are those related to coming into being and material existence. Another ideological concern is the way that women’s experiences of birth are suppressed and underexplored in the arts and humanities. Maternal subjectivity is often negated from philosophical discussion, while images of childbirth and women giving birth are not exhibited in gallery halls because the birth event is deemed inappropriate. This underrepresentation of research and art material on the theme of childbirth points to an ideological rejection or diminishing of the importance of the rite of passage that many women go through. We know from the work of scholars who have studied birth closely (e.g., Robbie Davis-Floyd, Julia Chinyere-Oparah, Catherine Bell, Bridgette Jordan,) that this rite is highly transformative, not only for women giving birth and the children being born, but for society as a whole.


Chapter 1

Beyond ideologies, there is also an actual diminishing or downplaying of the importance of birth to society, something that is especially visible in the United States, a wealthy nation where, nevertheless, infant and maternal death rates remain high, and most new parents receive no paid time off after childbirth and adoption. The medicalization of birth is at an all-time high in the United States and worldwide, even though the World Health Organization and other important institutions continue to recommend against it. In the United States, this situation is especially alarming for African American women, who die three times as often as white women during childbirth, as well as for African American infants, who die at a rate more than two times that of white infants. A growing body of research in fields across the sciences has shown the profound impact that prenatal care and early parent-child relationships ultimately have on the physical, social, emotional, and psychological developments of children. On a primary level, the architecture of a child’s brain is significantly affected by social experiences with parents and caregivers during the first three years of life, which also stem from pregnancy and childbirth. This evidence underlines the fact that children, from before they are born and into their early years, should be of central interest to all concerned with individual cultivation and the bettering of society. Acknowledging gaps in our history of ideas provides fertile ground for exploration. As thinkers such as the late French philosopher Michel Foucault would concur, it is precisely through examination of the discontinuities and gaps in our history of ideas that a true archaeology of knowledge emerges, giving us a better perspective on our past, something that is inevitably bound to our present condition.37 Sight of the gap in scholarship on birth and death is the tip of the iceberg. For when we begin to explore it, we unearth complex cultural, ideological, philosophical, and psychological reasons for which it exists. Childbirth is quite simply the foundation from which the human experience evolves. As such, it is an integral component of study and intellectual fascination in the humanities. This book is devoted to new scholarship on birth. In the next chapter, I introduce a theory of social ontology as it relates to art and other objects used in the rituals of birth. NOTES 1. See Linda Bell’s anthology with analysis of philosophers’ views of women from ancient to modern times: Visions of Women (New York: Humana Press, 1983), primary text excerpts from Thomas Aquinas (102–115); Aristotle (63–68); Immanuel Kant (239–252); Plato (48–58); Jean-Jacques Rousseau (194–208).

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


2. Lisa Guenther has closely examined metaphorical uses of pregnancy philosophy in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. See her work, “The Birth of Sexual Difference: A Feminist Response to Merleau-Ponty,” in Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, eds. Sarah LaChance Adams and Caroline R. Lundquist (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 88–108. 3. The only course that I have found is LaChance Adams’. 4. “Death, Dying, and Beyond Group,” American Academy of Religion, accessed April 14, 2016, https​://pa​pers.​aarwe​​/cont​ent/d​eath-​dying​-and-​beyon​d-gro​up. 5. An exhaustive search within the AAR’s website that I conducted between 2015 and late 2017 found numerous listings related to death and religion. These included book announcements from scholars of religion and theology, notices on awards to scholars who have taught on the topic of death, recommended reading lists on death, films on death, and journalism awards for scholars who have published articles on the topic of death. When searching for childbirth, nothing related to religious studies content appeared. All that have been found on the AAR website relating to the topic are a member note on a theology book related to birth and death, and an administrative notice pertaining to childbirth as it appears in the faculty terms of employment. Searching for “birth” more broadly resulted in more listings, but only one that referred to actual birth. The subject related to birth narratives in the context of Buddhism. The other listings pertained either to a person’s birthday, or to symbolic usage of the term birth, that is, “our nation’s birth,” “The Birth of Tragedy,” etc., and not to actual childbirth or the birth of being. 6. I first noticed this on a personal level during my days as a religious studies graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). The department offers one of the university’s most popular humanities courses for undergraduate students: David Gordon White’s “Religious Approaches to Death,” which regularly draws a large number of students (over 800 enrolled the quarter I taught as a teaching assistant). Like most other institutions of higher education, however, UCSB offers no class on “Religious Approaches to Birth” or anything like it. 7. Chris Cotter, editor, The NSRN Bibliography, accessed November 14, 2017, https​://ns​​t/bib​liogr​aphy/​bibli​ograp​hy-au​thor/​. 8. Alison Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (New York: Picador, 2009), 5-6. Gopnik goes on to discuss how this neglect of the topic of children in intellectual history is fortunately changing, and there is a vibrant new focus on infants and babies in areas of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. 9. Thomas Verny, “The Pre and Perinatal Origins of Childhood and Adult Diseases and Personality Disorders,” in the Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology and Health, 2012. 10. Judy Chicago, The Birth Project (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 6. 11. Birth, Jonathan Waller (New End Gallery, London: United Kingdom, 1997), 3. 12. Keren David and Mark Rowe, “Birth Paintings get a Queasy Reception: An Artist’s Attempt to Capture the Moment of Childbirth Proved too Strong for Gallery Staff,” The Independent, July 6, 1997, accessed June 22, 2015, http:​//www​.inde​pende​nt .co​.uk/n​ews/b​irth-​paint​ings-​get-a​-quea​sy-re​cepti​on-12​49258​.html​.


Chapter 1

13. See, for example: Sheila Kitzinger, Rediscovering Birth (London: Little Brown & Company, 2000). 14. Maurizio Bettini, Women and Weasels: Mythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 15. I conducted these searches between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016. The numbers would likely be different today, but I doubt that the overall findings would shift much. 16. “Blindness,” Mark Peterson, in Sensory-Motor Research on The Body, The Senses, Movement. https​://ge​otheo​ry.wo​rdpre​​m/bli​ndnes​s/. 17. Joshua Shaw also discusses aspects of this issue to some length in his article, “Why Don’t Philosophers Tell Their Mothers’ Stories? Philosophy, Motherhood, and Imaginative Resistance,” in Philosophical Inquiries into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, eds. Lintott and Sander-Staudt, 138–150. 18. William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998). 19. Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in NineteenthCentury America, Second Edition (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001, first edition published by Beacon Press, 1989). 20. Braude, Radical Spirits, 144. 21. See Cohen Tamulis’ article, “Maternity, Midwifery, and Ministers: The Puritan Origins of American Obstetrics,” Literature and Medicine 32, no. 2 (2014): 365–387; and her dissertation, “The Birth of the Mother: Puritanism and Conceptions of Maternity in American Literature” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2013). 22. “We [will] find that what often seems like an incredibly sudden shift, brought about by the importation of European surgical tools, was actually a smooth transition whose roots lay in the seventeenth century (the first century in which Anglo women gave birth on American shores) and which has its origins in a powerful religious ideology – Puritanism – that dictated the terms by which both women and the society in which they lived thought and wrote about their birthing bodies. When scientific advancements caught up to the paradigms established by Puritan authorities, birth was rapidly and seemingly without warning wrested from women’s control and placed into the hands of “medical men.” These men deemed themselves better suited than female midwives to attend birth, which they came to define as a process fraught with risks, pains, and perils that women could not even understand, let alone from which they could “deliver” themselves and each other.” Cohen Tamulis, The Birth of the Mother, 2. 23. Eleanor Heartney, Postmodern Heretics: Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2004). 24. “In America, particularly, the lingering effects of this version of Christianity continue to be felt in many ways. It can be seen in the controversies that erupt over public displays of nudity, in the fascinated revulsion with which media and public obsess over the private indiscretions and infidelities of public figures and in the calls to protect people from themselves by banning obscene and objectionable images from the mass media and the internet. (A particularly amusing recent example involves Attorney General John Ashcroft’s order that a pair of nude neoclassical sculptures in the Capitol be draped so as not to offend the television viewing public’s sensibilities).” (Heartney, Postmodern Heretics, 14–15).

Birth and Death in the Arts and Humanities


25. Robbie Davis-Floyd, “Foreword,” in Normal Childbirth: Evidence and Debate, ed. Susan Downe (London: Churchill Livingstone, 2004), ix. 26. Blair J. Wylie and Fadi G. Mirza, “Cesarean Delivery in the Developing World,” in Clin Perinatol 35, (2008): 571–582. 27. See: Mark C. Taylor, After God (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007). 28. In 1972, for example, only 22% of women breastfed, but by 1984 the number was almost at 60%. Anne L. Wright and Richard J. Schanler, “The Resurgence of Breastfeeding at the End of the Second Millenium,” The American Society for Nutritional Sciences (2001): 421S–425S, accessed May 26, 2016, http:​//jn.​nutri​tion.​org/c​ onten​t/131​/2/42​1S.fu​ll. 29. See, for example: Jonathan Gruber and Maria Owings, “Physician Financial Incentives and Cesarean Section Delivery,” Working Paper No. 4933, NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research (1994), 1–43, accessed May 26, 2016, 30. Alison Stone, a professor at Lancaster University and a specialist in feminist and continental European philosophies, has written a very helpful detailed history of feminist views on essentialism in her key 2004 article, “Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Philosophy,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 1.2 (2004): 135–153. 31. Such critics included Ellen Annandale, Naomi Cahn, Judith Clark, Helena Michie, and Paula Triechler, among others. For excellent overviews of twentieth-century natural birth advocacy and later feminist criticism of this advocacy, see Katherine Beckett, “Choosing Cesarean: Feminism and the politics of childbirth in the United States,” in Feminist Theory 6 (2005): 251–275, accessed June 6, 2015, http:​//fac​ulty.​ washi​ngton​.edu/​kbeck​ett/a​rticl​es/Fe​minis​t_The​ory.p​df; and Jessica D. Clements, The Origin of the World: Women’s Bodies and Agency in Childbirth (M.A. thesis, George Mason University, 2009). Beckett also critiques the natural birth movement by pointing to instances in which medical technology may serve a woman’s own interests. She rejects that which she sees as the birth movement’s understanding that the pain of childbirth can be empowering for women, 269. 32. Beckett, “Choosing Cesarean,” 258. In other words, as discussed earlier in the case of canonical philosophy, men had always promoted an understanding of womanhood as bound to an identity of birthing and mothering. Their primary concerns revolved around the work of radical feminists and sociologists of reproduction, such as Moira Gatens, Chris Weedon, and Nancy Chodorow. 33. Annendale and Clark, “What is Gender?” 17. As a note, Michel Foucault did not consider himself to be either a postmodernist or a poststructuralist. But some postmodern scholars across the humanities have appropriated his ideas; thus, he is often seen as an influence. 34. See Stone, “Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Philosophy,” 141. 35. Mary Ann Mason, “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only,” in Slate Magazine, June 17, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016, http:​//www​.slat​​/arti​cles/​doubl​e_x/d​ouble​ x/201​3/06/​femal​e_aca​demic​s_pay​_a_he​avy_b​aby_p​enalt​y.sin​gle.h​tml. 36. Mason, “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only.” 37. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, originally published in French (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1969).

Chapter 2

Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig

This chapter examines the category of “religious objects,” looking at one object in particular, the Sheela-na-gig, which as chapter 4 demonstrates, provides us with one of the best examples of a material item that undergoes ontological transformation between the religious, the secular, and the sacred within the context of ritual and birth as a rite of passage. Discussion of the object’s historical and original form in this chapter shows the reader representation of the first-order object, or the “religious object,” that falls within the book’s broader theory of ontological transformation. The next chapter maps out the theoretical foundation for the book, utilizing the philosophy of social ontology to explain the process through which the Sheela-na-gig and other such objects transform ontologically when used ritualistically during birth. Setting the groundwork for the categories here, I first postulate basic meanings for the terms “religion,” “nonreligion,” “secular,” and “sacred,” so that the reader can understand how the transformation of objects works between these ontological groupings. SOCIAL ONTOLOGY AND A DEFINITION OF RELIGION It is the task neither of this chapter nor of this book to define the term “religion.” For the purposes of this study, however, it is necessary to postulate a meaning of the word, providing the reader with a foundation for the ontological categories discussed. Each category describes a specific ontological status of a given object. Postulating meanings of the categories is necessary because without an understanding of the categories, a clear grasp of the transformation between these different modes of an object’s social being would be difficult. 23


Chapter 2

The issue of whether there is an actual object of study for the field of religious studies, namely “religion,” has been debated heavily over the years. During the early twentieth century, Émile Durkheim, who along with Karl Marx and Max Weber founded the field of modern sociology and became a key figure within the field of religious studies, was already aware of problems with the concept of religion. In his case, Durkheim avoided some of these problems by turning to the concept of the sacred.1 Jonathan Z. Smith, one of the field’s most influential historians of religion, instigated much of the contemporary debate, stating in his 1982 publication Imagining Religion that the category of religion stems from the imagination of scholars who have constructed it. Smith’s assertions acted as the catalyst for an entire discourse within the field about whether such a thing as “religion” even exists “out there” in the real world. Interestingly, in Religion, Religions, Religious, J. Z. Smith’s book chapter in Mark C. Taylor’s widely read Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998), Smith implies that defining the term “religion” may only need a wider variety of description than typically occurs when defining terms. Pointing to the Psychological Study of Religion (1912), a book written by the American psychologist James H. Leuba in which Leuba offers more than fifty definitions of religion, Smith states: “The moral of Leuba is not that religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways” (281). It appears that Smith never actually wanted to dismiss the category of religion, and he was interested in the religious nature of a wide variety of seemingly nonreligious events. In Imagining Religion, for example, Smith examines how instances of mass suicide have historically occurred in religion. Thus, cases of mass suicide as occurred infamously with the People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, a cultural event not typically framed as religious, should be reevaluated and not discarded as crazy cult or superstition. Nevertheless, the category of “religion” has been problematic for religious studies scholars for a long time, and even more so since the publication of Smith’s work. Developing a real definition of the term is still often met with resistance in the field. In a controversial article published by the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR) in 2014, “On Essentialism and Real Definitions of Religion,” Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell provides religious studies scholars with an extensive discussion of how a real definition of religion has been argued against within the field. She then attempts to outline just such a definition, describing it as having necessary elements, which differ from both typical elements and stereotypical characteristics of religion: The necessary elements are those that must be present in order for something to be a religion. The typical elements are those that one would normally expect

Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig


a religion to have, but which cannot be necessary features because one could imagine cases of religion that lacked one or more of these characteristic (such as sacred texts or a clergy). The stereotypical characteristics are those which are often associated with religion in popular opinion even though they are neither essential to, nor typical of, religion (for instance, the association of religion with moral integrity, irrationality, or terrorism).2

Schaffalitsky’s article, one of the JAAR’s most downloaded papers in 2014, was subsequently critiqued by different religious studies scholars in a 2015 volume of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion.3 Although the critiques in the Bulletin were extensive, for the most part they did not get at the kernel of Schaffalitsky’s definition, which can be reduced to her presentation of the three basic elements. At the heart of Schaffalitsky’s definition of religion is the category of the necessary elements, which she believes rest at the core of those characteristics that all religions share. Integral to her definition is Schaffalitzky’s allowance for its amending should new information on religion come to light in the future. Nathan Rein, one of her paper’s detractors in the 2015 Bulletin volume mentioned, argues that this sort of fallibilistic definition of religion leads to a fuzzy circularity about what religion is.4 But it is not clear how offering a safeguard to a definition’s ability to change in the future should detract from the definition provided. This would be like saying that having Article V in the United States Constitution, which describes the rules for amending the Constitution, makes the Constitution as it stands irrelevant. Returning to Schaffalitzky’s necessary elements, they are of two types: 1) cognitive elements, or people’s mental states of belief, faith, hope, or fear, which are both deeply psychological and relate specifically to the supernatural; and 2) practical and normative elements, which are people’s actions directed toward the world in some way that demonstrate beliefs and practices.5 In explaining one of the boundaries of her definition, she states that it does not include the way of life of those people who have beliefs marked as supernatural, for example God, but who do not have any praxes that correlate with these beliefs: “A purely intellectual system of thought, with no practical and normative implications, would not be a religion. For instance, a person who held the belief that God exists would not be regarded as religious unless the belief also influenced her choices or general way of life in some way” (505). According to Schaffalitzky, a belief in God does not qualify a person as religious, and yet, how would one adequately describe this person’s system of belief? Schaffalitzky provides no clear answer. However, at the base of her definition, Schaffalitzky describes religion as a certain phenomenon in the world that is 1) cognitively related to the supernatural, and 2) has a variety of human activities associated with this cognition.


Chapter 2

Merinda Simmons, another detractor of Schaffalitzky’s theory, states that there is a problem with defining religion as a “belief in spiritual beings.”6 Simmons believes that academic work is, universally speaking, of a political nature7, and she states that Schaffalitzky’s focus on “belief in spiritual beings” as part of her definition “is not even close to neutral.”8 By “not even close to neutral,” Simmons apparently believes that this part of the definition is politically motivated. But Simmons does not expound on why the definition is not neutral, and it would be interesting to hear her reasons for this since the “belief in spiritual beings” is one of the two most basic components in Schaffalitzky’s definition. Others have also stipulated a connection between the belief in spiritual beings and a definition of religion, including Jonathan Z. Smith, whose definition of religion in the 1995 HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion reflects this and departs from the idea that religion needs to be defined in numerous ways: One may clarify the term religion by defining it as a system of beliefs and practices that are relative to superhuman beings. This definition moves away from defining religion as some special kind of experience or worldview. It emphasizes that religions are systems or structures consisting of specific kinds of beliefs and practices: beliefs and practices that are related to superhuman beings.9

Similar to the cognitive element at the heart of Schaffalitzky’s definition, Smith states that beliefs and practices are “religious” when they relate to superhuman beings. Several religious studies scholars have utilized J. Z. Smith’s definition, including Kevin Schilbrack, who incorporates some of its elements into his own stipulative definition of religion. He maps out the terminology in his journal article “A Realist Social Ontology of Religion.”10 Schilbrack agrees with Smith’s definition, adding that religion is “an interconnected set of belief, roles, practices, and institutions (‘forms of life’) . . . predicated on a belief in the existence of superhuman beings.”11 However, in a later article, “Mathematics and the Definition of Religion,” Shilbrack shifts from his use of “superhuman beings” in a monothetic definition of religion to that of “superempirical realities” in a polythetic definition of the concept of religion.12 Although Schilbrack’s polythetic definition broadens the concept of religion to include a wider variety of features, he maintains that it is not an “open” polythetic definition.13 Instead, it is an “anchored” polythetic definition, and the anchor (or necessary feature) is the existence of superempirical realities.14 For the purposes of this book, I postulate a meaning for the term “religion” that utilizes some of the fundamental pieces of the abovementioned definitions while also diverging from them on a few accounts. I acknowledge Schaffalitzky’s understanding of cognitive and practical elements stemming from a

Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig


belief in the supernatural as necessary in a concept of religion to explain how the original ontology of certain objects is of a religious nature. I also agree on some level with James Leuba, showing how numerous interpretations of the given objects’ first ontological statuses are part of their religious ontologies. However, in place of the terms “supernatural,” used by Schaffalitzky, and “superhuman beings,” used by J. Z. Smith, as well as Schilbrack’s use of “superempirical realites,” I prefer the term “superhuman reality.” The word “supernatural” is too far removed from the human social world, and the word “beings” is difficult to separate from a sense of “gods” or “deities.” A reality that is super to that of human reality, a superhuman reality, is a more appropriate term for those religious experiences that do not incorporate beings or entities. Schilbrack’s “superempirical realities” is unattractive because it is a complex term and the word “empirical” is right away associated with empirical evidence, empiricism, and the modern scientific method, all products of the Enlightenment. The word “human” is relevant to all people, regardless of whether they identify as religious, secular, or nonreligious. In addition to understanding religion as that which involves cognitive and practical elements stemming from a belief in a superhuman reality, I also consider the point that what makes defining religion difficult has to do with the fact that it is a part of social reality, as opposed to reality at large. Discussion of the “realness” of social reality has been covered well in the philosophy of social ontology, although it has received little coverage in the field of religious studies. Schilbrack is at the forefront of utilizing theories of social ontology to understand a concept of religion within the field of religious studies, and has recently developed his own realist social ontology of religion.15 Influenced by philosophers who have worked on social ontology to explain how humans shape the construction of the social world, Schilbrack explains that a practice or belief is part of a social activity that is different from other social activities. Religion is indeed “imagined” and thus the term “religion” does not have a referent in the world in the same way that words such as “frog” and “lightning” do.16 However, as Schilbrack asserts, something that exists only in the social world is still real and exists for the people who share and experience it and even for those who do not share it. Social ontology is helpful in understanding how religion is “real” even if it does not exist in the same way that entities such as mountains do, for example. Land formations exist independent of human subjectivity, whereas things like money, property, government, and marriages exist in the real world only because there is human agreement that they exist.17 The ontologies of these latter things, their very beings, are not determined by the brute facts of the world as are the ontologies of things like mountains. Regardless of any observer-relative features, a mountain is a large landform that rises up from the land. Money, on the other hand, is only a piece of paper worth something


Chapter 2

else if people collectively understand it as such. Otherwise, the brute facts of money only show us that money is a piece of paper or a bit of coin, but these brute facts are not what we collectively understand money to be. Concepts of religion are dependent upon human subjectivity. The next chapter discusses social ontology at length, specifically as pertains to the transformation of categories that occur, and how the being or meaning of an object or aspect of society depends on the collective imagination of that society. There are, of course, cases in which no collective understanding of something called, or translatable into, “religion” exists. In the instance of Chinese culture, for example, the institutional organization of religion is not indigenous to the place, and in fact the Chinese people never had a word equivalent to “religion” prior to the country’s interaction with European culture. The term and subsequent categorization of religions in China was a construct imposed on the Chinese and other non-Western communities by Western missionaries during the nineteenth century.18 However, as Schilbrack has also noted, in accord with foundational ideas within the field of social ontology, a concept or reality may exist even if the terminology does not (similar, a social ontologist might say, to the way that money or property exists even if there is no formal concept of it).19 Although it may be the case that theories of religion are part of the scholarly imagination, the objects of those theories, their referents, exist well beyond the world of the scholar. They are found embedded in the collective ideas and activities of society as related to a reality that is beyond the scope of human reality, that is, a superhuman reality. To say that religion is not a real thing or that it has no referent, as do scholars such as William Arnal, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Brent Nongbri, for example, is a confusion of ontological mode. The concept of a collective imagination as part of a realist social ontology of religion is integral to my own understanding of the concept of religion, as it is to my discussion in later chapters of how ontological transformation between the categories of the religious, the secular, and the re-sacralized is possible. For the purposes of this book, the term religion refers to an aspect of human life involving cognitive and practical elements that 1) stem from a belief in a superhuman reality, and 2) develop collectively within social reality. DETERMINING THE SECULAR AND THE NONRELIGIOUS Similar to the case of the term “religion,” determination of meaning for the word “secular” is complex. Lois Lee, a scholar in the area of nonreligion and secular studies, explains in Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the

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Secular (Oxford University Press, 2015), how classic secularization theory generally defines secularity as a condition or mode in which religion is absent or irrelevant, whereas recent work on secularism by scholars such as Talal Asad, Craig Calhoun, Geoffrey Braham Levey, and Tariq Modood, associates it with an ideology that is opposed to religion.20 In addition, within the area of secular studies, the concept of the secular is further convoluted by its fusion, inclusion, or exclusion of other terms in its definition, such as “irreligion,” “areligion,” “nonreligion,” “unbelief,” and “nontheism.”21 For the purposes of this book, the secular is understood mostly in its classical form whereby secularization is a process through which religion is simply removed, not necessarily opposed. In other words, looking back at the meaning of the term “religion” postulated above, secularization is a process through which cognitive and practical elements stemming from a belief in a superhuman reality are removed or not included. In the case of the “religious object,” secularization therefore refers simply to an understanding of the object as not including the original cognitive and practical elements stemming from a belief in a superhuman reality. However, I concur with Lee’s assertion that there is a particular sphere of involvement in the world called the sphere of “nonreligion,” which is distinct from that of the secular. This category comprises the wide variety of social and cultural forms that people experience in a way alternative to the experience of religion.22 Lee uses the term existential cultures to describe certain phenomena commonly associated with the concept of religion, primarily existential positions on the world related to the meaning and purpose of life, but in this case as connected to the sphere of nonreligion.23 Ann Taves has critiqued Lee’s use of the term existential cultures, claiming that Lee has not adequately explained how those who do not see the world in any existential manner, that is, those who are anti-existential, fit into the framework of religion and nonreligion.24 In place of Lee’s terminology, Taves proposes the use of the term, “worldview,” pointing to the term’s historical use in the philosophical literature and in the field of psychology. A big problem with the term “worldview,” however, is that it also has a strong and intimate historical connection to the Christian tradition, maintained today especially as an important term in the context of contemporary evangelicalism. Furthermore, the term “worldview” is used in a rather vapid way in its broader cultural context. Typing “Trump’s worldview” into Google will return thousands of references, for example, most of which do not pertain to the basic notion of something meaningful about life that Lee’s term “existential cultures” tries to encompass.25 Secular studies scholar Phil Zuckerman has described feelings of awe as integral to nonreligious experiences of the world, including experiences related to the birth of a child.26 Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology,


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has also worked over the past two decades on both the science of awe and the spiritual dimension of awe.27 He references childbirth as a prime moment in which the human emotion of awe is experienced. When participants in birth as a rite of passage make objects that were once religious sacred again, I contend that these re-sacralized objects are part of this sphere of nonreligion, not of secularity. Experiences of awe or existentiality surface and are part of this process of re-sacralization. Instead of using new terms to describe the ontological transformations of this study, I continue to use the categories of the religious, the secular, the re-sacralized, and the sacred. It is important, however, to determine how the term “sacred” will be used here. SOCIAL ONTOLOGY AND A SOCIOLOGY OF THE SACRED In determining the difference between that which is “religious” and that which is “sacred,” I turn primarily to Gordon Lynch’s theory of a sociology of the sacred, which itself stems from Émile Durkheim’s theories of a sacred–profane dichotomy at the heart of human experiences of religion and the world. Lynch has worked extensively on the topic of a sociology of the sacred, differing the sacred in this context from how it might be found within a sociology of religion. Just as forms of religious life, including the ways in which practices, ideas, objects, and symbols associated with religion have a wide sociological variety, so do cultural forms of the sacred. These cultural forms, Lynch determines, exist separately from forms of religious life: While there is clearly a degree of overlap between these two sociological projects, there are also important differences. Contemporary sacred forms often have a significant religious past, and sacred forms associated with particular religious traditions and communities play a part in the multiplicity of sacred forms within contemporary society. But the wider range of sacred forms that exert considerable influence over contemporary life cannot be easily encapsulated within the concept of “religion.”28

Lynch emphasizes how understanding the sacred forms of contemporary life entails not conflating them with forms of religious life, even though there may be some overlapping of the two: Gender, human rights, the care of children, nature, and the neo-liberal marketplace all have sacralized significance in modern social life, but our understanding of the nature and operation of these sacred forms is not helped by framing these as “religious” phenomena (6).

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One of the primary goals of Lynch’s work is to demarcate his theory of a cultural sociology of the sacred from ontological theories of the sacred. The latter, stemming from the theories of figures such as Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto, claims Lynch, are problematic because they universalize experiences of the sacred, defining the phenomenon of the sacred in a singular way, regardless of cultural context. Lynch’s cultural sociology of the sacred, by contrast, stems from Durkheim’s tradition of sociology, and is also influenced by contemporary writers such as Edward Shils, Robert Bellah, and Jeffrey Alexander. As Lynch explains, at the heart of the theoretical framework within which a Durkheimian understanding of the sacred exists, is an assertion that experiences of the sacred are heterogeneous, grounded in the body and in culture. However, while Lynch considers himself to be a neo-Durkheimian, he also wants to distance his own work from that which he describes as the social ontology of Durkheim’s theories. He sees these theories as problematic, perceiving them as tied to a certain universality that lies at the root of human experience. While this sense of the universal is quite different from that which emerges from the “ontological theories of the sacred” found in the work of Eliade and Otto, it still exists and Lynch would like to dispense of it: Durkheim’s understanding of the social source of sacred forms assumes that the power and significance of sacred forms derives from a universal trait of human experience—the experience of participating in the self-transcending reality of the social group. . . . While Durkheim’s understanding of the intersection of symbol, moral sentiment, practice, and collective experience and identity is essential for a cultural sociological theory of the sacred, his assumption that all sacred forms derive from a universal social ontology is unhelpful for nuanced analysis, and should be dispensed with (23).

Lynch’s resistance to the term “social ontology” rests in his understanding that ontology relates to that which is universal, and he does not want to universalize human experience. For the purposes of utilizing Durkheim’s theory while rejecting the social ontological aspect of it, Lynch claims that the sacred is not only experienced in a heterogeneous fashion across culture and history, but that it is also “non-contingent,” an aspect that assumedly makes the sacred form into an independent entity or something that is not a part of society: The enduring analytical value of Durkheim’s emphasis on the heterogeneity of the sacred is that it establishes that the radical otherness of sacred forms is experienced by their adherents as non-contingent—an absolute reality that stands over and above the mundane, contingent nature of everyday life. It is not necessary to assume that this radical otherness is the product of an underlying, common social ontology—the experience of being in society (24).


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It is perplexing that the foundation of Lynch’s cultural sociology of the sacred rests on an understanding that experiences of the sacred form, the heart of which is an experience of the form’s radical otherness, are not a product of an individual’s experience as part of society, of which culture is integral. Resistance to “the universal” when constructing theories about human experience often results in logical problems such as these. The assertion that we are all part of culture and have a diverse range of experiences of the sacred stemming from our individual cultural contexts is universalizing in a way similar to an assertion that we are all human beings who are born and die and have a diverse range of bodies and life experiences. The objective trunk to the tree in the latter—that we are all human beings who are born and die—is indisputable. That we have a wide range of physicality, psychology, and subjectivity beyond that trunk is part of the elaborate diversity that spreads like leaves beyond the objective roots of our physicality. Similarly, in the case of sacred forms of life, it is indisputable that these forms could stem from anything other than either our own individual ontology, or our collective social ontology. The sacred may take on many forms and not be experienced in a universal way across cultures nor be based in individual ontology. But it would be difficult to argue that the sacred is independent or non-contingent from societal experience. For the purposes of this book, I agree with Lynch along Durkheimian terms that an experience of the sacred is one through which an individual transcends mundane reality. This understanding of the sacred corresponds roughly with the identification of fullness that Charles Taylor has mapped out in A Secular Age (2007), although in Taylor’s case fullness is a term that also describes a person’s sense of God’s presence, and I am more interested in the term as it pertains to forms of nonreligious experience also described by Taylor. Such experience includes an awe of nature or a feeling of force or energy in the universe, for example. In Blessed Events (Princeton University Press, 2001), Pamela Klassen’s work on religion and spirituality as it occurs in the context of homebirth in America, Klassen uses the term “spirituality” to describe special nonreligious experiences of birth in North America: Most of the women I interviewed considered the choice to give birth at home to stem directly from their religious tradition, but every woman except one considered her baby’s birth to be a religious or, more frequently, a spiritual experience. The answer to my question “Was giving birth a religious or spiritual experience for you?” elicited a similar refrain from many women: “Religious, no; spiritual, yes.” (Klassen 65)

In my book, the term “spiritual” appears infrequently and I do not distinguish it from the term “sacred,” using them in an interchangeable way and

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when describing both religious experience and nonreligious experiences. An emphasis is made in this work to show how nonreligious experiences of birth are often perceived as sacred experiences. Social ontology, I contend, is a part of how the sacred is transmitted in society, and in particular how the ontologies of different objects, their very beings, are understood to be sacred. I now turn to explore the Sheela-na-gig, an object of particular interest to this study. Over the course of the next few chapters, it is my intention to track a transformation between the spheres of religion, secularity, and the sacred (in particular as occurs in a re-sacralized, nonreligious form), as present in the ontology of this object and others like it. THE SHEELA-NA-GIG The Sheela-na-gig [FIG 2.1], like the term, “religion,” has been a topic of scholarly debate over the years. The debate arises because the historical nature of the object’s original ontology remains unclear. This chapter shows that although interpretations of the object’s original meaning differ, they still share the commonality of describing beliefs and practices collectively understood as “religious” (related in some way to a superhuman reality) as integral to the object’s first ontology as a religious object. The Sheela-na-gig refers not to one object but to a type of medieval stone figure from Europe, often referred to simply as a “sheela,” whose original meaning has been interpreted in a number of ways. Scholars disagree on the origins of these objects, the data for which remains inconclusive. Yet, as this chapter contends, in all cases research shows that the object is part of a collectively understood tradition in which a belief or practice related to a superhuman reality exists—in other words, it is a religious object. Some of these theories describe the object in relation to pre-Christian rituals of birth and fertility, while others postulate different meanings that are associated with Christianity. As chapter 4 shows, the Sheela-na-gig is one of the clearest cases in which a religious object goes through ontological transition for contemporary women using it in birth as a rite of passage, regardless of its original social ontology. Sheela-na-gig, the anglicized form of the Irish term, Sigla na gćioch, is often translated as “Sheela of the breasts” and refers to a specific type of stone figure carving identifiable by the figure’s large vulva, which opens widely, some say grotesquely, while others claim it to represent the act of birth.29 Originally found in Ireland, Britain and on mainland Europe, the sheela figures measure between 9 and 90 centimeters and are still present in old churches, churchyards, and other fortifications.30 The majority of extant figures are in Ireland, which contains at least 110, with approximately 40 others


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Figure 2.1  A Twelfth Century Sheela-na-gig, Church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England. Source: © Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

in England, and a handful more in Scotland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, and France. Scholars generally agree that the figures date from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, although some have suggested dating as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. The figures are often bald with an upper bony body suggestive of old age. Much of the literature describes them as “crones” or “hags.” Aside from these features associated with old age, however, the Sheela-na-gig’s most distinctive characteristic is its full and enlarged vulva, which is suggestive of vitality and youth. Centered on the body and typically held open by the sheela’s own hands, the vulva becomes the focal point of the object. The original meaning and purpose of the sheelas remain unknown, but contesting theories as to their origins have circulated since the objects first came to scholarly attention in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century. Speculation and interest in the figure and its meaning have surged in various disciplines over the past few decades. The main theories follow three general directions: (1) the sheelas represent female divinity and motifs of birth and

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fertility, likely stemming from pagan understandings of female power; (2) the sheelas are associated with apotropaic devices used within the Church to ward off evil; or (3) the figures are connected to Christian warnings against lust and sin as propagated by the medieval Catholic Church. Within these divisions, scholars perceive of the Sheela-na-gig and its representation of the female body as either (1) religiously sacred, (2) religiously sacred-profane, or (3) religiously profane. The division between the sacred and profane, most famously described in Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), has influenced scholarship on religious studies over the course of the field. However, here I say, “religiously sacred” and “religiously profane” because I agree with scholars such as Gordon Lynch who have made the distinction between that which is “religious” and that which is “sacred.” Something in the world, such as space, music, or art can be sacred and not religious (Lynch 2014). I return to Lynch’ sociology of the sacred in later chapters when discussing the presence of sacred, nonreligious objects that are part of birth as a contemporary rite of passage. As shall be seen, this nonreligious identity is also part of the Sheela-na-gig’s ontology when the object is stripped of its religious ontology and used simply for labor and birth in the contemporary context. Barbara Freitag (2004), Georgia Rhoades (2010), and Rosemary Power (2012) have written excellent reviews of the academic literature available on the Sheela-na-gig, and I now turn to discuss the numerous scholarly interpretations of the object. Dividing the discussion into three sections that correlate with the main interpretive categories describing the Sheela-na-gig, namely the sacred, the profane, and the sacred-profane, I explain how on their most basic and primary social ontological level, the sheela figures are religious objects. A. THE SHEELA-NA-GIG AS SACRED RELIGIOUS OBJECT The first interpretive model of the Sheela-na-gig identifies the object as a sacred image of the female body used ritualistically during birth as a rite of passage. Barbara Freitag has written extensively on the Sheela-na-gig, publishing her findings in Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (Routledge 2004). The book includes a comprehensive historical review of the subject’s treatment within various areas of academic research. Freitag ultimately interprets the figure as a folk deity connected to medieval rural traditions of birth and death, claiming that especially in the case of Ireland, where one finds the largest concentration of sheelas, medieval countrywomen used the objects ritualistically during labor and birth. Early on in her book, Freitag refers to the


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research of twentieth-century Egyptologist, Margaret Murray (1863–1963).31 She uses Murray’s theory to explain that the Sheela figures represent one of three mother-goddess types: The “Personified Yoni” or “Baubo” type, in which an exaggerated focus on the female genitalia is present, associating them exclusively with fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. The two other mother-goddess models Murray discusses are the “Universal Mother,” an ancient model known throughout the world and characterized by full breasts, pregnant belly, and/or holding a child; and the “Divine Woman,” an attractive nude figure representing the young woman or virgin, whose sexual parts are not emphasized.32 With her bald head, flat chest and large vulva, the Sheela-na-gig cannot represent either of Murray’s other mother-goddess types. Although Freitag never fully embraces this theory, defining the sheelas as representations of a folk deity as opposed to a mother-goddess, she does endorse Murray’s assertion that the figures were likely revered for their overt connections to childbirth. This connection is clear, states Freitag, in that the sheelas’ enlarged vulvas represent an ideal passage from which a baby may be born. Although there are no known written accounts of how medieval country women used the sheelas, Freitag believes that she has found strong clues that women revered the objects and used them ritualistically for birth (Freitag 87). One such clue that Freitag examines is the way that women used birthstones during the Middle Ages. Relying heavily on the work of anatomist, medical educator, and historian of medicine Thomas Rogers Forbes (1911– 1988), who wrote The Midwife and the Witch (Yale University Press, 1966), Freitag describes how women applied these stones to their bodies during pregnancy and birth, and placed them on the genital area or legs during early labor (Freitag 76). Women may have used the smaller sheelas in a similar manner, suggests Freitag. Utilizing Audrey Meaney’s research from her 1981 publication Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones (British Archaeological Reports British Series), Freitag shows that there was a use of stones for birth that related to early pagan traditions. Christians in Scandinavia later appropriated these traditions and made use of stones as holy objects in the church. Freitag suggests that a similar type of appropriation occurred in the British Isles, describing an engraved onyx amulet at St. Alban’s Abbey in England that was kept in an elaborate shrine and loaned out to women who wanted to take it home for purposes of labor and childbirth. According to Meaney, “With an invocation to St Alban, it was laid between the woman’s breasts and then gradually moved down her body, for the infantulus fled the approaching stone.”33 She further supports her argument by detailing other references to the medieval use of holy stones for birth in the British Isles: A round piece of quartzite called St Olan’s Cap placed on top of the ogham inscribed pillar of St Olan’s Stone in Aghabulloge parish Co. Cork, which was

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believed to ensure a safe delivery, was frequently borrowed as a talisman by women in travail. Another such stone known as St Columcille’s Pillow was preserved on Tory Island. Logan lists three more holy stones – Our Lady’s Bed in Lough Gill, the praying altar on Inishmurray, both Co. Sligo, and St Kevin’s Bed in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow – which necessitated a ritual of three rounds of prayers or the touching of the stone to ensure that the woman would not die in childbirth. For the very same reason pregnant women also went to the top of the South peak on Skellig Rocks, Co. Kerry. And on the Scottish island of Rona where there is a chapel dedicated to St Ronan, a big plank of wood about 10 feet in length lies on its altar. Every foot has a hole in it and in every hole there is a stone to which the natives ascribe the virtue of ‘promoting speedy delivery to a woman in travail (Freitag 77–78).

Providing additional data on the material culture of birth, Freitag explains how medieval Irish women used a sacred statue of St. Brendan ritualistically to help in birth: A wooden statue of St. Brendan which was preserved on Inis Gluaire off the coast of Co. Mayo had the ability to empower anyone to assist women in labour if the following ritual was observed: the statue had to be raised three times in the name of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, and those hands that had raised the statue were then capable of helping the pregnant woman by touching her (82).

Freitag also lists examples of “birthgirdles” that women wore in a sacred way, a practice that connects the old pagan practice of using girdles for birth in Germany to the Christian practice of it, both in Germany and in England.34 Her research furthermore uncovers an example of English scrolls measured out to the length of Christ’s body (180 cm) and used ritualistically, placed upon a woman’s womb to help in the delivery of her child (Freitag 80). These examples offer evidence that medieval women did use objects ritualistically and in a sacred way for birth, and that a broader belief in strong talismanic powers between material objects and animate bodies existed during medieval times. Important to Freitag’s theory about the sheela’s original meaning is the data she uses to describe a collective understanding during the social reality of medieval times that a woman’s vulva should enlarge significantly during birth. Referencing Britta-Juliane Kruse’s extensive 1996 work in German on the history of women’s medicine in the Late Middle Ages (Verborgene Heilkünste. Geschichte der Frauenmedizin im Spätmittelalter), Freitag describes in much detail how part of a midwife’s job during medieval times included “stretching” the birthing mother’s vulva, indicating both a visual and an intellectual connection to the enlarged vulva and an optimal birth.


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Specifically, the midwife would use various lubricants, including oils, butters, lards, and egg whites to help with lubrication and the widening of the birth passage. Other techniques included having the woman sit over a hot cauldron or vapors of special herbs so as to soften the woman’s passage, allowing the baby to emerge more smoothly (Freitag 85). With this focus on enlarging the vulva for optimal birth in mind, Freitag suggests that the Sheela-na-gig’s most prominent feature, that of its enlarged vulva, acts a strong formal clue that women used the object to visualize birth for themselves: The most obvious clue is the seemingly grotesque-looking lower abdomen of the sculpture. The cavernous oval-shaped vulva, pointed to or held open by her hands, often shown as swollen or sagging, mostly pointing downwards, and in some cases so big as to reach the ground, finds a perfect explanation: it expresses the physical state pregnant women craved and worked for. It shows the desirable degree of dilation of the cervix immediately before, during or after childbirth. Touching a vulva so indicative of parturition surely must have filled pregnant women with the hope and energy necessary to push on with their own business (Freitag 88).

In addition to her research on medieval birthstones, midwifery manuals, and her own formal analysis of the object, Freitag develops her thesis on the Sheela-na-gig’s origins from Margaret Murray’s work on mother-goddess figures. She also uses the research of Anne Ross (1967, 1973), whose extensive work on pagan Celtic religions led Ross to believe that the Sheela-na-gig did in fact represent a Celtic goddess. Other influences in Freitag’s work include the twentieth-century research of Robert Macalister (1931), Edith Guest (1937) and Etienne Rynne (1967). Macalister understood the sheela figures as part of a Celtic resurgence in opposition to the Christian church, while both Rynne and Guest associated them with pagan symbols of fertility. Additionally, Erling Rump’s interpretation of the sheela figure as that of an Ecclesia giving birth (1976) encourages Freitag in her view that the enlarged vulva of the sheela figures is associated with birth. Murray, Ross, Guest, Macalister, Rump, and Freitag represent a long line of scholars whose fundamental thesis rests on the assertion that the Sheela-na-gig is connected to a concept of female divinity or a power that is religiously sacred. Recent dissertations agreeing with this idea include those of E. Ann Pearson (2001) and Ronnie T. Stout-kopp (2010), as does Maureen Concannon’s book on the figure (2004). Georgia Rhoades, a feminist rhetorician, provides an interesting interpretive alternative (2010) that the sheela is an image of female pleasure and empowerment, particularly in relation to the sexuality of old women (Rhoades 190). Although all of these scholars differ in the details associated with the Sheelana-gig’s meaning, they agree that the sheelas were collectively understood

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in a given social reality as connected to a superhuman power of the female form. Based on the definition of religion set forth earlier on in this book, the object understood in this way can therefore be considered a religious object.

THE SHEELA-NA-GIG AS SACREDPROFANE RELIGIOUS OBJECT The second interpretative category of Sheela-na-gig scholarship views the object from the religious lens of Christianity, and as a merging of the sacred and profane in the female form. This category stems especially from the ideas of Danish art historian Jørgen Andersen. Andersen’s published dissertation The Witch on the Wall (1977) represents the first full-length examination of the sheela figures, and many art dictionaries, museum guides, and other academic literature repeat his theories in their own written material. Andersen’s argument rests on his findings of a sheela-type figure in the Romanesque tradition of medieval French exhibitionist carving. The finding, according to him, represents a clear blueprint from which the sheelas of the British Isles arose: The sheela shows a somewhat baffling development within the Western world, but there is nothing very mysterious about her existence. She belongs with the alluring shapes and the monster combats in the sub-world of Romanesque art, where an erotic colouring of the troubles of mankind are always a possibility.35

Andersen’s confidence rests strongly on what he sees as the formal similarities between French corbel acrobatic figures and the sheela figures. One example Andersen gives is that of a corbel acrobat at St. Quantin de Rançanne, located in southwestern France. On that particular figure, Andersen states: “A corbel acrobat at St. Quantin de Rançanne has developed into a veritable sheela, in her seated posture with vulva open to view” (53). Beyond the visual similarities, Andersen also feels strongly that the medieval dating of these corbel figures suggests their importation from France to the British Isles: Even before the middle of the 12th century, in Western France, images existed featuring some basic characteristics of the medieval sheela, and their existence, undisturbed by the centuries, makes it increasingly likely that the sheela motif, along with other Romanesque motifs, may be regarded as an import into the British Isles from the continent (56).

Andersen explains that the motifs may also have traversed land and sea as a result of political conquest:


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Romanesque motifs from France may have reached the British Isles not only through the impressions brought back by pilgrims, but also of course as a result of the Norman conquest and the ensuing union, in the 12th century, of large parts of Western France with England, with Henry II reigning from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees. After Saintonge, Normandy is a likely part of France in which to try and trace the sheelas, or acrobatic subjects of an erotic nature, and one does not look in vain for such themes; they figure on some of the small, but richly decorated country churches from half of the century (56).

The French corbel acrobats and other figures like them, Andersen explains, are often offensive, displaying the genitals or anus. He hypothesizes that they found their way onto churches in France as both an expression of exhibitionist humor made manifest by the medieval carver, and more seriously, as related to the sentiments of medieval Christian moralists. In the latter case, Romanesque carvers depicted the female body as a gateway to hell: Moralists tended to regard woman as the gateway to the pleasures of the flesh; they adhered to an idea about the irresistible and destructive power of physical love, a conception which has been shown to have penetrated even into the French Tristan literature of the 12th century (Andersen 62).

These moral sentiments, suggests Andersen, are connected to conflicting ideas about women, as is present in religious figures such as Mary, the chaste; and Eve, the sinful. As a result, Romanesque carvers employed by churches made material representations of women, depicting them as either beautiful or grotesque (Andersen 63). Andersen claims that the Romanesque carving from eleventh-century western France eventually merged with an Irish carving tradition influenced by early Celtic workmanship. In looking at the iconography of several figures in which pagan motifs occur, including those related to fertility, Andersen contends that the medieval Irish carver was more likely influenced by Christian carving traditions than by those related to a pagan past in Ireland, although he admits that there does appear to be an awareness of pre-Christian tradition in the way that the sheelas appear: Links between the tradition outlined here and a sheela of such demonic aspect as the Seir Kieran figure can only be guessed at, but no doubt an admixture of paganism did direct the hand of the carver and colour the dark practices which must have grown up around this particular image, with its traces of fertility beliefs, whether medieval or later or both. In summing up of the figure one may say that certain features suggest an awareness of paganism, but the overall appearance is medieval or cannot be conceived within the tradition of pre-Christian Irish figure carving as we know it (90).

Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig


Although Andersen notes the representation of female activity and power as it occurs historically in Irish heritage and the Celtic tradition, he emphasizes the dual nature of the Celtic goddess—that of a goddess/hag figure—in his explanations of the mythological origins of some of the goddesses, effectively shadowing the “good” with the “bad.”36 Andersen’s ideas here are strongly influenced by the work of twentieth-century Irish scholar, Vivian Mercier (1919–1989), who authored a similar theory (1961) about the Celtic goddess’ dual nature.37 Mercier believed on the one hand that the sheelas were non-literary material representations of the macabre and grotesque humor surrounding the topics of sex and death in Ireland.38 This sense of humor, he claimed was present in the literary materials of the Early Irish Period (medieval literary period dating to 1200 or possibly 1250).39 Mercier based his claim on the mid-twentieth century writing of French linguist and literary scholar Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (1900– 1940), whose work revolved around the topic of Celtic gods and goddesses (see translation, 1949).40 Sjoestedt herself never addressed the Sheela-na-gig figure, and according to Mercier, she was completely unaware of the figure’s presence in Ireland.41 Instead, Sjoestedt was interested more broadly in the identities of Celtic goddesses in Ireland, and Mercier interpreted characteristics of these identities as correlating with the sheela figures.42 Mercier was especially interested in the merging of seemingly opposing characteristics, including those of fertility and destruction, or childbirth and war. Sjoestedt described the Celtic goddess as a figure defined in terms of these opposing characteristics, pointing to representation of the goddess’ bi-dimensionality as it appears in medieval Irish mythology.43 Epitomized in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, a well-known tale of the period, the goddess emerges in her monstrous form, Sjoestedt writes.44 Mercier related the Sheela-na-gig to Sjoestedt’s description of the Celtic goddess in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.45 Theorizing that the Sheela-na-gig was actually a representation of a Celtic goddess capable of destruction and creation, Mercier also believed that her appearance as an old woman related to a particular Irish sense of sardonic comedy.46 Andersen’s theory about the sheela’s original meaning concurs with Mercier’s understanding of the figure’s dual nature. Like Mercier, he also points to a more general sense of fear and dislike for women that often accompanies the recognition of female power in the context of Irish culture.47 In his writing, Andersen commonly juxtaposes the profane aspects of the female form when discussing the powerful or sacred qualities perceived in women. From Andersen’s emphasis on this dualism emerges his ultimate claim that between the two cultures of France and Ireland, an appropriation occurred: The exhibitionist corbel Norman motif transformed into the Sheela-na-gig, a pagan-influenced Christian object used apotropaically to protect ecclesiastical and secular buildings alike from evil forces. Andersen bases his final conclusion on references to superstitious medieval traditions whereby sight of


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the female genitals was supposedly powerful enough to ward off (or perhaps repulse) demons. Andersen also refers to Sigmund Freud’s essay on Medusa (1941), which examines the medieval tradition of a woman’s skirt-raising and genital exhibitionism as an act to scare off the Devil himself. Like Andersen, Mercier concludes that the sheela’s primary function relates to apotropaism. More recently, scholars such as Jennifer Regan Borland (2006) and Rosemary Power (2012) have agreed with the interpretation, although they both emphasize the apotropaic device as something bound to a sense of female power, which diminishes those aspects that may lead to an understanding of the Sheela-na-gig as a negative representation of the female form. In their cross-cultural work on ancient and medieval sacred figures displaying genitalia, Miriam Robbins Dextor and Victor H. Mair also interpret the sheela figures as apotropaic devices. Based on the placement of the figures above doors to churches and castles, they view the figures as powerful protectors of sacred places.48 Theresa Oakley’s research (2009) resists categorization, and the author provides material to suggest that the meaning of the sheela figures shifted over time and depends on location. She provides some evidence for the sheela’s apotropaic functions while also discussing spirituality and sacredness as integral to the object. Scholars who view the Sheela-nagig as an apotropaic device typically depict the object as having both sacred and profane functions: profane in that the vulva represents a mundane or grotesque part of the female body, and yet sacred in that the object acts in otherworldly fashion, capable of warding off evil. THE SHEELA-NA-GIG AS PROFANE RELIGIOUS OBJECT A third interpretive category views the Sheela-na-gig as profane and related solely to a medieval sense of sin, lust, and disgust for the flesh. This interpretation comes primarily from the work of Anthonly Weir and James Jerman, whose Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (Routledge 1986) attempts to snuff out any possibility that the meaning of the Sheela-nagig relates to a sense of female empowerment or sacredness. Whereas Andersen explores a duality of positive and negative female power as present in the Sheela-na-gig, Weir and Jerman see only one side: a Christian representation of woman as sinful and the cause of man’s fall. Drawing from Anderson’s theory, the authors are unwavering in their assertion that the Sheela-na-gig’s origins are founded on the continental Romanesque architecture devoted to sexual exhibitionism. Yet, unlike Anderson, Weir and Jerman interpret the figures as didactic representations that depict women as evil, a sentiment they see as correlating with the anti-feminism of the Church during the twelfth century. Weir and Jerman view the Sheela-na-gig as unrelated to pagan and

Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig


Celtic activities and, instead, as a direct result of the transmission of Christian themes of sin expressed in designs of continental architecture. They understand the Sheela-na-gig as unsacred and connected to medieval understandings of the female body and the vulva as profane. This third interpretation of the sheela figures situates their social ontology squarely within the realm of a collectively understood profane meaning, and yet this profaneness is intimately bound to the Christian religion. Without a grasp of the beliefs and practices associated with this collectively understood Christian social reality, the object described in this context loses its meaning. Thus, even as a profane object, the Sheela-na-gig in this case is still a religious object. As will be discussed in later chapters of this book, there is a firm contemporary social ontology integral to the Sheela-na-gig that differs from the meanings mentioned thus far, and which includes interpretation as a secular object. Even in its historical context, however, we see a common thread running through all of the theories described above: The object’s meaning is interpreted in some way—be it in a sacred, profane, or sacred–profane way—as intimately bound to the concept of religion postulated earlier in the chapter. Returning to the discussion at the beginning of this chapter and to my postulated definition of religion, we see that in the case of the sheela figures, even when interpreted differently, the figures still share a basic commonality whereby groups of people have collectively developed beliefs and practices connected in some way to a superhuman reality. In other words, the objects are in all cases understood as “religious.” This chapter has made the case that there are objects in the world that are described under a category of “religion.” The Sheela-na-gig is one such object. Its original social ontology, although inconclusive and disagreed upon by scholars, still rests within the category of religion. In chapter 4, I return to the figure of the Sheela-na-gig to demonstrate how religious objects undergo an ontological transformation when secularized during birth as a contemporary rite of passage. I also describe the same transformation as it takes place in the cases of other such objects, and in chapter 5, I will again return to the object to explore cases in which it is re-sacralized, often in a non-religious way, in relationship to the rituals of birth. This chapter has focused on the Sheela-na-gig because the object offers such an excellent example of the ontological transformation that will be described as at the heart of this book. In the cases of the other objects studied, a similar process of transformation emerges. NOTES 1. Gordon Lynch, On the Sacred (Bristol, Connecticut: Acumen Publishing, 2012), 23.


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2. See Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell’s, “On Essentialism and Real Definitions of Religion,” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82, no. 2 (2014): 495–520, 508. 3. Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44, no. 4 (2015). See responses to Schaffalitzky’s paper from J. Aaron Simmons, Nathan Rein, and K. Merinda Simmons. 4. Ibid., 12. 5. Schaffalitzky, “On Essentialism and Real Definitions of Religion,” 508. 6. Merinda Simmons, “Worlds Apart: The Essentials of Critical Thinking,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44, no. 4 (2015): 26–33, 28. 7. Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44, no. 4 (2015): 27. 8. Ibid., 28. 9. Jonathan Z. Smith, ed., The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 893. Smith’s full definition continues: “Superhuman beings are beings who can do things ordinary mortals cannot do. They are known for their miraculous deeds and powers that set them apart from humans. They can be either male or female, or androgynous. They need not be gods or goddesses, but may take on the form of an ancestor who can affect lives. They may take the form of benevolent or malevolent spirits who cause good or harm to a person or community. Furthermore, the definition requires that such superhuman beings be specifically related to beliefs and practices, myths and rituals. Defining religion as a system of beliefs and practices relative to superhuman beings excludes Nazism, Marxism, or secularism as religions. This definition also excludes varieties of nationalism and civil quasi-religious movements,” 893–894. 10. Kevin Schilbrack, “A Realist Social Ontology of Religion,” in Religion 47, no. 2 (2017): 161–178. 11. Ibid., 166. 12. Kevin Schilbrack, “Mathematics and the Definition of Religion,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 83, no. 2 (2018): 145–160. 13. Ibid., 157. Shilbrack lists five features: A. Be predicated on the existence of superempirical realities; B. Teach a moral code; C. Promise a path to overcoming human suffering; D. Distinguish those who participate as a community from those who do not; E. Rank all of one’s values by identifying one’s ultimate concern. 14. Ibid., 158. 15. Schilbrack, “A Realist Social Ontology of Religion,” 166. 16. Ibid., 162. 17. This is a fundamental point made in classic theories of social ontology. See: John Searle’s, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: Free Press, 1995); and John Searle’s, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010). 18. See Vincent Goossaert “The Concept of Religion in China and the West,” Diogenes 52, no. 1 (2005): 13–20; Goossaert, The Daoists of Peking: 1800–1949 – A Social History of Urban Clerics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007). 19. Schilbrack, “A Realist Social Ontology of Religion,” 167. 20. Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 9–10.

Religious Objects and the Sheela-na-gig


21. Ibid., 8. 22. Ibid., 13. 23. Ibid., 159–160. 24. Ann Taves, “On the Virtues of A Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life,” Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) Blog: Methods Series, October 4, 2016, https​://ns​​t/201​6/10/​04/me​thods​-seri​es-on​-the-​virtu​es-of​-a-me​aning​syst​ems-f​ramew​ork-f​or-st​udyin​g-non​relig​ious-​and-r​eligi​ous-w​orldv​iews-​in-th​e-con​ text-​of-ev​eryda​y-lif​e/#_e​dn7 accessed on November 12, 2016. 25. Religious Studies scholar Todd Weir has been researching this same issue and the history of the German term and concept of “worldview” (“Weltanschauung”). See Todd Weir, “The Worldview Bubble,” University of Groningen News Articles, June 19, 2018, https​://ww​w.rug​.nl/n​ews/2​018/0​6/the​-worl​dview​-bubb​le. 26. See Phil Zuckerman, Living the Secular Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 205. 27. See Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, “Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion,” Cognition and Emotion 17, no. 2 (2003): 297–314. 28. Gordon Lynch, The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6. 29. For a detailed discussion of the problem of meaning in the name, “Sheela-nagig,” including alternative meanings, see Barbara Freitag’s, Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 52–67; or Georgia Rhoades, “Decoding the Sheela-na-gig,” Feminist Formations 22, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 167–194. 30. Freitag, Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, 3. 31. See especially Murray’s ‘“A Sheila-na-gig” Figure at South Tawton,” in MAN 36 (1936); “Female Fertility Figures,” in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 64 (1934); and Margaret Murray and A.D. Passmore, “The Sheela-na-gig at Oaksey,” in MAN, no. 86 (1923): 140–141. 32. Ibid. 33. Freitag, Sheela-Na-Gig: Unravelling an Enigma, 77, from Audrey Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones (United Kingdom: British Archaeological Reports British Series, 1981), 230. 34. “This view (German birth girdles used by Christian priests) is indeed corroborated in a letter of inventory of the sacred relics at the convent of St. Austin in Bristow (England), dated 1536, where we find the following statement: ‘I send you also our Ladies girdle of Bruton, red silk. Which is a solemn relic, sent to women travailing, which shall not miscarry in partu. I send you also Mary Magdalene’s girdle: and that is wrapped and covered with white: sent also with great reverence to women travailing. Which girdle Matilda the Empress, founder of Ferley, gave unto them, as saith the holy father of Ferley’. Some birthgirdles were explicitly the length of the image of a saint. A fourteenth-century Austrian codex advises pregnant women to measure a cord as long as the picture of St. Sixtus and girdle her belly with it for a safe delivery. Then there were long scrolls with the Magnificat or lengthy prayers written upon them which ‘women in travail’ wrapped around them” (Freitag, Sheela-Na-Gig: Unravelling an Enigma, 79–80).


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35. Jørgen Andersen, The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Sculpture in the British Isles (London: Allen & Unwin, 1977), 47. 36. Ibid., 94–95. 37. Vivian Mercier, “Samuel Beckett and the Sheela-na-gig,” The Kenyon Review 23, no. 2 (Spring, 1961): 299–324. Freitag also discusses the intellectual connection between Andersen’s ideas and Mercier’s. 38. Ibid., 315. 39. Ibid. 40. Ibid., 306 (See: Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts, trans. Myles Dillon (London: Methuen, 1949)). 41. Mercier, “Samuel Beckett and the Sheela-na-gig,” 306. 42. Freitag, Sheela-Na-Gig: Unravelling an Enigma, 32. 43. Freitag Sheela-Na-Gig: Unravelling an Enigma, 32; Mercier, “Samuel Beckett and the Sheela-na-gig,” 307. 44. Mercier, “Samuel Beckett and the Sheela-na-gig,” 306–307. 45. “For Mercier this seemed to be a description not just of the triplicate war goddess, but surely also of the Sheela-na-gig. He checked this passage in the most recent edition of the tale to discover that instead of ‘pudenda’ the translator, Eleanor Knott, spoke of the first hag’s ‘lower lip’ reaching her knees. Of the second it was said that ‘her lower beard was reaching as far as the knee’. Both these, what Mercier termed bowdlerized, descriptions of the most prominent feature of the stone carvings reinforced his belief ‘that those Sheela-na-gigs whose skeletal upper halves contrast so sharply with their sexual lower halves are indeed representations of a goddess or goddesses who can both destroy and create’” Freitag, Sheela-Na-Gig: Unravelling an Enigma, 33 (Mercier quote from: Vivian Mercier, The Irish Comic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962, 55). 46. Freitag, Sheela-Na-Gig: Unravelling an Enigma, 33. 47. Andersen, The Witch on the Wall, 94. 48. Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor H. Mair, “Sacred Display: New Findings,” in Sino-Platonic Papers 240 (September 2013): 1–122, 26.

Chapter 3

The Social Ontology of Birth

This book is about how the ontology of objects, and specifically religious objects, undergoes a process of transformation during birth as a rite of passage. Ontology, a branch of metaphysics, refers to the philosophical study of “being” (from the Greek ōn, a participle of to be), and this chapter presents a theory of ontology as it relates to the being (or existence) of objects used during birth. The ideas here, however, are primarily concerned with the social ontology of these objects. Social ontology in this case pertains to how people collectively understand the birth objects as having a particular meaning, especially in relationship to meanings of religiousness, sacredness, and secularity. With its emphasis on how these categories are collectively understood, the social ontology of birth has an impact on our understanding of religion within the field of religious studies, a topic discussed in the previous chapter. As stated there, the reality of religion, like the reality of money, exists because social groups collectively imagine it to exist. The main point of this book is not to provide a concept of religion. It provides a social ontology of birth, showing how the meaning of physical objects used during the rituals of birth has the capacity to shift drastically in the context of our social world, even while the materiality of a given object remains the same. This chapter is of most interest to scholars working within the areas of either the philosophy of religion or social ontology. For those who are less interested in the theoretical underpinnings of social ontology described in this book, full descriptions of the ontological transformations that take place in religious imagery during birth as a rite of passage (between the spheres of religion, secularity, the re-sacralized, and the sacred) can still be understood by reading chapters 4, 5, and 6. In this chapter, I map out the classic theory of social ontology and explain its implications on a theory of ontological transformation in the context of 47


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birth rituals. Philosophers such as John Searle, Raimo Tuomela, Michael Bratman, Margaret Gilbert, and Amie Thomasson have worked extensively on the topic of social ontology. For the purposes of this chapter, which are to provide a very basic understanding of social ontology, I refer primarily to Searle’s ideas. They are widely known and foundational to the area of social ontology, as can be seen in the reading of any major work on the topic (including the way the topic occurs within cognitive science, social science, and the humanities) that post-dates Searle’s 1995 book The Construction of Social Reality. Searle’s later work on the topic, Making the Social World (2010), as well as his ideas on how the human mind relates to the external world, is also influential to theories of social ontology.1 While Searle’s largest impact has been in the field of analytic philosophy, other areas of scholarship have also been affected. The influence can be seen on major publications about social ontology, such as Perspectives on Social Ontology and Social Cognition (Springer 2014), which brings together scholarship from diverse fields such as anthropology, economics, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience.2 An entire group of continental philosophers, primarily Italian and led by scholars such as Maurizio Ferraris, Tiziana Andina, and Andrea Borghini, is similarly influenced by Searle’s work on social ontology, though the group rejects many of the fundamental features of the philosophy. Religious studies scholars have been interested in Searle’s ideas on social ontology to some extent too, although not many have gone in depth to utilize the philosopher’s work. Kevin Schilbrack has over the past decade used Searle’s theory of social ontology to defend the concept of “religion” as a whole, referring specifically to Searle’s ideas on how socially dependent facts are both ontologically subjective and epistemically objective.3 As discussed in chapter 2, Schilbrack has most recently developed his own realist social ontology of religion. His theories are on the forefront of the fruit that religious studies scholars can find when using social ontology to study religion. John Mohr and Roger Friedland have also remarked on the value of social ontology’s commitment to an understanding of ontology as something socially related.4 While initially excited about Searle’s ideas, however, Mohr and Friedland ultimately dismiss the philosopher’s approach, claiming that Searle’s understanding of a socially constructed ontology depends too much on the institution of language. Mohr and Friedland provide no concrete examples to counter Searle’s assertion that language has primacy over other aspects of human experience. They state that “Searle’s approach privileges language over other bodily or technical experiences or practices.”5 By detailing the ontological transitions that take place in the religious objects of my study, I explain the utility of Searle’s theory, while also shedding light through concrete examples to demonstrate how such transition indicates the importance of social ontology in our understandings of material

The Social Ontology of Birth


representation. Material culture and other forms of communication could in fact constitute a form of language. Other religious studies scholars have been critical of Searle’s philosophy, but these criticisms often revolve around the philosopher’s theory of consciousness and not his explanation of the interrelationship between social and ontological spheres. For example, religious studies scholar Edward Slingerland criticizes Searle for approaching the human mind in dualistic fashion.6 For those familiar with Searle’s work, it comes as no surprise to find that Slingerland and others critique him in this way. This notion of dualism will come up when I explain Searle’s philosophy of perception, or how humans interact with the world, including how pregnant women mentally visualize objects from the external world in preparation for birth. As I show toward the end of the chapter, an interesting problem arises in Searle’s philosophy of mind (intimately connected to his theory of social ontology) when one considers an aspect of certain birth rituals. When objects are used for visualization purposes during birth or in preparation for the event, the ontological status of the mental image is neither objective nor subjective but somewhere in between. Searle contends that mental content can never in itself be an object. A clear case that mental content is not entirely subjective, however, emerges when a specific type of mental phenomenon, the visualized birth object, is recognized as dissimilar to other mental phenomena (such as memories, dreams, hallucinations, passing thoughts). I propose that evidence of how this type of mental content is categorically different is possible in cases of birth where physiological transformation of the human body is connected to the visualization of a mental object. The metaphysical status of any material object, its actual physical being, is by nature a part of its social ontology (e.g., cash money is made of paper and the paper is part of money’s “ontology.” This ontology is not equivalent to the money’s “social ontology,” though without any physical being, in this case paper cash, there would be no social ontology). Before discussing any object’s social ontology, therefore, I briefly explain ontology more broadly and the ontological status of objects in the world. Also integral to an understanding of social ontology is epistemology, or the study of the nature of knowledge. Without an understanding of the basic ways in which people can think or know about the object at hand, there is no connection between the object’s physical ontology and the collective understanding that makes up its social ontology. I do not want this discussion of metaphysics, epistemology, and social ontology to appear complicated because it is actually quite simple: I will show how four philosophical components—two metaphysical and two epistemic—interact with one another in the construction of a social ontology that relates to collectively understood objects used in birth. These components are ontological objectivity, ontological subjectivity, epistemic


Chapter 3

subjectivity, and epistemic objectivity. These four components and the interactions between them are the building blocks for the social ontological status of objects, including those objects used in birth. For those readers who are less interested in all of the details of the theory but who would still like a basic grasp of the idea before reading the later chapters, feel free to refer to the descriptive diagrams presented later in the chapter. These diagrams depict the ontological components described. After understanding the ways in which metaphysics and epistemology relate to the object’s social ontology, we can then move on to discuss how this ontology undergoes transformation between the categories of the religious, the secular, and the re-sacralized, as well as the autonomous category of the sacred. Chapters 2, 4, 5, and 6 are devoted to those categories. ONTOLOGY AND SOCIAL ONTOLOGY Ontology, and metaphysics more broadly, are key subjects within the traditions of both analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. These two traditions differ in their approaches to ontology, often radically, however, and it is not within the breadth of the work here to discuss all of these differences. Yet, on a basic level, the difference between the two relates to a focus on the ontological essence of an entity (a primary concern of the analytic philosopher) versus a deep interest in the entity’s ontological experience of the world (which is more common to the continental philosopher’s work). This distinction comes out strongly in the continental tradition, with a focus on existence stemming much from Existentialism, beginning with the ideas of Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1885) and developing in France with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), as with the philosophical hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), especially as found in his master oeuvre Being and Time (1927). To say that an object’s ontology can change, or for that matter that the ontology of anything can change, is no light matter. An important part of an object’s ontology is its physical makeup; thus, one should be careful when expressing ideas about ontological changes or transformations of an object. When I talk about an object such as the Sheela-na-gig and the ontological transformations that it undergoes, I am not stating that the stone-ness of her being transforms into clay, plastic, metal, or some other substance. The main reason to utilize a theory of social ontology is that it takes into account an object’s physical materiality and then provides a crisp theoretical board from which the ontological transition of an object can be explained. To be clear, therefore, in subsequent chapters, social ontology (as opposed to simple

The Social Ontology of Birth


“ontology”) is the type of ontology referenced when discussing the ontological transformation that the Sheela-na-gig and other objects undergo during the rituals of birth. In The Construction of Social Reality (CSR), Searle begins his discussion on social ontology by explaining that the human social world, or social reality, comprises facts from two fundamental ontological categories: “brute facts,” which are noninstitutional and are based on the physical world, and “institutional facts,” which depend on the faculty of human agreement (Searle CSR 2). The former category encompasses all aspects of our world that are devoted to its scientific makeup, independent of human experience or institutions. Although many scientific theories are problematic and remain to be proven, Searle believes that two scientific theories—the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology—are indisputable and form the foundation for an objective ontological reality descriptive of all matter in our world. Within this scientific ontological framework, however, exists a second separate, distinct, and real world, which is the reality of the social world. It is within this reality that we do not experience material objects as merely material objects. This second ontological category devoted entirely to social reality comprises the world and its contents and can be broken down into three fundamental elements: function, collective intentionality, and constitutive rules. Here is a brief outline of these elements, described succinctly in The Construction of Social Reality. These elements are quite basic and understanding them is straightforward. I will then explain how each element pertains to the birth objects of this book’s study. The first element of classic social ontology is function. Humans experience many objects not according to their intrinsic and scientific ontologies, but in relation to the objects’ functions within their social contexts. These social functions differ from scientific functions in that they are intentional, observer-relative, and independent of a causal structure.7 Collective intentionality, the second element, refers to shared intentional states, including belief, desire, and intention. Searle also believes that animals express collective intentionality, and he thinks that this intentionality is attached to collective behavior, which he sees as something biologically innate. However, although animal collective intentionality is a type of social fact, it is not institutionalized in any way (it is not an institutional fact). In explaining an animal’s capacity for collective intentionality, Searle explains this social behavior that is still lacking in institution.8 Searle also does not think that collective intentionality is composed of individual intentionalities. He thinks that singular intentions are part of and derived from the collective intentionality that individuals share. Searle adamantly states that collective intentionality can neither be reduced to


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individual intentionality, nor can it be described as a collective consciousness or a “super mind floating over individual minds”: It is indeed the case that all my mental life is inside my brain, and all your mental life is inside your brain, and so on for everybody else. But it does not follow from that that all my mental life must be expressed in the form of a singular noun phrase referring to me. The form that my collective intentionality can take is simply “we intend,” “we are doing so-and-so,” and the like. In such cases, I intend only as part of our intending. The intentionality that exists in each individual head has the form “we intend.” (CSR 26)

Searle’s meaning here (which is devoted to the idea that collective intentionality is a special type of mental cooperation between individuals that cannot be reduced to a collection of individual intentionalities) is well expressed in his diagram of the topic (CSR 26). Another example Searle gives is of a violinist who plays a part in a (collective) symphony performance, and of an offensive lineman playing a part in a (collective) football game as representative of collective intentionality (CSR 23). In these cases the individual’s performance, while distinct, is organically part of a larger performance; the individual thinks at the level of the whole, not at that of the part. Searle’s third element, constitutive rules, is perhaps best explained when contrasted with regulative rules. Searle offers the examples of driving a car and playing chess to demonstrate the difference between these two types of rules. While driving has rules, one can perform the task of driving without these rules; so the rules of driving are regulative and not constitutive of driving (the rules do not necessarily constitute what it is to drive). However, the rules of chess are integral to what chess is as a game, and so without the rules of chess there would be no chess and, instead, only pieces bumping around on a board (the rules constitute what it is to play chess). Once these three elements of function, collective intentionality, and constitutive rules interact and become descriptive of something in our world, that something becomes a social fact known as an institutional fact. Searle later divides institutional fact from institutional object, stating that the former refers to social activities (e.g., financial regulation) that define the latter (e.g., money) (CSR 56–57). Later on, this chapter questions Searle’s assertion of the primacy of the act over the object. However, here I ground this basic discussion of Searle’s theory of social ontology to show its use within the context of my own work on objects used during the rituals of birth. Returning to one such object that we are already familiar with, the Sheelana-gig, I now look at the basic social ontology of the figure in its original and historical context, which as described earlier relates to the sphere of religion.

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THE SOCIAL ONTOLOGY OF THE SHEELA-NA-GIG As described in chapter 2, on the physical level of its ontology, the Sheela-nagig refers to any of several types of carvings, most often made of stone, and that depict a particular female form. Metaphysically, the object’s ontology is definable as constituted simply by its physical makeup. The complete ontology of the object, however, rests on another level—a social level—which is dependent entirely upon how people have historically and collectively defined, used, and perceived of it. The function, collective intentionality, and constitutive rules related to the object are relative to this second category of its ontology: its social ontology. Returning to Barbara Freitag’s research on the sheela figures, described in detail in the last chapter, one understands that the function, collective intentionality, and constitutive rules of the object relate to how medieval women used the sheela figure as a ritualistic tool during labor and birth. In similar fashion to the sacred and religious ways in which women used stones and other objects during birth, they perceived of the Sheela-na-gig’s function as also connected to birth, contends Freitag. Women, midwives and others involved in birth collectively understood the object as a sacred device, and this sacredness formed a constitutive rule as to how people involved in birth perceived of the object. Scholars Jorgen Andersen, Anthony Weir, and James Jerman, on the other hand, hypothesize the function and collective understanding of the Sheela-na-gig in a way that differs significantly from Freitag’s explanation. For Andersen, he perceives of the object as having functioned as an apotropaic device, collectively understood and carved for the purpose of protecting churches and other buildings. Weir and Jerman suggest yet another function for the object, which is that it acted as a didactic representation used to transmit Christian themes of sin and a collective understanding of the female body as profane. While these three theories explain the Sheela-na-gig in different ontological terms, they all describe a social ontology that is, at its most basic level, of a religious nature. As described in chapter 2, regardless of the contrasting explanations used to describe the Sheela-na-gig’s historical meaning, there is a common social ontology present in all of them, and that ontology is a religious ontology. DIAGRAMMING THE CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL ONTOLOGY AND OBJECTS USED IN BIRTH Further demonstrating how the building blocks of social ontology work, specifically as pertains to birth objects, including the Sheela-na-gig, this


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section presents a series of diagrams. Shown in visual format is how the four philosophical components mentioned earlier—two metaphysical and two epistemic—interact with one another in the construction of the birth object’s social ontology. These components are ontological objectivity, ontological subjectivity, epistemic subjectivity, and epistemic objectivity. In Making the Social World (MSW), Searle explains the difference between ontological subjectivity and objectivity, and epistemic subjectivity and objectivity: “Ontological objectivity and subjectivity have to do with the mode of existence of entities. Epistemic objectivity and subjectivity have to do with epistemic status of claims” (18). That which is ontological pertains to the being of something. That which is epistemic pertains to the statements we make about something, a process of knowing that thing. Feelings and sensations are ontologically subjective because they are part of something’s being and not part of knowledge as are epistemically subjective entities. They are still dependent on individual experience, which is why they are subjective. An object like a mountain is ontologically objective because it exists in the world and this existence does not depend on anything subjective or observerrelated. The epistemic objectivity and subjectivity of something, on the other hand, do not describe the being of that something but rather pertain to the process of forming an idea and statement about it. Searle’s example is helpful in explaining the difference between epistemic objectivity and epistemic subjectivity: The statement that Vincent van Gogh died in France is epistemically objective, because its truth or falsity can be ascertained independently of the attitudes and opinions of observers. But the statement “Van Gogh was a better painter than Manet” is, as they say, a matter of subjective opinion. It is epistemically subjective. It is not a matter of epistemically objective fact. (MSW 18)

There needs to be a process of knowledge in place in order for epistemic objectivity and subjectivity to exist. Once that process is present, knowledge can be divided into that which we determine to be a fact of the world, as is the case in Searle’s example of van Gogh’s place of death (epistemic objectivity), and that which is dependent on individual thought, as occurs in one’s artistic preferences (epistemic subjectivity). My figures show how simple the components are, in this case as pertains to the ontological types of the Sheela-na-gig. In the first diagram (Figure 3.1), we see the basic ontology of the figure, which pertains to the brute nature of its existence. This is the object’s status as an ontologically objective entity. Before there can even be a social ontology of something, or a transformation of that ontology, there must be a thing to begin with. In the case of the Sheelana-gig, the most basic part of its existence is its description as a simple object

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Figure 3.1  Ontological Objectivity and the Sheela-na-gig. Source: © Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

of a certain size and dimension, made of a certain world material. The one that I show happens to be perhaps the most well-known sheela, which dates to the twelfth century, is from Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England. Ontologically objective aspects of the item include facts such as it is made of stone, is 37.2 cm high, 23 cm wide, and so on. Figure 3.2 shows one’s mental perception of the Sheela-na-gig. Chapter 4 goes into more detail about how objects such as the sheela figures are used in the context of the contemporary rituals of birth. One of these ways is the promotion in midwifery manuals and elsewhere of using the objects for purposes related to visualizing birth, a practice that is believed to aid in a woman’s ability to relax her body and facilitate the physiology of birth. In these cases, a person conjures a mental image of the sheela figure, and philosophically speaking, the existence of such a mental phenomenon is not objective because it depends on individual subjectivity. In the same way that a person tastes chocolate with the tongue or hears the sound of music with the ear, he or she sees the object with the eye and imagines it in his or her mind. This mental perception of the image, reconstructed in the mind through the faculty of sight, is therefore not knowledge-related. It is of an ontological as opposed to epistemic nature. Later in this chapter, I return to this interesting case of the visualized mental image. For the time being, however, we can understand the existence of the mental image to be of an ontologically subjective nature. In Figure 3.3, we see that a statement such as, “Thinking of this image can impact the sensations of my body and aid in the birth process of my body” records the fact of the ontologically subjective entity described (a sensation of


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Figure 3.2  Ontological Subjectivity and the Sheela-na-gig. Source: Created by author. Figures from

the body). The statement is not the experience itself, but rather a knowledge and claim about the experience. Other humans, as opposed to one specific human, have the mental hardware to come to the same conclusion about the object’s use. Thus, although the actual phenomenon of using the object in such a way is subjective, that is, the experience of visualizing the object for the purposes of transforming one’s body’s physiology to perform birth is subjective, other humans have the capacity to understand or know the same information. The fact that others can come to the same conclusion makes the statement epistemically objective. Figure 3.4 represents various epistemically subjective statements about the Sheela-na-gig. In this case, both the statements presented are observerdependent. Similar to the example Searle gives when he describes Vincent van Gogh and artistic preference, described earlier, here we have subjective judgments about the Sheela-na-gig. The judgments are epistemic because their creations rely on the faculty of human reason, something that is shared by human beings. And yet the conclusions of the statements are not shared and are conjured independently from one’s own subjective faculties; thus each statement is epistemically subjective. Figure 3.5 shows how a social ontology of the object, which in this case is the Sheela-na-gig, arises in part from epistemic objectivity, although

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Figure 3.3  Epistemic Objectivity and the Sheela-na-gig. Source: Created by author. Figures from ‘Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife attending a woman giving birth.’ Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY. And

Figure 3.4  Epistemic Subjectivity and the Sheela-na-gig. Source: Created by author.


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understanding of the ontology cannot be reduced to individual thought. As postulated in the last chapter when discussing Barbara Freitag’s theory about the Sheela-na-gig, medieval countrywomen and midwives may have used the figures ritualistically during birth. In the case of the rituals Freitag discusses, an epistemically objective function of the object was present because individuals involved in these rituals came to the conclusion that the Sheelana-gig could be utilized during birth. However, a collective intentionality also arises in relationship to the object because participants in the birth process—primarily pregnant women and midwives—used the object during the rituals of birth for purposes of facilitating the actual birth process. There is a shared belief between women, midwives, and others, a belief derived from cognition, that the object has a certain function in relation to birth. Finally, the constitutive rules of how the sheela is used here are inseparable from its functioning in this context. In other words, for the sheela figure to function as a tool in birth, there must be a birth process happening and an understanding of the object’s function as a tool in birth. Without both birth and the understanding of the object as attached to birth, the object ceases to have meaning as a birth object. The social ontology of objects used in birth becomes more concrete in the context of secularized objects used during birth, the next chapter’s main focus. As shall be seen, clear evidence exists to show that in its contemporary

Figure 3.5  The Social Ontology of the Sheela-na-gig. Source: Created by author. Figure from ‘Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife attending a woman giving birth.’ Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY. And

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context, as opposed to its historical one, the sheela objects and others like them are collectively understood as tools to aid women during the birth process. VISUALIZED MENTAL IMAGERY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIND A fascinating philosophical implication that arises when studying visualized objects used to facilitate birth is the extent to which mental content is ontologically subjective, ontologically objective, or something else. In his philosophy of mind, which has a profound impact on his theory of social ontology, Searle bifurcates images into the categories of content and object, and divides perception into the categories of the ontologically objective and the ontologically subjective. Certain types of visualized images, exemplified in the case of objects used to visualize birth, I maintain, are part of a third ontological category of perception in which mental content is an intentional object. This aspect of my theory reveals a crucial way that the topic of birth has an impact on the philosophy of mind and the field of social ontology. This section of the chapter also demonstrates how my overall theory of ontology differs to some extent from that found in Searle’s philosophy. Searle’s theory of intentionality forms the philosophical foundation from which one departs when considering the possibility of mental content as an object in itself. One need not argue against Searle’s assertion that humans can have direct perceptual access to the real world, nor even claim that consciousness exists outside of the brain in an extended way. I look briefly at recent studies in neuroscience and psychology that have shown how conscious or directed visualization has the capacity to transform the brain on a physical level, while also contributing to physiological changes in the body. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the fleeting mental images of everyday thought, including imagination, memory, hallucination, dreaming, daydreaming, and so on do not have these same capabilities. This chapter contends that these findings support a theory that visualized mental images, including such as are used in the rituals of birth, do have the capacity to be intentional objects, and that their ontological status is neither purely objective nor entirely subjective but somewhere in between. On these points, I first map out Searle’s discussion of content and object in his theory of intentionality. Most of the references here come from his latest book, Seeing Things As They Are (ST 2014), which is inclusive of much of his earlier work, including the ideas in his seminal 1983 essay, Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. The distinction Searle makes between


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content and object is key to understanding his theory of intentionality. According to Searle, objects are wholly external to the human mind. “Content,” on the other hand, is the mind’s representation of the object, be that representation part of a perceptual experience that is of a veridical or of a hallucinatory nature. Searle believes that a mistake is prevalent along the entire history of western philosophy, all the way back to the Ancients, and that this mistake has resulted in a variety of views that he labels together under the umbrella term of Conceptual Dualism.9 This big mistake, which Searle terms “The Bad Argument,” is the systematical confusion between content and object—that is, when one confuses one’s awareness of an object (or one’s mental content, which is ontologically subjective) with the real world object itself (which is ontologically objective). In the case of visual hallucination, for example, the content of a particular intentional state exists even though the object of the intentional state does not. What is crucial for this discussion is Searle’s argument that a content can never be an object, and that “the most important mistake to avoid is the confusion of content and object” (ST 37). As expounded on momentarily above, and in opposition to searle’s theory, in the case of objects used for visualization during birth, it is highly likely that mental content does have the capacity to become an object in itself. In his argument for direct perception of objects and states of affairs of the world, Searle explains that he will focus primarily on the perception of vision. Early on in the work, he divides perception into the two categories (or “elements,” as Searle refers to them) one again finds throughout his philosophy: the ontologically objective (the category that refers to objects and states of affairs in the world that one directly perceives), and the ontologically subjective (the category that pertains to the irreducible, subjective, mental experiences of the mind in relationship to the objects of the world). Searle’s theory of perception acknowledges both the materiality of the human brain as the source of the processes responsible for consciousness, and the irreducibility of human subjectivity. He is therefore neither a Dualist who understands body and mind as separate, nor a Materialist, who understands body and mind as one. He claims that although subjectivity has a uniqueness and is, in itself, irreducible to the physical, it is something caused by the biological processes of the brain. For Searle, the occurrence of subjectivity from a physical biological process to an irreducible, immaterial one is similar to the transformation of physical matter such as occurs when water evaporates or condenses.10 According to Searle, there is a causal relationship between the objective and the subjective, whereby the objective reality causes the human brain to process subjective experiences of objects in the world (through our vision, in the case of visual perception). This subjective processing in turn causes the occurrence of one’s intentional state of the object.11 As a basic definition,

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“intentionality” refers to “that feature of the mind by which it is directed at, or about, or of objects and states of affairs in the world” (ST 33). Searle states that intentionality is a biological phenomenon, and humans and other animals are capable of experiencing it. According to this philosophy, consciousness entails an interaction of the ontologically objective elements of the world and the ontologically subjective elements of human experience; and yet there are cases in which the ontologically subjective experience exists on its own. In the former case, states Searle, a perceptual experience has occurred and both a content and an object are present. In the latter case, a perceptual experience has occurred and a content is present but an object is not. In the case of vision, “content” refers to an image in the mind, and “object” refers to a thing or an affair that is external to the mind and is part of the world.12 An example of this difference that occurs between content and object in visual perception when one sees something in the real world versus when one imagines an object or hallucinates about something that does not have a match to a real world object is found in the case of a belief in Santa Claus. With such a belief, there is no object in the real world to satisfy the mental content. When we try to point outwards and away from the internal mental content, we understand that there is no external object in the world to satisfy the internal image of our mind. This all seems pretty clear. However, and here is where I depart from Searle’s theory, the difference between content and object becomes much less clear if we consider the visualized mental image as itself being the object of perception. Searle firmly states that this can never happen (ST 19–20), a point he has made in previous works: “The subjective visual experience cannot itself be seen, because it is itself the seeing of anything” (20). But in some cases, such as that of an object visualized for the purposes of birth, the visualized content is understood as never directed outward toward the external world. Instead, the image remains fixed, purposefully, within a mental space, itself becoming the intentional object. Utilizing the same format as the earlier diagrams of this chapter, diagram 6 (Figure 3.6) represents the case in which the visualized object leads to physiological transformation of the body. As shown, an object from the external world, in this case the Sheela-na-gig, provides the model by which one next visualizes the same object. In the third part of the process, the visualized mental object leads to physiological transformation of the actual physical body. Focused visualization has a long history in contemplative religious practices, such as are found in Daoism and Buddhism. During China’s medieval period, however, there were key shifts that took place between Buddhist meditation and Daoist meditation. Whereas practitioners of Buddhist insight meditation in China focused on internal stillness and quieting, Daoist


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Figure 3.6  The Ontology of Visualized Mental Imagery. Source: Created by author. Figure from ‘Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife attending a woman giving birth.’ Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY. And

meditation as is found in some forms of Daoism, such as Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) and Shangqing (Supreme Clarity) Daoism, involved internal observation and visual concentration on that which practitioners describe as the body’s internal landscape, an elaborate virtual microcosm of the external cosmos believed to be manifest in the body.13 Tibetan Buddhist practice also involves elaborate mental imagery and is related to achieving physiological transformation and a state of meditative quiescence.14 In the case of Daoist internal observation (neiguan), which is a part of the internal alchemical tradition in Daoism known as neidan, practitioners believe that the physiological transformation of the body can be achieved through visualization and other meditative exercises. Inner observation is bound to the visual aspects of mental perception and the way in which seeing these mental objects relates to physical changes in the body.15 In his 2007 work Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, B. Alan Wallace, an American scholar of Buddhism, addresses Searle’s assertion that the mind cannot observe itself. In Searle’s 1992 book The Rediscovery of the Mind, Searle states: “Any introspection I have of my own conscious state is itself that conscious state . . . the standard model of observation simply doesn’t work for conscious subjectivity” (79). In

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response to this assertion, Wallace specifically addresses the possibility that a visualized object could be an object in and of itself. He states: when we generate a mental image of a rose and observe it, this bears at least some similarity to observing the visual image of a rose. For most people, the mental image is far less stable, vivid, and detailed, but those who are even moderately adept at visualization can report at least on the color of the rose they are imagining. And while such an image is held in the mind, it does appear to be an object of attention, not the subjective awareness of that mental object. (51)

In 2005, Wallace and Searle had also touched on the same issue of the image held in the mind, referred to by them as both “introspection” and “meta-cognition,” during a debate held at Northwestern University. However, the debate focused inordinately on an overall discussion of how consciousness studies have occurred within the contexts of eastern and western philosophies, and they brushed over the key issue of how mental content could be an intentional object. Also, Wallace did not discuss the connection between internal mental imagery in the mind and physiological transformation of the body. Technology behind the scientific interest in what happens to the brain during the process of meditation has since become more sophisticated, and a growing body of evidence over the past two decades shows that the brain indeed works differently when it focuses attention on mental images and treats them as objects in themselves, as opposed to when it either sees objects in the world or creates mental imagery during activities such as daydreaming, dreaming, etc. The neuroscientific study of meditation is still in its infancy, but tools such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Functional Magnetic Imaging (fMRI) have helped researchers to look specifically at the neurological implications to the brain when a subject uses visualization and sustains attention on mental content. Searle is interested in the neurobiological explanations of what happens to the brain during visual perception, and this knowledge influences his understanding of how the brain and in the case of visual perception, the eye, process information from the external world to create subjective representations of that world. Now, there is also more data about how the brain works and is affected during mental visualization, when the mind focuses on objects and observes them, internally. In the neuroscientific studies I have looked at, scientists have used high resolution MRI and fMRI to determine that long-term meditation involving the concentrative practices of sustained attention on mental content is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem.16 They have also shown that focused mental practice of a physical exercise results in similar organization of the brain’s circuitry as occurs during the correlating physical exercise.17 An


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example of this from one study pertained to how mental practice of a finger tapping sequence on five separate days related both to an enlargement of the motor cortex brain region responsible for representations of the fingers, and to an improved actual motor performance of the fingers.18 It is important to note that fMRI results have recently been criticized, with studies in 2016 reporting that, due to software flaws, some results are not reliable. However, the results of the MRI and fMRI results on meditation are similar to findings in psychology especially in the field of sports psychology, with psychologists and athletes reporting the mental training of visualization as a key component to an athlete’s peak performance. One pioneering case, a controlled study of highly successful Olympians, showed that while physical training was always deemed an important aspect of athletic training, less physical training and more mental training actually correlated directly with peak performance during competition.19 Over the past decade, members of a growing list of Olympians and other professional athletes, including gold medalists such as the swimmer, Michael Phelps, and the gymnast, Gabrielle Douglas, have reported practicing visualization under the guidance of trained psychologists during which they use elaborate mental visualization exercises in preparation for major events. They claim that these mental exercises are the key component of their physical success. As found in the neuroscientific study on finger tapping just mentioned, results from the psychology study showed that the physical training involved repetitive concentrated mental rehearsal, in this case of an impending sports event. Interestingly, although some evidence of a close neural correspondence between imagery and perception exists, a growing body of research also shows dissociation between perception and imagery. Evidence of this dissociation questions the extent to which visual imagery and perception share common representations and neural substrates.20 In other words, the brain may actually be functioning in a different way and using different parts when it is visualizing objects as opposed to when it sees them in the real world. Anecdotal evidence from women who have visualized while preparing to give birth and during the process of birth itself also bolster these claims that visualization and physiological transformation is possible. Chapter 4 explores how midwives and others encourage pregnant women to use visualization as a tool when preparing for birth. On an abstract level, the internal observation of a visualized object, as a concept, points to two ideas relevant to the philosophy of mind: first, that the mind can purposefully see an object within its own mental space, focus on it as an intentional object, albeit a mental one, without also seeing a real-world counterpart, an idea suggesting that mental content, which is subjective, has the capacity to be an object in itself; and second, that the mind’s ability to create mental objects has the capacity to relate to actual physiological changes in the body. If there is evidence that the internally observed object is connected

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to physical or physiological changes of the body, then this evidence in turn strengthens the view that some types of mental objects are categorically different both from other mental objects and from real objects existing in the external world. Similarly, if visualized mental images do have the capacity to be intentional objects, then their ontological statuses are quite different when compared to the statuses of either objects seen in the real world or of those imagined by way of hallucination, dreaming, normal stream-of-consciousness thought, etc. In the case of the internally observed images, a concept that the visualization of objects for birth encapsulates so well, the mental object is neither purely objective nor entirely subjective but somewhere in between. It is in these cases that the creation of mental images in a concentrated, attentive manner has the capacity to change both the brain and other parts of the body, sometimes in profound ways, providing evidence that this aspect of consciousness is categorically different from other aspects of it. This chapter has examined ontology in three contexts. First, referring briefly to the work of the last chapter, the chapter explained how social ontology is at the core of the way religions are socially and collectively agreed upon as religions, from which a wide variety of practices are developed. Second, it mapped out the building blocks of a theory of social ontology, demonstrating how an object such as the Sheela-na-gig is defined by its given social ontology, something that in later chapters is shown to exist as a mutable ontology, particularly within the spheres of religion, nonreligion, the secular, and the sacred. Third, the chapter examined ways in which mental objects conjured up during the visualization of birth have deep implications, as do other visualized objects, for the philosophy of mind. In the next chapter, I explain how members of a contemporary birth community are secularizing a number of religious objects used in the rituals of birth. Such objects include the Sheela-na-gig, which is secularized and used for the practical purposes of birth itself. NOTES 1. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality; Searle, Making the Social World; John R. Searle, Seeing Things As They Are (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). For a discussion of social ontology in the contexts of cognitive science and the social sciences, see Mattia Gallotti and John Michael’s 2014 book, Perspectives on Social Ontology and Social Cognition (Springer). 2. See: Maurizio Ferraris, Documentality: Why it is Necessary to Leave Traces (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). See also Tiziana Andina and Andrea


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Borghini, “Metaphysics and Ontology,” in Bridging the Analytical Continental Divide: A Companion to Contemporary Western Philosophy (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014). 3. This is a key concept in Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality. See also: Schilbrack (2010, 2017). 4. John W. Mohr and Roger Friedland, “Theorizing the Institution: Foundations, Duality and Data,” Theory and Society 37, no. 5 (October 2008): 421–426. 5. Mohr and Friedland, “Theorizing the Institution,” 424. 6. Edward Slingerland, “Who’s Afraid of Reductionism? The Study of Religion in the Age of Cognitive Science,” in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76, no. 2 (2008): 375–411. 7. Searle, 18. Scientific functions also exist, but these are dependent on a system of causes: “When we discover such a natural function (e.g. the heart’s function is to pump blood), there are no natural facts discovered beyond the causal facts.” Searle, 15. 8. Searle States: “I think the capacity for collective behavior is biologically innate, and the forms of collective intentionality cannot be eliminated or reduced to something else. For example, it takes no cultural apparatus, cultural conventions, or language for animals to move together in a pack or hunt together. When hyenas move in a pack to kill an isolated lion, no linguistic or cultural apparatus is necessary, even though the behavior of the hyenas is very skillfully coordinated and the hyenas are responsive not only to the lion but to each other.” (Searle CSR, 38) 9. Searle, 2014, 11. “Various forms of Conceptual Dualism include Dualism, Materialism, Monism, Functionalism, Behaviorism, Idealism, the Identity Theory. . . . In all cases, the mistake results in an understanding of humans as capable only of ever directly perceiving of their own subjective experiences; thus, they are forever incapable of perceiving objects and states of affairs of the world. Classic examples of this are present in the work of George Berkeley, for instance, who claims that perceptions are experiences of the mind alone; and David Hume, who approaches perception similarly with the claim that we only ever perceive of our impressions of the world and not of the world itself. But all of the “Great Philosophers” (who Searle counts as Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Locke, Mill, and Spinoza) reject Direct Realism to uphold the theory that we can only perceive our subjective experiences and never directly perceive the objects in the world.” 10. “So the very conscious state which is qualitative, subjective, touchy-feely, etc. must have a lower-level description in which it is a biological process causing the secretion of acetylcholine. This is no more mysterious than the fact that my car engine has a higher-level description where the explosions in the cylinder move the piston, and a lower-level description where the oxidation of hydrocarbon molecules releases heat energy.” (2014, 49) 11. “You do not need to know the details, but you do know that the light reflected off the objects hits your eyeballs and sets up a sequence of causal events that causes the perceptual experience” (12). “Though consciousness is ontologically irreducible, it is causally reducible to brain processes” (48). “Because consciousness has a subjective or first-person ontology it cannot be reduced to anything that has a third-person

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or objective ontology” (48). “All intentional states, without exception, are caused by brain processes and realized in the brain” (34). 12. “The most important mistake to avoid is the confusion of content and object. Two perceptual experiences can have type-identical contents but one has an object and the other one does not. This, as I have said, is true of the perception of an object and the corresponding hallucination. The perception is satisfied; the hallucination is not satisfied. They can have exactly the same content, but have an object in one case and not in the other case.” (2014, 37) 13. Louis Komjathy, Cultivating Perfection: Mysticism and Self-transformation in Early Quanzhen Daoism (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 188–189. 14. Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington, Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2001), Chapter One. 15. Komjathy, Cultivating Perfection, 188–189. 16. See: Peter Vastergaard-Poulsen et al., “Long-term Meditation is Associated with Increased Gray Matter Density in the Brain Stem,” in NeuroReport 20 (2009): 170–174. 17. See: Heleen Slagter, Richard Davidson, and Antoine Lutz, “Mental Training as a Tool in the Neuroscientific Study of Brain and Cognitive Plasticity,” in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10 (2011). http:​//jou​rnal.​front​iersi​​/arti​cle/1​0.338​9 /fnh​um.20​11.00​017/f​ull, accessed January 6, 2016. 18. Ibid. 19. Charles Garfield, “Mental Images Help Athletes Train Their Bodies,” in Cognition: Theory and Applications, ed. Stephen Reed (Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), 168. 20. See: Marlene Behrmann, Morris Moscovitch, and Gordon Winocur, “Vision and Visual Mental Imagery,” in Case Studies in the Neuropsychology of Vision, ed. Glyn W. Humphreys. Hove (United Kingdom: Psychology Press, 1999), 81–110.

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The Secularization of Religious Objects During Birth

Religious objects undergo an ontological transformation during pregnancy, labor, and birth when participants in birth as a rite of passage secularize them, marking them with new meanings that diverge from their original meanings as religious objects. This chapter looks in depth at this point of transformation in these objects’ identities. Chapter 2 mapped out in detail the origins of the Celtic figure, the Sheela-na-gig, providing evidence that it is a “religious object.” This religious function of the object categorizes it as part of the first of four ontological categories described in this book’s overall theory of ontological transformation. Chapter 3 then detailed this theory of transformation, examining how a philosophy of social ontology explains the way that symbolic functions of material objects have the capacity to shift between religious, secular, and sacred (nonreligious) identifications depending upon social collective recognition of those functions. Departing from these theoretical frameworks, Chapter 4 provides concrete evidence of the ontological shift that takes place when the same object is used for practical purposes in the contexts of labor and birth. Turning to the objects themselves, I show their religious origins and then describe how they are secularized in the contemporary contexts of birth. This book has thus far focused significant attention on the Sheela-na-gig, describing the object and several interpretations of its meaning. The chapter therefore starts with an explanation of how the figure’s ontology shifts away from an identification with religion during birth. However, the work moves quickly from the sheela figures so as to provide examples of other objects whose ontologies go through a similar transformation. In each case, the chapter gives an explanation of how the object’s social ontology is of a religious nature. It then provides a description of how this ontology shifts and becomes secular when contemporary participants in birth use the item in a manner 69


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unrelated to religion or sacrality. The next chapter examines how some of these same objects, including the sheela figures, are also re-sacralized, sometimes in a nonreligious way, during these rituals of birth. As part of this chapter’s methodology, I utilize data sources such as Google Analytics and tracking of my web archive of birth art and other birth objects described in the Introduction ( Developed since 2010, these analytics demonstrate the traceability of those interested in utilizing objects during birth to that of a worldwide phenomenon, which is of a transnational and trans-religious nature. From the writings of renowned American midwife, Ina May Gaskin, to those of locally powerful midwives, doctors, doulas, and birth educators around the world, knowledge of how art and other objects can be used during birth has spread, often through the internet, during the twenty-first century. Focusing on the role that material culture plays in the spreading of information about birth, the chapter explains how various members of this birth community view these objects as secular tools capable of aiding pregnant women on a practical level as they prepare for labor and birth. The chapter traces the social ontologies of these objects, theorizing that the objects undergo transformation between the religious and the secular in this context of birth. A rapidly growing interest in images of birth has developed in the United States and abroad over the past two decades. It has gained an international presence through online image sharing and networking and through small exhibitions, including a permanent collection, the Birth Rites Collection, which opened in 2008 at Goldsmiths University in London. Some of the people who form a broad community and share this interest include artists who create artwork about birth, as well as others interested in using the artwork for personal or professional reasons, including pregnant women, fathers, partners, doulas, midwives, doctors, writers, childbirth educators, yoga instructors, and acupuncturists, among others. Many of those involved are interested in ways to facilitate labor and birth, often with a focus on natural or alternative methods. However, this community of people interested in these objects cannot be defined as a natural birth movement since its focus is not on natural birth but on how objects and representations of birth are associated more broadly with birth as an important rite of passage. This chapter theorizes a particular way in which images are used in a practical, secular way during birth as a rite of passage. THE SHEELA-NA-GIG As discussed in chapter 2, popular scholarly explanations for the Sheela-nagig’s meaning and purpose, its social ontology, relate to different aspects of

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religion, primarily as found in either the context of Christianity or that of preChristian Celtic or pagan traditions. The most prominent theories suggest that (1) sheelas represent female divinity and motifs of birth and fertility, likely stemming from pagan understandings of female power; or (2) sheelas are associated with apotropaic devices used within the Church to ward off evil; or (3) the figures are connected to Christian warnings against lust and sin as propagated by the medieval Catholic Church. In contrast to these varieties of religious ontology, however, the Sheela-na-gig is today often understood as a secular tool that can help pregnant women during birth. In other words, its social ontology is of a secular nature and not of a religious one. I now explain the way in which the object’s ontology goes through a transition from religious to secular identity. Renowned American midwife Ina May Gaskin has written prolifically on the topic of birth for over four decades. To give an idea of the breadth of Gaskin’s work and its global reach, one should note that she has lectured all over the world to numerous audiences, including those at medical schools. With the translation of her work into many languages, she has an international readership, and has received numerous awards. She has also appeared in widely seen films such as Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born (2008) and the TEDx series, and was president of the Midwives’ Alliance of North America (MANA) from 1996 to 2002. These details are important in the context of social ontology, providing evidence that Gaskin represents a key speaker within the institutional context of birth. She conveys information about birth to a wide array of hearers, and her words have an impact on the collective recognition of an object’s symbolic function. Some scholars have focused on themes of spirituality expressed in the work of Ina May, especially as found in her 1976 book, Spiritual Midiwifery.1 However, although Ina May is interested in the sacredness of birth, her project also involves a strong focus on how aspects of the secular world can aid in the physiology of birth. In her widely known work, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, which was released in 2003 and translated into Italian, Slovenian, German, and French, Gaskin demonstrates how a collectively recognized function of the Sheela-na-gig is related to its practical purposes when used to facilitate visualization of birth for women who are in the process of labor or of giving birth: My idea is that this figure was probably meant to reassure young women about the capabilities of their bodies in birth. Ellen Predergast, in an article written for an Irish journal, remarked, “After a lifetime’s awareness of such figures I am convinced their significance lies in the sphere of fertility, and that is what is depicted . . . is the act of giving birth.” Whether Ms. Predergast and I are right or not, I can testify that a sheela-na-gig figure can be a great help at a birth. As


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you can see, the vulva of the crouching figure is open enough to accommodate her own head. Such a sight is quite encouraging to a woman in labor. (Guide to Childbirth 253)

Gaskin highlights the object’s basic utility as a secular aid to laboring women, not as related to religious identification.2 Specifically, the midwife promotes the idea that women in labor can look at the actual act that the sheela figure portrays, that of holding its enlarged vulva, as a visualization tool to help others in imagining their own enlargement when giving birth. Elsewhere in Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, this time occurring in the context of a woman’s own birth story, Gaskin is described as bringing various objects with her during the woman’s labor and making them available to the woman for similar purposes. One of these objects is a Mexican ocarina, which like the Sheelana-gig, shows crowning of the baby from the squatting mother figure (49–50). Popular birth manuals include information on how pregnant women can use mental visualization of the birthing process in a secular way so as to transform their own physiology and enable the births of their babies.3 Ina May Gaskin emphasizes the utility that material objects, including the Sheela-na-gig and the Mexican ocarina, may have for pregnant women when they attempt to mentally visualize birth. The social ontology of the object is in these cases completely disconnected from its original religious ontology and transformed, collectively understood as a secular tool.

SOUTH ASIAN IMAGE OF A DIVINE FIGURE GIVING BIRTH This image of a divine figure giving birth [FIG 4.1] is a wood carving from India, likely dating to eighteenth-century southern India. Currently part of the Mookerjee Collection begun by the late Bengali art curator and collector Ajit Mookerjee (1915–1990), the image is understudied and not well known. Popular sources suggest that the figure represented is the Goddess Kali, one of the most important figures in Hinduism. This identification with Kali is erroneous, however. Kali does not have these markings and always has at least two pairs of arms (and usually more).4 In one of his own writings on the topic, Mookerjee listed the image as “human birth symbolizing the universal phase of creation. South India.” The placement of the image appears in a section of Mookerjee’s book devoted to representations of feminine power as found in the contexts of Tantra and Shaktism. If Mookerjee is correct, then the figure is a Tantric or Shaktic image of feminine divinity.5 In the contemporary context of online image sharing, however, interest does not focus on the figure as that of a goddess. In fact, almost all of the

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Figure 4.1  Wood Carving of a Divine Figure Giving Birth (detail) India, 18th Century. Source: The Mookerjee Collection, from Kali: The Feminine Force by Ajit Mookerjee Thames & Hudson Ltd., London. Used with permission.

websites in which the object appears have stripped it entirely of its religious identity, providing viewers only with the image of the figure’s body. On these websites, which are typically not of a religious nature and come from around the world, the image is associated with and promoted for the act that it portrays—that of a woman squatting powerfully to give birth—and information provided on the figure is often minimal or not included at all. An explanation of the methods used in culling the data helps to give a better idea of the widespread interest in, and the use of, the Tantric figure. I was first able to track viewers of the image to the website as coming from fifty-six different countries from around the world (six continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia). In looking at different websites that used the same image for birth-related purposes, I also noted a diverse range of cultures, a fact represented well in the many different languages used to discuss the image. These languages


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included Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, with one site devoted to nude figures found in Telugu. When appropriated in the context of birth in the twenty-first century, however, the image is stripped of its religious signification and propagated as a simple secular tool used in labor and birth.6 An example of one such website that uses the image is, whose author is Mary Ceallaigh, a certified yoga teacher and midwifery consultant with an academic background in human development. Ceallaigh’s page titled “Kali Asana—The Yogic Position for Birth” shows the tantric image alongside photos of actual women squatting in the yogic position. The page goes into significant detail about the benefits of birthing while squatting, but it says nothing about the image itself. The figure is displayed less for its relationship to the divine or sacred than it is for its secular aspects, which show birth positioning and the emergence of a baby. It cannot be said with any certainty that the emerging form is a baby. But for all intents and purposes in terms of its practical, secular usage, the small figure resembles a baby being born in a fantastical way. The art image also accentuates the birth process through its unabashed depiction of the vulva, which stretches enormously to facilitate delivery. Similar use of the image is found in the writing of Janet Balaskas, a childbirth educator, author, and founder of what is known as the Active Birth Movement, a segment of the contemporary birth movement that advocates for mobility as opposed to constraint, of women during labor. In Balaskas’ book Preparing for Birth with Yoga (Element Books 1994), she showcases Mookerjee’s image of the divine figure giving birth, on one of the book’s pages. But there is no reference to the work’s religious significance. Instead, it is viewed as a symbol of feminine power, and instructional, similar to Ceallaigh’s website, in showing the squatting position used in yoga for birth. In this contemporary context, the tantric figure helps its viewers on a practical level and not on a sacred one. Like Ina May Gaskin, the people transmitting information about the objects to the public are speakers who influence collective recognition of the object’s symbolic function as of a secular nature. The image is also found on the South Asian website, Matrika (Motherhood & Traditional Resources Information Knowledge & Action). Focusing on the use of traditional South Asian methods for pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care, the website includes numerous images, many of a religious nature. Janet Chawla, one of Matrika’s founders, is a scholar working with the birth communities of South Asia, and has a Master’s degree in theology. Her work is devoted to the topic of preserving traditional South Asian childbirth practices, the knowledge of which is still maintained by elderly midwives known as dais.7 The Matrika website includes numerous articles and book references to the subject of indigenous birth practices, although it does not

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provide historical information on the tantric figure. The figure is listed on a page with numerous others, all of which focus on birthing positions and midwifery care.8 TLAZOLTEOTL Like the Sheela-na-gig figures, this statue [FIG. 4.2], commonly interpreted as a depiction of the Aztec goddess, Tlazolteotl, has a complicated history and an undetermined origin. In 1906, the French anthropologist and ethnologist

Figure 4.2  Tlazolteotl Sculpture. Source: Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 1907.


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Ernest-Théodore Hamy (1842–1908) published an article in the Journal de la Société des Américanistes of Paris in which he described the figure as that of the Aztec goddess Ixcuina, also called Tlazolteotl, claiming that the artifact was of pre-Columbian Mexican origin.9 The object is currently in the Robert Woods Bliss pre-Columbian Collection at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, and many scholars over the course of the twentieth-century have considered it an authentic representation of pre-Columbian art. Some compare the birthing figure of the sculpture to an authentic image of Tlazolteotl found in the Codex Borbonicus, a famous Aztec Codex written around the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In that image, the detailed figure of Tlazolteotl is seen giving birth.10 However, other scholars have doubted the origins of the sculpture, suggesting that the work is a modern creation dating to the eighteenth century. In what is likely the most detailed study on the object, “The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl: looking beneath the surface,” anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh, provides strong evidence that this figure is not of pre-Columbian origin and was, instead, manufactured much later, probably in Europe. Walsh, who is a researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., is recognized for her research on faked pre-Columbian artifacts. In her study of this particular figure, she used a light microscope and a Scanning Electron Microscope to determine whether the lapidary technology used to create the object, which is 20.2 cm high and is made from either wernerite or aplite (not jadeite as is commonly assumed), was achieved through pre-Columbian tools. The results of Walsh’s forensic analysis unveil that the Tlazolteotl figure was not of pre-Columbian provenance. Similar to Hamy’s interpretation of the object at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the most prominent scholarly interpretations of the figure, developed and spread during the twentieth century, considered its original social ontology to be of a pre-Columbian religious nature (Kelemen 1943; Covarrubias 1957; Mason 1958; Coe 1993; Quilter 2002).11 Mexican painter Diego Rivera even included a representation of the figure in the lower right-hand corner of his major work the History of Medicine in Mexico: The People’s Demand for Better Health, a mural at the Centro Médico Nacional de La Raza in Mexico City, Mexico.12 The main theme of the large mosaic is that of the history of healthcare in Mexico, with foreign, modern, and technocratic representations of healthcare juxtaposed with indigenous practices, some associated with Aztec ceremonies, objects, and medicines. Tlazolteotl is an Aztec Goddess associated with numerous meanings, including birth, fertility, midwives, purification, and also filth. As a purification goddess, she was seen in Aztec culture as a cleanser of filth and disease. However, as is shown in the crowning figure of this sculpture, the goddess is associated with birth. Increased public understanding of the sculpture’s

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symbolic and iconographic connections to birth, an occurrence that likely happened over the past century, is evident, as one today finds replicated Mexican sculptures of the birthing goddess for sale, some of which are used by pregnant women in preparation for birth.13 Although there is no evidence that this particular figure was historically used in conjunction with any birth practices, as in the case of the other images mentioned previously in this chapter, the Tlazolteotl image is commonly understood within the context of contemporary birth practices as a birth figure that shows the act of birth and can help a pregnant or laboring woman to imagine the process of birth., for example, is the official website of Perinatal Education Associates, Inc., an international company that has provided educational resources on birth and pregnancy for pregnant women for almost two decades. The site includes a webpage devoted to Birth Art, and the first figure shown is that of Tlazolteotl. The page explains that stories of birth can be found across history, in writing and in art, suggesting that contemporary women can realize their connectedness to the act of giving birth as women have been performing it through the centuries. The text specific to the Tlazolteotl figure states: This sculpture of Tlazolteotl is one of the most popular birth art renderings. She is shown as a strong birthing woman, squatting in a posturally upright position and empowered to give birth with power.14

In looking at the Tlazolteotl sculpture, one notes that the goddess is shown with her buttocks down and in the squatting position of birth, the full head and arms of her baby emerging from between her thighs. In many cultures, midwives have historically favored this position, describing its benefits to birthing women. Gravity aids the woman, as does the positioning of her hips, which are slightly elevated and spread out. Websites such as Birthsource secularize the image, removing religious signification and popularizing the figure to promote its use as a functional representation of a woman squatting to give birth.

PACHAMAMA The origins of Pachamama, or “Earth Mother,” are found in Inca mythology, where she is a female goddess representing fertility and abundance.15 Even after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire during the sixteenth century, representations of Pachamama were preserved and continue to permeate Andean culture, found in the contexts of art, religion, and everyday life. She is in fact the central figure of Andean religion today, viewed as the earth itself


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and therefore as the nurturer of life, but also as connected to death through the earth’s power to kill through natural disasters such as lightning and earthquakes.16 She is also acknowledged within the context of Andean culture as an intercessor against evil, or against the devil, and is the focus of rituals utilized for protection.17 When it comes to actual childbirth, Pachamama in this same original cultural context has a direct connection to the event. She is seen as the figure that gives the child its spiritual life after birth, as well as the one that then takes him or her back into her own womb when the person dies.18 During the colonial period of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, some artists in Peru represented Pachamama as encompassing the body of a mountain while also merging her image with that of the Virgin Mary.19 This style developed from within the Cuzco School of Peru, a Roman Catholic tradition of painting through which indigenous artists, such as Quechua painter Diego Quispo Tito (1611–1681), used some European painting techniques while also merging Christian subject matter with that of their own symbolic imagery of Andean sacred landscape.20 In the context of a contemporary birth community, images of Pachamama, as well as references to the deity, are often associated with the act of birth itself. Sorayya Kassamali Rickicki, a New York City student midwife, doula, lactation consultant, prenatal yoga teacher, and mother of three, for example, has incorporated the name “Pachamama” into the name of her company, “Pachamama Birth,” which provides birth doula and lactation services.21 Of Tanzanian and Ecuadorian heritage, Kassamali Rickicki describes a heritage of birth knowledge as having been passed to her through her female relatives when she was a girl. In our correspondences, she has explained the symbolic importance of Pachamama in relationship to pregnancy and birth, describing her personal use of its symbolism in her practice. She is similarly interested in other religious symbolic functions, even though she herself does not have her own religious beliefs associated with the symbols: I chose Pachamama because I am of Ecuadorian heritage and Pachamama is an important symbol in Andean indigenous culture. It loosely translates as “Mother Earth,” and has a powerful significance in relation to birth . . . . I don’t have any religious beliefs associated with the word or the imagery but I like what it represents and I use it along with other imagery on my site. I have integrated that imagery with a Dhamma Wheel, pregnant body, lactating breasts, etc. because it all symbolizes the circle of life and the birth of all things.22

Kassamali Rickicki and others like her who provide services within the birth community, and are interested in Pachamama, are effectively transforming the social ontology of the Pachamama image (and other images such as the Dhamma Wheel), conveying information to their clients such that the symbolic function of the religious object relates specifically to childbirth.

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In a medical article about the history of different positions for labor and birth used across cultures, Cuban doctors Miguel Lugones Botell and Marieta Ramirez Bermudez make reference to the figure of Pachamama, although not for the purposes of explaining her religious signification. Rather, they show an image depicting a woman who squats while giving birth to a crowning baby.23 The purpose of the article is not to advocate any one position for labor or for birth, but to describe the different practical benefits of all birthing positions, including vertical and seated positions, as well as those that a woman uses when she receives an epidural or other medical intervention. The article includes three other images, each coming from a different cultural, religious, and historical context.24 In each case, the focus of the authors’ data is on the actual positioning used during birth. The same image from the Cuban medical journal is subsequently referred to in several Spanish language articles on birth and mothering. All of these are written for a popular audience and focus on ideal positions for women to use during labor and childbirth.25 One of the most popular images of Pachamama used across the web is a small watercolor and pen drawing that depicts the goddess smiling, with a smiling baby shown upside down and ready to be born. Unfortunately, the artist who created the image is unknown and thus publication of the work is therefore not possible due to copyright laws (please see the Visualizing Birth website to view the image).26 The image is found on over one hundred websites, including English and Spanish language pages about birth, as well as social art files such as found on Pinterest and Tumblr. The main topic on many of these websites is devoted specifically to birth and to providing women with information on birth positioning, or to promote positive images of the event. Most of the sites do not describe the image other than to name it as an image of Pachamama. The image appears, for example, numerous times on Pinterest on pages that offer the viewer a look at art imagery of birth. Websites focusing on birth art and the use of art for childbirth purposes also frequently include the image. On the Global Economic Symposium blog (GESblog), the same image also appears in the article titled, “How to empower women through religion” by Brazilian journalist Yohana de Andrade.27 In this case, the author makes a direct connection between the religious origins of Pachamama, as well as the religious origins of other female deities, and how knowledge of these figures relates to a sense of empowerment for women. While the writing is not geared toward the topic of birth, it does promote a shift of status function in the image, transforming the original religious ontology of the Pachamama image to a broader and more secular understanding of the figure as a representation of empowerment for women.


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SECULARIZATION OF THE MADONNA AND CHILD Christian iconography is famously replete with images of the Madonna and Child, Jesus Christ, and representations of the Virgin Mary alone. Whether the images include the Christ Child or not, and be they by the hand of a well-known artist or of an unidentified artisan, they are some of the most recognizable representations in the world. In the Islamic tradition, Mary, or Maryam, is also one of the religion’s most honored figures, and she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran, where her name appears more times than it does in the Bible. In shrines and churches around the world, Mary has become not only a recognizable figure but also a symbol of unity. This section examines the religious origins of the image of the Virgin Mary. There is some interesting evidence that in certain contexts, representations of the figure were connected to early birth rituals and as an aid to women during the process of birth, although these images were still understood to be of a religious nature. In the context of contemporary practices of birth, the figure is similarly used, and sometimes in a way unrelated to religion. In looking at the religious origins of the image of the Virgin Mary, one notes wide dissemination beginning in the fifth century CE both of her image and that of Jesus Christ. This dissemination followed church doctrine stemming from the Council of Ephesus’ sanctioning of the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God in 431 CE.28 Numerous types of images representing the Virgin developed during and after the Middle Ages and are found in churches, shrines, and other religious places around the world. Scholars who have studied women’s spirituality within the historical context of Christianity have argued that, regardless of the proliferation of her image through representation, there were periods in Europe during which the Virgin Mary was less important to women as an archetypal representation of them than she was as a symbol of Christ’s humanity. Caroline Walker Bynum writes extensively on this topic in her seminal work Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The symbolic association of humanity with the female thus derived strength both from the association of humanity with physicality (and woman was the symbol of flesh) and from the association of Christ’s humanity with his mother. It is in this context that we must understand women’s devotion to Mary, for women’s devotion was less to Mary’s social or religious role as woman than to her physical role as bearer of humanity. This explains a rather curious fact, noted by recent historians. Mary is not really as important as one might expect in women’s spirituality.29

Bynum explains Christ’s physicality as humanity itself and of the female body, of which the Virgin Mary provides an archetype, as therefore

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connected to a woman’s path to imitatio Christi (Bynum 263). Other historians who agree on this point include Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell, both of whom suggest that the aspect of Christ’s humanity, as opposed to devotion to the Virgin Mary, had a stronger role in women’s piety of the later Middle Ages.30 Referencing controversial evidence from Barbara Lane’s work on fifteenth-century religious paintings The Altar and the Altarpiece: Sacramental Themes in Early Netherlandish Painting (Harper and Row 1984), Bynum suggests that, within some contexts, Mary may even have become a symbol of priesthood: The notion of Mary as the place where the enfleshing of Christ happens suggests that Mary may be a symbol of priesthood—a highly controversial idea but one that finds some iconographic support (see Lane, 68–72). In plate 47, p. 72, Lane gives a French panel of 1437 (now at the Louvre) that depicts Mary in priestly garb. It should be emphasized that this theme has nothing to do with claiming sacerdotal office for women.31

The image in Lane’s work that Bynum is referencing shows the Virgin standing next to a child, presumably the Christ child. Richard Stracke, an Emeritus Professor of English and Foreign Languages at Augusta University, includes the image and discussion of it on his website devoted to the archiving of Christian iconography.32 He interprets the theology of the image based on the text found in the banner to the right of the painting: Digne vesture au prestre souverain, “Vestment worthy of the sovereign priest.” In the French, “priest” is grammatically masculine, so it refers to Christ, not Mary; she is the “vestment” worthy of bearing the Son of God, who will be both priest and victim in the sacrifice of Calvary. The Gospel Book that Mary carries in the image supports this incarnational theme. The gospel is God’s Word, just as Christ is the eternal “Word made flesh” of John 1. Mary “carries” both. Moreover, the French word “carry” also means “wear,” so in wearing the priestly garments she is again “carrying” the Sovereign Priesthood that is her son.”33

According to this interpretation, Christ is the priest and Mary the vestment that carries him. Mary’s body, the carrier of the male Christ child, becomes masculinized itself only as a vestment. In other words, it is not that Mary is the masculine symbol of the priesthood. Rather, the body of Christ, which is masculine, is that symbol, and Mary only carries the symbol inside her own body. Bynum similarly emphasizes the body of Christ when she describes the reverence that women mystics of the later Middle Ages had for Mary:


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The reverence for Mary that we find in women mystics is less a reverence for a “representative woman” than a reverence for body, for the bearer and conduit of the Incarnation. Thus devotion to Mary tended to be a prelude to devotion to her Child.34

In this context, the image of Mary does not function symbolically in relationship to those aspects of her body that have connections to female physiology, nor to those associated with an archetypal mother figure. Instead, she is collectively seen as the powerful vessel through which the male flesh of her son will be actualized. In other words, she is not revered for her own being but for the being that she carries and will participate in producing. Some evidence exists, however, to suggest that the Virgin Mary and other female figures did function symbolically in relationship to women’s spirituality in Europe, although not in the context of medieval piety. Two of the earliest recorded Marian miracles, found in the writings of the twelfth-century hagiographer Dominic of Evesham of England, depict Mary as a protector of pregnant women during childbirth.35 In his History of Childbirth (1991), French Historian Jacques Gélis provides data showing that an understanding of the Virgin as a symbolic figure connected to themes of childbirth and mothering was still present in the case of early modern European birth practices, at least as they occurred in France. Utilizing Le Sachet-accoucheur et ses Mysteres (1926), Alphonse Aymar’s early twentieth-century study on birthing bags used by midwives, Gélis first explains that between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, and even up until the end of the nineteenth century, pregnant women and midwives used various amulets and other objects as talismans during birth.36 A wide variety of objects were in use at the time, including animal, vegetable, and mineral amulets.37 The use of these objects for birth was not of Christian origin, likely stemming, instead, from pre-Christian traditions, paganism, or ancient traditions such as those associated with the cult of Lucina, an ancient Roman goddess of childbirth (Gélis 146). But these talismanic practices became hybridized with Christianity during the medieval period, tolerated and even encouraged by the Church, although the Church did limit certain symbolic allusions of the objects, especially as pertained to the sexual organs (male and female). During the period of the Catholic Reformation of the seventeenth century, some of the practices were in fact considered superstitious or magic by members of the Church, and Gélis points to a few instances in which their usages were forbidden and discouraged (Gélis 147). However, some rituals of birth, including those involving talismans, survived well past the Reformation, attesting to how culturally embedded the traditions actually were. During the process of religious hybridization, or “osmosis” as Gélis describes it, some of the amulets used for labor and birth included Christian

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iconographic objects. Aymar’s study of a birthing bag from France’s Aurillac region that dates to the nineteenth century, for example, shows that the bag contained various medallions consecrated to Saint Margaret, the Virgin Mary, and Baby Jesus.38 Gélis points to how the figure of Saint Margaret, the overseer of childbirth, is often mentioned in conjunction with descriptions of using material objects for talismanic purposes during birth. The Hagiographie du Diocese d’Amiens (Dumoulain 1861), compiled by the Abbot J. Corblet, describes a practice through which pregnant women would use a birthing girdle known as Saint Margaret’s girdle. Such girdles, associated with the symbolism of binding and unbinding, also could have been used in pre-Christian or popular religious practices, and yet they were incorporated into Christianity in the context of birth: The symbolism of girdles which so often comes in incantations is also very much present in the Christian tradition. Saint Margaret’s girdle is a good example. Saint Margaret as overseer of childbirth had been very popular since the Middle Ages. In the eighteenth century, women approaching their confinement would have a candle burned in her chapel in the cathedral at Amiens and would send for the girdle which was kept at Saint-Acheul. (Gélis 148)

The women who used the girdle would typically place it on the abdomen during labor (Gélis 148). Different girdles from Notre Dame de Quintin, located in Brittany, and Puy-Notre-Dame, located in Anjou, were similarly used by women during labor and childbirth. However, in both of these cases, it was the Virgin Mary herself who was symbolically attached to the relics.39 Other similar customs in France involving the Virgin Mary powerfully suggest that the ontology of these Madonna figures had between the Middle Ages and the modern era become in some cases tied to women’s spirituality, specifically within the contexts of labor and childbirth. In one intriguing case, women ingested small square paper images of the Madonna during childbirth. This practice of swallowing the Madonna’s image during birth, something Gélis finds evidence for in early twentieth-century France, stemmed from earlier talismanic traditions in which women would ingest scraps of scarlet cloth or slips of paper upon which were written prayers or other words against pain and evil.40 In all cases, the writings and images were believed to protect the woman’s body from the inside during birth and labor. Turning now from a discussion of the various religious connotations of the Virgin Mary, manifest especially in medieval stories and images of the Madonna figure, this chapter moves to examine the contemporary interest in the Virgin as a figure that helps pregnant women on a practical level during labor and birth. When secularized, representations of the Virgin Mary are


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often revered not for their religious content, but because the Virgin is also a humanistic symbol of a woman who gave birth and mothered a child. An understanding of this process of secularizing the Madonna figure can be seen, for example, in this article from a widely read parenting website on how to construct a birth altar, here as it pertains to the Virgin Mary: Look at images of beauty and motherhood. Whether it’s a painting of a mother, Mary with Baby Jesus, or whatever you want, find something that seems like a beautiful depiction of the process of bringing life into the world. (Haskell 2010)41

The article comes from CafeMom, a social networking site that was launched in 2006 and targets mothers and pregnant women. According to comScore, which measures website usage based on various analytics tools, CafeMom became the most trafficked website for women within one year of its launch. A collective understanding of birth as a powerful human event has the power to bring about a transformation of the object’s social ontology, taking its meaning from a religious space to a secular or even re-sacralized or newly sacred space. Similarly, numerous Pinterest sites provide online collections of images for women to use in their personal birth altars or in preparation for birth and mothering. In a 2014 article for The Atlantic, American journalist Alexis Madrigal contends that Pinterest currently acts as the prime location for finding things or objects in the online world.42 Some of these images of the Virgin Mary include pictures of statues and paintings of her, and through the online collection, her image is often juxtaposed both with nonreligious representations of pregnant women or women giving birth, and with a wide variety of figures from other religious contexts, such as the Chinese goddess Guanyin, or the Sheela-na-gig. In these cases, the collective representation of the Virgin Mary figure functions symbolically as an object to be used in preparation for birth, although for some members of the social group, the original religious ontology of the object may carry over into the ritual of birth, particularly if these members are Christian religious practitioners themselves. However, for those members who are not religious, the object takes on new meaning and its social ontology becomes transformed and is of a nonreligious nature. The next chapter talks more about birth altars and the re-sacralization of birth objects, including representations of the Virgin Mary. For the purposes of this chapter, the main point here is that while people have historically understood images of the Virgin Mary as related to religion, in the contemporary context of birth, images of the religious figure are also collectively associated with birth as a nonreligious act of the human body.

The Secularization of Religious Objects During Birth


Byzantine art of the Mother and Child influenced contemporary artist Sara Star’s representation of the Madonna found at the beginning of this section [FIG 4.3]. This particular type of representing the Virgin is called the Virgin Eleousa, where Jesus’ cheek touches that of his mother while the Christ child wraps his arm around the Virgin Mary’s neck.43 Star depicts the Virgin in several of her works, and while this one is not well known, others by her have been highly influential in the context of childbirth. Numerous women have contacted Sara to say they have used one of her other images of the Virgin Mary, for example, when preparing for labor and childbirth.44 In the case of that image, in which the Virgin Mary is seen giving birth to Baby Jesus, we see how the figure of the Virgin becomes re-sacralized, made sacred in the context of birth as opposed to as associated with its original religious ontology. More follows on this topic when discussing sacred secularity and new images of childbirth in chapter 6.

Figure 4.3  Madonna and Child, Oil on Wood. Source: © Copyright 2010, Sara Star. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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THE WOMAN OF WILLENDORF Some of the earliest forms of sculpture known to humankind are found in a type of statuette created by the Gravettian culture, which existed between 28,000–20,000 BCE and was located most prominently in what is today central Europe. These small statues are made of limestone and depict the female body in the full round.45 Archaeologists have in the past referred to these figurines as “Venus Figures,” considering the objects to have symbolized fertility for ancient peoples of the Old Stone Age. The most famous of these statuettes is the “Woman of Willendorf” (also called the “Venus of Willendorf”) [FIG 4.4]. Standing 4 1/8” tall, the Woman of Willendorf displays large breasts and hips and belly that are exaggerated in their voluptuousness. Her vulva is also large and full. With no facial features, she does not depict a particular woman but, instead, represents a symbol of fertility.46 Although the original purpose of the Woman of Willendorf is still unclear, scholars working on the object and other such Venus figurines hypothesize that these figurines were associated with ancient fertility beliefs or shamanistic rituals.47 Today, images of ancient goddesses and fertility figures such as the Woman of Willendorf are found across the web on sites promoting topics related to pregnancy, birth, fertility, and sexuality. On the Birth Matters website, a hub of information on birth in New Zealand, for example, the figurine appears alongside the text that the object simply “honours women’s birthing abilities.”48 As in the case of the Virgin Mary, numerous Pinterest pages providing viewers with images related to pregnancy and birth include the Woman of Willendorf. Through Pinterest, visitors can also link out to various shopping websites where they can purchase pendants and jewelry of the Woman of Willendorf as related to childbirth and pregnancy. Similarly, Facebook posts associated with childbirth education, doula, or midwifery service, show the figure of the Woman of Willendorf and describe the object as a symbol of fertility and birth.49 EGYPTIAN GODDESS IMAGERY A well-known temple relief at the Ancient Egyptian Dendera Complex depicts a woman giving birth while squatting and attended by the two goddess figures of Hathor and Taweret (for the image, see the Visualizing Birth website50). Hathor was a popular deity in Ancient Egypt with many associations, including those of motherhood, birth, and sexuality. Taweret, a deity who typically has the appearance of an upright hippopotamus, is another key figure associated with pregnancy, midwifery, and the care of women during birth.51 Bes, the male counterpart to Taweret, is not depicted in this relief.

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Figure 4.4  Woman of Willendorf (28,000–20,000 BCE) 11.1 cm, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Source: © Copyright Mathias Kabel 2007 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

However, Bes’ image was commonly found on numerous items associated with birth, including amulets and plaques, as he too was seen as a protector of pregnant and birthing women. Like the Woman of Willendorf, goddess images from Egypt and elsewhere are listed today across the web and social media in relationship not to their religious or cultural origins, but as pertains to how they represent childbirth or pregnancy. The Dendera Temple complex relief of the squatting woman aided by Hathor and Taweret, for example, is frequently secularized on these websites, shown mostly as an image that can aid pregnant women as they approach childbirth. In the cases of some authors, the relief is described as an image that helped them on a practical level through their own processes


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of birth. Examples of some such sites include the following: babymagic., which is an author diary on birth;, a website for doula services;, a website page on Humanized Childbirth and Perinatal Grief, which includes a page of birth art devoted to the theme of “Obstetrics in Retrospective”;, a website promoting birth education through positive stories and images, and, a website for doula and midwifery care, as well as for pregnancy options and counseling. Similar to the Ancient Egyptian relief of a woman giving birth, the image of Taweret is referred to in the contemporary context of birth, the figure occurring also on Pinterest sites devoted to birth, as well as recreated as contemporary amulets or part of jewelry, and sold on Etsy and other online shopping sites. In the latter case, many of these new objects are not viewed as secular by the social group, but, instead, are re-sacralized and understood as sacred within the context of birth. Some of these representations reappear in the next chapter, which examines how these objects connect to a new form of the sacred in the context of birth as a contemporary rite of passage. This chapter has shown how in each of the cases mentioned, an object’s social ontology goes through a process of ontological transformation between the spheres of religion and secularity when used in contemporary practices related to labor and childbirth. The transformation occurs specifically when the original status function of the object, which is associated with religion, alters and becomes secularized, associated no longer with religion but with the physiological processes of labor and birth. In all cases, speakers from various institutional contexts related to birth convey information to any of a wide number of hearers such that these hearers collectively understand the new status function of the object to be of a nature unrelated to religion. The next chapter examines the contemporary rituals of birth, making the claim that, in some cases, a similar ontological transformation again occurs in relationship to the birth object or image. However, in this case, the object’s ontology shifts away from the secular and becomes re-sacralized, not in a religious way, but in one that stems from an understanding of childbirth as a sacred yet humanistic act. NOTES 1. See Marianne Delaporte, “Stories of Birth: The Intermingling of the Sacred and the Scientific in Spiritual Midwifery,” in Sacred Inception (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018). 2. For a complete biography, see Ina May Gaskins’ website: 3. An example of this type of literature is found in Marie Mongan’s widely read book, HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method, which includes a full section devoted to “Visualization Techniques.”

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4. February 14, 2013, email communication with Professor David Gordon White, specialist of South Asian religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 5. Ajit Mookerjee, Chapter 2 “Feminine Divinity,” in Kali: The Feminine Force (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1988), 25–48. 6. These findings are based on research I conducted in February, 2013, and May, 2015. In 2013, I used Google’s reverse image lookup and found twelve websites that displayed this image. The content of every website pertained to natural birth and was of a nonreligious nature. I also used Posterous, a data tracking program connected to my website, Between a two-year period (2/6/2011—2/6/2013), Posterous tracked 10,621 visits to the webpage devoted to this figure (visu​alizi​ngbir​ th.or​g/fem​inine​-divi​nity-​and-a​-post​ure-f​or-bi​rth).​ Using Google’s reverse lookup again in 2015, I found that the program returned 159 results, many of which were multiple listings from the same page. Broken down, the total listings amounted to 83 individual sites, showing a large increase in usage of the image from 2013; however, the findings were similar in that most of the websites related to birth. The birth-related websites include 45 individual websites, 26 Pinterest pages, and one Facebook page. The other 11 sites relate either to sacred art, the Goddess Kali, or goddesses in general, although none of these sites provided any history of the object. I used Google Translate to determine the content of the sites for which I do not know the language. 7. Email correspondence with Janet Chawla, December 25, 2014. 8. Accessed on June 12, 2017. 9. Ernest-Théodore Hamy, “Note sur une statuette mexicaine en wernerite representant de la déesse Ixcuina,” in the Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris, nouvelle série 3 (1906): 1–5. See: Jane MacLaren Walsh, “The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl: Looking Beneath the Surface,” in the Journal de la société des américanistes 94–1 (2008): 1–30, 2. 10. Miriam Doutraiux, Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Aztec “Birthing Figure,” mexic​olore​.co.u​k/Azt​ecs/a​rtefa​cts /b​irthi​ng-fi​gure.​ Accessed 2/21/2017. 11. Walsh, “The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl,” 3. 12. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno and Erika Cabrera, Diego Rivera: A Biography (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing, 2011), 104. 13. See: Simbolica, “Tlazolteotl Goddess,” in Quirao: The Site for exception Gifts. http:​//www​.quir​​m/en/​p/wor​ld-ar​t/sim​bolic​a/260​20/go​ddess​-tlaz​olteo​tl-si​mboli​ ca-48​.htm#​Accessed on March 12, 2011. 14. “Birth Art” on http:​//www​.birt​hsour​​m/scr​ipts/​artic​​ p?art​iclei​d=47 accessed February 21, 2017. 15. C. Scott Littleton, Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology (New York: Cavendish Square Publishing, 2005), 727. 16. Inge Bolin, Rituals of Respect: The Secret of Survival in the High Peruvian Andes (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998), 32. 17. Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (30th Anniversary Issue) (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 208. 18. Inge Bolin, Growing up in a Culture of Respect: Child Rearing in Highland Peru (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2006), 29.


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19. Christopher F. Black and Pamela Gravestock, Early Modern Confraternities in Europe and the Americas: International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Aldershot, England; and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2003), 189. 20. For example, see the Virgen del Cerro, an eighteenth-century painting by an anonymous artist, currently located at the Museum Casa Nacional de Moneda, Potosì, Bolivia. 21. Sorayya Kassamali Rickicki, Pachamama Birth, http://www.pachamamabirth. com/about/ accessed on April 12, 2017. 22. April 15, 2017 email correspondence with Sorayya Kassamali Rickicki. 23. Miguel Lugones Botell and Marieta Ramirez Bermudez, “El parto en diferentes posiciones a través de la ciencia, la historia y la cultural,” in Revista Cubaba de Obstetricia y Ginecología 38 no. 1 (2012). Accessed online: April 17, 2017, http:​//sci​elo.s​​/scie​​p?scr​ipt=s​ci_ar​ttext​&pid=​S0138​-600X​20120​00100​015. 24. A picture of the Tlazolteotl sculpture, an Ancient Roman relief of a woman giving birth, and an ancient ceramic piece from Peru’s Moche Culture. Ibid. 25. See, for example, Eva Paris, “Partos verticales en el arte prrecolombino,” in Bebés y más https​://ww​w.beb​esyma​​/part​o/par​tos-v​ertic​ales-​en-el​-arte​prec​olomb​ino; and “El Parto en La Historia,” http:​//mat​ernat​almad​rid.b​logsp​ot. co​m/201​4/07/​el-pa​rto-e​n-la-​histo​ria.h​tml accessed April 12, 2017. 26. http:​//vis​ualiz​ingbi​rth.o​rg/pa​chama​ma-fe​rtili​ty-go​ddess​-and-​mothe​r-ear​th. 27. Yohana de Andrade, “How to Empower Women through Religion,” Global Economic Symposium Blog, http:​//blo​g.glo​bal-e​conom​ic-sy​mposi​um.or​g/how​-toe​mpowe​r-wom​en-th​rough​-reli​gion/​ accessed on April 12, 2017. 28. Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, “The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-), http:​//www​.metm​useum​.org/​toah/​hd/vi​rg/ hd​_virg​.htm (October, 2001), accessed February 22, 2017. 29. Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California, Press, 1987), 269. 30. Ibid. 31. Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, 409 fn. 41. See also Barbara G. Lane, The Altar and the Altarpiece: Sacramental Themes in Early Netherlandish Painting (New York: Harper and Row, 1984). 32. See Richard Stracke, “The Master of the Collins Hours, Le Sacerdoce de la Vierge,” Christian Iconography, http:​//www​.chri​stian​icono​graph​y.inf​o/lou​vre/ s​acerd​oceVi​erge.​html accessed February 26, 2017. 33. Ibid. 34. Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, 269. 35. Hillary Powell, “The ‘Miracle of Childbirth’: The Portrayal of Parturient Women in Medieval Miracle Narratives,” in Social History of Medicine 25, no. 4 (2012): 795–811, 801–802. 36. Jacques Gélis, History of Childbirth (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press, 1991), 115–117, 147. 37. Gélis, History of Childbirth, 115–116.

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38. The full list of objects include, “besides some beads from a rosary, ribbons, medals, medallions, fragments of wax, and a bundle of manuscripts, some illustrated” Gélis, History of Childbirth, 147. 39. Gélis, History of Childbirth, 148. In her celebrated work, The Spell of Brittany (New York: Duffield and Company, 1920), Ange McKay Mosher also discussed the use of relics at Notre Dame de Quintin (165). 40. Gélis, History of Childbirth, 149. 41. Christie Haskell, “Birth Altar Keeps You Calm Unless You Think It’s Weird.” December 27, 2010. http:​//the​stir.​cafem​​m/pre​gnanc​y/113​808/b​irth_​altar​_keep​s_ you​_calm​, accessed on February 5, 2017. 42. Alexis C. Madrigal, “What Is Pinterest? A Database of Intentions,” The Atlantic, July 31, 2014, accessed on May 22, 2017, https​://ww​w.the​atlan​tic.c​om/te​chnol​ogy/ a​rchiv​e/201​4/07/​what-​is-pi​ntere​st-a-​datab​ase-o​f-int​entio​ns/37​5365/​. 43. Ibid. 44. February 22, 2017, telephonic correspondence with Sara Star. 45. Horst de la Croix, Diane Kirkpatrick and Richard G. Tansey, Art Through the Ages, ninth edition (San Diego, New York, Chicago, Austin, Washington DC, London, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1991), 36. 46. Ibid. 47. John Noble Wilford, “Full-Figured Statuette, 35,000 Years Old, Provides New Clues to How Art Evolved,” New York Times, May 13, 2009, accessed May 22, 2017, http:​//www​.nyti​mes.c​om/20​09/05​/14/s​cienc​e/14v​enus.​html.​ 48. Birth Matters,, accessed May 22, 2017. 49. Some of these include the “Wisdom of Willendorf” Facebook page, which provides visitors with natural birth resources; Sage Birth & Breastfeeding, a pregnancy center in Vernon, Connecticut, USA; and One Love Doula Services, LLC, located in Florida, USA. 50. http:​//vis​ualiz​ingbi​rth.o​rg/te​mple-​image​-of-b​irth-​from-​ancie​nt-eg​ypt. 51. Lou Selene-Sayell, “Servants of Heket: Midwifery and Birth in Ancient Egypt,” Ancient Egypt (December 2012/January 2013): 10–15, 13.

Chapter 5

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage

In her seminal work on ritual, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), religious studies scholar Catherine Bell (1952–2008) describes birth and birth rituals as providing some of the most foundational models for the ritual processes of most traditional or religious societies.1 From her theories, it follows that how societies experience birth ritualistically is highly influential in the way that those societies develop other ritualistic traditions. However, in her discussion of secular cultures and the rituals of birth, Bell states that these societies only mark birth with a few rites (Bell 95). According to Bell’s thinking here, birth functions differently or in a lesser capacity as a rite of passage when viewed within its secular context. Yet the secular, claim other scholars, provides rich ground for the rituals of birth. The focus of this chapter is on the contemporary rituals of birth, many of which are nonreligious, and how some of the objects discussed earlier in the book as having a religious or secular symbolic function become re-sacralized when used ritualistically during pregnancy, labor, and birth. In these cases, the social ontology of the object shifts away from that of a religious or secular identification, collectively recognized instead as encompassing sacred meaning. This sacredness is not part of the object’s original symbolic function as a religious object, however. Instead, the object is re-sacralized and takes on a new ontological status associated with the understanding that the nonreligious act of birth is a sacred act in itself. This entire discussion hinges upon an understanding of that which is “sacred,” so I first return briefly to my previous examination of the term in this book, agreeing much with Gordon Lynch’s research on the sacred, which stems from the sociology of Émile Durkheim. Chapter 2 postulated basic definitions for the terminology used to describe the ontological categories in the book, namely, those of religion, 93


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the secular, the nonreligious re-sacralized, and the sacred. In this chapter, I track the way in which participants in birth transform the ontologies of the religious objects I have previously described as having been secularized, and make them sacred again, or re-sacralized. Gordon Lynch’s theory of a sociology of the sacred, which itself stems from Durkheim’s theories of the sacred and the profane, offers an understanding of the sacred as a rich category inclusive of many cultural forms that, while not religious, are still special in some unique way and not profane. Some examples of the forms that he includes in that discussion are nature, the care of children, gender, and human rights. For Lynch, the sacred goes beyond that which is attributed high value by an individual or a community, and is, rather, “a way of communicating about what people take to be absolute realities that exert a profound moral claim over their lives” (Lynch 11) or, “the meaning of fundamental realities around which our lives are organized” (26).2 Lynch studies different types of sacred forms across culture and history. One form that he finds prevalent in modern thought and policy is the sacredness of humanity, of being human (83). This form of the sacred developed during the last half of the eighteenth century, contends Lynch, when theories of universal human rights began to flourish in philosophy and political thought, leading eventually to the mid-nineteenth century to present day rise of humanitarian organizations (85-86). In agreement with Lynch on this account, I maintain that the way in which objects become sacred when used in conjunction with the contemporary rituals of birth stems from a shared understanding that preparing to go into labor and give birth is a universal human right. Their sacredness rests in communal agreement that birth is an important, if not foundational, act in the human experience.3 The sacred, I contend, agreeing with Lynch, again along Durkheimian terms, involves transcendence of mundane reality. Yet the sacred is transmitted in society through a process of social ontology. We see this process clearly in the case of objects used in the context of birth, whereby their ontologies, their very beings, become understood as sacred through a shared social reality. Before turning to a discussion of the ontological transformation that objects of birth go through when re-sacralized during these rituals of birth, let us first return to Catherine Bell’s statement that the ways in which a traditional society experiences birth ritualistically ultimately influences that society’s development of other ritualistic traditions. Traditions that stem from a culture’s birth rituals, including those related to death, emphasize how material objects are integral to the way that the meaning of the rituals is conveyed to the participants and observers. I briefly examine a few such examples from different traditions. My intent here is to demonstrate through

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


a few clear examples the point that Bell makes about the impact that birth can have on the development of other cultural forms and to then look at how secular objects become re-sacralized during birth. Ethnographic studies such as those conducted by the late anthropologist Gene Cooper (1946–2015), a professor and scholar who worked extensively on Chinese folk customs, provide a view into how birth rituals are highly influential in a culture’s other ritualistic traditions. Cooper’s research on the rituals of birth and other life cycle rites of passage as they occur in the context of Dongyang County, China, shows the strong influence that birth rites can have on a culture’s other rituals.4 In the context of Dongyang culture, beginning with birth, all life cycle rituals are focused on a theme related to longevity and a Chinese concern with the extension of mortal time: “One begins life with a longevity bowl secreted under the bed. One eats longevity noodles on birthdays, and receives longevity couplets and longevity scrolls on ‘big birthdays’” (Cooper 391). Historically, during China’s late dynastic times, explains Cooper, the woman’s placenta was also placed in a clay pot underneath the bed, where it would stay until the child had grown up, a symbol of fertility (375). This same theme of longevity and the extension of human mortality continues well past birth, shadowing the person as a living motif throughout his or her ritual life: One is buried in longevity clothes, in a coffin called a longevity box, decorated with the longevity character, and guests eat longevity rice at funerals. Women receive a longevity quilt on occasion of marriage. Chinese seem to be obsessed with extending the limits of human mortality, which while thus clearly recognized are at once mystified into nonrecognition in the ancestral cult and its rituals of death. The metaphor of the noodle as a longevity food suggests a conception of time similar to that of the West, and eating noodles to lengthen life is among a variety of ritual and symbolic measures and plays on words employed to influence fate and evade ill fortune; e.g., choosing auspicious days and times, marrying spirits, linking bags, serving peanuts, and begging (391).

It is easy to note that in all of the rituals Cooper mentions, material objects are integral to the process of conveying the message of the ritual to those involved. The rituals cannot be separated from these objects—bowls, noodles, couplets, clothes, coffins, etc.—the material means through which the ritual is performed. Cooper’s research shows the extent to which the theme of longevity is embedded in the cultural understanding of mortality and in all life cycle rituals in Dongyang, beginning with the longevity bowl and noodles after birth. The case of Dongyang provides for a good example of Bell’s claim that themes embedded in the rituals of birth become infused with other rituals


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experienced by humans and their communities throughout the course of life, particularly in the context of traditional societies. The research also shows how material objects are central to ritualistic practices in their traditional context. Herbert Cole’s magisterial work Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa (2017) provides numerous images of mothers and children as they occur across different timeframes in Africa. Cole shows how these mother-child images have maintained an ever-present existence in sub-Saharan Africa across time and up through to the modern and contemporary age representations. These objects are not mere representations of mothers and children, however, but are an important part of the fabric of African belief and ritual action, tied to the sacred emphasis in the lives of African women to conceive and give birth.5 The images, while indeed connected to birth and mothering, are also profoundly a foundational part of the rituals of life in Africa. Researchers at the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies (MIAS), located in Nairobi, Kenya, have also conducted studies on pregnancy and birthing rites and rituals, although in the context of East African culture. The research on these rituals, found in Professor Michael C Kirwen’s booklet African Cultural Domain No.1: Pregnancy and Birth (2004), the first such booklet in a series of fifteen, also looks at the rituals of non-Africans. MIAS’ research shows that the rite of passage of birth in the context of African society is intimately bound to the broader cultural reverence for the ancestral spirits, and the theme of birth as connected to the ancestors is carried through the rituals of an individual’s life, including those rituals associated with marriage and death.6 The rituals around birth, including proper disposal of the placenta, also have an impact on the future of the person and of the community (Kirwen 21). Also working in the context of African birth rituals, Ogechukwu Ezekwem Williams has recently shown how in pre-colonial Nigeria, the traditions of birth were influential in the larger ritualistic traditions of Igbo culture and spirituality.7 As part of this continuation of ritual from the birth event was the increased spiritual role that women attained when they became new mothers. Perceived as imbued with spiritual powers after giving birth themselves, these women’s new roles included the overseeing of fertility rituals and the partaking in midwifery practices themselves; thus, a cultural pattern stemmed from the event of birth whereby women who gave birth became crucial participants in future rituals related to fertility and birth.8 Williams explains how British colonialism ruptured the wholeness of this ritual life when missionaries changed the primary birthing space of Igbo women to that of the hospital, although contemporary practices have begun to reincorporate some spirituality back into the rite of passage.

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


Shifting attention from traditional birth rituals to those of a contemporary, secular setting, I first look closely at the work of Robbie Davis-Floyd. In Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Davis-Floyd describes a highly ritualistic nature as inherent in the technocratic model of an American hospital birth.9 The role that material objects have in these secular rituals forms the backdrop to my explanation and theory that the ontology of objects used in birth ultimately transforms from a religious or secular status function to that of a sacred or re-sacralized one. Influenced by the extensive body of work on rites of passage developed during the early and mid-twentieth century, found in the research of scholars such as French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) and British anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), Davis-Floyd contends in Birth as an American Rite of Passage that technological medical procedures in the United States have been standardized in such a way so as to resemble the standardized rituals at the heart of rites of passage attached to birth in traditional societies. The rituals connected to the secular tradition of a hospital birth, claims Davis-Floyd, have in fact become so elaborate that their complexity surpasses that found in religious societies. As such, the birthing woman within this secular context undergoes a cognitive transformation in which she is socialized through the ritual of birth, incorporated as an individual into a shared belief system whereby she joins others to uphold the authority of the birth model in her society. Looking briefly at Arnold van Gennep’s classic model for the processes that make up a rite of passage as found in his major work The Rites of Passage (1960), one notes that the model is characterized by a subdivision of the rite into three distinct stages: rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation.10 During the first phase, the individual is separated from the identity held in his or her previous social state. The second stage represents a liminal phase during which time individuals exist neither in their former nor in their future social states. The final stage, the rite of incorporation, represents a period during which the rite has been completed and the individual reenters society with a new sense of identity. In the context of childbirth as a rite of passage, Davis-Floyd describes early pregnancy, when a woman first realizes, and fully acknowledges, that she is pregnant, as the transition phase.11 The transition, or liminal phase, according to Davis-Floyd, is the longest period in the rite, encompassing the bulk of time during which the woman is pregnant, her experience of labor and childbirth, and the immediate postpartum period.12 The final phase of the rite, that of incorporation, happens gradually over the first few months of the newborn’s life, at which point the woman is integrated into society as a new mother.13


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In Blessed Events (2001), religious studies scholar Pamela Klassen points out that some feminist scholars have been critical of van Gennep’s tripartite division of the rite of passage, which they see as too universalizing and andocentric of the human experience.14 In the cases that she studies, Klassen agrees to some extent with this criticism of van Gennep, stating that for a number of the North American women at the heart of her study, the ritual of birth is one of intensification and not of a reversal of social position.15 However, Klassen still understands van Gennep’s work on rites of passage as an important contribution to our understanding of the important transformations that humans make during these rites, which are of a social nature and not just a physical one.16 In the case of the material objects of this book’s study, van Gennep’s categories are of less significance in that the objects of discussion may become sacred before, during, or after the rite of passage. Their sacredness is not necessarily dependent upon the physical status or social stage of the individuals involved. Rather, these individuals determine the ontology of the objects as sacred based on any of a number of factors and personal experiences that take place before, during, or after birth, or even before pregnancy. If a woman experiences issues with fertility, for example, then a particular charm or pendant may take on a different sense of the sacred than does the same object for a woman who is preparing for labor, or for another woman who has just given birth. Influenced also by the symbolic anthropology of Clifford Geertz, DavisFloyd emphasizes the crucial role that symbols play in transmitting the message of the ritual—both to the performers and to the receivers of that ritual.17 Based on her examination of neurophysiological research, DavisFloyd contends that symbols are not processed intellectually, which typically happens when a message is verbally decoded in the left hemisphere of the brain. Instead, they are felt in a totality of body and emotion, often received unconsciously and filtered through the brain’s right hemisphere (9). She explains that this absorption of symbols is extremely powerful in the shaping of a subject’s conformity to the larger social order, giving as an example the case of a soldier ordered to sleep with his rifle, repetitively and ritualistically, as a way by which the soldier’s superiors reorganize his or her belief patterns to match those of fellow Marines (10). In this case, the material object of the gun becomes an internalized object and an integral part in how the Marine views his or her way of functioning in the world, namely that the gun and the ability to use it become a part of him or her, almost like an extension of the body. According to Davis-Floyd, symbols integral to these rituals of birth include everything from a woman’s dressing in a hospital gown and placement in a

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


hospital bed to obstetrical procedures such as electronic monitoring, intravenous feeding, use of pain drugs, epidural analgesia, episiotomies, and cesarean section. Davis-Floyd’s focus is on how the rituals surrounding birth in America are frequently of an obstetrical nature, connected to a different and often conflicting rite of passage, which is that of obstetric training. As she explains, nascent obstetricians are socialized during medical school such that they view birth as a technological event. Within the powerful space of the hospital, she claims, the technocratic model of birth usually replaces natural or midwifery models. This shift of authoritative power has the effect of transforming the rituals attached both to the woman’s delivery of her baby and to the cognitive transformation that the woman undergoes during her rite of passage. These transformations occur specifically as related to the woman’s own belief system, which as Davis-Floyd’s research demonstrates, has the capacity to change during the rite. Paralleling Davis-Floyd’s work on the secular ritual of birth as it occurs in the hospital setting, is the research of Melissa Cheyney, who has examined the rituals of birth as they occur in the case of women who birth their children at home.18 In her 2011 article, “Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance,” Cheyney’s primary focus is on how these women use rituals to develop ideals about birth that differ significantly from the dominant societal ideologies of birth. These rituals in fact become a foundation from which the woman is physically and socially transformed: As the structure and content of ritual carries participants into new representational spaces, the physical body is transformed along with the participant’s social status and sense of self. The performance of birth at home enables women to map their own individual experiences onto a collective, mythic, world— in this case, the mythic world of “natural,” “alternative,” “empowered,” or “woman-centered” childbirth. (Cheyney 535)

Central to the performance of the rituals, in this case as they occur in births at home, are the objects used in them: Emotionally charged symbols (birth tubs, home and reinterpreted technologies like the Doppler) allow social worlds to be manipulated, and it is this manipulation that facilitates a corresponding transformation of the mother’s embodied, birthing experience. (535–536)

As in the case of objects used in the context of Davis-Floyd’s study of hospital birth, these home birth objects have strong symbolic functions, and are used ritualistically and symbolically by the participants in birth.


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We can trace how across various historical, social, and cultural contexts, material objects involved in birth become emotionally charged and ritualistically meaningful to women before and after their pregnancies. Expanding on this assessment, I propose that religious art and other objects associated with birth have the capacity to become sacred of their own accord, even when secularized and detached from their original religious ontologies. These material objects play a part in revering birth as a sacred event, and it is in this reverence for birth, and for mothering as well, that the nonreligious image becomes re-sacralized and treated as a devotional object to be used in birth as a sacred rite of passage. The role that the object plays here opens up our broader philosophical discussion related to social ontology and the extent to which objects may play key roles in an ideological dialectic at work between the sacred and the secular. For the users of these objects negotiate between the three spheres of religion, secularity, and nonreligious sacredness: In the first, mapped out in chapter 2, the object’s ontology is of a religious nature; in the second, the object is transformed into a secular and practical tool; and in the third, the object is re-sacralized, becoming sacred primarily in its ritualistic function as attached to birth as a rite of passage. Although the material of the object remains unchanged, its ontology shifts between levels. I now return to some of the objects discussed in earlier chapters. It is through the contemporary rituals of birth that these objects have the capacity to become sacred in a new way, transformed by their users. Focusing on the social ontology of the object, I locate speakers within certain institutions who communicate with others (groups of hearers) about the function of the object, and show how these others in turn speak about that function. In the case of the sheela figures discussed in earlier chapters, artists and artisans have today created re-sacralized forms of the object, making an array of paintings and sculptures, as well as sacred charms and pendants of the figure for use in various contexts of birth and fertility. One such artisan is Jenya Levin, a Canadian software engineer who is also the author of Zen Transition to Motherhood: Is there life after birth? (productivezenmama, 2014), a self-published e-book that provides free material to women who are transitioning from their experiences of birth to the event of new mothering, a period sometimes referred to as the “fourth trimester.” Levin makes a wide variety of necklaces and other jewelry, some of which are associated with religious objects. She created her Sheela-na-gig necklace [5.1], for example, composed of a pewter figure and numerous beads, as an object to be incorporated in rituals related to pregnancy, birth, and mothering. Acting as speaker and seller of the object, Levin explains to her website community that the necklace functions for use in birth or as a gift for those who work in

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


a birth-related occupation, such as a midwife, obstetrician, or doula, or for women who are pregnant, preparing to give birth, or breastfeeding.19 Levin describes the origins of the Sheela-na-gig as related to fertility and associated with the medieval culture of the British Isles. One of her interests in the sheela figure, which she expresses in writing to those who visit her online market (her hearers), relates to its practical usage, “Touching such a carving is said to bring fertility. Sheela-na-gig brings attention to the ability of the female body to expand in childbirth, and can serve as a great focal point for a woman in labour.” As described in the last chapter, this usage aligns with a secular understanding of the object, one in which the sheela figure’s body is seen as a tool by which other women can visualize the process of birth for themselves. And yet, in addition to this secular usage of the Sheela-na-gig, remade here in the form of a necklace, the object also becomes re-sacralized by those who use it. Those who visit the website are Levin’s community of viewers and hearers, people who make statements about the ontology of the objects. In writing about the object, one reviewer describes the figure as a “totem” to be used during birth, bringing to light a new sense of the sacred, one in which the Sheela-na-gig’s ontology is detached from its religious origins, made sacred, instead, as relates to its participation in the act of birth: “I bought it (the Sheela-na-gig necklace) for myself because I needed a totem of courage going into the birth of our first and it’s been the best gift of my pregnancy. Thank you for making such wonderful, empowering and women-centered birth art!”20 A totem is a sacred object. In this case, however, the sacredness of the sheela figure rests not in its connection to a religious ontology. Rather, it is the recipient’s understanding of how the object connects to empowerment of the body’s abilities during birth that makes it sacred. A review for another one of Levin’s other creations that is also related to the Sheela-na-gig and called the “Blessingway bead – Ancient Forest Meadow Sheela-na-gig” similarly shows this shift in ontological status and understanding of the object’s meaning. Here, the reviewer explains that she intends to use the object as part of a Celtic altar she has established in her home. Religious studies scholar Pamela Klassen finds that contemporary homebirth rituals in America often involve the invention of rituals, some of which include reference to ancient or Celtic Goddess spiritual traditions, as well as to Native American birth practices (Klassen 124–128), and as will be discussed momentarily, birth altars found in the home are used in the larger context of contemporary rituals of pregnancy, fertility, and birth. The origins of the term, “blessingway,” are found in ceremonial practices associated with marking a woman’s rite of passage to motherhood as central to the religious traditions of the Native American Navajo, or Diné, peoples.21


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Figure 5.1  Sheela-na-gig, Birth Necklace. Source: Jenya Levin, Veddma Creations, 2013. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The blessingway ceremony is part of a complex ritual related to the Navajo view of creation, and the completion of its performance is understood as so critically necessary to the world’s existence that the world will cease to exist if the performance stops.22 Utilizing the research of Sam Gill and other scholars working on Navajo traditions in her three-volume collection Celebrating Life Customs around the World: From Baby Showers to Funerals (ABC-CLIO, 2017), Victoria Williams examines the origins of the tradition (Williams 48). She also explains how blessingway ceremonies have become part of the way that some non-Navajo women around the world also celebrate the rite of passage to motherhood: Many non-Navajo women in the United States and also in Australia and the United Kingdom take part in a ritual that is akin to a blessingway ceremony, a rite that they see as a holistic alternative to a baby shower. Unlike baby showers that tend to focus on gift-giving, blessingway-ceremony-type rituals offer spiritual support and empowerment to mothers-to-be as they literally bless the way for the women to become mothers.” (Williams 48)

In the context of its non-Navajo usage, the blessingway ceremony is often referred to as a ceremony of “mother blessings” in deference to the original context and term developed within the Navajo tradition. In both cases, rituals that incorporate symbolic objects are central to the ceremonies. In the original context, which involves a highly complex ritual, the primary object held by the individual during the blessingway ritual is mountain soil pressed into

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


the skin during recitation of the Navajo’s Earth Prayer. The soil represents both the First Man’s medicine bundle of the Changing Woman’s creativity, and the ritual itself is connected to the primary creation stories of the Navajo tradition (Williams 49). The beads of the necklace used in the non-Navajo context mentioned above are representative of mother and child, and the ritual is performed solely by women for the purpose of providing a pregnant woman with strength, protection, and harmony as she approaches her labor (Williams 50–51). In this second case, the ontology of the object is neither of a secular nor of a religious nature, but has become re-sacralized through the process of the ceremony in relationship to the human activity of childbirth. In the case of the bead created by Levin, the object is fused with the image of the Sheela-na-gig, further emphasizing its nonreligious sacredness as attached to the process of birth. Chapter 4 examined the nonreligious aspects that a birth altar serves in the home during a woman’s pregnancy. As explained there, such an altar provides the pregnant woman with a collection of positive images to look at as her labor and birth approach. In the case of images of the Virgin Mary and other religious figures found on the birth altar, the objects are often revered not for their original religious content, but for their connection to the human experiences of birth and mothering. However, while not religious, this same space is also not necessarily a secular space. Instead, the birth altar becomes a sacred place in the home, usually on a table or in a corner that women (with their partners and/or children) create as they prepare for labor and birth. Objects such as pictures and sculptures related to birth and mothering, written birth affirmations, candles, and ultrasound photos may all be a part of the altar. An altar is itself a religious structure, and objects included on the birth altar are often of a religious nature, such as those of the Virgin Mary, the Buddha, the Chinese goddess Guanyin, Hindu deities, goddess figures, or a mandala. In the context of birth, however, the altar is often not a religious altar, but, instead, a sacred place for the woman and her family as they prepare for birth. A collective understanding of birth as a powerful human event has the capacity to bring about a transformation of the object’s social ontology, taking its meaning from religious and secular spaces to that of a re-sacralized or newly sacred space. Such a space might also be described as an existential space, using the terminology of Lois Lee, or as one related to a deep sense of awe, as Phil Zuckerman or Dacher Keltner might describe it. Books, articles, and websites devoted to the topic of “sacred birth” frequently include the objects mentioned in chapter 4: the Sheela-na-gig, the Tantric divine figure, Tlazolteotl, Pachamama, and the Virgin Mary. Instead


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of secularizing these objects, or in addition to secularizing them, these resources shift their symbolic functions, describing or showing them as neither secular nor especially religious, but rather as part of birth as a sacred nonreligious rite of passage. In the case of the Virgin Mary, she is often included in lists of female figures and goddesses who are viewed as powerful in their connections to birth or mothering. The books and articles are often trade publications that provide information on preparations or ideas for labor and birth. One such book is Manifest Sacred Birth: Intuitive Birthing Techniques (Balboa Press 2013), by Ishtara Blue. Here, the reader finds the Virgin Mary listed alongside other names under the category, “Divine Mother, Birthing Goddess.” Blue instructs the reader to seek strength for a sacred birth by connecting to the “Divine Mother,” who is often manifest in the figure of Mary: For your powerful birth, keep connecting to the Divine Mother. Use her beautiful blue to drape over and protect your baby, body, birth, pregnancy, and children. Mother Mary has a special connection with children. You could make an offering to her by using special crystal such as aquamarine and watermelon tourmaline on a blue cloth. (90)

Blue elsewhere provides detailed meditations related to the Virgin Mary giving birth (90–91). As in the case of the Sheela-na-gig, this example shows how the figure of the Virgin Mary is utilized in a nonreligious way for the purposes of aiding pregnant women as they approach birth. And yet the ontology of the figure becomes re-sacralized during this process, understood by those who utilize it as an object that is sacred in its connection to the event of birth. Chapter 4 similarly examined the secular usage of the Pachamama figure, the “Earth Mother” of Inca mythology. Part of that discussion mentioned the work of New York City doula and student midwife Sorayya Kassamali Rickicki, who owns Pachamama Birth, a company that provides doula and lactation services. While Kassamali Rickicki secularizes the Pachamama figure, viewing it as an image of a powerful female icon to use for the practical purposes during pregnancy and birth, she also re-sacralizes it. She includes it as one symbolic religious figure among others (such as the dhamma wheel) to be used by women as they connect more deeply to the cycle of life and prepare for birth as a rite of passage.23 While these connections may not be of a religious nature, they are also not succinctly secular, woven, instead, with an understanding that the physiological passage of birth is a sacred passage. It is worth noting that Kassamali Rickicki has worked with a wide variety of women in the New York City area. In addition to her clients

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


from the United States, she has served women from West Africa, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Colombia. Other women she has helped through the birth process include new immigrants, orthodox Jewish women, single mothers, and women on Medicaid.24 These demographics are important, contributing to data that suggests a variety of women of different racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds are utilizing images ritualistically in birth as a rite of passage. This is part of decolonizing birth. Different Pachamama figures and images are found for use or purchase through various vendors. Shawna Hawk Rose, one such artist and vendor, sells small Pachamama statues that she makes out of clay and other materials [Fig. 5.2].25 As in the case of Levin’s Sheela-na-gig objects, Rose’s Pachamama figures are marketed as pieces to use as gifts within the birth community or in honor of birth and conception. Yet, as in the previous cases, the ontologies of these objects are not understood as existing within a secular vacuum from which the sacred has been removed. Instead, the ontology is one of identification with the sacred, although this sacredness is detached from religion and understood primarily in its associations with birth and the feminine as divine.

Figure 5.2  Pachamama, Earth Mother Goddess Wooden Figurine. Source: Copyright 2017, Shawna Hawk Rose, Veddma Creations. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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The use of the name Pachamama occurs elsewhere within today’s birth community, and found readily online, including for doula, midwifery, prenatal care, and other services related to pregnancy and birth. Similar to the cases already described, these contemporary usages involving Pachamama, the religious and cultural figure, often emphasize the Incan goddess as a powerful female figure who connects women to an inner or spiritual self in relationship to fertility and birth.26 Returning to the discussion of ancient goddess and fertility imagery, this chapter shifts to examine objects described in the last chapter as secularized and utilized in birth. This section examines the way in which these same figures are re-sacralized. Like the Pachamama and Sheela-na-gig artisanal pieces, numerous items marketed as Woman of Willendorf necklaces, figurines, pendants, and charms are also used in the context of fertility, pregnancy, and birth, and often understood as sacred objects. Joanna Hajduk, a Polish artist who creates stone statuettes of the Willendorf figure [FIG. 5.3], for example, describes her recreations as “shamanic figurines,” to be used in relationship to fertility or birth, and particularly as part of a sacred birth altar.27 Another artist, Jenna Danielle, sells printable adult coloring pages of the Woman of Willendorf, which she states can be used by women or by doulas who are helping other women prepare for birth as a way of celebrating a woman’s own internal “fertile goddess.”28 Other artists create metal or stone charms and jewelry of the figure, selling them through shopping websites such as Amazon and Etsy in the context of sacred birth items. The replicas of the Woman of Willendorf, as well as photos of the original Paleolithic figure, are also found in Pinterest collections devoted to the topic of sacred birth art.

Figure 5.3  Venus of Willendorf, Replica of Ancient Figurine. Source: Copyright 2017, Joanna Hajduk, Glinka Design. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


In all of these cases, the ontology of the Woman of Willendorf has gone through a transformation. Its function no longer relates exclusively to either a religious or a secular purpose. Instead, there is a collective understanding within a particular community that the object is sacred in the humanistic context of birth. Chapter 4 examined an ancient Egyptian relief from the Temple of Hathor in Dendera that showed a woman giving birth, attended by Hathor and Taweret, two deities associated with birth and fertility. In the context of that chapter, secularization of the image pertained to the squatting position of the woman depicted giving birth, found as imagery used on website publications to aid pregnant women in understanding optimal birth positioning. Hathor and Taweret, however, are also figures that are copied, made into replicas, and in some cases sold in conjunction with an understanding of birth as a contemporary sacred rite. The same goddesses are described as “fertility goddesses” on extensive lists and online dictionaries of goddesses, providing viewers with both basic descriptions of goddesses from many cultures, and brief explanations as to how calling of the goddesses’ names can aid women during their pregnancies and the births of their children.29 Arisika Razak, a professor of Philosophy and Religion and Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and a certified nurse midwife, has explored the way that sacred images of African and African American women have the capacity to empower Black women, allowing them to connect more fully with the world in which they live: I believe that some African-American women need a Black or African Goddess if they are to find wholeness and meaning at the heart of the world/s in which they live. These images are currently more available to women and men who want them because modern artists, activists, spiritual practitioners and healers have resurrected or re-created African or Afro-centric pantheons which include: traditional African spirits, orishas, and loas; African goddesses and sacred queens; Black Marys and deified Diasporan ancestors, community activists and soul mothers . . . . I explore a few of the images created by traditional and modern African Diasporan artists who seek to transmit positive, life-affirming images of African and African-American women.30

In her exploration of these images, Razak looks at the way that sexuality and fertility are treated within African cultural history, finding that they are seen as spiritual parts of the human embodied experience of the world in which spirituality and materiality are not viewed as divisible (24). The female body of Africa, explains Razak, was often depicted as sacred and powerful: “Our


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full figured bodies were honored as embodiments of the awesome energies of fertility, power, nurturance, and change—foundational qualities of the physical and spiritual worlds” (24). She provides numerous examples of this, from the language of the Yoruba people, to the sacred images of historic subSaharan Africa, where fertility and mothering are central themes in understanding a woman’s power within her society and culture. Razak includes a section on sacred women of Egypt, some that are both sacred and powerful particularly in the contexts of birth or mothering. One such goddess is Selket, a scorpion goddess whose original function, like that of Hathor and Taweret, related to the protection of birthing and nursing mothers.31 Within the sphere of social ontology, Razak is a speaker who is advocating the transformation of the religious object’s status function to her listeners. In this particular case, the object is that of an Egyptian goddess related to birth. The goddess’ ontology in the contemporary setting is not secularized but is, instead, made sacred in a new way. In his examination of the mother-child figure across time and history in African art, Herbert Cole brings up the point that many of the African images he studies do not represent goddess figures. These nonreligious figures and figurines can still be powerful material representations of the female experience, however.32 In the case of Obed Muringani, a Zimbabwean artist, the topic of pregnancy has been central to many of his works. A father himself, Muringani created many of his paintings during his wife’s pregnancies and the early years of childrearing in his family. Although his art does not secularize or re-sacralize a specific religious figure, his work is stylistically unique and often incorporates themes found in prehistoric paintings of the Kalahari Desert Saan people’s ancestors, also known as Bushmen or Basarwa. The warm brown tones of Obed’s Women Hunters and the dynamism of the two central figures of the painting exude a sense of calm energy (please see: http:// An important theme in many of Obed’s works is how connecting to ways of the past can empower us. Pregnant women are reminded through his work that many women across time and history have already been pregnant and given birth. This connection to a lineage of women helps the pregnant woman feel less isolated or lonely as she approaches labor and the birth of her own child. She is reminded that birth has happened many times before, assured that she will also give birth. Razak and other scholars working on issues related to decolonizing birth and the empowerment of marginalized communities, point to a way in which certain imagery has the capacity, through its sacralization and ritualistic use, to change the influence of authoritative knowledge on the unfolding of birth and practices surrounding birth. Authoritative knowledge is a concept that anthropologist

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


Brigitte Jordan developed and researched in the context of birth as a biosocial event, that is, an event that unfolds in a manner determined not only by human physiology, something that is universal, but by one’s cultural situation as well, which is particular or unique.33 It refers to the type of knowledge system that has the most power in any given situation, thereby forming the foundation from which people make decisions and act on those decisions. Influenced by Jordan’s work, Robbie Davis-Floyd has also written extensively on the impact of authoritative knowledge on birth. As Jordan explains in her chapter “Authoritative Knowledge and Its Construction” (1997), when there are two or more types of knowledge at play, often the case in the context of childbirth practices of the modern world, one type of knowledge has a tendency to take over: In many situations, equally legitimate parallel knowledge systems exist and people move easily between them, using them sequentially or in parallel fashion for particular purposes. But frequently, one kind of knowledge gains ascendance and legitimacy. A consequence of the legitimation of one kind of knowing as authoritative is the devaluation, often the dismissal, of all other kinds of knowing.34

Authoritative knowledge does not pertain to whether a given system of knowledge is the correct form of knowing, but instead, to the weight that the system carries within a given social group as that form of knowledge which is more morally or rationally sound than other forms.35 Once the knowledge gains this status within the group, it has the capacity to become the “official” form of knowledge.36 The dominant system of knowledge in the context of contemporary birth practices around the world stems from the sphere of Western medicine, while other forms of knowledge related to this topic emanate from midwifery and holistic models of birth. Gertrude Jacinta Fraser, American anthropologist and professor, also explains the influence that authoritative knowledge has had on the way birth has been practiced in the United States, particularly within the African American community during the twentieth century. In her 1998 book African American Midwifery in the South, Fraser offers an ethnographic and historical study of African American midwives and the treatment of their midwifery practices as they developed and existed in southern parts of the United States up until the early to mid-twentieth century, particularly in one rural county of Virginia.37 Fraser examines authoritative knowledge and the effect of the white medical establishment on the practices of southern African American midwives. She also provides information on the ritualistic aspects of birth and midwifery in this same context, drawing attention to ways in which rituals have the effect of countering authoritative knowledge. Drawing on ethnography and oral history, Fraser explains that in the case of Green River County,


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Virginia, the primary place of her study, the African American community viewed the body as an entity that encompassed and blended together physiological and spiritual qualities—sacred and profane dimensions—as opposed to dichotomizing them.38 Participants in birth viewed the duties of the midwife as ritualistic in nature, and her practices helped laboring women to pass through physical and spiritual aspects of the birth process.39 As these cases show, images and other objects, when used as part of the ritual of birth as a rite of passage, have the capacity to act as tools that can counter authoritative knowledge. Unmentioned in this book’s earlier chapters, another powerful example of such an image, and one in which the religious ontology of the object goes through a process of transformation, becoming secularized and subsequently re-sacralized in the context of birth, is that of the labyrinth. Unlike a maze, which has multiple, sometimes dead-end, paths, a labyrinth is unicursal with a single path leading towards a center. Labyrinths have been used for various reasons in numerous cultures over the course of history, identified in the cultural and religious contexts of the Native Americans, Ancient Greeks, Chinese, Scandinavians, South Asians, and Ancient Peruvians, among others. But they are also used in the contemporary context of childbirth. Pregnant women visualize the labyrinth as a sacred path of emergence for both mother and child. In this context, labyrinths represent a mother’s emotional and physical passage toward her child, and can be used ritualistically by the pregnant woman as she prepares for labor and birthing her baby. Many midwives and others working within the birth community either walk labyrinths with pregnant women or encourage these women to do so on their own. In San Francisco, the city where my own children were born, for example, there are regular practices organized by the Bay Area Homebirth Collective (BAHC) during which time pregnant women walk one of the two labyrinths at Grace Cathedral (a labyrinth inside the cathedral itself or one located in an exterior courtyard) with midwives, doulas, yoga instructors, and others. Sue Baelen, a licensed midwife and owner of Sacred Body Midwifery is one of the regular organizers of this activity. Quoting Helen Curry’s The Way of the Labyrinth (2000), Baelen’s flyers describe the event as a place where “the spiritual and physical merge into a walking meditation.”40 Pam England, a certified nurse midwife and artist, has written prolifically on the use of labyrinths, mazes, and yantras as a way for the pregnant woman to prepare ritualistically for labor and birth. Her widely read 2010 book Labyrinth of Birth: Creating a Map, Meditations and Rituals for your Childbearing Year provides a basic guide to the history of labyrinths in world culture, and describes how visualization of the labyrinth can help the pregnant woman as she prepares for birth. England describes, for example,

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the symbol of mother and child in the Hopi Tapu-at labyrinth. Tapu’at means “mother and child”: It is unique because it has two entrances and contains two labyrinths, one within the other. Tapu-at is referred to as “Mother and Child” because the outer labyrinth holds the inner labyrinth, like a mother holding her child. This labyrinth is like the mother’s womb enveloping the unborn baby. The unattached center line emerging from the entrance of Tapu’at represents the umbilical cord.41

The labyrinth is in the shape of a square and symbolizes a pathway between the terrestrial world and the world beyond.42 Walking the labyrinth, the design of which the Hopi see as similar to the path between mother and child when the child is in the womb, brings the participant from one realm to the other, representing a rebirth.43 Such labyrinths, suggests England, may be used in the visualization of birth.44 England describes the journey that one takes when walking a labyrinth: The labyrinth is an ancient, universal symbol representing our journey through life, ordeals and transitions. Its single, convoluted pathway begins at the opening, leads directly to the center and out again. The journey into the labyrinth’s center is symbolic of letting go and of death (psychic or physical), and the journey from the center out of the labyrinth represents birth and rebirth. Walking or finger-tracing a labyrinth invokes a sensation of turning inward then outward, perhaps reminding us of our first journey from our mother’s body into the world. (Introduction, iv)

In her most recent book Ancient Map for Modern Birth (2017), England broadens her discussion of using the object of the labyrinth for birth to include sections on ceremonies and various rituals to use during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period.45 These include the construction of a birth altar for the mother and the baby, the mother’s making of birth art during her pregnancy, and the practice of breathing and visualization techniques often associated with Chinese Daoism. In all cases, these rituals are sacred in the nonreligious context of birth as a rite of passage. England is also an artist who has created work specifically for women to use during their pregnancies and in preparation for birth. Faith-Based Birth [FIG. 5.4] comprises three panels shown in historical fashion. From the bottom through to the top panel, the artist’s intention is to show the way that faith surrounding the topic of birth has transformed in our culture, from one related to a sacredness of the female form to our present day faith in medical intervention. Remarking on the bottom panel, in which the event of


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Figure 5.4  Faith Based Birth, acrylic on canvas. Source: Copyright 2004, Pam England. All rights reserved.

birth is depicted as celebratory and spiritual, England describes this aspect of birth: Birth customs reflect whatever a culture has faith in at the time. The lower third of this painting depicts buried matriarchal spirituality and culture. The Great Mother, ensconced in a pomegranate (a symbol of fertility) represents ancient knowing and compassion. She hears the cries of birthing women even as she is

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


calling to all women—including women who have medical and surgical births. She is holding a large bowl, collecting the tears, amniotic fluid, and blood of birthing women. Buried in the earth and our collective memory are the primordial images of Inanna (Sumer), Venus of Willendorf (France), Mother and child (Peru), Sheela-na-gig (Celtic England/Ireland). the Mexican moon goddess Tlazolteotl, and the Great Mother of Çatal Hûjûk (Turkey).46

In the lower part of the panel, one sees the familiar figures of the Sheela-nagig, the Venus of Willendorf, and Tlazolteotl, among others. In this case, however, the primary reason for painting these figures does not have to do with religion, nor with the secularization of the imagery. Instead, the figures are collected together in painting as a nonreligious living memory of the sacred as relates to birth. England describes the coalescing of the sacred and the event of birth in a statement on her Birth Art Gallery: I live in an imaginal, symbolic, mythical world. I enter that world at my easel to follow, explore, and express my dreaming-mind, layer upon layer, going deeper into what is revealed to me as I paint. As an Artist of Spirit and a birth artist, I paint mandalas, as well as metaphorical, mythical, and historic images of birth in our culture because meditating on a mandala is a sacred instrument of spiritual preparation during a rite of passage.47

For England, the importance of expressing the sacredness of birth through art is a key fundament to how she creates her works. Additionally, the artist views the meditation on mandalas and on historic images of birth as a sacred part in how a woman prepares for birth as a rite of passage. As in the case of the historic images of birth that she depicts in Faith Based Birth, England reconceptualizes and re-sacralizes the Tantric image of a divine figure giving birth, which was shown previously in chapter 4, painting a piece called Celestial Mother [FIG 5.5]. Here, one sees a birth image similar to the one on the South Asian relief. In the painting, the figure is depicted with outstretched arms, behind which rest the sun, the moon, and the cosmos, while below rest the fruits of the earth, including a large placenta and umbilical cord. Like England, Amy Haderer is an artist, a mother, and an active member of the birth community. Based in Denver, Colorado, Haderer has over the years created numerous works that center on the human experiences of pregnancy, birth, and mothering, and her website, The Mandala Journey, has become a hub for those interested in art about birth. Haderer is a doula and also uses these images in her practice. In many of her pieces, she works with colored pencils and a light watercolor wash to create a birth mandala that depicts a birth scene. One such work is Haderer’s Journeys Intertwined


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Figure 5.5  Celestial Mother, oil on canvas. Source: Copyright 2014, Pam England. All rights reserved.

[FIG 5.6], a three-dimensional piece created with a modeling medium and oil on gessoboard. In the work, Haderer depicts a mother meditating on her full belly, within which rests the symbolic path of a labyrinth leading to her child. Marked by its circular shape, the mandala is a sacred art form used in religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Circles act as important symbols in many religious traditions around the world, and the word “mandala” is Sanskrit for “circle.” Haderer describes the shape of the mandala as “perfect because it is in the shape of pregnancy itself.” Pregnant women use Haderer’s mandalas as tools to help them in the preparation of labor and birth, as well as in celebrating birth and mothering. In all of her mandala works, including this one, which is merged with the theme of the labyrinth, the artist has re-sacralized the symbol of the mandala such that its ontology becomes fully associated with the sacredness of birth as a rite of passage. Haderer’s work includes the re-sacralized images of numerous other goddesses and religious figures. Many of these are found as part of Haderer’s mandala project and include the Sheela-na-gig; the Native American figure of Ataensic; the Greek mythological figure, Gaia, and the Ancient Greek

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Figure 5.6  Journeys Intertwined, modeling medium, oil on Gessoboard. Source: © Amy Haderer, All rights reserved. Used with permission.

nymph, Naida; Oya and Yemaya, two Yoruba Orishas; Gimokodan, a figure of the Bagobo tribes in the Philippines; and Rumina, a Roman goddess. The issue of cultural appropriation is relevant to the topic of how contemporary artists and artisans are representing powerful female figures that are not part of their own upbringing, race, or cultural backgrounds. In his work Cultural Appropriation and the Arts (2008), philosopher James O. Young has provided one of the most extensive philosophical explorations into the ethical and aesthetic problems inherent in the act of appropriating imagery from other cultures.48 Maintaining that there are deep moral problems that can arise when artists appropriate images or material from other cultures, especially marginalized ones, he also believes that there are ways for artists to appropriate this work if they make clear their respect for those cultures. Defenses of cultural appropriation such as Young’s, however, are highly controversial. In his 2017 New York Times OpEd “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” writer Kenan Malik acknowledges the controversy, pointing to the firing of editors who have defended the act, as well as to the scathing criticism of artists and writers whose own works involve cultural appropriation.49 He also emphasizes that while racism and inequality have definitely


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been a part of the history of cultural appropriation, “it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice.” He points to the problems of policing cultures, as well as to the issue of gatekeeping and the need to pay close attention to whether the gatekeepers of cultures are working toward equality or involved in a campaign that he compares to religious fanaticism and censorship. North American law professor Susan Scafidi has also published extensively on issues of both cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. In her 2005 book Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Scafidi studies the difference between appropriating secular cultural products or activities, such as a dance style, versus the appropriation of sacred items and objects. She explains that there is a big difference between these two forms of appropriation and that the latter can result in desecration of the objects, especially when they stem from the culture of a marginalized community and are appropriated, repackaged, and marketed by a dominant group. However, she explains that there are cases in which some limited permission could be accessible to the outside group seeking to appropriate an object, activity, or place if that group consults with the marginalized community and comes to a respectful agreement on how the appropriation might occur.50 With the artworks mentioned in this book, there is a spectrum of cultural appropriation occurring. In some cases, the item is created within its own cultural context; in others, there may be some level of connection to the original cultural context; and in yet others, connection to the original context is limited to the acts of birth or mothering. Contemporary artists working on the topic of childbirth are by nature living in a globalized community and are in many cases influenced by traditions that may have a positive impact on the birth experiences of pregnant women. Whether those working in the birth community should have the right to utilize images that do not stem from their own tradition is an interesting moral question in need of much more examination. As explained in the Introduction of the book, I appropriated a Daoist image when giving birth to my first child. This was not a planned appropriation, and I would say it was quite uncontrollable based on the situation of my labor, my previous relationship to that image, and the way that the image came to my mind. The appropriation also did not relate to any monetization or commercial gain on my part. Still, technically speaking, my act of utilizing the image during birth was a form of cultural appropriation. Such situations point to the difficulty of moral categorization when it comes to cultural appropriation in the context of childbirth, especially as it might relate to the relationship between mental cultural appropriation and physiological transformation. Both viewer and artist should always be aware of cultural appropriation’s potential for misrepresenting or damaging the sacred objects, belongings, and ideas that originate from a different community’s traditions.

Art as Sacred Symbol in Birth as a Rite of Passage


Turning finally to the artwork of Sara Star, an American painter who lives and works in Portland, Oregon, the artist’s work has become widely recognized within the birth community, and some of her major works are currently owned by Birthingway College of Midwifery, also in Portland. There, midwives, student midwives, and others in the birth community view the artwork as they prepare for their careers and interactions in the world of midwifery. Working with acrylic on a large 5’x5’ hand-built canvas, Star completed her monumental work “The Crowning” [FIG 5.7] in 2004. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary giving birth to Baby Jesus. While preparing her subject matter, Star researched the topic of Mary giving birth extensively, but she found no images in all of art history that depicted the event.51 When painting the piece, Star was also unable to find any other paintings of vaginal birth and so referred to photos in a birthing manual. She then studied traditional iconography with a focus on the style of strokes, verdaccio underpainting, and gold leaf halos, ultimately using modern archival materials. In Star’s image of the Virgin Mary, the figures shown are sacred and religious, and yet the focus of the painting is on “the crowning,” the act of birth itself, which is shared

Figure 5.7  The Crowning, acrylic on canvas (5’ x 5’). Source: Copyright 2004, Sara Star. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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by Mary and Jesus as mother and child. One of the world’s only images to depict the actual birth of Jesus Christ, the painted birth scene emphasizes the humanistic act of birth—an event shared by women and children across time, culture, and history. By focusing on crowning and not on the Virgin, Star’s painting provides for a powerful inversion of art’s historical representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Canonical depictions often represent the Virgin as a mythical symbol of motherhood, which some art historians have described as problematically related to a “patriarchal motherhood” or a “sacrificial motherhood.”52 The word “crowning” also frequently relates to a king, or “the King” in a case such as that of Jesus Christ. As opposed to emphasizing the Virgin as an archetypal, sacrificial, or divine mother, or to referring to a king, however, Star highlights the Virgin’s characteristics as a human, a woman, and a mother. There are many other examples of art and objects deemed “sacred” that are available through website collections and online galleries of images related to pregnancy and birth. The purpose of this book is not to catalogue those images, but to point to evidence suggesting that objects historically identified as religious have gone through ontological transformation, appropriated and made sacred specifically within the contemporary context of childbirth. This chapter has shown this process of ontological transformation between the religious, the secular, and the sacred as occurs in the case of a wide range of images. The next chapter explores new images of birth, examining a fourth ontological category in which contemporary artists are creating images of birth that are sacred in a manner entirely unrelated to any specific religious object, icon, or figure. While some of these works utilize religious motifs, the objects never go through a process of ontological transformation. Instead, they become sacred from the outset, exclusively in relationship to the act of birth as a rite of passage. NOTES 1. Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 95. 2. Gordon Lynch, On the Sacred (Durham, United Kingdom: Acumen, 2012). 3. On the topic of birth of the physical body as a focal point in theories of common right and human commonality, see also: Anna Hennessey, “Birth, Common Right, and Perpetual Peace: Re-envisioning the Ideological Seeds of Immanual Kant’s Political Philosophy.” 4. Gene Cooper, “Life-Cycle rituals in Dongyang County: Time, Affinity, and Exchange in Rural China,” in Ethnology no. 4 (1998): 373–394. 5. Cole has recently written more about this emphasis in “Exploring Motherhood in African Arts” in Ìmò Dára, April 6, 2018, https​://ww​w.imo​dara.​com/m​agazi​ne/ex​ plori​ng-mo​therh​ood-i​n-afr​ican-​arts/​.

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6. Michael C. Kirwen, African Cultural Domain No. 1: Pregnancy and Birthing Rites and Rituals (Nairobi, Kenya: Maryknoll Institute of African Studies, 2004), 3. 7. Ogechukwu Ezekwem Williams, “A Blur between the Spiritual and the Physical: Birthing Practices among the Igbo of Nigeria in the Twentieth Century,” in Sacred Inception (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018), chapter 7. 8. Ibid. the seventh page of Chapter 7. 9. Robbie Davis-Floyd, Birth as an American Rite of Passage (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1992). 10. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960), 11. 11. Davis-Floyd, Birth as an American Rite of Passage, 22–23. 12. Ibid., 23–41. 13. Ibid., 41–43. 14. Pamela E. Klassen, Blessed Events: Religion and Homebirth in America (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 85. 15. Ibid. 16. Ibid. 17. Davis-Floyd, Birth as an American Rite of Passage, 9–10. This comes from Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1973). 18. Melissa Cheyney, “Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance,” in the Medical Anthropology Quarterly 25, no. 4 (2011): 519–542. 19. Jenny Levin, Sheela-na-gig Fertility Necklace, Rose and Lilac, Trying to Conceive, Baby, Conception, Mama Necklace, Birth Goddess, Celtic Fertility Symbol https​://ww​w.ets​​/uk/l​istin​g/115​17702​7/she​ela-n​a-gig​-fert​ility​-neck​lace-​rose?​ ref=m​arket​. Accessed May 10, 2017. 20. Posted by elisec3 on April 13, 2015: https​://ww​w.ets​​/uk/s​hop/V​eddma​ /revi​ews?r​ef=pa​ginat​ion&p​age=3​, Accessed on May 10, 2017. 21. Victoria Williams, “Blessingway Ceremony, Navajo,” in Celebrating Life Customs around the World: From Baby Showers to Funerals (Santa Barbara, California, and Denver, Colorado: ABC-CLIO, 2017), 48–51. 22. Williams, “Blessingway Ceremony, Navajo,” 48. 23. Sorayya Kassamali Rickicki, email correspondence with author, April 15, 2017. 24. Sorayya Kassamali Rickicki, email correspondence with author, April 22, 2017. 25. Shawna Hawk Rose, Earth Mother Goddess Statue, Pachamama https​://ww​w.ets​​/uk/l​istin​g/516​05747​0/ear​th-mo​ther-​godde​ss-st​atue-​pacha​ mama?​ga_or​der=m​ost_r​eleva​nt&ga​_sear​ch_ty​pe=al​l&ga_​view_​type=​galle​ry&ga​_ sear​ch_qu​ery=P​acham​ama&r​ef=sr​_gall​ery_4​0 accessed on May 31, 2017. 26. Some such websites include Pachamama Doula; https://thepachamamadoula.; Pachamama Centre https​://ww​w.bir​thfor​ward.​com/o​ur-di​recto​ry/ pa​ chama​ ma/; Pachamama Doula Services; Jungle Mamas of the Pachamama Alliance http:​//glo​balfo​rcefo​rheal​ing.o​rg/ju​ngle-​mamas​/. Numerous Pinterest and Facebook pages also include images related to Pachamama, pregnancy, and childbirth. 27. Venus of Willendorf Figure: Mother Earth Goddess Female Sculpture https​://ww​w.ets​​/list​ing/2​43715​713/v​enus-​of-wi​llend​orf-f​i gure​-moth​er-ea​rth?&​ utm_s​ o urce​ = goog​ l e&ut​ m _med​ i um=c​ p c&ut​ m _cam ​ p aign ​ = shop ​ p ing_ ​ u s_b- ​ a rt_a​


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nd_co​llect​ibles​-scul​pture​-figu​rines​&utm_​custo​m1=65​3420a​f-549​9-7aa​9-a2e​2-000​ 012df​6c5a&​gclid​=CI_j​887rn​9QCFY​uifgo​d9mUB​Lg Accessed June 2, 2017. 28. Coloring Page – Birth Art Goddess Venus of Willendorf https​://ww​w.ets​​/ uk/l​istin​g/489​81804​0/pri​ntabl​e-adu​lt-co​louri​ng-pa​ge-pr​egnan​cy?re​f=sho​p_hom​e_ act​ive_3​Accessed June 2, 2017. 29. See “Fertility Goddesses and Goddesses of Pregnancy and Childbirth” in, http:​//www​.godd​ess-g​uide.​com/f​ertil​ity-g​oddes​ses.h​tml accessed on June 5, 2017; and 30. Arisika Razak, “Sacred Images of African and African-American Women,” in She is Everywhere! An Anthology of Writing in Womanist/Feminist Spirituality, Vol. 2, eds. Annette Lyn Williams, Karen Nelson Villanueva, and Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2008), 21–39, 23. 31. Razak, “Sacred Images of African and African-American Women,” 25. 32. See: Cole, “Exploring Motherhood in African Arts.” 33. Brigitte Jordan, Birth in Four Cultures (Fountain Valley, California: Eden Press Women’s Publications, 1978), 1. 34. Brigitte Jordan, “Authoritative Knowledge and Its Construction,” in Childbirth and Authoritative Knowledge, eds. Robbie E. Davis-Floyd and Carolyn F. Sargent (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 55–79, 56. 35. Ibid., 58–60. 36. Ibid., 60. 37. Gertrude Jacinta Fraser, African American Midwifery in the South: Dialogues of Birth, Race, and Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998). 38. Fraser, African American Midwifery in the South, 249. 39. Ibid. 40. Flyer quote from Helen Curry, The Way of the Labyrinth: A Powerful Meditation for Everyday Life (London: Penguin Books, 2000). 41. Pam England, Labyrinth of Birth: Creating a Map, Meditations and Rituals for your Childbearing Year (Birthing From Within Books, 2010), 4. 42. Juan Carlos Campos Gómez, “Los Laberintos Prehistóricos del Monte Teleno,” in Argutorio 36 (2016): 1–10, 4. 43. Hope B. Werness, Continuum Encyclopedia of Native Art: Worldview, Symbolism, and Culture in Africa, Oceania, and Native North America (New York and London: Continuum, 2000), 197. 44. Pam England, Labyrinth of Birth: Creating a Map, Meditations and Rituals for your Childbearing Year (Santa Barbara, California: Seven Gates Media, 2010). 45. Pam England, Ancient Map for Modern Birth (Albuquerque, New Mexico: Seven Gates Media, 2017). 46. Pam England, artist’s comments on her painting, “Faith Based Birth,” Pam’s Birth Art Gallery, https​://ww​w.sev​engat​esmed​​m/wor​kshop​-test​imoni​als accessed September 18, 2017. 47. Pam England, artist’s statement, Pam’s Birth Art Gallery (bottom of page), ibid.

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48. James O. Young, Cultural Appropriation and the Arts (Hoboken, New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing, 2018). 49. Kenan Malik, “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” The New York Times, June 14, 2017, https​://ww​w.nyt​imes.​com/2​017/0​6/14/​opini​on/in​-defe​nse-o​f-cul​tural​appr​opria​tion.​html.​ 50. Susan Scafidi, Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 124. 51. Sara Star, personal website: http:​//sar​a-sta​r-stu​dio.b​logsp​​m/201​0/11/​ respo​nding​-to-c​ritic​ism.h​tml. 52. Rachel Epp Buller discusses this issue in the introduction to her volume, Reconciling Art and Mothering (Surrey, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2012), 1.

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Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth

In the context of contemporary art, there is a rise in the creation of brand new artwork about birth in which the social ontology of the object does not go through transformation between religious, secular, and sacred identities. The ontology of these objects instead represents, from the outset, a manifestation of the sacred, often of a nonreligious and humanistic nature. These objects are part of the fourth and final ontological order of the book’s general theory of ontology. Some of these objects do utilize religious iconography, but they do not replicate an original religious object in the way that re-sacralized images of the Sheela-na-gig or of the Virgin Mary, for example, recreate the images of an original sheela or Madonna figure. The sacredness of the artworks discussed here, similar to those discussed in the context of the last chapter’s re-sacralized objects, is related to a sense of existentiality, or a transcendence of mundane reality that artists and viewers share and transmit to one another. Communal agreement that birth is an important, if not foundational, act in the human experience is integral to this form of the sacred. The chapter also takes into consideration artistic treatments of infertility, medical intervention, and menopause, demonstrating that representation of these topics is also part of birth’s sacred dimension in its contemporary context. Chapter 1 examined how there are curiously few representations of women giving birth found across the entire timeline of art history, a fact that is clear when one delves into the subject and becomes particularly salient when one compares images of birth to images of death. Whether this dearth of birth imagery has to do with an original lack of interest in the subject or with a destruction of birth images that has occurred over the course of history is a topic of interest and also a matter discussed to some length in that chapter. However, American artist Judy Chicago and British artist Jonathan Waller, 123


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two artists discussed there, did create new representations of birth during the late twentieth century. The abstract images of birth found in Chicago’s monumental work Birth Project, saw relative success and acceptance during the mid-1980s. Waller’s more realistic and visceral paintings of his wife giving birth, however, were met with coldness and shock, even into the contemporary world of the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, new art about pregnancy, birth, and mothering began to flourish, spreading across the internet through image sharing and online galleries, as well as on the ground in small gallery exhibitions. With a few exceptions, many of the artists creating this work are still not widely known. Their art is increasingly recognized within birth and midwifery communities around the globe, however, and there is a growth of interest in the work on its artistic merits alone. This chapter examines one primary aspect of these contemporary pieces, which is how the artists who are creating them invite their viewers to enter the works with an understanding that the events depicted are sacred. In these works, the sacred and the secular merge, creating a new visual form of nonreligious sacrality as integral to the objects’ ontologies. In conveying the meaning of the artworks to their viewers, these artists often explain the symbolic function of the art as related to an expression of birth as a sacred or spiritual act, typically of a nonreligious or humanistic nature, even in those cases when religious iconography is utilized. In early 2017, photos and videos of Beyoncé Knowles splashed across popular magazines and the internet to announce the American singer’s second pregnancy, this time with twins. Shot by Ethiopian-American photographer Awol Erizku, the photos depict Beyoncé as what some have interpreted to be a Madonna, goddess, or Venus figure.1 In a few of the photos, flowers frame the singer’s body or rest at her feet and she is seated against a blue sky. In others, she appears reclined or standing against a yellow background, again surrounded by flowers and foliage, a bust of Nefertiti at her side. Shortly after appearing in these photos, the singer performed at the Grammy Awards, appearing as a pregnant goddess in golden attire and crown. Paying tribute to African spirituality, Beyoncé utilized the event to show through her body the imagery of Oshun, an orisha, or deity from the Yoruba religious tradition.2 After the birth of her babies, additional photos emerged, again shot by Erizku, in which the singer is seen standing and holding her twins. With hair down, leg bent, and a blue veil flowing from her head, Beyoncé stands in front of a large flower arrangement, the sea and blue sky in the background. Like the portraits of her pregnancy, this portrait is reminiscent of both the Virgin Mary and a Botticelli Venus.3 In all of her portraits, however, the singer is not replicating or re-sacralizing an original religious figure. Rather, references to religious iconography is only implied. The photographer appropriates and hybridizes a variety of figures (goddess, African deity, Madonna figure, etc.),

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


and the meanings of the images emerge not as succinct re-sacralizations of an original object, but as celebrations of the artist’s own body as a pregnant woman or as a mother. While glorifying the artist, and also inseparable from the business of capitalist American money making, these photos act to penetrate the public mind, showcasing pregnancy, birth, and mothering, and presenting these events as sacred.4 Infused with religious imagery, the works tap into the sensibilities of the religious viewer. Yet even the nonreligious viewer can understand the religious references of these works and be in awe without religious sentiment at the birth event. The widespread sharing, acceptance, and celebration of Beyoncé’s pregnancy and maternity photos point to a shift in public perception about birth. When Annie Leibovitz’s now famous photograph of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, the image at first set off a major backlash, with many stores either refusing to sell it or covering the image up in the same way pornography would be.5 Controversial at the time of its publication, the picture of Moore today acts as a symbol of empowerment. Since the early twenty-first century, an increasing number of female actresses, athletes, and other public figures have appeared in magazines, usually in the nude, to show what their bodies look like during pregnancy. In the meantime, many painters and other artists have begun to depict the pregnant form, as well as the actual event of birth, in such a way that viewers are apt to understand the event more as one of empowerment and sacredness than of disdain or disgust. Turning from these popular photos of the celebrities’ pregnant bodies, we look at how other contemporary artwork about pregnancy, birth, and mothering is transmitting the idea that these events are sacred, often through the utilization of religious symbolism to get the message to the viewer. Well known for her large-scale figurative paintings of nude women, Jenny Saville is a contemporary British artist who began to explore themes of maternity after becoming a mother herself. During the first decade of the 2000s, Saville sketched and painted several pieces related to the theme of mothers and children in which she depicts herself holding her two infant sons. Influenced in part by Leonardo da Vinci’s monumental Renaissance cartoon of Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, Saville’s massive works show her seated naked and grasping the two babies on her lap, both of whom are also naked and squirming from her. As in Saville’s other works, the charcoal lines of her sketches and colors of her paintings produce a frenetic dynamism in The Mothers. Through this dynamism, the artist captures the physicality, emotionality, and phenomenology of what it is to be a mother of young children. The religious references in the work, however, are fused with a representation of Saville and her children, making sacred the nonreligious bodies of the artist as mother with her children.


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Another artist who utilizes religious iconography in a similar fashion is Kate Hansen, a Canadian painter and mother who gave birth to a son in 2007 and a daughter in 2008. Hansen has explained that following the births of her children, she entered into one of her most energetic and creative artistic periods, beginning a group of portraits known as the Madonna and Child series. Comprising numerous paintings of mothers with their children, Hansen’s work showcases the diversity of mothering while also seeking to capture the unique bond that exists between mothers and their infants. Elements of the divine in this union of mother and child manifest physically through Hansen’s use of haloes made with gold leaf on paper. Accompanying each of the portraits on her website is a story written by the birth mother in which she describes her own individual experience of birth. These birth stories and artworks provide the reader with a textual and visual tapestry that communicates what it is to give birth and become a new mother. Hansen’s work depicts birth and mothering as rites of passage that are, in themselves, sacred events. The halo is a component of religious iconography, not only of Christianity but also of the Ancient world of Greece and Rome, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Describing the momentous event that birth represents for a mother, however, Hansen explains how she tapped into this religious iconography to capture the sacred ontology of figures such as the Virgin Mary, while also representing the broader scope of mothers and the work that they do: For everyone it [birth] was a rite of passage, a moment in our lives right before motherhood, when everything changes even one’s sense of self. I wanted to draw some parallels between our own ideals of what a mother should be and the cultural ideal of motherhood, symbolized by the Virgin Mary. I wanted simultaneously to honor motherhood, in all of its imperfection.6

Hansen’s artwork, which manifests the sacredness of the immanent world, offers the viewer a vision of how such human events as birth and mothering are deserving of a unique space of honor. Similar to Sara Star’s work described in the last chapter, Hansen’s utilizes the symbolism of the Virgin Mary. However, just as Star celebrates the humanistic act of birth, Hansen seeks to revere all mothers in their diverse ways of life. These artist motivations work to oppose ideological and artistic compressions of women into one model of perfection, a topic examined at length in chapter 7’s discussion of feminism. In Tiara and Eve Marie [FIG 6.1], Hansen captures the connectedness and bonding of mother and child, with mother Tiara cradling baby Eve Marie to her breast while sharing a gaze with the child. There are moments, divine moments, that occur when a mother bonds with her child, bringing her baby

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


Figure 6.1  Tiara and Eve Marie, conte crayon and gold leaf on paper. Source: Copyright 2011, Kate Hansen. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

close to her and looking down at the child’s face, and this is the moment that Hansen’s work aims at capturing. As in Hansen’s other works, the simple union between mother and child, as opposed to between two religious figures, is that which represents the sacred. In Ailen and Jet Jazz [See book cover], Hansen’s use of conte crayon adds a soft and airy quality to the figures’ bodies, a softness that is further emphasized by the light gray tones of the background. Balancing strength and delicacy in form, the depicted mother holds up her child, looking at him while he rests solidly against her chest gazing into the distance. In these paintings, religious imagery is not extracted for the purpose of providing viewers with a practical tool used in birth and labor, or to re-sacralize a


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secularized image. Hansen has depicted birth and mothering as sacred events that at the same time embody qualities of both a transcendent and an immanent nature. For many women from around the world who examine these images as they prepare for birth, the objects also partake in birth as a rite of passage. Amanda Greavette, a Canadian artist based in Ontario, is known for her paintings of birth and pregnancy. Living in the Body; Milk and Honey [FIG 6.2], one of Greavette’s earliest paintings on the topic, also utilizes Christian imagery to present pregnancy as a sacred event. The large rose window behind the main figure brings a sense of spirituality, holiness, and religion to the piece. Influenced by her own faith, the artist named the work after a verse from scripture, but describes the title as reference both to the human experiences of life, including living in the flesh, and to the importance of community.7 Greavette has explained how this piece was not meant to be a religious statement but, rather, an outpouring of her inner musings on her experience.8 Her work is relatable to the many who view it, including those who identify as religious or nonreligious. In our correspondences, Greavette explains that although she felt particularly close to her faith during the time of her own pregnancy, a connection that in turn impacted her production of the artwork, she is welcoming and open to many interpretations of her creations. Greavette also describes a syncretism of other religious or spiritual elements as manifest in her creation of the work, which is a self-portrait, as well as an understanding of personal power, not only in pregnancy but also as a woman and as a sexual being: I was (also) emulating the Virgin Mary, or the goddess mother, the spiritual representation of a woman whose divine role . . . is creating and bringing forth life, and there is a holiness and sacredness in that.9

Again, similar to Star and Hansen, Greavette is utilizing the religious symbol of the Virgin Mary as a way of communicating the sacredness of the form she has painted. Yet, like the other two artists, she does not depict or describe pregnancy or mothering as a sacrificial act: Obviously referencing the long history of this theme in art, I also wanted the woman to be real, though ideal in a way, but fully flesh too—tired in her face, gazing directly at the viewer, balancing between being the subject and being the one in power. I wanted her stance to be strong, and her be a sexual being without being overly idealized—the model was myself and I wanted a stance that communicated power and presence and not shame or vulnerability, yet while recognizing the beauty and fragility of the experience.10

The intentions of the painting are to bring a sense of peace, strength, and grace to other women as they watch their own bodies grow during pregnancy and in

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


Figure 6.2  Living in the Body; Milk and Honey. Source: Copyright 2004, Amanda Greavette. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

preparation for the labor and birth of their own children. The contrasts found in the work’s colors and forms emphasize the shape of the pregnant body. Greavette also describes the importance that the theme of community has in the work, revealing different symbols and their meanings to the painting: The surrounding elements of the rose window refer to the spiritual, but the cathedral window and the milkweed and honeycomb also refer to the community. These symbolize the necessary community of support and the way in which the body, the community, and the world work together in beautiful


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synthesis and harmony. The bees/honey, the milkweed pods scattering seeds but providing necessary food to many insects and butterflies, these fascinating parts of the natural world leave us in wonder. Thus, (reminding us of) our obligation to assist and support each other, often to the point of self-sacrifice. And the rose window, letting light into the sanctuary of a cathedral space, beautiful light-reflecting kaleidoscopes but also symbolizing the body of the church that creates a connected community (ideally), and the design itself so very much like a mandala.11

Although Greavette’s work clearly draws upon Christian iconography, one could argue that the sacredness of the central form is not founded on any one religious tradition. It is instead the material representation of celebrating the pregnant body that becomes sacred. In many of her other paintings, Greavette celebrates birth and mothering without the use of any religious imagery at all, be it of a visual or textual nature. For example, in her work It’s a Human Thing (It’s a Girl?? It’s a Girl!!), a large (48” x 36”) oil painting, she offers the viewer another selfportrait, this time a depiction of herself holding a new baby girl shortly after the experience of birth.12 The title of the work comes from a song written by The Be Good Tanyas, one of Greavette’s favorite bands, the music of which she had listened to during her labor. Greavette explains how the representation of fleshly post-birth experience taps into the elation that many women feel after they have given birth: I wanted to show the other-worldliness or euphoria the mother often experiences, even while her body isn’t fully pulled together yet from the drama of the birth - the position of the figure was intentional to convey that sliding around feeling or looseness immediately after birth, when the body and one’s control of it is in fact secondary to the experience. The body is often very vulnerable and exposed but that is greatly overshadowed by the intensity of meeting one’s child. And that delight and joy might be intensified by discovering a desired gender/sex, like in my case!13

The fleshly aspects of birth are still rarely seen in art, especially in painting, but at the time when Greavette first painted the work back in 2007, this type of representation was particularly hard to find: “At the time of painting I wanted to convey the rawness of birth—the blood and umbilical cord at the time were unusual in art or birth photos.”14 Greavette normalizes the physicality of birth, showing women that the process of giving birth involves the presence of blood and fleshly matter, such as an umbilical cord. There is an awe to the birth process that Greavette expresses through her brush, and she makes that feeling accessible

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


to the viewers, showing them the emotions of a woman as she rejoices in the birth of her child. This sense of awe is not an aspect of mundane experiencing of the world. As such, it is sacred, although not necessarily in a religious way. Xiaohong Zhang and Wenji Billow are two Chinese diasporic artists who depict the theme of pregnancy in their work. Both incorporate traditional Chinese techniques of art making in the production of their work, using watercolor painting and paper cutting, for example. Fusing their images of the female body with landscape and other natural formations to depict the processes of birth and labor, their visualizations of the body’s inner workings become materially manifest as a synthesis of body and nature, a synthesis that is also commonly found within the contexts of Daoism and Chinese Buddhism. As in the case of Daoist alchemical body charts, one of which was mentioned in the Introduction to this book (see Introduction, FIG 0.1 the Neijing tu), these artists utilize physical representation to externalize a physiological process. Working in the context of contemporary Chinese art, they are fusing images of the body with landscape and other natural formations to depict these processes and visualize the body’s inner workings related to birth. Like the Daoist body chart or other similar religious representations, such as depictions of Sumeru, the central sacred mountain of Buddhism, wherein the mountain appears like a body replete with spinal cord and other internal features, these artists’ objects demonstrate an acute interest in representing the body through images of nature and the cosmos.15 Zhang and Billow also exteriorize an aspect of the body’s physiology through art, another trait found in Chinese religious traditions. Yet, in their depictions, the artists are not representing the body in a religious way. Rather, they incorporate nature into their work as a way of contributing to an understanding of the female body as a site that is both sacred and powerful in its ability to nurture new life. The sacredness of the forms depicted relates not to religion but to the humanistic process of pregnancy and birth. Zhang, an artist originally from Hubei and currently a professor of art and design at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, specializes in large-scale northern Chinese-style paper cutting, or jian zhi (剪紙), a style that dates back to sixth-century China. Her monumental piece Pregnancy [FIG 6.3] is over 8 feet tall and shows a pregnant woman’s profile within which nestles a baby. Networks of vines, branches, and leaves course through the entirety of the woman’s form, connecting her body to the broader intricacy of life characteristic of the natural world. The fetus rests comfortably within the pregnant womb, eyes closed, its own form protected by the strong rootedness of its tree-like mother. The delicate patterns of Zhang’s paper cut, interwoven and organic in design,


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Figure 6.3  Pregnancy, papercut. Source: Copyright 2003, Xiaohong Zhang. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

externalize and make material the physiological process of pregnancy, the precursor to birth. In correspondences with Zhang, who is also a mother, she has described her work as connected to mental visualization of the experience of pregnancy.16 In this case, the artist has materialized a mental visualization of a physiological process through the physical means of representation, and the representation itself occurs in the form of a melding of human body with elements of the natural world. Visualization is often a practice in various religious traditions, but here it is made sacred through its focus on the human connection of mother and child during pregnancy. Zhang’s Pregnancy is widely shared within the birth community, found,

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


for example, in literature about art on birth, as well as on the topic of birth more broadly [FIG 6.4]. In the artwork of Wenji Billow, an artist from Guangxi who now resides in Sweden, the representational trope of merging the human body with elements of the natural world is also present, again as in the case of Zhang’s work, to illuminate internal processes of pregnancy and birth. In Billow’s work, Pregnancy [FIG 6.5], for example, a seated woman dressed in a white garment places her hand on a pregnant womb that protrudes from an organic plant-like body. Billow has explained that the woman is reaching out to a lotus seedpod representative of the woman’s own womb. In another painting, Fu 福, Billow depicts the pregnant womb as external to the pregnant woman, held in front of her in the form of a gourd-like pot that nurtures the baby within. Immersed in a lush landscape surrounded by large flowers and rocks, the woman becomes part of the natural

Figure 6.4  Detail from Xiaohong Zhang’s Pregnancy on the cover of San Diego Reader, Volume 44, No. 22, August 6, 2015. Credit: Used with permission by Ernie Grimm.


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environment, the colorful paints used to depict her complementing those of the plants and other objects seen in the background. Thus, again one notes this theme of externalizing the physiological process of pregnancy through representation. The woman’s own pregnancy is external to her, enmeshed in nature instead. In a third painting, Mask-Pregnancy, Billow represents the pregnant woman’s internal landscape as completely external to the figure’s body. Depicted as part of the woman’s gown, the landscape is reminiscent of traditional Chinese landscape paintings and includes large mountains, swirling clouds, blue streams, and several small dwellings. In our correspondences, Billow has described this as the living landscape of the pregnant woman, stating that all of these aspects are understood as moving constantly within the woman’s body in accord with the movements both of the baby and of the internal processes that nurture the body during pregnancy.17 Thus

Figure 6.5  Pregnancy, oil on canvas. Source: Copyright 2013, Wenji Billow. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


again occurs the representational trope in which the body’s physiology is externalized through images of nature. Billow’s works include many other symbols of interest, though they are not directly connected to the trope of an amalgamation of body and nature found in various Chinese religious representations. Masks, for example, have a long history of use within Chinese religious traditions, including those of Daoism and Shamanism, and particularly in relationship to collective rites of passage.18 Similarly, the image behind the woman in Billow’s Mask-Pregnancy resembles an incense burner, which is an object intimately connected to Chinese religious traditions. Billow does not practice religion, but her artwork utilizes sacred imagery, infusing her representation of the pregnant body with a meaning that is both sacred and nonreligious. Like Judy Chicago and Jonathan Waller, Silas Kayakjuak is an artist who began representing birth during the twentieth century. However, Kayakjuak’s work was much less well known than Chicago’s or even Waller’s during that period. His carvings have become more recognized in the twenty-first century, however, particularly within the birth community.19 An Inuit artist from the Nunavut Territory of Canada, Kayakjuak comes from a family of carvers. He has carved many images of the human form in stone over the course of his career, and the themes of pregnancy, birth, and mothering recur in his work. There is a warmth and calmness to his carvings, found also in this small sculpture of a woman giving birth. In Kayakjuak’s piece Birthing the Old Way [FIG. 6.6], the crowning baby emerges fully from the woman’s form while her facial expression remains strong but serene. The woman’s entire body concentrates on the birth of the baby, pressing forward and resting in a squatting position. Carved in serpentine, the sculpture is round and smooth, adding a tactile element to its sense of calmness. In our correspondences, Kayakjuak has explained that the title of the work refers to natural birth, presumably before the introduction of medical interventions into the birth process.20 In their book chapter “Refusing Delinquency, Reclaiming Power: Indigenous Women and Childbirth” (Demeter Press 2015), Claire Dion Fletcher and Cheryllee Bourgeois describe the sacredness that is at the heart of Indigenous birth practices: Pregnancy and birth are sacred events in Indigenous communities. Pregnant women are to be honored and cared for in their role in continuing the life of the family and community . . . . Women are considered to have a deeper connection to the spirit world when they are pregnant because of the spirit they are growing and caring for. Birth is understood as a ceremony in itself.21

Reflecting on his understanding of this sense of the sacred, Kayakjuak carves new work devoted to providing images of the birth event as such. Referencing


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Figure 6.6  Birthing the Old Way, Serpentine Carving. Source: Copyright 1995, Silas Kayakjuak. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

the work of Kayakjuak and other Indigenous artists, Fletcher and Bourgeois point to the empowerment and sacredness that these contemporary images of birth provide to their viewers: Work such as the sculptures of Inuit artists Silas Kayakjuak and Mary Oashutsiaq depict Inuit women giving birth—babies quite literally at the threshold of new life with their heads born while the rest of the body is not yet out. These birth scenes with women helping other women place the experience and control of that moment in the hands of Inuit women. Paintings by Potawatomi artist Daphne Odjig and Metis artist Leah Dorian depict pregnancy, motherhood, and birth scenes firmly rooted in Indigenous perspectives, including physical and spiritual understandings of these experiences.22

While the sacredness represented in Kayakjuak’s work is intimately connected to Inuit traditions, the artist himself refers to the representation as a piece that simply shows birth as it occurred in the past. The sense of the carving’s sacredness therefore also derives from the viewers’ collective nonreligious understanding that birth is a sacred event. Influenced in particular by the spiritual and philosophical ideas of the Fluxus artists of the 1960s and 1970s, intellectual descendants of Marcel Duchamp, and the avant-garde, as well as by Ellen Dissanayake’s writings on art, spirituality and culture, Philadelphia-based artist Amy Lyn Brand blends the sacred and the material in her artwork. More specifically, the sacredness of Brand’s work often centers on the mother figure and the maternal flesh. Brand’s Mother Sow II is a personal meditation on motherhood through the

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


figure of a sow, whose sole piglet nestles closely atop the full udders of its mother. Full bodied and robust, the mother sow’s face expresses sadness or nostalgia, and the piglet’s embrace is tender. While creating the work in clay, Brand came across a poem by Galway Kinnell on Saint Francis and the sow. Brand has described the image, its making, and the influence of the poem on her work. I include a lengthy passage of her correspondence with me because it provides for an excellent example of how new forms of sacred art about birth are born through the maternal subjectivity of the artist: For this body of work, I am creating a sort of pantheon of personal gods or spirits to help me through life. The Sow is a mother figure, who helps me through each new stage of motherhood. When I first sculpted her, in the spring of 2013, my children were one and three. The one year old was still breast-feeding, but I knew I would be weaning her over the next few months, and was already grieving that separation. The three year old would be starting pre-school in the fall. Pre-school was just for two mornings a week, but it felt like the first step in the process of leaving forever. As I was searching for reference images of sows, I stumbled across the poem “Saint Francis and the Sow,” by Galway Kinnell, on a Momastery blog post. Something about that poem struck a chord in me, though it’s difficult for me to define what it was, because every time I read it, I find something new. And every time I sculpt the Sow, I depict a slightly different aspect of her—happiness, sorrow, beauty, ugliness. If I were to make a new image of her right now it would probably be one of exhaustion! But this figure, Sow II (my second depiction of her) should probably be titled Our Lady Sow of Sorrow. There’s a certain poignancy you experience as a mother—I remember it really striking me right after my first baby was born—of realizing that every human being was once a perfect, tiny baby. When you think about that, you realize how sad it is that those babies grow up and become adults who do horrible things, and have horrible things done to them. Every person you meet, no matter how unpleasant, was once a baby who had a mother (and childhood).23

The imagery that Brand uses, her writings on Kinnell’s poem, the poem itself, and the physical manifestation of the poem in the artist’s work, fuse the sacred Catholic figure of Saint Francis with the mother figure of the sow. In her own writings, Brand has explored, more broadly, the topic of art as spiritual practice, expressing how art is a means through which the spirituality of life may be rendered in material form. In Mother Sow II, Brand has infused the simple figure of a pig with layers of meaning related to the spirituality of motherhood. More recently, the artist also incorporated the Sow II figure into a larger piece, a Reliquary, which is like an altar [FIG 6.7]. Here, the artist creates an altar to the mother sow,


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again blending religious motifs with brand new art about mothering as a sacred event. In addition to the images of birth and mothering discussed thus far in this chapter, some members of the same community are also using art and writing to acknowledge other important aspects associated with childbirth and the female body, including infertility, menopause, and medical intervention. Sara Star, the artist who created the monumental piece The Crowning, discussed in chapter 6, cannot have children herself. Some of her work is devoted to themes of loss and infertility. She explains the sacred way in which her paintings, including those about birth, are also a part of this aspect of her life:

Figure 6.7  Reliquary with Mother Sow II, Installation, Approx. 36” x 40” x 40” terracotta with mixed media. Source: Copyright 2013, Amy Lyn Brand. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


Whenever I have felt down, I remember that actually The Crowning and other paintings I make are my babies and they live a life in the world as rich and meaningful as the best child could. (Star 2016)24

For Star, the paintings themselves, as well as the process of making them, are a part of healing. In this same vein, Star has also recently begun to commemorate and record the loss of a child in a series devoted to African Americans who have lost their sons to police violence. Another American artist who believes in the use of art for personal healing and transformation after trauma is Arla Patch. Patch has worked for decades as a social activist, utilizing art to help groups such as incarcerated women, at-risk teens, adolescent male addicts and alcoholics, and women with breast cancer. Patch has been recognized particularly for her projects as a community engagement coordinator working with the Wabanaki people, the Native American tribes of Maine in New England. She has also worked on the topic of the sacred in birth, leading groups of pregnant women in special workshops devoted to belly casting and celebrating birth as a rite of passage. Some of Patch’s artwork, such as Godbody [FIG 6.8], an intricate coil drawing with polymer clay, is devoted to the topic of sacredness and the female body. Her work often includes themes of birth and fertility, and she has even illustrated a coloring book for women trying to conceive.25 Patch has also created exquisite pieces connected to the theme of menopause. In her relief work Homage of Uterus, Portal of the Uterus, for example, Patch again uses colored coils of clay to reveal an image of two uteruses and their ovaries.26 While the work on the one hand celebrates the capacities of the uterus, on the other, its primary purpose is to express the mourning that some women go through at the end of their childbearing years (others, indeed, may welcome this transformation). Two white teardrops appear in the image’s lower uterus, offering a visual marker of this mourning process. This moment of menopause, characterized by an array of emotions, including sadness, also marks an essential and often sacred rite of passage for a woman as she commences the autumn of her life. Patch explains some of the complexity of the feelings that may arise during menopause: Now as my ovaries are turning away from their full time function of producing eggs and my childbearing ends, I have even greater appreciation for this magnificent, yet hidden part of my body. It was the first home for my son, giving him the start that would make the blueprint for his lifetime. (Patch 2011)27

Menopause is a physiological phase that all women will undergo once they are past their childbearing years. As such, this time of transformation is deserving


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Figure 6.8  Godbody, coil drawing with polymer clay. Source: Copyright 2012, Arla Patch. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

of material representation, and Patch’s work offers others the chance to reflect on both the moment and the complexity of its associated emotions. A maritime artist who lives and works in New Brunswick, Canada, Jody Coughlin is another artist who creates vibrant images of the pregnant body, usually through watercolor or ink. In some of her work, she creates images in which the pregnant body is a sacred entity. Coughlin’s Growing as a Mother (see Visualizing Birth28), for example, uses intricate ink patterns to represent the Becoming-Mother found in the pregnant form. Similar to the work of Xiaohong Zhang and Wenji Billow discussed earlier, the female body depicted here also merges symbolically with the natural world around it. The pregnant form becomes part of the lily-pad beneath it, and as the woman looks meditatively downward with arm resting on her belly, she seems to become the water lily itself, a symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism and

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


Hinduism. Aesthetically pleasing, Coughlin’s work is also useful in helping other women to visualize pregnancy and birth, reminding them of the interconnectedness that the pregnant body has with nature. Coughlin has also written poignantly, however, about her own experiences as a mother who gave birth to her three children through cesarean section, and some of her art addresses the theme of medical intervention. In her writing, Coughlin describes how she felt both deeply dismayed at the lack of information available to her before giving birth and leading to the first cesarean when she was only twenty-three years old, and also ashamed and in need of love and respect from others in the birth community. She writes of how beautiful her baby was to her when she first saw him, a boy of 9lbs 12oz, while also describing the searing pain of the cesarean, and her blurry vision from the pain medications she was given, which she notes must also have been floating through her son’s system.29 All of these conflicting feelings of love, pain, sadness, connection, and separation are beautifully rendered in Coughlin’s painting Incision [FIG 6.9]. Coughlin’s work gives material voice and expression to these sentiments, connecting with others who feel conflicted about the medical interventions they underwent during the process of birth. Although the trauma of the cesarean is clear from the work, the shower of red hearts, a deep symbol of love, bonds mother and baby together, gesturing toward growth through her challenges of the birthing process. The fragmented quality of the work’s colors resembles stained glass through which light streams forth.

Figure 6.9  Incision, watercolor. Source: Copyright 2011, Jody Coughlin. All rights reserved.


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This chapter has explored a final ontological stage of the dialectic between the sacred and the secular as it pertains to objects related to the rituals of birth whereby the events of birth and mothering are represented as spiritual acts in themselves. The viewer of these works enters the artwork right away with an understanding that these events of birth and mothering are in fact sacred events. While the artists of these works sometimes utilize religious iconography, they are not replicating an original religious object. Instead, they are creating brand new work in which the human self who births or mothers is represented as a sacred self. Sacredness is also present in artwork pertaining to topics that are sometimes marginalized in discussions related to birth, including infertility, the loss of children, medical intervention, and menopause. NOTES 1. Constance Grady, “Decoding the Artistic References in Beyoncé’s Gorgeous Birth Announcement for Her Twins,” Vox, July 14, 2017, accessed July 25, 2017, https​://ww​w.vox​.com/​cultu​re/20​17/7/​14/15​97158​8/bey​once-​twins​-birt​h-ann​ounce​ ment-​madon​na-ve​nus. 2. Lily Kuo, “At the Grammys, Beyoncé Paid an Epic Tribute to African Diaspora Spirituality,” Reuters, February 13, 2017, https​://qz​.com/​90897​3/at-​the-g​rammy​sbey​once-​paid-​an-ep​ic-tr​ibute​-to-a​fro-d​iaspo​ra-sp​iritu​ality​/, accessed July 25, 2017; For a discussion of Beyoncé’s broader use of African spirituality in her work, see Emerald Rutledge, “African Spirituality and the Power of Religious Reclamation,” in Black Perspectives, October 9, 2017, http:​//www​.aaih​​/afri​can-s​pirit​ualit​y-and​the-​power​-of-r​eligi​ous-r​eclam​ation​/, accessed November 6, 2017. 3. Grady, “Decoding.” 4. bell hooks addresses the issue of capitalism in Beyoncé’s work, specifically as occurs in the context of the artist’s visual album, Lemonade. See: bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain,” in the bell hooks Institute blog, May 9, 2016, http:​//www​. bell​hooks​insti​tute.​com/b​log/2​016/5​/9/mo​ving-​beyon​d-pai​n, accessed October 5, 2017. 5. Andrew Tavani, “1991 Vanity Fair Cover Featuring Pregnant Demi Moore Named 1 of most Influential Images of all Time,” New York Times, November 18, 2016, accessed July 25, 2017. http:​//nyt​live.​nytim​​m/wom​enint​hewor​ld/20​16/ 11​/18/1​991-v​anity​-fair​-cove​r-fea​turin​g-pre​gnant​-demi​-moor​e-nam​ed-1-​of-mo​st -in​fluen​tial-​image​s-of-​all-t​ime/.​ 6. Kate Hansen, Madonna and Child Project, http:​//www​.kate​hanse​​madon​naan​d-chi​ld-pr​oject​.html​, accessed on April 22, 2012. 7. Amanda Greavette, artist’s email to the author, January 26, 2017. 8. Amanda Greavette, artist’s email to the author, April 18, 2017. 9. Amanda Greavette, artist’s email to the author, January 26, 2017. 10. Ibid.

Nonreligion and the Sacred in New Images of Birth


11. Amanda Greavette, artist’s email to author, January 26, 2017. 12. For the image, see the Visualizing Birth website: http:​//vis​ualiz​ingbi​rth.o​rg/ el​ation​-afte​r-bir​th-in​-the-​work-​of-am​anda-​greav​ette.​ 13. Amanda Greavette, artist’s email to author, March 23, 2016. Greavette has five children and this painting represents the first time she gave birth to a baby girl, her second child. 14. Amanda Greavette, artist’s email to author, March 23, 2016. 15. For a fuller discussion of Sumeru, including an image of the mountain, see: Anna Hennessey, “Chinese Images of Body and Landscape: Visualization and Representation in the Religious Experience of Medieval China” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2011), 147–148. 16. Artist’s email to author, November 3, 2011. 17. Wenji Billow, email message to author, October 1, 2014. 18. See Norman Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism: The Theme of Chaos (hundun) (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). 19. Silas Kayakjuak website,, accessed on July 26, 2011. 20. Email from artist’s representative, Ian Wright, to author on June 27, 2017. 21. Claire Dion Fletcher and Cheryllee Bourgeois, “Refusing Delinquency, Reclaiming Power: Indigenous Women and Childbirth,” in Natal Signs: Cultural Representations of Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting, ed. Nadya Burton (Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press, 2015), 153–171, 154. 22. Fletcher and Bourgeois, “Refusing Delinquency, Reclaiming Power,” 165. 23. Amy Lyn Brand, email correspondence with author, October 5, 2013. 24. Sara Star, email correspondence with author, August 29, 2016. 25. Buffy Trupp and Arla Patch, Coloring Conception: Stress Reduction for Fertility Success (Vancouver, Canada: The Mindful Fertility Project, 2016). 26. To view the image, see the Visualizing Birth website: http:​//vis​ualiz​ingbi​rth. o​rg/ar​la-pa​tchs-​homag​e-to-​the-u​terus​-port​al-of​-th. 27. Arla Patch, email correspondence with the author, December 3, 2011. 28. http:​//vis​ualiz​ingbi​rth.o​rg/sy​mbols​-of-e​nligh​tenme​nt-in​-jody​-coug​hlins​-grow​ ing-a​s-a-m​other​. 29. Jody Noelle Coughlin, “Why Birth Art,” http:​//poe​dypen​cilpr​inces​s.blo​gspot​. com/​2011/​02/wh​y-bir​th-ar​t.htm​l, accessed September 2, 2011.

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New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth

The increased production of images of birth and the maternal body during the twenty-first century, a phenomenon discussed in the last chapter, represents a revived understanding of birth and mothering as real sources of empowerment for many women from around the world. While the process of ritualizing objects related to birth is interesting in itself and has been the primary focus of this book, also important in this discussion is how these same images communicate a celebration of birthing and maternal bodies to their viewers. Emerging from this celebration is a new model of feminism that considers the act of childbirth, as well as mothering in all of its forms, as foundational for the empowerment of many women. This model is controversial and diverges from dominant forms of academic feminism, which typically point to the problem of birth and mothering as negatively related to biological essentialism and to the patriarchal institution of motherhood. As explained in chapter 1, anti-essentialism in feminism has been highly influential not only within women’s studies and feminist discourse but across the humanities. Looking deeper into this issue, I contend that a logical fallacy is at the heart of these critiques and examine how they have played a part in silencing academic discourse on childbirth, mothering, and maternal experiences. This silencing stifles the multitudinous voices of those women who do experience birth and mothering. In many cases, these are the voices of marginalized women of color whose own histories and experiences of birth, mothering, and historical interaction with the medical establishment have been overlooked or dismissed in the academic sphere and within feminism. In agreement with Andrea O’Reilly’s theory of matricentric feminism developed in her latest book Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice, this chapter contends that liberal feminists confuse “mothering” 145


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with the trope of “motherhood,” thc latter commonly viewed as a state of being imposed on women by men.1 Matricentric feminism is a form of feminism in which the experiences of mothers are viewed as sites of potential power or healing for women. Contemporary representations of birth and mothering act as a material means through which these discussions are recovered and reinvigorated. This chapter emphasizes how justice and healing are also important to the birth experiences of many women, particularly those of marginalized women of color and their communities. On this subject, I look to the work of Julia Chinyere Oparah and Alicia D. Bonaparte, Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth (2016), the seminal work mentioned in chapter 1. I especially look at poetry and art related to Birth Justice, making the case that this imagery and the histories behind it are an intersectional part of feminism today. Chapter 1 provided evidence of an intellectual bias for death over birth in the humanities, describing the problem of essentialism within the field of women’s studies as one cause, among others, of that bias. A new generation of feminists, however, perhaps “matricentric feminists,” to use a term coined by Canadian professor Andrea O’Reilly, are celebrating women’s experiences as mothers. O’Reilly’s book of the same name, Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice, provides extensive data on the way that the topic of mothering, of which childbirth is a part, is marginalized within the field of women’s studies. Looking at the treatment of mothering as it has occurred over the past ten years in contexts such as National Women’s Studies Association conference panels, as well as in top feminist journals such as Signs, Frontiers, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Feminist Studies, and Gender and Society, and in gender and women’s studies textbooks and syllabi, she finds that only one percent to less than three percent of the content is devoted to the topic of mothering (197).2 As O’Reilly notes, “given that 80 percent of women become mothers in their lifetime, there is an evident disconnect between the minimal representation of motherhood in academic feminism and the actual lives of most women” (197). For many women, though certainly not for all of them, being pregnant and giving birth are parts of the experience of becoming mothers, and mothering in all of its forms, including those of adoptive and foster parenting, is a part of the identities and life experiences of countless women throughout time, history, and the present. Traditional, liberal feminism, in both its academic and popular forms, most often views reverence for acts related to the female body as negatively part of a patriarchal understanding of a woman’s identity—an identity bound to one’s reproductive capacities. In feminism, this problem is described as essentialism. Matricentric feminism, in its respect for the rich diversity of mothering experiences, including the experiences of giving birth, as well as those of not giving birth and not mothering in the traditional sense, provides

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


feminists with a positive and intersectional model of feminism that includes ample space for discourse on birth. In the context of birth and mothering, essentialism refers to the generalization of a woman’s identity based on biological or social properties. In her influential 2004 article “Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Philosophy,” Alison Stone, scholar of feminist and continental philosophies, provides a definition of essentialism and the feminist debate surrounding it: Philosophically, essentialism is the belief that things have essential properties, properties that are necessary to those things being what they are. Recontextualized within feminism, essentialism becomes the view that there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all. So defined, essentialism entails a closely related view, universalism: that there are some properties shared by, or common to, all women—since without those properties they could not be women in the first place. Essential properties, then, are also universal. “Essentialism” as generally debated in feminist circles embraces this composite view: that there are properties essential to women and which all women (therefore) share.3

Stone explains that the problem of essentialism has many different strands in feminism, and it is therefore difficult to locate any central themes when discussing anti-essentialism and feminism (137). A prominent strand, however, refers to biological essentialism and the generalization of a woman’s identity as based on her physical body, or her capacity or desire to birth and mother children. Critics of this type of essentialism have seen its presence in the ideology of the alternative birth movement—a movement that flourished especially during the 1970s and early 1980s—as well as in feminist approaches to reproduction more broadly. Excellent overviews of these two movements, twentieth- century natural birth advocacy and feminist criticism of this advocacy, appear in the work of sociologist and feminist theorist,Katherine Beckett, and in the art and writing of artist Jessica Moore.4 In her work, Beckett also provides a separate critique of the natural birth movement, pointing to instances in which she thinks medical technology may serve a woman’s own interests. She rejects that which she sees as the birth movement’s understanding that the pain of childbirth can be empowering for women. Other feminist critics of the natural birth movement include Ellen Annandale, Naomi Cahn, Judith Clark, Helena Michie, and Paula Triechler, among others. Some of these critics, mentioned in chapter 1, are concerned that the patriarchal understanding of womanhood has always been bound to an identity of birthing and mothering. We see the presence of such patriarchal understandings of womanhood and motherhood in canonical Western philosophy also discussed in that chapter, found in the works of figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rousseau.


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Criticism of feminist approaches to reproduction is clear in the 1996 article “What Is Gender? Feminist Theory and the Sociology of Human Reproduction,” written by Ellen Annandale and Judith Clark.5 Strongly influenced by postmodern thought and referring to the ideas of various writers such as Jacques Derrida and Fredric Jameson, Annendale and Clark attempt to deconstruct gender in the context of birth and reproduction. The authors’ primary concerns revolve around the work of radical feminists and sociologists of reproduction. They first describe the feminist position that they oppose, concentrating on how the female body is celebrated for its capacity to create, nurture, and mother: In its strongest form there is a celebration of women's bodies and the capacity to nurture and create, and motherhood is celebrated. There is a sense of a pure and original femininity, a female essence outside of the social and untainted by patriarchy. The work of Nancy Chodorow exemplifies this. For Chodorow, a distinct self is formed out of the process of mothering which creates women as different from men through the formation of an essentially relational form of interaction with others. In these terms, women must reclaim their bodies from men. (26)

The problem with such a celebration, claim Annendale and Clark, is that it results in essentialism of the female experience and an ideological clumping together of all women into one group and a stifling of individual subjectivities. This same form of essentialism, they assert, is seen in the work of sociologists of reproduction who have pointed to problems of patriarchy in the modern healthcare system and advocated for women to reclaim their bodies through acts such as childbirth: Central to the post-structuralist line of argument, then, is the point that duality can become more enslaving than liberating. Reproduction is centred in universal discourses in sociological work on health care; in reclaiming birth (from male obstetrics), it can become the province of all women. (Zillah) Eisenstein, referring to women and the law, expresses this well; she writes: “when the ‘difference’ of childbearing homogenizes females as mothers, mothers are denied their individuality: all women become the same—mothers—which immediately characterises them as ‘different’ from men.” Thus in an attempt to create what we can term a “reverse privilege”, reproduction is still centred for women and put on the agenda as if it were central to all women’s lives. This may serve to lock women into reproductive roles which may be politically problematic since the centrality of reproduction, contraception and childbirth to biomedicine is transferred to women’s experiences. (29)

The concerns expressed here, similar to concerns about the universalism of any aspect of history or culture, are an integral part of postmodern ideology,

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


which claims that the human experience, including the experiences of women, should be deconstructed and described as diverse and subjective, as opposed to universal, essential, or objective. There is, however, an unfortunate irony that results from this focus on diversification and subjectivity in the context of birth and mothering, and that is that topics construed as “normative” often become marginalized. Birth and mothering, two major topics already suppressed within academia, are further suppressed through postmodern fragmentation. A void therefore perpetuates in studying and describing them, and this void in turn affects treatment of the topics in culture more broadly. The policies of capitalist societies continue to reflect a diminishing of the work of mothers, while numerous problems and injustices abound in the way that women around the world are treated when giving birth. This is particularly the case for women of color, women of low income, and other marginalized women. The experience of giving birth is monumental and transformative for many women from around the world, although certainly not for all of them. It is a simple fallacy, a straw man’s argument, to say that acknowledging birth and/ or mothering as foundations for the empowerment of the many women who experience them must also entail biological essentialism and the defining of empowerment for all women in the same way. As for being born, it is an experience unarguably universal to the human condition, and although there is variety in the way that birth and mothering happens, it is equally fallacious to claim that the presence of such variety should override celebration of the act itself. Beyond the influence of postmodern ideology in the academy, however, mainstream figures in contemporary feminist discourse have also had a profound impact on the direction of opinion on childbirth and mothering, as it occurs both in the public and in the academic realm. In France, for example, Elisabeth Badinter has written prolifically on the topics of birth and mothering. She is one of the most recognized French intellectual figures today, her work widely read there, and to a lesser extent abroad. Badinter is a vocal critic of natural birth and natural parenting, and she is especially bothered by the concept of maternal instinct, which she thinks is a socially constructed myth.6 She has aggressively attacked the concept of natural birth and its proponents. In her latest work Le Conflit: la femme et la mere, written in 2010 (translated in 2012 by Adriana Hunter as The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women), Badinter strongly critiques contemporary natural parenting movements, attacking various women-led groups, such as La Leche League, an American organization devoted to the promotion of breastfeeding. As several writers have noted, it is difficult to separate Badinter’s criticism from her corporate endeavors. In her 2011 piece on Badinter for The New Yorker, for example, Jane Kramer makes note of the glaring capitalist motives Badinter has for opposing these groups:


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No one [in the media] except the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, a Marianne critic, and a couple of Green Party bloggers even mentioned the connection between Badinter and Publicis, which represents Procter & Gamble (Pampers) and Nestlé (powdered milk)—though Badinter herself told Der Spiegel that she got the idea for the book, in 1998, when France not only enforced an E.U. directive banning advertisements for powdered milk but also stopped the distribution of free samples in maternity wards.7

Badinter is one of France’s wealthiest citizens, and the billionaire shareowner of Publicis, the giant French advertising and public relations company. The company is known for its strong promotion and advertisement of synthetic diapers and powdered milk formula (Badinter is just as critical of cloth diapers as she is of breastfeeding). Nevertheless, Badinter is a highly influential figure in France who has been able to brand herself first and foremost as a university professor, an intellectual, and a feminist philosopher. Her ideas are relevant to academic discussions and intellectual understandings of birth, as well as to an understanding of the way that birth and mothering are viewed more popularly. Even more influential than Badinter is Sheryl Sandberg, a popular American figure who has had a huge impact on the way that mothering is viewed around the globe and especially in the United States. While not an academic herself, Sandberg, who is chief operating officer at the social media giant Facebook, is discussed in academic circles, as well as referenced in academic books and conference talks. Translated into numerous languages, her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has sold millions of copies worldwide since its publication. The main thesis of the book is that women can achieve a balance in their lives, having both a high-power career and a family. On the outset, Sandberg appears to focus on workplace inequality. The writing and publication of the book followed Sandberg’s widely watched 2010 TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” in which she explains that although women have come a long way since the civil rights movement, they continue to maintain low leadership positions and do not make it to the top of any profession anywhere around the world.8 There are several reasons that this is happening, states Sandberg, pointing particularly to three factors: women’s insecurity when it comes to asserting their deservedness in the work place; lack of equality between men and women when it comes to familial and household responsibilities; and, finally, a woman’s decision to “lean back” into a maternal role much too early in life—a decision that ultimately leads the woman to limit herself in the workplace. Sandberg implores women to take charge and reverse these three trends. She believes that if women want to make progress in the workforce, then they need to “lean in” to their jobs and make strides before they have children. According

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


to Sandberg, women actually start “leaning back” at work the moment they begin thinking about having children.9 Women do this, she claims, because they cannot imagine how they will be able to juggle work and children, and this thinking about how they will manage the two is a mistake that usually occurs too early in a woman’s career.10 According to Sandberg, women should focus on their occupations, climb the ladder to leadership, and not worry about how they will juggle work and family until later on when their careers have presumably advanced. There are a few problems with Sandberg’s logic, some of which AnneMarie Slaughter has covered extensively and rather famously in her 2012 Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”11 Explaining her own decision to leave a high-powered position in government to care for her teenage child (a professor at Princeton, Slaughter worked under Hillary Clinton as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department), she points to the fact that some women reach points in life where they cannot juggle the duties of both a career and mothering. Slaughter claims that the walls women face when it comes to gaining leadership positions have less to do with personal doubt, or lack of ambition or drive, and more to do both with the systemic problems integral to America’s social and business policies (e.g., “the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office”), and with the ideological belief shared in our society that personal life and private responsibility are of lesser importance than is public or corporate service. Sandberg and Slaughter have been leading voices in this debate about work-life balance. On the surface, Sandberg’s ideology appears to lean more toward the workplace, while Slaughter’s looks to open up more space for mothering. However, the main difference between what the two figures say comes down to a disagreement on timeline details related to how and when a woman should make strides in her professional career. In both equations, even in Slaughter’s account, career success is the defining characteristic of a woman’s advancement. They fundamentally agree that career success is the critical factor in determining how women as a whole can become empowered, though they approach the issue from different standpoints. This false choice offers the public a default understanding that still leaves birth and mothering out of the empowerment equation even though they may be valuable sources of it. Sandberg also assumes that when women “lean back,” if that is indeed what they are doing, the decision derives from their assessments that they will not be able to juggle their careers with raising children. Sandberg undermines the possibility that in some or many cases, leaning back simply has to do with a strong desire to mother or to devote solid time to mothering. Although she


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is careful not to assert it outright, Sandberg is diminishing the work of birth and mothering by suggesting that women in the workforce should prioritize career advancement and think about the events of giving birth and mothering later on in life. According to Sandberg’s model of success, a woman’s most fertile years during her twenties through to her mid-thirties can be spent on career advancement, leaving birth and mothering to the late thirties and forties. Facebook, where Sandberg sits high on the corporate helm, was one of the first companies to promote egg freezing in its employee benefits packages, encouraging female employees to postpone pregnancy and mothering. Such policies indicate that childbirth and mothering are less important or relevant than is career advancement. In this context of popular feminism, the childbirth topic is again relegated to something lesser and not worthy of as much discussion as are other topics, such as corporate success and higher salary. Writing in Signs, feminist theorist Catherine Rottenberg makes the crucial point that Sandberg’s ideology represents a rise of neoliberal feminism in the United States, one that has more to do with market values and individual liberation than it does with collective justice.12 Rottenberg explains how such a balance is really attainable only for the top one percent, those women who are able to outsource both the reproductive and care work necessary when they decide to have children. This promotion has a deep ideological impact on the values of middle-class women, however: Yet once balance is held out as a promise for the future, then this norm is transformed into an ostensibly achievable objective for all middle-class women. Indeed, increasingly this ideal of balance serves as the ever-elusive affective, individual, and cultural reward for women adhering to a well-planned and already-scripted life trajectory. (333)

Furthermore, beyond its reach with upper and middle-class women, neoliberal feminism has its greatest impact on society’s most unprivileged women. As part of the transformation of the norm, explains Rottenberg, the importance of mothering, as well as that of reproduction itself, are diminished and increasingly outsourced to these more “disposable” women: As this rationality increasingly converts certain women into human capital, however, the link between these women and reproduction and care work is slowly being attenuated. In other words, reproduction and care work are already being outsourced to other women deemed disposable since they are neither considered strivers nor properly responsibilized. The emergent neoliberal order is slowly expunging gender and even sexual differences among a certain strata of subjects while it simultaneously produces new forms of racialized and class-stratified gender exploitation. (332)

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


This form of feminism is not concerned with improving the lives of women as a whole, and especially not with those of the world’s less privileged women. Rather, it is construed for those at the top, who can utilize other women to do the work of mothering, and in the case of surrogacy, the work of pregnancy and birth as well, such that individual career goals are reached. Discussing the corporate promotion of egg freezing for Silicon Valley female employees, as well as the practices of “womb renting” and hiring nanny caregivers to take care of children already born, Rottenberg’s work provides evidence that for certain segments of society, birth and mothering are treated as hassles that should be postponed until a woman has first secured her career aspirations. Sheryl Sandberg was the main corporate proponent behind the promotion of egg freezing in Facebook’s employee benefits package, and the company added the procedure to the package in 2014, one year after Sandberg’s publication of Lean In.13 Thus, her neoliberal feminist ideology already has actual implications in the real world. Although these various anti-essentialist and neoliberal feminist ideologies have been influential and come from both the academic realm and the popular one, there is growing resistance to them, manifest in the rise of artistic, literary, and academic production related to birth and mothering, some of which is described in this book. I now turn to this topic, focusing on artwork and writings that explain specifically how childbirth and mothering act as sites of empowerment for those women who choose to experience them. The empowerment that many of these women experience in relationship to the topic of birth and maternal subjectivity is of intrinsic value and not related to capital or economic gain. The inclusion of these matricentric experiences is an important piece to feminist theory, also related to the decolonization of birth, and opens the field of women’s studies to a wide and diverse range of histories related to birth and mothering, which are realities for so many women in the world. BIRTH AND MOTHERING AS SITES OF POWER AND HEALING FOR WOMEN Chapter 1 discussed the impact that subjective maternal points of view have on philosophy and other areas of the humanities. That chapter also examined several crucial works that open scholarly space for topics related to maternal experiences. Here, I look more closely at two of these works before discussing the artwork: Routledge’s 2012 volume, Philosophical Inquiries into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, and Fordham University Press’ 2013 collection on a similar topic, Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering. Philosophical Inquiries is dedicated to feminist


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philosopher Sara Ruddick, whose seminal work Maternal Thinking (1989) rests at the foundation of motherhood studies.14 The book highlights Ruddick’s analysis of motherhood as a gender-free enterprise, sensitive in its attempts at covering a wide range of maternal experiences, and not married to any all-encompassing understanding of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Both volumes similarly devote considerable thought to the work of contemporary feminist poet Adrienne Rich, whose 1976 book Of Woman Born had, like Ruddick’s work, a major impact on the study of mothering.15 Influenced by Ruddick and Rich, these philosophy volumes utilize their chapters to represent the diversity of maternal experience, yet they also acknowledge the inability to represent the experiences of all women. In her review of Philosophical Inquiries, Shelley Park, a philosophy professor, has elaborated on this, emphasizing her desire to see more philosophical work done on non-normative maternal subjectivity.16 While Park’s points are valid, there is already a deep academic marginalization of the topic of childbirth itself. This categorically normative event deserves ample space in philosophical and other academic literature. The numerous author contributions of these books explain how maternal subjectivity, traditionally marginalized in philosophy, is a powerful site through which various philosophical issues unfold, most often for women who are pregnant and/or become mothers. The history of philosophy is replete with thought experiments used famously to improve the soundness of philosophical argumentation (e.g., the evil demon of René Descartes’ Meditations or the conscious states of animals in Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a Bat?”); yet, since the maternal subject often experiences such a wide variety of mental and physical situations herself, thought experimentation is often unnecessary in evaluating the philosophical issues integral to these situations. Just as the philosopher who is totally blind from birth is in the unique position to explore phenomenology, epistemology, or ontology from the perspective of someone who has never experienced vision, so the pregnant philosopher, for example, may analyze these same areas of philosophy from the perspective of someone whose body undergoes drastic transformation in the process of growing new life. These philosophical inquiries provide evidence that some academics are examining the profound ways in which birth and mothering are events that are also of intellectual importance. Male philosopher Joshua Shaw also writes about the void in philosophical literature on childbirth, pregnancy, and motherhood, and he believes that this marginalization relates to the fact that these events do not revolve around the interests of men.17 Shaw thinks that a man’s interests may actually relate closely to these issues but that the social institutions in which the topics are discussed are highly gendered and therefore mostly inaccessible to men. Shaw would like to see a change in the structuring of these social institutions

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


such that male philosophers have access not only to the stories mothers have to tell, but also to the contexts in which they tell them. Other important writing in this area includes the work of feminist philosopher Brooke Schueneman, who has examined how a woman’s experience of the phenomenology of pregnancy involves significant social, psychological, and physical metamorphoses. These metamorphoses have the capacity to transform a woman’s fears of death.18 In her volume chapter, “Creating Life, Giving Birth, and Learning to Die,” Schueneman addresses Sara Ruddick’s distinction between “birth-giver” and mother in which Ruddick explains how a mother need be neither the birth-giver nor a woman; and yet Schueneman also carves out space for philosophical discussion of what it is to experience embodiment as a birth-giver, or what she terms the becoming-mother (Lintott and Sander-Staudt, 166–167). Pregnancy and birth often involve issues that are philosophically complex, such as the phenomenology of pregnant embodiment. In “The Sublimity of Gestating and Giving Birth: Toward a Feminist Conception of the Sublime,” another volume chapter, Sheila Lintott lays the groundwork for a feminist conception of the sublime as based on gestation and the giving of birth.19 She first references masculinist conceptions of the sublime, which are typically described in terms of mental, emotional, and psychological strength resulting in a merging of negative and positive emotions. These conceptions are found in the works of male philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. Lintott explains how in the case of the birthing woman, the feminist conception of the sublime is embodied, located in an experience that is visceral, and involves bodily strength and physical sensations, as well as psychological fears. The work of Schueneman and Lintott represents part of a new academic wave of interest in embodiment and its philosophical implications during pregnancy, labor, and birth.20 Turning to artwork, it is in a vein similar to this philosophical work that contemporary artists are creating new expressions and representations of birth. In Canadian artist Heidi Taillefer’s Venus Envy [FIG. 7.1], for example, Taillefer offers the viewer a depiction of the pregnant body’s internal world. Like a cross between a Dutch still life painting and a Surrealist masterwork, Taillefer’s composition is lavish, detailed and luxuriant, filling the pregnant female form with rich images historically found in still life paintings. These include fruit, flowers, eggs, and animal life, all of which surrounds a fetus nourished within a floating sac of clear water. The woman’s full breasts produce and pump milk through an intricate system of faucets and tubing. Taillefer describes the various meanings of this complex painting: The painting “Venus Envy” is a work emphasizing the beauty and potency of women and motherhood. The name “Venus Envy” is a play on words of the


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Figure 7.1  Venus Envy, oil on board, 44” x 60.” Source: Copyright 2000, Heidi Taillefer. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Freudian “Penis Envy”, and implies the enviable female advantage of being the carrier of new life. With the predominance of taboos and limitations against women in so many cultures throughout the world, the piece exposes with pride and irreverence, female characteristics, whether beautiful or unsettling. It is an attempt to absolve women of their generally complex nature, and free them from harsh social standards foisted upon their physical, social, and spiritual selves. It also explores the sensuality of pregnancy, and the mystical and intimidating power with which it was once regarded.21

While symbolism, surrealism, the sublime, and the sacred are integral to Taillefer’s work, she also explores the absurd and maintains a strong sense of humor in her creative process. Often depicting the events of birth and mothering as sacred, Taillefer and artists like her reexamine birth as a topic connected to empowerment for women. Contemporary artist Jessica Moore addresses these themes while also theorizing a feminist aesthetic of childbirth. Her artworks themselves are manifestations of the ideas she has written about. In her 2009 painting Heather and Daisy [FIG. 7.2], for example, Moore shows this aesthetic in a crowning woman who reaches down, unassisted, to feel the head of her emerging baby. As the depicted subject undergoes physiological transformation, she appears calm and empowered. This painting, like others by Moore, are realistic and do not hide the visceral and fleshly aspects of birth. Moore’s work makes

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


some viewers uncomfortable. However, the work also opens up an important space for women to enter if they are preparing to give birth themselves or to understand birth as a process that the body is capable of. Men, too, often partners in birth, can learn from these images. Jonathan Waller, the British artist mentioned earlier who painted portraits of childbirth after his wife gave birth to their first child, has explained that witnessing birth can be very difficult for men since our culture does not prepare them for the event. One of the main purposes of his work, he explains, is to prepare others for the event: I didn’t set out to shock, my main consideration was to be as truthful as possible. I’m interested in exposing this secret vision. Men are almost pressurized to be at the birth these days but I think, because they don’t have the preparation time and the physical involvement with what’s happening as women do, suddenly being

Figure 7.2  Heather and Daisy, oil on linen, 25” x 30.” Source: Copyright 2009, Jessica D. Clements. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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exposed to this extraordinarily powerful, painful and unleashed experience may be quite terrifying.22

In some cases, viewing an image of birth before the event actually occurs can prepare and empower a person, male or female, providing important knowledge of what the body goes through and looks like during labor. In addition to Moore’s work on the aesthetics of childbirth, the artist has also written about how the advocacy of medicalized birth procedures often includes propagating the myth that birth is inherently painful and dangerous for women (Origin of the World 32). Although birth may involve pain, our culture upholds and encourages a general understanding that pain and fear are focal and primary to birth. Renowned natural birth advocates such as Ina May Gaskin and British obstetrician Grantley Dick-Reed (1890–1959) have written extensively on this topic.23 Moore’s artwork and writing about birth resist these culturally accepted understandings and offer viewers a different look at how birth may be both beautiful and empowering for some women. Furthermore, her work provides evidence that some women are engaging with matricentric feminism, acknowledging a connection between the spheres of birth, woman, mother, and feminist. In “Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood,” a poignant article written for The Brooklyn Rail in 2008, contemporary artist Sharon L. Butler examines the way that the topic of mothering has been overlooked, dismissed, negated, and flat-out rejected as serious matter for artistic representation along the history of twentieth-century feminist art.24 She then shifts her focus to describe a new phenomenon in this area of art, which is that contemporary female artists have begun to integrate their maternal experiences into their work: Some contemporary artists, in fiercely honest work, apprehend the entire messy process of creation, birth, and childrearing as raw material for their art practice.  . . . In a contemporary context, the complex processes and emotions involved in raising children could certainly provide rich material for practitioners of relational aesthetics with post-studio practices. (Butler)

Butler contends that the very acts of mothering and childrearing are not just mundane parts of everyday life but also have the powerful capacity to influence and integrate with artistic production: Such artists’ collaborative, expansive approach to their art, and their reluctance to embrace the hermeticism of previous generations, suggest that peak creativity and the embrace of worldly responsibility are no longer considered mutually exclusive. Raising a family and making art can, in fact, become one seamless activity. . . . Of course, it would be naïve to contend that nowadays reconciling

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


motherhood and art making is always a smooth and effortless endeavor. But contemporary female artists are more determined than their predecessors to overcome barriers to harmonizing the two aspects of life rather than acquiesce to them. (Butler)

Butler is influenced by the twentieth-century artists Elizabeth Murray, a painter, and Sally Mann, a photographer, both of whom depicted children in their work, not in a soft and stereotypically maternal way, but, rather, in one of high energy and controversial imagery. Butler explains how “birth and childrearing do not automatically turn women into retrogressive panderers to small-minded conventions.” Some of the artists she mentions who integrate mothering and art making include Catherine Opie, Jenny Saville, and Jennifer Wroblewski. Mentioned in the last chapter, artist Kate Hansen created her Madonna and Child Project to capture the sacred interaction between mothers and their children. Writing about the production of her own artwork following the births of her children, however, Hansen also describes a phenomenon similar to that described by Butler—a period of increased, and not decreased, creativity in conjunction with the events of birth and mothering: After the birth of my son in 2007 I felt an incredible energy and drive to make art. Contrary to the popular belief that art making is one of the things that falls to the wayside after the birth of children, in my case I felt inspired and compelled by my experience of childbirth and motherhood. It was almost as though the creative act of making another human being awoke a creative drive in me.25

As opposed to stifling her work or drive, which in this case pertains to artistic productivity, the events of birth and mothering stimulated Hansen’s creativity and ability to work. Hansen’s affirmation that the maternal is a powerful source of creativity and work drive serves as one of many contemporary matricentric voices that completely puts into question the assertions of second generation and other feminists, both popular and academic, that birth and mothering are oppressive for women. For example, in her essay “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women,” the final chapter of a highly influential if not canonical book in feminist theory, Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory (1984), Jeffner Allen asserts that birth and mothering are dangerous for women: “Motherhood is dangerous to women because it continues the structure within which females must be women and mothers and, conversely, because it denies to females the creation of a subjectivity and world that is open and free.”26 But Kate Hansen, similar to Sharon Butler, finds that the acts of birth and mothering actually broaden the world, opening up possibilities for the expression of their subjectivity. None of this is to say that becoming


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a mother does not entail actual work, but as Hansen explains, the introduction of this new work also has the capacity to shift a person’s perception on a temporal level: I also found that the time limitations involved in caring for an infant forced me to be more disciplined in my art making. I would eke out hours here and there when my son was sleeping to continue my portraits. After my daughter was born in 2008 I had determined to form a series of mother and child portraits and accompany them with birth stories written by each subject.27

Not only did Hansen not abandon art making following the births of her children, but she also witnessed how mothering brought a flourishing of new artistic energy and creativity to her work and life. Hansen’s perspective reflects a strong contemporary voice of feminism that diverges significantly from the ideology manifest in academic and neoliberal feminisms discussed earlier, both of which suggest to women that, should they decide to pursue mothering, their lives in the working world will be negatively impacted. Although it is fundamentally true that most women’s lives change significantly after giving birth and/or becoming a mother, comments such as Hansen’s and Butler’s suggest that birth and mothering also have the capacity to empower women, bringing new energy and vitality both to their work and to their creative selves. For some women, the connection between birth-motherwoman-feminist is profound, and more discussion of this power could embolden the feminist movement. Birth, like mothering, is a site of power for many women. Important to stress, however, is the point that birth could have particular potency in the context of healing and justice for those women most marginalized in our contemporary societies. In the United States, the situation for pregnant women is especially alarming among African Americans, women of color, and low-income women and their families. Academic and neoliberal feminisms’ avoidance of the birth topic, as well as in some cases its criticism of the sociology of reproduction (which has meticulously tracked the global increase in medicalized birth and its dangers to women), act as a disservice to marginalized women, many of whom are subjected to this medicalization and are not receiving proper care within the medical establishment. As noted earlier, Gertrude Jacinta Fraser has researched the history of the medical establishment in the United States, a white establishment that has historically done particular harm to African American women in the context of birth. In her book Medical Apartheid (2006), Harriet Washington also traces this history.28 She finds evidence of appalling procedures related to birth that are not commonly known or discussed either by feminists or by

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


those in the natural birth community. One such example is that of François Marie Prévost, the Louisiana surgeon who successfully brought the cesarean section to the American medical community in 1820.29 The doctor had first conducted numerous experiments of this procedure on enslaved black women, many of whom lost their lives or were deeply injured, or whose children’s lives were lost during the experimentation.30 Although that particular experimentation is in the past, traces of this same type of harm continue to the present day, with significantly higher maternal mortality and infant death rates for African Americans than for those of any other race in the United States. African American women and their families continue to encounter a system of authoritative knowledge that is particularly dangerous in the context of their lives. Resistance to the medical establishment is growing within the African American community, however, as evidenced by the efforts of the Birth Justice Movement, a movement developed by women of color and which includes midwives, doulas, scholars, and artists. A central theme for some in the movement is that of reclaiming the belief that the birthing body is a sacred or spiritual entity. The recent publication Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth (2016) is an important contribution to intersectional feminism and to academic and popular feminisms more broadly, providing foundational scholarship on the Birth Justice movement.31 Aspects of authoritative knowledge that negatively dictate how birth is produced in our society have the largest effect on the most oppressed members of that society. As some writers within the Birth Justice movement explain, establishing an understanding that birth is a sacred event is part of how marginalized individuals and communities may find healing. Liberation and decolonizing birth are also a part of this healing process. This concept of how the sacred in birth is related to the broader theme of liberation for marginalized people is expressed in “The First Cut is the Deepest: A Mother-Daughter Conversation about Birth, Justice, Healing, and Love,” a joint interview in Birthing Justice with Pauline Ann McKenzie-Day and her daughter Alexis Pauline Gumbs, both of whom are involved in community projects as well as in scholarship. The mother-daughter team writes about the connection between a reclamation of the sacred in birth and the broader theme of justice for marginalized peoples: Being born and giving birth are important moments of our liberation. In a Western society that does not yet respect and honor the full brilliance, selfdetermination, and spiritual power of black women, the oppressive tendencies of the medical-industrial complex violate the sacredness of birth . . . . We have decided to become part of a movement of women of color reclaiming the power to protect and honor sacred birth experiences. (Birthing Justice 145)


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As part of reclaiming the sacred in birth, Gumbs utilizes poetry in the rituals of birth, providing pregnant women with praise poems as they approach birth. McKenzie-Day acknowledges the role that poetry plays in the ritual of birth: It’s so exciting to envision you helping birthing women to open a spiritual passageway. I can envision you writing a poem for everyone who is going to give birth that we are working with and having that poem resonating with them before the baby is born and during the process of birth. (Birthing Justice 154)

Gumbs responds to her mother, commenting on the interconnectedness of the poem, something that is most often written, made material, and verbalized. Through the ritual, of which the poem is a part, power and justice also emanate: I keep seeking to understand what it is in a poem or an activity that can really let people know how powerful they are, despite everything that might make us feel not powerful, despite what society says about women, and despite what has happened in our lives. I do believe that it is fundamentally true that we are powerful and that somehow we can know that. The right ritual—and the poem might be the ritual—can connect us back to that. And when we’re connected to our power, we really can do anything. (154)

Poetry, most often found as written lines on paper, is a material way of conveying meaning or knowledge to a reader or listener. Writing and poetic expression are a means through which birth and mothering become understood as sacred, regardless of whether that form of the sacred is of a religious or humanistic nature. Artist Anoa Kanu is a Harlem-based watermedia artist. She is also a registered nurse and a certified lactation consultant, and some of her artwork pertains to the theme of birth. The figures she depicts often include references to the sacredness of the pregnant or birthing form, as well as to how birth is connected to themes of justice for women, and especially marginalized women. In Kanu’s Girl in Bamboo Earrings [FIG 7.3], the main figure squats amid lush vegetation, supported by warm brown shoots of bamboo behind her. Cradling her belly, the woman’s arms and hands arch down and draw the viewer’s attention to the soft swirl of a crowning baby at her vulva. She remains completely serene during this process of birth and emergence, her facial expression focused and calm. Her body and its processes are part of the natural world. The painting emphasizes the squatting position, an ideal manner of utilizing gravity as a natural aid in delivering one’s baby. Unassisted in the birth, the main figure also reminds other pregnant women that they are part of a long lineage of women who have birthed before.

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


Figure 7.3  Girl in Bamboo Earrings, watercolor. Source: Copyright 2016, Anoa Kanu. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

In our correspondences, Kanu has described the making of this image, and her words about its creation and meaning are powerful in understanding how the theme of justice is integral to her work. Kanu describes the empowerment of the marginalized person and an ability to transcend space and time during the birth event. This explanation of birth is not related to an experience of the mundane world but of one inspired by a sense of awe, timelessness, and the sacred: I am a painter but I also work in women’s health with new mothers and babies in an urban environment. I see a lot of beauty, new life, beginnings. But I also see a


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lot of disempowerment, young women not knowing their rights, what questions to ask or that they could even ask. When I imagined this image in my mind’s eye, I saw a young woman, birthing for the first time, knowing she was capable, transcending space and time. She is protected and is able to tap into her elemental self and ancestral memory. She transforms through the birth process into a new being, a more fully empowered version of herself. The first birth I had ever been to was a water birth, it was like this. The midwife was not intrusive. The mother was fully committed to the natural birth process. The spirit of the birth environment was palpable and womblike itself. She was mostly quiet but also moaned and grunted when she needed to. She moved as she wished. It was clear she had gone into a very deep place within herself. At the very end, she let out the most guttural of sounds. She birthed her baby. She was not delivered. Not every birth will be like this, there is no one way. But I know this exists, that it is possible. Reclaiming birth is an essential part of our liberation.32

For Kanu, when a laboring woman is provided a safe environment in which she can go into a deeper place and realize birth as a timeless, sacred event, the woman’s physiological processes have a better chance of unfolding. In this sacred space of birth, the woman is transformed, empowered, and liberated. Kanu’s work is especially pertinent in the context of how sacred images of birth are important for marginalized women, a topic discussed in chapter 5, but it is also significant to an understanding of matricentric feminism, the topic of this chapter. In “Refusing Delinquency, Reclaiming Power: Indigenous Women and Childbirth,” Indigenous registered midwife Claire Dion Fletcher and Cheryllee Bourgeois, midwife and expert in Indigenous midwifery, discuss the interaction of authoritative knowledge and ritual, this time in the historical contexts of Indigenous nations living and practicing in North America, as well as in the context of art about pregnancy, birth, and mothering created by contemporary Indigenous artists.33 Looking at colonial imagery, narratives, and histories, Fletcher and Bourgeois provide evidence that Indigenous knowledge and practice around the topics of birth and labor were dismissed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.34 Yet, they also show both a reclaiming of this knowledge and an assertion that Indigenous people have not disappeared or been completely destroyed. This process of reclaiming makes itself manifest in the artwork of contemporary Indigenous artists: Contemporary art that depicts positive images of pregnancy and birth, drawing from cultural symbolism and realistic representations, not only contradicts the notion that Indigenous women and people have disappeared from North

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


America but also celebrates and honours the roles of women that colonizers have tried so violently to destroy.35

Expressed materially in art, this knowledge of birth promotes the understanding that Indigenous traditions of birth, including its ceremonies and rituals, are legitimate forms of knowledge: “The work of these artists reasserts the importance of Indigenous birth knowledge and customs, re-establishing the self-determined narrative of Indigenous women and families as vital, healthy, and connecting us to vast Indigenous cosmologies” (169). Fletcher and Bourgeois find that, in Toronto, Indigenous-led midwifery initiatives have established projects geared toward serving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, sharing traditional birth knowledge and practices, including ritualistic practices, within the birth community (168–169). Judith Chinyere Oparah, a professor and activist scholar, reminds the reader in her Birthing Justice chapter, “Beyond Coercion and Malign Neglect: Black Women and the Struggle for Birth Justice,” that romanticization of the granny midwife figure and traditions can be dangerous in that it obscures the fact that many African American, Indigenous women, immigrant women of color, and poor, rural white women did not have access to hospital care during pregnancy and birth.36 As Chinyere Oparah explains, midwifery care was not a choice for many of these women. Rather, it was the only option for them while existing within a medical system operated by the white establishment, which continuously and regularly neglected and marginalized the healthcare of people of color and poor people.37 However, Chinyere Oparah maintains that knowledge about birth existing within the tradition of granny midwifery persisted against the grain of the authoritative knowledge of the medical establishment: In addition, granny midwives staged their own resistance to the suppression of traditional midwifery knowledge, deploying what Darlene Clark Hine describes as a culture of dissemblance. By appearing open to and compliant with the arrogant intrusions of the white medical establishment, while simultaneously masking their continued use of traditional herbs, birthing positions, and rituals, granny midwives in the rural South negotiated a space within which they could practice their calling and retire with dignity.38

In this context, rituals are integral to the practice of birth, and they are maintained by participants in the birth process, in this case through the ingenuity of the granny midwife, even when under significant pressure from the medical establishment to be dismantled or destroyed. Herbs and other objects become part of the resistance to authoritative knowledge. While the influence of authoritative knowledge on birth’s production is unmistakably linked to the Western medical establishment, rituals and artistic


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traditions, integral to how childbirth is practiced and produced throughout the world, have the capacity to shift this center of knowledge and power. Material culture and the way that it is used by participants in birth is a crucial part of how authoritative knowledge surrounding the birth topic may shift. Damien Leggett is a Canadian artist who, as a trans man, comes from another marginalized community. He addresses themes of birth, mothering, and empowerment in his work, and his pieces are used widely within the birth community. In Freebirth of Amara [FIG 7.4], Leggett depicts the emergence of a crowning baby. At the center of the composition rests the image of an eye, representation of a sacred chakra within the female body. Commonly described and depicted in images from eastern cultures, chakras correspond to powerful, sacred centers of the body, which together regulate its functioning. Leggett

Figure 7.4  Freebirth of Amara, ink and watercolor. Source: Copyright 2011, Damien Leggett. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


explains the meaning of the work and the transformative powers of birth as a rite of passage: Freebirth of Amara . . . is exactly what it was inspired by. This is a woman who is surrounded by fire and helping spirits, but she is ultimately alone. This is a moment of transformation; having only herself to rely on, this woman has pushed past fear, passed through many emotions to ultimately find herself free of attachment . . . she just is, in this moment.39

Explaining his background with childbirth, Leggett describes the importance of birth to both women and their infants: I have been working in the realm of birth for almost ten years, advocating for the right of women and infants to dignity in their birth experiences. I have apprenticed with birth here in Canada, as well as in Central America. I am in the process of transitioning to a male body but honor the feminine in everything around me, including my Self. I am a single father of three amazing children who have shown me who I truly am.40

As described earlier in this book, some feminist scholars have criticized current intellectual work on birth, describing it as not inclusive of nonnormative maternal subjectivity. Leggett, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of the experience of birth as it occurs normatively for many women around the world, even though he himself is a trans man and a nonnormative parent. Shauna Wiley-Naefke is an artist in the Bay Area, California. Her work, which revolves around themes of pregnancy, birth, and mothering, often celebrates these events in a woman’s life. Maternal Bliss [FIG 7.5] is a good example of the celebratory nature of Wiley-Naefke’s work. While paying tribute to the rites of passage of pregnancy and birth, the artist also normalizes these events for her viewers, reminding others that pregnancy is not an illness or a weakness, as it is often portrayed in our culture. Instead, pregnancy and the nurturing of life within have the capacity to generate new vitality and energy in the female body. This matricentric understanding of pregnancy acknowledges a woman’s experience of birth as one valid form of feminist expression. In our communications, Wiley-Naefke has described her own experiences of pregnancy and birth as highly transformative and empowering.41 Her knowledge of birth is integral to her own experience of feminism. This chapter has explored how a matricentric perspective of feminism is inclusive of discussions of birth as a rite of passage, including celebrations of it. Some of these celebrations are manifest in contemporary art about birth. Neoliberal, popular, and postmodern feminisms have all contributed to the


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Figure 7.5  Maternal Bliss, oil and acrylic on canvas, 38” x 28.” Source: Copyright 2015, Shauna Wiley-Naefke. All rights reserved. Used with permissions.

marginalization of birth and mothering as topics worthy of discussion, as this discussion occurs both in academic discourse and, more broadly, in culture. The effect of underemphasizing the importance of birth as a topic worthy of academic discussion has its greatest impact on marginalized women of color and low-income women, many of whom are receiving the most questionable care of all under the medical establishment, particularly in the United States. Studies of birth, both as a physiological process and as a rite of passage, as well as of mothering in all of its forms, are deserving of much more scholarly

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


attention and have large implications for areas of women’s studies and feminist theory. While neoliberal feminism may be on the rise within certain segments of society, many women, including those from marginalized and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, are rejecting the ideology that the acts of reproduction and mothering are not, in themselves, acts of empowerment or a strong means toward healing. Art and rituals surrounding the event of birth serve as a potent form of resistance to the often negative impact of authoritative knowledge on birth outcome and the individual experience of birth. NOTES 1. Andrea O’Reilly, Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, and Practice (Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press, 2016). 2. O’Reilly, see 192–197 for the breakdown of data. 3. Alison Stone, “Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 1, no. 2 (2004): 135–153, 138. 4. See Beckett’s article, “Choosing Cesarean: Feminism and the Politics of Childbirth in the United States,” in Feminist Theory 6 (2005): 251–275; and Jessica Moore’s (formerly Jessica D. Clements) MA Thesis, The Origin of the World: Women’s Bodies and Agency in Childbirth (George Mason University, 2009). 5. Ellen Annandale and Judith Clark, “What is Gender? Feminist Theory and the Sociology of Human Reproduction,” in Sociology of Health & Wellness 18, no. 1 (1996): 17–44. 6. Jane Kramer, “Against Nature: Elisabeth Badinter’s contrarian feminism,” in The New Yorker (July 25, 2011 issue), http:​//www​.newy​orker​.com/​magaz​ine/2​011 /0​7/25/​again​st-na​ture accessed July 16, 2015. 7. Ibid. 8. Sheryl Sandberg, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” TEDWomen 2010, December 2010 https​://ww​w.ted​.com/​talks​/sher​yl_sa​ndber​g_why​_we_h​ave| _t​oo_fe​w_wom​en_le​aders​, accessed on December 12, 2013. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid. 11. Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in The Atlantic (July/August), 2012, accessed January 9, 2014, https​://ww​w.the​atlan​tic.c​om/ma​gazin​e /arc​hive/​2012/​07/wh​y-wom​en-st​ill-c​ant-h​ave-i​t-all​/3090​20/. 12. Catherine Rottenberg, “Neoliberal Feminism and the Future of Human Capital,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42, no. 2 (2017): 329–348. She had previously explained in an article for Cultural Studies that Sandberg and Slaughter are both representatives of the emergence of neoliberal feminism in the United States. See: Rottenberg, “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism,” in Cultural Studies 18 (November 2013): 1–20.


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13. See Charlotte Alter, “Sheryl Sandberg Explains Why Facebook Covers EggFreezing,” Time, April 24, 2015, accessed July 19, 2017, http:​//tim​​/3835​233\ /s​heryl​-sand​berg-​expla​ins-w​hy-fa​ceboo​k-cov​ers-e​gg-fr​eezin​g/. 14. Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (London, United Kingdom: The Women’s Press, 1989). 15. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976). 16. Shelley M. Park, Review of Philosophical Inquiries into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, Sheila Lintott and Maureen Sander-Staudt, eds. Notre Dame Philosophical Review (2012), http:​//ndp​r.nd.​edu/n​ews/p​hilos​ophic​al-in​quiri​es-in​to-pr​ egnan​cy-ch​ildbi​rth-a​nd-mo​theri​ng-ma​terna​l-sub​jects​/, accessed April 10, 2015. 17. Joshua Shaw, “Why Don’t Philosophers Tell Their Mothers’ Stories? Philosophy, Motherhood, and Imaginative Resistance,” in Philosophical Inquiries into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, eds. Sheila Lintott and Maureen Sander-Staudt (New York and London: Routledge), 138–150, 140. 18. Brooke Schueneman, “Creating Life, Giving Birth, and Learning to Die,” in Lintott and Sander-Staudt, 165–177. 19. Sheila Lintott, “The Sublimity of Gestating and Giving Birth: Toward a Feminist Conception of the Sublime,” in Philosophical Inquiries into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, eds. Sheila Lintott and Maureen Sander-Staudt (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), 237–250. 20. See Lintott and Sander-Staudt; Adams and Lundquist. 21. Heidi Taillefer, Artist’s Website, accessed on October 20, 2011. 22. Discussion with Jonathan Waller: Suzanne Bisset, “Growing Pains: Is Birth Art’s Last Taboo?” Venue, June 26–July 10, 1998, 74. 23. Ina May Gaskin’s work has been discussed at length in this book. See also: Grantley Dick-Read, M.D. Childbirth Without Fear (originally published as The Practice of Natural Childbirth) (New York: Harper and Row, 1942. 24. Sharon Butler, “Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood,” The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture, December 12, 2008, http:​//bro​oklyn​rail.​org/2​008/1​2/art​seen/​neo-m​atern​alism​cont​empor​ary-a​rtist​s-app​roach​-to-m​other​hood,​ accessed March 15, 2014. 25. Kate Hansen, “The Madonna and Child Project – Portraits and Birth Stories,” Madonna and Child Project, http:​//www​.kate​hanse​​madon​na-an​d-chi​ld-pr​oject​ .html​, accessed April 23, 2012. 26. Jeffner Allen, “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women,” in Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Joyce Trebilcot (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), 315–330, 315. 27. Kate Hansen, “The Madonna and Child Project – Portraits and Birth Stories,” Madonna and Child Project, http:​//www​.kate​hanse​​madon​na-an​d-chi​ld-pr​oject​. html​, accessed April 23, 2012. 28. Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid (New York: Doubleday, 2006). 29. Washington, Medical Apartheid, 106; in Julia Chinyere Oparah, “Beyond Coercion and Malign Neglect: The Struggle for Birth Justice,” in Birthing Justice, 10.

New Feminisms and Decolonizing Birth


30. Ibid. 31. Julia Chinyere Oparah and Alicia D. Bonaparte, Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth (New York and London: Routledge, 2016). 32. Anoa Kanu, email message to author, September 27, 2016. 33. Claire Dion Fletcher and Cheryllee Bourgeois, “Refusing Delinquency, Reclaiming Power,” in Natal Signs: Cultural Representations of Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting, eds. Nadya Burton (Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press, 2015), 153–171. 34. Fletcher and Bourgeois, “Refusing Delinquency, Reclaiming Power,” 159. 35. Ibid., 165. 36. Julia Chinyere Oparah, “Beyond Coercion and Malign Neglect: The Struggle for Birth Justice,” in Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth, eds. Julia Chinyere Oparah and Alicia D. Bonaparte (New York and London: Routledge, 2016), 11. 37. Ibid. 38. Ibid., 12 39. Damien Leggett, email to author, December 17, 2011. 40. Ibid. 41. Shauna Wiley-Naefke, discussion with the author during the art opening for Birth Rite: A Visual Celebration of Birth and Pregnancy as a Rite of Passage (Berkeley, California: Birthways Resource Center), July 17, 2015.

Conclusion Transforming the Culture of Birth through Imagery

The research of this book provides just one example of how childbirth, the foundation from which the human experience evolves, is an event of intellectual and philosophical fascination and importance. Religion, social ontology, and material culture converge in the context of birth as a rite of passage. Participants in birth who secularize or re-sacralize religious objects during pregnancy, labor, and birth are performing an ontological transition of these objects between the religious, the secular, and the re-sacralized. Contemporary artists are also creating new nonreligious art related to birth and mothering, representing the events as divine acts in themselves, which suggests that the birth art object is resident to a fourth ontological status devoted exclusively to the sacred. Healthcare workers and others working with mothers, families, and babies through childbirth also utilize sacred art and objects, including sacred spaces in birthing centers and birthing rooms, belly casting, and artwork on walls in hospital maternity units. All of these material spaces and representations are an integral part of how birth as a contemporary rite of passage can be celebrated as a sacred event. Beyond their import to philosophy, religion, and ideology, the images of birth that have been discussed in this book are also, in themselves, efficacious in penetrating academic and intellectual taboos surrounding the topic of birth. Many of the images of birth that are most accessible in our world today depict the birth scene as a painful or highly medicalized event. Film and television often show a laboring mother screaming as she is wheeled away on a hospital gurney, for example. Such images are much more prevalent in our society than are those that depict birth as a natural process. Similarly, while mothering is often not depicted as dangerous, its cultural representations typically associate the act of mothering with something unintellectual or silly. This connotation is ever present in the term, “mommy wars,” for example, which 173



refers to cultural debates on how to parent and raise children. The complex nature of what it is to be a mother—to create or adopt, as well as to raise and educate another human being—is rarely exposed through this popular imagery. The power that images and words can have on a cultural mindset should not be underestimated. One interesting twentieth-century figure who understood this power was Edward Bernays, father of the field of Public Relations and also Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1891, and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1995. Bernays lived an extraordinarily long and prolific life, though he continues to exist under the intellectual radar for many. Agreeing with Freud that people are fundamentally irrational and guided by their senses, Bernays used his uncle’s theories on the human psyche to develop a method of Public Relations. As mapped out in his 1928 book Propaganda, which reads like an administrative or instructional guide on how to use propaganda, Bernays explains that to sell products, all a company has to do is successfully tap into human desire, connecting the purchase of a product to the fulfillment of a desire. He successfully implemented this theory over and over again, working with major American companies to transform the way that Americans were accustomed to buying and selling products. Imagery was integral to how Bernays succeeded in transforming public opinion. To give but one famous example, Bernays ran a secretive campaign in 1929 with American Tobacco Company. He was hired to convince the American public that women should smoke cigarettes, and in particular, Lucky Strike cigarettes. Prior to Bernays’ campaign, women who smoked cigarettes were seen socially as immoral and corrupt, and some were even jailed for the activity. Bernays was hired by the cigarette company to change this taboo. In 1929, Bernays carefully selected a group of attractive young women, paying them to march down Fifth Avenue in New York City’s Easter Day Parade while holding lit cigarettes in their fingers. He instructed them to describe their smoking as an act of protest, having each participant refer to the cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom.” Bernays hired photographers to take pictures of the women. He tipped off local newspapers, letting them know that there would be a “feminist march” at the Easter Parade. Photos of the women and stories about their march made front-page headlines across the country, and shortly thereafter, women started smoking in public and cigarette sales increased. The connection between personal freedom and smoking cigarettes was entirely irrational but it was the connection that Bernays wanted to make. He succeeded in doing so by showing attractive images and words that made people attach their psychological desires to be free (like the young women in the street) to the act of smoking.



What does a discussion of Bernays have to do with this study of birth? At the root of his public relations work, Bernays was in the business of manipulating cultural perceptions through the use of imagery. As Mark Crispin Miller notes in his introduction to the 2004 re-publication of Bernays’ Propaganda, the word, “propaganda” continues to be used in a pejorative sense, and yet we must understand how the mechanism of propaganda functions if we want to change the world we live in. Otherwise, we are at risk of letting a small group of people who do understand propaganda dictate and define that which is important to the world. Images such as the ones in this book that I have written have the capacity to transform dominant academic and cultural perceptions that birth is intellectually unimportant, uninteresting, or even dangerous. The images act on their viewers in a double manner: First, they play a part in exposing these viewers to new topics related to birth, and second, their physical presence provides the viewers’ minds with a positive image of the physiological act of childbirth. Even without the words that accompany them, these images related to birth and mothering have the capacity to penetrate academic taboos surrounding these topics. A greater interest in birth within the arts and humanities is part of changing our collective understandings of how acts of childbirth are important not only to women and to children but also to philosophy, society, and culture as a whole. Philosophers, artists, and those working in the humanities can contribute to changing our cultural understandings of birth and mothering. In conclusion, this study of ontological transformation in the context of birth as a rite of passage opens up new avenues of research on birth in numerous fields, including philosophy, religious studies, secular studies, social ontology, art history, women’s studies, and anthropology. Finally, the rite and representations of birth are intimately connected to a new model for the feminist movement.


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abortion, 15–17 adoption, 18, 146, 174 aesthetics, 2, 156, 158 African, 86–88, 96, 107–8, 124 African American, 8, 18, 107, 109, 124, 139, 146, 160–65 altars (including birth altars), xiv, 37, 81, 84, 101, 103, 106, 111, 137 American Academy of Religion (AAR), 3–4, 10, 24–25 amulets, 36, 82, 87–88 ancestor, 44, 96, 107, 108 anti-essentialism, 15, 145, 147 apotropaism, 35, 41, 42, 53, 71 Aquinas, Thomas, 2 Arendt, Hannah, 2 Aristotle, 2, 3, 147 authoritative knowledge, 108–10, 161, 164–66, 169 awe, 29–30, 32, 103, 125, 130–31, 163 Aztec, 75–76. See also Tlazolteotl Badinter, Elisabeth, 149–50 Baubo, 36 becoming-mother, 140, 155 belly casting, 139, 173 Berkeley, George, 11, 66 Bernays, Edward, 174–75 Bes (Egyptian god), 86–87

Birth Justice Movement, xxi, 8, 146, 161–62, 165 Birth Rites Collection, 5, 70 birthstones, 36–38 birth stories, 77, 88, 103, 126, 155, 160 blessingway ceremony, 101–2 blindness (philosophical study of, and maternal subjectivity), 11, 154 breastfeeding, 13, 14, 21, 10, 108, 149–50 Buddhism, 9, 61, 62, 114, 126, 131, 140 Butler, Judith, 11, 16 Calvinism, 11–13 canonical, 2, 5, 21, 118, 147, 159 career advancement (and birth/ mothering), 16, 150–53 capitalism, 11, 13, 142, 149–53 Çatal Hûjûk, 113 Catholic, 13, 35, 71, 78, 82, 137 Celtic tradition, xix, 33–43, 69, 71, 101, 113 Cesarean section, 13–14, 141 chakra, 166 charm (birth charms), 98, 100, 106 Chicago, Judy (including her Birth Project) 6–7, 123–24 childhood/children, xv, 5, 16, 17, 18, 30, 94, 96, 103, 104, 118, 125–26, 191



137, 138, 141, 143, 150–53, 158–60, 167, 174–75 Chinese, xv, xvii, 9, 28, 74, 84, 95, 103, 110, 111, 131–35 Christianity, 11, 20, 29, 33–45 (and the Sheela-na-gig), 53, 71, 78, 80–84, 126, 128, 130 classism, xxi, 149, 152–53, 160, 165, 168 collective intentionality (and classic theory of social ontology), 51–53, 58–59, 66 colonialism, 78, 96, 164. See also decolonization Corblet, Abbot J., 83 cosmogony and creation stories, 1, 7, 72, 102–3 crowning, vii, xiv, 7, 72, 76, 79, 117– 18, 135, 156–57, 162–63 cultural appropriation, xviii, 36, 41, 74, 115–16, 124 dais (midwifery in South Asia), 74 Daoism (Taoism), xv–xvii, 61–62, 111, 116, 131, 135 Dasein, 2 Davis-Floyd, Robbie, 8, 17, 97–99, 109 death, xiii, 1–21, 35, 41, 78, 94–95, 96, 111, 123, 146, 155, 161 de Beauvoir, Simone, 11, 14, 50 decolonization, xx–xxi, 105, 108, 145, 153, 160–67 deconstruction (of gender), 15 Derrida, Jacques, 15, 148 Descartes, René, 66, 154 Dhamma Wheel, 78, 104 Dick-Reed, Grantley, 158 doula, x, xvii, 70, 78, 86, 88, 101, 104, 106, 110, 113, 161 dualism, 49, 60, 66 Durkheim, Émile, xiii, 24, 30–32, 35, 93 Earth Mother, 77, 104–105. See Pachamama egg freezing, 152–53 Egyptian, 86–88, 107–8

Eliade, Mircea, 7, 31 embodiment, 2, 108, 155 epistemology, 2, 49, 50, 154 eschatology, 7 essentialism, 14–16, 24, 145–49 ethics, xviii, 2, 17 existential cultures/existentiality (and nonreligion), 29–30, 103, 123 Facebook, 86, 89, 150, 152, 153 faith, 25, 111–13, 128 feminism, xviii, xx, xxi, 14–16, 42, 126, 145–69 Foucault, Michel, 18, 21 Freud, Sigmund, 42, 156, 174 Friedan, Betty, 14–15 Gaskin, Ina May, 14, 70, 71–72, 74, 158 Geertz, Clifford, 98 gender, xxi, 15, 16, 30, 94, 130, 146, 148, 152, 154, 166–67 globalization, 11, 13, 116 goddesses, 36, 38, 41, 44, 46, 72, 75– 77, 79, 82, 84, 86–87, 101, 103–8, 113, 115, 124, 128 Greek, 110, 114 Guanyin (Chinese goddess), 84, 103 halos, 117, 126 Hathor (Egyptian goddess), 86–87, 107–8 healing, xxi, 107, 139, 146, 153, 160– 65, 169 Heidegger, Martin, 2, 3, 50 Hinduism, 72, 103, 114, 126, 141 homebirth, 9, 32, 99, 101 Hopi, 111 hospitals, xvii, 13, 96–99, 165, 173 humanism, xiii, xvii, xx, 84, 88, 94, 103, 107, 113, 118, 123–24, 126, 128, 131–32, 137, 142, 149, 159, 162, 173 iconography, 40, 77, 80–83, 104, 118, 124, 126, 130, 142 Inanna, 113


Inca, 77–79, 104, 106. See Pachamama Indigenous, 5, 74–78, 135–36, 164–65 infertility, xx, 123, 138 Inuit, 135–36 intersectionality, 146–47, 161–66 Irigaray, Luce, 11, 16 Islam, 80, 126 Jameson, Fredric, 15, 148 Jesus Christ, 80–85, 117–18. See also Virgin Mary Jewish, 105 Kali (goddess), 72–74 Kant, Immanuel, 2, 66n9, 118n3, 147, 155 Knowles, Beyoncé, 124–25 Kristeva, Julia, 11 La Leche League, 149 labyrinths, 110–11, 114–15 Lacan, Jacques, 15 Levinas, Emmanuel, 2–3 loas, 107 Locke, John, 11, 66n9 longevity, 95 Lutheranism, 13 Lyotard, Francois, 15 Madonna. See Virgin Mary mandala, 103, 113–115, 130 marginalized communities, xviii, xxi, 107–10, 115–16, 145–46, 149, 152– 53, 160–67, 169 Mason, Mary Ann, 16 maternal instinct, 14, 149 maternal subjectivity, x, xii, xv, xvii, 17, 137, 153, 154, 167 matricentric feminism, xxi, 125–69 mazes, 110 medical apartheid, 160–61 medicalization (and birth), xv, 11–14, 18, 20n22, 21n31, 79, 97–99, 108–9, 111–13, 123, 135–36, 138, 141–42, 145, 147–49, 158, 160–61, 165, 168, 173


meditation, xvii, 61–65, 104, 110–11, 113–14, 136 menopause, xx, 123, 138–40, 142 mental image/object, xv–xvii, xix, 49, 55–56, 59–65, 72, 116, 132, 191 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 2–3, 19n2 metaphysics, xiii, xix, 2, 17, 47, 49–65 midwifery, xii, xiv, xvii, 12, 14, 36–38, 53, 55, 57–58, 64, 70–72, 74–78, 82, 86, 88, 96, 99, 101, 104, 106–7, 109–10, 117, 124, 161, 164–165 mythology, 7, 9, 41, 44n9, 77–78, 99, 104, 113–14, 129, 158 Nagel, Thomas, 154 nanny, 153 Native American, 101–3, 111, 114, 135–36, 139, 164–65 natural birth, 12, 14–15, 21n31, 70, 89n6, 91n49, 99, 135–36, 147–49, 158, 160–65, 173 Navajo (Diné), 101–3 Nefertiti, 124 neidan, 62 neiguan, 62 neoliberal, 30, 152–53, 160, 167, 169 neuroscience, xiv, 19n8, 48, 59, 63–64 nonreligion/nonreligious, xii, xix, xx, 4, 9, 23, 28–30 (definition of), 123–42 normative (birth/mothering), 154, 167 nudity, 13, 20n24 obstetrics/obstetrician, 12–14, 70, 79, 88, 98–99, 101, 148, 158, 161 Ocarina (Mexican), 72 Opie, Catherine, 159 Orisha, 107, 115, 124 Oshun, 124 Pachamama, 77–79, 103, 104–106. See also Inca paganism, 35–42, 71, 82 patriarchy, 1, 2–11, 118, 145–48 phenomenology, xv, xix, xxi, 11, 49, 55–56, 125, 154, 155



photography, 74, 103, 106, 117, 124–25, 130, 159, 174 Pinterest, 79, 84, 86, 88, 89n6, 106, 119n26 placenta, 95, 96, 113 Plato, 2, 3, 147 poetry, ix, 8, 137, 146, 154, 162 postmodernism, 12, 13, 15, 21n33, 148–49, 167 priest, 45n34, 81 propaganda, 173–75 Protestant, 11–13 psychology, x, xiv, 5, 11, 18, 24–25, 29, 32, 48, 59, 64, 155, 173–75 public relations, 150, 174–75 Publicis, 150. See also Elisabeth Badinter Puritanism, xviii, 11–13 Quran, 80 rebirth, 111 religion (definition of), 24–28 Rich, Adrienne, 11, 154 Rivera, Diego, 76 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 2, 147 Ruddick, Sara, 11, 16, 154–55 Sacred Living Movement, 9 Saint Margaret, 83 Sandberg, Sheryl, 150–53 Saville, Jenny, 125, 159 sculpture, 20n24, 38, 75–77, 86, 100, 103, 135–36 Searle, John, 48–63 secularity (definition of), 28–30 shamanism, 86, 106, 135 Sheela-na-gig, xviii, xix, 23, 33–43, 50– 65, 69–72, 75, 84, 100–6, 113–14, 123 sin, 12–13, 35, 40, 43, 53, 71 Slaughter, Ann-Marie, 151 Sloterdijk, Peter, 3 social ontology, xiii–xiv, xix, xx, xxi, 26–28 (and a definition of religion), 30–33 (and a definition of the sacred), 47–52 (definition in philosophy), 53–59 (theory

applied to objects as “religious”), 69–88 (theory applied to objects as “secular”), 93–108 (theory applied to objects as “re-sacralized”), 123–42 (theory applied to contemporary art objects as nonreligious forms of the sacred), 173, 175 Spiritualism (nineteenth century), 12 sports psychology (and visualization), 64 stem cell research, 17 surrealism, 155–56 surrogacy, 152–53 taboo (and birth), 6, 156, 173–75 talisman, 37, 82–83 Tantra/tantric, 72–75, 103, 113–14 Taweret, 86–88, 107–8 Tlazolteotl, 75–77, 103, 113 totem, 101 transcendence, 17, 31–32, 94, 123, 128, 163–64 transgender, 166–67 Turner, Victor, 97 ultrasound, 103 van Gennep, Arnold, 97–98 Virgin Mary (Madonna), 78, 80–85, 103–4, 117–18, 123–24, 126–28, 159 visualization, x, xv–xvii, 49, 59–65 (impact on a philosophy of mind), 71–72, 110–11, 131–32 Waller, Jonathan, 6, 8, 123–24, 135, 157 war, 5, 41 Weber, Max, 11, 13, 24 Woman of Willendorf, 86–87, 106–7, 113 worldview, 12, 26, 29 (and the definitions of religion/nonreligion) Wroblewski, Jennifer, 159 yantras, 110 yoga, 70, 74, 78, 110 yoni, 36 Yoruba culture and religion, 108, 115, 124 Young, Iris Marion, 11, 16

About the Author

Anna Madelyn Hennessey, PhD, is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. A contributor to numerous publications that explore the religious, artistic, and philosophical dimensions of birth, she has also examined social ontology and the philosophy of mind as a visiting scholar in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Her current research explores contemplative practice and the impact of mental imagery and visualization on the physiology of birth. A volunteer in San Francisco’s Terrace-Annex housing project in Potrero Hill, she is also transcribing the birth stories of several women who live there. These transcriptions are part of a larger work devoted to the topic of imagery’s relationship to the decolonization of birth. Anna lives in San Francisco with her husband Toni and their two children, Kieran and Montserrat.