Throughout history, symbols of fertility have served as a restorative and rewarding center for future parents. On a personal journey, Katherine Blackledge reveals their amazing secrets and the true stories behind them ...
“Please, please, please, please, please let me have a healthy, happy child,” I whispered as I laid my last offering of figs at the feet of the giant goddess of fertility. It was a wonderful sunny day in early September 2008, I was 40 and still not pregnant.
I had to recover from another agonizing 12 months of miscarriages, failed IVF attempts and gynecological surgeries, but when a friend suggested Malta as a resting place, all I could think was: “I can go to the famous temples of fertility and plead with anyone was to let me become a mom. "
So now I was in Tarxien, having already looked at the figurines of the mother goddess in the Valletta Museum and visited the ancient sites in Hagar-Kim, Mnajdra and Ggantia with their curved, womb-like chambers.
These sacred structures are the oldest in the world - older than the pyramids and Stonehenge - and were built about 4000 years ago to honor the memory of women and promote their fertility. I had to believe that their powerful prehistoric images could help me too.
It seems worth trying everything when you can't conceive and carry a baby before term. I have always worn my silver crescent-shaped necklace associated with fertility and motherhood; I have also been a proponent of acupuncture, reflexology and herbal medicine.
In this context, making a personal pilgrimage to admire as many symbols of fertility as possible was a perfectly reasonable approach. That's why seven months ago, on a very cold and snowy February day, when it would have been a smart option to get home as soon as possible, I convinced my husband to take a detour so I could look at my next seela-na-gig.
Sheela-na-gigs are perhaps the most famous symbols of fertility in Europe. Crafted from stone by medieval sculptors, these striking female figures proudly reveal their chiseled genitals adorn churches and castles in Britain, western France and northern Spain. Some squat down; others spread their legs or put them on the side of their hips; a couple in the form of mermaids.
Many stretch back or around, turning to see better between their legs; some even raise their feet up to their ears. Hundreds of sculptures are united by a complete lack of shame in demonstrating their femininity.
Sheela-na-gig that I visited that day is famous for the most generous genitals of all her sisters. Leaning against the wall of the Oxy Church in Wiltshire, she stands up straight and gestures towards her amazing oval vagina, which is depicted abstractly, stretching from groin to ankle.
These wonderful and candid works of art in places of worship and authority have been recognized fertility symbols on for hundreds of years. Those within reach have vulvas that have been rubbed or rubbed off after centuries of touching them with reassuring hands.
But even eye contact is believed to be enough to help: the tradition surrounding the sheela-in-concert at St Michael's Church in Oxford requires all brides to gaze at the figure on their way to the wedding. I couldn't touch the shila-at-concert at the Oxy church, so I just looked at her and asked for her help.
The fear caused by the threat of infertility is universal. In response to this, every civilization throughout history has created symbols of fertility to ensure the life of future generations. Many, like the Maltese goddesses, focus on the sensual nude female form.
The oldest of these are the Stone Age Venus statues. Some are palm-sized and appear to be designed to be held and carried, while others are larger and carved into rocks; to date, more than 200 individuals have been found throughout Europe and in the east, up to Siberia. The most famous of these is Venus of Willendorf, a graceful 11 cm tall limestone figure that flaunts her prolific chest, buttocks and abdomen shapes and a very realistic vagina.