Birth Rites in Canaan: The Enigma of the Nude Female Figurines

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Levantine female figurines
Levantine female figurines: Fertility iconography, erotica, or both? On display at the Israel MuseumCredit: Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Steaming mad at Eve for succumbing to the wiles of the serpent, God reportedly decreed: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).

The Lord did not lie. But beyond it being painful, we can’t definitively say much about labor and birth in the ancient world, specifically in Bronze Age Canaan and Cyprus – the subject of a chapter by the archaeologist Dr. Rona Avissar Lewis: “Archaeological Perspectives on Delivery Practices in Canaan and Cyprus,” in the book “Cyprus Within the Biblical World: Are Borders Barriers?” edited by J. H. Charlesworth and J. G. R. Pruszinski, published in 2021.

Her chapter relates to the period from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age: from over 4,000 to about 3,000-2,500 years ago.

One source of information about ancient practices is, theoretically, texts. The Canaanites could write. There is even speculation that workers or slaves from Canaan in ancient Egypt invented the earliest alphabet to avoid having to learn hieroglyphics. Maybe. Let us not bog down on the accuracy of our interpretation of words written thousands of years ago in dead languages; it’s pretty sure that the tiny canon of Canaanite writing doesn’t encompass descriptions of parturition, Avissar Lewis says.

The ancient Cypriots also had writing, starting with Minoan Linear A, but it has never been deciphered, so we don’t know whether or not they wrote about childbirth.

That leaves us with legend, such as biblical tales, and archaeology.

Ancient cemeteries can attest to infant and child mortality rates in antiquity, to a degree – one problem being that children’s bones are delicate and do not preserve as well as adult skeletons, Avissar Lewis explains.

A rich history: Female figurines from the Neolithic Yarmukian culture, northern IsraelCredit: Gil Eliahu
Not shy in Mesopotamia, early 2nd millennium B.C.E. At the Israel MuseumCredit: The Israel Museum

Another hint from the past is household possessions, including figurines. But what they might mean is debatable. The theories range from deities to fertility figurines to amulets to ancient erotica – it cannot be said that the ancients of the Near East were shy about sexuality.

Some female figurines throughout the region and throughout the ages probably did represent specific goddesses of the time, being fashioned holding hallmark attributes or wearing characteristic headdresses, Avissar Lewis says.

Relief at the Dendera Temple, Egypt: In the middle, Hathor with hallmark headdressCredit: Bernard Gagnon

But many households in the region had female figurines, often nude, that didn’t seem to have divine attributes. For instance, one motif in Canaan and the region is a nude woman with her hands cupped by or beneath her breasts. Others include women with exaggerated female features.

Like all things, the figurines evolved over time and differ from place to place; they also likely had different significance in different places and at different times. But Avissar Lewis believes these female figurines are related to fertility in some form.

Female figurineCredit: Ruth Schuster

That thesis cannot be proved after all this time, but she supports it by pointing out how obsessed the ancient people of the Levant were with fertility.

The disgrace of infertility

Why might the ancients have been so obsessed with fertility that households would have a personal icon? Maybe because it was as difficult to get pregnant and stay pregnant as it is today, or even more than today, Avissar Lewis suggests, based on her research. Her evidence includes the biblical dwelling on shameful barrenness, in both men and women.

“What is the very first command in the Bible? To be fruitful and multiply,” she notes.

In Sumer, where nude-women iconography began in the third millennium B.C.E., marriage was thought to be a “human” affair while procreation was a matter for the gods; Egypt and Mesopotamia had incantations and rites. The inference is that maintaining pregnancy was challenging, Avissar Lewis says. The female figurines may have been a means to cajole the gods.

Also, how high exactly the mortality rate of newborns and babies was, we do not know – but evidently it was very high. Half the babes died by age 1; then a third to half of the surviving children died by age 10. That in and of itself could have supported an obsession with fecundity.

Alternatively, it is possible that these figurines may be symbolic of a specific god or goddess, Avissar Lewis adds: they may have served as a form of cultic prayer in clay; they may symbolize wishes and thoughts; and/or may have served in magic rituals.

They could even have been related to the general fertility of the domestic animals and crops too, not just the couple, she suggests.

Whatever they meant, the fact that the majority of the clay figurines were found in houses and graves suggests they are connected to the household and to issues connected to individuals’ wishes or problems, she concludes. And whether or not aided by a pornographic figurine or petroglyph, after conception comes birth. Our knowledge of birth practices in the Bronze Age world is spotty, but there have been intriguing glimpses.

Men writing women, in clay

Ancient Canaan has zero figurines showing birth: The only possible relevant drawing that seems to depict birth was found at Kuntillet Ajrud, as Avissar-Lewis suggests in her book. In fact, nothing about that strange artwork in the Sinai desert, dated to around 3,000 years ago, is clear; some believe other aspects of it show Yahweh (with penis) and his wife. The case is far from closed.

On the other hand, figurines showing all stages from pregnancy to birth and nursing have been found in ancient Cyprus, but not in a continuum.

Illustration of the Kuntillet Ajrud drawing: Yahweh, his wife and a woman giving birth?Credit: Alamy

Birth there was done while leaning on a midwife or crouching, according to figurines made of stone or clay from the early Chalcolithic period (over 5,000 years ago) to the early Bronze Age. Then the image of birthing disappears from the Cypriot record until the archaic age there, about 600 B.C.E. Why such figurines disappeared from the record for so long is speculative.

The popular parturition position in Canaan remains a mystery, but it was probably upright, as was the practice in the region, Avissar Lewis suggests. It bears adding that lying abed on one’s back in labor with a male doctor between one’s knees became common in the west starting about 200 years ago. Most, though not all, ancient depictions of birth show the mother upright, crouching, squatting, or kneeling. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra is portrayed in the temple of Esneh in Egypt kneeling to deliver, surrounded by women. The Babylonians used a special birthing chair.

Why might it be that the Canaanites had no figurines of birth while the Cypriots did, and other peoples clearly did too?

Avissar Lewis’ hypotheses are prosaic. One: The figurines in Canaan were made by men, who weren’t allowed near women giving birth, so they had no idea how women do it. That in turn could hint that in Cyprus, the figurines were made by women.

Two: a taboo in Canaan on the observation of, or artistic depiction of, delivery, lest it be hexed.

Three: the women of Canaan delivered with midwives, and the midwife would bring the figurine deities for the process, and then take them away once it was over.

Four: whatever they knew and didn’t know in ancient Cyprus and Canaan, they had different mindsets and beliefs regarding women’s needs, and different views of the need for intervention by the goddess.

Asked why she is so sure men were banned from the birth, Avissar Lewis points to the ethnography of female midwives and male exclusion, as well as the sheer illogicality of biblical descriptions of birth, based on Eran Viezel’s 2018 paper “Why Does the Torah Describe Babies Born Hands First?”

“And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb. And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first. And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out” (Genesis 38:27).

That’s not how it happens. Babies are born head first, not hands first; rarely the buttocks present first, but not the hand. Also, twins don’t suddenly switch places in the process. To Avissar Lewis, this text indicates that the male scribe had never seen a baby born in his life. It sounds like “men writing women” – the phenomenon of male authors writing passages that indicate that they have zero familiarity with female humans and their anatomy – in antiquity, she quips.

Female figurine with child, 2,500 years old, found in IsraelCredit: Yevgeny Ostrovsky
Credit: Ruth Schuster

The Baal cycle

Others suspect that at least some of the nude-woman figurines were Bronze Age erotica. Perhaps the association between the female statuettes of the Levant and fertility – as opposed to erotica – is an artifact of our time, not theirs. A byproduct of a post-Victorian misogyny and prudery; a reluctance to acknowledge female sexuality as opposed to the role of mother.

In his seminal novel “The Source,” published in 1965, James Michener actually referred to the erotic quality of the female figurine holding her breasts. Clearly, not everybody was in denial about this aspect. There are ancient depictions of sexual intercourse, and a lot of them: porn was not born with the internet, or even Hugh Hefner.

On the other hand, the figures were found in almost every home, so it wasn’t ornamental, Avissar Lewis claims. Also, barrenness was shameful: an infertile wife would be relegated to lowly status, was of little worth to the community and was liable to be divorced or supplanted by a new wife.

“It is very reasonable that a family, particularly the woman, would do everything they could in order to have a child, including prayers and cultic practices, so it is not surprising to find many female figurines connected to fertility,” she says.

Which begs the question: How much did they understand about the procreation process? Based on Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology regarding the cyclic pregnancy of the sun, or the legends surrounding Osiris and the graphic description of his impregnation of his sister Isis, Avissar Lewis believes they understood the principle perfectly well, even if we haven’t found a written how-to sex manual.

The famed Ugaritic “Baal cycle,” written in cuneiform during the Bronze Age, makes clear, if indirectly, that they grasped the basics, even if they incorporated supernatural beings into every phase of the process. “The assumption is they knew that intercourse creates children; the question is whether they talked about it,” she says. “They understood about the male seed, and even if they thought the female had seed too, as opposed to an ovum, they grasped that they made a mutual contribution.” (We shall not dwell on mythologies where men get pregnant.)

Finally, Cyprus archaeology has produced many figurines of woman and baby. Canaan only produced a handful, of which half are connected with the spread of the Isis and Horus cult, Avissar Lewis tells Haaretz.

Believed to be 11,000-year-old fertility figurine, IsraelCredit: Ruth Schuster

Apropos, the similarity of iconography is explainable in the context of the vast networks of international trade going back thousands of years, certainly in the Late Bronze Age. Egyptian gods made it to Canaan and back; there are competing theories for the origin of the goddess Hathor – brought to Egypt from Canaan or vice versa. The point is, iconography may be similar but what each figurine or god/dess represented, and how they were depicted, was likely a more local thing.

Exactly how many households had figurines cannot be known, nor whether their purpose in each context was to stimulate the gods or the man. But assuming they were indeed widespread, why might that be so? Avissar Lewis suggests this could have been due to a superstition that if one doesn’t have the figurine, bad things might happen.

It isn’t far-fetched. Think of people today and their attachment to religious iconography, from mezuzahs to crucifixes, and how rampant superstition is to this day, never mind science.

However, in favor of the theory that at least some of the iconic Levantine female figurines were related to erotica, prior to the advent of the three “great religions,” sexuality was anything but taboo. The Mesopotamian gods were a lustful lot and their antics, privates, pubes and fluids were described in exquisite detail. At the end of the day, considering that the figurines were in fashion for thousands of years over a vast region, the most likely thing is that some were erotica intended to stimulate the men and some were fertility figurines intended to exhort the gods for favor. No points for scoffing at these statuettes, crude as they may be: fertility difficulties and the historically astronomical mortality rates for child and mother could explain why so many superstitions arose in this context. Though why any persist in the scientific age is another question.

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