Evidence, such as stone circles at Stonehenge, suggest men as far back as the stone age had understood the meaning of seasons, the importance of spring and it’s importance for survival and eventually for agriculture. There is much supporting evidence suggesting the stone circles were no more no less than observatories which allowed men to measure the rising and setting points of sun and moon, allowing them to measure the passing of time and seasons which so obviously influenced man’s condition and survival.
The moon was also readily linked with the monthly fertility cycle of women as it was with the presence of certain animals such as rabbits and hares – prolific creatures which are often out during the night. Hence the Roman goddess Diana, associated with woodlands and fertility is also strongly associated with hares and the moon (she wears it on her crown).
Interestingly the attributes of fertility are more commonly associated with the Roman goddess Venus and her art than with Diana and in a sense this not surprising: whilst Diana was something more “earthly”, Venus was more obviously associated with the “trappings” of human fertility: sexual attraction. It is interesting to investigate the difference between these two notions – we have done so in the article Ancient Fertility Goddess versus Venus.
It is no chance that the Christian feast of Easter (the resurrection of Christ) is strongly linked to the Spring seaon, to bunny rabbits and in many countries with eggs: all obvious symbols of birth and regeneration. The Easter festival is actually set according to the lunar calendar: notice it never falls on the same day from year to year…
And moving out of the religious sphere: Might the close association between bunny rabbits and a popular nudy magazine be pure chance?
Social Context of the Ancient Fertility Goddess
The social, religious and moral context of fertility has varied through time and hence differed from the static point of view we might nowadays use as a parameter of measure. This “relativistic” approach would explain why during the last “n” centuries we would have been shocked by the ancient Roman habit of hanging a phallus over doors or sticking it onto the front of Triumph chariots – in sign of “plenty” and fertility. Nowadays it would be generaly unnusual to see one hanging on the inside of a car but not very shocking.
The Roman god Priapus – with his gargantuan phallus – is frequently portrayed in the most important villas of ancient Rome and was quite openly displayed to visitors. The gods Pan and Bacchus also had their part to play in Roman fertility rituals such as the “Lupercalia” which have remained in popular memory thanks to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (act1).
Fertility and Decency (Morality)
We can imagine how shocked our Victorian predecessors might have been by such “wanton” display and in fact the earliest Priapus findings of the last centuries were generally set aside and looked after out of public harm’s way. The problem really lies in the associations we have with Fertility: something within the corrupting domain of Venus. Again something we touch upon in the paper on Ancient Fertility Goddess versus Venus.
Of course the moral problem of social decency of Priapus, Venus and Co. lies in this grey area: whilst Fertility lies within the domain of Venus it remains an issue of decency and morality. When it is divorced from Venus and detached from sexual attraction it is more easily dealt with albeit with thorny moral problems nonetheless (eg modern fertility techniques). Problems which weren’t such an issue for the Romans who managed to create an extremely evolved set of laws on the subject of de facto couples, marriage (various forms thereof), divorce and progeny. See article on Roman morality and Roman marriage.
It is interesting to note that the ancient Romans themselves considered the Greeks to be immoral and wanton for their habit of working in the fields or participating in contests or at military training totally naked. Not to mention the “prudish” attitude of the Roman upper classes to Spring feasts such as the “Floralia” where the dancers would strut their stuff naked on the public stage. Very popular with the public of course.
And moving a little further back in time: both Romans and Greeks considered the ancient Etruscans to be debauched. Apparently openly participating in all sorts of orgiastic practices: particularly the women. The interesting point here is that more recent research suggests that Etruscan women had greater freedom than their Roman counterparts and certainly much more than their Greek sisters. Although it wasn’t quite a matriarchal state women, at least those of higher rank, appear to have played a major part in society and even went as far as having their own possessions and possibly participating in the making of kings and leaders. It is hardly surprising that they should have been sexually liberated.
It is often the case that ancient Etruscan settlements coincide with earlier stone age settlements. That is hardly surprising as we can well imagine the gradual evolution of man from a nomadic practice to a pastoral one: the earliest evidence of settlements around the hills of Rome indicate that there are pastoral type settlements dating back to around the tenth century BC. The earliest kings of Rome were in fact Etruscans who brought to Rome much of their own culture.
Stone age Ancient Fertility Goddesses
The ancient fertility goddess shown in the picture is nothing more nothing less than a cattle’s knuckle bone, appropriately adjusted rather like a stone might be adjusted to make a weapon. Much stone age art, often found in the vicinity of Etruscan settlements, was of this sort: focusing on a few essential notions of fertility: breasts, belly, hips.
Calling it “art” is as much conjecture as it is to associate it with possible fertility practices whereby women might be shared by several men: in a similar fashion to later Graeco-Roman instances of religious prostitution. We can neither be sure of its creation as “art” for art sake nor can we be sure of social practices related to male/female relationships vis-a-vis reproduction and fertility.
Of course there are also theories, themselves backed up by their own evidence, that fertility figurines may have well been the domain of the women within society: used solely by women, perhaps as magic, perhaps as teaching aids. Who knows.
Relationship of ancient fertility goddesses, and gods
So it is little surprise that the gods of society were often related to one another as so too were these peoples (descended from the early Indo-Caucasian tribes which migrated across into Europe):
The Etruscans had “Maris“, god of fertility and agriculture who came to be known as Mars by the Romans who added in a bit of Greek influence and turned him into a military deity. Then we have Fuffluns – a sort of Bacchus. The Greek equivalent was Dionysus who’s orgiastic cult led to one of the greatest scandals in Rome. Turan was the Etruscan version of Venus who guarded over fertility health and love. The Etruscan Artume was known to the Romans as the Greek Artemis – who guarded over night, moon, death, nature, forests and fertility. The Roman goddess Diana is not to be forgotten of course – especially since we mentioned her at the very start of this short piece on ancient fertility goddess. The great goddess Juno, part of the “capitoline triad” is also worth mentioning given that she stood for fertility of the fields, woods, animals and men. As wife of Jupiter she was also associated with marriage and matrons. I suppose that at this point the goddess Vesta also deserves a mention more than anything because “fertility goddess” is quite easily associated with “virginity” and the Vestal virgins. However, more than being a goddess of fertility she was more a goddess of fire, life, the earth and the “hearth”. Quite clearly a symbol of the strong family structure on which Roman society was based.