Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth

by Anja Hänsch (Author)
©2016 Monographs 284 Pages


This study investigates long-lasting cultural constructions of childbirth. Four symbolic patterns of childbirth emerge from the analysis of a variety of texts ranging from myths, philosophy, literature and religion to ethics of modern medicine. On a symbolic level «The Supremacy of the Male» attributes the coming into existence of a child primarily to male «pro-creation.» «The Supremacy of the Female», contrarily, relates childbirth to conception, pregnancy and giving birth on part of the woman. «Theoretical, Spiritual and Political Natality versus Childbirth» pictures childbirth as lower in value as the realms of ideas, religion, the political or the arts. In contrast to this, «Harmony between Spiritual/Theoretical Natality and Childbirth» shows that spiritual birth and childbirth can also be intertwined. It is argued that different symbolic patterns of childbirth may imply different gender relations and different views on «life» in general. The theoretical part of the book is based on Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of natality and on Martin Heidegger whose ideas on death are used for a philosophical conception of the woman giving birth.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • I. Childbirth as Symbolic Patterns, Experience and Performance
  • II. A Conception of Childbirth
  • 1. The Paradigm: Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Natality
  • 1.1 Primary, Political, Theoretical and Spiritual Natality: Four Ways of Accessing a Beginning
  • 1.2 Natalities and Immortalities
  • 2. Childbirth, Sex and Gender
  • 3. Conceiving of the Birthgiving Woman
  • 3.1 From an Existential Definition of Death to an Existential Definition of Giving Birth
  • 3.2 Thrownness and Anxiety
  • 3.3 Pain as Disclosing Mystery, Standstill and Non-Relationality
  • III. Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth
  • III.1 THE Supremacy of the Male
  • 1.1 Creation as Procreation in Egyptian Cosmogony
  • 1.2 The Twelfth Tablet of the Gilgamesh-Epic
  • 1.3 Hesiod: On Anadyomène
  • 1.4 Genesis: Woman of Man Born
  • 1.5 The Genealogies of the Old Testament and of Prophet Muhammad
  • 1.6 Mimesis: The Births of Athena and Dionysos
  • 1.7 The Semen and the Stars: Aristotle’s De Generatione Animalium and the Gender of Pneuma
  • 1.8 Foundations for a “Dubious” Supremacy of the Male: Tertullian and Augustine on the Transmission of Original Sin
  • 1.9 On the Heels of Aristotle: The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas
  • 1.9.1 From “Semen and the Stars” to “Semen and Sin”
  • 1.9.2 The Agency of the Holy Ghost
  • 1.9.3 Reflections on Male Divinities Intervening into Women’s Wombs
  • 1.10 The Divine in the Prophet: The Procreation of Muhammad in the Sirat of Ibn Hisham
  • 1.11 Twentieth Century Examples for the Supremacy of the Male
  • III.2 Theoretical, Spiritual and Political Natality Versus Childbirth
  • 1. The Babylonian Myth of Creation and the Creation Myth of the Bible
  • 2. Plato’s Symposium and the Deathless Children of Philosophers
  • 2.1 Discussion: Reflections on Theorein, Doing and Childbirth
  • 3. Creation Abandoned for the Idea of Good: The Justinian Myth of Edem and Elohim
  • 4. Abraham and the Binding of Isaac (in the Reading of Kierkegaard)
  • 5. From Abraham to Agamemnon: Iphigeneia at Aulis of Euripides
  • 6. Christian Devotion versus Childbirth
  • 6.1 Luke 11: 27–28: The Word’s Supremacy over the Womb
  • 6.2 The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
  • 6.3 Birth as Deriving “from the Skins of Brutes”:Gregory of Nyssa’s Understanding of Marriage and Virginity as Different Conditions of the Soul
  • 7. On Desks and Cradles: a Letter from Héloise to Abélard
  • 8. A World Where Saps Will Have Their Way: The Opposition of Life and Art in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Requiem for a Friend
  • 9. The Ejaculation is a Promise of Death: Simone de Beauvoir’s Conception of Individuality as Being Opposed to the Human Species
  • 10. Against the Tyranny of the Fates: Joseph Fletcher’s Plea for Rational Procreation as Opposed to Childbirth by Raw Nature
  • 11. From the Supremacy of Theorein over Childbirth to Childbirth in Theory?
  • 11.1 Günter Grass: Headbirths
  • 11.2 Edward Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • III.3 The Supremacy of the Female 169
  • 1. The First Birthgiving: Goddesses as Mothers of the Gods and as the Origin of the World
  • 2. The Creation of the World by Sophia the “Fallen Wisdom”: A Gnostic Myth
  • 3. Isis and Mary: The Supremacy of the Female and Harmony between Spiritual Birth and Childbirth
  • 4. Mikhail Epstein: The “Russian-Doll-Principle”
  • III.4 Harmony Between Spiritual/ Theoretical Natality and Childbirth
  • 1. Childbirth, Wisdom and Mystery Religion: The Reign of Queen Isis
  • 1.1 Plutarch’s Isis as Idea: The Goddess of Philosophers and the Goddess of Childbirth
  • 1.2 Lucius Apuleius: Isis as “Blessed Queen of Heaven,” “Reliever of the Birth Pangs of Women,” and “Sovereign of All Things Spiritual”
  • 2. From Isis to Mary
  • 3. The Incarnation of the Sacred Through a Woman:Mary as “Spiritual Vessel”
  • 3.1 Mary-Theotokos
  • 3.2 Mary’s Disembodiment and the Painless Virgin Birth
  • 3.3 Immaculate Conception
  • 3.4 Mediatrix – Corredemptrix – Regina Caeli
  • 3.5 Mary-Sophia
  • 3.6 Two Examples for Different Conceptions of Mary: Augustine and Friedrich Schleiermacher
  • 4. Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Pregnant Mystic
  • 4.1 Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Anniversary
  • 4.2 Self-Portrait, Two Flowers in the Raised Hand
  • 4.3 Self- Portrait with Camellia Branch
  • 5. Mikhail Epstein: Towards an Ethics of Childbirth
  • IV. Final Remarks: A Baby Has Been Born – So What?
  • Bibliography

← 12 | 13 →

In Place of a Preface: Kittens and Kids

One early June morning, I walked down the stairs of my house to learn that one of our cat’s five-week-old kittens had died. My three-year-old daughter Yasmin came down and for some time looked silently at the dead kitten on the carpet. E adesso che facciamo? (“And what shall we do now?”), she asked me. It was at that moment that I understood the powerful impact of culture on our attitudes and emotions with regard to so-called “natural” phenomena as birth and death. My child wanted to know how to deal with death and only started to cry when I told her that it was a sad thing to lose a kitten, or even people through death, although it belonged to life.

Basically, this work tries to explore some answers to the question of how meaning is given not to death but to childbirth. That is to say, in relation to childbirth it deals with my daughter’s question: E adesso che facciamo? ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →

Acknowledgements 1

It has been a long way from the defense of my PhD thesis Symbolic Orders of Childbirth to the publication of Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth. I wish to thank all my dear friends who lovingly helped me to cling to my project. Almut Höfert, Isabella Matauschek, Ivesa Lübben, Karin Schmidt, Letizia Paoli, Mariapaola Ferretti, Matthias Rau, and my sister Edda Lorna were my faithful companions in these years of transition. Karin gave it the final push, “Just let it go now!” and Ivesa kindly offered me her home in Bremen as a refuge to finish the footnotes. Above all it was Gianfranco Poggi who with fatherly admonition insistently kept on saying, “Anja, you are hiding this work for too long,” or “accidenti Anja, la tesi!”

Sonja Ammann and Berenike Herrmanns were themselves struggling with turning their PhD thesis into a book and the self-help group character of our conversations often was comforting. Sonja’s theological expertise also helped me to revise parts of the book.

I wish to warmly thank Mikhail Epstein for taking the effort to look at the English translations of the quotes from his essay Fatherhood. I still feel guilty about fragmenting his wonderful book into symbolic patterns of childbirth. Beth Margulis helped to check the accuracy of the translations. I thank the Peter Lang publisher and Benjamin Fröhlich for taking kind care of this book project and for the endless patience they had with my sheer endless delays.

Yasmin, your blissful birth was the catalyst of this book. In the time span between my thesis defense and the publication you have become a young woman being able to encourage me with the final part of the book, “Mammilein, it will go o.k.” Maurits, thank you for embarking on the adventure to have a child with me and for standing lovingly by my side in these years when I was writing about symbolic patterns of childbirth and other things. Isadora, if Plato is right with his conviction that children choose their parents, I infinitely thank you for choosing us.

This book would not be what it is now without the thorough copy- editing by Karen Weeks. Karen, I don’t know what to write to thank you for all the effort you put into this: Apparently, we’ve made it!

Amsterdam, June 28, 2015

← 18 | 19 →


Childbirth can acquire manifold meanings in myths, philosophy, literature and religion some of which here will be grouped together and explored as symbolic patterns. By “childbirth” I mean the coming into existence of a child, which is treated differently by the four different symbolic patterns to be analyzed. These symbolic patterns are rather heterogenous, sometimes attributing the coming into existence of a child primarily to male “procreation” (“The Supremacy of the Male”), sometimes more relating childbirth to conception, pregnancy and birthgiving on part of the woman (“The Supremacy of the Female”). Furthermore, the symbolic pattern labeled “Theoretical, Spiritual and Political Natality versus Childbirth” leaves aside the question of which body – male or female – gives the more important contribution to the coming into existence of a child. Here, rather, childbirth is seen as lower in value as the realms of ideas, religion, the political or the arts. In contrast to this the symbolic pattern “Harmony between Spiritual/Theoretical Natality and Childbirth” shows that some kind of a “spiritual” birth and childbirth can also go hand in hand with each other. The symbolic patterns of childbirth to be analyzed may reflect, stabilize, subvert, change and constitute power relations (e.g. with regard to gender).

This work situates itself in the framework of a specific type of sociological study termed “reflexive sociology”1 which attempts to uncover “the taken for granted structure of the everyday life-world and of the practice of human communication and understanding.”2 In its understanding of childbirth as a symbolic pattern, this study seeks to analyze some codes developed in relation to childbirth which have persisted throughout time and space. In this sense, “Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth” is similar to a ← 19 | 20 → study by Mircea Eliades on initiation rites in different times and places.3 Eliades’s discussion of the problems inherent in such an approach also holds for this work: “Although it is risky to compare […] documents belonging to such different ages and cultures, I have taken the risk because all these […] facts fit into a pattern.”4

“Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth” has a historical dimension in so far as the four different ways of constructing childbirth can be traced in texts of different times, places and cultures. Although many of these texts enjoyed an important status in a particular time and place, I do not want to claim that they represent a dominant symbolic construction of childbirth in a given society, but rather, that they all testify to some kind of a continuing pattern in relation to the intellectual discourse on childbirth. That is to say, I leave aside the question as to whether certain ways of giving meaning to childbirth were or are socially dominant, or deviant. This huge task has to be left to historians.

As the interest of this work lies with identifying symbolic patterns of childbirth in a broad comparative perspective there equally is no room for situating the texts chosen for analysis in the frame of the history of the body. However, it has to be pointed out that the texts unfold on a variety of historical backgrounds determining what is male, what is female and how gender related to childbirth is experienced. Barbara Duden’s major contributions to the history of childbirth5 have shown that there is no such a thing as a timeless relationship between a “natural” female body and the experience of such a body. Even the notion of “having a body” is a relatively recent one going back to the 18th century.6 The same reflections can of course be applied to the history of the “male” body and “procreation”. An illustrative example for the historicity of the body in relation to childbirth is the varying understanding of the uterus according to different times and places. Thus, for example, while in modern medecine the uterus is conceived of as having one location only, in Ancient Egypt a woman could be considered to have fallen ill as a result of her uterus having moved to a ← 20 | 21 → “wrong spot.”7 In this case the treatment of the “wandering womb”8 could consist of luring the uterus into descending again by taking measures such as applying fragrant substances to the lower parts of the woman’s body.

Though the historical dimension of the body in relation to childbirth will be occasionally touched upon,9 in general it stays in the background. What is foregrounded here, however, are some symbolic patterns of childbirth, which in manifold variations, can be traced through time and space. As the specific interest of this book lies with this broad comparative perspective, the single texts here grouped together and analyzed as symbolic patterns of childbirth can thus neither be considered in historical nor in philological depth. Because the sources cover a broad range of languages it was necessary to work with translations. And with this, the risk of shortcomings and altered meaning is taken. However, on the whole, the chosen sources will still testify to different symbolic patterns of childbirth even if occasionally a misinterpretation based on translation may have crept in.

The continuities of the symbolic patterns of childbirth presented here can hardly be explained by specific socio-historical configurations. One might think of psychology as a tool to understand them. For instance, in his study of the social construction of masculinity,10 David D. Gilmore used psychology to explain the recurrent patterns he encountered from Homer to modern and non-modern societies. In the case of the symbolic constructions of childbirth it will instead be necessary to turn to anthropology and to philosophy to explain the continuities found. Victor Turner’s ideas on experience and performance are of crucial importance here as they become intertwined with the question of how cultural codes are perpetuated.11

Victor Turner elaborates on experience by drawing upon Dilthey’s conception of Erlebnis. According to Turner experience should not be regarded as a “self-enclosed unity.”12 Rather, it is deeply relational in two ← 21 | 22 → senses: First of all with regard to the life and past of an individual because “the category of meaning arises in memory,”13 secondly, with regard to the social environment of the individual. It is to the latter that Turner connects the notion of “performance” which is crucial for the understanding of the perpetuation of cultural codes (in our case regarding childbirth).

Cultural codes are the products of condensed experiences. The moment that they are performed, they render it possible for individuals to access the experiences of people who lived before them. Turner writes:

For our species meaning is entwined with inter-subjectivity, how we know, feel, and desire one another. Our means of communication (language, cultural codes) are saturated, whether we know this or not, with the experiences of our progenitors and forerunners. But these codes can never be experienced unless they are periodically, or at least occasionally, performed. We have to try to re-experience in performance, whether as ritual, festival, theatre, or other active modalities of religion, law, politics, or art, as best we can, the socially bequeathed sparks of lives now biologically extinguished.14

The perpetuation of cultural codes may have an important influence on the individual’s experiental perception:

Culture is […] to be regarded as the crystallized secretion of once living human experience […] which is still capable of liquefaction back into similar if not identical lived-through experience under favorable conditions, like the reputed miracle of Saint Januarius’ dried blood.15

Turner’s theory about the transmission of cultural codes may contribute to solving some of the problems related to the history of ideas. In his study of gnostic worldview,16 Ioan P. Couliano sees ideas as forming “systems that can be envisaged as ‘ideal’ objects.” However, “these ideal objects cross the surface of history called time […] in an apparently unpredictable sequence of temporal events … At this stage of research we are unable to ← 22 | 23 → go much beyond the mere recognition of systems in their logical dimension.”17

Couliano’s statement about the unpredictability of the (re)manifestation of ideas would mean in Turner’s language, to talk about the unpredictability of the (re)activation of a cultural code. As has been shown above, for Turner, culture as condensed experience may always lead to an experience of a feeling or a situation located in history. This would account for the possibility of ideas moving from the background of the stage of history to the foreground and vice versa. However, the question remains why certain ideas are (re)activated in certain times and others not. As has already been pointed out this question can only be answered by historians.

Turner’s ideas on experience and performance are helpful to explain the perpetuation of cultural codes (ideas included), and even experiences in relation to childbirth. However, for a better understanding of the internal logic of the four symbolic patterns of childbirth chosen for analysis, a general conception of childbirth from a philosophical point of view seems to be necessary. In the following, the attempt will be made to conceive of birth on the basis of the philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of natality provides the frame for conceptualizing birth as one way of accessing both a beginning and a “mortal immortality.” Furthermore, Heidegger’s understanding of the situation of the dying person will be explored as a paradigm for conceiving of the birthgiving woman. ← 23 | 24 →

1 Arpád Szakolczai, Max Weber and Michel Foucault: Parallel Life-Works, (London: Routledge, 1998), 17.

2 Ibid. 16.

3 See Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, trans. Willard R. Trask (1958; reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

4 See ibid., 58.

5 See e.g. Barbara Duden, A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

6 See ibid., 2.

7 See for this and the following Ilza Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1993), 3–5.

8 Ibid., 2.

9 See e.g. the chapters on Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Tertullian in section III.1. “The Supremacy of the Male.”.

10 See David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making. Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990).

11 See Victor Turner and Edith Turner, On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1985), 205–226.

12 Ibid., 211.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Symbolic Pattern Childbirth The Supremacy of the Male Philosophy of Natality The Supremacy of the Female Hanna Arendt
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, New York, Wien, 2016. 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Anja Hänsch (Author)

Anja Hänsch earned her Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the European University Institute, Florence. She has published on a wide range of topics in cultural studies, gender studies and comparative literature such as body theory, emigration and modernity in Arab and Franco-Arab literature, Orientalist masculinity, the Aladdin fairy-tale in the 1001 Nights and the conception of goddesses by scholars of the 20th century.


Title: Symbolic Patterns of Childbirth
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