Fertility rites are religious rituals that reenact, either actually or symbolically, sexual acts and/or reproductive processes: 'sexual intoxication is a typical component of the...rites of the various functional gods who control reproduction, whether of man, beast, cattle, or grains of seed'.
They may alternatively involve the sacrifice of 'a primal animal, which must be sacrificed in the cause of fertility or even creation', while there is evidence that 'prehistoric mother worship in the form of fertility rites is tied to human sacrifice'.
"Fertility rites may occur in calendric cycles, as rites of passage within the life cycle, or as ad hoc rituals....Commonly fertility rituals are embedded within larger-order religions or other social institutions."
As with cave pictures"[which] show animals at the point of mating...[and] served magic fertility rites", such rites are "...a form of sympathetic magic" in which the forces of nature are to be influenced by the example acted out in the ritual. At times, "ceremonies intended to assure the fecundity of the earth or of a group of women...involve some form of phallic worship".
Central to fertility rites in classical Greece was 'Demeter, goddess of fertility...Her rites celebrated the procession of the seasons, the mystery of the plants and the fruits in their annual cycle of coming to be and passing away'. But most 'women's festivals...related in some way to woman's proper function as a fertile being (which allowed her to promote the fertility of crops too, by sympathy)'.
Because of his link to the grape harvest, however, 'it is not surprising to see Dionysus associated with Demeter and Kore in the Eleusinian Mysteries. For he, too, represented one of the great life-bringing forces of the world'.
Ancient Phoenicia saw 'a special sacrifice at the season of the harvest, to reawaken the spirit of the vine'; while the winter fertility rite to restore 'the spirit of the withering vine' included as sacrifice 'cooking a kid in the milk of its mother, a Canaanite custom which Mosaic law condemned and formally forbade'.
Durkheim explored Australian ceremonies 'to assure the prosperity of the animal or vegetable species serving the clan as totem'. Such ceremonies took the form both of 'oblations, whether bloody or otherwise', and of 'rites which...consist in movements and cries whose object is to imitate the different aspects and attitudes of the animal whose reproduction is desired'.
Durkheim concluded that 'as the rites, and especially those which are periodical, demand nothing more of nature than that it follow its ordinary course, it is not surprising that it should generally have the air of obeying them'.
- It has been suggested that 'at the heart of the myth of science lie fertility rites which ensure the continued fruitfulness of technological innovation'.
- Eric Berne points out that 'the Adult "helpnik" vocabularies (PTA, psychology, psychoanalysis, social science) may be used in an intellectual Rite of Spring, where the victim's dismembered psyche is left scattered over the floor on the theory that he will eventually join himself together and be more fertile afterwards'.
Literature: T. S. Eliot
In The Waste Land, 'Eliot waxes nostalgically for a classical society founded upon ritual praxis...fertility rites in which the participants mime the fall and return of natural cycles' - 'Keeping time, Keeping their rhythm in their dancing As in their living in the living seasons', as he would subsequently put it.
- Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (London 1965) p. 236
- Aniela Jaffé, in C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (1978) p. 264
- Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion (1996) p. 163
- Thomas Barfield, The Dictionary of Anthropology (1997) p. 184
- Jaffé, p. 261
- Willard Bohn, Apollinaire and the Faceless Man (1991) p. 66
- M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (Penguin 1967) p. 158
- J. Boardman et al eds., The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford 1991) p. 269-70
- F. Guirand ed., The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1968) p. 160
- Guirand, p. 77-9
- Guirand, p. 81-2
- Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London 1971) p. 327
- Durkheim, p. 351
- Durkheim, p. 361
- F. A Kreuzinger, The Religion of Science Fiction (1986) p. 42
- Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1974) p. 325
- E. P. Comentale, Modernism, Cultural Production, and the British Avant-Garde (2004) p. 96
- T. S. Eliot, "East Coker", in The Complete Plays and Poems (London 1985) p. 178