Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Florence Pasche Guignard, Giulia Pedrucci, Marianna Scapini (ed.), Maternità e politeismi. Motherhood(s) and polytheisms. Collana di antropologia delle religioni, 4. Bologna: Pàtron, 2017. Pp. 534. ISBN 9788855533782. €48,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Chiara Di Serio, Università di Roma 'La Sapienza' (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is a collection of essays by different scholars on the topic of maternity, particularly in the context of various forms of polytheism. The volume opens with a detailed presentation of the contents of the work, written by M. Scapini.

In her introduction, Pedrucci first looks at polytheism, offering an overview of the studies on the definition of polytheism, in particular those of R. Pettazzoni and A. Brelich.1 The former stated that polytheism is a late religious form that belongs to an advanced level of culture; the passage from polytheism to monotheism does not occur through evolution, but through denial. Pettazzoni also observed that the characteristics of the figure of a god are a proper name, and a cult, provided by a human group.

The latter designated polytheism as the characteristic religion of the so-called superior civilizations, focusing on the characteristics of the divinities in question: 1) permanent efficiency; 2) complexity and organicity; 3) differentiation; 4) anthropomorphism. Brelich, for his part, looks to the organic nature of the pantheon in which the numerous deities are connected to one another as an essential feature of polytheism. He had the great intuition to examine polytheism as a historically dynamic form. On the other hand, D. Sabbatucci proposed a historical development, identifying the original nucleus of polytheism as the one that developed among the Sumerians, which then spread through the ancient Mediterranean and later reworked in its classical manifestations (in Greece and Rome).2 For Sabbatucci, the Greek system is the one that achieved perfection. Finally, Pedrucci recalls G. Pironti's observation that an "ethical" and "emic" study of polytheism can be realized only if it is analyzed as a dynamic and articulated structure, in which the divine powers are connected to each other in a network of relations.3

Pedrucci formulates the bold hypothesis that polytheisms can be all religions that do not fall into the traditionally recognized monotheisms. Therefore, any religious form that admits a plurality of gods is to be considered polytheism. She maintains that only a comparative and meta-disciplinary approach can lead to progress and in fact the volume also includes contributions that examine lesser known, non-European, contexts. The question of motherhood in Greek polytheism occupies the second part of her contribution. She mentions J. Rudhardt who came to the conclusion that Greek goddesses do not behave as we would expect, because they seldom are solicitous and affectionate mothers.4 Pedrucci believes it is convenient to distinguish between major and minor deities: the latter, removed from the central divine power, would be more benevolent with their children, halfway between the divine and the human. The scholar questions whether the major divinities can represent motherhood as an institution.

Subsequently, she explains that the volume includes works on many different realities, because a comparison between them helps in recognizing their structural traits. The representation of motherhood must be analyzed within the culture that has produced a specific form of polytheism and therefore any case study is to be historicized. Divine mothers are used, for example, in the Near East to legitimize the power of those who reign. Turning to Greece and Republican Rome, there is a divine society with a primus inter pares and the presence of assemblies. In imperial Rome, however, emperors are divinized, and so are their mothers. The Phoenicians, by contrast, had the figure of the pregnant goddess, who exalted biological motherhood.

With regard to maternity, there are other significant aspects to consider, such as the risk connected with childbirth and the way that fecundity is often invoked and favoured. Then, there are often figures called kourotrophoi supporting the mother, and not only the children. A widespread theme is that of the destructive power of mothers, who often act in revenge. A further reflection is that mothers who died in childbirth and mothers who suffered a bereavement can become threatening monsters. Furthermore, divine figures connected with motherhood can be benevolent and malevolent and there are other female characters, who do not respect their role as mothers. In conclusion, the scholar notes that polytheistic gods share common features with a monotheistic god, and that both categories have the characteristic of being "good to think". Therefore, the challenge of research on how monotheisms engaged with the definition of the maternal role remains open.

In her introductory essay, F. Pasche Guignard deals with studies on motherhood as a field that emerges from gender studies, noting that the field was born in American academies in the 90s. This area can be usefully compared with that of the history of religions from an epistemological point of view. For both fields, it is not necessary to be an insider to talk about a certain subject, be it religion or motherhood. Another common problem is the difficulty of access to sources, which are often missing. The idea that other types of testimonies could be recovered, such as those deriving from archaeology, is particularly interesting because it makes material culture a valid alternative. Before gender studies emerged, in the history of religions the motif of representations of goddesses and mythological figures was quite common. Recently, when scholars started to look at women (not just goddesses), they were influenced by the ideas that marriage and motherhood are usual women's paths. In the past, the focus was on women who have challenged the rules of tradition, or those who have played a public role, or those who were connected to well-known male figures, but Pasche Guignard argues that little interest was given to these women as mothers.

The work of U. King addresses the previous blindness of studies on religion and gender as forms of andro-centrism and text-centrism.5 While religion has often been hastily labeled as an instrument of oppression for women, the issue, according to Guignard, is much more complex, because not all religions are oppressive. The observation of religious forms of "mothering" and of how motherhood is constructed in specific religious contexts can help to rethink the connection between gender, sexuality, and religion. Many feminists see religion and motherhood as very oppressive for women and wish their elimination for "liberation". One of the demands of this defense of the feminine "liberation" is the decision to have or not to have a child. According to King, this would be a third form of blindness. The representation of motherhood as an institution has often been emphasized, but we must also consider that the term "mothering" means women's own experiences, centered on women's power.

Pasche Guigard argues that all aspects related to motherhood must be studied, although there may be some controversy about separating studies on gender and women from studies on motherhood. Often gender studies subordinate motherhood to reproduction, but the scholar says that to avoid any kind of essentialism we must refer to a "maternal theory". Pasche Guignard affirms the independence of this field of study, both with respect to femininity and with respect to reproduction.

Maternity linked to polytheism could be a new field of investigation. New perspectives could arise on social relations, the construction of divinities, belief systems and practices. New questions could be asked in polytheistic contexts. The comparative approach that many scholars have used is fundamental to the volume. Accurate comparison avoids decontextualisation, essentialisation and generalisation. The book offers a rich material for "comparative thinking".

Finally, every single essay reveals a great wealth of available materials. Here we can mention some of them. First of all, the study by M. G. Biga, dealing with the goddesses inserted in the Syrian pantheon of the third millennium BC, of which there are three linked to the idea of royalty.

G. Cursaru deals with the Great Mother Goddesses of the sea depths, in particular Doris and Tethys, who are multipurpose cosmic entities and divine realities endowed with sacredness, but they are mainly mythical figures whose images are generally formed on a literary basis, invested with a triad of religious values fecundity/fertility/maternity, but they do not succeed in overcoming the theo-cosmological dimension.

L. Totelin's essay focuses specifically on nymphs. The author analyses the myths contained in the Homeric Hymns where the nymphs are in charge of Zeus, Dionysos, and Aeneus. These myths insist on the liquid aspect of the nymphs. Then the rituals accompanying the Greek wedding ceremony and the transition to motherhood are examined: water symbolizes the fluidity of the female body and its fertility. The nymphs assist human beings in their fluid transition to motherhood that culminates with lactation. Milk is an important fluid that has the power to feed and shape the next generation.

A. Maiuri's work approaches the study of Roman matrons. The main virtue of an honest matron was chastity, which involved the marriage of only one husband for the rest of her life (univira); to it was added the condition of lanifica, according to which the matron had to spend her time weaving and spinning wool.

C. Del Zotto, presenting the Norse myths related to the origin of monsters, gods and heroes, observes that primordial beings in the Nordic pantheon are born from a hermaphrodite deity, who can be compared to the goddess Nerthus, described by Tacitus as Terra Mater.

F. Gradi's study focuses on the stories of two goddesses, Amaterasu, supreme goddess of the Sun, and Izanami, an ancestral representation of a woman in Japanese patriarchal culture. The opposition between the two deities emerges from the ideological discourse expressed in the Kojiki (8th century): the woman was recognized as the procreator, but the more typically feminine aspects, associated with the concept of impurity, were condemned.

E. Groff investigates the scenarios in which the Roman religion and medicine had conceived and represented as potentially risky when dealing with motherhood at the turn of the first century AD. The scholar examines fragments of the 16th book of Varro's Antiquitates, in which there is a plethora of gods called to preside over the gestation. This testifies to the attention paid in Rome to children from the moment of conception. Then some passages of De medicina by Celsus are also analyzed, which provide information on the impact of climate on gestation, general diseases that can affect mother and child, abortions, embryotomy and postnatal care.

Even from these few summary notes, we can see that this book is of great interest and shows the considerable commitment of the curators in the vast collection of material made available. The publication will certainly have a follow-up in promoting further scientific discussion and research.

Authors and titles

Introductory section
Motherhood(s) and Polytheisms: Book Presentation, M. Scapini
Motherhood in Polytheisms: status quaestionis and new Research Perspectives, G. Pedrucci
The Academic Study of Religions and Mothering, Motherhood and Mothers, F. Pasche Guignard

1. Mothers in the Making: Virginity, Paideia, Fertility, Mothers, and Daughters
Mothers in the Making: Virginity, Paideia, Fertility, Mothers and Daughters, M. Cultraro
Constructing and Destroying Maternal Power, A. Cosentino
Maternal Thinking and Maternal Work, C. Giuffrè Scibona
Good and Bad Mothers, Male Mothers, Evanescent Mothers: Negotiations and Negations of Biological Motherhood, N. Petrillo
Giving Life, Facing Death: Maternal Love, Maternal Pride, and Maternal Dangers, F. Pitzalis

2. Constructing and Destroying Maternal Power
2.1. Political Power: Kingdoms, Lands, and Nations
Mother Goddesses in 3rd and 2nd Millenium BC Syria, M. G. Biga
Divine Motherhood in Nubia. A Political Instrument of the Kushite Kings, M. Baldi
Iconography of the Breastfeeding Goddesses in Ancient Egypt. Typology and Evolution, M.E. Muñoz Fernández
"Mother Goddesses" and "Venus" among the Celts at the Crossroads of two Eras, F. Dugast "Performing Motherhood": the Pregnant Female Figurines within the Phoenician Colonial Society, G. Sciortino
Motherhood of the Great Goddesses of the Abyss, G. Cursaru
Mother/s India: How Hindu Mother Goddesses Shaped the Nation and its Women, S. Sarkar
2.2. Magic Power: Curse and Revenge
Magical Use of Mother's Name. Humans, Goddesses and Curse Tablets, M. Śmiejová Kellová
Of Goddesses and Mothers in Rural Maharashtra (India): Sharing Motherhood with the Goddess Satuvai, J. L. Hackett

3. Maternal Thinking and Maternal Work
3.1. Protection through Preservative Love: Kourotrophic Figures
Nurses and other Roles related to Childhood: Arrephoria and Matralia in Comparison, G. Pedrucci - M. Scapini
3.2. Growth through Nurturance
Motherhood in Flux: Greek Nymphs, Breastfeeding, and Ancient Gynaecology, L. Totelin
Kāmadhenu. The most maternal aspect of Devī within contemporary Hinduism, D. Nadal
To Give Birth to and to Nurture. Devakī and Yaśodā as Maternal Figures in Hindu Devotional Poetry by Sūrdās, F. Pasche Guignard
3. 3. Shaping Social Acceptability (of the Child) through 'Training'
The Divine and the Feminine: Methodological Notes on the Role of Women in Roman Domestic Religion, A. Maiuri

4. Good and Bad Mothers, Male Mothers, Evanescent Mothers: Negotiations and Negations of Biological Motherhood
Narrow Polytheisms and "Political" Motherhoods: a Glance into Pre-Roman Italy, M. Di Fazio
Man Born of Man Alone. Male Motherhood in the History and Reception of Daoist Alchemy, T. Thykier Makeeff
Procreation of Monsters, Gods and Heroes in Norse Mythology, C. Del Zotto
Motherhood in Japanese Myth. An Analysis of Amaterasu and Izanami, F. Gradi
The Unusual Case of Twins in the Polytheistic Religions, M.T. Rondinella

5. Giving Life, Facing Death: Maternal Love, Maternal Pride, and Maternal Dangers
Mahāmāyā, a Buddhist Mother or a Patriarchal Ideal?, P. Engelmajer
Suckling the Snake: Motherly Goddess Worship and Serpent Symbolism among Contemporary Nahua in Milpa Alta, Mexico, C. Whittaker
If Life is Facing the Wrong Way: Maternal and Newborn Health in Varro's Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum and Celsus' De Medicina, E. Groff
Maternal Ambivalences: Representations and Identity Constructions of the Female in Protohistoric Sicily, A. Crispino e M. Cultraro


1.   R. Pettazzoni, Saggi di storia delle religioni e di mitologia (a cura di G. Casadio), Napoli 2013; A. Brelich, Der Polytheismus, in «Numen» 7, 1960, pp. 123-136 (Italian trans. by P. Xella, in Mitologia, Politeismo, Magia, Napoli 2002).
2.   D. Sabbatucci, Politeismo, Roma 1998.
3.   G. Pironti-M. Perfigli, Politeismo, in M. Bettini-W. Short (edd.), Con i Romani. Un'antropologia della cultura antica, Bologna 2014, p. 46.
4.   J. Rudhardt, De la maternité chez les déesses grecques, in «RHR» 107, 1990, pp. 367-388.
5.   U. King, General Introduction: Gender Critical-Turns in the Study of Religion, in U. King-T. Beattie (eds.), Gender Religion and Diversity. Cross Cultural Perspectives, New York 2004.

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