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Hills of Paradise: Power, Powerlessness and the Female Body

Unveiling the intricate history of female sexuality and its manipulation, Mineke Schipper's 'Hills of Paradise' traverses cultures and eras. Delving into stories of power and control, the book reveals how men's conflicted perceptions of the female body have shaped societies. Schipper examines myths, fears, and aggression, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern times, shedding light on timeless gender dynamics. This extensively researched and engaging work explores the enduring impact of historical attitudes on contemporary interactions between women and men.
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August 14, 2023 08:01 EDT
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She who leaves a child behind, lives eternally.

(Chagga, Tanzania)

The woman who has a storehouse beneath the navel, will never die of hunger or cold.

(Sephardic, Spain/Portugal)

A Storehouse Beneath The Navel 

In Congo, I asked my all-male first-year students to write an essay about ‘the purpose of life’. They agreed almost unanimously that having children was far and away the most important part of life. During our discussions it turned out that their biggest fear was that their future wife’s storehouse would be locked. Men can of course be infertile too, but the blame was firmly laid on the women.

Fertility and pregnancy are praised in all cultures. In proverbs, a childless woman is harshly compared to a tent without tent pegs (Ladino), a day without sun (Czech), a cow without a bell (German), a tree without birds (Thai), a solitary flower on a mountain top (Vietnamese), and so forth.

In stories, childless women desperately look for a solution to their disastrous lack:

‘[They] fell pregnant as soon as they were in the vicinity of certain places: rocks, caves, trees or rivers. The infant souls entered their bodies and they fell pregnant. Whether these infant souls were the souls of ancestors or not, one thing was certain: they had been waiting all this time to become human, hidden in crevices or cavities, in pools or forests. They had already led some kind of embryonic life in the womb of their real Mother, the Earth.’

The Earth was where children came from, which is why nineteenth-century Europeans believed children were brought by aquatic animals—fish or frogs—or by birds, especially storks.

Miraculous pregnancy

Miraculous conceptions are of all times and cultures. Storytellers explore human anatomy and life-creating powers with curiosity. A Baniwa story from Brazil has the first woman falling pregnant when she gently pressed a stick against her cheek. In their desire to fall pregnant, some women look for help in extraordinary places, others in certain drinks or food. Or they meet a spirit or an angel, before a child comes to life inside them. Unusual conceptions reflect the enduring human wonder at the coming into existence of new life.

Sometimes the stars are invoked, or the sun or the moon, the wind or lightning, ancestors or symbols of power. Offerings are made to a wide range of entities. Sometimes it’s a question of coming into contact with a special footprint in stone or rock, supposedly from Adam or Buddha, from Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law) or the Christian Saint Thomas.

A Chinese woman who saw a huge human footprint wanted a son of the same impressive proportions:

‘The woman stood still where the Supreme God had left an imprint of his big toe and at that moment, at that spot, she felt how her core was seized and—filled with deep religious wonderment—she realised she was pregnant.’

There are innumerable stories about people connecting with the powers of stone: stones are solid, they do not die, whereas mankind is mortal. No wonder young women let their bodies slide over stones or must jump over a whole row of fertility stones to fall pregnant. In the French city of Rennes there are stones known as pierres des épousées or pierres marieuses that are sought out by brides-to-be for their powers of marital bliss. Near Verdun there is a rock known as the ‘Armchair of Saint Lucie’, where the saint was said to have left an imprint of her body, and women who wish to become pregnant should simply sit on the chair.

Amongst Muslims a similar idea is found near Tunis, at the famous tomb of Sidi Fethalla. Childless women go there, risking their lives as the climb is steep and slippery. Some even do so repeatedly. On Saturday, this holy man’s day, they first invoke him and then rub a flat stone on their belly.

‘As well as stones enhancing fertility, there are rivers, lakes and springs endowed with the same effect. You can drink their special water or immerse yourself in it. A spring can make women fall pregnant after a benevolent god has added a few drops of sperm to its waters.’

The importance of fertility is magnified in impressive shrines, for example, in Hindu culture. Infertile women pray mostly to Shiva, the god of creative power and fertility. His emblem is the lingam, which can be found on street corners or in temples, in the form of a standing stone. In the southern Indian city of Thanjavur, a famous temple dedicated to Shiva, more than a thousand years old, boasts an 8.7-metre-high lingam, one of the largest in the world. Lingams come in all sizes, they are rubbed with special oil, covered with flowers and perfume, offered sacrifices, and people prostrate themselves in front of them. Infertile women spend a night in the temple in a special room reserved for them. There, in the dark, they are visited by Shiva. The inner part of the temple, the holy of holies, is called karuvarai, the Tamil word for ‘womb room’, with karu meaning foetus. In many rituals a simple touch suffices. In short, there are a striking number of stories about pregnancy in which men play no role at all.

In several origin stories there were just women at the beginning of time, or countries where only women lived and managed fine without men, and we are told how pregnancy came about in these communities. In India and Taiwan, it is said that the women were fertilised by hornets or by the bulging navels some women had, or they pleasured themselves or each other with wooden organs.

The wind was also believed to be a powerful fertiliser, although some variants specify that only a storm could have the desired effect. It happened this way—the woman who wanted to fall pregnant climbed a mountain or stood on a roof, bent over, lifted her skirt, and the wind blew around her vulva, causing a child to spontaneously grow in her belly.

Prevailing male perspectives commented with clear disapproval on such imaginary female communities. Their accounts are tinged with fear—not least of being superfluous to the impregnation process. These women were said to be man-haters, they wept whenever a baby boy was born instead of a girl; or they would immediately kill all male babies they gave birth to. Those poor little boys were torn apart or had boiling water poured over them. And these are just a few of many more dreadful scenarios.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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