TO our earliest ancestors, both death and birth were considered to be spirit initiations. In this dialogue, we unravel the rituals around childbirth going back at least as far as the last Ice Age.
This Crane Bag Dialogue was between Mel Williams, myself and Jim Harrod of OriginsNet (Three Million Years of Prehistoric Art, Religion and Symbol…).
Eleven years ago, I had the privilege of tending to a friend of mine as she labored and gave birth to her daughter. During the course of that day, two very memorable things happened for me (well three, of course—can’t forget the birth of the baby!).
The first thing happened at the time my friend transitioned into hard labor. She was soaking in the whirlpool in the bathroom of the hospital suite, and as this was a natural birth, she had been moaning her way through the contractions until that point. But hard labor hit and suddenly the contractions became more unmanageable. Her voice began to go higher with each contraction and to waver, and it sounded as if she were about to lose control. At that point her doula went to her, tapped her own throat, and very simply said, “Take your voice lower”.
So my friend did, but she also did much more than that. When she took her voice lower, she did so by chanting the syllable “O”. On every out-breath, on every contraction, for the next seven hours she chanted “O”. It was a strong, deep “O” that never once wavered. I felt like I was in a monastery–it was so close to “Om/Aum” (and you know how hospital acoustics are—the sound was bouncing all over the place).
When she first hit on that note I was floored. The thought flashed through my mind—Wow, she’s rediscovered some ancient birthing song! It was just the most amazing thing. Now, obviously, we can’t know if women in ancient times ever used this chant to manage labor. Perhaps my friend was the first woman ever to discover it.
We know there are many traditions that use toning, or the chanting of sacred vowels, in their spiritual traditions, right? And today the idea that sound played a significant role in ancient cultures seems to be gaining traction, too. The use of chanting has to be incredibly ancient, so I don’t rule out the possibility at all.
What I find especially intriguing about “O” is it’s vibrational pattern. When vowel sounds are focused on a plate of sand or salt, their vibrations create interesting geometric patterns. The pattern that “O” makes on the sand is—but of course—concentric circles!
Ever expanding “O’s”. “O’s”, it turns out, are all about opening, which is exactly what the cervix is trying to do in hard labor. Do you think a mere sound vibration could actually assist in labor? Whether it did or didn’t help my friend’s labor along, I know for certain it helped her manage her contractions. It’s just interesting to ponder whether this really might be ancient wisdom she was able to tap into.
Then the second amazing thing happened (and I don’t think it ever would have happened if she hadn’t discovered that “O”, because listening to that “O” shifted me into an altered state of perception). After she got out of the whirlpool she went to the bed, which was in a semi-upright position. She was sprawled there, naked, big-bellied, and resting between contractions. Her chest and breasts looked so solid and powerful—you know during pregnancy it’s not just the breasts that get bigger, but the whole chest cavity. I stood there thinking how wildly and beautifully Amazonian she looked. And then in a flash I had a vision. I saw a thick laser beam of light shoot from her chest out to the very ends of the universe. In that moment she wasn’t human at all. Goddess is the only word I could come up with, but it wasn’t quite right.
The impression was of the very life force of the universe zapping through her in all its power and awesomeness—something far, far beyond the human-scale. It was like being cudgeled by a power beyond all imagining. Afterwards I kept trying to come up with the right words—and they were never right. The closest I could come was to marvel at the ferocity at which the universe desired to be made manifest. Ferocity, determination, the full force of creation passed through my friend.
I was just today reading Ishtar’s comment about the four kinds of alchemical fire, and it clicked—the laser beam was the Secret Fire. I’ve always referred to that laser beam as the life force, but it never clicked that I might also call it the kundalini of the whole universe.
So after I regained my senses, this thought flashed in my mind: “Aha, so all those Venus figurines aren’t goddesses at all—they’re actively laboring women!”
In other words, if ancient people saw what I saw when a woman was laboring, if they had a vision of that life force shooting through her—whew—well yes, in that moment she would have been a goddess, something far beyond a mere human—but she also would have been in the end just a woman laboring. So could those Venus figurines depict this?
Perhaps the time when a woman is in labor is one of the only times this force is visible to us mere mortals. If the ancients witnessed this, then birth would have been an incredibly sacred event—it would have allowed them to peak through to the very fabric of the universe almost. And witnessing such power—what would they do with that? A laboring woman would be revered. She would be sacred–half-woman, half-goddess. And it wouldn’t be obvious that all people possess this Secret Fire. It would seem to belong just to the laboring woman. (Well—and probably to some very advanced shamanic-types.)
I’ve often wondered about all the taboos surrounding childbirth—with some women sent off to birth alone (although usually with helpers) and men most definitely excluded. Were the taboos really only about cleanliness and protecting the mother and child or was something deeper going on? Was childbirth viewed as almost too dangerously powerful? Too sacred?
There is a point during childbirth, but usually when the birth is imminent, that the women gets angry. Well, that’s how she appears to others. But what’s happening is that she’s being put in touch with her Kali aspect, and this is when the injection of the Secret Fire takes place. That’s why midwives were also shamans in ancient times, as they were better able to interact with this creative/destructive aspect of the Great Mother who is so present at every birth.
I once saw, in a documentary, new lands forming from a number of different undersea volcanoes in different locations, and I noticed that at every single one of this new land birthing moments, forked lightening was also present. So I asked the lightening: “Why are you always there?” and the fork of lightening turned to me and said: “Midwife.”
So what is this Secret Fire?
According to how we’ve always perceived the Greek myth, it was Prometheus who gave us the means to grill a steak on the barbie by his heroic act of stealing fire from the gods. However, this, it now turns out, is a misunderstanding about fire.
Apparently, there are four kinds of fire which were known to the alchemists ~ and the type of fire which Prometheus stole is the Secret Fire, which is very different and far superior to mundane fire or Elementary Fire, as ordinary barbie fire is known within alchemy. The other two fires are Celestial Fire (which is the brilliant white light of God, which doesn’t burn) and Central Fire (the fire of creation, hidden at the heart of the atom). But the Secret Fire is much more important than these latter two.
“In allegories and fables,” writes 18th century French alchemist Dom Pernety, “the philosophers have given to this Secret Fire the names ‘sword’, ‘lance’, ‘arrows’, ‘javelin’ etc. It is the fire which Prometheus stole from heaven, which Vulcan employed to form the thunderbolts of Jupiter and the golden throne of Zeus.”
According to Franz Hartmann, a 19th century German physician, in his book Alchemy: “The Secret Fire of the alchemists is sometimes described as a serpentine working power in the body of the acetic. It is an electric, fiery, hidden power, an electro-spiritual force and creative power.”
Of course, the Secret Fire is obviously the kundalini, known to mystics, yogis and shamans. So Prometheus getting his liver pecked out by an eagle for stealing Secret Fire from the gods must be another of those sorceror apprentice-type cautionary tales, about the mis-use of divine power by those who either are not cognitively prepared to deal with it or want to use it for their own material ends. It the symbol of Secret Fire that the SS leaders wore, copied from the Aryan storm god ~ and look what happened to them!
I’ve been wondering whether the Upper Palaeolithic site in France containing the bas relief of the Venus of Laussel was actually an initiatory birthing site. Another of the figures found there was male (supposedly representing a hunter–that would explain why the Venus was said to have something to do with the hunt). The others were female, at least two of which were very similar to the Venus. One site said these bas-reliefs were arranged around a ceremonial area of the rock shelter, but I haven’t seen that mentioned anywhere else. The Venus of Lauselles was originally covered in red ochre. You can see faint traces of it on her left breast.
By the male’s stance, it’s inferred that he was drawing a bow or throwing a spear.
So we’ve got five women and one man. At least three of the women seem to represent pregnancy/childbirth. The man is in a stance that could be indicative of throwing a weapon, but there’s no weapon visible. What do you think? Is this a ceremonial site pertaining to the hunt?
Mel, thank you for your report of your experiences during your friend’s childbirth. You have opened my eyes to new dimensions, and this has direct relevance to the Upper Paleolithic female figurines and figurines in many subsequent cultures.
The Upper Paleolithic figurines were totally about initiation into female empowerment, both in their communities — and in the birthing process, as I now see from your report. I can bring in some references for this way of looking at the figurines.
(1) Mariana Gvozdover. 1995. Art of the Mammoth Hunters: The Finds from Avdeevo. Oxbow Monograph 49. Oxford: Oxbow Books. Here Gvozdover provides the most detailed analysis of the characteristics and function of the female figurines from Avdeevo as well as inferences for Kostienki and Willendorf and other Gravettian cultures. She shows that the figurines represent a series of stages from early pregnancy through childbirthing to post-partum and indeed “the full reproductive cycle of women”. The figurines were stored in special storage pits for reuse, sometimes with animal figurines or other paraphrenalia, including animal headed wands, etc. In my review of writings on figurines, this book is the most detailed and insightful, with many photographs and illustrations.
(2) You are spot on in noting the 13 lunar month symbolism of the Laussel figure. Alexander Marshack, Roots of Civilization, is an opus on his years of decoding the lunar calendrical system of Upper Paleolithic Europe and other regions.
The Laussel site appears to be a female initiation/teaching site. A friend of mine told me she went to the site on a full moon night and the Laussel goddess was totally illuminating and shining. She also found a deep narrow shaft in the rocks at the site, just big enough for a person to move through, which no archaeologist had ever noted, which she interpreted as part of the site’s symbolism.
At this site is another relief in which two female figures merge lower-body to lower-body. This I suggest is again the Double Goddess symbolism. This symbolism continues into the Neolithic at Catal Huyuk and in Central Europe. See all of Marija Gimbutas’ writings, such as Language of the Goddess, and also the excellent website Archaeomythology which continues research on Central European Neolithic archaeology in a similar vein.
(3) If you go to the publications page of my website OriginsNet.org I have a published article on the Upper Paleolithic Double Goddess. Basically, I have decoded the semantic structure of the Upper Paleolithic European geometric signs, and how they were used to signify six female and six male spiritual transformation processes. In this article I demonstrate how the so-called Venus figurines are actually representations of the Double Goddess transformation — this is an empowerment through the uterine lineage from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. The figurines were most probably used during adolescent female puberty initiations, as similar figurines are still used in indigenous African and other societies. Of course, after your report I can add they were also used during pregnancy and childbirthing.
(4) If you go to the Blog page, scroll down to July 12, 2009, you will see my objection to the incredibly misogynist and just plain ignorant interpretation of the Hohle Fels female figurine by its discoverer Nicholas Conard and Paul Mellars ‘pornographic’ comment — all published in Nature, the most prestigious science journal in the world. Clearly the journal Nature doesn’t have a peer review process when it comes to misogny.
(5) It is known, but I have no citation handy, that in Siberian hunter-gatherer cultures, they use small female figurines to be held in the hand and squeezed during childbirthing. This is likely the case for some of the Upper Paleolithic female figurines which show a high degree of polish from handling.
(6) We can assume the most high likelihood that every hominid species from Australopithecines through Homo erectus to us had ritualized behaviors with respect to childbirthing. How can one prove this? It can’t be directly proved, but I suggest it can be proved by simple triangulation in evolution between us and chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have clear birthing ritual behaviors….
(7) Finally, your experience of the beam of light is incredible. It reminds me that in Vajrayana tantric visualizations one often visualizes a beam of light from the deity heart to meditator’s heart. For instance, the Maitreya sadhana; although a male figure, but most frequently depicted as androgynous, that’s the visualization. Maitreya can be translated as ‘friend’, but also as related to the loving kindness or metta meditation. Maitreya is said to represent universal love. Seems you had that experience in witnessing childbirth, and I am full of gratitude to you for sharing this with us.
Just like to finish this off by showing some cave and rock artwork dating from the Upper Palaeolithic in France which definitely comes under the heading of ‘fertility’. They all come from Ancient Wisdom.
These examples of Palaeolithic ‘vulva’ art are only a couple of several found associated with European cave-art. The second image is from Chauvet cave in France. It has a feline on one side, and a bull on the other. The two animals combine to create the image of a female vulva.