Leaving the Garden: Motherhood from Mary to Beyoncé

William LohierFebruary 26, 2018Creation and DestructionFeatures

When Beyoncé’s announcement that she was pregnant with twins broke Instagram records in a matter of hours, every news outlet worth its weight in ad revenue interrupted their regular programming to bring to us what was sure to be the biggest news of 2017.

Op-Ed contributors, syndicated news columnists, and daytime talk show hosts all swarmed Beyoncé’s Instagram, sucking dry the undeniably symbolic pregnancy of our queen and savior.

In a Grammy performance that was perhaps the closest we will ever come to understanding the cosmic implications of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy, Beyoncé embraced her holiness and channeled Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love and fertility, introducing to much of the Western world a perspective on mothers and motherhood that is not often considered. However, beyond the countless memes spawned by a shot of Beyoncé being worshipped by her dancers, little of the performance’s immense symbolism was widely dissected or unpacked. Contrary to using the idea of babies as the metaphorical embodiment of innocence, Beyoncé argued exactly the opposite. By viewing babies outside the traditional western context in which their symbolism is isolated from that of the mother, Beyoncé advocated that the symbolism of mother and child are intrinsically linked and thus, babies cannot be viewed as inherently innocent, but as a representation of growth and lineage.

The use and symbolism of mothers and babies in storytelling stretches back thousands of years. Nearly every religion in the world includes lore concerning the cultural symbolism of mother and child. The earliest stone sculptures, such as the famous Venus of Willendorf, depict exaggerated caricatures of the female body, believed to bring fertility. There is no sense of “innocence” associated with these sculptures likely because the idea of innocence was not important to their cultural or spiritual function. Rather, these sculptures were worn or carried to channel the power of the earth and the woman’s body, the power to create life either through harvests or pregnancy. Whether or not the sculpture represented “innocence” was unimportant as long as it could accomplish its function. To say that a sculpture like the Venus of Willendorf symbolizes innocence is tantamount to saying a fertile field of wheat symbolizes innocence.

In later Mesopotamian civilizations, the goddess Inanna appropriated the cultural role of stone statues and amulets like the Venus of Willendorf. However, while Inanna was representative of love and fertility, she did not carry the same connotations of innocence that we associate with figures like the Virgin Mary today. Inanna was associated with fertility and birth as part of a cycle, not a spontaneous action like the Immaculate Conception that preserves the innocence of both mother and child. Inanna’s mythology has countless elements we could not consider innocent. She appears more than any other deity in Sumerian mythology, often stealing the realms of other gods and meting justice upon those who wrong her. Inanna is raped, killed, resurrected, and seeks out vengeance with a violence that perhaps echoes the violence of life in ancient Mesopotamia. Inanna reflected the idea that sex and destruction are a natural part of life and fertility, an idea that carried so much cultural clout that she was incorporated by nearly every culture that controlled Mesopotamia, influencing the later Goddesses such as the Akkadian Ishtar and even the Greek Aphrodite.

Even in the later Hellenistic civilizations that have had a greater impact on modern Western civilization, innocence was not associated with the mother-child relationship or the ability to create. Gaia’s power as the Greek goddess of the Earth is that of creation and fertility, one that celebrates her ability to make things grow. Upon being born, her children are immediately swallowed by her husband, who does not take their innocence into account. Aphrodite, dubbed Venus by the Romans, was not stripped of sexuality, but rather represented it. She was the goddess of fertility, but also of pleasure and sex, acknowledging that the two cannot and should not be separated.

In modern Western cultures, the relationship between mother and child has become separated from the ideas of fertility, sex, and lineage. Mary the mother of Jesus, for instance, represents the fascination modern cultures seem to have with innocence. Rather than representing the pragmatic necessity of growing crops, Mary has come to represent the oxymoron of a virgin mother, a mother to whom we have ascribed some out-of-place innocence. This break from all of the aforementioned symbolic weight the mother-child relationship has accumulated through history is representative of changing societal values and philosophies.

Babies are often assigned innocence based on the Lockean philosophy that they are each a tabula rasa, that people are born innocent due to a lack of knowledge and experience. In the Bible, Adam and Eve are created naked in a garden that, while perhaps not exactly a metaphor for a uterus, has been taken by high school English classes to represent the innocence often attributed to babies. Adam and Eve’s lack of shame at their nakedness is taken to be a lack of knowledge, and the original sin of acquiring that knowledge forces them to be born in a world of humanity and sin.

Consider the fact that innocence is by necessity a temporary state, that in the Bible, it is crucial that Adam and Eve take a bite of the apple, even if it is a sin, for all of humanity to be born. That lineage and knowledge and birth are far more essential to the human condition than innocence confirms the deep flaw in thinking of babies as innocent. When we use babies as a metaphor of innocence, we curtail their potential by keeping them trapped in that proverbial garden, unable to acquire knowledge, and separate from the lineage and endless cycle of creation and destruction that defines humanity.

When a seated Beyoncé leaned back over the edge of a table in a gravity defying stunt while her dancers in flowing dresses imitated waves over a ground covered in rose petals, she staked her claim to that lineage. She highlighted the fact that the ideation of a mother is dependent on the existence of children, and the ideation of children is dependent on the existence of a mother. Through it all she did not try to sterilize the idea of a mother and drew from old non-Western cultures the ties between motherhood, sex, fertility, and pleasure. She turned away from the idea of immaculate conception and a garden equating to innocence, and instead embraced biting into the apple, empowering oneself and claiming all the knowledge and power the world has to offer.

William Lohier will be a ninth grader next year. He likes saying the word colloquially, and eating pie, especially peach. He plays cello and piano and thinks babies are really cute but even more creepy. He also likes mangoes, and being awesome.