Defining the Symbolism of Clay Figurines of Fertility

"… then the Lord God formed man of dust from the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." (Genesis 2:7)  

From the earliest artifacts, crude clay, stone or wood figurines of pregnant women with prominent breasts and grotesquely enlarged hips, to the varied ideological forms of today, symbols that concern human reproduction and the fertility of the earth are venerated worldwide, and have been since time immemorial.

Long before we knew how babies were born, how crops grew, we knew that our existence depended on the renewal of fertility. Clay figurines from past civilizations were connected with fertility or childbirth in varied rites. Red ochre was found on some clay figurines. This has been used in various cultures to symbolize blood, either menstrual blood or as a symbol of life. (For example, ancient Mesopotamians are believed to have made fertility charms out of clay dolls smeared with actual menstrual blood.) 

Archaeological evacuations dating from around 3000 BC contained small female figurines in clay of the 'Great Mother' type, a symbol of fertility beliefs. The earliest Neolithic idols were extremely simple and no more than a cipher, a small flat clay tablet with an emblem scratched on it. Only in the Bronze Age (second millennium) did the figurines take on distinct human features, perhaps under the influences of Minoan Crete (the civilization on the island of Crete which flourished from 2,000-1,500 BC). Archaeologists speculate, however, that the ciphers may be emblems of fertility, or even direct representations of a Mother Goddess. 

The fertility goddesses symbolized in figurines are the female deities watching over and promoting the fertility of the earth, human pregnancy, and birth in many polytheistic cultures. In some cases these deities were directly associated with sex, and in others they simply embodied related attributes. Some examples include Aphrodite in ancient Greece, Hathor in ancient Egypt, the Teutonic goddess Freyja, and Brigit in Ireland. Fertility goddesses are also present in many other cultures. Fertility Goddess figurines and carvings were often placed near the couples' bed or on the family altar with suitable offerings to entreat the fertility goddess to work in their favor. Ancient fertility rites were then performed, including the honoring of fertility gods and goddesses in many ways and ceremonies.

"Concerning, earth, the Mother of all, shall I sing, firm earth, the eldest of all gods that nourishes all things in the world… Thine is to give or take life from mortal man." – (Hymn to the Earth – Homer)

From time immemorial man has reflected in wonder and amazement on the earth on which he lives and takes the bread of life. As long a man depends on the rich earth, he has personified it and worshiped it, in the most potent all images, the image of the mother – the Mother Goddess.  
The term Mother Goddess (Earth Mother) refers to a goddess that represents motherhood, fertility, creation or embodies the bounty
of the earth. Many different goddesses of the ancient cultures have represented motherhood in one way or another; some have been associated with the birth of humanity as a whole, others have represented the fertility of the earth. The Earth Mother or Mother Goddess is a motif that appears in many mythologies. The Earth Mother is a fertile goddess embodying the fertile earth and typically is the mother of other deities. Therefore she is also seen as patronesses of motherhood. This is generally thought of as being because the Earth was seen as the "mother" from whom all life sprang. 

The Mother Goddess may also have many different roles. Mother goddess could mean fertility, but the term "fertility" is in itself rather vague, and could mean a number of different things. Fertility could mean the earth itself, eg. The fertility of the land -- or could be the growing of crops. It could also mean fertility of the animals, as well as that of humans, by the means of mating or sexual intercourse. 

The Sumerians wrote many erotic poems about their Mother Goddess Ninhursg. In Egyptian Mythology Hathor the 'Sky Goddess' was the goddess of joy and motherhood. From Greek mythology, archaeological remains from the cities of the Indus civilization (2600-1900 B.C.) include large numbers of crudely fashioned female clay figurines, generally called mother goddesses. Terracotta (clay) figurines are among the earliest and most abundant figural symbols used in early Greece and offer insight into the evolving religious beliefs and social changes of the period. From Greek mythology, Gaea and her daughters Rhea, Themis and Dione were the earliest Mother Goddesses. Gaea (Gaia) that was seen as the earth itself; the deity was not only the ultimate mother goddess, she was a creator goddess. Whereas the ancient Greek goddess Demeter, the goddess of corn, was also a Mother Goddess and goddess of fertility. In Roman mythology Cybele was so revered that she was often called "The Mother of All" or "The Great Mother of the Gods.

There have been many different mother goddesses throughout history and in the present day, including such deities as the Hindu 'Kali Ma (The love between the Divine Mother and her human children is a unique relationship. Kali, the Dark Mother is one such deity with whom devotees have a very loving and intimate bond, in spite of her fearful appearance. The ancient Irish 'Danu – (Danu (DAH-noo) is most commonly known as the Mother of the Celtic gods. She is also the goddess of rivers, giving her name to dozens of rivers such as the Danube and the Don.) 
Varied deities fitting the modern conception of the "Mother Goddesses" as a type have been revered in many societies through to modern times. James Frazer (author of the Golden Bough) and those he influenced (such as Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess) advanced the theory that all worship in Europe and the Aegean that involved any kind of mother goddess had originated in Pre-Indo-European Neolithic matriarchies, and that their diverse goddesses were equivalent or derived from that concept. 

The Mother Goddess of human history is no romantic figure, but rather one in which the deity is both the giver of life and also the one who takes it away.

As long as man retains his roots in the good earth, the giver of life, reverence for the earth, whether personified or not, will remain, and the Mother Goddesses will still have human children who will treat her with reverence. Man will always fashion clay figurines symbolically, of the Mother Goddess and worship her with respect and awe.

1. Encyclopedia of World Mythology - Foreword by Rex Warner – Octopus Book Ltd., London, England
2. Prehistoric and Primitive Man – Andreas Lommel
3. The Golden Bough – Sir James George Frazer – The Macmillian Company, New York
4. The White Goddess – Robert Graves – Farber and Farber Ltd., London, England