Myth Mother Invention: Conception

After our introductory meeting last week, this morning my OSU colleague and friend, artist Dani Restack (Leventhal) and I will be meeting with a group of current and ex-OSU MFA students and Classics Grad students to talk about myth and motherhood. This informal discussion series, which we have called Myth Mother Invention will explore the intersections of the creative, critical and personal in acts of witnessing, experiencing and debating motherhood in terms of art and myth. My aim is to write a Minus Plato post on the day of the meetings, which Dani and I have structured to follow a chronological path of maternity, from conception (the focus of our meeting tomorrow), through in utero, birth, infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adulthood up to the empty nest and then we start over again with conception in ideas of grandmotherhood. We have no readings and no structure to these meetings, only an email sent out in preparation to announce the topic and offer a potential way in. For today’s topic, I referred to the myth of Semele and the golden rain and artificial insemination. Now, looking back over that email I realized that I had made a mistake, conflating the myth of Danae, who was impregnated by Zeus/Jupiter in the form of a golden rain, later giving birth to the hero Perseus, with that of Semele, mother of Dionysus/Bacchus, whom Zeus/Jupiter killed as a bolt of lightning because Hera/Juno deceived her, disguised as her nurse, into asking her lover to appear to her in bed as he did his divine wife/sister.

This mistake – or mythic montage – does, however, make for some interesting starting points for a discussion of ideas of artificial insemination. While artistic depictions of the myth of Danae, from ancient vases to Renaissance paintings, often show the golden shower pouring onto her naked body from above, there are pictorial versions of the myth that posit some intermediary stage between the divine shower and impregnation. Consider the following anonymous 1540 print:

Here the nurse of Danae collects the golden rain (represented as coins) and we are to presume that conception takes place later – artificially. As for the myth of Semele, there is an obscure version – preserved by the Latin fabulits Hyginus, in which Semele was impregnated by the ripped up heart of the already born god Bacchus (the child, in this version, of Jupiter and Proserpina). Here is a translation of the full Latin text (Hyginus 167):

Liber, son of Jove and Proserpine, was dismembered by the Titans, and Jove gave his heart, torn to bits, to Semele in a drink. When she was made pregnant by this, Juno, changing herself to look like Semele’s nurse, Beroe, said to her: “Daughter, ask Jove to come to you as he comes to Juno, so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god.” At her suggestion Semele made this request of Jove, and was smitten by a thunderbolt. He took Liber from her womb, and gave him to Nysus to be cared for. For this reason he is called Dionysus, and also “the one with two mothers.”

Beyond these myths of conception, there another form of montage at work in the wallpaper Conception, 2010 by artist Helen Knowles, the director/curator of the Birth Rites Collection. 

At the same time, in researching artificial insemination, mainly to find other less blunt terminology for the process, I stumbled upon the acronym ART (Assisted reproductive technology). Given our conflation of myth, motherhood and invention, I couldn’t resist searching for PowerPoint presentations that used this acronym in explaining the process. Here is a slideshow of some of the examples I found:

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2 thoughts on “Myth Mother Invention: Conception

  1. Margaret Day

    Perhaps I’ve been studying animals too much, but Knowles’ “Conception” looks remarkably like the bucrania on the Ara Pacis. A quick Google says its supposed to reflect issues of domesticity and sexuality, but I wonder if it can also have a sense of fertility and generation as well? The bucrania on the Ara Pacis are decorative too, in the sense that they are not its main “show” like the panels (but the panels also deal with/promote fertility, particularly the Tellus one).

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