For our Myth Mother Invention meeting today, between last week’s ‘Conception’ and next week’s ‘Birth’ we’re focusing on ‘In Utero’. Of course, when we use this technical Latin term for pregnancy, many of us, of a certain age, cannot but think of the Nirvana album and its cover with the transparent anatomical manikin of a woman, with angel wings superimposed:
Perhaps less iconic and well-known is the collage that lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain created for the back cover, which he called “Sex and woman and In Utero and vaginas and birth and death”.
This somewhat disturbing image, unlike the angel-figure on the cover, breaks down the body parts and bones of the ‘in utero’ figure, aligning pregnancy with a dark vision of death as much as potential life. To some extent, Cobain’s collage resonates with ancient mythic narratives of pregnancy, such as those of Myrrha (mother of Adonis) and Coronis (mother of Aesculapius). In the case of the former, the child conceived by an incestuous relationship with her father, is transformed with Myrrha into a tree, only to be born by bursting out of the bark. As for Coronis, she is killed by her lover, the god Apollo, who mistakenly believes she’s been cheating on him, only to have the baby Aesculapius (god of healing!) pulled out of her dying body. If it isn’t such disturbing and morbid accounts of women’s pregnancy in myth, then it is the prophetic and grandiose accounts of the danger or greatness of the future child in historical accounts. Consider the story in Suetonius’ Life of Augustus, when:
A few months before Augustus was born a public prodigy occurred at Rome that warned that Nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people.
The Romans, fearful of such a king destroying their precious Republic, passed a senate decree to prevent any children being reared. It was only thanks to the intervention of the god Apollo that Augustus survived. Once again, the mother’s experience has been completely eradicated. In ancient medical writers, Soranus and Galen, who do refer to the mother, the emphasis is on maintaining the safety of the fetus. Soranus warns against the following:
fright, sorrow, sudden joy, sever mental upset, vigorous exercise, holding the breath, coughing, sneezing, lifting heavy weights, leaping, sitting on hard chairs, taking drugs, indigestion, drunkenness, nose-bleeds, relaxation, fever and any forceable movement.
In addition to these other dangers, both Soranus and Galen recommend against having sex during pregnancy. For an alternative view of pregnancy from these ancient mythical, historical and medical texts that bypass the mother’s experience (and undermine her joy), yesterday I came across the abridged anthology of Refigural – a web-based magazine started here in Columbus, Ohio, and involving my friends Marisa Espe (contributing editor), Kelly McNicholas (graphic design) and Ethan Schaefer (web design), as well as many other Columbus luminaries.
In the tenth issue, there was a project called Instant Empathy which invited people to write in and share their dreams of being pregnant.
These dream-narratives were then juxtaposed with photographs of models pretending to be pregnant, many of which were reproduced in the book.
My favorite narrative, which goes against the ancient mythic, historical and medical testimonies of pregnancy runs as follows:
I was with this other woman and she was very obviously pregnant. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had dark skin that was glowing and her belly was full and exposed. In the dream she made me realize somehow that I was pregnant also. I wasn’t showing like she was, I think I had just conceived. We jumped up and soared into the clouds. I felt weightless and euphoric. That feeling was the most amazing I’ve ever felt dreaming or awake.