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Historical attitudes toward infertility

Views about infertility

Gina Maranto

on 1 September 2009

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Transcript of Historical attitudes toward infertility

Historical attitudes
toward infertility
Because she has symbolic connection to vegetable forces, grain, and light, woman is an image of cosmic fecundity. From a phenomenological standpoint, one would say she is the object of a continual masculine “quest.” To obtain more wives in order to get more children is the apparent or hidden motive behind most social and individual behavior. From this perspective, woman's “speech” is fundamentally good, fertilizing, moist, connected to the season of growth and harvest and to the fertile and productive earth

This temporary infertility in women is so greatly feared that it is thought to be a curse brought about by some original offense, namely, the original act of incest committed at the beginning of time which brought about the confusion of all of creation.

Calame-Griaule, Geneviève, Words and the Dogon world. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986. xix, 704 p.: ill.
Njobo was sometimes rather unkindly ridiculed for infertility. Out of four successive wives he only managed to sire one child, a son, who became crippled in adolescence with tuberculosis of the leg. His current wife had given birth to a daughter who out of politeness was generally accepted as Njobo's, though all the evidence pointed in other directions. He was, at least, accredited as the social father.

Turnbull, Colin M., Wayward servants: the two worlds of the African Pygmies. Garden City, N.Y.: The Natural History Press, 1965. 14, 391 p.: ill., maps
Marriage is the link between past and future generations, the means by which a family line can be projected one more step. Tatieh villagers share with Chinese everywhere the conviction that bearing an heir is an obligation owed to past generations; it is having a son that allows a married couple to take their rightful place in adult society. When it becomes apparent that a couple cannot themselves provide an heir, therefore, the problem of family continuity must be resolved some other way. The usual course is adoption.

Pasternak, Burton, Kinship & community in two Chinese villages. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. 16, 174 p., plates: ill., maps
One case history I collected is a clear indication of this process. The patient was a young woman who, attributing her problems to her infertility, was consulting both an allopathic psychiatrist and an allopathic gynecologist. She told me that the psychiatrist seemed to have no understanding of the impact of her gynecological problems on her psychological difficulties and had even told her to stop seeing the gynecologist. Therefore, she told me, she was going to terminate psychiatric treatment because all she needed to become better was to get pregnant.
Bhattacharyya, Poole, Deborah, Bengali conceptions of mental illness. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, c 1981, 1992 copy. [iv], x, 300 p.
One of the more significant cultural arts of the Kyrgyz is the recitation of their epic poem Manas, one of the longest epic poems in the oral tradition of the world's peoples. It is at least one million lines long and is said to take six months to perform. Manas is part of the Turkic dastan, a genre of literature that served as an educational medium by which the Kyrgyz transmitted from generation to generation their history, values, customs, and ethnic identity. The bard, called a manaschi, chanted Manas without musical accompaniment. This storytelling role was performed by an individual with shamanlike capabilities and in whom the community would confide. The Russian historian Basilov describes a nineteenth-century manaschi as one who used episodes of Manas as a curative ritual. Listening to the epic was reputed to have the power to cure a woman of infertility.

Kuehnast, Kathleen Rae Strouthes, Daniel, Culture summary: Kyrgyz. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF, 2002
Fertility is a test point of womanhood. Infertility is highly stigmatized and in the case of a childless marriage it is the woman who is thought of as principally responsible.... Therefore, a woman's place in society ultimately rests on her ability to biologically reproduce, and the proof of that is pregnancy. Marriage concludes and sanctions this prospect once it has been demonstrated. From this angle we can understand the widespread phenomenon of “pregnant marriages.”

Loizos, Peter, Papataxiarchis, E., Gender, sexuality, and the person in Greek culture.
Published in: Contested identities : gender and kinship in modern Greece, edited by Peter Loizos and Evthymios Papataxiarchis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. 221-234 p.
The turbe in the village was visited individually at other times when no collective prayers were taking place. There are many such holy tombs throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina and they are all visited by people who need help and strength to tackle particular life crises, such as infertility or an illness in the family. The turbe is a place to pray to gain strength and perhaps increase the chances of a favorable outcome by asking the pious dead to mediate on a person’s behalf.

Bringa, Tone, Being Muslim the Bosnian way: identity and community in a central Bosnian village. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Romans, unlike the Greeks, did not place great emphasis
on direct inheritance. For Roman men, far more important
than maintaining bloodlines was perpetuating the family name.
In their minds, this could be accomplished as easily by
choosing one's hairs as by fathering them. In fact, adoption
was seen to offer as many benefits, if not more, than actual
parenthood. Parents, subject in some measure to the luck of
the natural draw, might find the quality of their biological off-
spring lacking....A parsimonious and practical paterfamilias,
possessed of a sizable fortune and good standing in the world,
often found it in his best interest to adopt a full-grown, unrelated
individual, or, say, a grown son of a sibling, and designate him
as heir.

Maranto, Gina, Quest for Perfection. New York: Scribners, 1997.
Throughout ancient Greece, infanticide
was seen as amply defensible. A father
had an absolute prerogative to decide
whether his children would live or die,
expressed formally in the ceremony known
as the amphidromia. On the fifth, seventh,
or tenth day after birth, a nurse carried the
infant around the hearth in the presence
of the father, who gave it a name or
consigned it to death. Everywhere except
Thebes, where infanticide apparently was
a capital crime, parents took unwanted
babies out into the countryside and abandoned
them to the elements.

Maranto, Gina, Quest for Perfection. New York:
Scribners, 1997.
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