the virgin births of irish myth

A man borne of a virgin was destined for great things.

THE INTERNATIONAL VIRGIN BIRTH

The virgin birth is not just a Christian ‘thing’… weird and wacky birth stories exist in ancient cultures from all around the world.

forty five virgin births were reported in the US in recent years.Buddha, for example, entered his mother’s womb in the shape of a white elephant; Athena was born from Zeus’s forehead, Dionysus from his thigh; Vishnu descended from heaven into the womb of a mortal woman and was born as Krishna; the prophet Muhammad was born of a mortal woman but had no father; Coatlicue was unknowingly impregnated by a bunch of feathers which she found and stowed in her clothing, later giving birth to Aztec god Huitzilopochtli; in Japan, Momotarō was found inside a giant peach floating down a river, and so on.

Despite all these marvelous miracles, however, the pregnancy of a chaste and virginal woman is the most enduring and beloved tale of all. And unsurprisingly, the immaculate conception almost always results in the birth of a spectacular male child who goes on to achieve great deeds as an adult.

baby2Usually, these offspring were fathered on a mortal woman by a God or divine being: Jesus born of Mary; in Chinese myth Jiang Yuan was impregnated by the God Shangdi and gave birth to  Houji, a god of agriculture; according to the myths of Egypt, Isis was impregnated with Horus by a golden phallus she made for her dead, dismembered husband, Osiris.

Such stories may seem ridiculous to us now, but it’s worth pointing out that our ancient ancestors were by no means stupid; they certainly understood very well how reproduction worked. So why were these strange stories accepted and promoted throughout the ages as truth? They couldn’t possibly really have happened… could they?

45 HUMAN VIRGIN BIRTHS REPORTED IN US IN RECENT YEARS

I’m not joking… you can read the study here. Out of a sample group of 7870 young women who were followed for fourteen years, over 5000 became pregnant during the study period, and 45 of those claimed they were still virgins. Interestingly, more of these virgin mothers had previously made pledges of chastity than had non-virgin mothers. Perhaps they just didn’t want to admit they had broken their pledge.

According to this article, three quarters of Americans believe literally in the Mary and Jesus virgin birth story exactly as it is told in the bible. Anything is possible, as I am fond of saying, but then I also like to say ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ which translates here as ‘no pregnancy without nooky’.

BUT ALI, VIRGIN BIRTHS REALLY DO HAPPEN

Yes they do, but not usually in humans. It’s called parthenogenesis, from the Greek parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’, and genesis, meaning ‘creation/ birth’. It refers to the growth of an embryo from an unfertilised egg cell, in other words, a female can give birth to young without being impregnated by a male.

Species known to reproduce this way are certain types of insects, including some bees and wasps; also some types of fish, such as hammerhead sharks, amphibians, reptiles and even birds.

However, reproduction by parthenogenesis in mammals does not occur naturally, although the process is used in the lab to reproduce human stem cells. If you’re interested, you can find out more about the science of parthenogenesis here.

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BUT WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS MADNESS HAVE TO DO WITH IRISH MYTH?

Hold your horses, I’m just getting to that! Irish mythology is full of sex, but it also has its fair share of virgin births. The two most famous, of course, are those of Étain, and Cuchulainn, so let’s look at those first.

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CONCEPTION OF CUCHULAINN

Cuchulainn was the champion of Ulster, and most famous for his almost single-handed defence of the province against Medb, Queen of Connacht in the tale of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The tale of his conception and birth is a curious one. Dechtire, his mother, was half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, was married to an Ulster chieftain named Sualtam.

One night, a mayfly landed in her cup of wine, and she swallowed it without realising. She fell into a deep sleep during which Lugh Lamfhada, God of Lightning, visited her, and claimed that he was that mayfly and had impregnated her. He then transformed her along with fifty of her serving women into a flock of birds and flew them to Bru na Boinne (Newgrange).

She gave birth to a son there, and named him Setanta. The men of Ulster then came for her and escorted her home. Setanta grew up to become the hero, Cuchulainn. Without a doubt, he was a spectacular and precocious child, with battle skills and prowess to match that of any adult warrior. Although he died very young – some stories say seventeen, some say thirty years of age – he achieved fame and admiration which is still told of today.

In any case, as the child of an Irish deity and a mortal mother, he was clearly of semi-divine heritage, what the ancient Greeks called a demi-god, and destined for great things.

ÉTAIN TWICE-BORN

Of all the stories I am going to tell you, this one is the most unusual and stands out for me the most, because Étain is the only female virgin birth I have come across so far in Irish mythology.

When Midir of the Tuatha de Danann fell in love with Étain, his jealous first wife, Fumnach, transformed her into a butterfly. After many adventures, Étain fell into a cup of wine in the hand of the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain. Unaware, the woman drank the wine and swallowed the butterfly. She then became pregnant, and Étain was reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.

However, she had no recollection of her previous existence, and much of the story is concerned with how Midir wins her back from her mortal husband through typical manly pursuits such as challenges and gambling.

That said, it is actually a very beautiful and moving story. You can read my impressions of it here.

What is interesting here is not the presence of a divine being as father – there isn’t one – but the swallowing of some other living creature which penetrates the mother’s womb and impregnates her.  Possibly remnants of a pagan belief in reincarnation, shape-shifting, and ancestor worship perhaps.

THE WORM TURNS… INTO A MAN

I know. You think I’ve lost the plot just a teensy bit by now, don’t you? Admit it. I can hardly blame you… reading and studying this stuff day in and day out (how lucky am I?) does send you go a bit loopy after a while.

This is the story of warrior and hero Conall Cernach. His mother, Findchoem, and father,  Amairgin mac Echit, had a childless marriage until advised by a Druid to visit a certain holy well. Findchoem bathed in the waters, and drank from them, but unbeknown to her, she swallowed a worm lurking in the precious fluid. It entered her womb and impregnated her with Conall.

Naturally, he went on to become a mighty Ulster hero. Sadly, though, he suffered from leprosy in his later years, and went to Medb of Connacht, his enemy, for treatment. Whilst there, he agreed to Medb’s request to kill her husband, Aillil, for having an affair. This satisfied his desire for revenge, for Aillil had killed his friend Fergus mac Róich, a much admired Ulster warrior.

He in return, was killed for his crime by the men of Connacht, at the ford of Ballyconell in Co. Cavan.

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THE WATER-BABY

Nessa was the daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, king of Ulster, and was married to Cathbad, a druid and warrior. One day, she asked Cathbad what the day was good for, and he answered, “Conceiving a king.” So they did. But not in the normal messy way, oh no! She also swallowed worms in a drink of water, and thus she conceived.

Nessa gave birth on the banks of the River Conchobar as she traveled with her husband to visit friends. Cathbad told her to hold on till the following day so that her son would be born on the birthday of Jesus Christ… I’m detecting a bit of Christian interference here… oh, you too? 😁

So Nessa dutifully sat on a flat stone as she was bid and held in all night the child which was ripping her apart to get out. for god’s sake, Nessa, just cross your legs and hold him in till morning, can’t you? The next morning, she popped out a son she named Conchobar, after the river he was born beside. Which he fell into as he was born, apparently. Or maybe the power of water birth was well known to our ancient female ancestors.

Bear in mind that this is the same Nessa who prior to her pregnancy, single-handedly as a woman raised a war-band of 27 warriors and took off after her father’s murderers with them, intent on revenge and killing. What a creature of contrast she is!

Of course Conchobar goes on to be the famous King of Ulster around whom the tales of the Ulster Cycle revolve.

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THE POTENT POWER OF HOLY WATER

Beware, ladies, you don’t even need to swallow a worm to get pregnant. Just the holy water on its own is powerful enough. And how! King Diarmuid had a wife who was barren… yes, of course the problem was hers, its never his, right? She, poor thing, was not even worthy of recording her name… maybe she never had one.

Anyway, one day Wife of Diarmuid (as we will call her) was given a drink of holy water by St. Finnian, and lo! Her belly was filled with life! She gave birth to… wait for it… a lamb! Naturally, Diarmuid was somewhat disappointed with this… he had been hoping for a son and heir, not a tasty dinner.

So St Finnian gave Wife of Diarmuid another drink of holy water, but this time she birthed a trout, although other versions say it was a salmon. Regardless, it definitely wasn’t the desired boy-child.

Never mind, third time lucky, said St Finnian, who by this time must have been doubting his ability to perform miracles, or else God was having a laugh at his expense. Wife of Diarmuid drank a third draught of wretched holy water, and this time she really did pop out the much anticipated son and heir.

He was named Aed Slaine, and what do you know, but he grew up to become High King of Ireland in 594 AD, and founded a dynasty of great kings. Wonder what became of his older siblings, Lamb and Trout…

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DIVINE BLACKMAIL

Manannán mac Lir, the Sea-God, was well known for being a bit of a prankster, and causing mischief and mayhem when the mood took him. Although he didn’t normally approve of meddling in the affairs of mankind, when it came to sex with beautiful mortal women, it seems he was willing to let his self-imposed rules slide a little.

In any case, he fancied Cáintigern, the wife of seventh century king Fiachnae mac Báetáin. Fiachnae was away on a military campaign against the Saxons which wasn’t going so well, and Manannán persuaded Cáintigern to sleep with him by promising to lend aid to her husband on the battlefield.

The Sea-God kept his word, and thus saved Fiachnae’s life, however Cáintigern got a bit more than she bargained for: she ended up with a bellyful following her liaison with Manannán, and nine months later gave birth to a son she named Mongan.

The child went to live with his divine father in the Otherworld until he was sixteen years old, where he learned magic and the art of shape-shifting. During this time, Fiachnae was killed by Fiachnae mac Demmáin… yes, I know, they share a name, but trust me, this is another Fiachnae who was only King of Ulster for one year from 626-627. However, the Ulstermen demanded that Mongan return to be their leader, which he did. He married Fiachanae’s daughter, then later kills his father-in-law to avenge his mortal father’s murder. Confused?

There are two interesting things about this story; one is that these characters feature in the Irish annals, although nothing is recorded about Mongan save his death in 625 AD. The annals, however, conflict with this story by recording both Fiachnae’s deaths after Mongan’s.

The other interesting fact is that Mongan is said to be a reincarnation of legendary Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhall. He thus was indeed a most intriguing and spectacular character, but in the end, he was killed by a thrown stone.

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SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL WITH THIS VIRGIN BIRTH PHENOMENON ANYWAY?

Well, it’s central to the representation of important and powerful men. These men possess qualities which place them above other men. They are not the same as ordinary men. Therefore, they can not originate from the same humble beginnings.

Powerful and important men could not originate from the same humble, messy beginnings as ordinary men.

In Ireland, though, the stories are… ahem… a bit more realistic. No matter how special, these men were born of mortal women; they didn’t spring fully formed from the innards of a giant peach, no matter how womb-like it may appear.

The uterus and the birth canal it is, then. The stories may not even have recorded the mother’s name, as she formed only the vessel. Her importance, once birth had taken place, was over. But she had to be seen as pure and untainted in order to be a worthy enough vessel to carry such an exalted personage.


NB> Here is an original thought you might like, suggested by Jane Dougherty: Not having a father is a huge help. There’s no one to be measured up to, no brothers to dispute your claim, no history except your mother’s, (and that is pretty secondary). You start with no baggage, nobody could point the finger at ancestors who might have been not up to snuff, just your own talents.


And in medieval Christian times, sex was seen as a huge evil, usually instigated by women. The Church was obsessed with sex, or at least with abstinence, and the holiness of resisting. I’ve just spent the last semester studying the Law Tracts and Penitentials of Early Medieval Ireland and Wales, and to go into that much detail over sexual offences definitely constitutes some kind of unhealthy obsession!

So the mothers of these exalted men conceived by swallowing other living creatures, or by drinking holy water, or were forced/ manipulated/ misled by Gods, who of course must be submitted to.

Virgin mothers were an enigma, creatures of paradox who set a standard impossible for ordinary women to aspire to.

It should be remembered that in those days, the application of the word ‘virgin’ is different to how we understand it today. A woman could have had several husbands, lots of sex, borne many children, then become a nun and abstain from sex, and still be referred to as a virgin.

These virgin mothers are something of an enigma, creatures of paradox: both virginal, yet bearers of children; unspoiled by sex, yet still mothers; pure, yet submissive wives. They set a standard for ordinary women which was impossible to achieve. They always give birth to exceptional men, never women, who are powerless and valueless like themselves.

Yet there are exceptions: the wife of Étar gives birth to Étain, a woman, after swallowing Étain in her form as a butterfly. Étain does nothing special, like the men of such births do, but goes on to give birth to a daughter, who in turn also gives birth to a daughter, who gives birth the High King Conaire Mór.

In this case, his mother conceives him when a strange man flies into her room through the window in the guise of a bird. According to ‘the rules’ of all the other virgin birth stories, there is no purpose to the virgin birth of Étain, unless that part of the story was abandoned, and lost… perhaps because it showed a woman in a position of power and strength. Étain is extraordinarily weak and subservient in the story as it now exists.

Similarly, I can’t help but wonder at this portrayal of violent and bloodthirsty Nessa, who raised and led a warband to avenge her father’s murder. Here, she is relegated to little more than a sacred virginal vessel for the birth of Conchobar; she meekly obeys her husband’s outrageous and impossible command to delay a birth that had already begun, simply so that the child would be born on a more auspicious date… a woman like Nessa in the pangs of labour was more likely to tell him to f*** right off! 😁 Or worse, if there was a weapon handy.

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of virgin births, this article is an excellent place to start.


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72 Comments on “the virgin births of irish myth

  1. Ali! I so enjoyed reading all these stories and your thoughts on them. That concept of swallowing an animal and giving birth to a child is everywhere in mythology, at least in Druidry, in the story of Ceridwen an Taliesin. The boy Gwion who becomes gifted with awen or inspiration instead of Ceridwen’s son for whom it was intended transforms into many creatures while Ceridwen chases him across land, sea and sky. Finally he turns into a grain of wheat, is swallowed, and nine months later Ceridwen gives birth to the boy Taliesin. Perhaps some of those virgin stories have spiritual meaning as well, pointing to the journey of a person being reborn into who they truly are, the essence of themselves distilled out of the constructions of self surrounding them. I totally agree, waiting an extra day to give birth after already starting to diliver a child, definitely some Christian tampering! And ridiculous. 🙂 And my suspicion as well is that Etain did more than give birth to a daughter and lead a submissive life, the kind so unfortunately sold to women of that time as in their nature to lead. It’s heartbreaking how many women have been erased from history, let alone myth. Women’s mysteries used to have a crucial place in the social development of girls, of course, but to some extent boys as well. The dissolution of that wisdom is, I think, one of the reasons our societies today are so unbalanced, apart from the obvious that women are marginalized and disempowered quite directly. Sorry for the novel at you, I hope you’re doing well. I miss talking with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are welcome to write a novel on my blog any time, Éilis! 😊 You always write such interesting and informative comments. I agree, there has to be some spiritual reason for these stories, but if there is, its very hard to see and define, especially as they have been tampered with so much through the ages,usually to promote a Christian message. Such as the proper place for a woman, as You so rightly point out.

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  2. Very weird and wonderful stories. Thanks a very informative post and I’m on my way back to the Spanish Sierra where there is plenty of Virgin worship and lively processions. A mix of rural and catholic influences!

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  3. It’s always seemed to me that the old virgin birth story seems to be a fantasy of men, rather than women – after all, do we want to go through all the pain of childbirth without any of the preceding fun? Perhaps that’s a bit of a generalisation, but that’s just how it seems to me 😀 Lots of wild and wonderful stories here, Ali!

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    • Hi Lynne, that sounds like an interesting book… I like a bit of myth and magical realism myself, especially if it’s set in Ireland, which is good because that’s exactly what I write myself! You might like my latest project, Swanskin, which is in formatting at the moment. I have added The Stolen Child to my Books list on Pinterest. Thanks for stopping by! 😊

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  4. Great work Ali, a tour de force on the subject. We always say that Guernsey don’t hold nativity plays because they can’t find three wise men and a virgin 🙂

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  5. I loved this post. When I was in confirmation classes we were discussing the virgin birth and I likened it to Etain and the mayfly. I remember the priest’s face going red and he didn’t give me an answer. lol

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  6. I have to say that my skeptical eyebrow was popping up all over the place, Ali, and your tongue-in-cheek drumrolls … wait for it, wait for it… didn’t help. Ha ha. Poor women having to endure all these weird pregnancy and births. The legends and tales are fabulous though. I don’t think my parents would have believed me if I said I was impregnated by a feather or a worm, and if I’d birthed a lamb…. Great post. 🙂

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    • Haha! Imagine trying to birth a lamb… ouch! The trout would be somewhat easier, but imagine the shock when the midwife wraps it up and puts it in your arms! Lol! Not surprising that there is no record of the poor mother’s response to all this… I guess she was not important enough to bother about. I love the image of your sceptical eyebrow popping up! 🤣👀

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  7. Pingback: the virgin births of irish myth – Colleen Chesebro ~ Fairy Whisperer

  8. Ali, I love the ancient myths. I could write a book just about virgin births around the world and the mythology behind them. LOL! Well done. I am loving your new theme. Gorgeous! ❤

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    • Ah this is a pet subject of yours? It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I haven’t changed my theme, it’s still Scrawl, which I love, but I just tried to freshen it up a bit. Thanks for noticing! 😚

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  9. An interesting collection of stories, Ali. However, to believe that women could become pregnant by drinking worms, butterflies, or water shows a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of human anatomy, physiology, and reproductive processes. The only way to explain such occurrences would be by magic or divine intervention.

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    • I think that’s the whole point, Rachele: these men were unusual and exceptional, or at least, they or their followers wanted people to believe that. Stories of strange supernatural and miraculous births could only enhance their superiority. We know that ancient civilizations possessed extraordinary knowledge, and certainly knew a great deal about the human body and how it functioned. It was not ignorance which led to these stories, I believe, but a desire for a magical or divine heritage to support these men’s powers and status.

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  10. Wonderfully informative post as always! Re parthenogenesis … When I was writing my series The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head (in which my extraterrestrial intelligent termites relive mostly Greek myth), I was puzzling over how to portray the Lemnian women episode from The Golden Fleece. Termite Queens must have a king in order to reproduce. Then it dawned on me – parthenogenesis! Since this does occur in insects, I could easily envision a genetic anomaly that caused a Queen to keep on laying eggs and producing fertile females even if she wasn’t being fertilized. And you can imagine how this unnatural occurrence might produce some horrific outcomes, upsetting the natural balance that nature provides for a termite society.

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    • Wow that’s an amazing story! I love how you worked that out, it sounds perfect for your story, clever you! 😊 I imagine it caused all kinds of chaos!

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  11. I’m going to have to take issue with you over the Osirian ‘ugh’ 🙂
    As with many of these stories, accepting a literal meaning misses the deeper import of their message. Seen at the very simplest level, Osiris, was a vegetation god. The dismembered corpse can be seen as the dying of the earth… the solar gold of the phallus as the dynamic, solar force which, called forth and animated by the earth/mother/sister-wife, creates new life in the barren lands.
    The story goes much deeper; the murder of Osiris and his subsequent enthronement as Lord of the Underworld allowed the fear of death to be conquered by setting it set under the rule of justice and wisdom, while the birth of the Divine Son, Horus, brought those same qualities to bear on earth.
    There is an ancient Egyptian proverb that says:
    “If you would know yourself, take yourself as starting point and go back to its source; your beginning will disclose your end.” The beginning of Horus is Love… Such stories give us an awareness of our place within existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, it was a flippant remark, a poor attempt at humour. I’ve removed it now. I don’t intend to offend anyone with my blog posts, especially a friend. Of course there is a deeper hidden meaning to all these stories, which you explained so beautifully re Osiris. I think it’s up to us as individuals to learn what they mean, and I’m just trying to share the Irish stories, but I shouldn’t misrepresent those from other cultures. I apologise for that.

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      • There was no offence taken, Ali and no apology needed! Many would doubtless react in much the same way to the imagery of the old tales, especially this one 🙂 It is an odd story on the surface, as many of them are, but I think we do them a disservice when we dismiss them as ‘just’ stories. The more they are studied, the more apparent it becomes that, through a mixture of entertainment, myth and symbolism, our ancestors knew more than we might credit about human psychology, and how closely their tales, couched in outwardly simple terms, mirror much of modern scientific thought.

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        • I have no doubt about that, Sue! But sometimes it’s very hard to get our modern thought processes around the meanings of what seem like such bizarre stories. I fully believe that many stories were designed to educate and inform, particularly in non-literate societies, as well as entertain. Also, we don’t know how ‘distorted’ and ‘diluted’ they might be from the use of later generations, particularly if they had their own agendas. It’s all so confusing!

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          • Agreed…the overlay of later tellers and political shifts can alter so much of the original sense. Perhaps the way back to their source is to unpick the symbolism and see how it applies to the greater human story. I don’t think that we have changed all that much since the storytellers began to hone their art.

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            • No we probably haven’t, but as you can see, I’m not much good at unpicking the symbolism… it’s like a puzzle, I haven’t the patience for it. If I don’t get it fairly quickly my mind wanders off. 😅

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            • I agree, it is like a puzzle. Once you get into the habit of looking for the clues, though, it falls into place quite quickly and does open the stories for such a lot of exploring 🙂

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  12. Great post, Ali (as usual!). I wonder if you couldn’t add another reason for virgin birth being such a good thing to claim if you’re a budding leader of men. Not having a father is a huge help. There’s no one to be measured up to, no brothers to dispute your claim, no history except your mother’s, (and that is pretty secondary). You start with no baggage, nobody could point the finger at ancestors who might have been not up to snuff, just your own talents. Pretty handy.

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    • Good point, Jane! Never thought of that. So much emphasis is put on the importance of genealogy, even made up genealogy, that it never occurred to me how useful it could be to have none. Although most of them were descended from Gods, and you can’t inherit a more worthy genealogy than that! 🤣

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      • True. Having a god (or God) for your father has a certain cachet to it. Jesus is a special case maybe. I think I’m right in saying that he never claimed God was his father, just hinted at it. The virgin birth as far as Mary was concerned is the point you make, that for the Christian church, sex is dirty so to be ultra pure, Mary could never have had sex ever, not even with God. But then it becomes more complicated for her son to claim any paternity at all. Maybe it was to show that he was breaking with the old God of the Jews? It was his apostles who said he was the son of God, I think. He kept quiet about who his father was. Wonder what Joseph thought about it?

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  13. Perhaps some independent women like the idea of giving birth without the involvement of a man. Add to this the guilt often connected to the sexual act creating impurity in man and woman and we have the perfect recipe for the virgin birth. Sex and all its ramifications of desire and bodily union sallies the purity of the virgin female , she can no longer be put on a pedestal and worshiped from afar she is tainted by physical contact. How can a mother’s love be mixed up with the dark forces of sex and lust ? Holy Mary mother of God must be beyond such animal thoughts . We must cover the sexually active parts of the body, pretend they do not exist , a little discreet exposure of the breast is permitted for it symbolises motherhood and childhood innocence. After all Mona Lisa had the mystic smile.

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    • She does indeed, Kertsen. And you have hit the nail on the head. The early christian church did not much like women but they did admire motherhood, describing priests as the paps of Christ delivering the food of God, ie the word of God, like breastmilk, to the children, the congregation. Personally, that description leaves me cold! But it emphasises how women were seen back then, their sole purpose being to produce, nourish and rear children. In those circumstances, imagine how a woman felt who could not produce children? Your sole reason for being taken away from you. I’m watching The Handmaids Tale right now, and this whole thing about women being defined by their reproductive value is so creepy. We don’t want to go back there.

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