"The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece", by Margeurite RigogliosoThis is a fascinating book. Nobody ever really explained to me exactly who is the father of Persephone/Kore and I must confess that I never gave it a thought until I read this book. But even in the stories I did know there are plenty of hints that something very different was going on, and a visit to an archaeological museum in Sicily a few years ago, a museum which was absolutely stuffed to the rafters with images labelled as Demeter and Kore, had led me see the two as dual goddess, with daughter and mother almost impossible to separate from one another.

I didn’t take that thought to its logical conclusion, though, as Margeurite Rigoglioso has – that just maybe ancient priestesses actively sought to give birth  parthenogenetically, to miraculously conceived daughters. This startling premise made more and more sense as I read the book.  Of coursethe Demeter/Kore story is a female mystery, one of very few that still perhaps retains something of its original form, with roots far, far deeper than those of Hellenic Greece.  But what does this really mean to us, today?  What did it mean then?

Think, too, of all those legendary heroes, born of woman, but conceived with a god, the author suggests.  Of Heracles, Theseus and many more, not to mention Christ.  I’d assumed, if I thought much about it at all, that these children were born to priestesses or celebrants of ancient mysteries, who had lain with a man who, for a while, bore the likeness, the mantle of a deity, perhaps in some sacred marriage celebration.  But if this was a later gloss, was something else -– something even more intriguing – going on?

The author is careful to point out that she isn’t attempting to prove the existence, at any time in history, of parthenogenetic birth.  It is what people believed that is more important, and – fascinatingly - what priestesses may have attempted.  Perhaps, she adds, the cult of divine birth was originally dedicated to producing special, female, children and only later was it taken over by patriarchal people with women and even goddesses conscripted to give birth to the children of male gods – usually sons – the heroes of old?

The book would have fascinated me even without the ground-breaking ideas discussed throughout, for I learned so much of what lies behind the patriarchal tales from Greek mythology that many of us learned even as children, and which are so hard to shake off later.  Yet it is what lies behind the stories and the safely-married-off goddesses that is so captivating and suggests a new paradigm for looking beneath the obvious in other mythologies and stories.  Every page seemed to bring fresh insights.

Virgin birth is such an important subject area and I’ve been at pains myself, in the past, to try to unpick the terms used – in what sense, for example in the bible, was the term “virgin” intended (or, of course, mistranslated in such a remarkably self-serving way by its patriarchal authors)?  What could be more important than trying to understand at root the very ideas and mythology on which so much of our current culture is based, even taken completely literally, by millions of people?

This is an important book, one I shall read many times, I hope.  That’s an easy task to set myself, for it is beautifully written, scholarly and clear.  I have no doubt that the next reading will give me more food for thought.

Geraldine Charles

You can obtain the book from Amazon or direct from the publisher at http://www.palgrave.com.