May 15, 2009

Wacky Wisdom of the Ancients

Some time early in the dawn of human culture, people observed that plants grew from seeds. With the rise of agriculture and animal husbandry, they also came to think of procreation as a matter of planting seeds: male animals, and human males, planted their seeds in the fertile soil of the female, where they grew to become appropriately horses or humans. This view prevailed for quite some time, on up into modern times. As late as the 18th century there were still some advocates of the homunculus theory -- that the sperm of animals and humans contained tiny animals or people.

It struck me the other day that giving the name "seed" (zarah, sperma, semen) to the male's contribution to reproduction is actually a mistake. The seeds of a plant are embryos with a bit of starch and protein as a container — the product of the female. The male counterpart to animal "sperm" in plants is not the seed, but the pollen.

Just a thought on how analogies and images can take on a life of their own.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

10 comments:

David |Dah • veed| said...

So straight guys are not planting seed in a fertile field, but pollenating flowers!

Lynn said...

"So straight guys are not planting seed in a fertile field, but pollenating flowers!"Yes, Dah•veed ... that's why some men are such busy bees, always hopping from one pretty blossom in the field to the next! (Note: I did say - some.)

John Bassett said...

Plants reproduce asexually and sexually. Those that reproduce sexually can have male and female parts of the same plant, or plants can be differentiated as female or male. There is a lot of diversity out there.

So why is it that our ancients came to look at it in just this one way? Is the natural world shaping our culture, or is culture shaping our view of the natural world?

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks for the comments, fun and serious. At to the latter, I think, John B., that there is an interplay between culture and reality: so that a perception of "what is" can come to dominate what "we see" -- so that the models we impress upon nature, based on our understanding of nature, can shape our science and our world-view until someone comes along with a new understanding of nature itself -- it's the paradigm shift and all that. The Copernican Revolution was a similar moment. It's strange that it took us longer to understand the biology of reproduction than to get a right side up understanding of the solar system.

IT said...

Look at that ancient figure that was unearthed lately, of a highly exaggerated female form. WE have a fascination with fecundity and I think, a fear of it, leading to a desire to control it. Particularly by men. ;-)

susan s. said...

I believe that female form that was found comes from a time when the Goddesse was worshipped. Matriarchy was it!! She was in control because she was the carrier of life as you say Tobias, the carrier of the seed. Men were just so many worker bees.

As for seed versus pollen... it was probably named seed because it would have sounded silly to forbid the "spilling of pollen" as sinful.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks IT and Susan. I'm inclined to think that the Goddesse era focused on the female as the sole source of life -- even before the putting two and two together and getting five in assuming it was the male planting a seed... My guess is that it took some fairly well developed animal husbandry and agriculture to connect sex with childbirth.

BTW in a recent sermon I surmised it was a woman who first made the connection -- as in hunter/gatherer societies it's the women who gather, and are thus more familiar with how plants grow, and may have been the first to realize where they came from...

A book that had a great influence on my understanding of human history and the Scripture was Graves' The White Goddess. It taught me how to look past my own cultural presuppositions, and was a very helpful antidote to the "we've always taught" modality of so much of our so-called learning.

BillyD said...

In the early 20th century the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote that the people of the Trobiand Islands did not make a connection between sex and pregnancy. It's evidently not an obvious link, at first.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks BillyD for the Malinowski reference. I read his book on his journeys and researches many years ago -- in part due to the presence on his expedition team of the playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkeiwicz, whose work played such an important part in my earlier theatrical life.

So thanks again for the reference, and the memory!

JCF said...

Taking this discussion off on a slight tangent . . . to discover something similarly wacky---

Tobias, you're a cat owner (i.e., staff!), so you should appreciate this: with my friend's cat, we frequently play the game of Meowing at him, in order to get him to (sometimes) "Meow" back (Saying the word "Food" is much more effective is this regard, however! *g*)

Similarly, with babies: parents, in particular, talk to/at them, with the intention that they'll say it back (via their well-known tendency of imitation).

Now, we KNOW that when we say "Say Dada! Say Mama!" at them, we'll 1) interpret ANY sounds they make as success! and 2) they're imitating, at most (they can't make a cognitive connection, at that point, with what the words actually mean).

These sounds, however, are nevertheless IMPORTANT. They show that the baby is connecting to the outside word, and with the most essential things in it: their caregivers.

As this is true now, so was it true in 1st century Palestine. When Jesus taught us to call G_d that baby-babbling/baby imitation "Abba", he was teaching us an important lesson on how to relate, with complete infant-like dependency, to our Eternal Caregiver.

Defining dogma/liturgy re the gender of that Caregiver?
Not so much! [That that is how the Lord's Prayer/"The Our Father" has been interpreted, is truly wacky! :-0]