Infertility and Sacred Space: From Antiquity to the Early Modern

15 July 2013 - 16 July 2013

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT

Registrations are now closed


Rebecca Flemming (Classics / Jesus College)
Lauren Kassell (HPS / Pembroke College)
Peter Jones (King's College)
Fay Glinister (HPS)




Concerns about fertility and children have been (and still are) common reasons for visiting, and more generally engaging with, the sacred spaces—sanctuaries and shrines, groves and grottoes—of many religions and cultures. The narratives, objects, and rituals associated with places of particular access to the divine across a wide chronological and geographical range testify to this insistent human need: stories of miraculous births, assorted reproductive ex-votos, and prayers for the sterile are, for instance, all prominent parts of this landscape. But, thus far, this phenomenon has not received the focused attention it deserves. 

Relations between human reproduction, divinity and sacred space are therefore at the centre of this interdisciplinary conference. We hope to have thematic panels which cover the following issues:

  • Gender and Reproduction: are requests for divine assistance made by women or men, or both? To female deities and saints or not?  
  • Fertility and Healing: do healing sanctuaries and saints specialise in fertility? Or is reproduction joined with other concerns?
  • Reproductive objects: do concerns about fertility have particular affinities with particular kinds of artefacts or materials?
  • Narrative reproduction: is there anything distinctive about stories of miraculous births in miracle collections?

There will also be sessions that address questions of continuity and change, similarity and difference, across time and space; and we warmly invite proposals for papers on all these topics and more, from as wide a range of perspectives as possible. 




This conference is organised under the auspices of the Wellcome Trust strategic award in the history of medicine on Generation to Reproduction (University of Cambridge); and with the support of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge.



Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.


Administrative assistance:


Location : CRASSH, SG1&2

Date : 15-16 July 2013

Monday 15 July


9.00 - 9.30


9.30 - 9.40


9.40 - 11.00

Plenary I: Fertility and Sacred Space in the Classical Mediterranean 

Robin Osborne (Cambridge) and Rebecca Flemming (Cambridge)

11.00 - 11.30


11.30 - 13.00

Panel Session A:

  • Fertility, Divinity and Domestic Space
  1. M. Erica Couto-Ferreira (Heidelberg): Landscape, domestic spaces and fertility in 1st millennium BCE Mesopotamia
  2. Ada Nifosi (Kent): Sacred Spaces for Bes and Women in Ancient Egypt and Beyond
  3. Aurogeeta Das (Westminster): Visual Prayers: South Indian rituals relating to fertility
  • Depicting Fertility 
  1. Gretchen Meyers (Franklin and Marshall College) & Phil Perkins (OU): Representing Sacred Birth: New Visual Evidence from the Etruscan Sanctuary of Poggio Colla (Vicchio)
  2. Costanza Gislon Dopfel (St Mary’s College of California): Holy Mothers and
    Vanished Nativities: Iconographic Transformation of Nativity Scenes from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
  3. Imma Ramos (Cambridge): ‘All pilgrimage centres exist in woman’s body’: The
    Iconography of Menstruation, Pregnancy, Birth and Devotion at Kamakhya Temple in Assam

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.30

Panel Session B:

  • Sanctuaries, Pilgrimages and Fertility (i)
  1. Jessica Piccinini (Oxford): Longing for children in Dodona: the analysis of the epigraphic evidence
  2. Xenia Zeiler (Bremen): “Please give me a son equal to Lord Śiva.” Hindu Child-Wish Ritual and Constructions of Sacred Space
  3. Marion Boos (Darmstadt): Worshipping Hercules – Ancient practice and modern (mis)conceptions of male and female cultic activity
  • Monarchy, Fertility and the Sacred 
  1. Rudolf Haensch (DAI, Munich): Under Pressure: The Wives of the Roman Emperors, Childbearing and Divine Help
  2. Dong Qiaosheng (Cambridge): Miraculous Births of Kings in Early China
  3. Maria Gerolemou (OU, Cyprus): Miraculous Births: Alexander the Great as Theios Aner?

15.30 - 16.00


16.00 - 17.30

Plenary II: Fertility and Sacred Space in the Medieval World

Jane Baun (Oxford) and Carl Watkins (Cambridge) 

17.30 - 19.00

Drinks in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (Faculty of Classics)


Tuesday 16 July


9.30 - 11.00

Plenary III: Fertility and Sacred Space in the Early Modern World

Kenneth Mills (Toronto) and Alex Walsham (Cambridge)

11,00 - 11.30


11.30 - 13.00

Panel Session C:

  • Sanctuaries, Pilgrimages and Fertility (ii)
  1. Louise Cilliers (Free State University, Bloemfontein): Dream Healing of Infertility in Women at Asclepius’s sanctuaries in ancient Greece
  2. Ana del Campo (Yale): Saint Mary of Salas, a Healing Sanctuary Specialized in Fertility and Childhood
  3. Yasser Arafath (Delhi): Saints, Martyrs and Serpents; Fertility Culture on Malabar Coast (Circa 1500-1800)
  • Sacrifice, Death and Regeneration
  1. Rune Nyord (Cambridge): Life out of Death: The Egyptian tomb as interface between ancestors and descendants
  2. Sabine Huebner (Berlin): Childless Old Age – The Worst of All Fates?
  3. Fabio Tutrone (Palermo): Physiologizing In/fertility in the Roman World: Lucretius on Sacrifice, Nature, and Generation

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.30

Panel Session D:

  • Figures of Fertility
  1. Ulrike Ehmig (Vienna): Swaddling without end
  2. Karen Klaiber Hersch (Temple University): Tanaquil the healer
  3. Gethin Rees (Cambridge): Celibate Monks and Foetus-stealing Gods: Buddhist Attitudes to Pregnancy in Early Historic South Asia
  • Gender, Fertility and the Divine 
  1. Angela Hug (Toronto): On the Nature of Infertility, Masculinity, and the Gods:
    Lucretius 4.1233-1239
  2. Sarah Hitch (Oxford): Gendering sacred space in early Greek myth
  3. Edgar Francis (Wisconsin-Stevens Point): Men’s Magic and Women’s Fertility in a Muslim Magical Corpus
  • Sacred Narratives of Generation
  1. Yurie Hong (Gustavus Adolphus College): Wandering Wombs and Wandering  Islands in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo
  2. Alaya Swann (Arizona State): The Doubting Midwife Salome in Late Medieval England
  3. Sophie Vasset (Paris): “In the pagods are virgins, by means of whom women bring forth children”: barrenness in European eighteenth-century travel narratives

15.30 - 16.00 


16.00 - 17.00

Plenary IV: Global Perspectives and Prospects

Kaja McGowan (Cornell)