Imagery, Ritual and Birth: Ontology Between the Sacred and the Secular

Every human being is born and has gone through a process of birth. Yet the topic of birth remains deeply underrepresented in the humanities, overshadowed by a scholarly focus on death. This book explores how imagery is used ritualistically in religious, secular, and nonreligious ways during birth, through analysis of a wide variety of art, iconography, poetry, and material culture. 

Rowman & Littlefield (book)

In this groundbreaking book, Anna Hennessey develops a philosophical framework to uncover how the meaning of imagery changes in a collective way, sometimes drastically, during the experience of contemporary childbirth. In particular, she explores a rich variety of art and other objects used during birth to shape birth into a consciously generated personal rite of passage via the rituals women create around these images. Thus, Hennessey looks closely at how the shared meaning (or social ontology) of certain images transforms and becomes sacred to the individual through the experiences of birth. The writing and images that fill the pages of this lovely book represent a gem of innovation, exposing how replete with sacred meaning can be the rituals of childbirth.
— Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin (book foreword)

Imagery, Ritual, and Birth is a hugely significant and timely book, calling attention to one of the most profound set of issues in philosophy and the contemporary study of religion and secularity—the ongoing mishandling of birth and natality—as well as offering its own rich and satisfying response. This book will be essential reading for anyone who takes seriously the theoretical and empirical study of religion, secularity, nonreligion and the sacred, and for those involved in the reshaping of these fields around new understandings of spirituality, worldview and existential meaning and culture. It is also a wonderful read, and will engage and reward scholars and students at all levels. 
— Lois Lee, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Religious Studies, University of Kent (back cover endorsement)

This diverse and multicultural examination of the contemporary movement by women, men gender-non-conforming individuals and communities to re-sacralize the birthing body provides a profound and detailed examination of the loss of birthing imagery in the modern West – and the efforts of contemporary artists, birth activists, women, men and other birthgivers to reclaim it. Her argument for the significance of birthing images which offer empowerment, and support to women and other birthgivers is augmented by the many powerful images of birth and pregnancy drawn from Asian, African, European, Meso-American and Indigenous sources. 
— Arisika Razak, Professor Emerita, Women’s Spirituality Program, California Institute of Integral Studies (back cover endorsement)

Ripe with striking images of artifacts used as sacred objects in birth and often demonstrating explicit female and reproductive imagery, Imagery, Ritual, and Birth explores both art about birth and art used in birth to reinforce the power and significance of this rite of passage for understanding lived religious experience. . . The particular focus of Hennessey’s study and the multi-leveled argument she makes mean that her audience has the potential to be much wider than one might first assume. Scholars interested in religious art and artifact will find the discussion of shifting ontologies engaging and scholars of motherhood, birth, and women in religion will appreciate the careful attention to women’s subjective experience and the significance of the childbirth rite of passage. All scholars of religion would do well to heed Hennessey’s call to take seriously not only the experience of women generally but also the power and transformative potential of childbirth as a site of religious and spiritual meaning.
— Ann W. Duncan, Professor of American Studies and Religion, Goucher College (Reading Religion)

Like a meteorite that originates in the firmament and collides with the earth as a fiery crater, Anna Hennessey’s Imagery, Ritual, and Birth: Ontology Between the Sacred and the Secular is a work that originates in philosophy and collides with religious studies in a fiery revolution…Despite centuries spent on delineating the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Body in Catholic and Protestant theology, or decades spent on conferences devoted to the material conditions of the sacred in religious studies, in anthropology, and in sociology, no scholar on the social media scene today, including Emmanuel Falque, who might be the kind of theologian and phenomenologist that Hennessey might endorse, no one comes close to proposing the kind of fiery revolution that Hennessey has in mind when it comes to the intersection between biological childbirth and religion.
— Thomas Davis, Professor, School of Social Work, California State University, San Bernardino (Journal of Religious & Theological Information)

Anna M. Hennessey’s book functions as an excellent account of the social ontology of birth, as well as of birth practices, rituals, and objects—that is, their social meanings and how these meanings come into being and sometimes change. Hennessey’s work not only comprises a novel and fascinating social ontology of birth and birth processes, but also serves to challenge what Searle and others, in the context of philosophy of mind, treat as a legitimate object of consciousness. 
— Abigail Klassen, Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, University of Winnipeg (Sophia: International Journal of Philosophy and Traditions)

Hennessey invites the reader to contemplate how birth images, objects and rituals in contemporary births are used. She takes us in an engaging way on a journey through how originally religious images–such as the infamous Sheela-na-gig–became secularized (taken from their original religious use), and then re-sacralized in modern times by women and their birth care providers and companions. The text is rich in examples of art forms and images, new and old, and is based on the author’s own extensive exploration of this area. I particularly enjoyed the section that explained social ontology and the chapter exploring new feminisms and decolonizing birth.
— Susan Crowther, Professor of Midwifery, AUT University, Auckland
(The Practicing Midwife)

Anna Hennessey, PhD