Since I gave some time in my first column to medieval literary examples of male pregnancy, how about some equal time for the ladies? Are there any examples in myth or literature of women getting other women pregnant?
Pre-modern understandings of how pregnancy works allowed for some interesting possibilities, either in fantastic literature, or pseudo-medical writing. For example, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (and his followers, well into the 17th century) postulated that sperm contained a tiny fully-formed homunculus that was nourished within a woman’s womb but that derived entirely from the father. This “preformationism” theory of pregnancy had its female counterpart, discussed by writers such as 17th century scientist William Harvey (who first described the circulatory system in detail) that the fully-formed homunculus was contained in the woman’s egg.
Theories such as these were not entirely undermined by the observation that children reflected characteristics of both parents. Absent an understanding of genetics, all manner of environmental factors were thought to affect a child’s appearance. And the common cultural understanding that virgin women were unlikely to become pregnant, absent divine intervention, was addressed with theories that sperm somehow stimulated the pregnancy, or that female orgasm was an essential componant of triggering the growth of the fetus. (This last theory had some unfortunate consequences with regard to pregnancies resulting from rape. But that’s a different topic.)
The development of powerful microscopes that could observe fetal development stages put the preformationist theory to rest entirely. But if your fantasy worldbuilding follows (or believe in) a female-centered preformationist understanding, there’s no theoretical bar to parthenogenetic pregnancy (indeed, in some sense it considered all pregnancy to result from parthenogenesis), or to pregnancy resulting from sexual intercourse that didn’t involve a human male.
Although not deriving from European medical theories, an incident recounted in one version of the Indian epic Ramayana tells how the two co-widows of a childless man were instructed by the god Shiva to enjoy sex with each other, promising that one of them would become pregnant as a result. The in-story purpose here is clearly male-centric: the dead man’s lineage was supposed to produce a hero who would perform a particular task, therefore some intervention was necessary to fulfil the prophecy. By having the child produced from sex between his widows, it was still “his” in the essential sense. What is interesting from the point of fantastic literature is the underlying concept that sex between women was as capable of producing pregnancy as hetero-sex, gods or no.
An example of pregnancy resulting from sex between women in medieval Irish writings has a more biologically-based (though logistically convoluted) basis. It comes from the Book of Leinster, a compilation of mythic, genealogical, and literary material dating to a broad period up to the 12th century. In the relevant anecdote, a woman comes to the 8th century king Niall Frossach, hands him a baby and says, “Find out who the father of my child is because I have no idea myself. I swear I haven’t had sex with a man for many years.”
Now, the purpose of telling this anecdote is to demonstrate that King Niall is a virtuous monarch who will always be able to speak the truth in a matter of law. (And questions of parentage were very much a matter of law in early medieval Ireland.)
At this point, the Irish king asks an unexpected question, “Have you had playful sex with another woman? Do not conceal it if you have.” (I love this anecdote because, whatever the historic reality may have been, relatively neutral references to sex between women are rare in medieval European literature.)
The woman admits that, yes, she had sex with another woman. Whereupon the king explains, “That woman had mated with a man just before, and the semen which he left with her, she put it into your womb in the tumbling, so that it was begotten in your womb.” Thus proving the truth of his kingship because how else would such an unexpected explanation occur to him?
Now, to me this sounds about as likely in its mechanics as getting pregnant from a toilet seat. And it should be noted that this isn’t technically impregnation by a woman, it’s more like artificial insemination with another woman serving in place of a turkey baster. But it not only provides a mythic/literary example of a woman getting pregnant as a result of lesbian activity, but implies something about the possible techniques involved. (Which I will leave to the reader’s imagination.)
There’s a discussion of the Irish text at Nicola Griffith’s blog where medieval scholar Lisa Spangenberg makes reference to another article that discusses “other instances of ‘tribadism’ causing pregnancy in Irish historical tracts and law codes,” while noting that the language and assumptions involved are rather peculiar. I haven’t had a chance to follow up on this lead yet. My own sources are given below.
Bernhardt-House, Phillip A. “Middle Irish Lesbian Babymaking: Reading the Niall Frossach Story” (Paper presented at the International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, 2006)
Bitel, Lisa M. 1996. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
Vanita, Ruth. “’At All Times Near’: Love Between Women in Two Medieval Indian Devotional Texts” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.
Queer Fantasy Roots explores stories and themes from history that may inspire or resonate with queer fantasy fiction being written today. Heather Rose Jones writes fantasy and historical fiction centering around queer women, and writes the Lesbian Historic Motif Blog at alpennia.com.