Pregnant with possibility, Louise Bourgeois’s Fragile Goddess is a striking sculpture that resonates with a long history of visualizing the fertile female body. Yet, the phallic form at the top of the torso also suggests a blurring of gender identities, allowing the artist to question concepts of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and power. For Bourgeois, the mother’s body was the source of both triumph and trauma. While the mother was, according to Bourgeois, integral to the human psyche, she was also often displaced and dominated by the father. Consequently, the mother represented in Fragile Goddess is a source of power, but also a site of repression.
This liminal representation of motherhood is found in Genesis 3:16 and 3:20. Woman is condemned to suffer in childbearing, but she is also praised as the ‘mother of all living’. When Adam names the woman in Genesis 3:20 he chooses the name chavvah or ‘Eve’, which probably means something like ‘life-giver’. This name, and the epithet that accompanies it, stand in stark contrast with the preceding punishment of v.16.
Where does this celebration of maternal power come from?
One possibility is that the Bible’s first woman was once a fragile goddess. In the ancient Near East, goddesses (Eve’s ancient neighbours) were often responsible for earthly fertility and life. One Canaanite goddess in particular shared a similar epithet to Eve, albeit even more celebratory: Asherah was recognized as mother of the pantheon, the ‘mother of the gods’. Perhaps, then, in the figure of chavvah, we have evidence of Bible writers’ efforts to diminish divine feminine power by attributing the impressive title of ‘mother of all living’ to a human female whose maternal body had already been shown to be under the control of God.
Bernadac, Marie-Laure. 1995. Louise Bourgeois (Paris: Flammarion)
Wallace, Howard N. 1985. The Eden Narrative, Harvard Semitic Monographs, 32 (Atlanta: Scholars Press)
Wyatt, N. 1999. ‘Eve’, in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd edn, ed. by Karel van der Toorn, Pieter W. van der Horst, and Bob Becking (Leiden: Brill), pp. 316–17
16To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.