Listening to Birth: Metallurgy, Maternity, and Vocality in the Reproduction of the Patriarchal State

Dokter, Anija (Rachel) 

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Listening to Birth asserts that structures of power reproduce themselves by instituting particular modes of listening and sound production. Situating my research within feminist sound studies, I argue that meanings conjured around the audible, material bodies of women were carefully crafted by elites in antiquity, in order to construct gendered ideologies of kingship, civilisation, and nature. I examine these power dynamics as expressed in mythic and magical texts and iconographies, dating from the Bronze Age to later Roman antiquity. Throughout the thesis, I examine the development of symbolic systems and narrative tropes that linked mining and metallurgy with reproduction and vocality. My analysis emphasises how the invention of nature was accomplished, in part, through a metallurgical reclassification of the voices and sexualities of women as indiscrete phenomena: womb, mouth, and voice were elided with mining and smelting to form a unified semantic realm. I argue that this invention of ‘vulvar vocality’ reclassified female sounds as illicit, providing a plaform for the removal of women from the public sphere. I attempt to connect the gendered discourse found in myths and magical rituals to the political and economic domain of state-craft, to demonstrate the importance of hegemonic mythopoeic control of audible female reproduction for establishing ideologies of colonisation and extraction. I link analyses of texts and iconographies from the Bronze Age Mesopotamians, Hittites, Canaanites, Minoans, and Egyptians to later materials from the Iron Age Greeks, Israelites, and Romans—my goal is to demonstrate both the ubiquity and the continual reproduction of metallurgical ideology across the ancient world. I also present my preliminary research into the lasting impact that antique notions of vulvar vocality had on later state-craft. I begin to trace the preservation and elaboration of antique metallurgical literature by Byzantine and Islamic scholars, who in turn exerted strong influence on the Ottomans and late medieval and early modern Europeans. I outline future work to investigate the exponential rise of entrepreneurial metallurgy in late medieval and early modern Europe, arguing that this metallurgical discourse provided symbolic re-enforcement for the rapidly-accelerating mining and metal trade that formed the core of European colonial expansion. I suggest that vulvar vocality was central to early modern metallurgical, demonological, and colonial discourse, and that specific female vocalities and silences were purposefully crafted into the colonial project in order to forcibly redefine women, along with the lands and children stolen from them, as mere natural resources.

Cook, Nicholas
Pfeufer Kahn, Robbie
childbirth, metallurgy, voice, history of religion, mining, metals, sound, reproduction, antiquity, witchcraft, gnosticism, ancient near east, ancient Israel, history of gender, state ideology, social stratification, Greek religion, slavery, myth, magic, monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, pregnancy, midwifery, obstetrics, gender, women
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust (PhD scholarship)