A fertility cult is a type of nature worship that attempts to safeguard the fertility or productiveness of plants, animals, and people. Fertility cults usually focus on a certain deity, and followers believe that, by propitiating that god or goddess, fruitfulness will result.
Fertility cults were common in ancient pagan religions, where certain rites were performed at certain times to ensure fertility and avoid drought and barrenness. Common rituals included the sacrifice of animals—and sometimes humans—as well as shrine prostitution. Evidence of fertility cults have been found throughout the world, including in Egypt, the Americas, Europe, India, China, and the Middle East.
In the Old Testament, the Canaanite religions included fertility cults, usually focused on Baal and Asherah. When King Josiah brought reforms to Judah, he had to clear the temple of many things associated with fertility cults (2 Kings 23:4–7). In Jeremiah’s time, a rebellious group of Judeans insisted upon worshiping the “Queen of Heaven.” Note how they associate their ceremonies with fruitfulness: “We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we [did before]. . . . At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine” (Jeremiah 44:16–18). This worship of the Queen of Heaven was a fertility cult.
The Greek and Roman gods of New Testament times included fertility goddesses such as Aphrodite (Venus), Artemis (Diana), and Demeter (Ceres). Most fertility cults emphasized the changing of seasons, nature, and the productivity of crops. The center of Diana worship was in Ephesus, where Paul eventually brought the gospel. The silversmiths who made idols of Diana opposed what Paul was doing (Acts 19:23–24). The silversmiths were afraid of losing business and started a riot against Paul, since many people were trusting in Jesus and turning away from Diana (Acts 19:25–41).
In the Bible, God rightly condemns fertility cults and rituals. Much of the Mosaic Law dealt with the detestable practices of the Canaanite pagan religions. Specifically, God commanded the Israelites not to set up altars to Baal or plant trees to Asherah (Deuteronomy 16:21). Scripture repeatedly condemned the horrible practice of sacrificing children to Moloch, which was done in part as a fertility rite (Leviticus 18:21). Furthermore, God also denounced shrine prostitution and prohibited any Israelite from becoming a shrine prostitute (Deuteronomy 23:17). Despite these commands, the Israelites often disobeyed God and participated in these fertility cults. One time, the Israelites “yoked themselves to Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:5, ESV), sacrificing to Baal and engaging in blatant immorality. In judgment, God sent a plague that killed 24,000 people (Numbers 25:9).
Although most fertility cults have died out with time, some elements are still found in smaller sects within religions such as Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. Fertility rituals are still practiced today in some Wiccan and neo-pagan groups. Any teaching that personifies the earth and nature or that speaks of a “mother goddess” is harking back to the ancient fertility cults.
God is the only One who can bring about fertility. Life and death are in His hands (Deuteronomy 32:39). The attempts of fertility cults to ensure fruitfulness were and are futile because the Lord is in control of all things. He brings about seasons (Daniel 2:21), rain (Matthew 5:45), and crops (Leviticus 26:3–4). God alone is responsible for opening and closing wombs of both humans and animals (see Genesis 29:31; 30:22; Exodus 34:19; 1 Samuel 1:5). Worshipping false gods only brings about spiritual slavery, and Baal, Asherah, and the Greek and Roman gods were not true gods at all.