Ancient vagina goddess Baubo is the perfect symbol of feminine power for our troubled times.
Even to modern eyes, the terracotta statuettes are bizarre. Found in 1896 in the remains of a 5th-century BCE temple at the ancient Greek city of Priene, each figurine is different, but all feature a woman’s face, bedecked with an elaborate hairdo, situated directly atop a pair of chubby, childlike legs. In place of a chin, there is the well-defined cleft of a hairless vulva. But for one of the German archeologists working on the dig, the figures looked familiar. He quickly concluded that they were images of Baubo, a mythological character—some say goddess—whose main claim to fame was flashing her genitals to cheer up the agricultural goddess Demeter. “Surely we are dealing with a creation from the context of the grotesque-obscene aspects of the Demeter cult,” he declared.
Today, we turn to resources like The Vagina Bible or Pussypedia.net to answer questions about “down there” that we are otherwise too shy to ask. Meanwhile, powerful men brag that when it comes to subjugating women, all you need to do is “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Obviously, we need a vagina goddess now more than ever. So why isn’t Baubo more well known?
One reason may be that scholars differ widely in their interpretations of Baubo-related texts and artifacts. Did her name mean “belly,” “cave,” or “vulva”? Was she a goddess of fertility, sexuality, or mirth? Or was she even a goddess at all? And when it comes to those weird statuettes from Priene, there’s no agreement about who they are or what they represent, even though they were found in the remains of a temple dedicated to Demeter, the ancient goddess of grain and agriculture, with whom Baubo is so closely associated.
Adding to the confusion, there are many versions of Baubo’s story, which basically goes like this. According to Greek mythology, one day, Demeter’s daughter, Persephone (also known as Kore), was out picking flowers when she was raped and abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. The furious Demeter gave chase, forgetting her responsibilities in the world above ground. As a result, grain didn’t grow—the land laid fallow—and many died of starvation due to famine. Disguised as an old woman dressed in black, Demeter came to the city of Eleusis, where she rested by a well, mourning the loss of her daughter. There, she was found by Baubo, a nurse or servant in the Eleusinian ruler’s household. Baubo offered the goddess a cup of wine but Demeter refused it. Baubo offered sympathy but was rebuffed again. Then Baubo did a thing that even today would get you noticed—she lifted up her skirt and showed off her private parts. The gesture made Demeter laugh, and then the goddess ate and drank. In some retellings, Baubo is accompanied by another servant, Iambe, who tells dirty jokes in an effort to make Demeter laugh, but it’s almost always Baubo’s flashing that gets the job done. (Sometimes, Baubo and Iambe are the same person. Sometimes she goes by the name of Hecate or Isis. As I said, it’s confusing.)
Like an actor whose tiny role on stage or screen makes such a deep connection with the audience that she is catapulted to fame, Baubo’s cameo in the story of Demeter and Persephone is small but transformative. In an agrarian culture like ancient Greece, a ruined harvest could lead to starvation, disease, and death. By making Demeter laugh, and giving her renewed strength to find Persephone, Baubo essentially helped end a famine in the human world, saving countless lives. Art historian Winifred Milius Lubell, whose The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy is the definitive work on the subject, traced the iconography of the vulva across vistas of time, geography, and culture. She thinks Baubo was another aspect of “extremely ancient…agricultural rituals of fecundity,” in which chosen women “squatted over the newly plowed fields” and allowed their menstrual blood to drip into the earth to increase its fertility. You might say that Baubo spoke truth to power, the servant’s pussy flash reminding the grain goddess of her responsibility over the harvest and thus as a life-giving force to humanity. Without Baubo’s timely reminder of the vulva’s regenerative power, human civilization would have ended.
Demeter is eventually reunited with her daughter after Zeus intervenes with Hades to set Persephone free. But before Hades does so, he tricks Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Eating food in the underworld means she has to return below ground for at least part of the year. Demeter’s grief during Persephone’s annual travels below the earth thus became an allegory for the changing seasons and cycle of human life, from spring/birth to winter/death, and back again.
Baubo’s singular act was powerful enough that it was reenacted by initiates and pilgrims at a pair of important religious festivals that honored the journey of Demeter and Persephone during the autumn planting season. Thousands of men and women participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual event that lasted for eight days in late September, the last three of which were open to initiates only. These rituals were held in strictest secrecy, so much so that scholars still argue about what actually went on. However, they mostly agree that initiates “imitated what Demeter had done while searching for her daughter,” and that included Baubo’s skirt lifting gesture.
Only married women were allowed to attend the fall festival known as Thesmorphoria, which took place in October. At night, they slept in tents. During the day, attendees portrayed events from the story of Demeter and Persephone in rituals thought to increase both human and agricultural fertility. They ate pomegranates and perhaps let the red juice drip into the earth, just as the proto Baubo offered up her menstrual blood. As part of one rite, they “manipulated bread-dough models of male and female genitals.” No written explanation exists as to why they did this, but scholars think it may have been to awaken desire and stimulate fecundity. Piglets, alive or dead, were thrown into ritual caverns or pits, and their decomposed remains were later retrieved and spread on altars, mixed with seed corn for the coming year. This mimicked the moment when the Earth opened as Hades nabbed Persephone, and some hogs were pulled beneath the ground along with the girl. According to a 2013 article by Sarah Iles Johnston in the journal History of Religions, on the second day of Thesmorphoria, women broke a day of fasting with “ritual obscenity,” recalling the jokes Baubo/Iambe told to Demeter. And at least one historian—Ewa Osek, writing in the 2018 essay collection The Many Faces of Mimesis—believes they also reenacted Baubo’s pussy flashing. As A.C. Smythe of the site Goddess Gift summarizes it, this was a festival “where women were taught the profound lessons of living joyfully, dying without fear, and being an integral part of the great cycles of nature.”
The story of Demeter and Persephone resonated deeply with the women of ancient Greece, because it reflected traditions in their strongly patriarchal society. Women were kept sequestered inside their father or husband’s house. Marriages could be arranged by fathers without input from their wives or daughters, who might not even be aware that such life-altering discussions were taking place. Thus, in classicist Mary E. Naples’ words, a girl of 16 or so, “was often torn from her natal home and forced to marry an unknown man who was—on average—twice or three times her senior.” Depending on distance and circumstance, a young woman might see her parents and siblings only rarely after marriage, if at all. Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s sorrow must have felt very familiar.
On the other hand, according to Naples, Demeter’s success in having her daughter returned to her for at least part of the year was a rare instance in which a goddess defied the rapacious Zeus without punishment—a power play that would have been impossible without Baubo’s skirt toss to bring the goddess out of her grief. The annual gathering at Thesmophoria likewise provided an uncommon taste of power for mortal women, a time when they could throw off the shackles of patriarchy as they gathered in a wholly female society, sleeping outside and performing secret rituals.
"What happened to this fun-loving, bawdy, jesting, sexually liberated—yet very wise—goddess?"
Despite Baubo’s role in the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria, few, if any, images of her exist from ancient Greece (the statuettes from Priene may have been a rare exception). This is due at least in part to the ephemeral nature of the art created for women’s rituals. Lubell noted that men created images in marble, precious metals, and clay fired in a kiln—media made to last for centuries. Meanwhile women of the time used what was at hand in a household—bread dough, for example, which quickly disintegrated.
While Baubo was clearly revered in ancient Greece, her origins may reach back even further. Many Baubo-like entities have names that begin with a similar root syllable, a “bau” or “ba” sound. Over a thousand years before the ancient Greeks, the goddess Bau ruled over “the dark waters of the deep or the void” in religion practiced at Sumer in what is now modern-day Iraq. Bau was also worshipped in ancient Phoenicia, where one of her guises was Baev, the “guardian of the source,” an entrance to a cave or hole.
Baubo may also be related to a little-known Egyptian goddess named Bebt. The ancient historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC), described rites for the Egyptian cat goddess Bast at her main temple at Bubastis. During these ceremonies, men and women rode a barge down the river, yelling “mocking jokes and jests” at women on the riverbanks. Women on the barge performed dances, “then, standing up, they hitch up their skirts.” (According to Herodotus, more wine was drunk during this festival than at any other time of the year.)
The image of a vulva-flashing goddess was so popular in Egypt that artwork of her in one or another of her guises, but always unashamedly displaying her bits, appears to have been mass produced. In the late 19th century, antiquities hunters in the markets of Cairo or Alexandria in Egypt could buy bronze or terracotta figurines of this sort that had been dug up in farmers’ fields, writes Lubell. These showed women in flowing gowns and headdresses, lifting their skirts above their naked pudenda. Is it possible these figures were actually of the much older Egyptian goddess Isis? Again, scholars disagree.
So, what happened to this “fun-loving, bawdy, jesting, sexually liberated—yet very wise—goddess,” as Smythe describers her, with such far-reaching and ancient roots? One clue comes to us via the writings of Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer who penned an essay called the “Exhortation to the Greeks” (aka “Exhortation Against the Pagans” and “Exhortation Against the Heathens”) around 200 AD. The purpose of this essay was to mock and demonize the Greek’s pagan belief systems, in order to convert people to Christianity. In his rants he describes a number of Greek rituals in detail, and, as a result, his writing has also been relied on as a source of information about ancient pagan cults and Greek mythology. While his telling of the story of Baubo is invaluable, Clement is clearly disgusted by it, and he believes his readers should be, too. “Baubo, having received Demeter as a guest, offers her a draught of wine and meal. She declines to take it, being unwilling to drink on account of her mourning. Baubo is deeply hurt, thinking she has been slighted, and thereupon uncovers her secret parts and exhibits them to the goddess,” he explains. And how is Baubo received by the goddess? “Demeter is pleased at the sight, and now at least receives the draught—delighted by the spectacle! These are the secret mysteries of the Athenians!” Clement writes with great disdain. Later, he asks how anyone can respect the Athenians, when they, “and the rest of Greece—I blush even to speak of it—possess that shameful tale about Demeter?” You can almost hear Clement’s pearl-clutching from across the centuries.
Could the rise of patriarchal religions, such as Christianity, be at the root of Baubo’s downfall? Were men appalled, and maybe even threatened, by Baubo’s raunchiness? It’s quite possible. And the main weapon they could use to kill her off was to bury her under layers of shame. Michael Psellus, for example, was an 11th-century Christian historian who described what he thought took place during the Eleusinian Mysteries, including Baubo’s big moment. “She pulled up her gown revealing her thighs and pudenda,” he wrote. “Thus they gave her a name which covered her with shame. In this disgraceful manner the initiation ceremonies [at Eleusis] came to an end.”
It was around this same time that Baubo-like figures, called Sheela na gigs, began appearing all over Europe. They showed up as architectural carvings, posed over doors and entryways. They were meant to be ugly—as ugly as the gargoyles and other so-called grotesques that hung alongside them on churches, castles, and other places—and indeed they were. A round-headed creature holding her vulva wide open, with her hands clutching her labia, the Sheela na gig’s true meaning is a mystery. But one of the most popular theories is that put forth by researchers Anthony Weir and James Jerman. They argue, in their 1986 book Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches, that the Sheela na gigs’ location on churches, and their grotesque features, by medieval standards, suggest that they represent female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.
“With the rise of the patriarchy, the vulva went from being a place of reverence to a puritanical, unmentionable, and ‘dirty’ part of a woman,” writes Jean Shinoda Bolen in her book, Goddesses In Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty. “It went from a symbol of the goddess to one of the most demeaning and hostile words (‘cunt’) a women can be called.” This negative view of female genitalia and sexuality, and by extension, Baubo, pretty much held steady in Christianity and European cultures for the next 800 years or so. Even Jane Ellen Harrison, a pioneering classics scholar and suffragist, relegated almost all discussion of Baubo to a footnote in her 1908 masterwork, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Baubo’s gesture, she wrote, was a “stumbling block” and “not in harmony with modern conventions.”
“She is a goddess who speaks directly from her genitals, and your approval is neither sought nor required.ˮ
Nevertheless, Baubo does make some appearances in a few modern works. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s early 19th-century play Faust, she shows up as an occult figure. “Old Baubo comes alone,” a chorus of witches chants, “she rides upon a farrow [a sow]. Then honor to whom honor is due. Mother Baubo to the front, and lead the way!” In his 1882 work, The Gay Science, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche muses that, “Perhaps truth is a woman who has reasons for not letting us see her reasons? Perhaps her name is—to speak Greek—Baubo?” And Sigmund Freud, who was likely familiar with the findings at Priene, referred to Baubo in his 1916 article, “A Mythological Parallel to a Visual Obsession.”
For those men, Baubo was a historical myth, not a figure worthy of contemporary worship. And to some women, that is to our detriment. “Baubo has been degraded into over-sexualized images of women and girls,” writes Dr. Kaalii Cargill, a scholar of women’s traditions in ancient Greece, on the site LivingNow. “The obscenities that were once shouted in sacred play are now directed at women as aggression, hostility, and violence. We have lost Baubo and so many of the myths and rituals that can connect us to ourselves, each other, and the world.”
But not everyone has relinquished their connection to Baubo. And some believe that her story has relevance for women today. Referring to her as the “Greek Goddess of Humor,” A.C. Smythe of Goddess Gift explains that Baubo should be “celebrated as a positive force of female sexuality and the healing power of laughter. [She] teaches us a lesson in how to turn enmity into friendship. Perhaps her bawdy behavior was a reminder that we should remember that all things will pass and change. To not take things too seriously, for nothing lasts forever.”
Similarly, Jen Miller, on her blog Quill of the Goddess, describes Baubo as “The queen of deep belly laughs, dirty jokes, and unbridled sexuality. I would compare her to Mae West or Amy Schumer. She is a goddess who speaks directly from her genitals, and your approval is neither sought nor required.” Maria Wulf, on her blog Full Moon Fiber Art, even makes Baubo relatable by explaining that she “is the part of us that’s ‘too loud’ and cackles at dirty jokes. The one who is having ‘too much fun.’”
The public display of the female body—at least as dictated by women—still has the power to shock in the 21st century. A society that can lose a good portion of its collective mind at the sight of a mother breast-feeding her baby at a restaurant is probably not ready for Baubo. Yet, as Lubbell points out, Baubo’s power stemmed not from “gleaming armor or beauty bestowed on her” by male gods, but from her own body. She was irreverent and sacred, a symbol of women’s “nurturing and transformative energies” combined with their “resourcefulness and laughter.” In an era when women’s rights and bodily autonomy are under siege on what seems like a daily basis, maybe we ought to reclaim Baubo as a life-affirming reminder of female power.
By Lynn Peril
Top photo credit: BPK Bildagentur / Staatliche Museen / Johannes Laurentius / Art Resource, NY
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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