Warding Off Danger: Protective Power of the Vulva
Patriarchy surrounds the vulva with silences and coverings, violence and wounds, taunting and shame: "You cunt!" and "Your mother's cunt!"
Yet many cultures have believed in the vulva's sacredness, which gave it supremely protective powers. Attackers would flee rather than face its primordial force, and it even had the power to quell storms.
The Greeks called it Anasyrma, “exposing the genitals.” [Dexter, Miriam Robbins, and Mair, Victor, “Apotropaia and Fecundity in Eurasian Myth and Iconography: Erotic Female Display Figures.” Proceedings of the 16th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, Los Angeles Nov. 5-6, 2004, in Journal of the IE Monograph Series, No. 50, 2005, p. 112] In Hellenized cultures in Italy, Scythia, and elsewhere, Gorgons baring their vulvas and sticking out their tongues were depicted on armor and other items as a way of warding off danger and enemies.
Etruscan chariots were emblazoned with Gorgo, legs spread and vulva bared to frighten enemies.
Romans used cowrie or Baubo amulets to avert the evil eye. [Michael Oppitz, “Drawings on Shamanic Drums” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 22 (Autumn, 1992), p. 78]
Lycian women advanced on the warrior Bellerophon while exposing their vulvas. The story goes that this invader called on Poseidon to flood Lycia. The Lycian men could not persuade Bellerophon to desist, so “the women, pulling up their garments, came to meet him; and when he, for shame, retreated towards the sea again, the wave also, it is said, went back with him.” [Plutarch, Moralia, 248 a-b, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Bravery_of_Women*/A.html ]
A similar story was told of Cúchullain in the Táin Bo Cuailnge. To oppose him, his uncle sent out 150 women “utterly naked, all at the same time, and the leader of the women before them, Scandlach, to expose their nakedness and their boldness to him.” The famous warrior of Uster lowered his eyes to avoid seeing these bold women and thus being overcome by their power. [Dexter and Mair, 111]
Plutarch also relates that when the Persians were losing a battle against the Medes, they began to retreat, but the women caused them to return to battle by raising their skirts. Then the Persians prevailed.
The women of Tlatelolco broke the alliance with Tenochtitlan. They “flaunted their backsides at the enraged Tenocha visitors.” [June Nash, “The Aztecs and the Ideology of Male Dominance,” Signs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), The University of Chicago Press, pp. 358] Nash writes, “Bancroft interprets this behavior as a direct affront by the women, who detested the military alliance with the Aztecs that took their husbands and sons away from them.”
The writer Lu Xun heard accounts from his nursemaid of how she and other women stood in rows on city walls and warded off invaders by uncovering their vulvas. This was to prevent them from firing guns and cannons --or to make the weapons blow up. Chinese women did this in the 1774 rebellion of Wang Lun. Even in the late Manchu dynasty, “the most effective deterrant against beseigers was considered to be menstrual blood dropped on them from above.” [Dexter, Miriam Robbins, and Mair, Victor, pp. 113, 116-17]
Even representations of vulvas can have this danger-warding effect. South Indians made atropopaic pots (“exceedingly obscene” in the eyes of an English observer) smeared them with whitewash, and placed them in grain fields and on house tops to protect from the evil eye. [W.T. Elmore, Dravidian Gods, 1913]
Sheila-na-gigs in Ireland, Britain, France, occasionally Italy, had this apotropaic power. They were often placed over doorways or window lintels, and also on castle walls in Ireland. Some had been ancient, freestanding, pre-Christian scultures, often placed near water. They were brought into the churches, but others were carved to order and built into the church walls. The old Irish demanded this assimilation, which appears to have been a condition for conversion. In later centuries, especially in early modern times, the priesthood increasingly railed against the customary blessing rites of touching the vulva stones. They removed, hid, and often destroyed them as relics of paganism, as indeed they are. Nevertheless the Irish custom of rubbing the sheila stones continues to the present day.
Some (like the figure with colossal vulva from Oakley, Britain, at left) featured prominent clitorises (especially the English sheilas). Others had deep grooves where people scraped out rock dust for ritual use in blessings, healings, and possibly conception magic.
Yunnan (southwestern China, near Thailand)
The Lisu tell a story of two tribes fighting a big war in Nujiang valley, precipitated by a dispute over a marriage. “At noon during a major battle, a prestigious middle-aged woman of one side climbed a cliff. She took off her long skirt and waved it. She shouted to stop the battle. The two sides stopped fighting immediately and went back to their villages.” An old man explained the historical tradition:
"Women had the right to stop war by the custom of that time. The two sides had to stop fighting if a woman of either side waves her skirt and calls for an armistice.” [Yang Guangmin, The Lisus: Women Not to Be Blocked by Canyon, Beijing: Yunnan Education Press, p. 12]
The people of this southwest Pacific island had a very similar custom: by taking off her outer skirt, a woman signals war or peace or protection of a captive enemy. Vanatinai, northeast of Australia, has been described as one of the most egalitarian societies on Earth today. It is matrilineal and matrilocal. [Lepowsky, Maria. Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993]
Mande epics tell of women who quelled armies by raising their robes. Nyana Jukudulaye, wearing 333 bells around her waist at Mande Dakajalan, made the warriors stop fighting by neutralizing the power of their protective amulets: "when she exposed her buttocks in the direction of any battle/ The warriors would cease fire." [Alion Diabaté, in David Conrad “Mooning Armies and Mothering Heroes: Female Power in Mande Epic Tradition.” In Search of Sunjata, ed. Ralph Austen, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, pp 196, 212]
The famous curse of Kolonkan on the Masaré dynasty was prompted by the way they shamed her as a bride-to-be. Modern Mande jeli (griots) name Kolokon's wrath as causing the woes of their royal family since the 1300s. Kassim Koné reports a modern instance in response to the repression of 1991. A woman whose grandchildren were killed by soldiers of the regime went to the cemetery where they had just been buried. She stripped off her clothes and cursed the dictator Musa Traoré. He was overthrown the same day. [in Conrad, 213]
More on female nyame in Mali
Guturamira ngani, the curse of nakedness, is “a customary form of women’s protest.” Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru invoked it during a Nairobi demonstration of the East African Association against the imprisonment of Harry Thuku. (Known as the “Chief of the Women”, he was arrested in March, 1922.) A strike was already underway, and a crowd gathered to demand Thuku’s release. One of the leaders, Jomo Kenyatta, met with the English governor and then urged the crowd to disperse, saying there would be a fair trial. Some people started leaving, while others accused Kenyatta of being bribed by the colonialists.
Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was standing near the front of the crowd, and roused spirits by throwing her dress over her shoulders, exposing her body: “You take my dress and give me your trousers. You men are cowards. What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there. Let’s get him!” She galvanized the crowd. Those who had left returned, and they rushed the fence, shouting, throwing stones, and confronting armed guards. They fired on the protesters, killing dozens, as many as 150, many of them shot in the back. Muthoni Nyanjiru was one of the women who were killed.
In 1992 the women of Nairobi used this tactic again, in their hunger strike protesting the state's declaration of a single-party dictatorship. They gathered at Uhuru Park (which Wangari Maathai had previously saved from development). On the 4th day (also in March) they refused orders to leave the park. Police came and starting beating the youth in the group Release Political Prisoners and others who tried to stop them. They beat Wangari Maathai unconscious.
Witnessing the brutalizations, Ruth Wangari stripped off her clothes and came between a youth and the police who was beating him. The youths ran away and the women fought with the four police. Two other women threw off their shirts. That restored calm. They put their clothes back on, and the police took their tent and property. One woman explained, “In Kikuya tradition, they were cursing the men, saying, ‘I have no respect for you. I wish I had never given birth to you.’”
[Leigh S Brownhill and Terisa E Turner, “Subsistence Trade vs World Trade: Gendered Class Struggle in Kenya, 1992-2002,” in Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme, Spring/Summer 2002, Vols 21-22, #4/1, York University, CA
In the Women’s War: Ogu Umunwanyi, also known as the Women's War, women stripped off daily clothing and adorned themselves with leaves and ritual regalia to protest colonial oppression. They challenged abuses by colonial warrant chiefs collaborating with British attempts to tax women and census their property. The female rebels processed through the towns and demanded, “Was your mother counted?” The protests started in Owerri province in 1929, and spread from there. The women sang, danced, ridiculed, burned and looted; destroyed hated native courts, cut telegraph wires, marched on the houses of chiefs collaborating with the colonialists, and forced them to flee. To the Brits, they simply said: “Sir, this matter does not concern men.”
More Igbo women's power
The Diola women’s religious group Usana acted as “a female counter-hegemonic power” in the Casamance region of Senegal. The women used ritual nudity in some of the first protests in a wave of popular unrest during the 1970s:
"On the same day, organising around the Usana, thousands of women marched through town; as one student recalls, ‘they all wore branches of green leaves, necklaces of coloured beads around the chest and the belly. Breasts and even the intimate parts were exposed. The ritual was there, in its nakedness. It made the dance sacred.’ The women reached the Escale, Ziguinchor's central district, visited the Gouvernance, the police station and the jailhouse, demanding the release of all the students that had been arrested. The next day all the students' demands were granted." [Foucher, Vincent, Cheated Pilgrims : Education, Migration and the Birth of Casamançais Nationalism (Senegal). Dissertation, London, SOAS, 2002, pp 276-7.]
More on Usana
Nudity in Kom women’s protest, Cameroon, 1958
Cote d’Ivoire, at a time of political riots in the early 1950s, women demonstrated naked in the countryside. [Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, H-Africa, Jan 17, 2008]
Escravos, Niger delta region, 2002:
“600 unarmed Nigerian women, between 30 and 90 years of age, held 700 men hostage in a Chevron Texaco oil terminal from July 8 to July 17. The women took over important operational facilities, such as the airport runway, thus making it impossible for the men to leave… The women protesters maintained control over the terminal, however, not with weapons, but by threatening to take off their clothes. This gesture, if made by wives, mothers and grandmothers, would cause great shame to witnesses from many Nigerian tribes.
“The women’s peaceful, civil-disobedience-like protest shocked the oil company, and … they engaged in a ten-day negotiation with them that ended with an agreement by ChevronTexaco to hire at least 25 villagers and to build electrical, water and school systems in the villages in the area. … the day that the women’s seige in Escravos ended successfully, women from a rival tribe followed their lead and took over four ChevronTexaco flow stations in another part of Nigeria.” [Report from www. feminist.org, in Off Our Backs, Sept-Oct. 2002] More on this action
African women definitely lead the way in these acts of female-power-as-protector-defender, but several instances have been reported from Indonesian islands (looking for notes). Here's another example of indigenous women using this tactic in political actions.
Kalinga women protested a hydroelectric dam project in Luzon with direct physical action. The women took off their sarongs at a pre-arranged signal and thrashed male workers with them. Then they removed survey tools and guns and the men’s clothes, right down to their socks, and took them to the river. The men hid til dark, then furtively sneaked their way home.
“A cultural taboo—not to lay eyes or hands on women… So they knew that their men would be disarmed immediately if there were in front of women who were naked.” The female elders spoke out for “the land which is sacred and beloved, from whose womb spring our Kalinga lives.”
[Winifred Milius Lubell, Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, pp. 181-3]
The 16th century Rabelais recounted a popular story about a woman who put the devil to flight by showing him her vulva. Such stories were a folk culture counter-weight to the demonologist doctrines that claimed witches were slaves to the devil and forced to have painful sex with him. These traditions of the powerfully protective vulva predated Christian belief in a devil by a long shot. The story also appears in the 18th century Fables by Jean de La Fontaine (shown left)
During a long inter-clan feud, men armed with clubs and pitchforks descended on a house in County Galway. A lone woman was at home. She came out and confronted them, raising her skirts above her head, and put them to flight. This happened sometime before World War I, and was later reported by an eyewitness in the Irish Times, Sept. 23, 1977.
San girls mocked white cameramen filming “by laughing and dancing toward them and by briefly lifting their little skirts.” [Christa Sütterlin, “Universals in Apotropaic Symbolism,” Leonardo, Vol 22, No. 1, MIT Press, 1989, p 73]
New Guinea and central Australia
Women would hold or present their breasts in moments of danger “to communicate that they were mothers and to be spared.” Women of all ages, childbearing or not, performed this act signalling the sacrality of the nurturant power. [Christa Sütterlin, “Universals in Apotropaic Symbolism,” Leonardo, Vol 22, No. 1, MIT Press, 1989, p 73]
Saameland, Russia, Maghreb
A Lapp woman lifted her skirts to a bear to make it go away. [Dexter and Mair, 113] Russians told similar stories. In 16th century north Africa, it was lions who ran away at this sight. [Blackledge, see below]
A proverb says that "The sea clams down if it sees a woman's cunt." (La mar es posa bona si veu el cony d'una dona). The related English word cunt did not become obscene until the 16th century, and today is used abusively more often than not. [Blackledge, see below]
More examples of vulvic display quelling storms, repelling bears and lions, driving out demons, and fostering the growth of flax, from Catherine Blackledge's The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality
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