Barbara Walker: Vagina dentata
(from The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets)
vagina," the classic symbol of men's fear of sex, expressing the unconscious belief that a woman may eat or castrate her partner
during intercourse. Freud said, "Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the
sight of female genitals." But he had the reason wrong. The real reason for this "terrifying shock" is a mouth-symbolism,
now recognized universally in myth and fantasy: "It is well-known in psychiatry that both males and females fantasize as a
mouth the female's entranceway to the vagina."
The more patriarchal the society, the
more fear seems to be aroused by the fantasy. Men of Malekula, having overthrown their matriarchate, were haunted by a yonic
spirit called "that which draws us to It so that It may devour us." The Yanomamo said one of the first beings on earth
was a woman whose vagina became a toothed mouth and bit off her consort's penis. Chinese patriarchs said women's genitals
were not only gateways to immortality but also "executioners of men." Moslem aphorisms said: "Three things are insatiable:
the desert, the grave, and a woman's vulva." Polynesians said the savior-god Maui tried to find eternal life by crawling into
the mouth (or vagina) of his mother Hina, in effect trying to return to the womb of the Creatress; but she bit him in two
and killed him.
Stories of the devouring Mother are ubiquitous in myths, representing
the death-fear which the male psyche often transformed into a sex-fear. Ancient writings describe the male sexual function
not as "taking" or "posessing" the female, but rather "being taken" or "putting forth." Ejaculation was viewed as a loss of
a man's vital force, which was "eaten" by a woman. The Greek sema ir "semen: meant both "seed" and "food."
Sexual "consummation" was the same as "consuming" (the male). Many savages still have the same imagery. The Yanomamo word
for pregnant also means satiated or full-fed; and "to eat" is the same as "to copulate."
between mouths and female genitals was blurred by the Greek idea of the laminae -- lustful she-demons, born of the Libyan
snake-goddess Lamia. Their name meant either "lecherous vaginas" or "gluttonous gullets." Lamiawas
a Greek name for the divine female serpent called Kundalini in India, Uraeus
or Per-Uatchet in Egypt, and Lamashtu in Babylon. Her Babylonian consort was Pazuzu,
he of the serpent penis. Lamia's legend, with its notion that males are born to be eaten, led to Pliny's report on
the sexual lives of snakes which was widely believed throughout Europe even up to the 20th century: a male snake
fertilizes the female snake by putting his head into her mouth and allowing himself to be eaten.
Indians told a tale similar to that of the Lamia. A beautiful seductive woman accepted the love of a young warrior and united with
him inside a cloud. When the cloud lifted, the woman stood alone. The man was a heap of bones being gnawed by snakes at her
Mouth and vulva were equated in many Egyptian myths. Ma-Nu, the western gate
whereby the sun god daily re-entered his Mother, was sometimes a "cleft" (yoni) and sometimes a "mouth." Priestesses of Bast,
representing the Goddess, drew up their skirts to display their genitals during religious processions. To the Greeks, such
a display was frightening. Bellerophon fled in terror from Lycian women advancing on him with genitals exposed, and even the
sea god Poseidon retreated, for fear they might swallow him.
According to Philostratus,
magical women "by arousing sexual desire seek to devour whom they wish." To the patriarchal Persians and Moslems this seemed
a distinct possibility. Viewing women's mouths as either obscene, dangerous, or overly seductive, they insisted on veiling
them. Yet men's mouths, which look no different, were not viewed as threatening.
comes from the same root as "mother" -- Anglo-Saxon muth, also related to the Egyptian Goddess Mut. Vulvas have labiae,
"lips," and many men have believed that behind the lips lie teeth. Christian authorities of the Middle Ages taught that certain
witches, with the help of the moon and magic spells, could grow fangs in their vaginas. They likened women's genitals to the
"yawning" mouth of hell, though this was hardly original; the underworld gate had always been the yoni of Mother Hel. It has
always "yawned" -- from Middle English yonen, another derivatave of "yoni." A German vulgarity meaning "cunt," Fotze in
parts of Bavaria meant simply "mouth."
To Christian ascetics,
Hell-mouth and the vagina drew upon the same ancient symbolism. Both were equated with the womb-symbol of the whale that swallowed
Jonah; according to this "prophecy" the Hell-mouth swallowed Christ (as Hina swallowed her son Maui) and kept him
for three days. Visionary trips to hell often read like "a description of the experience of being born, but in reverse, as
if the child was being drawn into the womb and destroyed there, instead of being formed and given life." St. Teresa of Avila said
her vision of a visit to hell was "an oppression, a suffocation, and an affliction so agonizing, and accompanied by such a
hopeless and distressing misery that no words I could find would adequately describe it. To say that it was as if my soul
were being continuously torn fro my body is as nothing."
The archetypal image of "devouring"
female genitals seems undeniably alive even in the modern world. "Males in our culture are so afraid of direct contact with
female genitalia, and are even afraid of referring to these genitalia themselves; they largely displace their feelings to
the accessory sex organs -- the hips, legs, breasts, buttocks, etc. -- and they give these accessory sex organs an exaggerated
interest and desirability." Even here, the male scholar inexplicably "displaces" the words sex organ onto structures that
have nothing to do with sexual functioning.
Looking into, touching, entering the
female orifice seems fraught with hidden fears, signified by the confusion of sex with death in overwhelming numbers of male
minds and myths. Psychiatrists says sex is perceived by the male unconscious as dying: "Every orgasm is a little death: the
death of the 'little man,' the penis." Here indeed is the root of ascetic religions that equated the denial of death with
the denial of sex.
Moslems attributed all kinds of dread powers to a vulva. It could
"bite off" a man's eye-beam, resulting in blindness for any man who looked into its cavity. A sultan of Damascus was
said to have lost his sight in this manner. Christian legend claimed he went to Sardinia to be cured of his
blindness by a miraculous idol of the Virgin Mary -- who, being eternally virgin, had her door-mouth permanently closed by
Apparently Freud was wrong in assuming that men's fear of female genitals
was based on the idea that the female had been castrated. The fear was much less empathetic, and more personal: a fear of
being devoured, of experiencing the birth trauma in reverse. A Catholic scholar's curious description of the Hell-mouh as
a womb inadvertently reveals this idea: "When we think of man entering hell we think of him as establishing contact with the
most intrinsic, unified, ultimate and deepest level of the reality of the world."