Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient female fertility symbols were scattered everywhere in the ancient world, from ancient goddesses such as Kali to the blue-skinned Hindu goddess of destruction to Izanami-no-Mikoto, the Japanese goddess of death and creation, to Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of the ocean, chaos and creation.
Some of the earliest prehistoric figurines have been of women, with their vulvas on full display. Venus of Hohle Fels is the oldest known statue depicting a human. It dates to around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago and features exaggerated female breasts, hips, thighs and vulva. The statue was about sex and reproduction, but also hope for survival, nourishment, longevity and successful communities.
Traditions of vulval veneration have been found in European and Australian Palaeolithic art. Carvings of vulvas were made in stone, ivory or bone, on walls or worn as jewelry.
In the ancient world, the Sumerian goddess Ishtar was often depicted with her vulva, which was worshipped as the source of her power. It was upon seeing her vulva that the sun god Ra recovered his brightness, and it was from union between her vulva and the phallus of Dumuzi that plants began to grow on earth.
Yet at some point, the vulva became associated with the obscene and pornographic. As Greek culture changed, the vulva became increasingly censored or hidden entirely.
Fertility goddesses showing their vulvas were reserved for female-only spaces. For example, only married women were allowed to attend the feminine festival of Thesmorphoria, where pomegranates were eaten as a symbol of menstruation, and bread was moulded to the likeness of female genitalia.
Meanwhile, in the public domain, female statues and vulval symbols were covered up or removed entirely in favor of phallic symbols.
There is much scholarly debate about how and why the vulva became censored, but one theory worth considering is the increase of literacy and predominantly male playwrights and poets in ancient Greece. Leonard Schlian in his book The Alphabet and the Goddess argues that the disappearance of the vulva coincides with an increase in phallic symbology and a more literate society.
For example, in the trilogy The Oresteia written by Aeschylus (c525 – 455 BCE) the god Apollo, argues that men are the creators of life and women are merely a passive vessel.
During the trial of Orestes, who was accused of murdering his mother, Apollo makes the following plea to the goddess Athena who was acting as judge.
‘’The woman you call mother of the child is not the parent, just a nurse to the seedThe new-born-sown seed that grows and swells insides her. The man is the source of life – the one who mounts’’ –Apollo, from The Eumenides by Aeschylus (525-455 BCE)
Athena agreed with Apollo and set Orestes free. Despite being a woman herself, she believed that motherhood was misplaced, since she had been born from Zeus’s skull, not from her mother.
However, the play conveniently ignores any reference to the fact that in the original myth Athena was in the uterus of her mother Metis before Zeus tricked her and swallowed her whole. Metis continued her pregnancy inside Zeus until Athena’s burst forth from an axe wound in his head.
With the increase of literature, poems and plays that depicted women as passive participants in reproduction, and excluded women from the process of creation, feminine roles were pushed to the perimeter of society.
Greek artists often depicted the phallus. Indeed, Greek statues flaunted their masculinity and were usually carved nude. Females and goddesses were mostly robed, or their genitals were replaced by perfectly smooth triangles with the vulva or labia missing entirely.
The most popular surviving myth that involves the vulva is the story of Baubo. When Demeter, goddess of the earth lost her daughter to Hades, Baubo flashed her vulva to Demeter to make her laugh. Whilst this was an act to show feminine unity, at the same time it made the vulva a subject of humor and jest.
The vulva and female genitalia had lost its connection and respect as essential to life itself and had become the subject of fun and pleasure, which it still is to this day. Baubo herself is depicted as an old woman, who is beyond reproductive years, and was known to be bold, outspoken and sexually liberated.
So it was that the phallus, and the phallus alone, became the symbol of power, protection and the source of life. Instead of the equal partnership that the phallus and the vulva enjoyed in early civilized society, female genitalia was labeled a mere receiver of life, a convenient incubator secondary to the seed.
The rest, as they say, is history. A history that is marred by the suppression and almost complete destruction of feminine symbols, feminine power and feminine identity. However, as times change and we enter a new age of free expression and fast communication, old ways are being rediscovered and feminine and masculine roles are being redefined. Perhaps the old ways and the power of the goddess have not been as truly lost as once thought?