In Greek mythology, Baubo, the goddess who shows her vulva in countless figurines, represents mockery, the woman’s sense of humor.

The top image is the figurine known as Baubo, terracotta, 1st and 2nd centuries AD
MKG Sammlung

Christian-Georges Schwentzel, University of Lorraine

An important part of today’s comedians are women. Although, laughter has been a male prerogative, as historian Sabine Melchior-Bonnet reminds us in her essay, The laughter of the femmes, une histoire de pouvoir (UFP, 2021).

Since ancient times, laughter has been considered “contrary to the image of the humble and modest woman”writes Melchior-Bonnet. A woman who laughed in public was often equated with a prostitute or, more recently, with a hysterical madwoman, while a man who joked, however boldly, was not the object of the same reproach.

Ancient sources confirm this discrimination through laughter, although they offer us some rare figures of female humorists. These are not historical characters, but mythological ones. However, they show that for the ancient Greeks or Egyptians, laughing and making people laugh were not exclusively male privileges.

Demeter’s Laugh

One of these early comedians is called Iame. She is mentioned in Hymn to Demeter homeric, one Greek poetic work composed in the 6th century BC.

In this work we learn that the goddess Demeter is desperate because she lost her daughter Korah, who was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter assumed the appearance of a grieving old woman. He wanders the Earth for several days before arriving at Eleusis, not far from Athens. There she is received by Metanira, wife of the local king, but, paralyzed with grief, she refuses to eat or drink. Then a maiden named Iambé intervenes: she throws “a thousand words of joy” to the goddess, says the text. The nature of these jokes is not specified, but we can assume that Iambé (whose name evokes iambic, i.e. satirical poetry) makes obscene jokes. An effective obscenity, as the goddess finally breaks her silence and accepts the offered drink.

Figurine known as Baubo, terracotta, 1st and 2nd centuries AD Rodin Museum, Meudon.
Author provided

Another hymn to Demeter, composed by a certain Filikos, known thanks to a papyrus from the 3rd century BC, unfortunately fragmentary, presents Iambé as an uneducated and talkative old peasant, whose incredible grace attracts the goddess.

the dance of the vulva

In another version of this myth, told by Christian authors Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Arnobius (c. 240-304), and Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-339), the Eleusinian humorist is called Baubo. This time, she combines words with action: she rolls up her robe to show her vulva to the goddess. Surprised by this unexpected sight, Demeter finds sudden comfort in him and immediately snaps out of her lethargy.

Isis Baubo, terracotta, Iᵉʳ-IIᵉ centuries.
Agyptisches Leipzig Museum, Author provided

In his account, Arnobe (Adversary Nations V, 26) gives us some details about Baubo’s gestures: through a kind of magic and belly dancing, or rather, the lower belly, she makes her shaved vulva take the shape of a child’s face. How is it done? Perhaps you have drawn a baby face on your vulva, or just above it, with the help of makeup. Then, like a ventriloquist, she makes sounds, creating the illusion that it’s the baby in her vulva that’s talking or singing.

In any case, the effectiveness of the humorous gesture is emphasized again, but also, for the three authors who are Christians, an opportunity to ridicule the polytheistic religion of the Greeks. Thus, Clement of Alexandria ironically: “Beautiful glasses and fit for a goddess!” (protreptic II, 20). Christian authors reproach Greek mythology for having granted a place, admittedly very limited, but still a place, to female laughter.

positive obscenity

If Christian polemicists saw in her nothing more than indecency, the myth of the Eleusinian humorist reflects the idea of ​​an apotropaic and cathartic obscenity, capable of relieving a being plunged into the deepest sadness. It is a form of positive rudeness that conveys a very serious message: Baubo is reminiscent of the goddess of female power represented by the vulva, the promise of future motherhood. Therefore, the show can also be considered a gesture of solidarity among women.

Due to her success, the maiden who managed to cheer Demeter was sometimes considered a true deity by the Greeks. A cult inscription found on the island of Naxos, dated to the 4th century BC, mentions the fourth name of Baubo, after Demeter, his daughter Core, and Zeus. A kind of patron deity of beneficial laughter.

Perrette and the Devil of Papefiguière. Illustration by Charles Eisen.

a universal myth

Much has been written about the interpretation of the Baubo myth. Historians and archaeologists have linked the discovery of the vulva to certain practices of the Demeter cult, which may have included the manipulation of sexual objects, or with insults. which may have been ritually uttered.

The Eleusinian humorist also attracted the attention of writers. Rabelais probably remembered her when he imagined the episode of Perrette, wife of Papefiguière that wards off the devil by lifting your dress (Pantagruel, Fourth Book, XLVII).

This story also inspired Jean de La Fontaine. In her short story “Le Diable de Papefiguière”, a peasant woman named Perrette frightens a demon by showing her “scar” running down the thighs.

Later, Goethe gave Baubo back his old name, before Nietzsche and Freud, in turn, became interested in this disturbing figure.

Psychoanalyst Georges Devereux even dedicated a book to him. According to him, the display of the vulva is a pure “phantom product of the human unconscious”. Therefore, numbers comparable to Baubo are found in other cultures outside the Greek world.

Elodie Yung as the goddess Hathor (gods of egypt, 2016).
Author provided
Ame-no-Uzume, in the manga version.
Author provided

In Egypt, the goddess Hathor, the personification of joy and eroticism, shows her vulva to the sun god Ra, sometimes showing signs of weakness (Chester Beatty Papyrus I).

Before the deity’s striptease, the god bursts into a powerful and fertile laugh that allows him to regain all his splendor. A beneficial vulva and laughter, as in Greek myth, except that Baubo’s gesture, intended for a female deity, did not have the erotic dimension of the Egyptian legend.

In Japan, it is the goddess Ame-no-Uzume who discovers her body, provoking the hilarity of her divine audience and allowing, at the same time, Like Hathor, let the sun’s rays light up the world again.

Terracotta figurine of a ‘vulva-woman’ known as Baubo, from the sanctuary of Demeter in Priene, Asia Minor, 4th-2nd century BC Berlin, Antikensammlung.
Baubo, Roman period, figurine preserved in the Rodin Museum.
Rodin Museum

“And when they saw her robust and full body like that of a girl, joy entered their hearts and they began to laugh,” writes Paul Claudel in a prose poem inspired by the Japanese myth (“La délivrance d’Amaterasu” , Connaissance de l’Est, 1920).

Baubo figurines?

In 1898, German archaeologists excavating the remains of the Temple of Demeter in Priene, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), made an intriguing discovery. A series of incredible figurines of “female virgins” have been discovered. Now they are in Berlin (antikensammlung).

They have no heads as such: their faces are inscribed on their bellies and their vulvas on their chins. Was it to do Baubo’s magic trick of making a child appear in her vulva?

Other figurines from Egypt, where they were made between the 3rd and 3rd centuries BC, show pregnant women squatting and touching their vulvas with their right hand. Therefore, they are also associated with the Baubo myth. These figurines were probably used as amulets to protect pregnant women at the same time. where many died in childbirth.

The Musée Rodin de Meudon has some of these incredible figures that the sculptor acquired.

Auguste Rodin, “Messenger of the Iris Gods”.
National Gallery, Oslo, Author provided

It is not impossible that Rodin was inspired or remembered these statuettes when he made his “Iris, messenger of the gods”, at the end of the 19th century.

Indeed, Rodin’s goddess draws attention to her vulva, like Baubo in ancient myth, through her pose. Iris looks frozen as she performs some sort of vulva dance. Another beneficial vulva that attracts our gaze and distracts us, at least for a few moments, from our sorrows, our anguish and misfortunes that we face.The conversation

Christian-Georges Schwentzel, Professeur d’histoire ancienne, University of Lorraine

This article was originally published on The conversation. read the original.


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