The vagina has been seen as a symbol of strength and fertility—and sometimes punishment
By Carrie Weisman / AlterNet
Despite the prevalence of sexually suggestive imagery in our culture, we’re still a bit squeamish when it comes to vaginas. But that wasn’t always the case.
“Before Western religion introduced the pesky concept of shame, female genitalia were venerated in ancient mythology,” writes Catherine Blackledge, author of The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality. Blackledge details how skirt lifting, or “ana suromai,” was once thought to help ward off evil and increase crop yields. She points out that 17th-century drinking mugs used to sport depictions of Satan cowering at the sight of an exposed vagina. Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks paraded around cakes shaped like vulvas during the three-day, women-only Syracusan Thesmophoria festival.
There was a time where church walls were lined with images of naked women. The Sheela Na Gigs, found scattered throughout Europe, are erotic carvings of the female figure typically consisting of women squatting and pulling apart their exaggerated vulvas. They were believed to ward off death and evil.
Hindu mythology, too, often positions the vagina as a symbol of worship. Take the story of Shiva and his wife, Shakti. According to the traditional texts, Shiva, god of change and destruction, went into a wild rage upon learning that Shakti had committed suicide. He placed her dead body on his shoulders and began performing the dance of destruction. To calm him, the lord Vishnu cut her body into 51 pieces, which fell throughout the Indian subcontinent. These locations became known as the Shakti Peetha; places of worship consecrated to the goddess. The Kamakhya Temple was constructed around the area where Shakti’s vagina and womb are believed to have fallen.
The temple hosts an annual fertility festival called Ambuwasi Puja to celebrate the goddess’s yearly menstrual cycle. The river Brahmaputra is believed to turn red during this time.
In Hindu philosophy, according to Tantra, the yoni, or “vagina,” is the origin of life. India’s famous sexual texts, like the Kama Sutra, refer to the yoni as a “sacred area,” “a pad of pleasure,” “an occult religion worthy of reverence,” and “a symbol of the cosmic mysteries.”
Further east is the story of Kapo, the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and her detachable, rape-preventing vagina. According to the myth, Kapo’s sister Pele was being pursued by Kamapua’a, a figure who is visualized as half man, half pig. While Pele showed no interest in his advances, Kamapua’a persisted, and eventually tried to force himself on her. Sensing Pele was in danger, Kapo sought to distract Kamapua’a in the only way she knew how: by detaching her vagina from her body and sending it his way. The plan worked. Distracted by the sight and smell, Kamapua’a left Pele and followed the flying vagina all the way to the southeastern tip of O’ahu.
But vaginas aren’t always seen as symbols of strength or fertility; some stories position the organ as a means of punishment. Take the story of Indra’s Curse. According to Hindu scripture, Indra, king of the gods, seduced a young married woman named Ahalya. Her husband eventually caught them in the act and cursed Indra by making thousands of female genitals appear on his body. To add insult to injury, the guy decided to snatch away his “manhood,” too.
Then there’s the story of Hine-nui-te-po, the Maori goddess and ruler of the underworld. According to local mythology, Hine-nui-te-po was immortal. Her enemy, Maui, intended to rob her of this gift by transforming into a worm, entering her body through her vagina and escaping through her mouth. But the plan was foiled by a flock of birds that had followed Maui en route to the goddess. Finding the situation a tad ridiculous, the birds began to laugh and woke Hine-nui-te-po. She decided to take revenge on Maui by slamming her thighs together, crushing him. As Cracked reports, “The greatest hero in Maori mythology was killed by a Kegel exercise.”
Fast-forward to today and vaginas have largely fallen out of conversations regarding worship. In fact, the word has nearly fallen out of conversation altogether. Back in 2012, Michigan state representative Lisa Brown was temporarily banned from speaking on the House floor after saying the word “vagina” when addressing strict anti-abortion proposals. Later that day, Republican Mike Callton told the press that what she had said was so vile, he could never bear to mention it in front of women or “mixed company.” Eve Ensler headed to Lansing to perform her award-winning play, “The Vagina Monologues,” soon after the news broke.
But not all pushbacks come in political form. British artist Jamie McCartney has been hailed as a revolutionary after constructing his “Great Wall of Vagina.” The 30-foot polyptych consists of 400 plaster casts of vulvas. Included are mothers and daughters, identical twins, transgendered men and women as well as a woman pre- and post-natal and another one pre- and post-labiaplasty. As the official webpage says, “It’s not vulgar, it’s vulva!”
Of course, giving visibility to the vagina is a task that has largely fallen on those in the field of erotic entertainment: the pornographers. And they’ve managed to transform the mythical vagina into something much more carnal. “Pussy worship” has become a popular porn tag that lends itself to the world of oral servitude. The term, which is sometimes used interchangeably with phrases like “face-sitting” or “queening,” involves elements of tease and denial by the female being “served.” Feminist writer Rosie Raphaelle explains, “It’s not much different from the usual cunnilingus act, only this is a more deliberate and devised form of play.” It may not be quite as inspiring as Kapo’s flying yoni, but it seems to be the most accessible form of vagina worship modern society has to offer.
Carrie Weisman is an AlterNet staff writer who focuses on sex, relationships and culture.