What is it about the sight of female genitalia that unnerves us? The movie Pitch Perfect 2, about a women’s a cappella group, kicks off with a new scandal threatening the singers when Rebel Wilson’s character, Fat Amy, accidentally flashes her vagoo at an audience that includes the U.S. president and the first lady. In a similar vein, Samantha Bee, the only woman currently hosting a late-night TV show in the U.S., named her weekly, in-your-face news comedy Full Frontal.
The notion that vulvas are a symbol of power is, in fact, an ancient one. And we almost forgot this. I’ve been reading ancient Greek mythology for decades, and somehow I managed to miss learning about Baubo until quite recently.
Baubo is part of the story of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, who fell into a deep depression and deprived humankind of grain after Hades abducted her daughter, Persephone. According to myth, Baubo lifted her skirt and flashed her vajayjay at the goddess, causing her to laugh and break out of her funk.
Some texts refer to Baubo as the goddess of mirth, jest, and bawdy humor, who reminds us that even the worst of situations benefits from a little humor. Small votive statuettes found in Priene, an ancient Greek city in the west coast of what is now Turkey, are said to be figures of Baubo. They show her as a face on a torso that is being revealed under a lifted skirt. In Greek, anasyrma or ana-suromai means up and skirt and refers to the ancient ritual of lifting one’s skirt to show one’s genitalia. Ritual self-exposure was one of the few known practices associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret initiation rites performed on Eleusis in honor of the goddess Demeter.
Other traditions have similar figures of female genitalia as powerful symbols of fertility and protection. Ireland and Great Britain have the sheela na gig, an architectural grotesque with an exaggerated vulva. Similarly, on the Caroline Islands in Micronesia, chiefs’ huts have dilukai figures above the doorways to ward off evil.
Contemporary artist Amanda Sage has reimagined the act of skirt lifting in an electrifying painting called Ana-Suromai. Her imagery perfectly conveys both the anger and fiercely protective power of women, as symbolized by the bold display of our vulvas.
Baubo makes an appearance in Banshees, my latest publication in the Sapphic Siren Interludes series. I thoroughly enjoyed weaving her mythology into the universe of the sirens. As the person who got Demeter to lighten up and modify the sirens’ punishment, Baubo is their savior and has become their beloved Aunt Bo. She embodies the Baubo myth in her off-color jokes, her good cheer, and her near-obsession with flashing people. She was great fun to write and will likely make a reappearance in subsequent stories.
Baubo is my muse in writing this series. If you’ve never heard of her before, it’s my privilege to make the introductions. Ana-suromai is fundamentally a celebration of women’s sexual energy, and Baubo’s act of skirt lifting channels that energy into a jest for the purpose of healing someone through laughter. She’s a wonderful affirmation of women and sex and humor. I’m thrilled to have rediscovered her and will never forget her again.