Monday, May 5, 2014

The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman's Sexual Energy

Book Review: The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman’s Sexual Energy by Winifred Milius Lubell (Vanderbilt University Press 1994)

This is a neat book. It is a study of a feminine mythos. It is well illustrated and delves into the very roots of mythology. The study revolves around the figure of Baubo from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Baubo was an elder nurse-maid for a queen in Eleusis. When Demeter was distraught due to the rape and abduction of her daughter Persephone/Kore, she wandered in disguise in search of her. She ended up at Eleusis disguised as a servant and was brought to this queen for work. It was Baubo who cheered her up with a gesture of lifting her skirt to reveal her woman parts which made Demeter laugh. It is likely that Baubo then came to serve Demeter when she was revealed to be the earth goddess. Baubo is also called Iambe.

Along with the reference to Baubo/Iambe in the Hymn to Demeter, a slightly different version of her role occurs in Orphic literature. In one of the Orphic versions the wandering Demeter encounters Baubo and her husband Dysaules and is welcomed into their humble cottage. Their herdsmen sons Triptolemos and Eubuleus witnessed the rape and abduction of Persephone. In another version, one of the sons guides Demeter into the underworld. The other brother Eubuleus provided the pigs upon which they traveled to Hades. The Athenian author Philochorus wrote that Iambe was the daughter of Pan and the goddess Echo and noted that there was a sanctuary to Echo on the way to Eleusis, suggesting (among other suggestions) that Iambe/Baubo had a role in the Eleusinian Mysteries. A different Orphic myth occurred in Phrygia in Asia Minor. Here Baubo was said to have a daughter, Mise. They were both witchy, nocturnal, chthonic creatures frequently associated with Hecate. Like Hecate they were also associated with frogs. There is also a curious story from Sardinia where the Virgin Mary was mourning the death of her son and was consoled by a female frog who said that her own grief was worse since she had seven children ran over bay cart wheels. This made Mary laugh. This seems possibly a version of the Demeter/Baubo story.

The author paints a picture, investigating Baubo/Iambe as a universal mythic form, giving possible correlates in many cultures. Baubo’s gesture of revealing her vulva is called the ana-suromai. Apparently this gesture occurs in similar jesting yet protective/healing contexts in several cultures and forms. Baubo was said to be first connected in writing to the vulva by the 5th century B.C. philosopher Empedocles. Baubo was also referred to as Bona Dea, goddess of women. The author suggests that the ana-suromai gesture may have had something to do with women squatting over newly plowed fields to offer their menstrual blood for fertility. Another possibility is that of female puberty rites. The vulva as a symbol of power is quite evident and ubiquitous in art from Paleolithic times. The rites of the vulva may have faded or fallen out of favor with the advent of the male-dominated Olympian gods. There is a current of feminist mythology here but it is scholarly rather than militant. The forward to the book was written by Marija Gimbutas and she was an advisor. Gimbutas is slightly controversial in her feminine-centric views of the past but was nonetheless a brilliant archaeologist and mythographer.

The author gives the two functions of Baubo as Sage Iambe and Raucous Baubo. It was once thought that Iambe was the source of inspiration for iambic meter but it is now thought iambic meter figured in the Eleusinian Mysteries where raucous gestures and jokes may have been a part. Iambos refers to mocking poetry. Some authors consider that this was a part of the Thesmophoria but not of Eleusis.

The name Baubo is found on a few inscriptions on an Aegean island along with Demeter Thesmophoria (bringer of law and civilization), Kore, Hera, and Zeus. Olender noted that the root word “bau” was used in a few words associated with nursing an infant – ‘to lull to sleep, to rock, a cradle, a pacifier.’ The author notes that the root word is not common to Greek and may have been a foreign import. For this and several other reasons she thinks Baubo was a foreign goddess – possibly arising from the Sumerian goddess Bau, a goddess of the dark waters of the deep, or void, who was listed on a clay tablet dated to 2500 B.C. as having seven hundred priests and priestesses at her temple – so an important figure. The Phoenicians and Syrians had a similar goddess Baalat (Anat), the wife of the storm god Baal. Egyptologist Margaret Murray favored an Egyptian origin for Baubo from the Egyptian Beb ot Bebt, female counterpart of the god Beb, although not much is known about these two, apparently popular in the VIIth Dynasty (2250-2050 B.C.). Another possible link to Egypt is the cult of the cat goddess Bast. Her main temple was at Bubastis, along the Nile. She was a goddess particularly venerated by women. According to Herodotus women would crowd onto a barge and travel down the Nile on their way to Bubastis, coming close to shore in towns and displaying their revelry and ribaldry. Much wine was drunk. They would play music, shout, laugh, and hike up their skirts. Another Greek traveler reported similar skirt-raising gestures to the bull Apis at the Temple of Serapis in Memphis in the first century B.C. Later. Baubo was associated with the Hellenistic Isis as reliever of her grief anxiety at the loss of Osiris. 

There is evidence of the usage of Eleusis as a ritual site since 1450 B.C. Underground chambers – possibly to store grain - have been dated to then. The Eleusinian Mysteries were practiced there for more than a thousand years. The height was perhaps the 5th century B.C. when there were buildings, gardens and tended areas, and people coming from all over the Mediterranean to attend the eight day festival. There were public rituals and private rites for initiates. The public rites of the first five days were attended by all classes of society, including slaves. The initiates then did a procession to Eleusis. Nearing Eleusis there was a curious custom of clowning on a bridge that marked a boundary. The clowning included making lewd gestures and shouting obscenities. Such activity is common in many cultures as a means to induce fertility and that may well have been the function of Baubo and her gestures. Aristophanes in his play “The Frogs” mentions such jeering and jesting on a bridge by drunken women as a treasured part of the feast of the Goddess. The final three days of the rites were conducted in secret. River immersions, drinking of potions, ritual drama, eating of consecrated cakes, and the sacrifice of pigs are thought to have been parts. The three day October festival, Thesmophoria, was more solemn and mainly a women’s affair. Here women gather to mourn and console Demeter on the loss of Kore. Herodotus wrote that the rites came from Egypt through the daughters of Danaus. After the mourning parts were finished the rites turned to joke and jest strongly suggesting Baubo and her function of relieving the anxiety of grief and promoting fertility. Some thought it was a puberty ritual but others like Karl Kerenyi thought it was a traditional veneration of menstruation. He noted that a woman’s period was evidence of her own fertility and as long as they had that they could influence the fertility of the earth. In the Thesmophoria the women were separated from the men just like in more primitive societies where women go away from men during menstruation. Here the women acknowledged their kinship with the earth. On one day they ate only pomegranate seeds, likely to identify with Persephone. They made a tea of lygos (chaste tree) in order to stimulate menstruation. Thus, the Thesmophoria is thought to have been focused around communal menstruation. Interestingly, Baubo’s gesture may symbolically show that comedy may arise from tragedy, that the emotional overtones of situations are more flexible than those immersed in them often realize. It is perhaps the notion of “comic relief.”

The author accords with the feminist notion that Attic Greece and the Olympian pantheon derived from a male-dominated conquering tribe and women, who once had the greatest of prominence in state and religious affairs, had been reduced by the new patriarchy. This may have happened way in the past but the aristocrats of Athens, in particular, seem to have been male-dominated. Some feminists have referred to it as a phallocracy! In that case, aristocratic women in Athens had less independence than women in the countryside. The author notes the familiar story from Hesiod of Pandora as the possible case of a venerated maiden-goddess of abundance reduced to a creation of Zeus. Her defiance of his orders not to open the jar causes curses on humankind so she is called a bringer of evil rather than a bringer of abundance. The author notes feminists who think that the women’s rites at Eleusis and the Thesmophoria were a means for them to release frustrations at their own oppression.

The author goes through scholarly references to Baubo, trying to discern how others have interpreted her. She compares Jane Ellen Harrison and Margaret Murray. Harrison was a scholar of Ancient Greece who began to consider the influence of pre-Greek matriarchal societies. Murray was an Egyptologist also interested in Witchcraft. Early Christian writers spoke of a sacred marriage (hieros gamos) rite at the Mysteries of Eleusis. French scholar Charles Picard (1927) concluded, based on Orphic sources, that Baubo was an integral part of this hieros gamos. Others as well regarded the Baubo and Baubon as wood and/or clay representations of the vulva and phallus used in the ceremony. Another French scholar, Mylonas, thinks that the accounts given by Clement of Alexandria (of the hieros gamos as part of the Mysteries at Eleusis) instead referred to later rites in Ptolemaic Egypt, where Baubo/Isis images became quite common. He does not think Baubo was a part of the rites at Eleusis. He distinguishes the trusted Iambe from the depraved Baubo. The author disagrees and thinks he is influenced by the Christian writers themselves in their denunciation of Baubo as an obscene female figure. She points out that the Aegian island inscriptions (of the name Baubo) alongside Demeter and other deities and the story in the Hymn to Demeter both refute a later borrowed tradition. Another author, Burkhart, thought that the Baubo and Baubon were not vulva and phallus, but mortar and pestle to grind corn for the kykeon, the sacred drink of barley, honey, and pennyroyal, described in the Hymn. Even so, one can hardly not note the sexual symbolism of mortar and pestle and the act of grinding! Burkhart considered Baubo to belong to the Thesmophoria rather than Eleusis.

Kerenyi noted an Orphic myth that had Demeter being drawn through the underworld in a chariot pulled by serpents. It was there in the underworld that she encountered Baubo and Dysaules. Kerenyi collaborated with Carl Jung on a volume of essays on the Demeter-Kore myth. Bruce Lincoln considered the myth of Demeter and Persephone to be the most important myth for women. His idea was that before Indo-European conquest of Greece around 1800 B.C. there was a prominent female puberty rite involving a ritual drama that was later incorporated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Next the author delves into the deep past of the Paleolithic and Neolithic with their abundant female figures to search for distant precursors to Baubo. The vulva was a frequent image, not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world. The vulva was most often depicted abstractly. Other implements incorporated vulva and phallus in one sculpture and may have been used as a sort of ritual dildo for initiatory purposes. The figures are thought to represent creative power, life force, and perpetuation of the species. Many of these “Venuses” had no heads or arms. One Venus has an ample and mature shape and holds a horn or crescent moon with thirteen marks. The prominence of female figures continued into the Neolithic after the melting of the glaciers. Marija Gimbutas points out that it is mistake to suggest that these figures are simply fertility objects. She notes that fertility was a primary concern of the agricultural era but before that the great goddess was mainly concerned with life, death, and regeneration. She says that in the Neolithic the goddess was depicted as snake, bird, fish, frog, or hedgehog. Carved figures of the Fish Goddess from Neolithic Serbia have a resemblance to Sheela-Na-Gigs.  

The author notes three gestures common in feminine ancient art that apply to Baubo: arms up-raised, the frog-like squat, and Baubo’s gesture of the ana-suramai. Each of these gestures, she says, has both scared and profane connotations. Arms-upraised is a very ancient Mediterranean gesture of mourning and reverence for the dead. It also signifies epiphany and seeking or the receiving of a divine blessing. The squatting posture emphasizes the female genitalia. Anthropologists associate it with death and the underworld. It is also, of course, the posture of giving birth. It should be noted that throughout this book there are many pictures of these goddess-figures. The Egyptian frog goddess Heket (or Hekat) was venerated as “primordial mother of all existence.” She had her own temple at pre-Dynastic Hermopolis and some think she came originally from Mesopotamia. She was a midwife and crone, assisting the daily birth of the sun god. She shares many similarities with the Greek goddess Hecate, aside from the nearly identical name. Both were crones associated with witches, death, regeneration, the underworld, and frogs. Baubo may also have been associated with the Triple Moon Goddess form of Hecate. The “old toad” invective has become an insult to old women in general who became scorned and feared. Squatting is associated with birthing, urination, defecation, and menstruating – biological actions that are generally deemed private and profane.

Baubo is not depicted in representations of Demeter and Persephone. Statuettes thought to be of Baubo found at Priene in Asia Minor are odd in that that have no torsos, just legs reaching to faces. The faces are at the level of the vulva. Some hold baskets of fruit, flowers, lutes, and torches. They resemble dwarves. The author delves into depictions of ancient Attic Greek art, noting that genitals on male heroes were miniaturized, but on foreigners, slaves, and satyrs, were enlarged. She also notes the polarization of the sexes in aristocratic ancient Greek society. Women were depicted fully clothed. When Praxiteles created a completely nude statue of Aphrodite of Cnidus in 350 B.C., it was considered shocking.

The author makes an interesting study of Medusa, of the three Gorgon sisters. Hesiod described the Gorgon sisters, Stenno, Euryal, and Medusa. The first two were hideous but Medusa was beautiful. They arose early in the creation of the world and dwelled across the ocean near Night. The author considers the later myth of Perseus slaying Medusa at the behest of a jealous Athena, to be a later reworking of the myth. Robert Graves first noted such a scenario where he sees Perseus as one of the Archean aggressors conquering Libya and the Libyan supreme goddess Neith (as Medusa) being overthrown by the Greek patriarchal system with the aid of Zeus-born Athena. Perseus brought her head (or possibly the ritual mask of her priestess) back to Athens. Her mask (figuratively) may have been what was transformed into the Vagina Dentata (vagina with teeth) of the Middle Ages. Some feminist mythographers have come to see this myth of Medusa as a myth of the fear of women and the need to suppress their inherent power in Attic Greek society. Interesting ideas but I think much of this should be considered speculative. Athena then stripped off the skin of Medusa to make a breastplate. Drops of the blood of Medusa were considered both medicinal and poisonous. She was noted in Greek art as early as 1500 B.C. Marija Gimbutas considers her to be a pre-Indo-European goddess of life and death. By the seventh century B.C. images of Medusa became talismans, particularly to avert the “evil eye.” Medusa’s gaze came to represent being turned to stone – or bewitched with her evil eye. Her later use as a talisman against it can be seen as a form of homeopathic sympathetic magic – perhaps. There are images of Medusa and possibly of Baubo as well with an eye. Several other authors have pointed out similarities between Medusa (Gorgons) and Baubo – both as embodiments of female genitalia. Displaying genitalia – both male and female – is curiously a way of protecting againsts demons and witchcraft in many cultures. Early Christianity may have absorbed symbolism of the evil eye and the need to avert it – particularly the evil eye of the female witch archetype which in Christianity was strongly associated with evil.

The author notes a change in Hellenistic society where Greek women were freed up due to influences from other places. Religious syncretism became more common. The author notes Hellenistic Age figures of Baubo doing the ana-suromai found among the Scythians. This is also a time when the Hellenistic Isis had some synthesis with Baubo and figures of Isis/Bauabo in the skirt-raising gesture were apparently quite common among agrarian peoples. The Baubo/Isis figures definitely support the equation of the skirt-raising gesture with fertility as they also appear carrying baskets of fruit. One image from Italy shows Baubo riding on a sow, an animal long associated with agriculture – also Baubo’s husband and sons tended pigs and pig and piglet sacrifices were long a part of the worship of Demeter. Isis was also syncretized with Demeter as the Earth Mother goddess. The skirt-raising gesture was also part of the veneration of the Egyptian bull god Apis, a reincarnation of the supreme creator god Ptah. Here the gesture may have been for blessings to conceive, to heal, or for fertility of woman and land.

Further examining the dichotomy of feminine symbolism the author notes the Judeo-Christian conception of Eve as both the mother of all humans and the first sinner. The Romanesque grotesque female forms seen on churches are perhaps evident of this dual symbolism. There are mermaids, squatting crones, sheela-na-gigs, many revealing the vulva. Their function has been described as a means to scare sinners from sinning but some like to see a deeper function as regenerative goddesses. In any case, the old art form of the squatting goddess is well preserved at least in the architectural form of Christian tradition – though likely for reasons of warning rather than veneration. The author sees these depictions as a transformation of the once respected goddess of life, death, and regeneration into a lesser (Christian) function of averting evil and the urge to sin.

One of the later chapters considers the male aspect of these regenerative powers through the male genitalia. Particulary, Hermes and the “herms” where he is depicted in statue form with large erect penis, are examined. The author links Hermes and Baubo as the deified male and female genitalia. Like the ubiquitous talismanic carved Medusa heads of Attic Greece, the stone carved herms were everywhere. Piles of stone as milestones were replaced by herms. The herms are thought to have had more of a protective than a fertility function. In myth Hermes is a son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. He is a herder from Arcadia. Herodotus notes that images of the ithyphallic Hermes originated among the Pelasgians, or sea peoples that settled some Aegian islands. Both Hermes and Baubo were servants, she of Demeter, and he of Zeus. Both could move between worlds – both were considered chthonic. Hermes Chthonius escorted Persephone from the underworld. According to later Orphic accounts it was Baubo Chthonius who did the escorting.

There are two appendices. The first is an account, with commentary, of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The second is a series of myths from various cultures that sort of parallel the Baubo myth. The first of these is a Hittite tale, with a similar Sumerian version, which tells of the loss of Inara, a daughter of the storm god, in the Hittite version, and Telipinu, a son of the storm god, in the Sumerian version. Both tales were written down around 2000 B.C. They are clearly different versions of a similar story that has strong similarities to the story of Demeter as well. The lost son, or daughter, is angry and withholds fertility from the land. As in the Demeter story the gods are forced to convene and begin a search. They ask the ancient grandmother Hannahanna to help. She agrees and summons the bee. The bee finally finds the lost storm god and stings him on the hands and feet as instructed. This angers him and rituals must be performed in order for fertility to return. Apparently, there are quite a few Hittite and Sumerian versions of this myth. The withdrawal of the Telipinu, or Inara, or the healing goddess Kamrupsepa in some versions, may be seen as a trip to the underworld with the ensuing loss of fertility. Of course, the famous myth of the Descent of Inanna into the underworld has quite a few similarities to the Demeter/Kore myth. Inanna’s faithful servant Ninshubur may be similar to Baubo as servant of Demeter. Ninshubur was too valuable to Inanna to take her place in the underworld so she sends her beloved husband Dumuzi instead!

Two myths of Hathor are also given. Hathor was mostly a fertility goddess. Isis took on some of her attributes by Hellenic times. Her wrathful aspect was the lion goddess Sekmet. She was also merged to some extent with the cat goddess Bast. The first story from the Pyramid Texts is one where Sekmet quarrels with her father, the sun god, Re. She prepares to destroy the world and head for the desert of Nubia. She makes the land sterile. Re grows old and decides to end the quarrel. He sends Thoth and Shu, disguised as monkeys, to find Sekmet. They find her and tell her about the suffering of her people. She returns with much celebrating. The second story is The Great Contending of Horus and Set where they maul and maim one another in their constant battling. The gods convene to find a solution. A lesser monkey god, Baba, insults Re by saying that his temples are empty. Baba is banished form the proceedings. Hathor comes to visit her father who in his despair has withdrawn the sunlight. She unveils her nakedness in his face which causes him to laugh and apparently that is enough to change his mind.

Also given is the Japanese tale of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Her outrageous brother Susanawo causes problems. They quarrel much. He destroys her heavenly rice fields and shits in her temple but it is when he kills the colt of heaven and one of her weaving priestesses and destroys her weaving hall that she reacts. Amaterasu retreats to the Cave of Heaven, withholding the sunlight from the world. The Eight Hundred Gods try to change her mind. Finally, a goddess of dance and mirth, Ama-no-Uzume is summoned. She performs a special laughter-producing obscene dance. She strips for the gods and they roar with laughter. Amaterasu is curious and comes a little out of her cave and is pulled out by the gods. Balance is then restored.

Finally, the author includes a modern myth in the making from the mountains of the Phillipines. Here the Kalinga people were faced with the prospect of a large hydroelectric dam inundating their ancestral land. Their pleas to the officials were ignored. When surveyors came out escorted by soldiers the women of the Kalinga met them and removed their skirts and began wacking the men with their skirts. The men were dazed and embarrassed. It was a cultural taboo there to observe naked women and so the men did not resist. They also removed the clothes of the men who did not return home until after dark. The women played on the men’s cultural taboos. No dam was built – at least at the time. She gives a few other stories of wars in Persia, Lydia, and in the Celtic story of CuChulain, where women exposed themselves to shame men.

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