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Vagina Dentata

Imagine the soft, glistening folds that open into the female vagina. Indeed, if you are male you probably imagine them quite often -- the wet, inviting warmth, the luscious sensuous sensations as you glide into your lover. Now imagine that hidden within these same supple folds lurk a ferocious array of teeth or fangs ready to devour the genitals of any man foolish enough to insert his member. This is the mythology known as vagina dentata.

Well you might ask, What the fuck? Who came up with this shit? And of course the answer would be Sigmund Freud -- the same fellow who told us that every woman secretly wants to take the knife to the hot parts of her honey, separating him irrevocably from his out-thrusting manhood. Makes you kinda wonder what life was like between Freud and the Mrs., doesn't it? Over the intervening decades since its popularization by the good doctor, vagina dentata has been invoked by countless individuals seeking to explain how "society" came up with this image of the castrating twat armed with deadly teeth.

Oddly enough few have noted that the real question is, "How did Freud come up with this idea which he then projected onto the unconscious of his patients, society at large, and even the mythologies of other cultures?" Instead his assertion that the vagina dentata was a universal fear, lurking in the unconscious of every man, went relatively unchallenged. Why? Freud was the father of psychoanalysis, credited with drawing his conclusions after years of careful listening to the fantasies, dreams, and phobias of countless patients. Furthermore, he was a Great Man, and of course Great Men know more than the rest of us schmucks. That's what makes them Great Men, right?

But over the years, more and more scholars have begun to notice a disturbing fact -- that Freud's interpretations of his patients' dreams and obsessions contained a very unscientific "fudge factor". Not only did it appear that he had blatantly projected his own bias onto the data (by interpreting his patients dreams to mean just what he wanted them to mean), but he had possibly even fabricated some of the data itself! That is, a few of the "case histories" or stories from patients were made up by Freud himself -- there was no patient. Therefore, where he used these same dreams and stories to demonstrate or "prove" his theories (that penis envy, vagina dentata, the Oedipus complex and etc.) were archetypal human fears and longings, he was not proving anything at all. Except how skilled he was at finding justification for his preconceived ideas in literature and in life situations.

This tendency to interpret texts and events to fit preconceived theories would later be copied by psychology majors and lit crit students ad nauseum, as they found vagina dentatas, envied penises, and other Freud derived symbology hidden within the words and imagery of countless books, movies, songs, plays, speeches, and ancient myths. Gleefully they plucked forth their Freudian plums and crowed, "What a good scholar am I!" Eventually this over zealous symbol detection led to the opposing cry, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!"

This same approach to collecting "evidence" may have frequently led the great man himself to steam roll over the real meaning (and value for healing) in his patients' confessions. Thus a dream of a man's head being cut off was "really" a symbolic Castration. Never mind that countless other fears and neuroses could be equally symbolized by decapitation. Never mind the value of exploring what decapitation meant to the patient himself. Freud was looking for castration -- and so castration was what he found.

Of course, it may not be entirely fair to look back over the great man's notes and second-guess his interpretations. After all, a good therapist follows also his intuition, as to what the patient's real issue is and what he or she needs to confront in order to heal. Maybe all those patients really were hung up on castration.

Maybe.

But Freud's assertion that "probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of female genitals", just doesn't ring true for most of us today. American porn mags are full of images of moist pink labia and come-hither vaginas. And clearly the response it creates is not terror, but gleefully horny desire! Sticky pages indicate an entirely different reaction to the vagina than that pointed to by Freud.

Which is not to say that there aren't plenty of people out there who are afraid of the female genitalia. Two million cases a year of genital mutilation or Female Circumcision would indicate otherwise.

It is simply that it is important to view Freud (and others with vagina angst) as a person of a certain time and place. He was a Victorian. And as the anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out, the Victorians raised children in complete ignorance of many of the facts of life that children in earthier cultures took for granted.

As a consequence, while children in Samoa, for example, were able to take in stride the death of a grandparent, the birth of a sibling, the bickering of parents or their routines of making love, the Victorians and their children could be deeply traumatized by any and all of these same events. Unlike the Samoans and similar peoples, they were sheltered, disconnected -- ignorant of the messy phenomenon of natural life.

Therefore, afraid to mention the "unmentionable", they were left to their own mental devices, attempting to concoct understandings that would help them make sense of the life situations encountered. Essentially they were left to reinvent the wheel, as it were -- while their peers in other cultures (like Samoa) had only to call on first hand knowledge all around them in daily life -- or to ask their aunty or uncle.

Not surprisingly, this information gap created a lot of shame, guilt, trauma, and neurosis. Imagine the qualms of the properly brought up Victorian male, never having seen or discussed a twat before in his life, not knowing what to expect of it, what to do with it (other than mount it -- if he was a farm lad he had an advantage), and then suddenly, there it is!

Pretty scary stuff. Interestingly, his angst becomes even more understandable when you consider the fact that the Victorian woman, subdued by society, somewhat enslaved to her husband, was herself a thing of mystery. Repressed, hemmed in, prone to strange fits of temper, anxiety, and hysteria -- who knew what she was hiding inside! And so in dreams, her hidden regions came armed with teeth. That place where she was supposed to "submit" to her husband, that place where he was to take his pleasure (and she receive frustration and another chance to get knocked up), that place might have some hidden monster waiting within, waiting to wreak its revenge.

So goes the workings of the unconscious. But the angst that Freud identified was specific and local -- the uneasiness of the Victorian male at putting his member, for the first time, in a female's cunt was his own -- not Humankind's.

Also culture specific are more recent theories of the vagina dentata that focus on the notion of the vagina as misplaced mouth (that is, because it is seen as being like a mouth, it is ascribed teeth, teeth that could angrily gnash off the penis of the intruder. Rather than being a pan-human terror, vagina dentata crops up most often in societies where women "have no teeth", where they have no power to enforce their words, their will. Little wonder then that some men in such cultures fear those teeth will one day crop up "down there" and wreak their revenge.

But despite the anxiety many a virgin male in (less mysogynist) cultures has felt at his first encounter (Will I be able to get it up? Will I last long? Will she like it?), not every male everywhere necessarily fears that his dick will be bitten off by some hidden set of teeth. To claim otherwise is ridiculous and unsuported by the evidence. (Unless you stick with the tactic of ignoring evidence that says otherwise.) For example, the average modern American male, might fear getting laughed at, getting dumped -- but devoured?

Well... maybe. At least if supplied with the right visual suggestion! But the fact that there have been numerous cultures with fears about the vagina, does not prove that every man, everywhere, and in all times inevitably fears being devoured by it. It merely proves that some men, sometimes, have harbored this belief. And it shows that the study of the relationship between culture and mythology provides us with interesting insight into the nature of gender relations -- especially into the unconscious components of gender relations. And in fact, we might even be able to conclude that being the "dominant" gender in an uptight society is not without its psychological perils!

Related Trivia

  • An urban legend that makes the rounds among Vietnam vets and those that study them is the idea that Viet Cong prostitutes sometimes kept razor blades in their cunts.

  • The ancient Greeks had a myth of the laminae -- lustful she-demons born from the Libyan snake goddess Lamia. Laminae meant either "lecherous vaginas" or "gluttonous gullets". Lamia was also the Greek name for the Indian Kundalini, the sexual/life force energy sometimes envisioned as a snake goddess.

  • Mouths and vaginas sometime have overlapping symbolism in other cultures. Among the Yanomamo of South America the word to eat is the same as the word for copulate, and the word for pregnant is the same as the word for satiated or full-fed.

  • A Sioux Indians myth told the tale a sexy temptress who accepted the love of a young warrior and united with him inside a cloud. When the cloud lifted, the woman stood alone. The man was a heap of bones being gnawed by snakes at her feet.

  • The Greek philosopher/historian Pliny claimed that the male snake fertilizes the female by putting his head into her mouth and allowing himself to be eaten.

  • In the Middle Ages some Christians believed witches could grow fangs in their vaginas.

  • Lamashtu was a Babylonian goddess whose consort, Pazuzu, had a serpent penis.

  • The early Jews spoke of the vagina as beth shenayim, the toothed place, and stressed the need for vigilance while entering.

  • To medieval Christians the womans genitals were sometimes equated with the "yawning mouth of hell". Interestingly enough, in pagan times the underworld gate was in some places known as "the yoni of Mother Hel." And the word "yawned" is derived from Middle English yonen, which may be a derivatave of "yoni."


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