The Myth and Mystery of Baubo

Posted: January 14, 2014 in Chat
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’The Metamorphosis of Baubo’, by Winifred Milius Lubell, Vanderrbilt University Press, 1994



Baubo is one of the most mysterious characters of the ancient middle east. Her story has been found in Sumerian, Egyptian and Archaic Greek. There are also indications of a similar tale from Japan.

Her story is best shown in with the story of Greek Demeter, goddess of fecundity and nature. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter Persephone. She had been abducted by the god of the Underworld, Hades. Demeter withdrew from the world. Nature died, rivers dried up, nothing would grow. She had withdrawn into herself in distress. To draw her out ‘priestesses’ arranged a party, event, that was raucous and colourful. There was much music, dancing… but nothing could seem to reach her. Then Baubo, an older serving woman, approached. Along with ribald jokes and stories she ended up with baring the lower half of her body to Demeter. Demeter laughed, and with that returned to the world. She kept Baubo with her, as a true restorer of balance and perspective.

What was going on?

There are statues of Baubo, pottery paintings, of this displaying the pubic region. Some statues show a face instead of the stomach. Here we have perhaps a clue.

Demeter’s distress was in losing her daughter, but this also, like an equation, implied the seizure and abduction by Hades. All Baubo stories centre around women withdrawn from men due to some aggressive male act.

The ribald jokes, a crucial part of the Baubo mysteries, were most probably aimed at the stupidity of  male myths of sexual prowess, at their arrogance and supposed superiority. Those were hugely male centred cultures. Women’s roles were relegated and tightly circumscribed.

This has other implications – in those cultures the display of a naked female figure, especially of an older woman, wife, grandmother was considered hugely shameful. There are big suggestions here of ideas of male ‘ownership’, ‘property’ etc of property not to be shared with others. We see here issues of status and identity within cultures, of lack of status, or status that was lesser, or different.

That the women’s rites would play on the male world’s deepest fears of female power and openness, would only seem natural.

I suggest that when the older servant woman Baubo bared herself to Demeter, the folds of her post-partum, post-menopause belly she manipulated to suggest a grotesque face; a face with a bushy pubic beard.

A hugely potent and complex image: how better to mock the pretensions of men then with this gesture: Here is what they lust for; see how ridiculous they are!

The women shared the knowledge of menstrual and physiological processes, they bore the burden that was more cumbersome and physiologically vulnerable, than sexually attractive.

And the narrative of men as mother’s babies, that here is where the ‘great lords of the world’ started off, as puling helpless and fecal beings.

Demeter’s distress was offset by the huge potency of this caricature; she was shocked out her grief, a shock that was primed, prepared for, by the direction of ribald jokes and humour. After this the order and balance was restored to the world.

The mystery of Baubo was at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The ‘face’ became connected with the Gorgon mask, due to the dynamic of the exposure that it contained. It was a face not be looked upon, for fear of great reprisal.


It is suggested that a memory of the Baubo figure is to be found in the image of the Sheela-na-Gig. Those enigmatic and mostly crudely constructed images of a leering female figure opening an enormous vulva to the spectator (‘male gaze’) are probably half-remembered, barely understood Baubo images. They are for righting imbalances in the world. Now mostly found on churches in Britain and Ireland, they seem relegated by Church Fathers to suggest to celibate monks the Babylonian whorishness of female temptation, and all other such temptations of the flesh.


Celibacy. What can be more unnatural, imbalanced?

And yet for some it remains a preferred state, as it always has done. We do well to cherish the preferred celibates as our ‘peculiars’, that is, ones who can live as we can not. They can have important input; they can restore a sense of proportion to a world out of kilter.

We saw in Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ the withdrawal of women from men, and the men’s subsequent hopelessness and inadequacy. Brief enforced celibacy to aright the world.

The women withdraw from the men, and the men learned to behave. Do the men learn anything deeper than the need to behave better, treat their women better?

Their women were ‘protected’ by ethical and moral strictures: the naked, exposed female was a deeply unsettling image, dangerous, and hugely ‘shameful’. Was it ‘shame’? Or was there a form of taboo there that we have no name for? Is the narrative saying that it is better to honour women’s role by protecting their physical status? That also implies that the status quo can only be maintained by being flexible.

There are so many myths of Greek male gods seducing mortal women. The implication is of fantasy outlets for strictly circumscribed behavioral practices.

The book cites the Greek use of the word for ‘ashamed’, Aideomai. It can also mean to stand in awe of, or of reverence of, ‘…and was an adjective frequently used for women that meant deserving of respect’ (page 105). As a neutral noun it was used mainly of the genitals, especially the pudenda.

Lubell’s book gives an example of the classical Greek portrayal of male genitals: heroes and Gods always have small, boyish genitals. It is the stock comic figures who have outsize ones. Genitals, we see here, are ridiculous; the hero/God would be disfigured by proper size. Sex was down-played – except for the few occasions when satyrs frolicked, herms were decked erect (another Japanese parallel?), and bacchantes, maenads and bassarids ran wild.

As I write this I can see the cover of a copy of ‘The Odyssey’. It shows a carved relief of Odysseus; he is shown as a middle-aged to older man with a young man’s thinly clothed body. This is a common image of Greek male portraiture: the vanity of the aged male. Gods can never age, but wisdom must be portrayed somehow! As for heroes – their strength and heroic attributes are always shown this way. Codes and short-hand.

Lubell’s book cites a fairly recent event in the Philippines. Dam building was on the cards for a region of a tribal area. The tribal people objected, but were over-ruled in law; and the project went ahead. On the day the workmen arrived in the territory, the tribal women alone confronted them. The stripped off their clothes; the workmen were ashamed to look upon the naked women. The women attacked and seized the men, stripped them naked and threw their clothes away. The men hid in the forest ashamed of their own nakedness, until night fall then made their way home. They dare not go there again.

This huge burden of shame on seeing the naked female body does seem to have nearly universal. Rainforest and aboriginal cultures are the few without it. It is also suggested Inuit cultures were more relaxed here also.

It is this weight of shame that was put in place to protect women, though. We can still detect this taboo in our own societies: the use of the pornographic image gains its power from taboo-breaking. The Femen campaign of baring their bodies gains its power from taboo-breaking. Naturisms’ biggest  wrench is for women participants. To break a taboo was like smashing an atom, the release of energy stored in the image protected, was immense.

From hajib-wearing, to always fully clothed in many layers, despite the heat, shows up how cultures have sought to the protect woman from the male’s lack of self control. The reasons become lost, forgotten over time, and new justifications are proffered, sometimes wholly wayward and ridiculous. All depict the attitudes of their times, attitudes to male-female relations, that is.

Male lack of self control.

Enforced celibacy is an authoritarian nightmare of physical restraint; celibacy must be chosen by the participant. Our culture belittles the maiden aunt, the spinster, finds repellent the never-married elderly man. All are treated with condescension. Where the chaste, celibate life has been chosen, the choice and unique experience of the person needs to be valued.

And taboo-breaking must be controlled, contained, or it loses its energy. We are here all the time circling that other potent Greek image, that of Catharsis.

One major point all taboo-breakers miss, and it is an essential point, is that of laughter, humour.


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