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YONI is a Sanskrit word with various meanings such as "womb, vulva, vagina; place of birth, source, origin, spring; abode, home, lair, nest; family, race, stock, caste," and so on. It is etymologically derived from the verbal root yu ("join, unite, fasten, or harness"), from which is derived the English yoke; ni is added to the root to form a noun with active meaning. Thus yoni is "what joins or unites." The word yoga, derived from the same root, means "union, connection." The two words yoni and yoga are thus similar to the word religion, from the Latin religio ("binding, fastening, reuniting, or relinking").

Icons representing the yoni alone or in conjunction with the male generative organ, the liga, are widespread in both popular Hinduism and in the Tantric traditions of India; such images, known in English as yonis and lingams, stand for the generic goddess, Devī, in her many aspects, and the god Śiva. These traditions are the heirs of a female-dominated symbol system characteristic of the pre-Vedic worldview. Before the Indus and Ganges valleys were populated from the north by Aryan pastoral nomads, bearers of a more androcentric religion, there flourished an agricultural civilization known as the Indus Valley civilization (c. 40001000 bce). Archaeological remains from the sites at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro abound in mother-goddess figurines, large stone yonis (and lingams), and a variety of seals. One of the most intriguing of these seals bears the figure of a man in a cross-legged posture typical of yogic discipline. The religious complex of ideas and practices called yoga has been identified as being pre-Vedic in origin; the yogic posture of the figure on this Indus Valley seal is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the pre-Vedic origins of yoga. Scholars have until recently identified this horned yogic person as a proto-image of Śiva. More recent research has identified the scene depicted on the seal as being linked with an archaic form of the still-practiced buffalo sacrifice to the Goddess. On the seal the Goddess is represented next to her mount, the lion, which is shown in a dynamic posture facing the seated figure on its right, corresponding to the northern direction with the Goddess. The yogic posture of the buffalo-horned god has been interpreted as expressive of the destructive and creative power entailed by the sacrifice. The sacrifice itself aims at a symbolic unification with the Goddess. In many popular South Indian myths concerning this sacrifice, the buffalo is depicted as desiring or actually uniting with the Goddess in the guise of a lower-caste husband or suitor. As David Shulman has shown in his discussion of South Indian mythology (1980), Śiva becomes the buffalo. Through sacrificial death, Śiva as the buffalo consort of the goddess is reborn from her. In these myths and representations one seems to be able to apprehend the common etymology of the terms yoni and yoga. Union with the Goddess is the ultimate aim of the sacrifice; it is at one and the same time an abstract concept and a concrete act of union with the Goddess's icon, namely her yoni.

The symbolism on this famous Harappan seal, thus interpreted in the light of contemporary ritual practices and myths, brings up the extremely widespread symbolic themes of the mysterious and potent link between the yoni and death, and sacrificial death in particular. Perhaps the earliest evidence of the theme is to be found in the European Paleolithic

caves dating from about 20,000 to 11,000 bce. Yoni symbols have been found in profusion in these caves, many of them identical to some of the Indian representations of the yoni. The most often found Paleolithic yoni symbol is the same as the Tantric symbol, namely a downward-pointing triangle (see figure 1.1), with variations (figure 1.2, 1.3). What is even more remarkable is the association between the yonic triangle and representations of the bison found at several Paleolithic caves, since the bison is the Western cousin of the Eastern buffalo.

The most striking such representation is the one found at the Abri du Roc aux Sorciers at Angles-sur-Anglin, France, dating from about 13,000 to 11,000 bec. A colossal group of three female torsos with exaggerated yoni s, all represented as cleft downward-pointing triangles (figure 1.2), are etched in the living rock wall. The three female figures are standing on a bison. The relief of two recumbent female figures dates from the same period; they flank both sides of the entrance to a shallow cave at La Madeleine in France. The figure to the right has at its center the same downward-pointing cleft triangle to represent the yoni (the left image is too damaged to discern the sexual parts); below the figure on the left is a bison.

The famous "Woman with the Horn," dating some five to seven thousand years earlier, depicts a nude female holding a bison horn in her right uplifted hand; it is incised on the rock wall of a shelter at Laussel in France. The bison horn is marked with thirteen lines, most likely representing the thirteen lunar months in the year. The crescent shape of the horn bears an unmistakable likeness to the lunar crescent. The analogy between the cycles of the moon and the menstrual cycle of women is found in most cultures of the world. The parallelism is most directly stated by the !Kung hunters and gatherers of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, among whom the menses are simply called "the moon."

Only a few miles from the Laussel rock shelter is situated the most grandiose of all Paleolithic painted caves, that of Lascaux. That caves were symbolic of the earth's womb is strongly suggested by the cave at La Madeleine, with its entrance flanked by two nude women. On the rim of the entrance to the Lascaux cave is incised a cluster of what André Leroi-Gourhan has termed "female vulvas in the shape of claviforms." Thus to enter a cave was to enter the deep, labyrinthine, dark womb of Mother Earth.

In India in the early twenty-first century there are several popular pilgrimage sites where the icon of the Goddess is situated deep in a cave whose access is through an extremely narrow, dark, and winding passageway. The most famous such natural icon of the Goddess's yoni is found in Assam in eastern India, at the shrine of Kāmakhya Devī. It is a natural cleft in the rock that is said to menstruate once per year, the period coinciding with the main festival of the Goddess in June at the time of the arival of the monsoon. The shrine of Kāmakhya Devī is linked with the myth of Satī, the consort of Śiva, who immolated herself after her father scorned her husband by not inviting him to a great sacrifice. The disconsolate Śiva carried Satī's corpse with him in his wanderings, and parts of her body fell to earth. Her yoni fell where the shrine of Kāmakhya Devī is located. At the shrine of Vaishno Devī in Jammu, pilgrims crawl on their bellies along a dark and wet narrow corridor to reach the cave of the Goddess. A spring originates there, completing the birth-rebirth imagery. Clearly the yonic symbolism of caves is extraordinarily ancient.

The cave at Lascaux is immense, with several corridors and large chambers covered with spectacular rock paintings of animals. These caves were not habitats but ritual centers for the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers. The painted herds found in their depths, visible only by the flickering light of torches, may represent the animals in the earth's womb out of which animals come in the daylight and into which they return at night, only to reemerge in the morning. A painted scene in the innermost recess of this complex of caves, called "the Crypt" because it is sixteen feet below the general level of the cavern floor, has been interpreted by Joseph Campbell as representing a similar theme, that of the regenerative power of death. The scene shows a bison with a spear entering through its anus and emerging from its genitals, where its entrails hang out in the form of four concentric ovals. Next to the bison lies a bird-headed or bird-masked ithyphallic man and next to him a spear-thrower and a bird-topped staff. The figure in all likelihood represents a shaman, since birds are in contemporary shamanistic contexts the typical vehicles for the shaman's trance flight to the underworld or the heavens.

The symbolic equivalence between spear and phallus is ethnographically widespread, as is the analogy between concentric ovals or other labyrinthine or spiral patterns and the female generative organs. The association between the yoni and a wound is widespread as well. It is an analogy still expressed today in South India and Sri Lanka. An ancient Tamil poem brings together the phallus-spear and yoni -wound analogies by depicting a man who views his newborn son for the first time wearing full warrior attire, a bloody spear in his hand and a freshly self-inflicted wound on his neck. Leroi-Gourhan, who has made an intensive study of the Paleolithic cave paintings, identifies the bison's hanging entrails as a yoni symbol. The speared bison, most probably a sacrificial victim, represents in death a sexual union. The scene is hauntingly reminiscent of the sacrifice of the buffalo-man to the Indian Goddess, also equivalent to sexual union. The womb-cave of the earth is a generative power, which brings forth life through death.

The view of the womb as the originator of both life and death is succinctly captured in the following Hindu saying: "Again birth, again death, again sleep in the mother's womb." In many so-called primitive cultures, the departed ancestors live in a place from which they come back to enter the yoni s of women to be reborn. In the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia unborn and the dead are the very same beings. After death and the observation of the proper funerary rituals, the departed ancestor or ancestress goes to the island of Tuma. It is from that island that the departed return in the form of the soul of unborn children to enter the yoni s of Trobriand women. In aboriginal Australia, the sacred engraved ancestral stones called tjurunga s are hidden in hollows and caves; by visiting these sites the women become impregnated. It is in the light of such cyclical views of generation and regeneration that one can understand rituals in which death and the act of generation are made to coincide as they apparently do in the Lascaux crypt; the end is also the beginning.

Entering the womb/caves of the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers must have been a numinous experience for the participants, who had to creep through dangerously narrow, dark passageways to a world beyond night and day, beyond time itself. It is indubitable that the nearly universal analogy between the earth and woman implicit in the womb/cave identification is at least as old as those remotest of cultures.

The theme of the earth as a womb into which the dead are placed is found throughout the Neolithic period. In her work summarizing the archaeological finds in southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean areas (6500 to 3500 bce), Marija Gimbutas (1982) gives ample evidence of the prominence of triangular yoni designs as well as of goddess images in the act of giving birth, legs wide apart. The dual nature of the goddess as both giver and taker of life is most vividly represented in the many shrines found at the site of Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia. Breasts rising out of the shrine wall have open nipples out of which vultures' beaks protrude; the skull of the vulture is inside the breast. The wall paintings in these shrines show vultures pecking at the flesh of headless corpses. The evidence from burial sites in the shrines led the excavator of Çatal Hüyük, James Mellaart, to the conclusion that before burial in the earth, the corpses were exposed on elevated platforms for the purpose of excarnation. This is a practice still followed by Zoroastrians. In some of the shrines, images of the naked goddess are represented giving birth to a bison or a ram's head. In other sites of this area, designated by Gimbutas as Old Europe, the dead are placed in egg-shaped pithoi in a fetal position. Like the grave pit, the pithos was considered to be a womb from which the child or adult could be born again. Often the body was sprinkled with red ocher, a symbol of blood, to assure the restoration of life.

Cave mouths and clefts in rock walls are not the only yonic associations one encounters cross-culturally. Mountains themselves have been associated with the yoni, as the Latin term mons veneris, meaning the yonic triangle, attests, since it literally means "mountain of Venus." Springs, rivers, ponds, lakes, and seas have female meanings in many cultures of all levels of complexity. From the yoni gush forth the maternal waters at the time of birth. The earth's stones and metals have been analogized to the Goddess's bones. In the realm of vegetation some of the best-known yonic icons are fruits whose shape are in some ways analogous to that of the yoni. Some of the best-known are the pomegranate (Europe and West Asia), the mango (South Asia), the kidney bean (Rome), the fig and the almond (the Mediterranean world), and the peach and the apricot (Europe).

The active character of the etymology of the word yoni reveals itself in the mythological realm as the śakti, or power of the Goddess. These are contemporary Hindu concepts that seem to be the heirs of one of the oldest religious traditions of humankind. In the Tantric traditionand much popular Hinduism as wellthe Goddess is the active principle in the cosmos without whom her male consort Śiva would be just a corpse. The life-giving, animating power of the cosmos is Śakti, a personification that in its most concrete manifestation resides in the yoni. In the esoteric Tantric traditions in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the yoni is worshiped in an elaborate secret ritual in the form of several symbolic representations. It is worshiped literally as well: a woman sits nude and cross-legged, exposing her yoni, to which the worshipper makes a series of offerings. For Tantrics, all women are living incarnations of the Goddess. In popular Hinduism, the yoni s of sculpted female figures on entrance gates are ritually fingered by worshipers as they enter a place of worship.

Popular belief in Hindu India holds that vaginal fluids enter the man's penis during intercourse. This belief corresponds to the standard Indian poetic image for sexual union, that of the male bumblebee gathering honey in female flower buds. In intercourse, through the woman's vaginal fluids a man receives the śakti that is his wife's. Such ideas underlie the custom of the establishment of concubines for kings, chiefs, and other important males, a practice found not only in India but in certain West African and Pacific cultures as well. These ideas are by no means encountered solely among complex cultures based on agriculture, such as traditional Hindu India, but are also found among hunters and gatherers. A !Kung woman from the Kalahari Desert, named Nisa by her anthropologist biographer (Marjorie Shostak), says the following about women's genitals: "Women possess something very important, something that enables men to live: their genitals. A woman can bring a man life, even if he is almost dead. She can give him sex and make him live again. If she were to refuse, he would die!"

The life-giving power of vaginal fluids is most concretely exemplified among the Kiwai people of New Guinea. Vaginal secretions are used extensively in garden rituals. For example, when the first shoots of yams, the culture's staple diet, have sprouted above ground, the mother of the owner of the garden smears her hands with her vaginal fluids and tugs at one of the shoots. At the time of planting taro, the mother lies down nude in the garden; and her husband inserts the digging stick in her vulva and then digs the hole in the ground between her legs. The fertile powers of the vulva and its secretions could not possibly be more concretely stated.

In most agricultural societies the furrow or the seed hole stand for the vulva. The seed stands for semen, and the plough or digging stick for the phallus. Sītā, the heroine of the Indian epic the Rāmāyaa, was born in a furrow; indeed, her name means "furrow." When she was abducted by the demon king Rāvaa, the vegetation wilted and the animals ceased to reproduce. Rāma, her royal husband, unable to unite with her, had to endure a barren realm until he was able to bring her back.

Underlying the symbolic associations between the earth, its caves, furrows, and waters and the vulva is the notion of the transformative powers of female sexuality. In the furrow the seed transforms itself into fruit or grain; in the cave/womb of the earth death transforms itself into life; in the womb of woman, male and female sexual fluids transform themselves into a human being. The transformative powers of the vulva account for much of the symbolism of initiation rites cross-culturally. The transformation of a child into a sexually potent adult or of an uninitiated person into an initiated one is very often effected by a symbolic return into the womb, the original transformative matrix. It is interesting to note that in Hindu India both the Vedic initiation for a brahman male and the Tantric initiation rite use basically the same womb symbolism. The following passage from the Aitareya Brāhmaa (1.3), most graphically describes this process:

Him whom they consecrate the priests make into an embryo again. He should be bathed in water, anointed with navanita or clarified butter [a symbol of embryo, according to the text] and purified with darbha or kusa grass. Then collyrium is to be put in his eyes, just as it is in the eyes of the new born. After this, the candidate will have to enter and stay in a hut shaped like a female organ.

The absence of any other openings except for the eastern entrance can only be explained in terms of a womb symbolism. The native North American Navajo myth of Changing Woman makes it clear that impregnation by the Sun took place through the hogan's eastern entrance. Thus the initiand is transformed into a bringer of fertility to herself, the people, and the earth in a fashion identical to that of Changing Woman. The transformation was accomplished through a stay in a symbolic vulva that, through song, became the primordial hogan at the womb-gate of the earth.

Aside from the transformative religious mysteries of sacrifice and initiation, the obvious life-giving and growth-promoting powers of the vulva and its secretions have given rise to a widespread use of representations of the female genitalia as apotropaic devices. The custom of plowing a furrow for magical protection around a town was practiced all over Europe by peasants. It was still observed in the twentieth century in Russia, where villages were thus annually "purified." The practice was exclusively carried out by women, who, while plowing, called on the moon goddess. A similar apotropaic function seems to have prompted the placing of squatting female figures prominently exposing their open vulvas on the key of arches at church entrances in Ireland, Great Britain, and German Switzerland. In Ireland these figures are called Sheelagh-na-gigs. Some of these figures represent emaciated old women. These images are illustrations of myths concerning the territorial Celtic goddess who was the granter of royalty. When the goddess wished to test the king-elect, she came to him in the form of an old hag, soliciting sexual intercourse. If the king-elect accepted, she transformed herself into a radiantly beautiful young woman and conferred on him royalty and blessed his reign. Most such figures were removed from churches in the nineteenth century.

This Celtic tradition bears a remarkable resemblance to certain Hindu myths and rites. The goddess Lakmī is also a granter of sovereignty. In union with her, a man becomes a king. If she leaves such a man, he loses his sovereignty and/or the power to ensure the fertility and well-being of his realm. Lakmī's iconography is intimately associated with the lotus, one of the most ubiquitous South Asian yoni symbols. The lotus itself can stand for Lakmī. Her consort, Viu, who is an embodiment of sovereignty, has as one of his four attributes the lotus, which he holds in one of his hands. This denotes his union with the Goddess, the source of his sovereignty. Such beliefs underlie the apotropaic character of the couples engaged in sexual intercourse often found sculpted on the outer walls and entrances of Hindu temples. The magical protective function of the female genitalia is dimly preserved in the European folk custom of hanging a horseshoe over the threshold. The horseshoe, made from a substance from deep inside the womb of the earthironis shaped like the loop in the yonic triangles.

A remarkable parallel to the Celtic Sheelagh-na-gig is found in the Palauan archipelago. The wooden figure of a nude woman, prominently exposing her vulva by sitting with legs wide apart and extended to either side of the body, is placed on the eastern gable of each village's chiefly meeting house. Such figures are called dilugai. Interestingly, the yoni is in the shape of a cleft downward-pointing triangle. These female figures protect the villagers' health and ward off all evil spirits as well. They are constructed by ritual specialists according to strict rules, which if broken would result in the specialist's as well as the chief's death. It is not coincidental that each example of signs representing the female genitalia used as apotropaic devices are found on gates. The vulva is the primordial gate, the mysterious divide between nonlife and life.

A final major cluster of meanings associated with the vulva relates to its association with wealth. Such an association expresses itself in a broad variety of cultures and in different ways. Shells in general have been and still are symbols of the vulva; the earliest known example is a Magdalenian (Upper Paleolithic) fragment of bone from Arudy in southwestern France depicting a horse's head in the act of licking a yonic shell. However, the link between the vulva and wealth has been represented perhaps most prevalently by the cowrie shell, which has served as a medium of economic exchange in several cultures, particularly in West Africa and India. This smooth univalve bears in its shape and coloring an unmistakable resemblance to the vulva, which undoubtedly accounts for the association in as widely separated regions as West and North Africa, South Asia, Japan, and the Pacific Islands.

The complex of ideas relating wealth and fertility to the vulva is further illustrated by an example from the West African Tiv culture. One of their most sacred objects, symbolizing the fertility of their tribal land and the well-being of its inhabitants, is a human tibia, decorated and ornamented in the shape of a woman, with cowrie shells for the eyes and sometimes on the front of the body as well. It has a hole at the place of the navel; the decorations around it are the same as the scarifications produced on women's bodies at puberty. When disaster threatens or has taken place, and also in annual renewal ceremonies, this object, called the imborivungu ("owl pipe") is used ritually. In a secret ritual the elders pour blood from a miscarried fetus into its navel hole. The imborivungu is then shaken over fields and in wells to ensure the fertility of the land and of the women. In this example, the yonic cowries, along with the abdominal designs, identify the sacred object as a fertile woman. The ritual is intended to bring about both material abundancesince good crops are the primary source of wealth in agricultural societiesand the fertility of women. Here again one finds the nearly universal equation between the fertility of the earth, the source of wealth, and the fertility of women.

See Also

Caves; Feminine Sacrality; Paleolithic Religion; Prehistoric Religions, article on Old Europe.


There is no single work available that deals primarily with this topic. Information is widely scattered in many different works of ethnography, history of religion, and art history, to mention the most relevant disciplines. On the Tantric religion of India a thorough and reliable work is N. N. Bhattacharyya's History of the Tantric Religion (New Delhi, 1982). A useful study of female initiation rites in five culturesIndia, Navajo, Tiv, Amazon Basin, and ancient Greeceis Bruce Lincoln's Emerging from the Chrysalis: Studies in Rituals of Women's Initiation (Cambridge, Mass., 1981). For an inspiring and superbly illustrated treatment of the Paleolithic cave paintings, Joseph Campbell's The Way of the Animal Powers, vol. 1 of his Historical Atlas of World Mythology (New York, 1983), provides an excellent summary of scholarly research to date. Marija Gimbutas's book The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 70003500 B.C.: Myths, Legends, Images (Berkeley, Calif., 1982) is a must for a richly illustrated and clearly presented treatment of goddess imagery during the Neolithic period in Europe. Primitive Erotic Art, edited by Philip S. Rawson (New York, 1973), has seven essays covering prehistory, Celtic and northern regions, North America, Mesoamerica, the Central Andean region, Africa south of the Sahara, and the equatorial islands of the Pacific. Rawson's own essay on Paleolithic and primitive symbolism is an excellent introduction and can be used for further research. For a convenient compendium of information on female-centered religious myths and rituals, Barbara G. Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (San Francisco, 1983) is quite useful; each entry is footnoted, and the bibliography is extensive. Elinor Gadon's The Once and Future Goddess (San Francisco, 1989) has an excellent survey of Goddess' icons, including the yoni throughout prehistory and history. An important article on a reevaluation of the so-called proto-Śiva Harappan seal is Alf Hiltebeitel's "The Indus Valley 'Proto-Śiva,' Reexamined through Reflections on the Goddess, the Buffalo, and the Symbolism of Vahanas," Anthropos 73 (1978): 767797. For a comprehensive treatment of the links between the West Asian, the Harappan and the Hindu Goddess see the following three articles by the vedic scholar Asko Parpola: "The Metamorphoses of Mahisa Asura and Prajapati" in Hoek, A. W. van den, D. H. A. Kolff and M. S. Oort (1992): 275308; "Vac as a Goddess of Victory in the Veda and Her Relation to Durga" Annals of the Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University 1999: 34(2): 101143; "Pre-Proto Iranians of Afghanistan as initiators of Sakta Tantrism: On the Scythian/Saka affiliation of the Dasas, Nuristanis and Magadhans" Iranica Antiqua 37 (2002): 233324. On the royal symbolism of goddess Lakmī, see Frédérique Apffel, Marglin Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri (Oxford, 1985). For an in-depth treatment of yonic rituals in Tantric Buddhism, see Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J., 1995). For an exhaustive treatment of the theme of sacrificial death, sexual union, and rebirth, David Dean Shulman's Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition (Princeton, N.J., 1980) is indispensable.

FrÉdÉrique Apffel-Marglin (1987 and 2005)