Genitalia, as Apotropaic

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Genitalia, as Apotropaic

The term apotropaic genitals refers to instances in which exhibitions or representations of female or male genitals are deployed to fend off evil. The adjective apotropaic comes from the Greek apotrope, meaning "to turn away." The category of apotropaic genitals is part of a larger set of practices called apotropaic magic that consists of rituals and other symbols or mythologized practices that are believed to turn away evil. Apotropaic symbols other than genitals include objects such as horseshoes (for good luck); protective amulets in Japan; the "evil eye" in Greece, Turkey, and Arab countries; mirrors to deflect evil; crucifixes; garlic; and silver bullets.


Many cultures around the world have used genitals, representations of genitals, or symbols of genitals in ritual practices to fend off evil or inclement weather, in architecture to keep evil away, and in wars as a defensive strategy. Linked in many cultures to childbirth and creation, female genitalia are potently apotropaic, though they may have dangerous effects as well. In ancient Greece a woman exposing her genitals was believed to drive away devils, evil spirits, and ill-willed deities; scare attacking troops; keep dangerous animals at bay; and calm the elements, including whirlwinds and lightning. Both Pliny and Plutarch described instances of soldierly flight in the face of exposed female genitals, and Plutarch wrote accounts of women calming storms and defeating massed enemies. The folklore of Catalonia includes references to the ways in which female genitals can calm the sea. Fishermen's wives made a practice of exposing themselves to the waves before each fishing trip. Italians and people from India also believed in such apotropaic powers, and Russian folklore includes stories about how women exposing their genitals scared away bears. In Russia as well as the rest of Europe towns were protected from evil by a ritual in which women plowed a symbolic furrow around the town.

Female genital shapes also adorn or align with the structure of buildings as a way of warding off evil. In the Micronesian island nation of Palau the gables of village meeting houses display wooden sculptures of nude women exposing their genitals. The construction of those figures is accomplished by specialists who are assigned the ritual task of producing the figures in accordance with rules that guarantee the efficacy of their protective powers. The archlike shape of female genitals made them a symbol of welcome and fecundity while they simultaneously performed their apotropaic function.

In Ireland, England, and Switzerland church builders placed stone statues of squatting women in the keystone spot of the arch for the door or an important window of the church. Possibly left over from previous practices of goddess worship, those statues often depicted the women with their legs apart, holding their vulvas open with their hands. In Ireland the practice of using figures called Sheelagh-na-gig was widespread. As in the gable figures of Palau, their function was to ward off evil.

Instances of apotropaic female genitals also make an appearance in literature. François Rabelais wrote a story about how the Devil was routed by an old woman's exhibition of herself. A fable of La Fontaine recounts how a young woman defeats the Devil and saves her town by lifting her skirt.


Symbols and figures of male genitals also serve apotropiac functions, warding off evil and fending off aggression. In ancient Greece phalli were carved above doorways to protect homes, and phallic sculptures appeared throughout Greece. The island of Delos, reputed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, was famous for its statutes of phalli. Throughout the Mediterranean region both Greeks and Romans used phallic figures to protect valuable resources such as grain cisterns. The apotropaic qualities of the phallus derive from the ways in which it represents the idea of strength and manliness evoked to protect communities and their assets.

Ancient Japan looked to a group of gods called the Sahe no Kami, or preventive gods, to protect believers against beings from the underworld. The preventive gods were presented as giant phalli that were erected along highways, at the ends of bridges, and at crossroads to impede the passage of evil beings. The phalli became the protectors of travelers who would pray to them for safe passage and offer them rice and hemp. Recently the phalli were taken down to avoid offending Western travelers who associated them with obscenity. Though they are not consciously regarded as apotropaic, the city of Amsterdam is bedecked with thousands of roadside phalli that mark roads and protect pedestrians.

Perhaps the most frequently used contemporary apotropaic phallic symbol is the gesture popularly referred to as "the finger." Although often used as a signal of anger, disdain, and even disgust, the finger and its many variations are also apotropiac, warding off threats, responding to aggression, and serving as a warning.

A more complicated version of the finger, the sign of the "horns," is produced by extending the index finger and little finger. This is also an apotropaic figuration of the phallus, though in a less directly evident manner. The sign of the horn refers simultaneously to the prowess of a bull (fecund masculinity) and to the horns that signify that a man has been cuckolded (his wife has had sexual relations with another man). The display of the fingers as horns wards off cuckolding while celebrating masculine empowerment. More recently it came to signify the rock-on rebel spirit of bikers, rock fans, and extreme sports enthusiasts. Phallic versions of the horn also adorn the necks of young men who wear them to proclaim their virility and ward off evil.

Although contemporary apotropaic devices may be less obviously genital, they still exist and are used to protect wearers and citizens. Devices such as crystals, evil eyes, and rabbits' feet combine luck with protection in ways that recall the genital origins of some of those devices.

see also Folklore.


Blackledge, Catherine. 2004. The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Danielou, Alain. 1995. The Phallus: Sacred Symbol of Male Creative Power. New York: Inner Traditions.

Drenth, Jelto. 2004. The Origin of the World: Science and Fiction of the Vagina. London: Reaktion Books.

Friedman, David. 2001. A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis. New York: Free Press.

Walker, Barbara. 1988. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

                                                 Judith Roof