Does Medusa Depict Vagina Dentata?

Jenifer Neils’ book Women in the Ancient World is a fabulously colorful read. I found the myriad of material culture she presented to be quite a delicious feast for the eyes, and sustenance for the brain. The stories supposedly told by these culturally significant artifacts, on the other hand, were sometimes a bit stretched, or even far fetched. I suppose such a book is really more of a survey of women in ancient material culture rather than an individual in depth analysis of each artifact, but I suppose that’s the archaeologist in me that is hungry for more information.

For example, I want her entire source citation and train of thought that led to such a conclusion, that the “Athenian hydra”, or water jar depicting Medusa’s decapitated head, “is the embodiment of the vagina dentata” and therefore alludes to men’s fears of castration. As striking as the phrase vagina dentata is, that is not the first time I’ve heard of the motif itself. I happened to take a survey of literature course in my freshman year of college, which focused on the Victorian time period. It is in the writings of this socially “stuffy” era, that suppressed sexuality could be and indeed was expressed, though discreetly of course. (To give perspective, not even the legs of tables could be shown, as it was thought to be too suggestive, hence the fashion of table skirts and cloths of this era that had to touch the floor just as a lady’s should.) Not to step on anyone’s childhood memories, but one such author who is widely agreed by scholars to have had a lot of vagina dentata anxieties was none other than Louis Carroll, author of Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. These sort of anxieties were common in the era, probably because of the culture to suppress sexuality and women’s supposed power over men as sexual beings. Upon looking up the motif in the Oxford Dictionary online, the origin of vagina dentata is indeed claimed as early 20th century. Further research narrows this down to Freud supposedly, and his obsession with both genders needing to fulfill some perverse form of violence to feel comfortable with their sexuality. Women, according to Freud, have “penis envy”, and men have a fear of women’s power of sexuality, i.e., men are afraid because women want the power of their penis. Hence the fear of castration and the motif of vagina dentata.

Bringing it back to Medusa – I understand there were myths at the time the water jar was made that were probably similar to the Victorian/early 20th century literature and folk tale motif, but to apply that to an archaeological artifact seems a bit stretched to me. It would be interesting to do more research on this topic, because to my knowledge, I’d never heard of Medusa ever being a symbol of male fear of castration. All she had to do was to look at a man and he would turn to stone. Yes, she is portrayed in this water jar as a fanged and frightening creature, but that’s how the myth describes her as well – ugly! My point being that it is not enough just to come to a conclusion on a whim about one object. One needs to look at the bigger picture, as we discussed in class, about these artifacts and what they mean in describing women and the cultural constructs of women at the time.


Oxford Dictionaries.

Garland, Carina. “Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender, and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts.” The Lion and the Unicorn 32.1 (2008): 22-39. ProQuest Research Library


Women in Material Culture: Gender Dominance in Conceptualization

When it comes to the portrayals of women in ancient material culture, it is hard not to feel a little deflated. After all, most of the depictions of women that remain were made by men, and the cultural significance they served were probably also tailored to men. For example, wine cups made for men and by men, depict erotic images of women, or men and women, and were thus used by men at men-only parties. These erotic images of women were none other than visual stimuli for men, thus it is their desired conceptualization of women, and not necessarily the actuality.

Another example of the vagueness of women in ancient material culture are their funerary tombs or sarcophagi. More specifically, the etruscan sarcophagus of the aristocratic Etruscan woman, Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, is a great example of how idealized women were in the culture, as well as the culture’s conception of the afterlife as well. Because Seianti’s skeleton was still quite intact inside the sarcophagus, scientists were able to do a modern reconstruction of her face and features. Compared to the portrait displayed on her lounging eternal counterpart, Seianti’s skeletal reconstruction of her face differs a noticeable amount, in that the artist had gone to some length to make her appear younger and “improved” (Neils, 22). What I wish archaeologists could figure out today about this sort of thing is if it was her husband that requested the improved features, the artist who did it out of cultural norms, or the wife herself who wanted to appear as her younger, best self for all of eternity, of which I couldn’t blame her for. After all, how much has really changed in a couple thousand years?

Take Facebook for example. How many of us are guilty of photoshopping a “profile picture”, even as little as changing the lighting, in order to make ourselves appear more attractive to the whole of the Internet, and world for that matter? How awesome do we try to make our lives appear to be on our Facebook profiles? It is in human nature to want to leave some sort of legacy, of validation that we were here on this earth, and that we were the best human we could be. We want people to know that we are attractive, driven, successful; all the cultural expectations of contemporary individuals. Thus a lot of these funerary sarcophagi detailing the virtuous, motherly and goodly wives of antiquity are not far off from the Facebook walls of today. Even if it was the men who designed the funerary sarcophagi for their women, as it often was, that is not far off from today, as men constantly dictate and reinforce women’s images of themselves, especially due to the overbearing presence of media, and social media. Thus it would almost appear that human instinct is truly engrained into us from the beginning, which explains why, although we have tried to change and have come a little further in the quest for equality of the genders, the common thread of men’s dominant conceptualization of women appears to be a constant through time.

Neils, Jennifer. Women in the Ancient World. Trustees of the British Museum: London, 2011.

Woman as Race?

“From her comes all the race of womankind, the deadly female race and tribe of wives who live with mortal men and bring them harm.” Upon reading this last sentence of Zaidman’s article, in which she references the description of Zeus’s “lovely curse”, the hair on the back on my neck stood up; I felt I had read the epitomical description of evil.

Of course, it was just the ancient rendition of women, but still, it got me thinking.

I have never actually heard the term “race” in referring to women before this reference in this article. At first, it made me angry. The more I thought about it, however, the more intrigued I became. Can we define women as a race? Divide the genders once and for all and settle all further disputes as simply outside the opposite gender’s jurisdiction?

The term “race” has several definitions in and of itself, and is defined on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as follows:

  1. a: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock

b: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

  1. a: an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also: a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group

b: breed

c: a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits

And one more from “A human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.”

Obviously, women cannot mate with one another and produce viable offspring, which is a key biological definition of a “species”. However, I am not arguing that women be labeled their own species. Thus aside from the “interbreeding” part in the Merriam-Webster definition, a race is described as a “taxonomic category” such as a “subspecies”, and women are indeed a vital half of the species Homo sapiens-sapiens.

Once the interbreeding part is cast out, the definition of race seems more concerned with crucial physical/genetic characteristics and habits, such as Merriam-Webster 2) b: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits or characteristics; and 2) c: a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits. Finally, I included the definition because it gets slightly more descriptive: “A human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.”

The term race is obviously hard to pin down, and some would even argue it is out-dated for its connotation as stripping some populations of their dignity and rights. I am not saying that women and men be defined by their own “races”, but I do think it is an intriguing issue to think about. Women and men are not only vastly physically and genetically different, but emotionally and psychologically as well. In fact, there is not much really in common between the two genders at all, besides the basic fundamentals that make us part of our own species as humans. Different “races” of humankind have always defined themselves with or against an “other”, as women and men often do. The bickering Greeks united to defend their many states against their “other”, being the Persians. Thus in the quote mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the author condemns woman as the “deadly female race and tribe of wives” that was put on this earth to make men miserable. Men strive to make themselves the better in this comparison of “us vs. them”, but women are obviously not innocent either, for the feminist movement inevitably turned on men to blame them for the woman’s plight! So if blaming doesn’t work, and “separate but equal” surely doesn’t work, what will?

Another point to offer up in this debate of woman as race is that these similar interests/habits/characteristics defining race as seen above is that races such things could be defined as culture. I think that women definitely have their own culture. Whether or not this designates woman as a race will be up for debate. But the fact remains that the two genders are vastly different, and it is time both genders start not only recognizing that, but embracing it as well.