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


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