Apotropaic magic consists of rituals, symbols or mythologized practices believed to fend off evil spirits. Apotropaic comes from the Greek apotrope, meaning "to turn away," and apotropaic symbols include horseshoes (for good luck), protective amulets, mirrors, crucifixes, garlic, silver bullets, as well as the genitals. Apotropaic genitals describes instances in which exhibitions or representations of female or male genitals are deployed as talismans.
Both female and male genitalia are thought to be potently apotropaic and in many cultures throughout the world have used depictions of the representations of genitals, or symbols of genitals in ritual practices to fend off adverse circumstance including weather war and evil spirits. In ancient Greece, women exposing their genitals was believed to drive away devils, evil spirits, and ill-willed deities. The actions were thought to scare attacking troops, keep dangerous animals at bay; and calm the elements, including whirlwinds and lightning. Sometimes Medieval Europe, towns were protected from evil by a ritual in which women plowed a symbolic furrow around the town.
Anasyrma was a deliberately provocative self-exposing of naked genitals or buttocks. Common to many religious rituals, and eroticism, anasyrma differs from exhibitionism (flashing for arousal), but instead was used to evoke fear in the enemy as well as curse evil spirits. This was a gesture of mockery and analogous to mooning. In the 16th century, Caterina Sforza (1463 – 1509) an Italian noblewoman, was reputed to have exposed her genitals from the walls of her fortress during a siege after her captured children, were being threatened with death. A depiction of the scene appears in The Borgia’s (2011) (S02 e07).
Architectural grotesques date approximately from the 11th century in France and Spain, before becoming widespread all over Europe. They reached Britain and Ireland in the 12th century. Female genital shapes were used to adorn or align with the structure of buildings, such as keystone spots of an arch door or an important window of the church.
Called Sheelagh-na-gig, these gargoyle-like stone motives often depicted squatting women, sometimes holding their vulvas open with their hands. No-one why they adorned buildings but the general opinion was they were used to ward off evil spirits. In Ireland, some of the figures were called "The Evil Eye Stones", which would support this theory. However, some authorities also believe they may have had a fertility significance and representing the circle of life.
These antiquated curiosities are shrouded in mystery and academics remain unable to explain exactly the purpose of sheela na gigs. The name sheela na gigs first appears in the mid 19th century, when ‘gig’ was a colloquialism for female genitalia. Sheela was a general a term used to describe lowly women. It was a derogatory term common to that era, and hence unlikely to have any real bearing on their origins. In the previous century, these stone figures were referred to as "The Idol". Association has been made to idolic females such as the hag-like Cailleach figure of Irish and Scottish mythology who came to represent an earth goddess, but it remains speculative to associate this with sheela na gigs.
By early Medievil times a complete inversion of how women occurred when Classical (Greek and Roman) literature merged with The Bible. Women were simultaneously considered the source of all the ills of the world and the means of that world’s redemption through the birth of Jesus Christ. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was from the 5th century, held in high regard and later came to represent the perfect woman across Europe. A Cult of the Virgin Mary developed and men and women alike prayed to the Virgin. She came to embodied many ideals of courtly love such as purity, free of sin, and the perfect mother. Thousands of statues were placed in churches, showing the Virgin with her child, and there were countless roadside shrines where people could stop and pray, perhaps asking for intervention for a personal need. Any building which housed either a relic belonging to Mary or representation of her could be assured of a steady stream of pilgrims and their donations. The Cult of Virgin Mary peaked during the High Middle Ages in the 12th century. Contemporary records including legal documents, guild records, and other documents show women throughout most of the Middle Ages shared the same trades as men, including stonemasons. These women were valued merchants, artists, and artisans, and it is possible, although there is no historic evidence to support the hypothesis, Medievil sheela na gigs were created by women for women.
Wooden female figures, dilukai (or dilugai), were carved on the gables of village meeting houses in the Palauan archipelago. Typically, they were shown with legs splayed, revealing a large, black, triangular pubic area and the hands rest upon the thighs. The totems were thought to protect the health of the villagers' health as well as ward off all evil spirits.
These figures were carved by ritual specialists and according to strict rules. Any breech of protocol would result in death of the artisan and the village chief. The vulva was regarded as the primordial gate and mysterious divide between non-life and life.
Both Greeks and Romans used phallic figures to serve apotropiac functions. Phallic sculptures appeared throughout Ancient Greece with phalli carved above doorways to protect homes. Apotropaic magical powers of the revealed phallus were believed to avert the evil eye or invidia and bestow good luck. Experts opinion supports the apotropaic qualities of the phallus were derived from the ways in which it represents the idea of strength and manliness evoked to protect communities and their assets.
Cerne Abbas Giant (Rude Man) is a geoglyph of a naked figure sculpted into a chalk hillside in Dorset, UK. The hill figure depicts a standing nude male figure with a prominent erection and wielding a large club in its right hand. Unlike the Uffington White Horse, which was found to be nearly 3,000 years old , the Cerne Abbas Giant has yet to be dated. Many believe it could be prehistoric, Romano-British, or even Early Medieval periods but there is no evidence to support these clains. The earliest recorded mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant was in 1694. Local folklore has long held the 180ft (55m) chalk man was a fertility aid. Early antiquarians linked the giant with the Anglo-Saxon deity Helis, while others believe he is the classical hero Hercules.
Japanese in antiquity believed in preventative deities or Sahe no Kami, who protected the faithful against beings from the underworld. Giant phalli were erected along highways, at the ends of bridges, and at crossroads to impede the passage of evil beings. The power of the stone was to remind the fearful traveler of the pleasures behind or ahead. Proper behaviour was required in the presence of deities, of course, but the jolly wanderer is left to take consolation and peace, leaving them less exposed to the dangers of the road. The earliest stone milestones were of an erect penis but these were later replaced with copulating couples. These images provoked the powerful complementary forces of yin and yang.
The milestones through the ages took on powerful properties among the peasant folks and were soon afforded magical status with powers to make baron women fertile. In gratitude, grateful families left offerings of an appropriate shape. Oddly shaped carrots and mountain potatoes were especially popular. When Buddhism arrived there was a concerted effort to tidy up the countryside and so sadly few phallic milestones remain. The Japanese did keep the images but these were transferred into bald headed statues. Only Jizo the god of lost children’s souls suvives and remaining examples of the stones were removed by the 19th century Victorians, concerned at the apparent affront, never realising the cultural signifcance.
Palad Khik are Thai amulets shaped like a penis and range from a few inches to several feet long in length. They came from India and relate to the Hindu god Shiva, where Shiva is represented abstractly in the form of Linga (male genitalia), as in Shiva Linga . Made from wood, metal, bone, horn or ivory, they were created by monks and engraved with sacred inscriptions or animal symbols. These lucky charms and talisman were usually worn by males on a cord around their waist under the clothes and off-center from the real penis. Women in Thailand also carried them in their purses to protect them from rape and mugging. Shop owners too, display them in their shops or in the cash register area to protect their business and also bring good luck and sales.
Sometimes the linga are accompanied by Yoni (female genitalia), and together they symbolize unity and the powers of creation and destruction.
Apotropaic phallic symbols are still used today with "the finger" gesture used to ward off threats, respond to aggression, as well as serve 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. The sign of the horn refers simultaneously to the prowess of a bull (fecund masculinity) and a man has been cuckolded (his wife has been unfaithful). The display of the fingers as horns wards off cuckolding while celebrating masculine empowerment.
Human beings are the only species to show muscular hemispherical buttocks and in the past it was commonly believed bearing bare buttocks repelled the devil (who had no bottom) . Mooning was the act of displaying bare buttocks by removing clothing and bending over to avert the evil gaze (eye) of the devil. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was alleged to bare his buttocks when plagued by thoughts of the devil. From antiquity, mooning was a silent expression of protest, scorn, disrespect, or provocation. At around the beginning of the First Roman–Jewish War (66–73 CE), when Roman soldier mooned Jewish pilgrims at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem it caused such a riot, the ensuing stampede killed ten thousand Jews. Throughout history soldiers bore their bare bottoms prior to battle to aggravate and incense their opposition. At the Siege of Nice (1543), Catherine Ségurane, a common washerwoman, led the townspeople into battle. Legend has it that she took the lead in defending the city by standing before the invading forces and exposing her bare bottom. In the film Braveheart, there is a dramatic reconstruction of the Scottish army mocking their English foes by mooning.
In New Zealand, Whakapohane is the Māori practice of baring bare buttocks with the intent to offend.
Andersen J 1977 The Witch on the Wall Rosenkilde and Bagger
Bishop C and Ostheldelder X 2001 Sexualia: From pre history to cybrespace Konemann
Eliade M 1987 The Encyclopedia of Religion McMillan London
Freitag B 2004 Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma Routledge
Morris D 2008 The Naked Man: A study of the male body Jonathan Cape