10 Questions: Miriam Robbins Dexter on the "magical" female form

The female figure as possessor of divine attributes has appeared in art and texts since antiquity. This seemingly erotic expression and its link to the “magical powers” of ancient goddesses and heroines find focus in the work of  Miriam Robbins Dexter, a lecturer in the Department of Women's Studies and translator of some 20 classical Indo-European and Near Eastern languages. In collaboration with Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Robbins Dexter has published a cross-cultural study of women in the ancient Near East, Asia and Europe — as well as real-life examples — who have exposed their genitals to empowering effect (Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia, Cambria Press, 2010). Although the work may bump up against contemporary Western taboos about sex, the fact remains that human history is replete with stories, figurines and other artifacts of the unfettered feminine able to drive away enemies and return joy and fertility to the land. Kevin Matthews, senior writer at the UCLA International Institute, recently sat down with Dexter to talk about her work.
Magical female genital display: Are you talking about history or, more specifically, the history of art?
This is history, not just the history of art. For the prehistoric age, we don't really know exactly what is and isn’t history. That it’s history is more recently shown in a 19th-century letter we found in the Irish Times. The letter’s author was an older man who wrote that as a child he observed a woman who was being besieged by people with pitchforks — she lifted up her skirts and they ran away. There’s also an 18th-century story about women quelling a rebellion in China by going up on a city wall and lifting up their skirts.
Your material depicts not just genital display but also women dancing. How are the two related?
If you look at the Kiltinan Sheela who graces the cover of our book, she's doing both. We find magical dancing figures from the Upper Paleolithic era on. By the Neolithic era, we begin to see display figures sometimes dancing, sometimes crouching. I think it's an evolution.
What are the crouching position and genital display all about?
The earliest display is probably saying, "Look, out of here comes babies." To this was added magic. We don't know why. We can hypothesize that this was because, until very recently, childbirth was a dangerous act. Women died. Infants died. If you add a little magic to it, asking the deities for help, maybe it will be successful.
Pot with sculpted human figure, from Machang, western China. Courtesy of the National Museum of China.
This display could turn back an army or bring on rain?
Yes, it's such a powerful position. There’s genital display for repelling an enemy. If you look at the way [Irish] Sheela na gigs are placed on castle walls — sometimes on the keystone of the arch over the door — and on church walls, they’re protecting the structure. Perhaps they’re saying, “Okay, only those of you who have the right intent may enter.”
There's also genital display for bringing joy and fertility back to the land — bringing the sun back, bringing the rain back — and this is quite cross-cultural. We're calling it "Eurasian," but I've found evidence all over the globe in myths and rituals.
How did these images find their way to so many different places?
We think that the concept was carried along the Silk Road. It's not simply that there are display figures in Europe and there are also display figures in Asia — these figures more closely echo one another. It’s clear to us that it wasn't just an abstract concept but concrete images that were finding their way from place to place.
For example?
The petroglyphs at Qutubi, in west China — huge petroglyphs with dancing male and female figures. The female figures have triangles for their upper and lower bodies. Just as we were beginning to do this work, I edited a paper by a Romanian archaeologist. She had images collected from her excavations in Eastern Europe, including dancing female figures with triangle bodies. Another example is the crouching female figure on a pot from Machang in western China. While there’s been some discussion over whether the figure was female, male or hermaphroditic, it's so clear to both Victor and me that it is a female figure with little knobby breasts — just like the breasts on a crouching fish figure from the ancient site of Lepenski Vir in Eastern Europe.
triangle women
Petroglyphs from Qutubi in western China (left) bear close resemblance to triangle-shaped female figures from eastern Europe. Photo by Wang Binghua.
How did these cross-cultural connections become lost to the extent that you and your co-author had to unearth them again?
I think that in some areas the subject becomes somewhat taboo, especially in the Western world. In India today, there doesn't seem to be embarrassment about these female images. The display of the vulva isn't sex. It's not that there isn't an erotic value to the female genitals, but that this display is never about a male and a female having sex. In fact, display figures in Indian temples will be right next to Mithuna figures — figures of men and women copulating. These figures clearly represent very different functions.
Do you find that these ideas about the power of the female body are alien to people you might speak with, and to your students?
Certainly in the United States it is uncommon to think in this way. Instead, we have a very odd puritan/pornographic take on the female body. We think that women should be covered and that women should be exposed — all at the same time.
Is that perspective hard for students and for you as a teacher to overcome?
Don't you think that depends on the person?
Fair enough. Why is it important for people today to know about "sacred display?”
Young women need to stop being ashamed of their genitals. This society tends to make women feel shy and ashamed. Obviously, I'm very interested in empowering women, and so for that reason I think these concepts are of contemporary value.
Dexter will give a lecture about her work on Thursday, Oct. 7, 4-5:30 p.m. at A163 Bunche Hall (Palm Courtyard, Basement Level). Her presentation is part of the Religions of the Silk Road Lecture Series sponsored by the UCLA Central Asia Initiative and the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion. Find details here.