I Sing the Body Magical: Baubo and Her Apotropaic Power
In the ancient Greek tale of Demeter and the loss of her daughter Persephone there is the character Baubo. In the mythological story, she is a side-character, a mortal being whose mention takes up no more than a few pages. Yet, Baubo is shown to hold the key to Demeter’s depression through the magically apotropaic performance of anasyrma. Anasyrma – the female revealing of the genitals with the intention of asserting power or benefits upon a viewer – allows Baubo to become a strong, active female figure in antiquity which is then showcased in her material representation. Beyond textual accounts, the terracotta, bronze, and glass representations of Baubo from Greece, Asia Minor, Lebanon, and Northern Egypt provide us with an opportunity to glimpse at how the power of the female body was materialized, interacted with, and became conductors of magic strong enough to sway a goddess.
This work looks at Baubo and her artwork through the lenses of magic in antiquity and the theory of abjection and its linkage to witch portrayals in ancient art and literature. The act and use of anasyrma in antiquity is discussed in depth. Baubo is compared and contrasted to the aspects of abjection, allowing an associative discussion of the witch goddesses Hecate and Circe along with wise women in antiquity. Through this analysis, the character of Baubo is shown to be one who wields magical abilities in a uniquely corporeal way. It is not the female herself, her identity, nor any authority she possesses that ascribe such magical force; rather it is her genitalia, materialized as a face inserted in the torso – the pubic slit acting as a clef chin – or as figures sitting in a squat position – their legs spread to exhibit their genitals. Through close examination of her figurines, I move away from traditional categorization of magic as an act involving tools such as wands, curse tablets, or herbs, as well as from the Roman literature conception of witches who eat flesh, practice necromancy, and dwell in graveyards. This work ultimately presents a reconsideration of magic as embodied by Baubo, an active agent with apotropaic magic activated through the use of her own body, specifically her genitals.