Anasyrma (Apotropaic Vulva Magic) is Making a Comeback

The following was posted by Catherine Blackledge on the 15th of November 2021 on Facebook, accompanying the 17th-century Frans Franken image above:

Anasyrma in action: fantastic painting Bravery of the Persian Women by Frans Francken the Younger (c 1600). These women changed the course of war by collectively revealing their #vulvas to their fellow men, who were attempting to flee from battle with the Median forces. Fast forward hundreds of years and nineteenth-century women in China would stand on the top of the city wall and expose their genitals to frighten away enemies. In 1958, 7,000 women in west Cameroon, Africa raised their skirts in an incredible display of #yoni power to protest against government regulations changing for the worse the way the women farmed their land. The women won. Anasyrma — deliberately raising the skirt to reveal one’s womanhood — is the oldest, proudest female power gesture used individually and collectively by women for millennia to protect their families, homes, communities, fertility and way of life — and it’s making a comeback.

On April 13th, 2022, Knut Høibraaten posted the image above to Facebook, with the comment: “The women from Estonia who stood up outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn this morning, in protest against the Grotesque rapes in Ukraine, are potentially the strongest demonstration I have seen.” In fact, this is but the most recent example of an ancient and abiding kind of protective protest magic and ritual theatre.

Anasyrma relies upon the primordial religious terror and awe of atropaic birth magic, the magic that makes one, that men can’t do but are subject to. It is a manifestation of a basic principle of elemental magic, the original religion of reverence and awe — what made you can not only unman you but un-make you. Like Krypton to Superman, if you are male, it can break you down, make you vulnerable — un-do you. Atavistic taboo/fear/awe of the female genital and the grandmothers — the venerable source of life, that also explains the fear and awe of birth blood and menstruation — is strong in many male-exclusive societies, culturally. Such fundamental religious beliefs are the source of much mythology still extant, like the widespread fears of ‘vagina dentata’ — which, if not wielded consciously and authoritatively in and by women, preferably en masse, which historically results in women’s fearful suppression, control and abuse.

Apotropaic vulva magic — birth magic — is the oldest magic, the original religion, the primary reverence pattern, meant to turn away harm or evil influences, increase abundance, fertility and prosperity. It was deployed to great advantage by women in history, as where the Daughters of Benjamin bared their vulvas, danced under the full moon, and released their menstrual blood upon the fields and in the orchards to increase the harvest, but were condemned by Bible patriarchs as ‘abomination.’ Jeremiah 44 tells the tale of how he threatened the Jewish populace for persisting in their Goddess-revering patterns whereby the women would bake little cakes impressed with the downward-pointing triangle (international magical vulva symbol) for their Goddess-revering harvest festivals:

Anasyrma relies upon the primordial religious terror and awe of atropaic birth magic, the magic that makes one, that men can’t do but are subject to. It is a manifestation of a basic principle of elemental magic, the original religion of reverence and awe — what made you can not only unman you but un-make you. Like Krypton to Superman, if you are male, it can break you down, make you vulnerable — un-do you. Atavistic taboo/fear/awe of the female genital and the grandmothers — the venerable source of life, that also explains the fear and awe of birth blood and menstruation — is strong in many male-exclusive societies, culturally. Such fundamental religious beliefs are the source of much mythology still extant, like the widespread fears of ‘vagina dentata’ — which, if not wielded consciously and authoritatively in and by women, preferably en masse, which historically results in women’s fearful suppression, control and abuse, as recounted in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah:

Have you forgotten the wickedness of your fathers and of the kings of Judah and their wives, as well as the wickedness that you and your wives committed in the land of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? To this day they have not humbled themselves or shown reverence, nor have they followed My instruction or the statutes that I set before you and your fathers. Therefore this is what the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: I will set My face to bring disaster and to cut off all Judah. And I will take away the remnant of Judah who have resolved to go to the land of Egypt to reside there; they will meet their end. They will all fall by the sword or be consumed by famine. From the least to the greatest, they will die by sword or famine; and they will become an object of cursing and horror, of vilification and reproach. I will punish those who live in the land of Egypt, just as I punished Jerusalem, by sword and famine and plague, so that none of the remnant of Judah who have gone to reside in Egypt will escape or survive to return to the land of Judah, where they long to return and live; for none will return except a few fugitives.… (Jeremiah 44: 10–15).

But the Jewish women (AND their men) were resistant to letting go of the good magic they’d lived by for thousands of years, ever since the earliest days of the Hebrew tribes as a distinct people: “As for the word you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you! Instead, we will do everything we vowed to do: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and offer drink offerings to her, just as we, our fathers, our kings, and our officials did in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and good things, and we saw no disaster. But from the time we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been perishing by sword and famine” (Jeremiah 44: 16–18).

Stringent times demand more direct action than baking hot vulva buns for the spring equinox, however, as portrayed in the Neoclassical painting by Frans Francken the Younger, above. One woman (a dancer) practiced anasyrma as activist ritual theatre during the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the George Floyd police murder, as documented in the image above (Cameron Frew, ‘Naked Woman Squares Up To Police During Black Lives Matter Protest,’ Unilad, 20 Jul 2020).

Birth magic (vulva magic) trumps the war magic of the male warrior gods and all-male lodges and warrior cults. Basically, in the logics of magical systems everywhere, the primary magic is the Nemesis; the magic that made you can ‘un-make’ you — can scuttle all your potency, all your prophylactic spells and purity rituals, all your invulnerability and protections, all your plans — like Krypton to Superman. This is why creative birth (or vulva) magic has been cast as ‘pollution’ by these self-same cults of war, male warrior spirituality and all-male orders.

There was a moment in history, in nearly all (now) male-dominated societies and the religions that prop them up (‘Cattle Cults,’ in anthropological terms), when the assets, property and agency of women were expropriated and ‘nationalized’ to the closest male relative or spouse, and all her power and freedom with it — as portrayed in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale as the first state move Gilead makes. The Chalice and the Blade by Rianne Eisler sets out the agenda and the timeline. She is the founder of Partnership Studies, with her book The Partnership Way acting as its flagship. She documents the shift — historically, economically and ideologically — as had Mary Daly (GynEcology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism) and Merlin Stone (When God Was a Woman) before her.

For Judeo-Christianity, this moment happened around 50 BCE, that put an end to the last remaining cultural conventions and protocols of the culture, society and religion of the Great Goddesses in the Near and Middle East (Asherah, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Anat, Isis, Ishtar etc.). The nurture-centred role of the original temple, that the Old Testament patriarchs railed against with bone-chilling threats and blood-curdling violence as ‘abomination’ and ‘pollution,’ was finally destroyed. This socio-economic/magico-religious move (and abiding curse) cast the die for Christendom and the imperial West to appropriate and oppress Woman’s estate going forward.

The Taliban are doing it, again, now, in Afghanistan.

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Yvonne Owens, PhD

Yvonne Owens, PhD

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I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.