Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews    entry Nov 2012

This may be regarded as part II of an earlier entry on Luck.
Also, you may wish to read the entry on The Secret Room in the National Museum first.

Of Skirts and Figs and Sheela-na-gigs

The Gabinetto Segreto at the National Museum does not seem to have any objects that might help me answer the burning question, if Neapolitan men touch their genitalia to ward off bad luck, what do women touch? I was hoping that there might be an example of a Baubo figurine. (The image below, right, is such an ancient Greek figurine of the "face-in-torso" type, apparently a pendent or amulet.)

In ancient Greece, ritual obscenity was common in the cults of Demeter and Dionysus. In one version passed down to us, the Goddess Demeter is brought out of her despondency over the loss of her daughter, Persephone, by a woman named Baubo, who exposes herself in a ritual called anasyrma (Greek: 'lifting of skirts"), causing the goddess to break out in laughter. There are, thus, small terracotta figurines found at various sites throughout the Mediterranean that depict women exposing the vulva. Even farther afield, there are the well-known Sheela-na-gigs in Ireland, Scotland and Wales: naked female figures on churches, walls, and towers. They have equivalents in many other parts of the world. In most cases, such terracotta figurines and figures built into walls and facades have an apotropaic (Greek: "turn away, avert")* function—that is, they are meant to protect and to ward off evil. (Clearly, the Baubo story is really nothing new but merely a cute twist on the general perception of the power of female sexuality that can be traced back to neolithic times where we find similar artifacts in so-called "Venus figurines.")

[*apotropaic: also see the entry on Lullabies.]

In Italy, there are a few prominent examples of this type: In Milan, the Putta di Porta Tosa (image, right) now in the Sforzesco museum in Milan was mounted at an entrance in the city wall. The figure, from the 13th century, shows a woman standing, facing outward (toward potential attackers), holding a knife in one hand and lifting her garment to expose herself with the other.* On a church wall in the town of Borbona (near Rieti) there is a more typical Baubo figure almost certainly part of a fountain originally, where it functioned as a water spout. Also, on the facade of the Modena cathedral, there an unusual apotropaic figure—not of a Baubo figure but of an hermaphrodite with exposed breasts and penis. All of this reflects the almost universal folklore regarding the life-giving power of both the female and male forms to deflect evil.

David Rayner was kind enough to send me this comment on the Putta di Porta Tosa 

     *... inaccuracies in the text regarding this sculpture. It is very clearly 12th century work, not 13th as you state: the Romanesque arch above the figure, the style of dress, the neckline and the form of the lettering above the figure all point to a date some time before the 1180s.

     She is not holding a knife, although this is indistinct in your image, but a pair of shears - scissors were not introduced until the early 14th century and shears were the normal haircutting tool of the time. Priests and monks receiving their first tonsure would first have their long hair cut with shears before a razorium was used (a small, sharp knife with a curved cutting edge) to finish the job. The shape of the shears is very clear in other photographs; shears of various sizes were used for everything from removing the fleece from sheep to cutting cloth for clothing and trimming fingernails.

     The name of the former Milanese gate (Porta Tosa) may be from the Old Provençal word toza, meaning a girl, surviving as tosa in northern Italian dialects; or it may be the Italian verb tosare, meaning to shear, clip or trim. I have seen at least four different versions of the story behind the sculpture and the truth is probably lost in time, but it is certain that Italian clerical sensibilities were affronted in the 15th century and this is the reason for the figure being removed to a museum.

    I should explain that for almost 15 years I have been researching all aspects of the Anglo-Norman 12th century, in particular the Church and the monasteries of the time but also looking at ordinary daily life and material culture - subjects which have been sadly neglected by historians and writers. Although I have mainly looked at England, the close connections with Normandy and the Norman kingdom in Italy and Sicily can not be ignored.

The myth of Baubo and Demeter echoes in later European folk literature, as well. "The Devil of Pope-Fig Island" (in Tales and Novels in Verse, 1674) by the French fabulist and poet, Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), tells the tail of an island ruled by demons, one of whom has challenged a local farmer to a contest to see which of them could better scratch and dig furrows in the earth. The farmer's wife, determined not to have her husband lose a hopeless contest, showed up early to welcome the demon. She turned on the tears when the devil arrived. When he asked her what was wrong, she said that her husband had tried out his claws on her body and had gashed her terribly between the legs. She raised her skirt and exposed herself to the demon, who was so horrified at what might might have caused such a terrible wound that he gave up the challenge and fled in panic. The illustration (left) used in most later editions of the tale is by Charles Eisen (1720-1778), a French illustrator and drawing-master to Madame de Pompadour. 

An earlier example is from Naples in the works of Giovanbattista Basile (1575-1650) an early collector of folk tales. He published them in Neapolitan dialect as Li Cunto de li Cunti [The Tale of Tales], known in English simply as The Pentameron. It is a frame story with different tales told over a series of days. The introduction ("How the Stories Came to be Told") starts with a passage similar to the myth of Baubo:

Once upon a time in the realm of Valleposa, the king had a daughter named Zoza, who was never seen to laugh. The anguished father, whose only joy in life was his daughter, tried everything to dispel her melancholy. He sent for those who walk on stilts and jump through hoops, for boxers, conjurers, jugglers, strong men, for dogs that dance, clowns that leap, and the donkey that drinks from a glass. In short, he tried everything, but, alas, nothing made Zoza laugh.

The poor father, at wit's end, made a last trial and ordered a large fountain of oil to be set in front of the palace gates. When the oil runs down the street, he thought, where people parade like ants, in order not to soil their clothes, they'll skip like grasshoppers, leap like goats, and run like hares; some will pick and choose their way, and others creep along the wall. In short, he hoped that something might make his daughter laugh.

So the fountain was built; and as Zoza stood at the window one day, grave and proper, and looking as sour as vinegar, an old woman passed by and started to soak up the oil with a sponge and to fill a small pitcher she had brought along. As she was concentrating on this clever ploy of hers, a young court page passed by and threw a stone with such precision that it hit and shattered the pitcher. The old woman, as outspoken as they come, faced the page angrily and yelled, "Why you little bed-wetting impotent good-for-nothing piece of dung!..."[etc. etc.!] The page, who had little beard and no discretion, however, gave as good as he got and yelled back: "Why don't you shut that sewer of a mouth, you bloody-eyed, child-murdering, serpent-spawned old witch!...[etc. etc!] At these terms of endearment, the old woman flew into a rage and raised her curtain to display a scene of thick foliage! [In Neapolitan: "...auzato la tela de l'apparato fece vedere la scena voscareccia." In modern Italian: "..."alzato il sipario dell'apparato fece vedere la scena boschereccia."] At that spectacle, Zoza, watching from the window, broke into laughter and almost fainted away...

The Naples collection in the Gabinetto segreto is overwhelmingly male; that is, there is no shortage of phallic symbols in the form of terra cotta pottery, oil lamps, pendants, amulets and whatever. (See "other symbols." below.) I found, however, no examples of apotropaic anasyrma—women raising the garments to expose themselves to ward off evil. There may be various reasons for this. The collection in Naples is almost totally Roman, not Greek; that is, the items are almost all from Pompeii and Herculaneum. (Even the exceptions are usually male, such as the Etruscan phallic tomb markers at the entrance. There is, however, one Venus figurine from India.) There may be examples of Baubo figurines still to be found in the ruins of Magna Grecia farther to the south. I imagine that there may be places in rural Greece where the apotropaic custom of anasyrma still exists. There may also be such places in southern rural Italy (where they still retain a form of the Greek language in some locations), but I don't know. I suspect that Blok's (1981) "...In Italy [anasyrma] is a woman's gesture to ward off the malocchio, 'evil eye'..." is very outdated. (I get vague answers from Italian woman when I ask them what they "touch" to ward off bad luck. I suggested "maybe the hem of your dress"—they usually smile and say, "We all wear jeans these days." It's as if they're hiding something.) Having said that, I now report that I have just watched a video circulating on the internet of the police breaking into a camorra (the Neapolitan version of the Mafia) stronghold near Naples and dragging off some men while the womenfolk screamed obscenities at the cops. One of the women "flashed" the cops by raising her dress.

It may be that the ancient anasyrma myth of Baubo has also taken other forms in this ancient Greek city of Neapolis. You just have to search hard enough and perhaps do some fancy interpreting—but that's half the fun. Take the very Greek and very Neapolitan myth of the sirens, for example. The city, itself, was named for one of them, Parthenope. There exists in mythology a type of siren, whose bottom fish-half is splayed or split such as to resemble the Baubo figure as she is usually represented and to suggest the same apotropaic gesture that we associate with the purely human figure. Such a creature is, in fact, termed a "Baubo-siren" (the image on the left is from a 1573 French engraving, The Entry of the Sirens). There is in Naples an outstanding Baroque manifestation of the Baubo-siren in a rather unlikely place—on the large column at Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. The column was finished in 1737, and the heraldic emblems, the cherubs and the religious, pious figures are joined by what is obviously this splay-tailed mermaid. (My thanks to Selene Salvi for pointing this figure out to me.)

They tell me that various markings
on the stone walls at Cuma, that most mysterious abode of ancient Greeks just a few miles from Naples, may also be interpreted as apotropaic sexual symbols. Or they may be lunar calendars! (That confusion confuses me, but maybe some things are just too difficult for men!) Finally, since the gesture of anasyrma is apparently worldwide and certainly older than either Rome or Greece, such items as the atypical figure of the standing woman in Milan (cited above) may actually stem from an older Italic influence.

When I read (Blok 1981))  that "...In Italy (anasyrma) is a woman's gesture to ward off the malocchio, 'evil eye'..."...I start asking questions. Even before the "What do women touch" it occurs to me to ask how something can be obscene and ward off bad luck at the same time. The perhaps too obvious answer that occurs to me —non-anthropologist that I am— is that demons fear symbols of life such as the vulva or phallus. That has to be behind the many obscene hand gestures that we all know. They may vary from culture to culture but the ritual insult of making such a gesture certainly had an apotropaic function.

other symbols

Demeter was the Greek goddess of the harvest and fertility, but the Romans, in spite of their respect for all things Greek, chose another deity,
Dionysus, as even more powerful when it came to providing a powerful talisman of fecundity and prosperity that could also ward off evil influences. Dionysus was known to the Romans as Bacchus. He was also a god of the harvest, but of the wine harvest, of ritual madness and ecstasy. His symbol was the male organ, known as the fascinum, deriving from fas, meaning "favorable" or "propitiatory"; thus, the phallic symbol was omnipresent in the Roman world, as the Gabinetto segreto in the National Museum demonstrates. Another powerful charm was noise (babies and animals often had bells, known as crepitacula or tintinnabula, strung around their necks), which explains the frequent occurrence in Pompeii of bronze bells supported by phallic figures. (The poliphallic Mercury, right, in the museum is such a tintinnabulum.) Phallic symbols were inscribed on walls and paving stones in Pompeii and often found on stone tablets hung up at the corners of houses to protect them. They were often displayed outside bakers' shops and on their ovens. The Gabinetto Segreto collection displays a large number of personal amulets, more often than not in the form of pendants. These were made of materials such as coral and amber, believed to have special power against diseases and the evil eye. The shape of such talismans was also important; besides the widespread phallic symbol, astrological symbols such as the moon, or numbers, were also common.

One further powerful talisman was the gesture of making a fist and putting the thumb between the index and middle finger —the so-called "fig" sign (image, right)— alluding to copulation. Like the hermaphrodite figure in ancient Greece (and the figure, mentioned above, at the Modena cathedral) the combined power of both male and female sexuality was considered especially propitious, a potent double whammy against evil. There are many amulets and pendants depicting this gesture. In some areas of the world, the gesture is considered a good luck charm; in others it is considered an obscene gesture. Iconically, as noted, it represents intercourse, but I was not aware that it was also an insulting gesture, at least at one time, equivalent to "giving the finger" to someone. It crops up even in such a surprising context as Dante's Divine Comedy. In Canto XXV of the "Inferno", the first verse is this:

Al fine de le sue parole il ladro
le mani alzò con amendue le fiche,
gridando: "Togli, Dio, ch’a te le squadro!".

In the English translation by Allen Mandelbaum:

When he had finished with his words, the thief
raised high his fists with both figs cocked and cried:
Take that, O God; I square them off for you!

I am not aware that the gesture is still used like that in Italy. Incidentally, students of the Italian language may wish to note that the cited verse causes giggles in Italian schoolrooms when they plow through Dante. In hyper-correct Italian, yes, fico means fig tree; the single fruit, one fig, is correctly called fica. The paradigm is grammatically like other fruit in Italian: pero-pera (pear tree-single pear, melo-mela (apple tree, apple), etc. However, the meaning of the second term for the single fig has been preempted by modern Italian slang where it is the vulgar word for vulva. Thus, Italians these days, Dante notwithstanding, order the plural of fico (the tree), fichi, at the grocer's instead of fiche. They are essentially ordering entire fig trees just to avoid a bit of vulgarity. Even encyclopedia references call the gesture la mano (hand) fico instead of la mano fica to avoid the vulgarism. (My Neapolitan wife assures me that they skipped that verse in school.)

Sources & bibliography:

Blackledge, C. (2003). The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 12.

Blok, Anton. (1981). Rams and Billy-goats: A Key to the Mediterranean Code of Honour. Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, 1981.

Bussagli, Marco. Entry "Scaramanzia" in the Treccani Encyclopedia. On-line

Christian, David (2011). "Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia" (review) in Journal of World History, Volume 22, Number 4, December.

Clark, Gayle Shaw (2008). Sexuality: Social and Cultural Constructs of Women Represented through Art. Thesis Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Georgia Southern University.

Gimbuta, Marija (1999). The Living Goddesses, edited and supplemented by Miriam Robbins Dexter. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley.

Rhoades, Georgia. (2010) "Decoding the Sheela-na-gig" in Feminist Formations. Volume 22, Issue 2.

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