Iliana Metaxa

This Pussy Has Claws

Vagina Dentata Myths of Empowerment and Horror

Who would have thought that apart from lips, vaginas and mouths share even more? Vagina dentata, Latin for toothed vagina, bears the idea that a vagina with teeth or claws can devour a man. She can drain their sexual energy and literally, as well as metaphorically, emasculate them; thus the psychoanalytic relation to castration anxiety.

This mythical metaphor has a dual meaning; is it part of a larger discourse that demonizes female sexuality by presenting it as something fundamentally dangerous and destructive? Or does it leave room for a feminist re-iteration that can lead to female empowerment? After all, what is more badass than a pussy that bites? 

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Vagina Dentata - Image source

This notion of a toothed vagina has an almost archetypal aura, manifesting itself in various cultures worldwide. Let’s sink our teeth into some of these intriguing tales.

One cannot be talking about vagina dentatae without referring to the Indian folktale from Madhya Pradesh; this dark boy-meets-girl story is about a Brahmin who wants to marry a young woman whose vagina has…well, you guessed it; teeth. His solution for that was having Baiga men forcibly remove them, leaving the girl weeping with pain and distress from this violating act. After the woman was “fixed”, he got his happy ending. But did she?

Tales of Empowerment

Well, if this didn’t set your teeth on edge there is an even more horrifying tale coming from Native American mythology. The Ponca story follows naughty Coyote who runs into an old woman and her suspiciously charming daughters who, apart from unique beauty, also possess unique vaginas. One of them, being the evil enchantress that she is (because how can we tell a story right without a little demonization of female sexuality?) attempts to seduce Coytoe. Having been warned by the younger girl though, he violently attacks her toothed vagina with a long burning stick. He also ends up marrying the other girl after getting rid of her vaginal teeth, "leaving just one blunt tooth that was very thrilling when making love."

Another story of a man sticking his nose, or rather, his whole body into dangerous territories comes from Māori mythology. Thinking he can grant humans immortality, the trickster god Māui transforms into a worm and attempts to crawl inside the vagina of Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of death, in order to come out from her mouth and reverse the birth and death process. Now that’s a vagina you definitely don’t want to mess with. Witnessing his foolish attempt, a pīwakawaka starts laughing, waking up the sleeping Hine-nui-te-pō who then kills Māui with her obsidian vagina dentata.

The last, rather empowering, tale originates from Japan, specifically the Ainu people. In this legend, a young woman is plagued by a sharp-toothed demon who parasitically lives inside her vagina, resulting in her unintentionally emasculating her newlywed husband. Determined to get rid of it, she asks a blacksmith to create a metal phallus to break its teeth. The iron penis is actually enshrined in Kawasaki as part of the Kanamara Matsuri a.k.a the Metal Penis Festival. Now that’s some phallocentrism we can bear with. Apart from being a less-horrifying vagina dentata story that portrays female agency instead of male aggression, is this Shinto tale also not a pretty wild sex toy origin story?

What do we know?

The idea of vagina dentata, apart from existing in myths, is part of a larger cultural-historical tendency that correlates female sexuality to threat and danger, (e.g succubus). But we can deconstruct those narratives by reshaping them into tales of regaining control, of celebrating female rage that threatens patriarchal authority. Everyone knows Medusa as the evil monster that petrifies you with her gaze but few know that she was cursed and raped. Her story, similar to vagina dentata, is also a tale of empowerment, of returning the gaze, of biting back. 

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Medusa with the Head of Perseus by Luciano Garbati - This sculpture depicts a re-telling of the Medusa story, where instead of Perseus beheading her, she is the one that carries his decapitated head. 

Sources

Erdoes, Richard. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: 1984. 

'MYTHS', An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, 1966. 

Reese, Emma. How the mythical "toothed vagina" helps explain India's rape culture, The Washington Post. 2014.