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Baubo and the Question of the Obscene

Frederika Tevebring

In 1898, a group of German archaeologists working in the Demeter sanctuary at Priene unearthed a set of Hellenistic figurines with a peculiar and distinctive iconography. The head of each of these female figurines is placed directly onto her legs and, lacking a torso, the chin and vagina merge into one another. Each has long hair that drapes around her back, resembling a lifted veil, or skirt. “Surely we are dealing with a creation from the context of the grotesque-obscene aspects of the Demeter cult,” (Wiegand and Schraeder, 163. My translation) the excavators write in the 1904 report. The archaeologists identified this “grotesque-obscene” aspect with Baubo, and the statuettes are known as Baubo figurines.

Commenting on myths associated with the Orphic mysteries, church fathers such as Clemens of Alexandria and Arnobius, tells us that Baubo received the mourning Demeter at Eleusis and coaxed the goddess out of her refusal to eat or drink by lifting her skirt and showing her ‘secret parts.’ Both the myth and the figurines have elicited responses in literary and philosophical works. Baubo appears as a witch riding to Walpurgis Night on a sow in Goethe’s Faust I. Just a few years prior to the Priene excavation, Nietzsche refers to Baubo in the opening of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. After the publication of the excavation’s findings, Freud mentions Baubo in his 1916 “A Mythological Parallel to a Visual Obsession.” Finally, in her prolific reception in the twentieth century, Baubo has recurrently been situated as a point of departure for exploring the place—or more often the absence­—of sexuality and the female genitals in Nietzsche studies, psychoanalysis, and the creative arts (Korfman, Gsell, Devereux, Lubell et al). Meanwhile, approaches to Baubo within ancient studies have tended to retain her characterization as grotesque-obscene, and ask if this figure is truly a product of Greek culture, or rather an import from an earlier, more eastern, or solely feminine sphere (Olender, Mylonas, Rotstein).

In responding to these complex and disparate strains of Baubo’s reception, I do not aim to solve problems of provenance or meaning. Instead, I argue that the itinerary of the Baubo statuettes from Priene to Berlin was both facilitated by and took part in a changing discourse on the role of ancient Greece for the modern nation state. I further explore how the reception of the myth of Baubo’s exposure of her genitals played a role within larger discussions of the place of the sexual and obscene in Greek art. My project responds to Page Dubois’ contribution in Sexuality in Ancient Art, in which she asks to what desire the scholar responds when attempting to piece together the fragmented bodies of ancient art, and further, if it is possible to integrate the fragmentation and dissemination of ancient art in its study, rather than seeing it as a hurdle to be overcome.

As I demonstrate, the Baubo statuettes were discovered during a period when disciplinary identities were still being formed, which would come to bear significantly upon the reception of the figurines, and upon approaches to the grotesque and obscene in ancient Greece more broadly. In the late nineteenth century, archaeology was gaining independence as an academic discipline vis-à-vis philology. The Priene dig among them, new excavations outside what was considered the ancient Greek heartland were introducing new methods of systematic archaeology. These developments were preceded by increased interest within philology to present itself as a scientific-methodological field. However, this directly conflicted with the field’s original self-justification: that ancient Greece should be studied as an aesthetic and spiritual role model for the modern state. This tension within the discipline was, I argue, never resolved, and influenced still-operative formations of the grotesque and obscene in ancient Greece. I will explore how approaching the “chaotic topography” of Baubo’s body (Olender) and her travel from Priene to the Berlin museums was imbricated within discussions of the borders and limits of ancient Greece. 

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Sexuality in Ancient Art

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