Vagina dentata is not the title of a song from The Lion King;1 it is a subject more likely to be treated by the films of Ken Russell than by those of Uncle Walt. To Sigmund Freud, who is often credited with coining the term, vagina dentata certainly did not mean 'no worries.'
What Freud Meant
Literally, vagina dentata means 'female genitalia with teeth'. What was Freud thinking? In a simple way, the term refers to the idea behind the old joke about the first time a little boy and girl saw each other naked. The little girl asked 'can I touch it?' and the little boy answered in Freudian terror 'No way! You already broke yours off!' To put it another way, the image of the vagina dentata captured what Freud described as (or perhaps, what Freud experienced as) a fear of castration, a fear that Freud argued all boys (or men) feel upon first seeing female genitalia. Strangely, Freud used the image of the severed head of the snake-haired gorgon Medusa as his representation of the male fear of castration2.
In another essay, Freud wrote:
Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals3.One might equally suggest that no female human being is spared the irresistible urge to laugh at the sight of the male genitals. It seems clear that at least some male human beings think of something other than castration when confronted with a naked female human being. The situation is perhaps less clear concerning the female urge to laugh. While Freud's argument for the universality of this fear may seem rather ridiculous to many or most men and women today, the image is, indeed, widespread in the mythologies of the world4.
Vaginae Dentatae Around the World
In his Theogony, the Greek poet Hesiod describes what might be seen as a variation on the vagina dentata theme: the unborn Kronos reaches from the womb of his mother and castrates his understandably surprised father Ouranos. Other mythologies, however, present the image much more literally.
Erich Neumann suggested in The Great Mother that:
This motif of the vagina dentata is most distinct in the mythology of the North American Indians. In the mythology of other Indian tribes a meat-eating fish inhabits the vagina of the Terrible Mother... 5
Other scholars have provided long lists of Inuit myths of women with dog heads in their crotch, Hindu stories of the demon Adi in the form of Parvati with teeth in her vagina, and other tales collected from all over the world. Disturbingly common in parts of the world is a psychological complaint known as Koro - the Genital Retraction Syndrome which seems to well up from the same subconscious fear that Freud described. In modern times in the western world the vagina dentata has become common currency of popular culture. Older readers may remember punk singer Nina Hagen and the gaping wolf’s head she sometimes wore on the front of her shorts.
Vagina Dentata: Important, but Still Something of a Mystery
Few modern psychoanalysts would agree with Freud about the prevalence of the vagina dentata image and the fear of castration in the psyches of contemporary men. There are, however, a number of scholars, critics and analysts that have argued that the prevalence of the image - both in world mythology and, as they postulate, in the male psyche - is an indication of a very deep-seated hatred and fear of women. There can be no doubt that many pathological individuals have had such hatred and fear. Additionally, many aspects of many societies, including modern ones, reflect such an attitude to the feminine. In the light of certain events and societal patterns, it would be unwise to reject such insights about our cultural psyche out of hand. There have also been attempts to reclaim the vagina dentata as a symbol of women's power. The works of Judy Chicago, particularly The Dinner Party, have brought the image of the vagina, dentata or otherwise, into the common vocabulary of modern art. Indeed, the image of the vagina dentata may represent something far more disturbing or wonderful than simply a widespread male subconscious fear of She Who Already Broke Hers Off.
Vagina Dentata! What a wonderful phrase(It should perhaps be mentioned that in Latin, the first syllable of 'vagina' rhymes with 'bag' not 'badge' and the second syllable rhymes with 'Tin[a]' not with 'tine [of a fork]'. 2In his 1922 essay 'Medusa's Head.'3Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Trans. James Strachey, Basic Books: New York, 1962, p. 216.4Yet surprisingly absent from the films of Ken Russell.5The Great Mother Trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1963, p. 168.
Vagina Dentata! Ain't no passing craze
It means no worries for the rest of your days
It's our problem-free philosophy
Vagina Dentata . . .