Unveiling Baubo: The Making of an Ancient Myth

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Unveiling Baubo” describes how the mythical figure Baubo was constructed in nineteenth-century German. Associated with the act of exposing herself to the goddess Demeter, Baubo came to epitomize questions about concealment and unveiling in the budding fields of archaeology, philology, psychoanalysis and literary theory. As I show in my dissertation, Baubo did not exist as a coherent mythical figure in antiquity. Rather, the nineteenth-century notion of Baubo was mediated through a disparate array of ancient and contemporary sources centered on the notion of sexual vulgarity. Baubo emerged as a modern amalgam of ancient parts, a myth of a myth invested with the question of what modernity can and should know about ancient Greece. The dissertation centers on the 1989 excavation of the so-called Baubo statuettes, a group of Hellenistic votive figurines discovered at Priene, in modern-day Turkey. The group adheres to a consistent and unique iconography: the face of the female figures is placed directly onto their torso, giving the impression that the vulva and chin merge. Based on the statuettes’ “grotesque-obscene” appearance, archaeologist concluded that they depicted Baubo, the woman who greeted Demeter at Eleusis when the goddess was searching for her abducted daughter Persephone. According to late antique Church Fathers, Demeter refused the locals’ offerings of food and drink until Baubo cheered her up by lifting her skirt, exposing herself to the goddess. Hellenistic inscriptions confirm that the name Baubo was associated with Demeter in antiquity, but there is no evidence of an association between Baubo and any obscene act in the period preceding these Christian writers, whose reception of Baubo is geared clearly towards exemplifying the vulgarity of pagan traditions. Following the excavation, however, Baubo solidified into an obscene ancient figure described as a grotesque personification of the vulva. As I demonstrate, at the turn to the twentieth century, the name Baubo had taken on connotations beyond the ancient sources that mention the name. The mythical figure that the Priene archaeologists recognized in the statuettes had been influenced by a wide range of sources, including Hellenistic statuettes from Egypt, a hapax legomenon from Herondas and Goethe’s Faust Contemporary scholarship has been focused on the question of whether Baubo is properly Greek. This question is a continuation of the nineteenth-century debates from which Baubo emerged. Defining Greece was particularly charged in Germany in this century, as Ancient Greece came to be held up as a foil for German national identity. As ancient studies came into its own as an academic discipline, German scholars reexamined, and often distanced themselves from the idealizing notion of Ancient Greece prevalent at the turn to the century. This shifting approach to Ancient Greece was both figurative and literal in character, as increased German archaeological activity made the ancient world present in Germany to an unprecedented degree after the 1870s. Baubo was both a result of these changes, as the Baubo statuettes were discovered as a result of new methods in archaeological field work. At the same time, Baubo also developed into a figure that questioned the image of Ancient Greece. Goethe and Nietzsche used Baubo to critique the methods and aims of Ancient Studies in their respective generations, connecting her obscene act of exposure with the indecent investigations of scholars. “Unveiling Baubo” describes the processes by which facts about the ancient world are produced. That Baubo’s obscenity is still considered an issue that needs to be solved reveals the continued investments in defining Ancient Greece.

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  • 02/11/2019
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