Archetypal and Symbolical Aspects of the Female Genitals

(Adapted excerpt from "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos")

Nelson Soucasaux

Nelson Drawing 1976

This article mainly concerns some of the innumerable and eternal archetypal and symbolic aspects of women's sexual organs and, therefore, the importance they have, have had or had in our understanding ( and, unfortunately, often misunderstanding ) of women's nature throughout time.

In the past, due to the ignorance about the anatomic and physiological details of the female genitals, there was a strong tendency to consider the uterus as "the woman's fundamental organ." This standpoint often induced a symbolic identification of women with this organ, which failed to recognize the enormous importance of the other organs that constitute the female genitals. An excessive "hystero-centric" standpoint dominated the concept of the female sex. This idea was reinforced by the rich mythology that has always existed about the uterus, involving what we may call "uterine archetypes". Here, by archetypes I mean the Jungian concept of the term.

Speaking about physicians from the old times, Pierre Vachet has observed that, deeply impressed by the periodicity of women's organic life, they believed they had found the "key" for the understanding of the female psyche in the genital functions: "tota mulier in utero" ( Vachet, P.-"A Mulher - Enigma Psico-Sexual" ["La Femme, Cette Enigme"] - Círculo do Livro, São Paulo, Brazil, 1976 ). Here we can clearly verify how much the uterus was, wrongly, regarded almost as a "synonym" for the female genital organs. This means that, in the past, the wholeness constituted by the woman's genitals was mostly represented by one of their parts, that is, the part was used to assume the role of the whole.

Another example of the strong symbolism of the uterus in women's nature lies at the very origin of the old medical term "hysteria" which, for a long time, was used to name several psychological, emotional and nervous disorders in the female sex. With regard to the concept of "hysteria" and also other pathologies of women, Germaine Greer has observed that some physicians believed that ". . . est femineo generis pars una uterus omnium morborum", ". . . the uterus participates in all diseases of the female sex." According to Greer, women were regarded as being, by nature, subjected to the "tyranny" of the "insatiable uterus." ( Greer, G.- "A Mulher Eunuco" ["The Female Eunuch"] - Círculo do Livro, São Paulo, Brazil, 1975 ).

With the acquisition of more precise and accurate knowledge on the woman's sexual organs, their anatomy, physiology and pathology, this old "hystero-centric" position no longer could be maintained at the light of medical science. Nevertheless, due to the influence of the already mentioned "uterine archetypes", much of the mythology related to this organ remains in action.

In my opinion, from the somatic ( bodily ) point of view, everything in women's bodies that characterizes them as women is endowed with the greatest signification. However, if we should attribute degrees of importance to the various parts of the female body and genitals, certainly, physiologically speaking, the ovaries are much more important to the woman's wholeness than the uterus. Moreover, as it is widely known, the uterus itself depends on the ovarian hormones for reaching its entire development at puberty and for the maintenance of its trophicity and function throughout the fertile years of women's lives ; the endometrial cycle is under the command of the estrogens and progesterone produced by the ovaries and, finally, pregnancy obviously depends on the fertilization of an oocyte originating in these organs. As I always use to remark, almost everything that is characteristically female in the woman's body depends above all on the ovarian estrogens, since they are the fundamental hormones of femininity at the physical level.

It was just for that reason that, obviously without intending to fall into an "ovary-centric" position, I have devoted an entire chapter of my book "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos: Forma, Função, Símbolo e Arquétipo" ("The Female Sexual Organs: Shape, Function, Symbol and Archetype") to the ovaries. If, on the one hand, we consider the crucial importance of these organs to the female physiology and to the preservation of the fitness of the woman's body and, on the other hand, the paradoxes of their nature, we will see that the ovaries demand very special attention.

Returning to the ancient "hystero-centric" view of women, it is important to make clear that the old associations sometimes made between the uterus and the female sexual impulse had an essentially symbolic and archetypal meaning, being devoid of any physiological basis. Regardless of the existence of a considerable participation of the uterus in the female sexual response, culminating with the typical uterine orgasmic contractions, it is undeniable that, at the genital level, the clitoral and vulvo-vaginal response is much, much more important than the uterine one. This is so because the main pelvic "receptors" for sexual stimulation in women are located at the clitoris and other vulvar structures, at the vaginal entrance and at the controversial Gräfenberg Spot. During the orgasmic response, the contractions of the muscles that surround the lower third of the vagina are, perhaps, much more important than the uterine contractions that take place simultaneously.

Even considering all of this and despite the fact that, at the present state of our knowledge, the uterus no longer can be regarded as the "supreme woman's organ", the beauty and the obviously enormous value and importance of this organ was not altered. A considerable part of the rich mythology associated with the womb still has strong reasons to exist. We only must be careful to not restrict the importance of the uterus to its reproductive function ( as Medicine regrettably often does ), because the value of this organ in women's nature by far transcends this function. To my point of view, the uterus is endowed with a reason for existing and a very peculiar symbolism that have acquired supremacy over its exclusively biological reproductive capability. ( Besides, we cannot forget that, from the physiological point of view, the uterus constantly mirrors the ovarian function through the periodic occurrence of the menses. )

As I remarked in my book "Novas Perspectivas em Ginecologia" ("New Perspectives in Gynecology"), the fact that women are endowed with a genital apparatus and a physiology which, besides characterizing them as women and originating a typical kind of sexual activity, also possess a reproductive function, does not allow us to consider the latter as the principal aspect. From the existential point of view, all form and human constitution by far transcend their original biological purpose. I believe this observation demonstrates quite well what I mean about the enormous intrinsic value of the uterus as a typical organ of women, and that this value goes far beyond its merely reproductive aspect.

But more about the archetypal, symbolic and mythological aspects of the woman's sexual organs. Though the mythology related to the female genitals has always been enormous, unfortunately a considerable part of it is hardly specific about the peculiarities of each organ or part of this apparatus. Considering that most of the archetypal contents expressed in the mythologies are very old and date back to times in which anatomic knowledge was scanty, many of the archetypes related to the woman's genitals, pelvis and belly are "centered" in the uterus, vagina and vulva. Therefore, they are mostly "utero-vaginal archetypes". Because of this, unfortunately, it is difficult to find references to the ovaries and Fallopian tubes in mythology.

Another aspect to be emphasized about the myths related to the female genitals is that they were always reinforced by the intrapelvic and therefore internal location of most of these organs. This fact, associated to the very rich symbology of the woman's genitals, greatly increases their somewhat "mysterious" features and attributes. In this way, innumerable fantasies, expressing the more diverse archetypal contents, have been constantly elaborated about the female sexual organs, as well as the pelvis and belly that house them.

Even today, many cultured and educated women demonstrate considerable lack of knowledge regarding details of the anatomy and physiology of their inner genitals. It is needless to point out that male ignorance about the woman's internal genitals also remains enormous.

Returning to mythology, the intrapelvic and consequently "hidden" feature of the female genitals, associated with the eternal mysteries that have always surrounded women's nature, gave rise to many symbolic analogies between them and several fantastic elements such as magic caves, mysterious gateways and tunnels, deep fountains and wells, both seductive and menacing mouths, etc. Actually, the genital "canal" can be regarded as the "way in" to the intimacy of the female body and, symbolically, to the "source of life".

In modern psychical research, other kinds of uterine archetypes are the "perinatal matrixes of the unconscious", described by Stanislav Grof and related to the stages of childbirth ( Grof, S. - "Beyond the Brain - Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy" - McGraw-Hill, U.S.A., 1988 ).

Nelson Soucasaux is a gynecologist dedicated to Clinical, Preventive and Psychosomatic Gynecology. Graduated in 1974 by Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, he is the author of several articles published in medical journals and of the books "Novas Perspectivas em Ginecologia" ("New Perspectives in Gynecology") and "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos: Forma, Função, Símbolo e Arquétipo" ("The Female Sexual Organs: Shape, Function, Symbol and Archetype"), published by Imago Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 1990, 1993.

[ Home ] [ Consultório (Medical Office) ] [ Obras Publicadas (Published Works) ]
[ Novas Perspectivas em Ginecologia (New Perspectives in Gynecology) ]
[ Órgãos Sexuais Femininos (The Female Sexual Organs) ]
[ Temas Polêmicos (Polemical Subjects) ] [ Tópicos Diversos (Other Topics)(Part 1) ]
[ Tópicos Diversos (Other Topics)(Part 2) ] [ Ilustrações (Illustrations) ]