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The cat’s out of the bag

Paleolithic cave paintings found across Europe include triangular shapes with a central cleft that can only be interpreted as pussy. A French example, called the Chauvet Cave Venus, is a huge black pubic triangle painted at eye level, flanked by prehistoric cats, a mammoth, and a mystical manbison known as the Sorcerer. Smaller pubic triangles mark the openings to side caverns throughout the cave.

The Cave of Vulvas, found within the Tito Bustillo cave in Spanish Asturias, is decorated with hundreds of crimson painted pussies. At Chufin Cave, in the same district, vulvas surround every hole in the rock.

The Plains Indian tribes of North America, including Lakota, Mandan, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne, celebrated pussy and bison as the twin sources of life, and the cave paintings in the Black Hills of South Dakota mix triangular vulvas with nearly identical hoof prints.

A half world away, the walls of Australia’s Carnarvon Gorge are engraved with eggshaped vulvas, each centered with what looks like an exclamation point. The long dash and dot have been interpreted as the vaginal slit with the urethra below, representing a woman lying on her stomach, though the dot seems as likely the anus of a woman on her back. Either way, they’re so numerous that the gorge has been named The Wall of One Thousand Vulvas.

Prehistoric pussy is also found in the caves of India, Thailand, South Africa, and Patagonia—in short, on every continent except Antarctica—and even in such farflung outposts as Easter Island, where vulvas are the second-most-common theme in rock art.

More surprising than this abundance of ancient pussy is the paucity of same-period penis: Paleolithic phallic symbols are largely confined to small, talismanic carvings. If it was all about fertility—the most common assumption—had man yet to grasp that it took male and female for reproduction?

Even if we accept the newer theory that cave art was simply the doodling of sex-obsessed adolescent males, what kept the horny young Homo sapiens from picturing cocks? It’s a question unlikely to be answered, but we know that with the rise of patriarchal religion in succeeding centuries the phallus gained popularity, while the vulva assumed a darker role.

The fearsome Sheela Na Gig still squats over doorways of English and Irish churches. Pop-eyed and leering, she grasps her pussy with both hands and spreads it in grotesque pantomime of contemporary pornography. There’s no consensus on the Sheela’s origins or what she signifies: In their book Images of Lust, James Jerman and Anthony Weir claim she was born in France and Spain, and only reached the British Isles in the 12th Century, while common lore claims she’s a pre-Christian pagan idol, or goddess, native to Ireland. If a goddess, she’s a strange one.

With her gargoyle face, withered body, and cavernous vagina, she looks more like a demon, and her place above the door is reminiscent of the Romans nailing carvings of their phallic god Priapus over the lintel to deter thieves. With Priapus, the threat was buggery by a cock equal to his, whereas Sheela seems to tap the myth of vagina dentata, the toothed and destroying vagina. Jerman and Weir theorize that the Church invented her as a visual warning against sin, and that yawning cavity does resemble the pit of Hell.

Along the Sepik River of Papua New Guinea, villagers still carve figures resembling the Sheela Na Gig, for reasons similar to the theory above. The hewe-meri, as they’re called, are incorporated into the roof supports of the men’s houses as reminders to treat women well. It’s believed that those who ignore the warning will be turned into women by the splay-legged crones, whose gaping red vaginas suggest the means of penectomy.

Like prehistoric pussy art, killer vagina myths exist worldwide. A Native American version stars the Terrible Mother, who can only become a normal woman when the hero breaks off her vaginal teeth. A Chinese proverb calls the vagina the “gateway to immortality” and the “executioner of men.”

Polynesian legend tells of the god Maui, who sought eternal life by crawling back up his mother’s vagina, only to be bitten in half. Jewish myth names the pussy beth shenayim, which translates to the toothed place, while Christians of the Middle Ages thought that witches could grow vaginal fangs, the better to catch men and drag them to Hell. Which pretty much confirms the origins of the Sheela Na Gig.

Odd that such groundless anxiety is so universal. Sigmund Freud theorized that vagina fear springs from the young boy’s assumption that everyone has a penis. When he first sees a vulva he assumes the penis has been lost, and realizes he could lose his too, sparking a lifetime of castration anxiety. Though it seems a stretch—didn’t those Polynesians run around naked?—Freud’s theory is the best explanation we have. But really, men, we all know there are no toothed vaginas, right?

The least understood part of the pussy is the hymen, a near-mythical body part few ever see. To judge by the fiction I received at my old sex magazines, most think it’s located somewhere up near the cervix, when in fact it covers the entrance to the vagina and is perfectly visible when intact. You know those irregular fleshy bits that ring a woman’s vaginal opening? They’re the remains of the hymen. Stitch them together—popular in some cultures—you have instant virgin.

Even harder than locating a hymen is finding its physiological purpose. Even if we accept the traditional notion that God wants women sealed up until holy and everlasting marriage, we face the dilemma of why promiscuous horses, whales, and moles also have hymens. Better to accept it as a curious relic of fetal development and turn our attention to an organ with a clear and pleasant purpose, say, the clitoris, from Greek kleitoris, meaning divine.

In the beginning, the clitoris and penis are the same organ, a tiny bud of skin and nerve cells that differentiates eight weeks after conception. By birth the clitoris is complete and fully functional, just waiting to be discovered by an inquisitive hand—or fin or paw, as it’s common to all female mammals.

Most are of modest size, like the human clitoris, which measures, on average, 16 millimeters, or .63 of an inch long, while a few, belonging to lemurs, squirrel monkeys, and the Asian binturong, are big enough to be called pseudopenises. The biggest clitoris, a good seven inches long, belongs to the spotted hyena, which urinates, copulates, and gives birth through her clit. High uterine testosterone levels are responsible for her enlarged clitoris, and for making female spotted hyenas far bigger and meaner than males. In this matriarchal society she with the biggest stick wields the power, and any male that forgets is forced to lick the dominant female’s clitoris until he remembers his place. Yes, it sounds like an S/M fantasy, but it’s just nature reminding us once again that biology is destiny.