Anásyrma (Ancient Greek: ἀνάσυρμα) composed of ana: up or against or back, and syrma: skirt, plural: anasýrmata (ἀνασύρματα), also called anasyrmós (ἀνασυρμός), is the gesture of lifting the skirt or kilt. It is used in connection with certain religious rituals, eroticism, and lewd jokes (see, for example, Baubo). The term is used in describing corresponding works of art. Anasyrma differs from "flashing", a physically similar gesture as an act of exhibitionism, in that an exhibitionist has an implied purpose of his/her own sexual arousal, while anasyrma is done only for the effect on the onlookers.
Anasyrma is effectively "the exposing of the genitals". This is a form of exhibitionism found in religion or artwork, rather than a display for arousal, and it always refers to the act of a woman exposing herself. The act of lifting up one's skirt to display the genitals can be an apotropaic device; it can, in circumstances of war, evoke the fear of the enemy. It can also be an act that evokes surprise and subsequent laughter and a letting go of sadness. What is significant about anasyrma is that it reflects the numinous quality of the female genitals and the genital region through which birth ensues. In several cultures, there is a myth of anasyrma used for emotional healing.
Anasyrma may be a deliberately provocative self-exposing of one's naked genitals or buttocks. The famous example of the latter case is Aphrodite Kallipygos ("Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks"). In many traditions, this gesture also has an apotropaic character, as a mockery or means to ward off a supernatural enemy, analogous to mooning.
Ritual jesting and intimate exposure were common in the cults of Demeter and Dionysus, and figure in the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries associated with these divinities. The mythographer Apollodorus says that Iambe's jesting was the reason for the practice of ritual jesting at the Thesmophoria, a festival celebrated in honor of Demeter and Persephone. In other versions of the myth of Demeter, the goddess is received by a woman named Baubo, a crone who makes her laugh by exposing herself, in a ritual gesture called anasyrma ("lifting [of skirts]"). A set of statuettes from Priene, a Greek city on the west coast of Asia Minor, are usually identified as "Baubo" figurines, representing the female body as the face conflated with the lower part of the abdomen. These appeared as counterparts to the phalluses decorated with eyes, mouth, and sometimes legs, that appeared on vase paintings and were made as statuettes.
Terracotta hermaphrodite figurines in the so-called anasyromenos pose, with female breasts and a long garment lifted to reveal male genitals have been found from Sicily to Lesbos, dating back to the late Classical and early Hellenistic period. The anasyromenos pose, however, was not invented in the 4th century BCE, figures of this type drew on a much earlier eastern iconographic tradition employed for female divinities. Ancient literature suggests that the figures represent the androgynous Cypriot deity Aphroditus (possibly a form of Astarte), whose cult was introduced into mainland Greece between the 5th–4th century BCE. The revealed phallus was believed to have apotropaic magical powers, averting the evil eye or invidia and bestowing good luck.
Apotropaic effect of nakedness
Many historical references suggest that anasyrma had dramatic or supernatural effect—positive or negative. Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body can scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning. If she strips naked and walks around the field, caterpillars, worms and beetles fall off the ears of corn. Even when not menstruating, she can lull a storm out at sea by stripping.
According to folklore, women lifted their skirts to chase off enemies in Ireland and China. A story from The Irish Times (September 23, 1977) reported a potentially violent incident involving several men, which was averted by a woman exposing her genitals to the attackers. According to Balkan folklore, when it rained too much, women would run into the fields and lift their skirts to scare the gods and end the rain. In Jean de La Fontaine's Nouveaux Contes (1674), a demon is repulsed by the sight of a woman lifting her skirt. Associated carvings, called sheela na gigs, were common on medieval churches in northern Europe and the British Isles.
In some nations of Africa, a woman stripping naked and displaying herself is still considered a curse and a means to ward off evil. As women give life, they can take it away. In Nigeria, among other places, women invoked the curse only under the most extreme circumstances, and men who are exposed are considered dead. No one will cook for them, marry them, enter into any kind of contract with them or buy anything from them. The curse extends to foreign men as well, who will go impotent or suffer some great harm.
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- Of Skirts and Figs and Sheela-na-gigs (Naples: Life, Death & Miracles)
- Anasyromene figurines (British Museum Collections)
- Anasyromene figurines (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
- Warding Off Danger: Protective Power of the Vulva
- Raising the Skirt – Anasyrma Workshop by Nicola Canavan