Bodies Behaving Badly – From Vagina Dentata to Wandering Wombs – 6 part Lecture Series

In this special six-part series, Professor Marguerite Johnson takes us on an uncanny journey across time and space into the wilds of human imagination. Each lecture introduces a particular case study – from vaginas that bite to penises that disappear – and is extensively illustrated along with written accounts of these bodily anomalies. Participants will also receive a reading list for those interested in pursuing the topics in more detail. 

Image for Series: Mary Magdalene, 15th century, wood, from Altschwendt, Austria

Lecture 1: Vagina Dentata – Jan 14th 2024

In this illustrated talk, Professor Marguerite Johnson considers the mindboggling topic of vagina dentata (or toothed vagina). We begin by tracing the topic as folklore, then move to the widespread belief in the toothed vagina from North America to South America to New Zealand and elsewhere, including one or two folk tales, before considering the possible reasons for its origin (castration anxiety? cautionary tale? misogyny? fear? medical anomaly?). Finally, we look at some modern iterations, including in art and film, and ask: Why is this still around?

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at in this lecture, read Sezin Koehler’s ‘Pussy Bites Back: Vagina Dentata Myths From Around the World’, Vice (June 15, 2017):

Image for Lecture = ‘Untitled’. Creative Commons

Lecture 2: Wandering Wombs – Feb 11th 2024

Believe it or not, some people – including doctors and scientists – believed that a womb possessed a mind of its own and was capable of dislodging and travelling around the body. In fact, the case of the wandering womb was regarded by the Hippocratic writers of ancient Greece as a severe threat to the wellbeing of a woman, causing – you guessed it –hysteria (among other ailments). Theories as to the cause of this medical mystery, such as lack of intercourse, continued to be touted, along with the diagnosis, hundreds of years later.

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at in this lecture, read Erica Wright’s ‘Magic to Heal the ‘Wandering Womb’ in Antiquity’, Folklore Thursday (January 18, 2018):

Image for Lecture = Foetal positions in uterus, pregnant female. Wellcome Images

Lecture 3: Stolen Penises  – Mar 10th 2024

Imagine losing your penis. Imagine someone – a woman, naturally – stealing your penis. From witches to nuns, women were believed to possess such a power in parts of Early Modern Europe, as attested in the witch hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum. Before the claims in the Malleus, there was also the phallus-tree, which was part of folklore in Europe (more widespread that the so-called ‘vulva tree’, which we also consider). But the belief has not been erased entirely, as modern accounts of missing members continue to surface, particularly outside of the Anglosphere, most pressingly in developing nations.

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at in this lecture, read Callie Beusman, ‘Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept them as Pets in the Middle Ages’, Vice (September 19, 2016):

You may also be interested in Frank Bures’ ‘A Mind Dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves’, Harper’s Magazine (June 2008):

Image for Lecture = Massa Marittima Fresco, 13th Century Tuscany

Lecture 4: Witch Marks –  Apr 14th 2024

Detecting the so-called ‘witch’s mark’ or ‘devil’s mark’ was a means of proving someone was a witch. This bodily marker was some physical aberration, supposedly inflicted by the devil to symbolise the pact made with the alleged witch. It usually manifested around a nipple or nipples, or could, in fact, be an extra nipple or several extra nipples, and was insensitive to pain. The association with nipples also furnished an additional belief that a devilish minion, an animal or imp, could suck at the aberrant site. In this illustrated lecture, complete with written extracts, we also consider the means by which the torturer tests the mark or marks to determine their authenticity, usually with an implement called a ‘witch pricker.’ We will also explore the authenticity of witch prickers and the trickery involved in using them.

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at in this lecture, read ‘The Devil’s Mark’, Law Explorer (November 9, 2015):

You may also be interested in ‘Witch’s mark’, Art and Popular Culture:

Image for Lecture = T. H. Matteson. ‘Examination of a Witch’. 1853. Creative Commons

Lecture 5: Birthing Bunnies (and other such things) – May 12th 2024

Complete with illustrations and contemporary written records, this lecture unpacks stories around women giving birth to animals, from rabbits to pigs. It considers the origins of such stories, exploring the possible explanations behind them, and addresses related topics, including witchcraft, psychological duress, miscarriage, early science, and fraud.

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at in this lecture, read Sara Ray’s ‘How Careful She Must Be: Midwives, Maternal Minds, and Monstrous Births’, Lady Science (2019):

You may also be interested in Sandhya Hegade’s ‘The Tale of Tannakin Skinker — The Pig-Faced Woman of Europe’, Medium (July 18, 2023):

Image for Lecture = ‘Tannakin Skinker’, from A Monstrous Shape, or a Shapelesse Monster, 1640

Lecture 6: Hirsute Women – Jun 9th 2024

This lecture considers hair as a marker of monstrosity, beginning with ancient accounts of the hirsute women, who lived on an island on the west coast of Africa (possibly the Canary Islands or the Cape Verde Islands). From there we look at the theme in later times, travelling to Japan to visit the Harionago or ‘Barbed Woman’, familiar from modern horror films; the Hairy Women of Klipnocky, believed to roam the Appalachian Mountains; to the sideshow attraction of the ‘Bearded Lady’; the Medieval trend for a hirsute Mary Magdalene; and the long locks of Rapunzel. Join us and share the hair!

For a peak preview of some of the topics we’ll be looking at in this lecture, read Cindy LaCom’s ‘Ideological Aporia: When Victorian England’s Hairy Woman Met God and Darwin’, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Issue 4.2 (Summer 2008):

You may also be interested in M. A. Katritzky’s ‘A Wonderfull Monster Borne in Germany’: Hairy Girls in Medieval and Early Modern German Book, Court And Performance Culture’, German Life and Letters, Vol. 67.4 (September 2014):

Image for Lecture = Portrait of Barbara van Beck. c.1650. Wellcome Images


Marguerite Johnson is Honorary Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Queensland. She is a cultural historian of the ancient Mediterranean, specialising in sexuality, gender, and the body, particularly in the poetry of Sappho, Catullus, and Ovid, as well as magical traditions in Greece, Rome, and the Near East. She also researches Classical Reception Studies, with a regular focus on Australia. In addition to ancient world studies, Marguerite is interested in sexual histories in modernity as well as magic in the west more broadly, especially the practices and art of Australian witch, Rosaleen Norton. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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Jan 14th 2024 - 8.00pm - 9:30 pm
Feb 11th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
Mar 10th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
Apr 14th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
May 12th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm
Jun 9th 2024 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm

one ticket for all six lectures at £45 / £30

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