In modern times, a certain iconographical type of ancient Mediterranean statues is often called ‘Baubo’ (see the Wikipedia entry for such images). These are feminine figures with distinctly drawn labia (unusual in Greek statuary), often especially exhibited and called attention to. Sometimes they are effectively anthropomorphized vulvas: hips on legs, a face on the pelvis just above the labia, but no upper body. They are as charming in their way as images of Priapus, and really ought to be as well-known as these. Unfortunately, however, we do not know what they were called in antiquity. That they were referred to as Baubos is not entirely impossible, I suppose, but we have absolutely no evidence for it. What evidence there is for this woman or goddess – and for the somehow related Iambe – I will put together here, diīs volentibus.
Most uses of the name Baubō in surviving Greek texts are in magic, both the Greek Magical Papyri and surviving amulets. Here it largely functions as a byname of Hekate, often as Orthō Baubō and integrated into longer strings of powerful names.
In two dedicatory inscriptions from the Aegean islands, Baubō appears as a distinct deity in what seems to be a Eleusinian grouping: “to Demeter, Kore, Zeus Eubouleus (=Pluton) and Baubō” (SEG 16:478; IG XII,5 227).
But who is this Baubō among the Eleusinian gods? According to the lexicographer Hesychius, she was the nurse of Demeter (s.v.). A different account (from one Asclepiades) holds that she was the spouse of Dysaules, an autochtonous man of Eleusis, and the mother of his children Protonoe and Nisa; a lost text by Palaephatus claimed that he and his wife (whether here understood as Baubo is unclear) received Demeter on her wanderings as she searched for her abducted daughter Persephone. (Both accounts in Harpocation, Lexicon on the Ten Attic Orators, s.v. Dysaules.)
Only one obscure Orphic poem – of which a fragment is quoted by Clement of Alexandria – uses the name Baubō for the woman who, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, causes the goddess to laugh after a long period of mourning, and who is called Iambē by the Homeric poet. As rather typical of Orphic poetry, this is likely to be a conscious element of defamiliarization, that is, a deliberate transformation of preexisting traditions (by fusing together Baubō and Iambē), rather than a direct capturing of the prevailing ideas about her. At any rate, the narrative shows the typical transgressive character of Orphic poetry, since where Homer’s Iambē uses jokes, Baubō exposes her genitals to make Demeter laugh. In short, it would be a mistake to identify this inventive poetic piece with the long-standing tradition current at Eleusis itself, as Clement does:
“When Dēō (=Demeter) was wandering in search of her daughter Kore, she grew weary around Eleusis – a place in Attica – and sat down lamenting at a well. […] At the time, the autochthonous (‘earth-born’) lived there, whose names were Baubo, Dysaules and Triptolemus, and further Eumoplus and Eubuleus. Triptolemus was a cowherd, Eumoplus a shepherd, and Euboleus a swineherd; from these grew the priestly clan of the Eumoplidae and Kerykes at Athens. And […] when Baubo hosted Dēō, and was handing her the kykeōn”, a drink associated with the mysteries, “but she refused to take it and did not wish to drink, because she was in mourning, Baubo was offended, thinking herself slighted, uncovered her genitals, and showed them to the goddess. But Dēō is delighted at the sight and takes at least a little of the drink, pleased with the display. These are the secret mysteries of the Athenians, and these things Orpheus also records: […]
“Having spoken, she drew up her garment, and showed the whole
Unseeming place of her body; and the child, Iacchus, was present,
Who tossed her garment and reached under her breast,
Now, when the goddess perceived this, she smiled in her heart,
And took the glittering vessel in which was the kykeōn.”
(Text from Clement, Protrepticus 20.1–21.1, with the edition of the poetic fragment in M. Marcovich, Demeter, Baubo, Iacchus, and A Redactor. As argued there, the text in Arnobius, while strongly divergent, is nevertheless entirely based on Clement, and so of no independent value.)
What we have of Baubō, in summary, is secure knowledge of her association with Demeter at Eleusis, albeit without much detail; one self-conscious Orphic rewriting of the Eleusis narrative where she is conflated with the Homeric Iambē; and a popular tradition in magic that treats ‘Baubō’ as a name of Hekatē. These are all equally authentic in their way, but they must not be confused, nor can any of them justify the modern habit of calling figures exposing their vulvas by this name. A single, little read Orphic poem does not bring about an iconographic tradition!
As a sidenote, Baubō does recall the word baubōn, used in reference to a dildo in Herodas, Mimiamb 6.19; but that word seems to simply mean ‘sleeper’ (a euphemistic expression?), and certainly does not allow us to posit the meaning ‘vulva’ for the feminine baubō.
3 Iambē in poetry
So, Baubō is somehow religiously significant, but her function is unclear; by contrast, Iambē was not worshipped, but had a clear function (which may be why our Orphic poet usurped her): “Iambē: a certain woman who made the mourning Demeter laugh” (Hesychius, Lexicon, s.v.).
The major text in which this figure appears, and from which most if not all other writtten sources spring forth, is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which contains an extensive narrative of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s long mournful search for her. The goddess eventually comes to Eleusis, where she is hospitably received by Celeus (the father of the aforementioned Dysaules, according to some). Even in his house, the goddess remains in bitter mourning, despite the attentions of Metaneira, the wife of Celeus. Only when Iambē (whose relationship to the other Eleusinians is not explained) starts making jokes and so manages to cheer the goddess up does she cease her lamentation, join the household and break her fast with a drink. Metaneira first offers her wine, which the goddess refuses; “for she said it was not lawful for her to drink red wine, but bade her give her barley-groats and water mixed with tender pennyroyal to drink” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 207–208).
The Hellenistic poet Nicander refers to this drink as kykeōn made with (barley-groats,) pennyroyal and “riverine (Potamēïd) Nymphs”, i.e., river water, and mentions that Demeter once broke her fast with it because of “the unchecked speech of Thracian Iambē” (Alexipharmaca 130); the allusion is of course primarily to the Homeric Hymn, but Iambē’s Thracianness is a new detail, of unknown origin. In addition, the story is set at the house of Hippothoon rather than Celeus, suggesting that Nicander may be picking up on other Attic traditions alongside the Hymn, so as to make his allusion not purely Homeric but also a display of obscure learning. In any case, his main point in context is that the drink is an antidote against the poison of the blister-beetle (Alexipharmaca means ‘antidotes’).
The set of ancient scholia on the Alexipharmaca 130 that survive for us note: “…”
Eutecnius’ prose paraphrase of the Alexipharmaca (which also incorporates material from scholia) reads: “…”
[Pseudo-Apollodorus. Scholia on Euripides. Philicus? Etymologicum Magnum, Gudianum, Parvum]
4 Iambē in the grammarians
[Sergius, Sacerdos, Diomedes (Iambes). Pseudo-Zonaras, Photius. Hephaestion / Choeroboscus(?). Arsenius]