Sexuality and Power in Wawilak Myth and the Bible

In Munn’s work, The Effectiveness of Symbols in Murngin Rite and Myth, she closely examines a Wawilak myth and an associated Murngin ritual process. She unpacks (in a very detailed manner) not only the significance of each aspect of the myth story, but she also relates the myth to the ritual, even though the ritual does not directly recreate the myth. There are several key themes that are prevalent and repeated throughout the myth: the role of women, sex, and the broader theme of power that pervades the text. Although one would not immediately liken a Wawilak myth to the Bible, both share common thoughts about these themes.

The role of women in the myth appears to be one that ebbs and flows: although the myth begins with the woman bearing the power of naming, she ultimately experiences loss and is devoured by the snake. The power shifts from male to female. This alternation process is echoed in other aspects of the Murngin beliefs, such as the sorcerer who intrudes into the woman’s body, depriving her of her power, but only when she inhales. This coming and going of power is also why the woman is representative of the seasons and the alternation of the wet and dry seasons. From these metaphors, it is clear that a woman’s power is transient, and one from which other powers (namely men’s) are derived. In the myth, while the women underwent the tragedy, it is the men who memorialize it through “play back”. And even in the circumcision rite, despite being technically the myth in reverse, when the novice undergoes circumcision, it is interpreted that only “through sacrificing the female part of himself [the foreskin] to the snake, he achieves a limited or regulated autonomy” (193).

This is similar to the Bible because when God made the dome, this too was an act of female power. The Earth, which is a feminine noun in Hebrew, brought forth the first life in the universe. God (who is male), was only indirectly involved, merely commanding the earth to put forth. Thus, it was only through a beginning in which woman bore the power could the life cycle proceed. Looking at the Hebrew wordplay for “man” (“adam”) and “ground” (“adamah”) displays a clear relationships between mankind and the soil from which it was formed. But the ground came from earth first: even though God created woman from a part of man, the wordplay suggests that it was in fact man first born from a feminine act of power, which was the earth bringing forth life.

The entire myth, meanwhile, seems to be a giant metaphor for sexual intercourse. The themes of externalization and internalization evident in the snake’s repeated ingestion and vomiting of the two women mimic the in-and-out thrust of the penis during intercourse, and the menstrual blood in the myth is believed to be due to the sexual act. The death of the women in the myth represent the creation of sexuality and the seasonal cycle. If they had not had sinned and incestuous relationships at the beginning of the myth, then none of this would have happened. This is sort of akin to the Bible because if Eve had not eaten the apple and sinned, then Adam and Eve would have remained uncivilized, and God would not have bade Eve to bear children. In a way, Eve’s fall from grace is similar to the Wawilak women’s death as representing the creation of sexuality. In both cases, it is only through the women’s sacrifice that the mortal cycle of generation and decay can come about, which grants women both a sort of power but also doom them to inevitable tragedy.

On the surface level, it appears that women are the weaker ones lacking power. They are the ones devoured repeatedly by the snake, and the ones who first succumbed to original sin. However, when you consider that women were actually the ones holding power originally, through naming rights and the very birth of life itself, it could be argued that women are the ones who were first empowered. It’s possible that men only have power because women first had it. Perhaps it’s sort of like how we define homosexuality and heterosexuality in Butler’s piece: only by knowing that heterosexuality is not homosexuality can we define heterosexuality. Similarly, only by knowing that man’s power is derived from an absence of woman’s power can we know the extent of man’s power. (Maybe…?)



One thought on “Sexuality and Power in Wawilak Myth and the Bible

  1. I agree; I think women in both stories were the first to be empowered, and I didn’t think to consider that men’s power derives from the loss of women’s power – not necessarily only because of a power transfer, but because to know what a thing is means to know what that thing is not. It seems to be that for both these mythic worlds, a place where man and woman wield equal power is impossible simply because these myths are defined by the binary of domination and subjugation.

    The idea that “man’s power is derived from an absence of woman’s power” also reminds me of something I came across on the internet – from Susan Brownmiller’s “Femininity”: “Femininity pleases men because it makes them appear more masculine by contrast; and, in truth, conferring an extra portion of unearned gender distinction on men, an unchallenged space in which to breathe freely and feel stronger, wiser, more competent, is femininity’s special gift.” Perhaps gender roles have a key part in this power transfer?

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