Body fluids are confusing. Take saliva for example. In your mouth it’s great, helps you digest food, but as soon as it leaves the body it becomes offensive, even “dirty.” Ew! Like blood or snot, once it’s out of the body it’s “matter out of place.” Vomit and feces are different though. These substances are supposed to leave the body. In fact, they’re dirty and “out of place” inside of us, and need to be expelled, sometimes violently. Then their dirty status only amplifies until they are washed away—“abjected”— out of sight, out of mind.
We know deep down that our bodies (and minds) produce some of the most disgusting material in the universe. We’re walking shit factories, worms, ‘portable digestive tracts’! We also know that puke is critical to our lives and survival, and these truths find their way into our religious narratives.
Puke imagery is at the heart of many creation myths. ‘Emergence stories’ are often expulsion stories, banishment stories, evacuations. People are always getting thrown out of gardens, angels are expelled from heaven, demons regurgitated from hell, ancestors hurled from the sky or ocean or the mouth of some deity. Even the Big Bang is an expulsion myth.
Human birth is an expulsion (which is why Kristeva in Powers of Horror and Barbara Creed in The Monstrous-Feminine argue that ‘abjection’ is almost always linked to representations of the mother). On some level, we are all abject matter.
There are puking Gods. In Japan, the great Izanami, mother of all gods, burns her vagina giving birth to Fire, and in her agony, she pukes and more gods are born from her vomit. The Kuba people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have a creator God named Bumba who vomits the universe into being. The world is the Creator’s internal processes externalized (the invisible made visible). In India, when Krishna’s mother looks inside his mouth, she sees the whole complete entire timeless universe.
When Carl Jung was 12, just the thought of God pooping induced a mystical experience he’d later describe as pure grace and “unutterable bliss.” What happens when we imagine God puking? Within the Judeo-Christian imagination, Yahweh (or Elohim, or Ialdabaoth) pukes the universe or he ejaculates it; we’re not certain. One image has to do with “splitting his waters.” Psalm 77:16: “The waters went into a panic attack: they writhed and convulsed.” Wrestling the water dragon Leviathan to bring about order from chaos (and thus a universe from Himself) is full of vomit imagery.
While female creators, in general, give birth to the universe, male creators tend to ejaculate, spit, cry, vomit, sneeze, dream, even shit out the universe. In Mesoamerica, First Father famously cuts open his stomach and lets the tree of life grow out of his guts, beautifully depicted in Aronofsky’s film, The Fountain. With what we now know about shit being alive (100 billion bacteria per gram), it’s not that crazy of an image.
Abrahamic texts bring up vomit as revelation and defilement. There are Christian sermons on vomit, Islamic interpretations of dream vomit, and Hebrew texts that link vomit to other “impure” and disgusting substances like feces, menstrual blood, semen, and “dead matter.” Akin to black goo, vomit is haunted, which is why we need to keep our eyes on it.
Four major vomit scenes stand out in the Bible: the whale vomits Jonah, Earth vomits her inhabitants, Jesus vomits the lukewarm, and a dog goes back to his vomit. Also, in Isaiah 19:14, Egypt is compared to a man staggering through his own vomit. In Matthew 12:40, whale vomit functions as a metaphor for Jesus’s resurrection.
Puke is a disgusting and divine substance in the Japanese imagination, too. Oddly, it creates food, not the other way around. A goddess named Ukemochi pukes food into the world — fruits, vegetables, fish. Her puke also results in the creation of day and night, according to the Nihongi: The Moon is sent to earth by his sister the Sun, Amaterasu, to visit the puking goddess. When he arrives, she welcomes him by throwing up a torrent of food onto the table! Moon is so grossed out and horrified that he draws his sword and kills her, right there in her home. More food was then created out of her sacrificed body — beans from her mouth, millet from her eyes, and rice from her guts. (In Japan, rice is the soul, and the abdomen is where the soul resides, hence why rice came out of Ukemochi’s belly, and why seppuku “hara-kiri” releases the soul). When Moon went back to the sky and told his sister the news, she was devastated and said, “I never want to see your face again.”
In the West, Kronos a.k.a. Time ate all his children, or so he thought! Zeus found a baby-shaped stone to feed Kronos instead. Eventually, Zeus became Kronos’s cup-bearer and put a special potion in his wine that caused Time to throw up Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera, and the “omphalos stone.” Like the Japanese myth, we see a positive, creative association with vomiting.
Tangentially, a Buddhist monastery in Thailand specializes in vomit-yoga for drug addicts (originally designed for opium smokers). The monastery uses a top-secret brew of 108 ingredients as an emetic. Each day, after the person vomits, the monks and nuns celebrate with bells, drums, and singing. They celebrate the excreta like our parents did before they shunned it.
In Buddhism, there are also realms where pretas or “hungry ghosts” roam the world. Some are called “shit-eaters” and others are called “vomit-eaters” because that is all they can eat. These beings can never satisfy their hunger because they’re always puking.
Re-mapping the soul
Mary Douglas: “Where there is dirt, there is system.”
Vomit is an image for purging (spiritual, mental, and physical) and for its twin: abjection. David Macey describes abjection as both “the founding and traumatic moment of separation from the child’s archaic and undifferentiated relationship with its mother, and the process of the expulsion from the body of substances such as excrement or menstrual blood.” Julia Kristeva explains abjection as the process of physical and psychological purgation whereby “impure” parts of the self are expelled in an attempt to preserve a “pure” self. The abject is also that funny feeling when, as Margaux Shraiman puts it, “the visceral interior realm becomes exterior and therefore visible, disrupting societal norms and conventional identity.”
But the thing is, whatever is “abjected” is still an aspect of the person. Kristeva: “I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.”
We’re impossible! Humans are abjection incorporated. Abjection (lit. “to throw away”) is necessary the same way vomiting is necessary — bodily and psychological integrity requires the exclusion of certain aspects. It just does. Becker: “When people do not have self-esteem they cannot act, they break down.” As we identify with only facets of ourselves, the rest is actually felt to be not-self, alien, “abject.” In No Boundary, Ken Wilber describes this process as the individual “re-mapping the soul.” Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage” likewise suggests that we tend to deny aspects of ourselves that do not correspond with our self-image. Abject matter includes traumas, memories, shadows, compulsions, and the more physical — gross — stuff like vomit, shit, and piss — any part of you that you need to wash away.
Sweat, boogers, wax, oils, semen, blood, snot, sick thoughts… Kristeva: “I feel like vomiting the mother.” But push down on a spring and it pushes back. “Eventually,” as Michael Garfield recently put it, “the cognitive dissonance of disregarding the anomaly becomes overwhelming.” The repressed or disassociated elements “erupt” to undermine our sense of self, and part of life is getting caught between an ideal image and the return of repressed elements.
Lastly, vomit is an associate of death, the most terrifying thing of all, which may be why it’s at the center of many religious narratives. For real: every year thousands of people in the US die from choking on their puke, mostly drug addicts and older people from aspiration pneumonia. Vomit is a reaper.
As someone with a common case of emetophobia, writer Jeannette Cooperman describes what it’s like seeing an increase of vomit scenes in mainstream media. “I feel assailed. Granted, others feel that way about sex or profanity, which leaves me quite cheerful. But surely regurgitation causes a little recoil even in normal people?” Perhaps, but some people actually find body horror and vomit scenes rather relaxing. Just imagining yourself vomiting can make you feel better. Sarah Kathryn Cleaver: “When I’m anxious, hurt, or humiliated I sometimes imagine vomiting supernaturally. Rivers of black slime or pink corn syrup are expelled from my mouth, and the unbearable, inexpressible feelings are on the outside, separate from me.” Try it!
One of the most powerful tantric yogas from Tibet is called tonglen, “sending and taking,” which asks that you imagine sucking in disgusting, putrid, vomit-like substances (pure suffering) deep into your body, and spewing out rainbows of sparkling, healing light and love, “exchanging self for other.” You do it with the breath, and this opens the door to bodhicitta. It’s worth noting that there is also a “vomiting dog” pose in Tibetan yoga, accompanied by a “visualization of the hollow body.”
There are also ceremonial art objects meant to evoke our insides. Beautiful Taino purging sticks or “vomit spatulas” and “drug delivery vessels” help people puke. The Taino (first tribes to encounter Columbus) practice ritual vomiting and then snuffing DMT cohoba from a stone vessel carved into the head of a spiritual figure.
Vomiting forces instant surrender. We finally give up, let go, ‘let God,’ and the self has no chance to struggle or make up stories. Ritual vomiting, especially through the use of entheogens, is felt to be cleansing or cathartic, “as if one is purifying oneself of emotional garbage, such as fear, grief, guilt, or anger,” says William Richard in Sacred Knowlege, Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. It takes us to a place where boundaries break down, where, as Julia Kristeva put it, “we are confronted with an archaic space before such linguistic binaries as self/other or subject/object.”
Vomiting can also, according to the Dalai Lama, give us a glimpse of the “clear light mind” of death. When we puke, faint, fall asleep, orgasm, sneeze or get hit in the face with an inflatable ball, the ego and its time get pushed aside and we are dunked into the timeless, the groundless, the selfless. It might seem meaningless, even kind of disappointing, but that’s also the point: vomiting momentarily erases — with a bolt of endorphins — all dreams of self and significance.
William Miller in The anatomy of disgust (1997) calls vomit more disgusting than feces due to its uncommonness and also its weirdness. Things are never supposed to come out of the mouth, whereas an anus excreting feces is good, very good — a sign of health.
Things going into the mouth, good. Things coming out, very bad. Wrong. And that smell… With vomit, the sacred mouth becomes a source of disgust like the anus. It’s a cosmic reversal. Suddenly, heaven expectorates evil.
As the bread and wine, Jesus is what goes into the mouth, whereas the devil is what comes out: poisonous words, infections, viruses. More, bad smells can actually make people act more evil, can cause people to shun certain minority groups, at least temporarily. There’s also evidence that the more “disgustable” you are, the more likely you are to be politically conservative since one of the core mechanisms of disgust is this idea of shielding the ‘body’ from the outside. Rachel Herz, author of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion:
If you look at someone’s face who’s disgusted, you see them squinting their eyes. They’re actually taking in less light to avoid seeing the disgusting object….It’s all about protecting the holes on our face, as it were, from contamination.
Disgust: the “forgotten emotion,” is employed for all kinds of reasons in religious narratives. James Aho in The Orifice as Sacrificial Site expands on the significance of the mouth’s excreta by offering the image of the body as one’s holy land. He argues we develop “orifice regimens” and police our personal geographies only to then project these attitudes onto our worlds. We must protect our borders from contagions like immigrants, and protect our minds and eyes from viruses like pornography and sick ideas.
Vomit’s gagging richness relies on precisely this conceptual flexibility: the expulsion of the contents of the stomach through the mouth links gut and face, bowl and rim, deep bodily space with orifices that open to the outside, and it, therefore, hovers between structures of interiority as they are riddled through by unknowable, unspeakable, unfathomable exteriorities.
Puking is disgusting, sure, but it’s also, from Laura Dern’s Vomit (2011), “a brilliant image of the unstoppable narrative compulsion, proceeding relentlessly from the beginning, through the middle, to an end. At the same time, it is a completely involuntary process.”
Vomiting is the archetype par excellence for good storytelling, a compression of the human life-cycle, and a lived example of when we have to give up control because something else is taking over.
When we encounter disgusting substances like puke in religious narratives, beware! It may be trapping us in xenophobia or releasing us from the trials and tribulations of identity itself—or both.
For more, see Vomit Art.