Literature

The Curious Symbolism of Teeth in Literature and Religion

What is the significance of teeth in religion, mythology, and literature? There should be a link: teeth are obviously, like the tongue, instrumental and essential in oral culture and so we might expect to find a strong link between teeth and the composition of poems and songs. And sure enough, we do.

But there are also the symbolic connotations of teeth in works of literature and in various religious and cultural traditions. Let’s take a closer look at the surprising symbolism of teeth.

Sexual symbolism of teeth

As Hans Biedermann observes in his The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), teeth often symbolise vitality and even, in some cases, sexual potency. Numerous Dickens villains intimidate female characters by flashing their sharp teeth, while Dracula’s fangs, used to penetrate the soft necks of his victims, are borderline phallic symbols in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.

In dreams, too, teeth often have sexual symbolism. Sigmund Freud believed that if a woman had a recurring dream of her teeth falling out, it signified her unconscious desire to have children. Freud also believed that if a man repeatedly dreamed about his teeth falling about, this symbolised a fear of castration: of losing his sexual potency and ability.

The word ‘toothsome’ denotes food that is delicious but can also be used to describe someone who is sexually attractive: ‘tasty’, in both cases.

Tooth-symbolism in Christianity

In Christianity, St Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists because of the grisly nature of her martyrdom, in which her teeth were extracted (though other things were done to her too). She is often shown holding tongs – used to remove her teeth – and a small tooth.

The tooth fairy

The tradition of a child leaving a tooth under a pillow for the Tooth Fairy to collect – and then reward with money or some other prize in exchange – is practised in various countries in the West, although the identity of this ‘Fairy’ varies from country to country. Few cultures have a firm or detailed image of this mysterious figure: what does the Tooth Fairy actually look like? Unlike the Easter Bunny or Father Christmas, the details are sketchy and that has made it harder for artists to depict the Tooth Fairy in cartoons and illustrations. In Hispanic countries, the Tooth Fairy is a mouse: the Ratoncito Pérez (‘Pérez Mouse’). In Italy, too, a mouse often stands in for this figure, and is known as ‘Topolino’.

As early as the Norse Eddas from around AD 1200, the tradition of a ‘tooth fairy’ is recorded. Curiously, children’s teeth were considered favourable talismans for warriors to wear in battle, and this explains why a mythical ‘fairy’ was said to come and collect them (and was even willing to pay for them): children’s teeth held real value in Norse culture.

The modern idea of children leaving a tooth under their pillow for money appears to have arisen in early twentieth-century America: a 1908 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune recommended such a practice, with ‘some little gift’ being left under the pillow in return.

Teeth and the Irish bardic tradition

In ancient Ireland, as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin dictionaries) notes, wisdom teeth were symbolic of poetic enlightenment: they are ‘wisdom teeth’ in more ways than one. Irish bards used wisdom teeth in a ritual known as teinm leigda (‘poetic enlightenment’), which involved the bard biting his thumb with his wisdom tooth before singing a verse and offering a sacrifice to the gods.

Teeth in poetry

In his poem ‘The Smile’, William Blake drew attention to the double nature of smiles:

There is a Smile of Love
And there is a Smile of Deceit
And there is a Smile of Smiles
In which these two Smiles meet

Smiles can be false and they can be genuine, but the teeth are, famously, an unreliable guide as to which is which: for that, we are frequently told, we have to look to the eyes, to see whether the ‘smile’ is present there. If it is, we have a genuine smile.

Talking of false smiles, in a little-known early poem that remained unpublished until 1996, the great modernist poet T. S. Eliot played on the double meaning of the phrase ‘false teeth’ to suggest the smile of a shop worker. ‘In the Department Store’ cleverly conveys the way this ‘businesslike’ woman has become her surroundings: she has ‘false teeth’ and works in the porcelain department of a large department store, while her eyes, like the pencil kept in her hair, are ‘sharpened’.

Eliot appears to have been fascinated by women’s teeth. In his prose-poem ‘Hysteria’ (1915), he describes a woman laughing as the male speaker of the poem sits with her in a café and becomes ‘involved’ in her laughter. He seems terrified of her as her mouth gapes open and seems to threaten to swallow him up. Eliot pays particular attention to her teeth, with the speaker likening them to ‘accidental stars’.

In a 1962 interview, Sylvia Plath drew a distinction between novels and poetry, arguing that while anything could be viewed as potential subject matter for fiction, there were some things she simply couldn’t imagine putting into a poem. The example she mentioned was the toothbrush, although, once again, T. S. Eliot, in his ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, had already shown that it could be done.

Nevertheless, teeth seem almost resistant to poetry, and the part of the body most unpromising when it comes to inspiring great poetic thoughts. The poet-critic William Empson wrote a poem, ‘Camping Out’, which was published in February 1929 in Experiment, the Cambridge University magazine Empson co-founded with, among others, Jacob Bronowski. Empson was just 22 at the time. This poem shows the strong influence of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry on the young Empson: it centres on a conceit whereby a young woman cleans her teeth over a lake, and the droplets of toothpaste and spit fall onto the lake’s surface to recreate the stars in the night sky (which, until dawn arrived was reflected in the surface of the water). The poem’s opening line, ‘And now she cleans her teeth into the lake’, was branded self-consciously ‘anti-poetic’ by one of Empson’s Cambridge contemporaries, Michael Redgrave, and yet the poem’s conceit works to combine tradition ideas of beauty (those stars) with the surprising and ‘unpoetic’ (the woman’s teeth).

Meanwhile, Robert William Service wrote a poem all about his dentist: you can read ‘My Dentist’ here. And in a similarly light vein, here is Pam Ayres’ poem lamenting the fact that she didn’t look after her teeth.

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