The Ancient World’s Secret Weapon? The Ejaculating Phallus
If all of this seems a bit, well, adolescent, bear in mind the phallus served a valuable protective purpose.
Back in 2017, as they were working expanding a highway that cuts across England from the east coast to the town of Leicester, construction workers stumbled across artifacts from Roman-era Britain. It took some time to reassemble some of the fragments, but the results were published early this year. Among the debris was part of a broken millstone complete with something one doesn’t usually associate with bakeries: a phallus with testicles attached.
Though phalli were everywhere in antiquity—57 examples adorn Hadrian’s wall, for example—this particular piece of X-rated décor is unusual. The scientists working on the highway’s archaeological project said that it was one of only four examples (out of a possible 20,000) of millstone phalli from Roman-era Britain. Dr. Ruth Shaffrey of Oxford Archaeology called it “a highly significant find.”
The interest in the phallus is hardly unique to Britain. As Kristina Killgrove has written, Pompeii is famously covered in erotic artwork: excavations have revealed a fresco of the minor deity Priapus (with his characteristic comically oversized penis) at the House of the Vetti; a flying penis amulet; and statue of Pan engaged in sexual congress with a goat (to be fair to Pan, he is half-goat himself). Doorways all over Pompeii were decorated with tintinabula, erotic wind chimes made of bronze phalluses hung with bells. One, the lintel of a bakery included not just a phallus but the inscription, “You will find happiness here.” Evidence like this has led some to suggest that bakeries might have served as brothels. The preponderance of phallic imagery and artwork in Pompeii prompted the 18th-century historian Richard Payne Knight to hypothesize that perhaps there was a kind of ‘Cult of the Penis’ there.
If all of this seems a bit, well, adolescent, bear in mind the phallus served a valuable protective purpose. It played an apotropaic role in protecting the wearer or residents from magical attack. This is one reason that an infant in Yorkshire was buried with no fewer than five fist-and-phallus pendants: they protect the vulnerable child. The clearest example of the phallus as protective guardian, though, is in mosaics where the phallus is—along with a rag-tag team of ancient fighters of evil that includes a dwarf and a centipede—attacks the evil eye, an emblem of supernatural attack.
What makes defense against the evil eye remarkable is that the phallus isn’t simply hanging out menacingly it is actively engaged in attack by, er, ejaculating in the eye’s direction. As Adam Parker has written in the recently published volume Bodily Fluid in Antiquity, phalli fight with fluids. It’s a form of combat. The ejaculating phallus is a subset of ancient ritual object and art but scholars can be a bit squeamish about discussing them. Parker notes that before his essay there were no archaeological studies devoted to this question. We tend to be more interested in the “the organ itself rather than any associated fluids.”
The iconography, however, is very explicit. Parker points to a well-known stone carving from Leptis Magna in Libya in which a large phallus is shown with animal legs and hooves ejaculating on an evil eye from a second macropenis that protrudes from between its leg. Yes, you read that right, the zoomorphic penis has its own secondary penis. In the famous mosaic from the House of the Evil Eye in Antioch the posture of the phallus is clearly aggressive. “The ejaculate was…intended to make contact with and, presumably, blind the Evil Eye.” Semen, it’s not just for making babies anymore.
Given that there aren’t any bodily fluids that can literally blind you there is something it’s worth thinking more about how it is that ejaculate deflects the power of evil. Presumably, the fact that semen was a highly potent substance meant that it could negate the forces of death. This might, however, create another problem. Parker argues that it is precisely because seminal fluid is an erotic and generative substance that is used to create life its use in this context might be considered wasteful. He cautiously suggests that some might have seen the use of semen to ward off evil either as quasi-sacrificial or as a way of generating positive “magical” effects. (Even in the Bible bodily fluids play a quasi-magical medical role. In the Gospel of John Jesus mixes saliva and dirt to make a paste that he places on the eyes of the man born blind).
In either case, says Parker, we should take seriously the importance of ejaculate in these scenes: the depiction of the body at the point of orgasm was a positive biological experience. This isn’t mere pornography or the kind of thing you’d be sent in an online dating app, there’s some real medial thinking at work here. The disembodied phalli are often shown with intact testes, a gesture to the ancient medical discovery that testes were essential for the production of sperm. Further references to bodily fluids, argues Parker, might be inferred from the use of the phallus in windchimes (which might get rained on) or on oil lamps.
If this all seems a bit phallocentric, bear in mind that a variety of different bodily fluids could be weaponized in antiquity. Dr. Victoria Leonard, a research fellow at Coventry University and co-editor of the Bodily Fluids volume, told The Daily Beast that, “Bodily fluids were often weaponized in antiquity because of the strong emotional reaction they could elicit, particularly disgust and revulsion.” Leonard directed me to “a famous incident of sexual harassment in the classroom” in which the philosopher Hypatia showed an overly aggressive male student her “bloodied menstrual cloth to chill his hot desire for her.” It worked. “Like the apotropaic phalli that Roman people would have been so familiar with,” said Leonard “the use of bodily fluids shows that they could be subject to different interpretations, but they were rarely neutral.” Just as we might recoil from the blood or urine of others today body fluids could provoke shock and disgust in antiquity.
The idea that body fluids are weapons is not unique to antiquity. Several high profile and contested lawsuits have debated whether a person’s body fluids counts as weapons, especially in instances where a person has a communicable disease such as HIV. In Montana, for example, you can be charged with “Assault by Bodily Fluid”; in Indiana “Battery by Bodily Waste” is a criminal act; and in Wisconsin “Throwing or Discharging Bodily Fluids at Public Safety Workers” is legally prohibited.
There is considerable disagreement about the secretions that count as weapons. Lists usually include semen, blood, urine, and feces, but saliva and vomit usually fly under the radar. Only North Dakota recognizes that vaginal secretions can be weaponized. Interestingly most of this legislation only protects law enforcement officials from attack. At least one issue here is that state legislation is idiosyncratic and often fails to keep pace with the imagination of criminals. In 2019, for example, when an Alaska man held down, choked, and ejaculated on a woman’s face he was found guilty of second-degree assault. Alaska law narrowly defined rape in such a way that non-consensual contact with semen is not a sex crime.
Sexual violence may also lie in the shadows of ancient depictions of ejaculating phalli. In her work on Roman sexual humor Amy Richlin has shown that urinating on someone (for instance an adulterer) is a way of subjugating and humiliating them.” It seems that imagined staining is…a substitute for imagined violence.” That the ejaculating phallus is a weapon also gestures to the dark underbelly of sexual violence even as it protects the viewer from magical assault.