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A roman republican nicolo-agate intaglio. Phallic allegory. 1st century BC.
  1. The Fall a Pompeii
  2. The Ali of the Judgment
  3. The phallus as an attribute divine
  4. The cult of the Phallus in the subsequent centuries:
- St. Augustine
- Malleus Maleficarum in the Witch Hunt 1482
- Lord Hamilton nel 1781
- The horn

- Japanese Iron Penis Festival,  Kanamara Matsuri (Kanamara festival


1. The Winged Phallus in Pompeii


In the imagination of the Romans it was an object that we would define obscene today, forget that this term, in the ancient worlddoes not have the same meaning it has for us today. A Roman would never have defined obscenus, a winged phallus because in his world, this term indicated what was a bad omen, and therefore the exact opposite of what instead identifies one of the best-known images from Pompeii, from the Roman world and Roman art.

To call upon all his magical strength, the winged phallus must be reproduced, immeasurable, enormous, propitiatory, capable of driving away evil spirits, capable of giving home protection and work environments, a force of nature against evil, flagellant demons and the fascination: the negative power of dry eye.

 phallus pompeii museo archeologico nazionale napolipompeii pahhlus amulet museo archelogico di napoli

Always fallmake them twisted, phalluses in the form of animals, phalluses that intertwine with phalluses, phalluses that are grafted onto phalluses. And indeed it seems like an endless chase, a real mania, to reproduce this protective symbol on a thousand objects, hanging everywhere.

phallus hic habiitat felicitas museo archeologico di napoli pompeii

Religion and superstition intertwine in a world where everything seems to revolve around sex which, source of life and joy, is for the Romans a positive, magical phenomenon, sometimes endowed with a spiritual power that directs life, and, through reproduction, goes beyond it.

We would call that will to possess a practical superstition or trivial magic amulet against that oculus malignant, always lurking and codified, in its substance since Pliny the Elder; age-old source of tribulation for human beings, it must protect the weakest, the most fragile, and it is therefore for this reason that, as Varro recounts in De lingua latina, children are hung around the neck, against the evil eye, a bulla containing a phallic-shaped amulet

The fantasy of Roman craftsmen it was often inclined to take flight and the magical power of a symbol can also be seen in the ability to give it bewitched or grotesque connotations, wings, in this case.

Also inserted in the Pompeian road signs, these images, bizarre for us, fluttering here and there, served to drive away the darker side of our humanity and through a stylistic mutation that will lead to the horn, continue their work of reclamation even in age Contemporary.


Laura Del Verme

For those wishing to learn more:
Eva Björklund, Lena Hejll, Luisa Franchi dell'Orto, Stefano De Caro, Eugenio La Rocca (editors), Reflections of Rome. Roman Empire and Baltic Barbarians, exhibition catalog (Milan, AltriMusei at Porta Romana, from 1 March to 1 June 1997), L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1997.
Megan Cifarelli, Laura Gawlinski (Editors), What shall I say of clothes? Theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of dress in antiquity, American Institute of Archaeology, 2017.
Carla Conti, Diana Neri, Pierangelo Pancaldi (editors), Pagans and Christians. Forms and attestations of religiosity of the ancient world in central Emilia, Aspasia editions, 2001.
Jacopo Ortalli, Diana Neri (editors), Divine images. Devotion and divinity in the daily life of the Romans, archaeological evidence from Emilia Romagna, exhibition catalog (Castelfranco Emilia, Civic Museum, from 15 December 2007 to 17 February 2008), All'Insegna del Giglio, 2017.
Adam Parker, Stuart McKie (Editors), Material approaches to Roman magic. Occult objects and supernatural substances, Oxbow Books, 2018.
heroine, Pompeian Erotica (Love inscriptions on the walls of Pompeii, L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2002.

2. The wings of the phallus

The phallus was represented with the or to underline them divine qualities.

As winged, the phallus could connect men with heaven, the otherworldly, the divine.

The wings, and therefore the ability to take off allowed to leave the earthly world for enter a foreign world, inaccessible, unknown. The sky it was imagined inhabited by the Gods, the place where the divine in general, the super-natural, resides. Olympus, Heaven, the Christian God they were all imagined in heaven.

In the most famous representation of the Christian God, the Michelangelo's creation, God and Adam are in heaven, reclining on clouds.

Reaching the sky was impossible for most living things on earth, up until just 100 years ago. It is therefore clear that for most of the cultures that have developed over the centuries the sky was seen as the place where what could only be imagined resided.

The only ones able to access heaven, this place considered supernatural, were birds.

Birds, since the Bronze Age, they were deemed capable of connection with the divine. The divination of birds was their alleged ability to provide elements to predict the future. The flight of birds, their appearance in a dream or in particular moments could contain omens and be interpreted for make predictions.

The ability to fly gave birds a special character, otherworldly as it allowed them access to a inaccessible world to all other living things on earth.

In the Greco-Roman religion we find the attribute of wings in the God Hermes/Mercury as messenger of the gods, the one who connected the sky with the real world. Cupid, the son of Venus, used his wings to reach humans and make them fall in love by shooting his arrows. The Angels of christian iconography they are men with wings. He is the archangel Gabriel to inform Mary who was about to conceive the son of God. A bird, the owl it was the animal sacred to Juno, the queen of the gods. Even today we find the owl in many living rooms as an auspicious ornament. 

We Today, we have lost that perception of the sky as an unknown, magical, divine, inaccessible place and therefore a place to imagine the Gods of Olympus, paradise, the Christian God, the deceased. The expression "flew to the sky" it is linked to the need to identify a place "other" than the earth, the daily life of all mortals.

After the invention of airplanes, this identification of the sky as the seat of the divine is more difficult to understand but remains in some expressions or symbols such as the winged phallus.

In Italian the penis is referred to as “bird”, as well as in English “cock”, in american “canary”, in Spanish "cock".


3. The Phallus as a divine attribute

As considered the source of life, able to pro-create therefore create, owns one dowry common wings of the gods, divine.

Just to underline its fecundity and creative power, an immoderate foul is the attribute of Priapus, God of the fields and crops of the Greco-Roman religion, .

Phallic symbols or depictions of Priapus were placed on the field entrances both to curry favor with his benevolence but also because with his make it excessive to instill fear keeping away thieves and criminals.

In agriculture, as strongly conditioned by unpredictable atmospheric events, there was much attention to the effects of good or bad luck. For this reason the'attribute of the God of the harvests and harvests assumed a very important role in propitiating good harvests. Phallic symbols were obligatory at the entrances to camps in Roman times. Astill today it is common to see enormous horns, direct descendants of Priapus's phallus, to protect the countryside.

4. The cult of the Phallus in the following centuries

- St. Augustine

 St. Augustine (354 AD-430 AD) bishop of Hippo Regis (in present-day Algeria), recounts these pagan celebrations [1] , describing the ancient fertility processions with a strongly disapproving Christian bias::

“Varro says that in Italy certain rites of Liber were celebrated (the Italian god of fertility and of the fields * ) that they were of such wanton wickedness that the shameful parts of the male were worshiped in his honor at the crossroads. […] In fact, during the days of the Liber festival, this obscene member, placed on a cart, was first exhibited with great honor at the crossroads of the countryside, and then transported to the same city. [...] In this way, it seems, the god Liber had to be propitiated, to ensure the growth of the seeds and to repel the enchantment (fascinatio) of the fields". [2]

At the time, although considered obscene by Christian clergy, fascinums continued to be used to ward off evil. They came worn as amulets of protection, especially from children and soldiers (at the time the categories with the highest mortality).


Purinega tie duro ( from the Latin: "Difficult to punish" ) 1470-1480 (circa). British Museum


- Wishbone for the witch hunt, 1482

witch hunt mallesu maleficarum phallus pomeii naples

In 1484, the Pope officially started the witch hunt. Hunting that will last two centuries leading to over 60,000 capital sentences, mostly women.

To drive the persecutors, the church commissioned a handbook to two Benedictine monks, The Wishbone.. A very successful official manual that the Catholic Church used for two centuries.

The association between bird and phallus can also be found in this manual which explains: finally, what should one think of witches that gather virile members, sometimes even in considerable numbers, even twenty or thirty, e they put them in birds' nests eating oats or other things as has been seen by many and as commonly rumored? Indeed, a man reported that he had lost his member and that to recover his integrity he had gone to a witch. She ordered her to climb a tree and let him take what she wanted from a nest where there were many members. And since he had got his hands on a big one, the witch said to him: “Don't take that! and she added that he belonged to one of the people”

- Lord Hamilton letter from Naples – 1781


Even at the end of the 18th century, the ancient cult of the phallus persisted in Italy. In a letter from Naples on 31 December 1781, William Hamilton describes the custom in Naples among children and women of the working classes to wear amulets with phallic symbols clearly deriving from the cult of Priapus of ancient Rome. The function of these amulets was naturally to protect against spells and the evil eye

It was about amulets in silver, ivory, coral very similar to those found in the excavations of Herculaneum. Hamilton collected many amulets both modern and from the archaeological excavations of Herculaneum to send them to the British Museum.

In the same letter Hamilton testifies of the survival at the end of the 18th century of Cult of Priapus in the city of Isernia and his fusion with the Christian cult. During the annual feast of the medical saints Cosimo and Damiano came sold in large quantities phallic symbols of various shapes and sizes. These objects had a propitiatory and auspicious function above all for the women who participated in the party, often for remedy their sterility.

Women with flying phalluses, illustration from the Pompeii Tourist Album, c. 1880. Image courtesy Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Click to enlarge.


- The Horn

In Southern Italy and in particular in Naples, the horn he replaced the foul as a good luck amulet. The Catholic religion and common morals have led to the disappearance of the phallus as a pagan symbol and lucky charm and to its replacement with the horn. Just as in ancient times farmers placed a large phallus, symbol of the God Priapus to protect their fields, so still today big horns they are inevitable in modern farms in southern Italy.

The horn is given as a gift and worn as an amulet to protect against bad luck and the evil eye or from envy, jealousy and wickedness. It is widespread and frequent both in the homes of Neapolitans and in shops and restaurants. 

Belief wants that if the horn breaks it means that it has neutralized the evil eye or bad luck, in short, it has had an effect. 

- The Iron Penis Kanamara Matsuri (Kanamara festival

pene di ferro festa popolare in giappone

In Japan, every year in April, the "Iron Penis" festival takes place. A religious holiday which dates back to very ancient times during which processions of chariots with huge phalluses and prayers to propitiate fertility, luck, family harmony.

A slightly macabre curiosity ( * ):


Tattoo of winged phallus on preserved human skin, dated 1904-5. From the collection of
National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), Paris. Image © MNHN, Paris.( * )