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Sunday 7 April 2013

Phascinating Phacts

Of all the words in the English language, “fascinating” has one of the oddest derivations. In modern usage the word simply means “very interesting”, with vague overtones of “mesmerizing” or “casting a spell on”. But it originates from the old Latin word fascinus, which referred to a special kind of charm or amulet taking the form of an erect human phallus (sometimes with wings). Phallic charms of this type were extremely popular in the days of ancient Rome, when it was believed they had the power to ward off evil influences. If you type “fascinus” into a Google image search you’ll see the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Phallic symbolism was surprisingly common in ancient religions, as I pointed out in my post on A Victorian Theology of Everything a couple of years ago. The book I referred to in that post was one I’d found in a second-hand bookshop, and at the time I had no idea who the anonymous author was. I’ve since discovered that it was a man named Hargrave Jennings (1817–1890), who seems to have more or less invented the subject of “phallicism”, and then devoted his whole career to writing about it.

Widespread as they are, phallic icons and amulets are usually purely symbolic in nature. But there’s one example—in fiction, at least—where it’s the real thing: the Talisman of Set. This features in one of the best occult novels of the twentieth century – Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, first published in 1934. The novel was used as the basis for a 1967 Hammer film of the same title, which (within the limitations of the 90 minute format) is reasonably faithful to the book. The screen version omits large chunks of occult background, but the basic plot is preserved, as well as a surprising amount of Wheatley’s dialogue. But the film doesn’t mention the Talisman of Set.

One of the main characters (in both the book and the film) is a young man named Simon, who is being pursued by a Crowleyesque occultist called Mocata. In the film, the reason why Mocata is so desperate to get hold of Simon is never explained – you just have to take it for granted. But the book goes into much more detail: Simon has discovered the secret of the Talisman of Set. This object, which is supposed to have been lost and found countless times throughout history, is nothing less than the mummified phallus of the Egyptian God Osiris! And unlike a Roman fascinus, this is no lucky charm – “whenever it is found it brings calamity upon the world” (it was given its sinister powers by Set, the brother of Osiris – hence its name). In 1914, the Talisman of Set had unleashed the Great War on the world, and now (in the 1930s) Mocata wants to use it to trigger a second global war.

Despite being the procreative organ of one of the most powerful gods in the Egyptian pantheon, the Talisman—when it’s finally tracked down—isn’t much to look at: “a small black cigar-shaped thing, which was slightly curved”. Eventually Mocata is defeated, and (in the novel) the Talisman of Set is duly incinerated... thus averting the threat of a Second World War. In reality, of course, the Second World War wasn’t averted... so perhaps that’s why Hammer decided to omit the Talisman of Set from the movie version. Or then again, maybe they were worried that the sight of Christopher Lee and Charles Gray chasing across Europe in pursuit of a shrivelled black phallus wouldn’t have gone down too well with the viewing public!

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