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Sunday 20 October 2013

Phallic Symbols (mostly small ones)

When I first spotted this statue of Balzac at the Musée Rodin in Paris, I though it was something else altogether. But I was wrong. Gigantic erections are something you almost never see in mainstream European art. I’m not sure why, because male genitalia are hardly a rarity in classical sculptures and paintings. It’s just that they always seem to be little ones.

There is a word for the artistic representation of an erect penis: ithyphallic. You can do a Google image search for “ithyphallic” if you want to, but you’ll be disappointed – most of the results come from the ancient world (where erections were believed to have magical properties – see Phascinating Phacts). It all changed with the Renaissance – big dicks were out and tiny dicks were in. The result is particularly comical in the case of mythological figures like the Greek god Zeus (≈ the Roman god Jupiter), who spent much of his career inseminating females. The only picture I’ve found that shows him with anything approaching a hard-on is a fresco by the 16th century Italian painter Giulio Romano, depicting Jupiter seducing Olympia.

Although some ancient Roman figures are shown with enormous erections, these always seem to depict specifically “phallic” gods such as Priapus. Even the great hero Hercules is generally shown with an unheroic little wiener, despite having an otherwise heavily muscled physique and heroic posture. Usually, anyhow. I saw this irreverent statue of Hercules at the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition earlier this year (photography wasn’t allowed, so this is an official image, not mine). Notice how his dick is smaller than his little finger.

It’s not just the great mythological figures of Europe who are underendowed in the genital department. There’s a type of statue you sometimes see that I used to think of as a “naked Buddha”, but actually they don’t depict the Buddha at all – they come from another Asian religion called Jainism.
According to the label on the statue depicted here, which I saw in London’s V&A Museum, it depicts the Jina Parshvanatha, the 23rd Jain saviour, engaged in “sky-clad” meditation. His penis is about the same size as his thumb.

The Buddha is described in a Mahāyāna text called the Gaṇḍhavyūha as having a sex organ “like a thoroughbred elephant or stallion”, that can be retracted into his body when not in use. Presumably for that reason, depictions of the Buddha never show his penis – in fact the clingy drapery sometimes shows the very obvious absence of a penis.

Nevertheless, like Zeus or Jupiter, there’s no doubt the Buddha knew how to use it – witness the countless images of Buddha-incarnations copulating with female consorts (in the Tantric form of Buddhism at least). Here’s one I saw on my recent trip to Paris, in the Musée Guimet. It’s a type of devotional painting called a thangka, although at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it was an example of early mediaeval interracial porn...

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