This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Visitors to the ancient city of Pompeii are sure to be wowed by the amazing structural preservation of the ancient town. Tour guides still go to pains to highlight the prevalence of one of the most unusual decorations on the Roman walls and floors – stone phalli. These carvings on the walls and floors fascinate, thrill, and disgust modern viewers.
Visitors might be told that the phallic carvings were subtle adverts to nearby brothels (I got told this whilst on a tour of the site a decade ago). This interpretation is misleading. The phalli were not a sort of arrow pointing towards a brothel, but carefully located supernatural guardians whose sole purpose was to protect people and places from malignant forces. I’m going to explore this function through this article.
Phallic imagery was ubiquitous in ancient Roman society – it adorned stone buildings, was carved onto pottery and wall plaster, depicted on mosaics, appeared as figurines and windchimes, and was worn as all sorts of jewellery.
As with many forms of artistic expression, the Roman world inherited the use of phallic symbols from their Hellenistic and Classical forebears, but in the case of phallic imagery they really ran with it and created novel, interesting, and sometimes bizarre new types, forms, and uses for this symbol.
Phallus versus Evil Eye
So how was this supernatural protection supposed to work? Let’s start with the basic idea that there was, in the Roman world, a belief in a malignant force called the Evil Eye. The oculus malus, as it was known in Latin, was a personification of negative effects and bad luck.
In the ancient world, people could attribute poor health and poor fortune to the Evil Eye. In Vergil’s Eclogues (3.1.103) the shepherds Damoetas and Menalcas are lamenting the state of their stock and Menalcas asks “What eye is it that has fascinated my tender lambs?”
Plutarch recounts a discussion on the topic: “it is commonly supposed that some have friends, acquaintances, and even fathers, that have such evil eyes; so that the mother will not show their children to them…” (Quaes. Conv. 5.7). Faraone also notes the blessing at the end of a soldier’s letter from Roman Egypt: “May you be healthy with your horse unaffected by the evil eye!” (2018, p. 249).
These sources give us a sense that the Evil Eye was to be feared. The Eye was attracted to vulnerable people or things, and the original source of the evil was often unclear. People could cast the Evil Eye unknowingly and it was closely aligned to the concept of envy (hence the occasional description of it as the “envious Eye”).
As well as vulnerable people, certain actions like boastfulness and excessive display of riches could attract the Evil Eye. The Eye could be defeated, or at least deflected away from whatever it was fixed upon, and archaeology provides us with the evidence of how this was achieved.
In many different artistic media, the Evil Eye is shown to be under attack by its enemies. These enemies are powerful symbols or ideas which can defeat the Eye and they are individually used as amulets against it.
The most commonly referenced example of the “all-suffering Eye” surrounded by its enemies is the mosaic from the House of the Evil Eye at Antioch. On it, the Eye is surrounded by dangerous animals (dog, snake, scorpion, raven, leopard), weapons (sword and trident), and unusual but powerful images. The latter, in this case, refers to the macrophallic dwarf figure.
A stripped-down version of this narrative from Leptis Magna depicts a lion-legged phallic beast ejaculating into an Evil Eye whilst it was attacked by a crab or scorpion.
Similar sorts of images are found all across the Roman Empire. They show the symbols and forms that could fight against the Eye. Within them, phalli are the most commonly used weapon against it.
The idea, as shown in other carvings, was that a bizarre phallic form was so weird that it immediately drew the gaze of the Evil (and thus protected vulnerable people and places) and/or the phallus is seen to ejaculate or urinate into the Eye and so blinded it, preventing its gaze from causing harm.
The Latin word for a phallic amulet was a fascinum and this alludes to their function of fascinating the Evil Eye.
Phalli and the protection of buildings
Pompeii, as mentioned, is one of the best places to see the range and number of these carvings. There are many, many phallic carvings around the ancient town. More so than anywhere else in the Roman world. This is because the destruction of Pompeii preserved buildings and streets to a great height – it seems that most of these carvings were above human head-height and prominently visible.
Most commonly, we find phallic carvings above doorways and windows, and on crossroads. These are transitional places – the sorts of spaces where you might encounter other people in your way, or a trip hazard, or maybe pickpockets or other dangers. Carvings are almost always on the outside of buildings. This was to protect the people inside from whatever supernatural dangers might be brought in.
One carving at Pompeii was on the outside of the Modestus Bakery – above a geometric pattern representing the bread products sold there. Maybe the dangers were angry customers, unwanted visitors, or even the envious people who might bring the Evil Eye with them? Bad luck in a bakery could cause fires and serious damage. Better to keep it outside.
My PhD research on magic in Roman Britain shows that even at the edge of the Roman Empire phallic carvings were present. They were strongly associated with military structures such as forts, fortresses, and are found on Hadrian’s Wall.
Hadrian’s Wall was the edge of the Roman world, beyond which many dangers lay. Phallic carvings appear on parts of the Wall itself, facing outwards towards barbaricum, as well as on the same sorts of windows and doors as like at Pompeii.
Most phallic amulets weren’t on buildings but worn by people and animals. I recorded hundreds of phallic pendants from Roman Britain and they can be found all over the island. The rarest are made from gold (like this example from near Knaresborough) but the vast majority are in copper alloys.
Copper alloy was cheap and durable and was used as the main material for these pendants for centuries. When it was new, copper alloy pendants were also bright and shiny things – properties which could ensnare the gaze of the Eye. They were designed to be gaudy and noticeable in order to work properly as amulets.
Phallic finger rings, always in gold, appear to have been made for children. There are many of these rings known to us and they have a very narrow gauge appropriate for a child’s finger and not suitable for most adults. Children are certainly one of the vulnerable groups which were particularly at risk from the effects of the Evil Eye.
Childhood in the ancient world was full of dangers and high infant -mortality rates were scary things to contemplate. Protecting children in whatever way was available certainly makes sense. In the graves of infants we find crepundia, “amulet-chains”, which were groups of magical objects, arcane symbols, and uncanny materials strung together.
Crepundia are groups of strange and powerful symbols, just like the images of all the enemies of the Evil Eye on the Antioch mosaic. These crepundia probably belonged to infants during their short lives.
As well as being grouped with other amulets in chains, phallic pendants could be integrally connected to other amulets. In one notable type, the phallus was joined with the image of a human hand making the mano fico “fig gesture” (by making a fist and tucking the thumb beneath the forefinger).
The gesture is one that was made in the ancient world as a handy gesture which warded against the Evil Eye. These fist-and-phallus amulets therefore doubled-up on their supernatural powers. Why have only one protective amulet when you could have two?
Multiplication of phallic amulets is a feature on other objects and no introduction to the use of Roman phallic amulets would be complete without mentioning tintinnabula. To modern eyes they are one of the most bizarre survivals from the ancient world.
Basically, tintinnabula were a sort of phallic wind-chime. They all included a central figure, usually a phallus. This phallus was often zoomorphic (so could have animal legs, wings, a tail) and often also polyphallic (yes, they had many penises). Chains were suspended from several points of the figure, and all held a bell at the end of it.
Variants on the theme include: winged phalli which were ridden by miniature, nude women; a giant cockerel-headed man with a huge phallus; a macrophallic dwarf who was fighting his penis, which had also become a teeth-and-claw bearing tiger; and a figure of Mercury, also with a huge penis, who wore a hat from which four long phalluses emerged.
Tintinnabula are certainly understudied, and we don’t fully understand when and where they were most popular, though most of the tintinnabula that we know about date to the first-century AD. This lack of understanding can probably be connected to most examples being hidden away from public view during the nineteenth century in a secretum (a hidden, restricted gallery) in the British Museum and in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli so as not to offend any public sensibilities.
These wind-chimes could be hung up indoors or outside. They might have been used as a door-chime, jangling when someone entered a shop to alert the owner that a customer had entered and also alert the entrant that their presence had been announced).
These fascinating objects highlight some of the key principles of understanding phallic imagery in the ancient world. They depict human body parts, but in a very non-human way. And these human parts were worn and used in places where real, biological phalli were not normally found (on buildings, hung around necks etc.).
The attempts to make them less human, less biological, and less mundane, worked to highlight their supernatural use as something strange and unusual which could be used to protect against the perennial dangers of the Evil Eye.