Penises, oops, sorry, phalluses1 have been lately in the news (BBC) and blogs (for example, at Alun), thanks to a news report of the discovery of a "20cm-long, 3cm-wide stone object" that has been identified as a "symbolic representation of male genitalia".
The figurine pictured above, from the archaeology museum in Selçuk, Turkey, was unearthed at nearby Ephesus. In the ubiquitous postcards of him offered for sale in and around Selçuk he is identified as god Bes. I can’t recall what the display caption in the museum said (I took the picture 1987), but I am assuming that is indeed the official identification.
According to Black & Green2:
Bes or Bisu was the Egyptian god of play and recreation, represented as a full-faced bow-legged dwarf, with oversized head, goggle eyes, protruding tongue, bushy tail and usually a large feathered crown as head-dress. He was a magically protective deity who averted the power of evil, and was especially associated with the protection of children and of women in childbirth.... Representations of a very similar figure are found widely in Syria, Palestine, Assyria and Babylonia in the first millenium [sic] BC.Some ithyphallic3 statues have also been identified as Bes, although from our 21st century perspective, it would be quite unthinkable to represent a deity protective of children and women as such.
It is not quite clear to me why this character from Ephesus was thought to represent Bes. His appearance doesn't quite match the description of Bes given by Black & Green. Could it be that a sculpture resembling Bes and that also happened to have an erect phallus was once, perhaps mistakenly, identified as Bes and so now every little man with an erect phallus is Bes?
Alun discussed some possible uses of the stone age phallus. Along those lines, it is possible that the Ephesian artifact, rather than being a representation of a god, was instead a "marital aid". However, if I am remembering it correctly, the penis, oops, sorry, the phallus of this guy was smaller than average. But then again, maybe the Ephesians had small phalluses, who knows?
1. Is penis a bad word? A man talking to his urologist doesn't refer to his penis as his phallus. But why are we compelled to switch to phallus when the context is art, history or archaeology? My 2478-page massive Random House Dictionary (1987) gives a frustratingly incomplete definition of the word phallus: "1. an image of the male reproductive organ, esp. that [was] carried in procession in ancient festivals of Dionysus, or Bacchus, symbolizing the generative power in nature. 2. Anat. the penis, the clitoris, or the sexually undifferentiated embryonic organ out of which either of these develops." The definition from the online American Heritage Dictionary is more thorough: "1. Anatomy a. The penis. b. The sexually undifferentiated tissue in an embryo that becomes the penis or clitoris. 2. A representation of the penis and testes as an embodiment of generative power. 3. The immature penis considered in psychoanalysis as the libidinal object of infantile sexuality in the male."
It appears that penis and phallus are synonyms. But, I suppose we are less likely to upset the Republicans if we say phallus instead of penis. Penis, penis, penis, ha, ha.
2. Black, J. & Green, A. 1992. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. University of Texas Press.
3. During the writing of this post I learned a new word, ithyphallic, which means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, "having the penis erect. Used of graphic and sculptural representations".
So if you don't want to upset the Republicans, you don't say "This sculpture has an erect penis", you say "This is an ithyphallic sculpture". Erect penis, erect penis, erect penis, ha, ha.