From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The word phallus can refer to an erect penis, to a penis-shaped object such as a dildo, or to a mimetic image of an erect penis. Any object that symbolically resembles a penis may also be referred to as a phallus; however, such objects are more often referred to as being phallic (as in "phallic symbol"). Such symbols often represent the fertility, potency and cultural implications that are associated with the male sexual organ, as well as the male orgasm. The term 'yonic' is often used to describe the vaginal counterpart of the 'phallic'.
From Late Latin phallus, from Ancient Greek φαλλός (phallos). Its further etymology is uncertain. The meaning "penis" likely developed from a more concrete meaning, and has been compared to βαλλία (ballia, “private parts”) and the ethnonym Τριβαλλοί (Triballoi). Possible Indo-European cognates are Old Irish ball (“member, body part”) as well as dialectal Modern High German Bille (“penis”), all usually compared to words for "ball, sack, bull, testis" and similar, supposedly deriving from Proto-Indo-European *bʰel- (“to blow, swell”). Probably akin to φάλλαινα (phallaina, “whale”), because of the body shape of whale.
Veiled phallic symbolism is visible in Jupiter and Io (c. 1530) by Correggio and Sensuality (1891) by Franz von Stuck. The image of the serpent as phallus in that last painting is left in little doubt, showing an enormous python-like creature passing between the legs of a nude woman.
Shakespeare often incorporated phallic symbols into his plays; swords and knives, for example, were phallic symbols representing the masculinity of their wielders. For example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus says to his fiancé Hippolyta "I wooed thee with my sword"
In anthropology, phallicism or phallic worship refers to the ritual adoration of the human penis, or the phallus. Elements of phallicism have been found in many cultures, including Ancient Greece, India and Sumer.
In traditional Greek mythology, Hermes, god of boundaries and exchange (popularly the messenger god) was considered to be a phallic deity by association with representations of him on herms (pillars) featuring a phallus. There is no scholarly consensus on this depiction and it would be speculation to consider Hermes a type of fertility god.
Priapus was a Greek god of fertility whose symbol was an exaggerated phallus. The son of Aphrodite and either Dionysus or Adonis, according to different forms of the original myth, he was the protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens, and male genitalia. His name is the origin of the medical term priapism.
Ancient Romans wore phallic jewelry as talismans against the evil eye.
Research during the Enlightenment
- The Worship of Priapus (1786) by Richard Payne Knight
- The Worship of the Generative Powers (1866) by Thomas Wright
- Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs (1869) by John Davenport
The symbolic version of the phallus, a phallic symbol is meant to represent male generative powers. According to Sigmund Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, while males possess a penis, no one can possess the symbolic phallus. Jacques Lacan's Ecrits: A Selection includes an essay titled The Significance of the Phallus which articulates the difference between "being" and "having" the phallus. Men are positioned as men insofar as they are seen to have the phallus. Women, not having the phallus, are seen to "be" the phallus. The symbolic phallus is the concept of being the ultimate man, and having this is compared to having the divine gift of God.
In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler explores Freud's and Lacan's discussions of the symbolic phallus by pointing out the connection between the phallus and the penis. She writes, "The law requires conformity to its own notion of 'nature'. It gains its legitimacy through the binary and asymmetrical naturalization of bodies in which the phallus, though clearly not identical to the penis, deploys the penis as its naturalized instrument and sign" (135). In Bodies that Matter, she further explores the possibilities for the phallus in her discussion of The Lesbian Phallus. If, as she notes, Freud enumerates a set of analogies and substitutions that rhetorically affirm the fundamental transferability of the phallus from the penis elsewhere, then any number of other things might come to stand in for the phallus (62).
Modern use of the phallus
The Phallus is often used to advertise pornography, as well as the sale of contraception. It has often been used in provocative practical jokes and has been the central focus of adult-audience performances.
The phallus has a new set of art interpretations in the 20th Century with the rise of Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology. One example is "Princess X"  by the Romanian modernist sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. He created a scandal in the Salon in 1919 when he represented or caricatured Princess Marie Bonaparte as a large gleaming bronze phallus. This phallus likely symbolizes Bonaparte's obsession with the penis and her lifelong quest to achieve vaginal orgasm.
In gender studies
In cultural terms, phallocentrism is used to describe a male-centered doctrine or behavior, and sometimes refers to patriarchy, while gynocentrism is used to describe female-centered doctrine or behavior, and sometimes refers to matriarchy. Furthermore, the term yonic has often been used to describe something as vaginal and is considered the counterpart to the term phallic.
In the philosophy of sex
The phallus has sometimes been called the unruly member of man, having a will of its own. Plato stated that "the gods have given us one disobedient and unruly member" (4th century BC), and during the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci notoriously wrote in "Della Verga" (on the penis) in his notebooks that:
- "[The phallus] confers with the human intelligence and sometimes has intelligence of itself, and although the will of the man desires to stimulate it, it remains obstinate and takes its own course, and moving sometimes of itself without license or thought by the man, whether he be sleeping or waking, it does what it desires; and often the man is asleep and it is awake, and many times the man is awake and it is asleep; many times the man wishes it to practice and it does not wish it; many times it wishes and the man forbids it.
- It seems therefore that this creature often has a life and intelligence separate from the man, and it would appear that the man is in the wrong in being ashamed to give it a name or exhibit it, seeking rather constantly to cover and conceal what he ought to adorn and display with ceremony as a ministrant."
In the 19th century Schopenhauer equated his concept of the will to live with the sex drive, saying the genitals are the real focus of the will (19th century), saying that the will is a strong blind man, carrying a lame seeing man on his shoulders.
Phallic symbolism can be perceived in a wide range of fiction and other popular culture works (in particular when analyzed in the context of psychoanalysis, although frequently that view is unconfirmed or unsanctioned by the creators).
List of artworks
- The Triumph of the Phallus by Francesco de' Rossi