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Wikipedia erected a page to explain Ancient Rome’s fascination with the phallus

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Fascinus

What it’s about: The ancient Romans had a slew of gods and goddesses—212 by Wikipedia’s count—and there was a deity on hand for just about every occasion. One of the lesser-known gods was Fascinus, who represented sacred “masculine generative power,” and whose symbol was a phallus. (Latin distinguishes between a phallus—a representation of a penis—and the male organ itself.) Fascinus was worshipped by wearing or carrying a phallic amulet or charm, also called a fascinus. (Thanks to reader Evel Kareebel for this week’s subject suggestion.)

A winged fascinus

Strangest fact: The charms were believed to ward off evil, specifically the Evil Eye, especially to protect young boys and soldiers. However, that wasn’t the only use of the fascinus’ power. During the annual Festival Of Liber (a Romanized version of Dionysus, who as a god of wine, fertility, and freedom, was closely associated with Fascinus) a gigantic fascinus was carried around the countryside on a cart to ensure crop fertility.

Biggest controversy: Because Christians later wiped out any parts of the Roman religion deemed too sexual, not that much is known about the god Fascinus. In fact, the Wikipedia page is about the fascinus amulets and only mentions their namesake in passing. Christians also wiped out most references to a related minor god, the wonderfully named Mutunus Tutunus, most likely because of a marriage tradition in which Roman brides supposedly “straddled the phallus of Mutunus to prepare themselves for intercourse.”

Thing we were happiest to learn: According to legend, Fascinus is responsible for one of Rome’s kings. Before Rome was a republic, it was ruled by a series of kings. The sixth out of seven was Servius Tullius, whose mother, Ocrisia, was a foreign noblewoman captured and enslaved by the Romans. As a slave to the wife of the king (Tarquinius, Servius’ predecessor), with noble upbringing, she retained a certain amount of status, and her son was considered part of the royal household and eventually married the king’s daughter. According to legend—one that Servius himself no doubt perpetuated—Ocrisia was a virgin, and while she performing the rites of the Vestal Virgins, a disembodied phallus appeared and impregnated her. Stories of divine parentage were commonly used to describe Romans who rose above humble beginnings, although the mortal parent was usually someone of importance, making Servius’ tale somewhat unusual.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There’s plenty of room for cultural misunderstanding here. An amulet popular among soldiers actually showed what Wikipedia describes as a clenched fist at the shaft of a phallus. Now, that certainly conjures an image, but it’s the wrong one. Research outside Wikipedia shows that the “fist and phallus” amulet was a shaft with a fist at one end and the head of a penis at the other, representing two kinds of masculine strength. Still not terribly safe for work, but not the celebration of self-love it seems to be at first read.

Also noteworthy: The English word “fascinate” is derived from fascinus. A fascinus supposedly had the power to entrance, and the Latin verb “fascinare” means both “to use the power of the fascinus” and “to practice magic” in a more general sense.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The image at right is a bas relief of a fascinus ejaculating into an eye—strangely, the fascinus itself is not ejaculating, it has its own penis, which is doing the deed. This meta-penis is meant to be symbolic of the fascinus’ power against the Evil Eye, although we suppose Rule 34 applies here as well. Fortunately, relief was and is used in less graphic sculpture, and Wikipedia has history and some stunning examples of the technique, in which material is carved away, leaving an image behind.


Further down the wormhole: The sacred image of the fascinus was maintained, paradoxically, by the Vestal Virgins, who took vows never to touch what the fascinus represented. But when a general returned to Rome triumphant, the Vestals would hang a fascinus from the underside of his chariot to protect him from invidia (envy or jealousy). The chariot, which could travel quickly over roads, and allowed archers to fire on the move, was central to Rome’s military supremacy, and Egypt’s before that. Perhaps the best-known figure from ancient Egypt is Tutankhamun, popularly known as King Tut after the discovery of his remarkably intact tomb in 1922. We’ll explore his condo made of stone-a next week.

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