One of the first symbols that the world worshipped was the phallus. The phallus is defined as either a penis or anything shaped like a penis, but the people who worshipped it weren’t only worshipping it as a sex symbol. It was much more complicated than that!
The phallus had different meanings depending on the country, culture, and time that it was being worshipped. In Ancient Egypt, the cult of the phallus was the cult of Osiris. It happened that Osiris’ body was cut into 13 pieces and his penis was swallowed by a fish. For them, the phallus was a symbol of fertility so their god Min was depicted with an erect phallus. In ancient Greece, Hermes was also associated with phalluses because he was depicted on pillars featuring phalluses. There was also another god, Priapus, whose connection to the phallus was much more blatant: his symbol of fertility was an extremely large phallus. He was considered the protector of the male genitals. Even ancient Japan had a form of phallus worship. The Mara Kannon shrine was a fertility shrine. The shrine was carved into the shape of a phallus and people went there to pray for fertility.
In Rome, wearing phallic jewelry was supposed to keep away evil forces. In Athens, phallic statues were placed on street corners so that people could touch them for good luck. In India, the symbol for the worship of the god Shiva is known as the lingam, which is considered by many to be a phallic symbol, although there is debate about whether it’s intentional or not.
In most countries where phallic statues were erected, they were erected for one reason: to be worshipped. Depending on the religion, the statues would be erected for the purpose of praying for fertility or for praying for a cure for other sexual dysfunctions. Not all statues were free-standing. Often, phallic symbols would be carved into fountains or statues that otherwise had little to do with phallic worship. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be erected in both the middle of cities and out in the country, where people had to actually make long journeys to get to them and pray.
Phallic symbols were particularly popular in Roman and Greek art. Many sculptures and paintings that depicted a male usually showed him nude with his penis fully visible, although it was usually not erect.
However, it wasn’t just paintings or statues that were being made into phallic symbols. In ancient Greece, terracotta vases made in the shapes of phalluses were used to store special oils. These vases were very rare. Other times, vases would be covered in paintings where the male phallus was always on display. Interestingly, in Greek and Roman culture, the phallus was always depicted to be either quite small or below average because culture at the time perceived over-sized penises as being awkward and actually ugly.
As the phallus was so closely attributed to fertility and male power, it played a large part in some religions. However, the phallus was not solely considered an organ of fertility. Instead, it was seen as an organ of bliss. Some religions even believed that the pleasure that came as a result of sex was actually a divine gift. In fact, many believed that “only when the phallus is within the womb that God and the universe can manifest.”
However, the phallus didn’t just bring fertility. It was also commonly thought to both bestow luck and protect people from evil spirits. People would wear amulets shaped like phallic symbols to protect them. In fact, the phallus was so closely associated with magic that the Roman word fascinum actually translates to “witchcraft” or “enchantment,” one of the most common Latin terms for the phallus! Greek craftsmen would also hang the symbols in their workshops as a way of trying to make their works better.