Cures for Impotence

James Davidson

  • Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality by Simon Goldhill
    Cambridge, 194 pp, £30.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 521 47372 1

An unusual feature of the topography of ancient Athens was the strange half-statues, which the Athenians called Hermeses and we call herms: a representation of the god of travel, trickery and luck, abbreviated to a pillar, a head and a penis. They were to be seen all over the city, on street-corners, at cross-roads, by doors and gates, and midway on roads from the country into town, providing points of reference in a city with few street-names and little interest in town-planning. On the eve of ventures or on receipt of gains, Hermes attracted ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ in the form of cakes and flowers, his penis conveniently erect for hanging gifts on. In 415, however, during preparations for a great voyage of conquest into the western Mediterranean, the Athenians woke up to discover their lucky herms vandalised: disfigured and (perhaps) unmembered. Panicked and outraged, they set up an inquisition to find the culprits. Informers were forthcoming and a list of ‘Hermokopidai’ was drawn up, the majority of whom did not hang around long enough to test the equity of Athenian justice but abandoned their property to the public auctioneers, who catalogued it carefully and inscribed it on stone for the benefit of posterity. The expedition itself went ahead as planned. It was a disaster.

What possessed the ‘herm-bashers’ that night remains obscure. Traditional opinion divides between jinx and high-jinks, between an oligarchic conspiracy to scupper the fortunes of the democracy and a drunken prank at a spectacularly ill-judged moment in Athenian imperial history. In 1985, however, Eva Keuls published a book which opened up a new line of inquiry. The Hermokopidai were innocent, she suggested. The real culprits were the women of Athens, striking a blow against phallocracy by hitting Athenian men where it hurt.

The penis was everywhere in the ancient world. Apart from the herms, there were giant ceremonial dildoes carried in procession for Dionysus, satyriassic satyrs on vases and in plays, priapic actors in comedy and naked men in gymnasia or in stone. Priapus himself arrived rather later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods: a fertility god of orchards and gardens, he sometimes doubled as a guardian, threatening scrumpers with impalement on his elephantine organ. This array of virilia bore many symbolic associations. Big ones seem most often to have indicated obscenity and buffoonery, lust, luck and fertility; others were used to mark senility (when pendulous), otherness (when circumcised) and self-control. They were a symbol as much for women as for men and figured in a number of women-only festivals in the form of phallic costumes and phallic cakes. Some care was taken to distinguish different kinds of penis in art, and a strong contrast seems always to have been drawn between the gross members of satyrs and comic actors in Dionysus’ entourage and the very modest manhood of heroic and civic ideal. Sometimes the phallus seems even to have a life of its own. It appears as a bird, with eyes and wings, or with four legs and a tail as a phallus-centaur. Disembodied and re-embodied in this way, it had little to do with what most Greek men found between their legs.

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