Phallus and Vagina

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PHALLUS AND VAGINA . The historical religious traditions and the modern critical study of religion share at least one thing in common: they both display an abiding fascination with the sexual organs and their power to shape religious language, social life, human thought, and the experience of the sacred itself. Historically speaking, both this history and this modern study have been controlled largely by male actors, that is, by human beings with penises, and so these discourses have tended to be phallic discourses that implicitly or explicitly erase, ignore, or simply deny the vagina, whose internal and external anatomy, sexual function, and means of arousal male actors have seldom, if ever, really understood. This situation, however, has changed dramatically since the 1960s. As women and female perspectives have increasingly entered the center of the study of religion and enriched, deepened, and complicated our understandings, the phallus has, in one sense, only become more importantthough in ways that depart considerably from the earlier male views and positionswithin a broad critical discourse that Jan Campbell has humorously but quite accurately called "arguing with the phallus." At the same time, the vagina has entered more and more into both the discussion and the historical analyses, particularly through the foundational philosophical work of Luce Irigaray and other French and Anglo-American feminist writers, enriching further and correcting what has long been a very one-sided and inadequate sexual perspective on the history of religions. Since most of the scholarship has in fact focused on the phallus, the relative coverage of the phallus and the vagina in the present entry will replicate this unevenness, but with the important caveat that this state of things is neither intellectually desirable nor historically faithful to the realities of roughly half the planet's past and present human inhabitants.

Before writing a history of the phallus and the vagina in the world's religions, however, it would be helpful to distinguish between what might be called implicit and explicit histories. This distinction takes us immediately into the realm of contemporary theory, an inevitable step, since there are no adequate sexual histories without developed sexual theories. Implicit sexual phenomena include all those common symbols or institutions of religion that imply the phallus or vagina but do not actually display them as such. Explicit sexual phenomena include all those that do. To take a few very simple examples, the Jewish and Islamic practices of circumcision (the ritual cutting of the foreskin to signal God's covenant with the community), the Hindu liga-yoni (an iconic representation of the divine phallus and vagina in union), and the Christian language about those who have willingly "castrated themselves for the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:1112) all focus explicitly and obviously on the sexual organs as central to the religious meanings of the act, figure, or saying, even if these same sexual meanings have been suppressed or euphemistically reinterpreted at different points by the traditions themselves. On the other hand, any prayer, devotional sigh, scriptural text, or sacred story that understands the divine as a "father" is an implicitly phallic expression, since, biologically speaking, it is the phallus that constitutes a father as a father, that is, as a procreative parent of a child ("father" and "phallus," of course, imply both "mother" and "vagina," but the latter have traditionally been erased in religious language and consciousness, particularly in the monotheistic West, where the One God can have no consort or spouse).

The point is a simple but important one: the semiotic reach of the vagina and the phallus in the history of religions is far greater than the casual reader or common wisdom might first suppose. Once both implicit and explicit sexual phenomena and their relationships are recognized, it is remarkably easy to see how central the sexual organs are to the history of religions. Indeed, from the innumerable creation myths of antiquity that employ the trope of human sexuality to express cosmic origins to the moral debates surrounding genetic engineering and human cloning (that is, conception outside the female womb), from the first recorded crisis in early Christian churches over the necessity of circumcising Gentiles (that is, ritually cutting their adult penises) to the most recent Christian debates about the ordination of women (who lack the penis that Jesus had) or gay men (who have one but allegedly use it wrongly), the history of religions is, on one level at least, a history of the phallus, the vagina, and their (dis)unions. The case is overstated here for the sake of illumination, as there are other factors clearly at work in all of these examples, from communal identity and purity sensibilities surrounding menstruation, birth, and anal intercourse to philosophical understandings of "nature" and "the natural," but the point remains: the history of religions has been deeply informed by basic sexual physiology.

The Sexual Ignorance of the Religions

This same history, it turns out, is also a relatively ignorant one, for when it comes to the actual biological workings of the vagina and the phallus, the history of religions is defined by at least two forms of sexual ignorance. The first involves the wildly incorrect agricultural metaphor of "seed and soil" that implicitly identifies the male as the sower of the person or soul and the owner of the field, and likewise likens the female role to a kind of passive dirt (so that if there is infertitlity in a couple it is ascribed to the woman, who is said to be "barren"). Within this same broad agricultural complex appears the astonishingly common pattern of likening the male or masculine to spirit, soul, seed, and culture and the female or feminine to the body, sexuality, soil, nature, and death. Biological knowledge of the mathematically even (23/23) genetic contribution of male and female chromosomal material via the event of ovum fertilization and subsequent cell division is entirely modern and would likely weaken the legitimacy and meaningfulness of both the symbolism of seed and soil and its dramatic asymmetrical gender implications, were these genetic facts fully understood and appropriated. They, of course, have not been, but the point remains: the sexual-agricultural symbolism of religious history rests on a serious biological error that has had profound, and profoundly asymmetrical, gender implications for religious con-sciousness.

The second form of sexual ignorance involves the practical impossibility, again until very recently, of guaranteeing correct paternity and, therefore, a definite lineage or flow of inheritance (pater semper incertus est, "the father is always uncertain," as one Latin proverb had it; or, in a more modern south Chicago version, "mama's baby, papa's maybe"). This particular inability to know the identity of the father has in turn produced any number of purity code systems and other, often extreme, cultural measures designed to guarantee paternity and so control the smooth flow of inheritance and family line from one generation to the next. Male anxieties over female (but seldom male) virginity, the actual control of women and their physical movement or location, the marriage of young women or girls shortly after or even before pubertyall of these common cultural practices are designed to ensure paternity; that is, to guarantee that the owner of the "field," and only the owner of the field, sows his "seed" there.

Behind both of these broad cultural patterns, moreover, lies a material and political economy that understands female sexuality to be a kind of male possession in need of control and protection and capable of being traded among other male social actorshence that immense swath of cultural practices from the institutions of prostitution, in which (primarily female) sexual acts are literally bought and sold, and the multiple practices of dowry, or bride price, in which a marriage arranged by male actors is accompanied by a negotiated exchange of economic goods, to the modern Western practices of the father "giving away the bride" and the bride taking on the surname of the groom's family line. Once these two broad metaphorical discourses are in placethe male seed and both the female farm and its fruit as male sexual possessionsmuch of the traditional religious systems develop, almost logically, around them.

Much, but by no means all. In actual historical fact, the phallus and the vagina have not been restricted to procreative symbolism in the history of religions, and so the agricultural frame of reference, although indeed often central, is hardly the only one to consider. For strictly procreative purposes, the phallus may physiologically imply the vagina and vice versa, but one would be seriously mistaken to reduce all religious sexual symbolism or activity to procreative meanings and heterosexual patterns. In actual historical fact, vaginas and phalluses come to express multiple meanings in the history of religions, and many, perhaps even most, of these have little, if anything, to do with physical procreation or, for that matter, heterosexuality. Indeed, in many cases, it is some form of homosexual expression or homoerotic symbolism that is implicitly or explicitly normative. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, aggression and submission are often more primary than any literal sexual code; that is, like their primate cousins, human beings use penile and posterior displays to express both social and religious power.

In writing a dual history of the vagina and the phallus, then, it is important to learn to see these highly coded semiotic organs as physiologically related on at least two levels (via heterosexual intercourse and the sexological fact that the penis and the clitoris are biological transformations of one another), but also as quite independent and perfectly capable of multiple and diverse pairings, erotic directions, and expressive acts. As in documented human sexual behavior, the vagina of religious symbolism does not always imply the phallus, nor the phallus the vagina. With one's perspective shifted toward this kind of complementarity and independence, the history of religions becomes a remarkably dramatic expression of erotic diversity constituted by sexual expressions, repressions, aggressions, sublimations, cuts, castra-tions, and orgasmic states of altered consciousness that people have only begun to admit and identify, much less understand, analyze, and evaluate.


Much ink has been spilled discussing just what prehistoric communities knew or did not know about the details of sexual reproduction. Many writers, particularly within popular feminist circles since the 1970s, have inferred from the impressive consistency of the female genitalia and the exaggerated breasts and hips of the Paleolithic "Venus figurines" found in Europe that prehistoric peoples worshiped women as fertility goddesses and did not yet understand the role of the male and the phallus in human procreation. Beginning with Johann Jakob Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht (1861), some have even gone so far as to suggest an early matriarchal culture that preceded a later patriarchal revolution, with each successive evolutionary stage defined by a respective sexual organ; that is, the primordial vagina and the later, secondary phallus. As numerous anthropologists and historians of religions have pointed out, however, there simply is no solid evidence for any such matriarchal culture. As Cynthia Eller has powerfully pointed out, no such society is known of, anywhere or at any time; much of the Paleolithic evidence can be read in other ways, including explicitly phallic and even pornographic ways (some of the figurines and drawings do vaguely resemble sexual positions used to this day in pornographic contexts); and both the anthropological evidence and the findings of primate studies strongly suggest quite the opposite. Primate communities, for example, which cultural historians inclined toward evolutionary models would presumably identify as "older" than any human cultures, display very strong patterns of male dominance. Moreover, as Sherry Ortner has shown in a classic essay, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?," human cultures across the globe have shown a remarkably consistent tendency to analogize maleness to culture and femaleness to natureand consequently to subordinate and devalue women (see Ortner, 1996).

In any case, it remains generally true that Paleolithic art found on the European continent displays the vagina and phallus and what sometimes appear to be their symbolic equivalents, in ways that suggest strong cultural interest in, if not an overriding obsession with, these same sexual organs.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In what is arguably the definitive study of the phallus in ancient Greek culture to date, Eva Keuls has pointed out that classicists teaching Aristophanes routinely tell their students that if they cannot detect an obscenity in any particular phrase, they are probably not understanding the passage properly, and that a previous German encyclopedia entry on "Phallos," which did not even approach completeness, covered sixty-eight pages of dense columns. No culture, she suggests, has been more imbued with phallic meanings than the Greek world, even if much of modern classicist scholarship has striven mightily to subdue this truth or, more concretely, lock its painted ceramic evidence away in secret museum cabinets or behind euphemistic translations and obfuscating readings.

It seems difficult to argue with Keuls's point. This, after all, was a male culture that created an elaborate system of prostitution, legally understood women and slaves as sexual possessions, developed a pottery tradition portraying almost every sexual act imaginable (including vaginal, intercrural, anal, same-sex, pederastic, and via dildos), and encouraged pederastic sexual intercourse with the sons of each other's social peers as a means of organizing social life and its elaborate sexual-social hierarchies. They commonly and proudly displayed their genitals in publicto the amazement (and laughing ridicule) of foreignersand studded their cities with "Herms," those abstract stone representatives of the god Hermes that marked boundaries and doorwaysmuch like the Japanese Shintō phallic stones used to mark boundaries or the Yoruba phallic images of the god Legba established before every houseand boasted only two detailed characteristics: a bearded head and an erect phallus (the head and the phallus are thus iconically connected very early). Moreover, as Keuls points out, the entire Dionysiac religion, and along with it the Western origins of both tragedy and comedy, sprang out of the "systematic veneration of the male generative principle" (1985, p. 78). Nor can such historical readings be safely fended off as functions of our own modern obsessions, as if every Greek "phallic symbol" were really nothing but our own anachronistic Freudian projection. What to do, after all, with all those playful Greek representations of birds, horses, and plants that commonly sport anatomically accurate penises in place of their heads? What to do when the head or bird (compare the English "cock") is not a phallic symbol but an actual phallus? The Greek joke, it appears, is very much still Freud's.

But all was not humor. There was violence as well, real violence, hence the cultural resonance of the Amazonomachia, the "battle of the sexes" enacted between Greek males and Amazon women so obsessively dwelt on by Greek writers and artists. In pottery illustrations of these battles, the phallus is a kind of weapon, with the male swords and spears held in obviously phallic positions and aimed at women's genitals or breasts. In this same context, Keuls also sees reflected the elaborate mythologies of rape (with Zeus playing the central rapist), Attic warmongering, and the misogynistic myth of Pandora's "box": whereas the phallus is displayed and openly celebrated in myth and ritual, the vagina is mythologized here as the primordial source of all evil and suffering. The phallus too carries a real ambivalence in Greek culture and in the general history of religions, alternating consistently between the two poles of sexuality and aggression, that is, as organ of fertility, ecstasy, and life, and as weapon of anger, domination, threat, and violence.

It was Hermes's son, the half-man, half-goat shepherd Pan, who, like the Greek satyrs, was associated with natural fertility, along with Priapus, who later becomes so popular with the Romans as the god of the garden, despite (or because of) what the Greeks considered his exaggerated and quite ugly phallus (as Keuls has pointed out, the Greeks liked theirs small and dainty). It is worth noting that Pan is particularly important for the later history of religions, primarily through his morphing into the Christian devil, himself often connected, implicitly or explicitly, to sexuality, the initiatory insemination of witches, and the antinomian counter-structures of sexual magic from medieval witchcraft trials to Aleister Crowley. Not surprisingly, then, when the English poet William Blake wanted to celebrate the transgressive sacrality and poetic potency of sexuality, he did so through what he called "the voice of the Devil." That is, after all, what the religious phallus of antiquity (Hermes, Dionysius, Pan, and Priapus) had become in the Christian imagination. In the Christian demonization of sexuality and the phallus one can perhaps hear psychosexual echoes of earlier castration motifs (witches were said to collect penises) that are found in such abundance in the mythologies of the Egyptian Osiris (whose dismembered body gathered together by his wife/sister Isis lacked only the penis), the Greek Ouranos (violently castrated by his children in Hesiod's Theogony ), and the Greek and Roman Attis (the gentle lover self-castrated in sorrow for his unfaithfulness to the mother goddess Cybele).


All three Western monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) locate the origin point of their faith communities in a religious event explicitly focused on the phallusGod's covenant with Abraham that was to be "marked" or "cut" on the procreative penis. This was no tangential or accidental sign that just happened to be located on the male sexual organ, a curiously anxious choice indeed if the covenant could have just as easily been cut into the ear, nose, or forearm. No, the circumcised (literally "cut around") penis was the symbol or sign that marked a man as a member of the covenant community, and lacking such a marked penis could be quite literally deadly: God tries to kill Moses in Exodus 4:2426 for just such a lack.

Most likely originally an adult fertility ritualthought to increase male fertility by exposing the penis, rather like a pruned plantpracticed before weddings in the ancient Near Eastern world (see Eilberg-Schwartz, 1990), the symbolic act of circumcision was adopted by the Hebrew community to capture the essence of God's dual promise to them recorded in Genesis 17, the promise of land (always deeply connected to human fertility in the ancient Hebrew imagination) and offspring, who were thought to come, as seed, through this same fertile organ. Both concernsland and progenywere absolutely central to ancient Judaism, and many of its ritual practices and purity codes, and particularly those that were concerned with the acts of the phallus, were designed explicitly to ensure certain and acceptable lines of descent and inheritancethat is, how the land, wealth, and family heritage were passed on from generation to generation. Hence the overwhelming cultural preference for a male child as heir; the agricultural symbolism of the male "seed," believed to contain the essence of the person and "planted" in the passive soil of the womb, the latter owned by the male, like a farm; the horror of infertility, always, it appears, likened to barren soil and blamed on the woman; the radical sexual ploys sometimes used to ensure a proper male heir; the cultural concern over female sexual activity as a male possession to be controlled and contained; the prohibition of any sexual activity that might either confuse family lines and the smooth flow of inheritance (such as incest or adultery) or prevent the production of a male heir (such as sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman or male same-sex activity); and the law of Levi, which ruled that if a man died before producing a male heir his younger brother was required to copulate with the deceased man's widow, to ensure a proper male heir for the older brother's family line. Such a list could be expanded indefinitely, but the point is made: there is no way to understand ancient Judaism and its scriptural texts without understanding the centrality of the religious phallus and vagina, and their respective control.

The same point is only radicalized further through consideration of the biblical visionary patterns that Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has studied in God's Phallus. In ancient Israel, he points out, God is male, Israel is his bride, and therefore any male representative of that corporate bride (rabbi, prophet, priest, or visionary) is necessarily cast in what amounts to a homoerotic relationship with God:

The primary relationships in Israelite imagination were between a male God and individual male Israelites, such as Moses, the patriarchs, and the prophets. Men were encouraged to imagine themselves as married to and hence in a loving relationship with God. A homoerotic dilemma was thus generated, inadvertently and to some degree unconsciously, by the superimposition of heterosexual images on the relationship between human and divine males. (Eilberg-Schwartz, 1994, p. 99)

Hence the well-known biblical prohibition against seeing God's body, particularly his front side (that is, his exposed penis). Similar homoerotic patterns are developed further by Elliot Wolfson, who uncovers striking phallic patterns in medieval Jewish Qabbalah in such mystical tropes as the circumcised penis as organ of vision, the crowned corona/head of the qabbalist, the phallic rainbow, the ritual arousal of the divine phallus via the sexual union of the qabbalist and his wife, and the vaginal amorphousness of the shekhinah, that "speculum that does not shine." Indeed, in what certainly must count as one of the most provocative and radical of contemporary insights, Wolfson demonstrates that what the qabbalist envisions with his phallic vision through the sexual crevices of this feminine shekhinah is not the internal mysteries of the divine womb but the divine phallus hidden within and at the very top of the sefirotic pleroma. Phallic vision thus encounters the phallic pleroma within a striking homoerotic metaphysics that Wolfson has described as a kind of mystical ocular phallocentrism.

Finally, it also seems important to mention that much of ancient Jewish, and all of early Christian, understandings developed largely within cultural matrices that these religions did not create or control. That is to say, they were minority traditions within a broad cultural world defined by the regional politics of the time, in this case controlled largely by the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires. This fact had profound consequences for the early Jewish communities, and often these political differences were focused precisely on the circumcised penis, that mark or sign that so clearly distinguished a Jew from a non-Jew, and so prevented full assimilation into the broader Gentile culture. This became a particularly potent problem under Greek rule when the Greek gymnasium and its nude male social bathing (gymnos means "naked") became a source of debate among the Jewish community. Once again, it was the cut penis that marked a man as a member of the Jewish community.


These phallic identity problems were only further exacerbated with the rise of early Christianity, which originated very much as a Jewish sect but eventually split from Judaism, largely through the early Pauline rejection of the purity codes that had separated Jews from non-Jews for centuries. Foremost among Christian concerns was the central issue of whether converts to the new faith were required to be circumcised. In other words, in the early Christian communities, just as today, one of the most contentious debates involved the penis. Largely under the influence of Paul, the Jerusalem Council, as described in the Acts of the Apostles 15, determined that circumcision would not be required. The tradition thus effectively broke with its own Jewish origins and, with it, the literal requirements of physical progeny, inheritance, and land.

Such a move was both a radical break from and a development of the teachings of Jesus, at least as they were recorded in the canonical gospels. Jesus certainly never spoke of abrogating the requirements of circumcision and understood himself and his mission as thoroughly Jewish, but both his recorded acts and teachings were often aimed at a radical rejection of traditional notions of holiness defined by purity, especially sexual purity. Hence an unclean menstruating woman is cured by touching him, Jesus socializes with known prostitutes and sinners, the despised eunuch (a castrated man associated in the Mediterranean world with physical deformation, passive homosexuality, sexual license, and imperial administration) is made the model disciple of the kingdom of heaven both in Matthew and in later Christian tradition, a centurion's slave and probable male lover is healed, and, perhaps most striking of all, Jesus himself appears to have a male lover both in the Gospel of John, as Theodore Jennings has recently argued, and in an early Gnostic fragment, as Morton Smith suggested in the 1970s. Such readings, of course, are hardly universal, and other scholars have advanced counter, conservative readings that seek to question, if not deny, the sexual radicalism of the gospels, particularly with reference to homosexual practice (see especially Gagnon)but this modern debate itself is instructive, since it only underscores the fact that intense controversy, including controversy about sexual matters, was central to the gospel traditions from the very beginning.

Elements of Christian theology, moreover, can easily be read in vaginal and phallic terms. The early doctrine of the virgin birth, for example, represents a clear attempt to remove the human phallus (but, curiously, not the human vagina) entirely from the central event of Christian salvation history (the conception and birth of Jesus). This doctrine is entirely absent in Mark and John and most likely represents a transformation of an earlier illegitimacy motif, seduction or rape narrative, or biblical dual-parentage trope (with the divine inspiring or participating in the usual sexual means of procreation) (see Schaberg, 1990). As the same doctrine developed, its original focus on an inspired conception, or even virgin birth, was radicalized further to an assumption of Mary's perpetual virginity (despite surprisingly clear biblical references to Jesus' siblings) and eventually to theological speculations about a miraculously unbroken hymen. In other words, as Mariology developed, the Virgin's vagina became more and more protected from any kind of phallic penetration. This same sexual complex also had the long-range effect of helping to privilege virginity and celibacy over active sexuality as the surest mark of Christian holiness, thus essentially reversing the Jewish practice of circumcision, which focused on human fertility.

Similar patterns of elaborate sexual symbolism and extreme asceticism appear in the Gnostic communities of the first few centuries of the common era. Hence the famous "bridal chamber" ritual of the Nag Hammadi texts, the precise nature of which scholars are still divided over; the seeming obsession with "virginal" male spirits and entities; the outrageous stories of Simon Magus and his harlot-consort-goddess Helen; the radical acosmic dualisms of the texts (which seemed to have led to both ascetic and libertine practices); and the heresiological rumors of the Gnostic use of sexual fluids as sacramental substances. It also seems relevant here that the image of the "seed" (spora or sperma ) is omnipresent in the Gnostic texts, particularly within that branch scholars dub Sethian Gnosticism, with its notion of the "seed of Seth" as a kind of mystical substance that carries divinity across the generations, from Adam to Jesus to the Sethian Gnostics themselves. What we have in this latter case is essentially a cult of mystical semen that, once again, locates religious identity in the seed instead of the soil.

Such sexual themes hardly end with the Gnostics after their suppression, although they do clearly morph into other, more homoerotic, patterns. Indeed, it is a fascinating mark of later Christian mysticism, particularly in its more erotic modes that derive from the Hebrew Song of Songs and its Christian commentaries from Origen to John of the Cross, that only one man can have a functioning phallus and employ it as an organ of mystical communion: Christ himself. Every other mystic, by theological necessity (since God is overwhelmingly imagined as male), is either biologically a woman or must become one in the religious imagination. For Christian male mystics, then, a rich homoeroticism develops, disguised in the orthodox heteroerotic code of bridal mysticism. Indeed, in the context of normative Christian mysticism, male heterosexuality, at least any acted on or expressed toward the divine, is both symbolically impossible and theologically heretical (see Kripal, 2001). One, after all, would need a goddess for this, and there can be no true goddess in orthodox Christianity, at least not one who would be interested in the phallus. Every orthodox Christian mystic that chose to employ sexual language to express his or her love for God, then, was essentially seeking a divine phallus and acting within a vaginal mode. Hence Don Cupitt's mischievous observation in Mysticism and Modernity that male Christian mystical union with God "is described exactly as if it were female orgasm, by people who are not merely of the wrong sex, but not supposed to have any personal experience of such things anyway" (1998, p. 25). The French psychoanalytic and feminist category of jouissance defined as pleasure, mystical rapture, or (female) orgasmthat is so evident in the works of such thinkers as Jacques Lacan and Catherine Clément is also worth mentioning in this context.

One of the more remarkable sexual developments within Christianity occurred in Renaissance art as it grappled with the theological implications of the Incarnation, which it symbolically expressed through the penis, as against the Gnostic tendency to deny the carnal flesh and the real suffering of Christ. As Leo Steinberg puts it in his classic study of this phenomenon, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, "the genuineness of the Incarnation is put to proof in the sexual member" (1983, p. 58). Commenting on over one hundred images out of nearly a thousand available to him, Steinberg demonstrates an elaborate ostentatio genitalium or ritual "display of the genitals" through artistic renditions of women playing with the child's penis, the god-baby masturbating, the Virgin touching or pointing to her infant son's organ, the magi staring at it, the dead Christ reaching for his penis, and the risen Christ displaying a clear erection under the folds of his tunic or suggestively sitting on a bull with its horned head emerging from between his legs. Here we even see the "blood-hyphen," a concept invented by the Church Fathers and developed further by artists that linked the blood of Christ's circumcision to that of His passion: "Christ's redemptive Passion, which culminates on the cross in the blood of the sacred heart, begins in the blood of the penis" (1983, p. 58).

The displayed adult penis, so evident in the work of Michelangelo, for example, is also a sign of redemption here, for if the sin of Adam resulted in the shame of the genitals (pudendum was a traditional term for the female genitals and meant literally "to be ashamed of"), then Christ's redemption must have removed that same shame and returned humanity to the sexual innocence before the fall. Unlike the Dionysian phallus as organ of fertility, however, Christ's penis is controlled and continent, since there is no longer any need of procreation after his victory over death, the latter being, within the Christian imagination, the result of sin. The Christian phallus, then, is a symbol of anti-death, but in a different key than that of Dionysius and the Greek phallus of fertility and life.

As with classicists embarrassed by Greek ceramics and phallic texts, Christian post-Renaissance culture would become ashamed of this redemptive shamelessness and would paint or sculpt tunics over the god-man's penis or simply lock the images away. Once again, the male member could not be mentioned, much less openly depicted in public art. A certain Bowdlerism ensued, perhaps most dramatically displayed by Pope Paul IV, who "castrated" the antique statues of Rome by literally chopping off their penises.


In its various approaches to the phallus and the vagina, Islam seems much closer to Judaism than to Christianity. Its elaborate concern over ritual and sexual (particularly female) purity, its ritual treatment of menstruation as a purity and religious issue, its continued practice of circumcision, its qualified acceptance of polygamy, its overwhelming concern with law (sharīʿah) and a legal approach to religious and social life, and its general rejection of celibacy (with the important exceptions of some ūfī communities) all suggest very close connections to the ancient Jewish traditions to which the religion seems particularly indebted, even as it no doubt changed and transformed these ancient sexual and social customs for its own cultural milieus and theological purposes.

There are, however, real variations and alternative sexual traditions within Islam, as many scholars and cultural observers have noted. For example, the homoerotic patterns so evident in ancient Jewish biblical tradition and medieval Christian bridal mysticism have been studied in Islamic traditions as well, but it remains true that such phallic phenomena have been both marginal and heretical in the context of orthodox Islam. The heterosexual "seed and soil" symbolisms we noted above seem to have been far more determinative of both actual gender relations and general Islamic religious understandings of the phallus/plow and vagina/field.


Keuls's humorous point about obscene Greek texts and unseeing classicist translators carries over into Indology as well, where Sanskritists working on ancient Indian materials sometimes share the joke that any Sanskrit word can refer to at least three things: its literal meaning, some aspect of sexual intercourse, and some part of an elephant. The joke, like many jokes, is clearly an exaggeration, but also a very instructive one, pointing as it does to the omnipresent tendency of ancient Indian culture to load the meaning of words with sexual connotations long before Freud taught us to look for such things.

Unlike their orthodox Jewish or Muslim counterparts, who tended to use the phallus as a literally "cut" marker of communal and religious identity, Indian thinkers were inclined to see the phallus as transformer of consciousness and connected the profundities of sexual pleasure with religious rapture and contemplative accomplishment very early, primarily through the Sanskrit category of ānanda or "bliss," as it is usually euphemistically translated. In an important essay, "Orgasmic Rapture and Divine Ecstasy: The Semantic History of Ānanda," Patrick Olivelle has demonstrated that there exists in the ancient Sanskrit texts an "explicit and unambiguous connection between ānanda as orgasmic rapture and ānanda as the experience of brahman/ātman " (1997, p. 154). The Upaniads, for example, clearly identify the organ of ānanda as the penis: precisely as the eye is identified as the organ of sight and the ear the organ of hearing, the penis is identified as the organ of ānanda. Similarly, ānanda is equated with nocturnal experiences of divine sexual intercourse, the ejaculation of semen, and the production of male offspring. Hence Olivelle's glossing of the term as "orgasmic rapture" and the swoon of ejaculationthat petit mort that somehow participates in and signals, as a kind of sacrament, the even more extreme phenomenology of mystical ecstasy. Because Being (sat) is essentially blissful, one of the best ways to come to know it is through that preeminent organ of (male) bliss, the aroused phallus. Such meanings, however, would not survive unchallenged and were eventually ignored, suppressed, or simply lost in many of the later Indic textual traditions. In the process, male celibacy became a sine qua non of the monastic traditions that would come to control the production and interpretation of many of these same philosophical texts, including those dealing with the ānanda of brahman. Not surprisingly, ānanda as an expressed "orgasmic rapture" was no longer commonly seen as a sexual sacrament of Being.

This same profound cultural ambivalence over the phallus as both site of erotic ānanda and something to renounce is particularly evident in the mythology of Śiva, the great lord of yoga and paradigm of virile power. In Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's memorable phrase, Śiva is "the erotic ascetic" whose mythology alternates between seeming paradoxical cycles of eroticism and asceticism that never quite resolve the cultural dilemma but, in the process, express the profound metaphysical and psychological connections that appear to exist between sexual and ascetic energies. Certainly the mythological origins of Śiva's ligam, or iconic phallus, are located in some explicitly phallic behavior and in a dramatic castration. After Śiva seduces their wives, the forest sages curse his phallus and cause it to fall off. As it falls to the earth, the ligam threatens to destroy all in its flames until the forest sages promise to restore peace by worshiping it.

And indeed it is worshiped to this day in millions of shrines and stone images across India, often in the form of the liga-yoni, the dual icon of Śiva's phallus (liga ) set in the vagina or womb (yoni) of his consort-goddess. Conditioned by over two centuries of colonial criticism, imported Victorian sensibilities, and subsequent Hindu reform movements (not to mention the original and quite ancient ambivalences expressed in the origin myth of the forest sages' curse and subsequent forced worship), many might deny the sexual connotations of such popular ritual expressions, but the mythological and historical records are clear enough. Here, then, we can speak of a kind of incomplete "historical sublimation," a historical process that gradually disassociated the categories of ānanda, ligam, and yoni from the physiological organs they were originally linked to, the phallus and the vagina. Their meanings (and no doubt their experiential correlates) were progressively spiritualized into yantras or abstract geometric shapes (such as up-turned and down-turned equilateral triangles), until the latter often presupposed the renunciation or denial of the very physicality that originally created, as it were, the categories in the first placethat is, the experience of male and female intercourse, orgasm, and ejaculation.

But the repressed always returns, and the return of the repressed in Hindu and Buddhist cultures is best represented by the efflorescence of Tantric traditions starting around the sixth century ce and continuing throughout the medieval and early modern periods, up until their gradual, if ineffective, suppression during the colonial and postcolonial eras. Certainly both the vagina and the phallus were central to many Tantric traditions. Each, for example, received extensive ritual attention, both in their actual physiological forms and as abstract triangular yantras (the famous Śrīvidyā yantra ) or abstract iconic forms (the liga-yoni ). Indeed, we have at least one entire text dedicated to the worship of the vagina, the Yoni Tantra, and numerous others treating the mythology and cultural meanings of the phallus (O'Flaherty's Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic and Bhattacharya's Śaivism and the Phallic World constitute treasuries of these). Moreover, as David Gordon White has argued in Kiss of the Yoginī, early medieval Kaula Tantra appears to have been organized around the production, distribution, and oral ingestion of real sexual fluids within Tantric clans. White suggests that such sexual rituals were designed to produce semen, which was then fed to the clan goddess or yoginī through the upper or lower "mouths" (a kind of ancient upward displacement of the vagina in Tantric symbolism). Similarly, female sexual fluids, including menstrual blood, were used in elaborate ritual contexts to transfer mystical energies (śakti) from the goddess/yoginī to the yogin (Irigaray's rich meditations on the morphology of female lips, the kiss, and the one who "thinks through mucous" seem especially apt here [An Ethics, 1993, p. 110]). Moreover, in numerous medieval Siddha alchemical contexts, the "power substances" of both semen and female sexual fluids, along with any number of symbolic or chemical equivalents (especially semen as rasa /mercury and menstrual blood or sexual emissions as sulfur/mica/red arsenic), were used to transubstantiate or sublimate mundane forms of consciousness and metals into ecstatic and divine ones (see White, 1996). On a side note, such rich material should give serious pause to historians of Gnosticism who wish to read accounts of similar practices in early Christian history simply as pure heresiological rumor.

Finally, before we leave ancient India, it also seems necessary to at least mention here the Jain traditions that placed such an enormous religious weight on male nudity as a sign of asceticism and renunciation. Certainly, neither Jain iconography nor Jain theology dwelt on the swollen phallus, since sexual desire was understood to entrap one further in the karmic webs of sasāra, but it nevertheless remains true that the ritual and iconic display of the tīrthakara' s penis was and remains central to the tradition, not as a phallus per se, but as an almost casual sign of the male monk's indifference to social custom and victory over the psychological and physical webs of attachment and action (karma). Significantly, just as early Christianity broke with Judaism over the phallic question of the circumcised penis, early Jainism split into two separate traditions (the Digambaras or "sky-clad" [that is, naked] and Śvetāmbaras or "white-clad"), largely over the implicit phallic questions of ascetic (male) nudity, which of course involves the ritual display of the penis, and of the ability of women (that is, people without penises) to achieve salvation. Significantly, whereas the Śvetāmbaras defended the possibility of female salvation on the grounds that such salvation is an internal state not to be measured by the external criterion of clothes, both sects agreed that women could not practice ritual nuditythat, in other words, the vagina could not be publicly displayed like the penis (see Jaini).

Buddhist and Daoist Asia

Bernard Faure has written of what he calls the "red thread" of human sexuality that binds individuals to the family and the concerns of lineage, reproduction, and inheritance. Strikingly, whereas in Judaism and Islam the penis is cut to sacralize these lineage markers and in Brahmanism various sexual rituals are instituted for the same ends, within the Buddhist Vinaya (monastic regulations) the penis and vagina early on become veritable battlegrounds for the attempted cutting of this "red thread"even if later, within Mahāyāna and Buddhist Tantra, they become mystical organs for this same thread's intimate weaving into the very natures of enlightenment, emptiness, and nirvāa. The discourses and semiotic patterns of what might be called the Buddhist phallus and vagina, in other words, are by no means singular or simple, and there are clearly many mythological and philosophical resources (the central doctrine of śūnyatā, or emptiness, foremost among them) for the deconstruction of gender and patriarchy. Still, these discourses, at least in their more normative forms, do seem to move within what many Buddhologists have identified as a profoundly androcentric, if not actually misogynistic, structure that identifies the female body as the paradigmatic example of impermanence, disgust, and suffering (see Wilson); that sees heterosexuality as the clearest threat to the stability and sanctity of the monastic community (homosexuality is quite another matter, as it can support and even strengthen monastic ties); and that even defines Tantric transgression itself as a dominantly male domain. Hence the Chinese Buddhist debates about whether one can be enlightened as a womanthat is, as a human being possessing a vagina or, perhaps more accurately, not possessing a penis. In some cases, at least, reincarnation was invoked as the preferred means of gender switching over multiple lives, or, alternately, as an explanation for gender-bending within an individual life ("I really am a man in a woman's body").

In some very literal fashion, the boundaries of the Buddhist monastery are drawn with the vagina and the phallusby what they do, or, more precisely, do not do. Serinity Young, for example, has explored some of the gender implications of the early biographies of the Buddha and their claims that the Buddha was encased in a bejeweled box inside his mother's womb to avoid pollution; that he was born through her side instead of through the impure vaginal canal; and that his mother had to die seven days after he was born, since it is inappropriate for the mother of a Buddha to ever have sex again (we are reminded here of similar themes in early Christian Mariology and its fixation on Mary's perpetual virginity). As Faure has pointed out, although later developments would certainly bring to the fore the rhetorics of purity and pollution that were omnipresent in ancient India, Vinaya regulations generally approached the phallic penetration of the vagina and its psychophysical effects (the presence or absence of pleasure was very much part of the discourse and helped determine the act's legal ramifications), not as a dangerous loss of spiritual energy, as we find in Brahmanic Hinduism, Daoism, and later Tantrism, but as a serious breach of the social integrity of the monastic community. Indeed, the slightest insertion of the penis into the vagina, "even to a sesame seed," resulted in expulsion. The community and its boundaries are thus largely determined by the (in)actions of the sexual organs. Other sexual acts (solitary male or female masturbation, anal or oral sex, the use of dildos, etc.) were also treated in great detail but were generally not judged as harshly as heterosexual intercourse. Little wonder, then, that in Japanese Buddhist culture a punning etymology links the terms for penis (mara), obstacle (māra), and the lord of Death himself (Māra) (Faure, 1998, p. 22), or that the Buddha named his first and only son Rāhula, or "Obstacle." Here too we might consider the famous "cryptorchidy" of the Buddhathe belief that the Buddha's penis was hidden in a sheath.

Much of this would be challenged by later philosophical developments, particularly within the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna turnings of the wheel, in which radical forms of nondualism would identify nirvāa and sasāra and, consequently, the passions and awakening. Young, for example, has pointed out that during the Kushan dynasty the genitals of both male and female figures were clearly displayed in the art, and that male figures from the same period "emphasize the penis under the folds of their lower garments, even statues of the Buddha and the future Buddha Maitreya" (Young, 30). In many Tantric forms, moreover, the traditions would go even further to assert that the powerful energies of the passions are in fact necessary for awakening, or that orgasm itself is a subtle mental state compatible with reason and inducive of profound mystical states of consciousness (see Hopkins, 1998).

In China, Korea, and Japan, moreover, these developments were often synthesized with Daoist alchemical practices and symbolisms, particularly the famous yin-yang icon that was often read in sexual termswith the "stem of yang" (yang xing), or penis, representing semen, hardness, light, mountain heights, and the masculine, and the "path of yin" (yin dao), or vagina, representing the womb, softness, darkness, valley lows, and the feminine.

Sexual Symbols in "Modern Oblivion"

In his own always eloquent terms, the art historian Leo Steinberg explored the phallic dimensions of Christian theology and art "before everybody was educated into incomprehension." The result of the latter process he dubbed "modern oblivion" (1983, p. 108). Steinberg's expression connotes a certain tendency of modern thought to see sexuality as an entirely natural or biological affair and, consequently, to banish it from the sacred, or, in the reverse of the same move, to reduce all forms of religious eroticism to simple sexuality. Here a pious amnesia or prudish censorship easily beds down with modern Freudian reductionism to render a category like a resurrected erection, a ritually worshiped phallus-in-a-vagina, or an enlightening orgasm impossible, offensive, embarrassing, or, at the very least, simply in bad taste. However briefly and inadequately sketched, the comparative history of the religious vagina and phallus should make one very wary of both this embarrassment and this "modern oblivion."

It is often assumed that the act of reading sexual meanings into religious or cultural symbols originates with Freud. Indeed, the history of the religious vagina or phallus often reads like a Freudian textbook, with the hole, box, house, triangle, cave, or garden commonly evoking the vagina, and the snake, bird, head, nose, plow, pillar, thigh, spear, knife, arrow, foot, stalk, and flute all standing in for the omnipresent but not quite present phallus (one needs to be careful here, though, for there are many "reversals," such as the Indic serpent, which is often coded female).

Consider, for example, the alleged "Freudian" reading of the foot as a symbolic phallus. A modern Freudian invention? Hardly. Already in the eighteenth century, specifically erotic hermeneutics were being developed in Europe to interpret religious phenomena. Sir William Hamilton, for example, tried to visit a church near Mount Vesuvius where the faithful were bringing wax voti of the male organ to their churches for the women to kiss (for fertility?), only to learn that the local bishop had since suppressed the practice. Hamilton left the district with some of the waxen phalli, euphemistically dubbed "big toes." Similarly, Marsha Keith Schuchard notes that Richard Payne Knight's 1786 Treatise on the Worship of Priapus and Its Connexion with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients describes the phallus as the "Great Toe," that both Jewish Qabbalah and the Bible have long employed the foot as a euphemism for the phallus (the two most oft-cited biblical expressions are Isaiah 6:2, where four of the seraphim's six wings are described as covering their faces and "feet" before the divine presence, and the phrase "uncovering the feet," which functions as a euphemism for sexual intercourse), and that the foot and toe return again in the diaries of the great Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed that there was an actual pathway or nerve connecting the two protruding organs. And, it turns out, there actually is. Cognitive science has established that different body parts are mapped onto different parts of the brain, and that when a specific body part is amputated an adjacent neural system will often take over. It turns out, moreover, that the feet and the genitals occupy adjacent neural systems, and there is at least one documented case of a man with an amputated lower leg who reported immense orgasms in his phantom foot when he had sex (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). It is certainly true that Freud's psychoanalysis has helped us immeasurably to admit, come to terms with, and better understand these remarkable and remarkably ambivalent histories, but nothing could be further from the truth than the assumption that vaginal and phallic readings of religious phenomena begin (or end) with Sigmund Freud. Moreover, to the extent that psychoanalysis encourages the reading of phallic symbols in purely biological or materialistic terms, classical psychoanalytic hermeneutics can only serve to obfuscate and prevent a deeper understanding of these same religious and sexual phenomena. The Hindu ligam or yoni and the Buddhist Tantric vajra (jewel, lightning bolt, or phallus) and padma (lotus or vagina), after all, are not simply penises and vaginas; they are also mystical organs capable of radically altering human consciousness and producing non-ontological bliss. Similarly, the circumcised Jewish or Muslim penis is not an arbitrary sign on an arbitrary organ: it is a cut phallus intended to be used and so pass on, quite literally, particular religious, social, political, and economic resources. So too with the Virgin's vagina: it matters a great deal to the celibate structures of Roman Catholicism whether a human phallus ever penetrated its depths, just as it is a matter of great theological and moral import to contemporary Christians whether Jesus ever actually used his phallus (and, if so, with whom). Until we can read such classical religious phenomena and modern debates as carriers of both biological and deep religious meanings, as phenomena "both natural and mysterial," as Steinberg put it so well, we have failed to grasp their full range and have only reproduced our own modern assumptions, our own modern oblivion, be it social-scientifically or spiritually defined. To close with Steinberg again, "[t]reated as illustrations of what is already scripted," that is, as purely spiritual or as purely sexual phenomena, the religious phallus and vagina can only "withhold their secrets" (1983, p. 108).

See Also

Atum; Castration; Circumcision; Dionysos; Masculine Sacrality; Osiris; Pan; Priapus; Sexuality, overview articles; Śiva; Yoni.


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