A penis sheath is a supplement to the male body enclosing the glans and penis, leaving the scrotum uncovered. Sometimes the term "phallocrypt" is used as a synonym, but Peter Ucko observes that "phallocrypt" refers to dress supplements that cover both the penis and scrotum, whereas the penis sheath conforms and is attached to the penis only. Archeological evidence suggests the practice of applying a penis sheath dates to the prehistoric Near East, Minoan Crete, archaic Greece, and Roman Italy. In the early 2000s, people living in small-scale tribal societies all around the world, including Africa, the Pacific Islands, North and South America, and the Himalayas, still used penis sheaths. Isolated examples have been documented in Japan and among the Inuit and Eskimo American Indians.
Penis sheaths are constructed of a wide variety of materials, including gourds, leaves, grass, raffia, bamboo, netting, basketry, shell, cocoons, ivory, horn, metal, leather, tapa cloth, and woven cotton trade cloth, depending on the culture. The sheath is attached to the body in a variety of ways depending on the style of sheath. The sheath can be shaped to cover and adhere to the penis; it can be attached directly to the glans; or it can be fastened to the end of the foreskin. Sometimes a cord or cloth wrap is used to hold the penis sheath on or at a particular angle. The sheath might be carved, painted, and/or tasseled. It can be as small as five or six centimeters or extend up to the ear of the wearer. The sheaths are not time consuming to make. Even a carved bamboo sheath will require only thirty to forty minutes to complete. The sheath is part of a whole ensemble of dress that can range from body painting and bead necklaces to shirt and trousers.
The function of the penis sheath in any society is the subject of some debate among scholars and requires more research. What tribal men report and what ethnographers interpret can differ. However, some anthropologically sound functions of the penis sheath can be identified, such as it acting as a carrying pouch, protection, display, or a marker of age, status, or tribal identity.
Informants report that the sheath protects their genitals from the natural environment, particularly bugs and insects when sitting on the ground. Since some sheaths are open at the end, do not cover the scrotum, and are not worn by all groups in the same geographic area, physical protection is not the only function. The penis sheath and its wrappings can serve as a place to store dry tinder and tobacco. Sheaths also act as spiritual protection from evil influences that can enter body orifices, particularly through the genitals. Some scholars suggest the penis sheath functioned as a threat or dominance display in battle. As threat displays became more symbolic than practical, some societies have developed penis sheaths for different occasions, from ceremonial use to everyday wear.
In the early days of anthropology, modesty was considered a function of the sheath. This idea has fallen to the wayside because human groups vary in their ideas of what is "naked" and "shameful." For many men, wearing the penis sheath is part of their definition of being dressed appropriately for interaction with others. A comparable example is the codpiece, which was fashionable in the sixteenth century, and part of the well-dressed European man's ensemble. In any case, one can see by looking at various examples of the penis sheath that it both conceals the penis and draws attention to the genital region. The codpiece and the twenty-first century men's Speedo or thong swimming-suit function the same way. The act of revealing while concealing appears to be a panhuman use of dress in general.
The age when a boy begins wearing a penis sheath varies from society to society. In some cultures, when the boy has his first semen emission, there is a ritual donning of his first sheath. In other cultures, the first sheathing is part of the process of coming of age from youth to adult. Throughout life, a change in style of sheath may mark achieved status from child to warrior to husband to elder. For example, in A. F. Gell's study of penis sheathing in a West Sepik village spanning the border of New Guinea and West Irian, there were both secular and ritual penis sheaths called pedas used across the lifespan, and the pattern of their use is cyclic in opposition to each other. Peter J. Ucko points out that in some groups the youth wear penis sheaths at a time in their lives when virility is alluring and the elders are freed from the responsibility of this signal. By contrast, in other groups the older men wear penis sheaths and the young do not, denoting changing times. Often, the morphology of the penis sheath will differ from place to place, so the individual can be visually identified as a member of one group or another. In Gell's study, we can see that in one part of the valley, egg-shaped penis sheaths were used in the north and elongated sheaths in the south.
Even though different groups may have a general style of penis sheath unique to them, there may be little standardization within the group, allowing the individual the opportunity for aesthetic expression. Similarly, absence of a penis sheath communicates state of mind. For some groups, not wearing a penis sheath means the man is an adulterer (implying one function of the penis sheath as contraception by inconvenience), feeble minded, or in mourning and temporarily withdrawing from social life.
With a handful of exceptions, the penis sheath is exclusively a masculine symbol. It is more than a covering or a display. It is a unique form of material culture that draws one in to an understanding of the physical, social, and aesthetic life of people.
Gell, A. F. "Penis Sheathing and Ritual Status in a West Sepik Village." Man 6, no. 2 (June 1971): 165–181.
Heiser, Charles B., Jr. "The Penis Gourd of New Guinea." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 63, no. 3 (September 1973): 312–318.
Ucko, Peter J. "Penis Sheaths: A Comparative Study." Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1970): 24A–67.
Wickler, W. "Ursprung und biologische Deutung des Genital-präsentierens männlicher Primaten." Z Tierpsychol 23: 422–437.
Sandra Lee Evenson