One of the deepest absurdities in our culture
is the unacknowledgement of sexual symbolism - not only in everyday
life, but also in art and art history. Yet every country, every
culture, has a great and common stock of examples of phallic,
testicular, vulvular or mammary objects, since we (especially
males) are fascinated
not only by the places of pleasure in the opposite sex, but
also by our own.
penetrating psychological insights of Jung and Freud have demonstrated
that the phallus is a powerful and polyvalent symbol of power,
productivity, dynasty, violence, creativity, potency, filthiness,
lust, strength, receptitude, threat, 'The Big Stick', apotropy,
endurance, the self, etc. Jung also pointed out that universal
symbols like the phallus have a way of surfacing willy-nilly,
whether in dreams, fantasies, repugnance, or in artefacts. The
choicest example of the latter occurred in Victorian Britain.
At a time when tables were heavily draped lest anyone see their
groins, when the most savage interdictions (some still surviving)
were imposed on anything connected with natural sexual curiosity,
Victorian tables were adorned with the most outrageously phallic
salt and pepper pots. Squalid Victorian towns and cities were
crowned with phallic domes and minarets.
fear and hatred of the phallus had tended to breed phallomania
(in the form of obsession with 'indecent exposure'), phallocracy
(the priesthood) and phallocentrism. Salvador Dali wrote: 'Revulsion
is the sentinel at the door to our deepest desires'.
And so it was in Victorian times that the Irish 'Sheela-na-gigs'
suffered from the manic attentions of puritans, just as similar
carvings in England had been smashed in the time of Cromwell.
In England a higher proportion of male exhibitionists was hacked
from churches than female ones.
Phallic stone, Ballygilbert,
here to compare with a stone at Skirk in county Laois
But in Ireland, a surprising number of phallic
carvings survives. The British Isles must once have been littered
with phallic stones, pillars and carvings. Celtic society, like
all patriarchal societies, had the cult of the penis at its
core, to the extent that the human body itself was seen as a
phallic object or symbol, and the severed head on a pillar a
symbol of penis-power erected at strategic points on boundaries
and at entrances. Lug the potent male sky-god gave his name
to strategic sites still famous: Lyons, Laon, London, Leyden,
and perhaps Lucca - just as the Celts themselves gave their
name enduringly to Galicia in Spain, Galicia in Poland, Galatia-Bithynia
in Northern Anatolia, Wales, and, of course, Gaul.
on the picture for more
Male (ithyphallic) side of double figure at Caldragh graveyard,
Roman Empire incorporated many cults which celebrated male energy
- Orphic, Dionysiac and Panic. So, at one time, say near the
end of the Roman period, Britain must have had rampant penises
everywhere - from multi-phalliform lamps to marble herms (man-
sized pillars with a carved bearded head on top and an erect
penis stick out a third- to half- way up); from low-reliefs
of penises scattered -as in Pompeii and Herculaneum - apparently
at random, to large menhirs; from bronze age cult-figures of
wooden warriors with large detachable quartzite penises (quartzite
pebbles are to be found at many an Irish site, along with phalliform
ogham stones and pillars), to penis-and-vulva graffiti, to phallic
stones inside Cornish stone circles. Examples of all these have
survived in Britain, together with some carvings associated
with churches: the 'Abson
Man' crawling in megaphallic lust: for example the naked
and handsomely-endowed male swallowed by the jaws of hell on
a capital in St Peter's, Northampton; the crude ithyphallic
gargoyle (from which rainwater poured through his large, displayed
anus) from Margam
Abbey near Swansea.
Carving on roof-beam, Queniborough,
compare with an even more amazing beam-carving at Claybrooke
Parva in the same county.
on the other hand, a country which sees itself today as a centre
of Celtic tradition but which was mostly on the periphery, and
a country which did not receive all the eclectic influences
of the Roman Empire (and thus probably had fewer, or a smaller
repository of, phallic figures and monuments) is still littered
with phallic monuments, amongst which the least appreciated
are the remarkably suggestive gateposts of Ulster.
Typical Ulster gateposts - near Downpatrick,
and near Templepatrick, county Antrim.
mere entrances to fields and small laneways should have such
massive pillars is another Jungian quirk in the psychopathology
of Northern Ireland - for these cement-rendered or whitewashed
gateposts, up to a yard in diameter with glandiform, conical
caps (some quite phallic) are a conflation of two Celtic - or
perhaps indeed pre-Celtic - monuments: the phallic boundary
marker (of which the herm is a type), and the pairs of pillar-stones
which were a magical agent whereby the fertility of beasts was
ensured by driving them between such (usually phalliform or
male-and-female) stones. Pairs of pillar-stones (as opposed
to the rubble-constructed Ulster gateposts) are found elsewhere
in Ireland, in Britain, and, of course, in Europe.
Gibb's Island, county Down
click for a closer view
Farm gatepost, Maghera,
have little capstones placed or cemented on top of them (ironically
reminiscent of little crosses stuck on massive phallic menhirs
in Brittany to render them christian and 'safe', just as many
Irish phallic stones were christianised many centuries earlier),
and this may be a symbolic representation of semen, as has been
the plausible interpretation of the meander- design on the glans
of Ireland's most splendid phallic pillar, the
Stone - a stubby
granite penis some three feet high, with a Greek Key pattern
to mark the fold in the foreskin. It may have stood at a ceremonial
site of the first century BC, which was later enclosed and known
as The Rath of Feerwore ('the big men').
for a larger picture
the finest example in Ireland of an array of phallic stones
ranging from a few inches to several feet in height.
example occurs on the south flank of the Bricklieve Mountains
of Sligo, not far from the Carrowkeel-Keashcorran passage-tombs.
photograph by Martin Byrne
as "The Dagda's Stone" after a priapic Irish creator/fertility
god, and by some as "The Dagda's Dick", it surveys
a wedge-tomb and a glacial erratic rocking-stone known as "The
Stirring Rock" which was the scene of Lammas fertility-festivities
on "Bilberry Sunday" up to the beginning of the twentieth
more impressive - in miniature - is a stone behind the stump
of a Round Tower at Ardrahan in county Galway.
on the thumbnail for a larger picture
of the prehistoric stones are obviously-phallic only from one
side, but this does not diminish the impression they can make.
A fine example is at Crobane in county Down.
on the thumbnail for a larger picture
very phallic stone, not far away in the same county, is one
of a pair (see
below) - the other being flat-topped and 'female'.
more realistic is this proud example at Kilgowan in county Kildare.
photo by Tom FourWinds
Smaller phallic stones occur at holy wells and patterns and
cure-sites, and at multiple bullauns.
(artificial hemispherical hollows in rocks or boulders)
have never been fully 'explained'. It has been suggested
that they served as mortars for herbal potions. The sexual symbol
of pestle and mortar is universal - and where you find female
symbols you often find a complementary male one, and vice versa.
A fine multiple-bullaun with a small phallic stone placed in
a circular perforated stone base an be seen at Feaghna in Kerry.
Bullauns are almost always associated with christian(ised) sites,
but almost certainly predate
them. Mostly they are of the single or double type, and often
have spheroid 'turning stones' with which to effect
magic or cures, or to honour a divinity-turned-saint, by saying
a prayer while turning them. These would be no use a pestles,
and may have replaced phalloid stones which were carried off
- rather as some of the smaller cross-slabs from sacred sites
have journeyed back and forth across the Atlantic to heal dying
migrants and their descendants.
large phallic pillars occur all over Ireland, sometimes christianised:
at Tara the Lia
Fáil (Stone of Destiny) competes
for attention with a hideous and intrusive concrete effigy of
St Patrick. At another important cult site, Emáin Macha
(Navan Fort) the sacred centre was a phallic pillar of
on the picture to enlarge
Multiple bullaun, Feaghna,
in prehistoric times, free-standing holed stones (again not
satisfactorily explained or explained away) mostly have their
perforations at groin height, and of a diameter suitable for
the ritual insertion of a living penis.
on the picture for a closer view
The Hole Stone, Doagh, county Antrim
Detail of The Hole Stone
the Hole Stone at Doagh (Antrim) which relates to The Craw Stone
at Crows in Wigtownshire, across the strait in Scotland;
The Craw Stone, Crows,
stone at Layd church in the same county (now a grave marker);
stones at Aghade in Co. Carlow, Lackendarragh, Caherurlagh and
Kilquhane ("the Sinners' Stone") in Cork, Feaghmaan
West (Kerry), and cross-slab at Castledermot (Kildare). Other
perforated monuments clearly served different purposes (for
example, those with holes high up as on the cross at Carrownaff
(Donegal) and the cross-pillar at Monasterkieran on Aranmore
Perforated cross at Bonamargy Friary,
Ballycastle, county Antrim
tombs had 'kennel holes' in their door- slabs; and tomb shrines,
for example at Bovevagh and Tamlaghtard (Derry), Carrownaff
(Donegal), Saul, (Down) and Killabuonia (Kerry) have hand holes
for touching the relics of the saint, in a similar kind of sympathetic
magic to that of inserting the penis in a perforated slab to
attract or ensure fertility.
church in Wicklow a very phallic stone about three feet high
survived until recently, with a bullaun and a perforated slab
on the same site. The phallic stone has since been smashed in
typical (if latter-day) Christian insanity. Some of the holed
stones have been used in living memory to cure barrenness in
livestock or in people (by passing a garment through the hole)
- a function also enjoyed by some of the phallic pillars.
of these, with the Jungian title of 'The White Wife' at Carnalridge
in Co. Derry, used to be whitewashed every year - just as the
phallic gateposts were, and just as some other phalliform stone
in north-east Ireland continue to be painted orange in the month
of July. 'The White Wife' is phallic, but from one side looks
like a bent old woman - but it is not called
'The White Widow' or
'The White Hag'.
The White Wife, Carnalridge,
the other end of the country, at Coolineagh in Cork, an ogham
pillar is crowned with a lump of quartzite known as Caipín
Ólann (St Olann's Cap). Originally there were two
superimposed stones but because of the phallic character and
popularity of the pillar as a cure stone for barrenness, a local
priest removed them. They were soon replaced by the present
caipín (or a predecessor). Small capstones occur on the Ulster
gateposts (see above) and larger, phallic ones (some removed)
were tenoned to the tops of the carved crosses of Western Ossory.
stones are quite obviously male and female (the latter
with grooving on the top). Fine examples are at Moneyslane
Tulnacross and Sandville (Tyrone).
Both phallus and vulva occur together at Boa
where a famous 'double Hermes' torso (two back-to-back figures)
is gouged female on one side, with a phallus carved in relief
on the other. This site was evidently yet another sanctuary
of great importance, and is still a place of powerful atmosphere.
SATAN IN THE GROIN
is not until the Romanesque period (12th century) that whole
figures with realistic genitals start to appear in Ireland.
These generally represent the sin of Concupiscentia
(lust, lasciviousness, lubriciousness, licentiousness),
and one of the earliest occurs in an Irish-influenced Anglo-Saxon
manuscript now in the Vatican. In a 'Canon Table' or list of
textual concordances, a rather monkish male figure pulls his
beard and indicates his genitals, which are being attacked by
snakes, as is his moustache. He is being eternally tortured
in Hell for one or all of the sins of Lust (Irregular Motions
of the Flesh, etc.) and the snakes attack not only his genitals
but his secondary sexual characteristics.
female figures of Luxuria (the spending of wealth
on luxury) have
their expensive hairpieces and their breasts similarly attacked,
more often than their genitals. There are large numbers of male
and female exhibitionists (some depicted as committing their
sin, others as suffering for their sin, some also committing
other sins such as Drunkenness and Unnatural Acts from contortionism
to male-in-male sodomy) on Romanesque corbels and capitals,
especially in France.
not surprising, therefore, that coital and phallic carvings,
masquerading as Sin, should survive among the Romanesque and
mediæval ruins of Ireland. On a window of a twelfth-century
church at Annaghdown (Galway) a fine ithyphallic dog (symbol
of lust and abandon) can be seen.
Detail of archivolt, Annaghdown,
remarkable fifteenth-century carving now built into Kilkea Castle
(Kildare) shows a bearded and phallic-helmeted man straddling
and being gripped by an ithyphallic man in a boar mask, or a
boar-man, while being gnawed from behind by an ithyphallic quadruped
and having a bird attack his breast. This may be a unique representation
of the Temptation of St Anthony, in which the boar-figure is
reminiscent of theriomorphic or masked men on the crosses at
Castledermot in the same county.
on the picture to enlarge
Kilkea Castle, county Kildare
Lustful beasts are
a feature of Romanesque iconography, but are not usually associated
with (later) temptation scenes involving St Anthony. The Kilkea
carving may be a kind of confused palimpsest - or like some
mediæval 'Sheela-na- gigs' and male exhibitionists quite obviously
mis-copied from French or Spanish Romanesque carvings seen on
the Pilgrimage to Compostela. Such is a carving on the corbel
table at Grey Abbey (Down) which shows a male torso from behind,
displaying anus and scrotum but no penis; while from each shoulder
stares a mask or head. This is modelled on corbels at Saint-Martin-de-Sescas
(Gironde) and Sablonceaux (Charente-Maritime), both on the Pilgrim
Roads. Near to this corbel is a pure Aquitainian Romanesque
head of a sow, like the boar, a symbol of concupiscence and
Corbels at Saint-Martin-de-Sescas (left)
and Grey Abbey (right)
for a large picture of the Grey Abbey corbel
corbel from Aghalurcher (now in Fermanagh County Museum) is
quite clearly influenced by corbels and capitals at La Sauve-Majeure
in the Gironde. The Aghalurcher figure is a bearded feet-to-ears
acrobat displaying, like the Grey Abbey corbel, testicles but
same French 'school' is the window-top from Tomregon (Cavan)
which shows a bearded, torso-less figure from behind, displaying
scrotum but no penis, his long arms being pulled by monsters.
This figure has clear affinities with grotesque
the Loire Valley, notably Cunault.
Window-top (shown upside-down) from Smithstown Castle
mediæval window-top from the sixteenth century Smithstown castle
(Clare) is decorated with a curious 'spider web' design and
a well-observed penis and scrotum. This recalls similar images
of male concupiscence on corbels of churches in Western France.
A human figure carved on a gate post at Ballycloghduff (Westmeath)
brandishes a key in one hand and a huge penis with the other.
on the picture to enlarge
figure (interpreted as St Peter and equally undateable) survives
only from the waist up at Broadford in Co. Clare. Are these
palimpsests? Do they convey the message that sexual control
will provide the key to Heaven ? Or
are they more in the spirit of this sophisticated 15th century
(lampoon ?) in Angers (France) ?
their 'meaning' may range from potency to sin, and may be ambiguous
or downright obscure, phallic symbols and images are universal,
and they survive universally, whether or not they are consciously
seen as phallic. Just as an English female exhibitionist figure
was pointed out to visitors as 'the last man hanged on Hangman's
Hill', so the Smithstown Castle carving was wilfully interpreted
(turned upside down) as a mason's mallet.
people pass their remarkable and fast-disappearing gateposts
daily without consciously noticing their phallic (and fungoid)
caps. Any unrepressed person would recognise some holed stones
as patently coital in significance, and the meander design on
stylised semen, but our half-repressed, sex-obsessed culture
perversely refuses to see the obvious, the natural. The explicit
functions of these disparate carvings were certainly different,
but because we see the world in terms of obscurity, we lump
them together (as I have done) - just as the British Museum
and the Museum in Naples had their famous Special Collection
and Gabinetto Segreto in which all 'obscene' material was placed,
regardless of culture, context, function or period. Yet the
phallic symbol is timeless as well as universal: it pops up
in neon votive lamps, in Victorian pepper-pots, and in car and
motorbike design. Since the eighteenth century, however, its
recrudescence has been unconscious rather than conscious, indicating
that our culture is getting more complex in its repressions.
Ivy-clad phallic gatepost, Downpatrick,
on the picture to enlarge
An impressive pair of gateposts at Camlin
Old Church, county Antrim.
is fortunate that the middle class hypocrisy which invaded the
country from the close of the eighteenth century on, but especially
after Catholic Emancipation, did not wreak damage to the past
and the Collective Unconsciousness on the scale that earlier
occurred in England. The Stone of Feerwore (Turoe),
Fáil remain revered monuments and may well
outlive the tawdry concrete statues of St Patrick.
while old Ulster gateposts are disappearing as farm machinery
makes increasing demands, some of the more grandiose (if bungaloid)
dwellings in the North have renewed the tradition with enormous
(sometimes grotesque) modern versions.
remarkable, however, is a pair of gateposts between Malin village
and Malin Head in county Donegal, which have been brought to
my attention by Bernard Ranson. On these posts are two figures
incised into the fresh cement rendering at some time in the
late twentieth centuries. They represent a remarkable synthesis
of motifs: male and female paired standing-stones, gateposts,
male and female exhibitionists, the spirals of prehistoric and
early Christian Irish decoration, and ogam script.
for a full description of these remarkable gateposts
there is something of a renaissance in phallic gate-posts at
least in the north-east of Ireland, the picture above shows
a Victorian pair in Newtownards, county Down, which was 'bowdlerised'
by truncation when the big house was razed to make way for a
modern Nursing Home. I have 'restored' the pillar on the left
to show what the gateposts were originally like. Note that the
tradition of whitewashing phallic pillars survives even on truncated
example below is a rare rococo or ice-cream specimen near Toomebridge
in county Antrim.
am indebted to Bob Trubshaw,
for his generous moral and material help
in the creation of this web-page,
which is dedicated to the memory of
E. Estyn Evans.
gateposts also occur elsewhere, of course,
including Southern Scotland.
The example below is on the D.247 south of Rocamadour
in the département
of the Lot
is author of Early Ireland - a field guide (1980),
and co-author of Images
of Lust: sexual carvings in medieval churches
(1986, 1994, 1999).
Versions of this article were originally published in Archæology
Ireland, Vol.4, No.2, and in Mercian Mysteries, No.15, May 1993.
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the psychological power
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