Ancient History & Civilisation

Filthy Gestures, Images, Language:
What obscene really did mean

Most of the ancient cultures around the Mediterranean strongly believed that filthy words, naughty gestures, and what we might consider inappropriate or obscene images, such as erect phalluses, were necessary and effective to chase away bad luck, ill omens, ghosts, vampires, malign spirits, and the terrifying evil eye.

Despite their brio for life and their outgoing ways, long-ago Romans and Greeks had numerous fears, many of them starkly real: wars, wounds, rabid dogs, crop failures, plagues, piracy, and the obscenely high mortality rates of mothers and babies in childbirth.

Therefore, much of what we see today at archaeological sites, as museum artifacts, and in ancient art must be looked at through the prism of its period’s own value system. Objects, words, and gestures that had apotro-paic powers to ward off bad luck and evil eyes were valued. And they were produced in glorious quantities. The existing art alone, from paintings, murals, and mosaics to bronzes, marble sculptures, and protective amulets, fills museum displays and overflows into storerooms worldwide.

The Egyptian had similar beliefs, especially in times of great vulnerability. One of the objects they routinely produced to protect mothers and new infants was a throwing stick made of hippo ivory and carved with the images of Bes and Taweret, the deities associated with childbirth.

Women’s jewelry and belts often included the decorative knot of Hercules on them, another apotropaic symbol. Greek and Roman brides wore the knot of Hercules on their marriage day, and their new husbands got to untie it on the wedding night. In both cultures, dirty jokes, scatological songs, and humorous sexual language were also protective parts of the wedding celebrations.

During childhood, Roman girls and boys did not go anywhere without their bullas, round or half-moon-shaped pendants of gold or leather worn for protection against spells or malignant glances. The young were thought to be particularly vulnerable to such things; babies, for example, from birth wore amulets and used teething rings of pink coral, carved in the shape of a phallus.

Moreover, if children (or brides, for that matter) were complimented, the remarks would be quickly dismissed and a protective gesture made, sometimes involving spit. In daily life, and throughout their waking hours, men and women routinely used obscene words while making warding-off gestures. Typical gestures included the mano fico (the “fig hand,” imitating the female genitals), the corna or horns, and that still-perennial favorite, the digitus impudicus—the middle finger.

A large number of annual festivals in Italy, Greece, and elsewhere reinforced these homely personal methods of protection against malice, evil eye, and bad luck. One such festival celebrated the fertility god Liber, who boasted an important cult following in Rome. During his March festival, protective phallus displays were everywhere—stationed at crossroads, lugged around in carts throughout the countryside, and in the city itself. In Many-Splendored some parts of Italy, Liber got a month-long observance, during which artificial phalluses big and small were publicly paraded and obscenities ritually uttered. Each March also, the festival of Anna Perenna, the goddess who personified the year, took place. While sacrifices were made to her, naughty songs were traditionally sung with gusto by young girls.

The quantity, variety, ubiquity, and geographic reach of such apotropaic festivals, with open sexuality in the form of phallic display and lots of sexual jokes and obscenities, apparently did much to soothe ancient fears about such dangers.

Like that of some of the biggest businesses in the United States today, the Greco-Roman philosophy was: You can never have too much insurance. For additional protection from the evil eye and other ills, phallic symbols were painted on walls, posted over business doorways, erected at street corners, embedded in roadways, posted at doors, planted in gardens, worn as jewelry, and carried as amulets. These long-ago measures still have potency among some Mediterranean populations. If you spend any time in Greece or Turkey, you might learn that schoolgirls still pin tiny blue evil-eye deflectors to their bras, and the corner pharmacy sells similar charms next to the cold remedies.

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