The forbidden erotica of Pompeii
January 1, 2022 3:41 PM   Subscribe

A short BBC video explores a room in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples containing erotic art preserved in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It’s worth noting that not all of the body parts depicted were meant to be erotic. Some were meant to ward off the evil eye. (Possibly NSFW)

Access to the collection has been restricted at various points in history, sometimes reserved for men of “proven morality” (or, you know, those willing to bribe the staff).
posted by fruitslinger (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
That's a great video! I was lucky enough to visit in Naples in 2005 and went to this museum as I had heard about it and it seemed like a nice bonus to exploring that museum and hopefully getting out of the heat. It was a nice museum! I don't remember all the pieces shown in the video and mostly remember thinking that the items seemed clever or silly or cleversilly and some things like the artwork just very straightforward and nicely done. I had no idea at the time that this was a fairly fresh "unveiling" of these previously hidden works.
posted by amanda at 3:55 PM on January 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

Some were meant to ward off the evil eye. (Possibly NSFW)

As opposed to the truck nuts of today, which I think are supposed to attract the evil eye...
posted by eustatic at 4:55 PM on January 1, 2022 [15 favorites]

I saw the Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum 8 or so years ago. A lot of it was erotic art. And a lot of that erotic art was funny. Romans seemed to think penises were hilarious.

There was one item people were queueing to see - an erect penis, with the rear legs of a lion, serving as the top base of a wind chime. The penis with legs also had a penis between its legs. You can see it at 4:33 in the video above.

As soon as it was my turn at the front of the display, the old lady behind me (and I mean old, as in maybe in her 80s) grabbed my arm, hard, and squeezed while hissing, "You've had your turn. Now let the rest of us see it."

It was so funny I wasn't even mad. In London, the capital of queueing culture and passive-aggressivism, this old British woman was willing to lay hands on me to get a closer look at a Pompeiian penis wind chime.
posted by thecjm at 5:31 PM on January 1, 2022 [32 favorites]

The penis room is so amazing. I was there in 2016 and there was a class trip of French teenagers along with us and they were trying so very hard to be cool and not laugh and it was the funniest thing I have ever seen. I'm pretty sure my husband and I were not behaving anymore maturely than they were.
posted by supermedusa at 5:31 PM on January 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

My favorite was a lovely bronze hanging lantern of a winged penis that had a penis... With wings
posted by supermedusa at 5:33 PM on January 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

It's penises all the way down...
posted by Windopaene at 6:40 PM on January 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

We went to The Jade Museum in San Jose, Costa Rica. After walking all over we finally came to what looked like the last gallery. In one corner was a door, in front of stood two official looking guys. We assumed that must be the exit. As we walked towards the door, one of the guys opened up the door for us. It was another gallery, small, but filled with precolumbian erotic ceramics and sculptures! Quite a surprise…
posted by njohnson23 at 7:06 PM on January 1, 2022 [9 favorites]

Look, man, how do you expect to ward off the evil eye WITHOUT a penis?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:03 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

The penis with legs also had a penis between its legs.

You didn't mention the penis coming out of the back of the penis, or that the penis with a penis also appears to have a tail-penis.

It's penis all the way down.
posted by tavella at 8:29 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

how do you expect to ward off the evil eye WITHOUT a penis?
the Sheela na gig.

posted by clavdivs at 8:33 PM on January 1, 2022 [8 favorites]

Okay this video does not say NEARLY ENOUGH about penises and the evil eye and penis art! "Oh, Eyebrows, where did you learn so much about the Ancient Near East, the evil eye, and penises? Was it from a 65-year-old priest who'd never had sex?" YES, YES IT WAS.

So, the most key part is, ancient Mediterranean societies, just generally, treated men's ejaculate as holy. There are a variety of justifications for this -- one of the more popular is that it's "water," and because a lot of the ancient Mediterranean is desert or limited in water, you cannot waste water by, like, jacking off. Women's wombs wanted to STEAL MEN'S HOLY SPERM. Women were just like very generally not to be trusted, but especially because they wanted to steal your precious, precious sperms. For example, women of childbearing age -- who were (at least theoretically) menstruating -- were not allowed to stomp grapes, because the "hungry" womb would steal the fertility from the grapes, and they wouldn't turn into wine. This is true through WWII in a lot of communities, and even today you'll see wine-making communities in Italy where only men and widows are allowed to stomp grapes, for traditional reasons -- but the reason is, menstruating uteruses steal fertility from grapes/the soil/whatever they can so they can make babies. Menstruating women were often not even allowed in the rooms where agricultural tools are stored, because their hungry menstruating uteruses will steal all the fertility from the tools, so they can't sow or harvest crops.

(Conveniently, women "stop menstruating" when they stop having sex with men, because it's the precious sperm that renders the womb fertile (thanks, Aristotle!), so any woman who is widowed can be safely assumed to no longer menstruate -- and therefore can safely stomp grapes, touch agricultural tools, and so on. Similarly, in some Ancient Near Eastern societies, women were assumed not to START menstruating until they had sex, so it was SUPER-CRUCIAL that you marry your daughter off before she was 14-ish and started menstruating, because if she started before she was married, you were fucked (arranged-marriage-wise) and she was a slut, because only sperm can cause menstruation and clearly she got that sperm somewhere.)

ANYWAY, today's point is, women want to steal your fertility, and men you dislike want to insult you to steal it, and you want to prevent it. How do you prevent it? BY MAKING THE SIGN OF A PENIS! Penises are where fertility comes from, and if you can make a penis-sign at someone, they can't steal your fertility! It's super-great if you can carve a penis into the wall or buy a penis statue, like all the people in this video! But if you can't? Or if you're away from home? MAKE A PENIS SIGN WITH YOUR HAND. How? By sticking your middle finger up to be a penis, and letting your first and third fingers, curled up, look like the balls. FLIPPING THE BIRD. The Evil Eye wants your fertility, and your precious sperm, but if you flip a hand-penis at someone giving you the evil eye, you will be protected. (There are other protections that have nothing to do with the penis! The nazar is a super-important one!) But if someone insults you and you flip them off? Congrats on your Ancient Near Eastern defense against the Evil Eye, and your protection of your precious sperms against sperm-thieves who want to un-man you.

(Although, as a female-identifying person, I am always very excited to flip birds at jerks, and more excited because I know its history, and I make sure to tuck my pinky in really well. Because if you're a jerk to me? I AM STEALING YOUR FERTILITY WITH MY DUAL FINGER-PENISES THAT REPEL YOUR CURSE ONTO YOU.)

ANYWAY put penises on your wall, they make you manly.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:40 PM on January 1, 2022 [59 favorites]

ancient Mediterranean societies, just generally, treated men's ejaculate as holy.

Wait. Ancient?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:03 PM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

So, the most key part is, ancient Mediterranean societies, just generally, treated men's ejaculate as holy.

Soooo, this is really not helping my whole “ancient peoples weren’t fucking idiots, they just grew up with a different background” effort.

…buuuuuut, then again, it’s also not helping my “most people in any given era including my own aren’t fucking idiots and just grew up with a different background” effort so I guess I’m just not sure what to do here.

Time; you may think it’s a long time until Tea but that’s just peanuts compared to History.
posted by aramaic at 9:57 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

"Wait. Ancient?"

I mean, Monty Python got there because of all the Ancient Near Eastern Sperm Stuff. This is why Youthful Eyebrows got a whole undergrad degree in theology! Bird-flipping appears in literature for at least 2500 years (it's definitely in Aristophanes!), which means it must be much older.

Honestly I almost quoted Monty Python in my original comment because they really cut to the heart of the whole thing!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:11 PM on January 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

STEAL MEN'S HOLY SPERM. Women were just like very generally not to be trusted, but

Qua, modern images on the wall with text:

Mandrake:" with the old gun, and me with the belt and the ammo, feeding you Jack! Feed me, you said, and I was feeding you, Jack."

tieing up the tangent:
General Jack D. Ripper : Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue... a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I... I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake : Hmm.

General Jack D. Ripper : I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh... women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh... I do not avoid women, Mandrake.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake : No.

General Jack D. Ripper : But I... I do deny them my essence.
-Dr Strangelove.
posted by clavdivs at 10:22 PM on January 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yo, dawg, I heard you like penises…
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 5:41 AM on January 2, 2022

I was at this museum in October. It's one of the best archeological museums I've ever been to and had a fantastic display on the lives of Roman gladiators in Britain among other things. Going here after visiting Herculaneum was just amazing. We didn't make it to Pompeii so have a good reason to go back.

The secret room is remarkable for both the quantity and quality of the objects. The pandemic meant fewer people allowed in at any time so it wasn't as crowded as friends had experienced. One thing not mentioned in the video is how many of the depictions of intercourse are of rape, largely of male gods raping mortal women. There are lots of myths about that and the video alluding to it being a patriarchal society is putting it quite genteelly.

The quality of the bronzework is uniformly pretty high whereas the paintings and mosaics vary quite a lot. I'm not really sure why the discrepancy but the 2d work also came from a range of households and richer ones had better artwork. Curatorial comments throughout the museum talk about which objects are likely fakes from a later era too - apparently there was a brisk business in fake historical erotica for hundreds of years.
posted by leslies at 6:58 AM on January 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

Eyebrows - superb comment. also, thanks for the edification on the middle finger. I had no idea!
posted by bluesky43 at 7:55 AM on January 2, 2022

“In Pompeii, there was a suburban spa area near the port all decorated with 24 small paintings of sexual positions which could represent, let’s say, the offer to those who ventured into the spas.”

So like a classical Denny’s menu?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:32 AM on January 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

So like a classical Denny’s menu?

Yes, but with fewer stray hairs.
posted by PlusDistance at 8:35 AM on January 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

We visited this museum right before the pandemic, in January 2020. I think my reading about this room led me to believe you had to ask special permission to visit it. But not at this point, no.

My enduring memory is the penis at the entry with the (modern) sign that said "don't touch."

And for anyone who has the opportunity and the choice to visit Herculaneum or Pompeii, highly recommend the former as a much denser, much richer experience.
posted by fruitslinger at 9:22 AM on January 2, 2022

If you can use a penis image to ward off the evil eye, can you use an eye image to ward off the evil penis?
posted by Phanx at 9:52 AM on January 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

So like a classical Denny’s menu?

"I'll have the number 17. You know, the...special."


"..don't make me say it."

"You have to say it. It's the rules."

"*sigh* Fine...I'll have the Rooty Tooty in the Booty."
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:52 AM on January 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

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