Magic, Sex & Superstition: The Winged Phallus Tattoo

In January 2010, just 3 months into my PhD, I went to Paris on the first of what would be many research trips. Whilst there, I visited the anthropology department of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN) with my supervisors Dr. Mechthild Fend and Dr. Lisa O’Sullivan, specifically to see their collection of dry-preserved tattooed skins. I was not disappointed – the MNHN holds the largest collection of dry-preserved tattoos comparable with the Wellcome tattoos that I have seen to date. Historically, this collection belonged to the Musée de l’Homme, and contains 54 well-preserved specimens of tattooed human skin, dating from around the same period as the Wellcome collection. The  MNHN specimens are very similar to the tattoos that I study in my own research, in terms of both preservation techniques and iconography; unsurprising given that both collections originated in the late 19th century in France.

Whilst many of the tattoo designs in the Paris collection were familiar – circus performers, regimental crests, French phrases and slogans, busts and portraits – there were some that stood out as unique. One tattoo in particular caught my eye: A small black and red image of a winged phallus (pictured below). I was immediately struck by the absurd humour of the design, and my first impulse was to laugh out loud – a disembodied penis with wings cannot help but draw a smile, or perhaps a perplexed frown – but I was also intrigued by what was obviously a highly symbolic image. But what could its symbolic meaning be?

The winged phallus tattoo. From the collection of Dr Kermogant, c.1904. (object no. 27975). Photograph courtesy of the MNHN, Paris.

The winged phallus tattoo. From the collection of Dr Kermogant, c.1904.
(MNHN object no. 27975).
Photograph courtesy of the MNHN, Paris.

Although the tattoo is very faded, the outstretched wings and erect penis are clearly discernible; both are characteristic features in representations of the winged phallus. In this case, red ink has been used to emphasize the virility of the phallus. Whilst tattoo motifs such as this one may seem amusing, puerile or even obscene to us today, this particular motif actually has a long iconographic history embedded in religious practice and magic ritual, going at least as far back as Ancient Rome. ‘Fascinum’ as representations such as this are known, refers to the divine phallus or embodiment of the Roman god of fertility and abundance, Fascinus. Phallus effigies such as those pictured below were often worn as protection charms, particularly by young boys and soldiers, and were thought to ward off the evil eye and bring fertility to the fields and the people (see my related post on UCL Researchers in Museums for more on Roman religion and the winged phallus).

Gallo-Roman fascinum in bronze, including one example with wings. From the collection of the Musée Saint-Remi.

Gallo-Roman fascinum in bronze, including one example with wings. From the collection of the Musée Saint-Remi.

There are two striking visual elements to this motif: the addition of wings to the phallus, and its peculiar disembodiment. Both of these iconographic features have quite a specific and complex history, connected to folk belief and vernacular speech. The phallus is invariably represented as virile and erect – quite alive, despite its disembodiment. It may be thus considered a powerful symbol of masculine generative energy, rather than one of castration or emasculation. The addition of wings may seem bizarre, but in fact the penis has frequently been associated with birds in many European cultures. Much of the slang terminology we use to describe male genitalia is derived from or related to birds. ‘Cock’ has been in use since at least the early 17th century, and ‘bird’ was used to refer to the penis during the 19th century in England. In Spanish the term ‘paloma’ (pigeon or dove), the Italian ‘uccello’ (bird), and the American ‘canary’, are all terms for the penis drawn from the common names of birds. [1]

Third century Christian observers considered the celebration of pagan traditions involving the phallus, such as the coming of age festival Liberalia on the 17th of March, to be sinful, which is somewhat ironic given that the phallus was used in Roman religion as a powerful protection symbol against evil. In Europe during the late Middle Ages, the disembodied phallus became associated with witchcraft, through the belief that witches could – and did – steal penises. One anecdote recounted in the notorious 15th century demonological text Malleus Maleficarum, written by inquisitor for the Catholic church Heinrich Kramer, describes the fantastical image of a nest of living phalli:

And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who […] sometimes collect male members in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? [2]

That the phalli are said to be kept in a nest, further demonstrates the connection between the penis and birds. Interestingly, the phalli in the nest behave as though alive, and far from suggesting that witches may physically remove the penis, the subtext of this story reveals a fear of emasculation by female usurpation of male sexual power, embodied by the erect phallus.[3] Whilst the idea of using magic to ‘steal’ male genitalia may seem bizarre and far-fetched, this belief is still strongly held in parts of Africa. Mass panics caused by the alleged use of sorcery to steal or shrink the penis have been reported as recently as 2008 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Medically, this belief is referred to as koro (also known as genital retraction syndrome), and is classified as a culture-specific syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. [4]

So what did the winged phallus signify for the 19th century European man who tattooed the image above onto his body? It may be that it was worn as a talisman against harm, according to 19th century interpretations of ancient magical practices. Or it may simply be that the image of a virile, flying penis was associated with sexual prowess, and appealed to a bawdy sense of humour. Though the magical or religious symbolism of the winged phallus may no longer have significance in contemporary European culture, the image still has its appeal. Perhaps considered more comic, playful or absurd in our present context, the fascinum still appears as a popular tattoo motif, as this colourful example by US tattoo artist Rachael Davies demonstrates.

Contemporary example of the winged phallus tattoo, by tattooist Rachael Davies ofFive Star Tattoo, Louisville Kentucky, USA. Photograph courtesy of Rachael Davies.

Contemporary example of the winged phallus tattoo,
by tattooist Rachael Davies of Five Star Tattoo, Louisville Kentucky, USA.
Photograph courtesy of Rachael Davies.












© Life & 6 Months, 2012


[1] Moira Smith: ‘The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the “Malleus Maleficarum”,’ in Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan. – Apr., 2002), p.98.

[2] Henrich Kramer & Jacob Sprenger: Malleus Maleficarum, (1496), p.

[3] See Moira Smith: ‘The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor…” (2002), pp.85-117.

[4] For more on koro and culture specific syndromes see, Ivan Crozier: ‘Making Up Koro: Multiplicity, Psychiatry, Culture and Penis-Shrinking Anxieties’, in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 67 (1) (2012), pp.36-70. See also: ‘The Importance of Penis Panics to Cultural Psychiatry’ (online).

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