One thing we often miss, perhaps since it has been normalised in our eyes, are gravestones and their phallic natures. I cannot speak for gravestones that exist in other parts of the world but I will comment on the gravestones I am familiar with, the ones I wander amongst. These are the western gravestones.
I would like to posit that these gravestones are nothing but a reflection of our subconscious; that these gravestones are phallic imagery.
For the human, sex is natural. Some of us might be sex-repulsed and/or lack sexual attraction but for a significant amount of the population; sex is what makes the world go round. It is a primal urge but in our modern culture, this primal urge has been suppressed by puritanism. Especially puritanism of the church which tells us that our bodies are immoral and shameful. One could argue that this shame is not placed on the penis due to the patriarchal society. And you would be correct. Instead, thanks to this patriarchal society, men and those who were assigned at birth (though they might not be men) and their bodies are considered to be inherently violent and predatory.
Men do receive more sexual leeway than women but yet still penis and the desire for it is considered shameful. One must wait until marriage for sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse is only for reproduction. And in the case of medieval sex; one is prohibited from having sexual intercourse on certain days. One must not stick their penis in between their wife’s thighs or in her bottom for the risk of death. Sex has rules. It is not for pleasure. It is not for orgasms. That was the doctrine of the past. It was nothing more but the suppression of our primal urges for the moral good (whatever that means) or to create more children to work on your fields or to gain influence by joining the military and so on.
And these primal urges are reflected in these gravestones. It is so ironic that the representation of death also represents what gives us life: reproductive organs. The penis fertilises the egg. We exist in the womb. We exit the womb. We live on Mother Earth. We die. We return into the womb (the earth). A penis is placed over our remains to symbolise that we have lived. And those who die without proper burial, in some cultures become vampires or strigoi or whatever one might want to call them. Suicide victims. Murder victims. Those who have died on the battlefield. The list of causes for that is endless, all revolving around the person’s death and how the body is treated after the death. With maltreatment and a proper return to the uterus, this body becomes reanimated at night. Unnaturally healthy with a red flush on their cheeks, lack of rigor mortis, sometimes blood in their mouth, new nails, and hair; to remove the life of other villagers; these villagers dropping dead in a manner of days. This is the vampire of folklore, of tales of old instead of the vampire one, sees on the silver screen or in fiction novels. The lack of the penis and the uterus is unnatural. It is dangerous. And these stories mirror our fears, our repressed fears.
And I would quickly like to touch on the difference between repression and suppression. One is the subconscious burial of thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The other is the intentional and deliberate burial of them; banishing them away in our brain instead of our brain having been trained to do it subconsciously. And this is where the these repressed primal urges come into play. They’re never things that are deliberately removed from the forefront of our brain. But they have to go somewhere. These thoughts have to sit somewhere, come out somehow. And come out they do.
Paleo- and Neo- lithic art
But in another time, these urges and fears were less repressed. These were from the birth of the human as a species. In a cave in South Africa, we find many fragments of ochre. Over 8,500 fragments. And on these beautiful fragments, 15 of them show evidence of engraving dating back to 77,000 years ago.
These fragments of ochre have been described as the most complex and the best evidence we have for the start of early abstract representations. Proof that the human can speak and have symbolic thoughts instead of merely drawing representational things. But some argue that these might hold meaning and that the meaning is through resemblance or through correlation. What these fragments hide but yet reveal is crucial for our understanding of both art and human cognition.
Now fast forward to 30,000 years ago we have the magnificent Hall of Bulls, the Chauvet Cave. Many of these drawings are simply beautiful and under flickering light, these overlapping animals seem to emerge from the dark. They are rendered in a twisted perspective with their bodies in profile but their horns viewed from the front.
At Abri Castanet, many claim that a limestone engraving looks like a vulva. It may or may not be a vulva but that does not really matter. But some say that is not the usual depiction of a vulva but instead a vulva with a cord coming out of it, a placenta.
But in the Hall of Bulls appears to be a figure and a bison. This bison is disembowelled, its intestines depicted outside of its body and the figure is a bird-headed human. Some might say it’s a shaman, some might say it’s an anthropomorphic bird but either way, it has a penis. From the bottom of its torso protrudes a line that may resemble an erect penis. And I would like to make this clear that it was no accident. These images were carefully plotted out before the outlines were completed and colour was added. This inclusion of a line protruded from the crotch of the bird-figure is not an accident but in my humble opinion, a penis. And even the 40,000 Lion Man, a figurine of an anthropomorphic lion appears to happen a phallus. This is of course not counting all the numerous depictions of vulva and breasts.
As soon as mankind was born, as soon as we could think abstractly; we developed the ability to make sexual art. The veneration of the archetypal Mother Goddess. The veneration of the phallus. The veneration of the womb and the vulva. As some might say, they live there ‘rent-free’. And when we force these images to squat in our mind; out of site out of mind, we still see the trash they leave around the home.
I hope this is a rather short addition to rather phallic art but one must touch on the sarcophagi of the Chachapoyas culture in the Andes, what is now present-day Peru. They were one of the many nations ruled by the Incas before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. And since this is just a brief comment, I am telling you to look into these people and their culture yourself as it is fascinating. But these sarcophagi were carefully crafted (up to 2.50m tall) and carefully placed in a ravine which was difficult to access. They were painted white, overlaid with details in yellow ochre and red pigments with visible feathered tunics and male genitalia. These statues may have male genitalia on them but they also look like penises. Why they look like penises we’ll never know. It was most likely intentional but whether it was or wasn’t still tells us something about our modern minds. We love dick.
But this example is rather an odd one out as this is not a western work of art and therefore many of the aforementioned things about suppression don’t apply due to wildly different circumstances and cultures. I just personally found these very interesting.
And then we look at the more modern art, the abstract. When I see words by Barnett Newman, think Onement I. I see a similar art to that of the days long gone. It echos that paleo- and neo- lithic art. When you approach the small art working hanging on the wall, you instantly like yourself up with its so-called “zip”. Why? Well, the zip is the human after all. Or one might notice the similarities between it and the stone age vulva.
Or when you look at his other works like Vir Heroicus Sublimis, a massive red canvas, taller than a human. It is primal emotion. It is archaic perspective. And it towers over you. Red, saturated and powerful. Newman painted these canvases in a way that would trigger the collective unconsciousness. He removed one colour from its context and then encouraged the viewer to react according to their instincts, their very core primal instincts, removing them from any societal connotations.
But these paintings are the intentional reflection of these urges. But now these urges just sit in the back of our brain, the collective unconsciousness. They are sinful. The natural body is sinful. And we have to have an outlet somehow… and this outlet is in our own art. In the things which perhaps weren’t intended to be erotic but are anyway, in the gravestones and their phallic shapes.
And just like Christ, we see these shapes. We see them in vegetables, animals, anywhere. We constantly draw these shapes. We etch them into desks at school. We paint them. We see art like the vulva and whether it is a vulva or not doesn’t really matter. Since if it does happen to be a vulva, it was an expression of the human body in early art. And if it wasn’t, it’s our subconscious doing what is essentially pattern recognition; looking for the phallus and the vulva in nature.
All this art. All these gravestones. They are all litter. All trash. All we see is trash, everywhere we look and it’s beautiful! It’s gorgeous and it’s time we met the squatter. I bet they’re rather lonely…
Sources & Further Reading
I still don’t know if I believe anything I wrote. I probably severely bastardised Jung but I don’t care since this was fun to write.