Bone Up ➤ The Reign of the Phallus

On September 1, 2016 by Josh Vandiver

 

Phallus Penis Greece Athens Men Masculinity Manliness Manhood MaleMany think of Athens as the birthplace of Western democracy, but was it actually a phallocracy, the epitome of the “reign of the phallus”? Daring and pathbreaking, such was the argument of classicist Eva Keuls. Published in 1985, Keuls’ Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens put phallocracy at the forefront of the scholarly agenda on Athenian politics.

What is the phallus? An important question to ask, as many of my readers know, if you want to understand sexual politics in the West. Certainly it is quite distinct from the penis, as I discuss in detail in Phallus vs. Penis. The two are not to be confused.

I’ll be periodically reviewing and commenting upon individual chapters, most recently chapter 2 (below).

 

Introduction

Keuls starts her book on an arresting note:

In the case of a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling, it is not inappropriate to refer to a reign of the phallus. Classical Athens was such a society. (1)

She then proceeds to define phallocracy, “a cultural system symbolized by the image of the male reproductive organ in permanent erection, the phallus”:

Furthermore, phallocracy does not allude to male dominance solely within a private sphere of sexual activity. Instead, as used in this book, the concept denotes a successful claim by a male elite to general power, buttressed by a display of the phallus less as an organ of union or of mutual pleasure than as a kind of weapon: a spear or war club, and a scepter of sovereignty. (2)

Two features are worth emphasizing here. First, phallocracy is not “private.” It is essential to public, political power. That political power is “buttressed” by phallic display of a very particular kind. As we saw in Phallus vs. Penis, the former is not the physical organ, an organ one purpose of which is the giving of pleasure and the facilitation of union. Instead, Keuls urges us to understand the phallus as weaponized and elevated into a kind of scepter of sovereignty. These are two distinct elements of the phallus which we need keep in mind.

Crucially, while phallocracy continues long beyond Greece, Keuls argues the phallus is masked and disguised in later periods in the West. The frankness of Athenian sexual politics enables us to see phallocracy in bold relief. Athenian sexual politics were stark, by Keuls accounting. Here’s how she starts the book:

In the case of a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling, it is not inappropriate to refer to a reign of the phallus. Classical Athens was such a society. (1)

We learn a great deal from studying Athens because the Athenians were more open about their phallocracy. And their openness enables us to see how phallocracy endures in modified form. After making an initial case for studying the past as a means of “sharpening our sense of the present,” Keuls lays out this point:

A second reason for studying fifth-century Athens is that, compared with patriarchal industrial societies, its phallocracy, as yet not modified by serious challenges or concealed by prudery and guilt, was severe and crass. The reaction it triggered at the end of the century was correspondingly intense and produced the first anti-militaristic and feminist manifestations on record in the West. Thus, this short span of history provides us with extremes in the realms of the military and sexual ethics which still govern our societies. Classical Athens is a kind of concave mirror in which we see our own foibles and institutions magnified and distorted. (12)

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Josh Vandiver is an American political scientist and historian, a graduate of Harvard College and Princeton University, and a visiting professor at Williams College. Based in Manhattan, he was the Lord Harlech Fellow at New College, Oxford, and taught at the University of Chicago.