The Phallus on Display

Penis Tray

ICELAND IS GREEN and Greenland is ice, and although I’ve no proof that this weird fact derives from the combination of Eric the Red (who I gather named at least one of these countries) and mead (which, you know, he’d been drinking at the time), I’m submitting the explanation to Wikipedia and the Michelin guide and If that’s a website.

The above paragraph is a hyperbaric chamber I’m using to prepare you for some even weirder Icelandic weirdness, below. Take a moment, adjust and equalize, or do whatever it is that divers do to prepare. Ready?

Today our topic is the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which as the name suggests boasts a collection of two hundred and nine mammalian “penises and penile parts” – I thought the penis was a part – seal, walrus, whale, mouse, polar bear and so on. Sigurdur Hjartarson founded the museum in 1974 (“when I got a pizzle,” says he), and in 2011 his son, Hjörtur Gísli Sigurðsson, took over as curator. The museum, now forty years old, is the subject of a documentary titled The Final Member. That’s a pun, of course, and it refers to the only specimen the museum did not have but which it has now acquired: the human penis.

According to the museum’s website, “phallology is an ancient science which, until recent years, has received very little attention in Iceland, except as a borderline field of study in other academic disciplines such as history, art, psychology, literature and other artistic fields like music and ballet.” Ballet? “Allright, dancers, twenty minutes of pointe work and then it’s over to the old dobber.” I’m no expert on the Icelandic ballet, but that’s what a dance studio borderline field of study looks like. I’m also guessing the phallological component is dealt with when they’re practising for the Nutcracker.

Back to these human specimens. The website says only that “the museum has also been fortunate enough to receive legally-certified gift tokens for four specimens belonging to Homo Sapiens.” According to Alex Billington at, the “gift tokens” came from “an elderly Icelandic Casanova and an eccentric American.” Eeew, and no kidding.

Oh, the questions. Such as: why did it take the museum forty years to get a human penis? Was Mr. Hjartarson uninterested in the proper Jolson? Was there a legal crimp, or a bureaucratic blockage? Or were there no offers? Sure, we men are attached to our jerries (don’t call it a ‘specimen’!), but there are ways. You can solicit a posthumous organ donation, for example. I wondered also about those transitioning men who are keen to exchange their snorker for lady bits, but as it happens it’s not so much a swap as it is a retrofit or repurposing. The surgical procedure is called neovaginaplasty, and if you want to learn more about it you’ll need to find a completely different museum. For god’s sake don’t google it: no one in your office is going to believe you’re doing research.

David M. Friedman writes, in his book A Mind of its Own: a Cultural History of the Penis, that “from the beginnings of Western civilization the penis was more than a body part. It was an idea, a conceptual but flesh-and-blood gauge of man’s place in the world.” The papacy is definitely a man’s place, and a legend arose in medieval times that the Roman church unwittingly elected to its top office a female pope. Disguised as a man, Pope Joan deceived the cardinals until one day she gave birth while on horseback, an unequivocally unpopemanlike way to enjoy equestrianism. According to the myth, papal candidates thereafter were submitted to a test involving the sedina stercoraria. Here is a 1999 Salon article summarizing the business:

After the Pope Joan fiasco the Vatican supposedly instituted a new ritual. Potential popes had to undergo a ceremonial examination to make sure they were male. How so? By sitting on the sedina stercoraria, literally the “pierced chair” or “dung chair” (it looks like an antique commode), whereby the papal anatomical jewels hung down through a hole in the seat, and were manually verified by a cardinal selected for the task.

Being a medieval churchy type of fellow, the examiner would declare, in Latin, Duos habet et bene pendentes – meaning, he has cajones allright. Or in very very rare instances I imagine he would say “HUZZAH! – a SCABBARD!”, but in that sonorous Latin Catholic Mass way that makes you think of angels floating on clouds and Sailing to Byzantium.

Did I get that backwards? This is the curia we’re talking about: it might well have been cajones, then HUZZAH. Anyways.

The phallus is a paradox, having been across history an object both of worship and of derision. The penis is a subject of philosophical discourse and of school-yard humour, the former category represented by artistic geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and the latter by whoever painted that jasper on the overpass.

I’ve never thought of my penis as an “idea,” however. In fact I think the penis is anti-idea. On the theoretical-practice scale, the brain occupies the idea end, while the furious fescue is a hands-on sort of bloke. Friedman builds a solid case for the centrality of the penis in Western civilization – “it’s a seminal treatment,” haha, says Publishers Weekly – but the brain is doing all the difficult conceptual work while the penis is just tagging along for the attention and credit and to get lucky. What a dick.

I’ve no evidence one way or another concerning whether or not the Icelandic Phallological Museum investigates the cultural significance of the penis. I suspect however there’s more to this institution than penises on display. It seems to me the penis must have had something to say about Norse conquest (woo-hoo! I’m guessing), and conquering Norsemen likely had some strong views about the penis. Ancient Icelandic culture meant above all else booze and men on boats, for months on end, surfing a whale’s bone version of the Internet that you had to create yourself.

One remarkable thing is the number of people I’m stumbling across these days who believe that the penis is under attack. The men’s rights movement and some conservative women’s groups have taken up the defense of men, who I’m told are being emasculated by radical feminists and other modern-day liberals and progressives (oops, that should be “progressives”). Years ago the school system’s alleged feminization of boys was a popular topic. One of WordPress’ more popular bloggers is Matt Walsh, who has built up a decent-sized audience with this trope of the Penis Shrugged. I agree that we’re no longer living in the good old days of Beowulf, but golly emasculate is a strong word.

I’d say instead that complex social constructs, like masculinity, are always shifting and always under negotiation and review. As the pendulum swings in one direction, it’s certain to swing in another. To those people who say that our generation is ridiculous (yeah, we are) I say that June Cleaver put on a dress and pearls to run the vacuum. I’m conservative enough to regret the decline of grammar, and I wish more people in their thirties, of all classes, knew how to set a table and when to wear a sports jacket as against a suit or a dinner jacket. It’s too bad that the baseball cap is now the only hat the typical guy owns. (By typical I mean: “doesn’t even play baseball.”)

I’m not so conservative however that Ward Cleaver is an appealing model, much less Eric the Red. We’re living in times of rapid social change, and we’re going to get some things wrong along the way. But the creative destruction is just that: creative. Economics, technology and demographic change are taking us to places we’ve never been. Let’s face it: you can’t go back. Even if one could, I have no interest. A museum is a place where you study and thereby try to better understand not only the past but the present. A penis museum is a place where you can think Jack Handy thoughts about your handy jack. And you’ll need to, because the reality about being a man in this world is extremely complex. Fortunately you have a brain for that, and your brain should mistrust anyone who makes these things simple.

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