Ancient Egypt and the Mystery of the Missing Phallus
What happened to Osiris says a lot about gods—and even more about us
By Tim Gihring, editor at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
Even by the standards of myth, Osiris’ penis went through some epic travails. One day it was there, along with the rest of Osiris’ godly self, as he ruled over Egypt. The next it was gone, as Osiris was murdered by his brother and literally dismembered — chopped into 14 pieces and scattered across the country. His wife, Isis, who was also his sister, retrieved all of the pieces except one: his penis. It had been eaten by fish in the Nile.
In a new exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, called “Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” the ultimate fate of Osiris’ private parts seems clear enough. In the absence of the original, Isis made a phallus herself, on the resurrected body of Osiris — well enough to conceive Horus, the falcon-headed heir to the kingdom. You can see her handiwork on the exquisite “corn mummy” displayed in the exhibition inside a falcon sarcophagus — the phallus was always shown in representations of Osiris lying on his back, post reconstruction.
But in another part of the show, where the walls are covered with drawings of the Osiris story, the phallus is missing. Instead, a series of wavy lines appear to emanate from the god’s genital area, like magical powers or some kind of unfortunate aroma.
In fact, Osiris’ penis was attacked once again, but this time the act was no myth. The only questions are who did it and why.
Chiseling away at history
The drawings in the show were made decades ago by a French illustrator, Bernard Lenthéric, based on original carvings in the Egyptian temple complex of Dendera, built between 125 BCE and 60 CE, during the time of Greek rule in Egypt. It’s now one of the best-preserved monuments in the country, which is not to say it’s intact. Scars from chisels are everywhere among the wall reliefs, obliterating the faces, hands, feet, and other body parts of gods and people — including phalluses. When Lenthéric drew the scene in question, of Isis (in the form of a bird) alighting on the reborn body of Osiris, he copied this damage, too.
The vandals were likely Coptic Christians, at some unknown time after the old Egyptian religion declined in the 400s but before the temple was completely buried by sand — as it was before excavation began in 1898. Christian monks may well have been living there, in the temple complex, among the gods of a religion they didn’t understand. (Even the Egyptian priests, by the end, probably no longer understood the ancient hieroglyphs.) They didn’t need to comprehend the idols to know what to do with them — God had commanded, in the old Hebrew texts, “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
The images could simply have been avoided, perhaps, but in those days it wasn’t so simple. Massive temples like the one at Dendera were still prominent features of the desert — the “souls of the landscape,” as one researcher has put it. It was best to put a stake through them. And though it seems a dull day’s work to stand atop a ladder, hammering away at phalli in a darkened chamber, the chiseling was probably a kind of invigorating ritual performance, complete with spells and sermons. Early Christians believed the images were inhabited by demons, and to destroy them was spiritual warfare — the gatherings may even have helped, as with ISIS more recently, recruit new members.
That said, the phallus was a special case. In some temples, they appear to have been systematically carved out instead of destroyed, as if to harvest them — likely as aphrodisiacs. This might have been at the end of the old religion, when the temples were in decline but still visited by the faithful, who helped themselves to the carvings. In some places, they took every godly phallus they could find, along with the phalli of mortal men, and even clothing that could have been mistaken for a phallus.
Researchers call the damage “fertility gouges” or “pilgrim’s gouges.” In effect it was castration, adding insult to Osiris’ injury. But ultimately, as in the exhibition at Mia, the damage calls even more attention to Osiris and his magical powers. If only the early Christians had known the myth of Osiris’ peripatetic phallus, that it would still be discussed more than a millennium later on a continent they didn’t know existed, they might have left well enough alone.