A Case of the Wall Willies
By R. D. Flavin

11-15-2013

     This week's must-read periodical is the fortieth anniversary issue of Fortean Times (#308, December 2013), and its exploration and exploitation of “The World of Strange Phenomena.”  It's been some years since I've followed the magazine with any regularity and I'm more amused than bemused at its continued popularity.  In the “Archaeology” section, I noticed a photograph which was captioned “Recently excavated wall willies, probably dedicated to Priapus [Gk: Πρίαπος].”  Well, 'ello guv'nor, it would seem Fortean Times is a London-based publication about the American writer of anomalous oddities and occurrences, Charles Fort (1874-1932), and “wall willies” is Brit-speak for parietal phalli or penises.  Well, however one refers to the external sexual organ of male (and certain transgender) humans, we must give credit when due and those belletristic Britons do sometimes have a unique (and occasionally) charming way with euphemisms.


Cover of Fortean Times #308 and photograph of Charles Hoy Fort.

     I first encountered Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned and Lo! as a teenager and regarded them as in the same marketing league with the Ripley's Believe It or Not! franchise, that is, grains of truth buried in a bushel of blarmy barley.  Now, these were bizarre and not easily explained phenomena, cool and creepy at the same time, but in no uncertain times were these fantastic tomes comparable to the impossible claims of Erich von Däniken and his icky extraterrestrial ilk.  They were extraordinarily bizarrely entertaining...   I once encountered a little froggy in the middle of an empty parking-lot and it perplexed the stupidity out of me for a time – that is, until I reasoned that a bird had likely captured said froggy and had inadvertently dropped it over the parking-lot.  Well, there was that, and also the several months it took me to figure out how they got the salt inside of salted unshelled peanuts...  Some roads are bumpier than others...

     By Great Caesar’s Ghost, I solemnly pledge to answer every question to the best of my abilities, solve all problems within my means, eventually purchase a pair of shoes which fit comfortably, and will forever maintain an aversion to all mysteries.  Okay, except for the infamous Freudian “What does woman want?”   Mysteries, IMO, are simply things we haven't gotten around to explaining yet..

     So, abruptly returning to the “wall willies,” Prof. Giulio Magli (University of Milan, Mathematical Physics) has recently turned his questionable archaeoastronomical interests to the significance of a pair of carved erect penises in Aosta, Italy (var. Augusta Praetoria Salassorum) and has claimed that the phalli point to the distant Alps where the sun would rise on the Winter Solstice in honor of the Roman Emperor “Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius” Augustus.  Magli was somewhat of a johnny-come-lately, as the discoveries were made by the painstaking efforts of Stella Bertarione, the official archaeologist at Aosta Valley Autonomous Region, who removed five feet and several hundred years of mud from the foundation stones of the base of the medieval re-constructed Balivi Tower (or “Tour du Baillage“).  Bertarione credits the mud with preservation as well as little tor none prudish defacement by later overzealous Catholics.  Let's have a look at the “wall willies,” shall we?

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Carved non-foundation cornerstone from Aosta, Italy with phalli ca. 23-27 BCE.

“Some authors believe that the Etruscans simply copied the orthogonal plan from the Greeks, but in any case it is reasonable to think that the Romans inherited the orthogonal layout from the Etruscans, rather than from the Greeks. In addition to the orthogonal layout however, the inspiring principle of the Roman castrum was based on the existence of two main orthogonal roads, called cardus and decumanus. Thus, in Roman towns, the orthogonal layout was actually quadripartite: at the end of the four main roads, four main gates were located, while the centres of the social and religious life (the Forum and the main temple or Capitolium, respectively) were preferably placed at (or near) the intersection of the main roads (see e.g. Rykwert 1999). To fix ideas about a Roman castrum town, we can look at Fig. 1, where, as an example, the plan of Augusta Pretoria (today’s Aosta, founded around 25 b.C.) is shown.”
From: Magli, G. 2008. “On the Orientation of Roman Towns in Italy.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 27: 63-71. His Fig. 1, shown below appears to be somewhat oriented southwest to northeast. – the Balivi Tower was the tallest building in Augusta Praetoria Salassorum and was located at the city's northeast corner.


Fig. 1 Plan of Augusta Pretoria (Aosta) from Magli 2008, p. 8 and recent photograph of the Balivi Tower.

     So, for completeness, I'll reproduce the “wall willies” feature in full:

"Cocks at Dawn"
From Fortean Times #308; feature edited by Paul Sieveking.

Archaeologists excavating around the base of the Balivi Tower in Aosta, northwest Italy, found a cornerstone, which would have been clearly visible until covered with alluvial deposits during the Middle Ages. The 2,000-year old stone, still in its original position on the southeast corner of the tower, has carvings depicting two phalli among other images, including a plough and spade, plus an indistinct carving that appears to be the sign for Capricorn.

The settlement that became Aosta was captured from the Salassi people in 25 BC, and has several monuments to the roman Emperor Augustus. 'The newly discovered stone tells even more about Aosta's connection with the Roman Emperor, Giulio Magni, professor of archaeoastronomy at Milan's Polytechnic University, told Discovery News. “It reveals the city was built under Augustus's sign during the Winter Solstice.”

Magli, (an occasional contributor to Time & Mind) argues that the plough and spade relate to the ceremonial trench (the Sulcus primigenius) ploughed to Mark the boundary of a new, Roman-founded town at the location. The phalli probably represented the god Priapus and served as apotropaic symbols. According to Magli's calculations, which divided the jagged Alpine skyline, the tips of the two phalli point to the position of the Winter Solstice sunrise. Furthermore, Magli states, back at that time the Winter Solstice was hosted by Capricorn. Although Augustus's sign was Libra, he chose Capricorn as his emblem because it was the sign of his conception [Discovery News 3 Oct 2013].

     While over the years, Magli has offered many publications on his archaeoastronimical interests (and “Starting from the academic year 2007-2008 he teaches the unique official course on Archaeoastronomy ever established in an Italian University, devoted to the II level M.A. degree students in Civil Architecture), his comments on the Aosta phalli are vague and incomplete. Maybe he's fine with the archaeoastronomy of Giza, Sardinina, and Machu Picchu, but his approach to the Aosta mentulas is devoid of ...fun.

     Beginning with Augustus, his tyrannical autocratic power was in full force well before he assumed his imperatorial command in 27 BCE, though somewhat serendipitously before that, Augustus played an endearing role to the new townsfolk of Augusta Pretoria.  While infamously known for his shrewdness, he was also said to have tossed coins to the masses from time to time.  One Augustan degree that thrilled the commoners was the extension of the festival of Saturnalia, which before the Julian Calendar reform was celebrated on December 15th, and then subsequently moved to December 17th.  Well, Augustus would have none of that confusion and enacted a special three day observance (later Caligula would extend it to five).  Saturnalia was by accounts (i.e., Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.10.23) a grand time of gift-giving, gaming and gambling, and much fun for all.  Now, Saturnalia was a joyous precursor to the solemn Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”), that is, some hundreds of years after the construction of Augusta Pretoria.  Ancient Roman calendars were an odd assortment of pridie Kalends, Nones, and Ides, and between Saturnalia and the first of Ianuarius, when consuls took their offices and much other legal business was attended to, there were but three minor celebrations (Opalia - Dec. 19; Divalia - Dec. 21; Larentalia - Dec. 23), but no record of an acknowledgement of the Winter Solstice, that is, until Mithraism became all the rage in 274 CE.  Usually Winter Solstice celebrations are marked with visible solar and shadow alignments, though such would have been most difficult near ground-level Aosta surrounded by the Alps.  But, enough about the shortest day of the year, let's get back to the “wall willies.”

     The guess that the carved stone memba virile are somehow associated with the Greek fertility god, Priapus, is dilettantish and ignores alternatives.  Priapus is always depicted full-figured and sporting a sizable erect, though impotent, phallus.  Originally an Asia-Minor cult, the fascination spread to Greece and then Rome, where the Emperor Augustus had a series of coins minted with his portrait on one side and Priapus on the reverse.  I've always wondered at the god's popularity – maybe impotency was highly regarded in some circles.

                          MYSIA, Lampsacus. Augustus with Priapus. 27 BC-14 CE. From the R. D. Frederick Collection.

     Avoiding overt obscenity, pornography has always been ...around.  All proto- and historical periods, especially Classical Greece and Rome had more lewd art and indecent graffiti than any men's locker room or garage today.  The many examples range from exquisite fine art, to simple emblematic representations, and thousands(?) of crude and primitive (though hopefully functional) paraphernalia.  Despite the (creepy) popularity of Priapus, by far the most commonplace images and items were the Mutunus Tutunus sexual-devices (i.e., dildos; see: Palmer, Robert E.A. 1974. "Mutinus Titinus: A Study in Etrusco-Roman Religion and Topography," pp. 187-206 in Roman Religion and Roman Empire: Five Essays. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.), Fascinus and his fashionable phallic effigies and amulets, and then there were the winged phalli and, of course, the quick and crude sketches of penises for ...unknown reasons.

Roman-Spanish fascinum and Roman marble relief panel depicting a winged penis ca. 1st CE.

     I'll still follow the Forteans for amusement, archaeoastronomy claims always deserve special scrutiny, and as far as “wall willies” are concerned, it remains a shame that we're two related people divided by a common language.

Recommended Reading:

Holmes, T. Rice.  1912.  "The Birthday of Augustus and the Julian Calendar."  The Classical Quarterly.  6: 73-81.

Manilius, Astronomica, ed. and trans. G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1977 (rev. ed. 1997).  Goold's introduction is an excellent overview of Greco-Roman astrology.

Keeping an eye out for sheela na gig carvings,
Rick

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