A Simple Word Can Open Many Doors

Plate from An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus by R. P. Knight. 1786

Plate from An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus by R. P. Knight. 1786

Today I was searching for references to the Latin word terriculum, for the sake of curiosity. The word  primarily means “means to create terror” but can also be taken to mean “scarecrow” and “bugbear.” Since the term bugbear was used as well, I think the term scarecrow in this instance means “an object of baseless fear.”  Romans did seem to have some sort of scarecrow in the sense that we understand the word. The speculation that keeps cropping up while research the word is that they copied the Greek herms statues which depict the god Priapus and used them to scare birds. Priapus was related to Venus, however, he was extremely ugly and always depicted ithyphallic. Now this brings us to the above picture. In my search for archeological images of a garden Priapus, I came across a book which is verbosely entitled  An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus. Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples: in Two Letters; One From Sir William Hamilton to Sir Joseph Banks and the Other From a Person Residing at Isernia; to Which is Added, a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its Connexion With the Mystic Theology of the Ancients, published in 1786 and authored by Richard Payne Knight. The image above has an entertaining bit of  squeamishness concerning things of a sexual nature where he writes:

A fpecimen of thefe was brought from the Ifland of ELEPHANTA, in the Cumberland man of war, and now belongs to the Mufeum of Mr. TOWNLEY. It contains general figures, in very high relief: the principal of which are a Man and Woman, in an attitude which I fhall not venture to defcribe, but only obferve, that the action, which I have fuppofed to be a fymbol of refrefhment and invigoration, is mutually applied by both to their refpective Organs of Generation, the emblems of the active and paffive powers of procreation, which mutually cherifh and invigorate each other. (81)

One has to wonder why he published such an image which obviously made him feel uncomfortable either culturally or personally. As you may have noticed, the use of the f or as it’s called, the medial s is used in place of the “s.” I always found this to be an interesting trend. The function of the medial s was that it was used in the middle of the word and the regular s we recognize today was placed at the end. Although this wasn’t as cut and dry as it would appear as some words seem to break this rule. This isn’t the only case of this mode of typography. We also see this in ancient Greek with the letter sigma Σ σ, the upper and lower case letters respectively, where the lower case σ is used in the middle of words and the letter ς is used to end words ending in s. The obvious similarities between the English letter s and Greek letter ς is quite evident.

To finish on a good note here is an image of our belovéd Priapus for your amusement, because you should know, the images of the phallus, which were ubiquitous in the Mediterranean, were depicted macrophallic or ithyphallic and were apotropaic by nature. The bottom line was that there were used to incite laughter!

Fresco showing Priapus weighing himself, House of the Vettii, Pompeii

Fresco showing Priapus weighing himself, House of the Vettii, Pompeii


Ancient Executions, Most Unpleasant [Part 2 of 3]

Scaphism. Even the word itself sounds foreign. The name comes from the Greek word σκάφη, skaphe, meaning “anything scooped (or hollowed) out”. This torture was used in ancient Persia, and it one of the most gruesome forms of ancient torture that I have come across. Unlike the brazen bull, there are no real depictions of this, so I will let Plutarch, a Greek historian who lived from 46 – 120 CE speak on the history and nature of this delightful procedure.

 “Accordingly he [Artaxerxes I king of Persia r. 465-424 BCE] ordered Mithridates to be put to death by the punishment of the boats (scaphae). [For the murder of Cryus the Younger] The nature of this form of death and punishment is as follows: Two boats being built of the same size and shape, in the one they lay the man destined for the torture, and putting the other atop of him, join the two together in such a way that his hands and feet are left outside, while the whole of the rest of his body (except the head) is imprisoned. They supply the man with food, and by prodding his eyes with sharp points force him to eat even against his will. But on his eating, they pour by way of drink into his mouth a mixture of milk and honey, and smear his face with the same. Also turning about the boat they so arrange it that his eyes are always facing the sun, and his head and face are covered every day with a host of flies that settle upon them. Moreover as he does inside the closed boats those things which men are bound of necessity to do after eating and drinking, the resulting corruption and putrefaction give birth to swarms of worms of diverse sorts, which penetrating inside his clothes, eat away his flesh. For when, after the man is dead, the upper boat is removed, his body is seen to be all gnawed away, and all about his inwards is found a multitude of these and the like insects, that grows denser every day. Subjected to this form of torture, Mithridates actually endured the agonizing existence to the seventeenth day, before he finally gave up the ghost.” – Plutarch Life of Artaxerxes

Gruesome indeed. Aside from another source Zonaras, Annals, there is not much difference in the two accounts. As I could find no images or others sources I would be greatly interested to hear some other cases of this, perhaps being used in the Roman period, or any ancient depictions of this execution. Do let me know in the comments below.

Tomorrow I will be looking at crucifixion, the most common misconception and its origins as a Roman form of capital punishment which was reserved for the lowest of criminals. While suicide or decapitation was considered the method of execution for the citizenry. Suicide in particular was the means of death used by many Romans so they would retain their property and it was not inherited by the state.

“Who Stitched For You This Bright Red Ὂλισβος?”


In the process of trying to find the appropriate word for penis in ancient Greek (for purely scholarly reasons, of course) as I knew what it was in Latin (mentula or uerpa) I embarked on a harrowing quest through the Greek lexicon known as the Liddell and Scott. I discovered rather, that the Greeks really did not have a word for it. However, they did have a word that was related. And the way that Liddell and Scott compiled it was rather secretive unless you knew both Latin and Greek.

ὄλισβος , ,

A. penis coriaceus, Cratin. 316Ar.Lys.109Fr.320.13.

Well I am sure you can figure out the cognate of the Latin word penis, but you must be a pretty savvy Latinist to know what coriaceus. Let us consult Lewis and Short:

cŏrĭăcĕus , a, um, adj. corium,

I. of leather: “naves” made of leatherAmm. 24, 3, 11.

So, the Greek word ὄλισβος is a leather penis!
Aside from the archeological evidence, there is literary evidence for the use of ὄλισβος. I will leave you with a short humorous scene from Herodas Mime 6.17-19, 58-79. Herodas wrote during the 3rd century BCE in Alexandria. The following scene involves two women Metro and Coritto discussing the procurement of dildos from a cobbler.

I beg you, don’t lie, dear Coritto: Who was the Man who stitched for you this bright red dildo? (2)
I don’t know if [Cerdon] is from Chios or Erythrae;(3) bald, small – you’d call him a right ‘Mr. Tradesman’. You’ll think you’re seeing the handiwork of Athena herself not Cerdon’s.
I – for he arrived bringing two, Metro – at the sight of them – well my eyes bulged; men can’t make their rods as rigid as this – we are alone and can be frank – and not only that, these are as soft as sleep; and the little leather straps are as soft as wool,not like leather straps at all. (4) a kinder cobbler to a woman you’ll not find – even by putting-out.
Why then did you not take the other one as well?
What didn’t I do, Metro? What sort of means of persuasion did I not apply him? Kissing him, stroking his bald head, pouring out a sweet drink for him, calling him by a pet name, giving him all by my body to enjoy. (5)
If he asked even that you ought to have given him it. (6)

Herodas Mime 6.17-19, 58-79:

Taken from Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: a Sourcebook

Marguerite Johnson, Terry Ryan © 2005 published by Routledge Press ISBN 0-415-17330-2 (Hardback) ISBN 0-415-17331-0 (Paperback)


2. They were made of red leather like the phallus worn in comedy’ (Cunningham 164)

3. She knows his name but is uncertain of his place of origin: Chios is a large island off the coast of Lydia, opposite the peninsula on which Erythrae is the major center. Cerdon reappears in Mime 7 where his trade is confirmed as a shoemaker.

4. This dildo appears either to be a strap-on device for use in tribadic sex or to have straps designed to keep it in place within her body.

5. The reluctance to offer a sexual incentive is probably due to the class barriers; sexual preference may also be a factor.

6. While sharing her friend’s preferences, Metro clearly believes the acquisition of the second one would have been worth the sacrifice.