In the erotic art from Ptolemaic Egypt, why are the proportions of the genitals so unrealistic?
Keeping in mind that such pieces were made to be deposited in tombs scholars think that the oversized genitals may represent the person's wish to be sexually potent in the afterlife. Also, this is strong symbolism for fertility, of course! Much of ancient Egyptian myth revolves around birth, death, and resurrection, the central story involves the god Osiris, who impregnated his wife, Isis, after he was dead, thus creating an heir, after the fact. And I can guess that the idea of fertility on all levels must have been so central to their culture, the crops, the livestock, the continuity of the royal line.
Just the other day, I saw some graffiti of a giant phallus (shall we say) in a subway station. Some things are universal!
I know in Pompeii they were placed everywhere as a symbol of good luck. (Not to lead you to a brothel, which is a common misconception). The idea is that a phallus makes you laugh, which wards off bad luck!
I like that idea, I guess. I might not put it into practice in my own home, though!
What's going on here?
These had a religious connotation to propagate the idea of new life, rebirth, and fertility. Much of ancient Egyptian myth revolves around birth, death, and resurrection. The idea of fertility on all levels was central to their culture, the crops, the livestock, the continuity of the royal line.
Was this meant to be funny?
This is one of several enigmatic terracotta groups centered around figures with extremely oversized phalluses. Humor may have been a factor in such sexually graphic images, but the specifics of what would have been considered funny are very difficult to reconstruct. There is strong evidence, however, for the spiritual symbolism of such oversize phalluses, whose enormous size promised enormous fertility, and could therefore represent triumph over Death.
I was drawn to the case because I just assumed it was a visual gag, but I can't figure out what's going on here.
That may have been the intended effect! The visual complexity of some Ptolemaic art reflects innovations happening in Greek art, where works of art rapidly begin to exhibit interest in the raw, physical appearance of things. Many small figurines self-consciously emphasize these ambiguous, non-ideal aspects of life, and we begin to see depictions of old age, unusual body shapes, unbridled states of mind (people asleep, or drunk), or deliberately random activities (people scratching their back, people twirling their hair). Our erotic sculpture
kind of falls squarely into that kind of taste.
This cultural shift (known as the Hellenistic period) reflects a newly globalized world made possible by Alexander the Great, who in just a couple of years around 330 BCE, made one giant empire of the known world, thrusting previously isolated civilizations into one big melting pot, Egypt among them. All of a sudden, carefully analyzing the different way others look became an unavoidable part of daily life.