Penis worship is alive and well. And I don’t just mean among male rugby teams, when they delight in getting drunk, getting lairy and getting naked. Devotion to the phallus has spawned a number of cultural celebrations across the world, most notably in Peru at Chucuito, and in Japan where there are not one, but two annual penis festivals. Wow.
Valentine’s Day has landed for the year – there is no way to avoid suffocating under the (ten million) roses, drowning in the (one billion) cards that are sent, or suffering (as one in ten under-25s do) feelings of inadequacy and depression. Call me a cynic, a humbug, a loner or a loser- but there seems to be better ways to celebrate all things relationship-related…with a little bit of penis worship.
The ruins of Chucuito, Peru lie in the middle of a rather picturesque village. On the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, the town was once the primary Inca settlement of the region and capital of the whole province. Aside from its landscape of town squares, colonial churches and agricultural fields, Chucuito has more to excite the eager visitor: the Inca Uyo, the penis sculptures.
‘Japan has not just one, but two annual penis festivals’
‘Donde está penis?’ The bemused local doesn’t reply. Is it your new alpaca jumper that’s putting him off? Try again: ‘donde está penis?’ Perhaps it’s your Spanish. Turn to charades to try and ask the question. On second thoughts – is miming such a good idea here? Never mind, your new friend has interpreted your meaning and cracks out into a grin – pointing you, bizarrely, towards the Santa Domingo church. A church? ‘Non, non’ – he takes your elbow and steers you to the spot next door, into the open temple of Inca Uyo.
What appears to be a mushroom filled garden from a distance is suddenly revealed to be a series of large phallic sculptures. The awed silence is only broken by the giggles of a young lady, enthusiastically trying to straddle the largest penis available. Like a king watching over his subjects, it rises from the centre of the temple as two more stand on guard either side of the entrance.
Some of the sculptures point upwards towards the Sun God, Inti, whilst others are directed towards the ground, towards Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Some of the guides joke that the Incas were so well endowed, had they been buried on their backs with full erections, you would be unable to see the difference here. Others explain how virgins used to sit for hours on top of the phalli, in the hopes of trying to increase their fertility. Even today, there are reports of women sneaking into the garden at night to pray for pregnancy.
Some historians believe the phallus-stones are a farce – impossible Inca ruins because they would never have survived the arrival of the Spanish, and their fondness for destroying indigenous idols. Were they, then, the result of some powerful leader’s perversion? Or built as symbols of power in a civilisation governed by men? Either way, Chucuito may or may not fire up your fertility, but it will definitely make you feel quite unashamedly in awe of the male member.
10567 miles to the north-east of Chucuito is Kawasaki. The Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day, as date when women are obliged to buy gifts for men. The men reciprocate a month later on ‘White Day’, when the gifts are supposed to be white chocolate and marshmallows, yet tend rather to be, thoughtfully, presents of lingerie. Fast forward a few more weeks to the first Sunday of April and there is a rather different celebration of love, affection and harmony: the Kanamara Matsuri, or Iron Penis festival.
‘The silence is broken by the giggles of an enthusiastic young lady trying to straddle the largest penis available’
At the Wakamiya Hachimangu shrine from about 10am to 4pm, the penis dominates. Portable penis shrines are paraded down the streets, large radishes (daikon) are carved into penis shapes and carried around, and giant wooden penis sculptures are straddled for good luck.
Legend has it that the festival was originally held to celebrate the vanquishing of a sharp-fanged female demon, which had a nasty habit of biting off male genitalia.The town shrine had been built to honor the gods of iron and was used to make swords, and so one day a resourceful monk thwarted the dangerous demoness’ antics by making a huge penis out of iron. Her teeth were shattered, the private parts were saved, and the iron penis became a cause for annual celebration. The area also used to be overrun with brothels in the Edo era, and prostitutes would attend the festival to pray for protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
Whilst the festival has, to some extent, turned into a drunken, raucous celebration of all things penis-shaped, it also is an example of a free spirited rejection of prudishness and Puritanism. It is used to raise money for HIV research and AIDS charities, and the curious mix in the crowd includes childless couples praying for pregnancy (next stop: Peru), a large gay and lesbian crowd and Tokyo’s transvestite ‘new half’ community. Indeed, a couple of years ago the festival was held at the same time as a local election – and the penis beat the politics. Several candidates were winding through the revelers and trying to canvas votes on their loudspeakers – perhaps neither the publicity nor the photo opportunities they were looking for.
The Iron Penis festival may well exhaust all save the keenest penis worshippers, but Japan has another one to offer as well. This one, it seems, is taken more seriously – at least the town priest and officials intend it to be, anyway. For most of the year, Tagata Jinja, a shrine just north of Nagoya, is very quiet. It was built approximately 1500 years ago in honour of the daughter of an old feudal lord, called the kami. The smaller building of the shrine – the Shinmeisha – contains a large number of natural and man-made objects, almost all of which are shaped like a penis, and are used to worship this female deity. Most of the visitors are young couples hoping to conceive, or singletons searching for a spouse, and they come here to pray to the phalli in peace.
And then March 15th arrives – and with it come the country’s hoards, the sake drinking, the dancing…and the two and a half meter wooden phallus carried above the crowds. Hounen Matsuri is a celebration of renewal and regeneration and supposed to focus upon the female deity enshrined in Tagata. However, it is difficult not get carried away with all things phallus when there are penis shaped sweets to suck on, key chains and sculptures to carry as souvenirs, and azuki filled dumplings, schlong-shaped of course, to eat as the sake is drunk.
‘The giant wooden phallus seems to grow in size each year’
The procession is the main event of the festival, in which the giant penis is carried by 12 men between two shrines, a distance of just over a mile. A priest leads the parade, scattering salt on the path to purify the route, and is followed by standard bearers carrying a banner painted with an alarmingly detailed penis. Next come the local dignitaries in gold shawls, a group of musicians playing ancient court music, and then some purple-robed women carrying small wooden models, in you guess what shape. Behind them is a collection of Shinto priests, one of whom dresses up with a red face, large protruding nose and a shock of hair to represent the deity who led the sun goddess to earth. A sake cart excites the audience in time for the arrival of the main event – the carriage of the two portable shrines. The first is a wooden statue of Takeinadene-no-mikoto, the visiting husband of the agricultural deity, and the second is the huge wooden penis.
Each year, a new giant wooden phallus is carved from a large cypress tree, and each one seems bigger than its predecessor. Originally, it was attached to a straw effigy of a samurai warrior, yet when this was deemed too risqué, the effigy was discarded and the phallus was enlarged to one metre long and paraded by itself. Now, however, it has swelled to over double this size and weighs nearly 300 kg. No wonder both the male and female festival goers get quite excited.
So regardless of your gender, or whether you’re hetero/homo/bi/trans or metro sexual – if Valentine’s Day leaves you feeling blue, think about the cultural institution that is penis worship. This Japanese and Peruvian delight in all things phallus is rude rather than prude, cheerful rather than cheesy, and eclectic rather than erotic. In their celebration of the power of the penis, they celebrate the real love of loving.