News for penises: Bourdain’s Bhutan

(The title should be warning enough.)

Earlier today, I reported on Anthony Bourdain in Armenia on Parts Unknown, on this blog in “Yet another Switzerland”. Later in the series Bourdain and film director Darren Aronofsky moved on to Bhutan, in S11 E8 (first aired 6/24/18), where they encountered phalluses as a design element, almost everywhere. They also did a lot of eating and drinking, as here:


And, being in a mostly Buddhist country, reflected on their places in the universe. But this is AZBlog, where the News for Penises is a regular feature, so that’s where we’re going. Fire up those phalluses.

The geographical setting:

(#2) Up in the Himalayas, along with Tibet, Nepal, and several states of India

On the Explore Parts Unknown site, a photo essay on Bhutan’s phallic art , “In the mountainous country of Bhutan, painted depictions and wood carvings of penises abound”:

(#3) Street scene in Thimpu (the capital)

Many people consider the penises a defense against evil spirits, and the tradition of painting or carving phallic figures has its roots in a 15th-century Buddhist monk named Drukpa Kunley, who was also known as the “saint of 5,000 women.” According to legend, he offered blessings in the form of sex, and his penis was referred to as his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom.” The phallus is worn as a necklace or costume and is sometimes used as a sort of scarecrow to ward off misfortune and gossip.

From other sources, the Garden of Phallus (Wangchuk Chenmoi Dümra):


And the table of a street merchant who sells wooden penises of various types, mostly to tourists (note the rainbow-striped ones):


Note 1. From NOAD:

noun phallus (plural phalli or phalluses): [a] a penis, especially when erect (typically used with reference to male potency or dominance). [b] an image or representation of an erect penis, typically symbolizing fertility or potency.

Now virtually any noun denoted a concrete object can be used  to refer to an image or representation of that object. I have a penguin on my worktable, and close by there’s a seal, a bear, a platypus, a rainbow, a duck, a star, a dachshund, an umbrella, a frog, a face, a snail, a heart, and an elephant — oh yes, and an erect penis (which also functions as a salt or pepper shaker). No dictionary lists ‘image or representation of X’ as an alternative meaning for the nouns (seal, bear, …, penis) naming all these various Xs; these figurative uses are entirely productive.

But phallus is different: the ‘image or representation’ sense is surely much more frequent than the bodypart sense, and it serves as the basis of the adjective phallic, which refers only to images or representations and not to actual penises (for which the adjective is penile): so phallic statues, not penile statues, but penile health, not phallic health.

It’s also true that penis is much more frequent than phallus, and has been since the words came into English. No doubt this is in large part a result of two facts in combination, that penis is used more often than phallus for the bodypart and that references to the bodypart are hugely more frequent than references to images or representation.

Note 2. Visitors to places where images or representations of erect penises serve as common elements in folk art and design, as figures in folk celebrations, and the like (as in #2-4 above), are often astounded (and embarrassed) at what they see as deeply immodest displays (even Bourdain and Aronofsky were skittish about handling the items in #5 and carrying them around in public), and are inclined to think that such immodesty must run through the whole culture. But they can see for themselves that men in Bhutan, Thailand, Korea, and other places with notable phallic folk displays do not in fact go around waving their dicks in public.

The cultural signficance of phallic displays differs from place to place, though it seems alway to have its symbolic roots in power or fertility. So the symbolic penises can ward off harm, bring luck and success, avert illness, guarantee large families, spread happiness, and so on. But they’re just wood (or whatever).

One Response to “News for penises: Bourdain’s Bhutan”

  1. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky reports on the nearly iconic and ubiquitous phalluses of Bhutan, as revealed by a trip by Anthony […]

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