Penetrating matters


Peanut butter and jelly. Ketchup and mustard. The eyeball and the phallus. As they used to sing on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong—or does it?

It turns out that the eyeball and the phallus turn up together quite a lot in images from 1st- and 2nd-century Rome, Shadi Bartsch, the Ann L. and Lawrence B. Buttenwieser professor of classics, informed her audience at Thursday evening’s undergraduate classics convivium. Often the phallus is attacking the eyeball: Bartsch showed a slide of a 1st-century Roman mosaic in which an eyeball is surrounded by hostile assailants such as a crow, pitchfork, snake, scorpion, and the phallus of a well-endowed dwarf. These images were placed at home entrances. In addition, upper-class Roman boys wore phallic amulets around their necks, and Roman generals returning victorious from battle had a giant phallus strapped under their chariots—all tactics to ward off the evil eye. The evil eye is penetrative, Bartsch said, so they used a “homeopathic remedy,” fighting it “with other things that penetrate.”

The ancients thought of vision as tactile, believing either in intromission, in which objects give off tiny particles that penetrate the eye, or extramission, in which the eye emits rays or “pliant sticks” that “grope” objects and transmit information back to the eye. In their “shame culture,” shame came from being looked at and judged by other people, rather than a more contemporary “guilt culture,” with its concepts of conscience and personal responsibility. The “poisoned penetration” of someone’s hostile eye, Romans believed, could make a person very sick or even kill him.

Hana Yoo, ’07

Photo: Shadi Bartsch

November 4, 2005