A lot of cultures have enjoyed making representations of various genitals, generally in a bid to increase fertility. However, some cultures also associate genitals with being apotropaic, or warding off evil—this is due to genitals symbolizing life and pleasure, vitality and strength. This often manifests as, well, metal carvings of body parts from the bathing-suit area. If a demon was going to attack you, and was greeted with jewelry representing a vulva, you’d be safe. It makes perfect sense.
Flying Roman Penises
A metal penis amulet known as a fascinus or fascilum was a must-have accessory for young Romans, as it would ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Many of these penises got pretty ornate: models have been found complete with carved pubic hair, detailed wings and occasionally, somehow, their own smaller penises. Designs integrating clenched fists (to bring strength as well as good fortune) were also common. Fascinating—in fact, the word ‘fascinate’ is derived from these ancient Roman neck-penises.
Due to societal taboos, amulets explicitly representing vulvas are much less common than phallic ones. One ancient type, now popular in parts of South America, has a kind of two-jump system in play, an object representing a hand doing a gesture representing a vagina. Amulets featuring hands making the ‘mano fico’ or ‘mano figa’ gesture (a clenched fist with the thumb tucked in, protruding between the index and middle fingers, like the “got your nose” gesture) have been found dating from Roman times made of silver or blood coral, and are still commonly found throughout Peru and Brazil. The sign, the name of which translates to “fig hand” (fig being a euphemism for vagina), was used both to insult people and to bring good luck by warding off the evil eye, with amulets providing this second function.
Palad khik originated in India but are now largely found in Thailand, penis-shaped amulets of all shapes and sizes. While some are enormous wooden sculptures, smaller metal ones can also be found worn on cords around men’s waists alongside the real thing. Their name in Thai translates roughly as “surrogate penis”—sometimes entertainingly given as “honorary member”—and they are said to bring protection. There’s more to being protected than simply hanging the metal penis from your thigh, though, and incantations need to be periodically repeated for the honorary member to retain its power.
Khamsas usually look like a downward-facing open hand with an eye in the palm—nothing particularly private-partsy about that, surely? However, eyes have often been used as visual vaginal metaphors, and one theory of the origin of the khamsa is that it represents the vulva of Tanit, a goddess worshipped in Carthage in the fourth century BCE. This particular part of Tanit was invoked to ward off the evil eye, itself sometimes represented vaginally.
Juliet’s Right Breast
Yes, breasts aren’t genitals, fine. Verona in Italy is perhaps best known as the setting of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, something which definitely comes in handy tourism-wise. A statue of Juliet built in the courtyard of the Casa di Giulietta—a house once owned by the family that reportedly inspired the Capulets—and stood beneath a familiar-looking balcony draws thousands of visitors daily, many of who attempt to rub Juliet’s right breast in order to have good luck in love. So many have done so, in fact, that the statue is eroding in that spot. The courtyard itself was only built in the 20th century, and the statue dates from 1972. It could also be argued that Juliet was fairly unlucky in love herself, given the whole “dead at 13” thing.