Sexual symbolism  

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"Speak plainly, and say cu', ca', po' and fo'." --Ragionamenti (1534–36) by Pietro Aretino

“All art is erotic. The first ornament that was born, the cross, was erotic in origin. The first work of art, the first artistic act which the first artist, in order to rid himself of his surplus energy, smeared on the wall. A horizontal dash: the prone woman. A vertical dash: the man penetrating her.” --Ornament and Crime by Adolf Loos, tr. Michael Bullock

“The derisive remark was once made against psychoanalysis that the unconscious sees a penis in every convex object and a vagina or anus in every concave one. I find that this sentence well characterizes the facts.” --Sándor Ferenczi in Sex in Psychoanalysis, tr. Ernest Jones

"Pillars, obelisks, columns, monoliths and shafts have an undoubted phallic origin and as symbols of creative energy they were objects of reverential worship among all ancient races."--Life Symbols As Related To Sex Symbolism (1924) by Elizabeth E. Goldsmith

Sensuality (1891) - Franz von Stuck. The image of the serpent as phallus is left in little doubt in this painting that shows an enormous python-like creature passing between the legs of a nude woman.

Related e



Psychology has found that people, and even animals, can respond to symbols as if they were the objects they represent. Artists everywhere have used symbolic representations in stead of real sexual depictions. Many dreams have traditionally been interpreted in a sexual manner. However, it was not until the arrival of psychoanalysis that the importance of sexual symbolism was stressed full-out.



Ancient times

Agriculture and topography have been popular sources of sexual symbolism from Ancient times.

Havelock Ellis noted in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 5 (of 6) (1927) that

"for the Latins especially the whole process of human sex, as well as the male and female organs, constantly presented itself in symbols derived from agricultural and horticultural life. The testicles were beans (fabæ) and fruit or apples (poma and mala); the penis was a tree (arbor), or a stalk (thyrsus), or a root (radix), or a sickle (falx), or a ploughshare (vomer). The semen, again, was dew (ros). The labia majora or minora were wings (alæ); the vulva and vagina were a field (ager and campus), or a ploughed furrow (sulcus), or a vineyard (vinea), or a fountain (fons), while the pudendal hair was herbage (plantaria)."


Shakespeare often incorporated phallic symbols into his plays; swords and knives, for example, were phallic symbols representing the masculinity of their wielders. For example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus says to his fiancé Hippolyta "I wooed thee with my sword."


Somatopia is an 18th century literary genre which compared women to topography.

19th century research


Before psychoanalysis, works such as Life Symbols As Related To Sex Symbolism (1904) claimed that "Pillars, obelisks, columns, monoliths and shafts have an undoubted phallic origin and as symbols of creative energy they were objects of reverential worship among all ancient races" and that the cross represents "two human figures crossed."

Psychoanalytic theory

psychoanalytic theory, The_Interpretation_of_Dreams#Criticism

With the arrival of psychoanalysis, sexual symbolism became self-evident for Sigmund Freud and his followers.

In his book The Interpretation of Dreams (here cited from the A. A. Brill translation), Freud and Rank interpret the following dream of a man: "Between two stately palaces stands a little house, receding somewhat, whose doors are closed. My wife leads me a little way along the street up to the little house, and pushes in the door, and then I slip quickly and easily into the interior of a courtyard that slants obliquely upwards."

Freud's interpretation reads: "Anyone who has had experience in the translating of dreams will of course, immediately perceive that penetrating into narrow spaces, and opening locked doors, belong to the commonest sexual symbolism, and will easily find in this dream a representation of attempted coition from behind (between the two stately buttocks of the female body). The narrow slanting passage is of course the vagina."

Furthermore, Freud considered that "All elongated objects, sticks, tree-trunks, and umbrellas ... all elongated and sharp weapons, knives, daggers, and pikes, are intended to represent the male member." and that "Little cases, boxes, caskets, closets, and stoves correspond to the female part." Independent of gender he thought that "All complicated machines and apparatus in dream are very probably genitals ... many landscapes in dreams, especially with bridges or with wooded mountains, can be readily recognised as descriptions of the genitals." Concerning symbols of human sexual acts, he considered that "the symbolism of lock and key has been very gracefully employed ... Staircases, ladders, and flights of stairs, or climbing on these, either upwards or downwards, are symbolic representations of the sexual act. ... [1]

Male and female

Phallic symbolism

phallic symbolism, phallic architecture

Cylindrical, tubular forms and protrusions, such as stalks, sticks, rods, trees and towers. Also animals such as the snake, see serpent symbolism.

Yonic symbolism

yonic symbolism

Hollow and concave forms such as shells, holes, caves, tunnels, grottoes and cavities.

Sexual symbolism as euphemism

sexual euphemism

The use of euphemisms is at its highest in sexual matters. Sexual euphemisms are used to denote the sexual act or the genitalia.

A line of dialogue from Aretino's Reasonings, for example, argues for the abandonment of sexual euphemisms and sexual symbolism in literature and is in favour of calling a spade a spade:

"Speak plainly, and say cu', ca', po' and fo' [two-letter abbreviations for culo, cazzo, potta and fottere] ; otherwise thou wilt be understood by nobody, if it be not by the Sapienza Capranica, with thy rope in the ring, thy obelisk in the Coliseum, thy leak in the garden, thy key in the lock, thy pestle in the mortar, thy nightingale in the nest, thy dibble in the drill, thy syringe in the valve, thy stock in the scabbard, and the stake, crosier, parsnip, little monkey, the this, the that, the apples, the Missal leaves, the affair, the verbi gratia, the thing, the job, the story, the handle, the dart, the carrot, the root and the shit, mayst thou have it! ... I shall not say in the snout, since thou wilt walk on the tips of thy shoes. Well, say yes for yes, and no for no, or else keep it to yourself." --Aretino's Reasonings, tr. Peter Stafford.

Feminist criticism of sexual metaphors in the work of Bacon and Newton

"Feminist science critics, in particular Sandra Harding, Carolyn Merchant, and Evelyn Fox Keller, claim that misogynous sexual metaphors played an important role in the rise of modern science. The writings of Francis Bacon have been singled out as an especially egregious instance of the use of misogynous metaphors in scientific philosophy."--"In Defense of Bacon" (1995)

See also

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