Inside a small wooden box on the wall at the Phallological Museum in Iceland are 15 silver penises, sculptures honoring Iceland’s 2008 Olympic silver medal-winning handball team. In Iceland, handball is a national obsession, and the players who brought back the silver are national heroes. A photograph of the team is featured above the box, and one immediately associates the position of the players with the position of the members. But, alas, there is no such fun in it, as the sculptor, Thorgerdur Sigurdardottir, daughter of the museum’s founder, Sigurdur Hjartarson, made the penises to honor the team, but the team had nothing to do with it. They didn’t pose. The sculptor sculpted, she says, from her own experience.
This is one of many fabulous displays at the world’s only museum dedicated to the penis. Located on a quiet street in the capital city, Reykjavik, not far from the Argentina Steakhouse, you are greeted at the door by large beach stones placed to look like a monstrous cock and balls. (Later, I would travel to the interior of Iceland, and gaze upon the mountain where a stone giant lives.) The museum houses a collection of over 200 mammal penises and parts, the largest of which is the sperm whale, and the smallest, the wee hamster, which requires a magnifying glass, and even then it’s not clear what you are looking at. The penis of almost every mammal in Iceland is represented, including Homo sapiens sapiens (that’s us; the latin means “wise man”), along with a number of mammal penises from other parts of the world. Some are preserved in jars of formalin, and others poke out from the wall, like the bull elephant penis, which looks like a tree-root, the skin of which is thick and rough like bark. Fascinating.
A brief history. Hjartarson, the museum’s founder, spent his boyhood on a farm where he used a bull’s pizzle as a whip to control livestock. Years later, a friend gave him a bull’s pizzle to poke fun, and soon others offered penises from other mammals. The collection grew, and after Hjartarson retired in 2004 from 37 years as a teacher and school principal, he opened his Phallological Museum in small-town Husavik in northern Iceland, a town known for whale watching. Hjartarson’s son, Hjortur Gisli Sigurdsson, took over as curator in 2011, and moved the museum to Reykjavik, where about two-thirds of Icelandic people live, and most tourists visit.
Walking through this museum is a bit like shopping in a medieval apothecary, but with better lighting. You move carefully around the edges of the rooms looking over the specimens on the walls, while behind you are dazzling displays of phalluses preserved in glass tubes, some rising to the height of a man—whale penises, of course. What you see floating in those tubes is otherworldly, often pale, bent and twisted fleshy forms. It’s like a house of alien worms. The space itself is immaculate: a clean, blue-tinged carpet, which reminded me of the sea; a tidy, kept gift shop, with my favorite item for sale, a penis cheese cutter; and a well-ordered installation of the specimens—I felt a kind of fastidiousness at work. While I was there, the blonde-haired woman from the front desk moved about the museum with an airy lightness, dusting the penises with a cloth. I detected nothing odd or overtly self-conscious about her actions. She offered a platonic smile as if she were cleaning glassware or fine crystal.
I did not meet the museum’s founder, but viewed a few photographs of him, through which one might get a sense of his character. In one, he stands commandingly, his feet shoulder-width apart, dressed in navy blue polyester pants, a matching vest over an ivory-colored, short-sleeved shirt. His face is rectangular, but not angular, soft, like his middle, a quiet looking and thoughtful man. I thought of him as a hybrid of two great American TV personalities: Mr. Green Jeans and Captain Kangaroo. In the second photograph, Hjartarson wears a burgundy button-up sweater, the kind of garment suited to old men. His face is drawn down, and he stares off into a distant foreground talking on a telephone, the handset of which is a carved wooden penis. It’s the kind of photograph that might incite laughter, but something about Hjartarson lets you know that the museum is no joke. This is a serious collection for serious study, despite the fact that many visitors wander about concealing a modest smirk behind a raised hand.
As I stood before the penises of the handball team, I overheard two young women across the way.
“Oh my god,” one of them gasped. “Is that . . . it iiizzz!”
“Is it?” the other said. “Oh my god. It’s human. And those are the balls.”
“Really,” said the first. “Man balls? I can’t believe it.”
“Oh,” the other said, flehming her lips. “I’m so glad I’m not having sex tonight. I don’t think I could.”
“I can’t look any longer,” said the first. “Let’s go.”
But they didn’t go. They lingered in silence, staring at the dick in the jar.
The dick in the jar once belonged to a 95 year-old “gentleman,” Pall Arason, who pledged to donate his parts in 1996, then died and so donated them in 2011. The museum’s collection also includes two other human specimens: the foreskin of a 40 year-old Icelander, and the testicles and epididymis of a 60 year-old Icelander. Preserved this way, the human male is not all that impressive. The old “gentleman’s” signature parts look more like a hairy blob than the kind of impressive staff you might see on a male porn star anywhere on the Internet.
Until Arason died, a human specimen was the one, and perhaps most glorious mammal penis missing from the collection. The museum was in hot pursuit, and several men wrote letters of donation (on display), each vying for the honor of being the first. One donor, American Tom Mitchell, announced he would have his cock surgically removed while he was still alive. He regards his member as a living entity separate from himself, an entity he calls “Elmo.” Once detached, Elmo, who wears a tattoo of the red, white, and blue across his head, would become the most famous dick in the world. A new Canadian documentary film, The Final Member, tells the story. When I asked Sigurdsson, the current director, if Mitchell had fulfilled his promise, he said: “No. He is still talking about having it done, but I don’t think he will go through with it.”
Despite the sad ugliness of Arason’s member in that jar, when attached and fully functional, the average human male has the biggest dick in the primate world. The gorilla averages only 1¼ inches. The orangutan: 1½ inches. The chimpanzee: 3 inches. The human male: 5 inches, on average. Why so endowed? Jared Diamond, in his fine book The Third Chimpanzee, reports that the human penis is a display feature like a peacock’s tail. Not a display feature for women, who report they are more aroused by other features like legs, shoulders, the voice, perhaps a kind smile. The penis is a display feature to impress and intimidate other men. It’s men, not women, who are obsessed with the penis, and who care a great deal about size. You need only look around the locker room to know how you rate: big man, average man, wee man. And yet, 60% of museum visitors are women.
Farther on, I found the object of my personal fascination. Arranged on a shelf behind glass, a bit slap-dash it seemed to me, I peered in at a display of bacula, or penis bones, from several marine mammals: seals mostly, and a couple walrus.
Years ago, I saw a penis bone for the first time in the hatband of a friend. Cory and his wife Sunny lived close to the earth on 40 acres passed down from his family. They had a little bit of everything: sheep, llamas, a wood-fired kiln, a wind generator, a backhoe (Cory was the best backhoe operator in the North State), a mobile sawmill, and the penis bone. Until I looked at Cory’s hat and asked, “What’s that,” I didn’t know that most mammals have a penis bone. I knew I didn’t have a penis bone. But come to find out, raccoons have a penis bone, coyotes, badgers, most carnivores, most rodents (not rabbits, for some reason), and even most bats. And the primates too, except us. And not spider monkeys. Or hyenas.
The raccoon baculum in Cory’s hat was elegant to look at, a graceful S curve, though not dramatic, perhaps more like a J, the hook of which is proximal, and the subtle swoop, distal. The baculum is not anchored at another bone, but floats in the tissue of the penis like battens in a sail. I was drawn to it right away, and I wanted one for my own hat. I settled for the rib of a fish I found on the Rio Grande, and when people asked, I lied and said it was a penis bone. I can’t get away with that anymore, but I won’t have to. You can buy a baculum from the Evolution Store. A raccoon goes for $10, and you can get a set of four (raccoon, coyote, fox, mink) for $39.
The baculum does what you think it does: it helps maintain stiffness during sex, not unlike the penile implants that help correct erectile dysfunction. I guess they work pretty well—I know a poet who has one, and uses it all the time. He refers to it affectionately as his “automatic cock.” That word “baculum” finds its root in the Latin for “cudgel” or “stick,” and even “scepter” (talk about a patriarchal world, and yet, there is a female equivalent, the clitoris bone, maybe the subject of some future essay). “Cudgel” may sound silly when thinking of these small animals, but the walrus baculum is nearly two feet long, and looks like the oaken tire knockers you find at truck stops. I stared and wondered: what would it be like to pack that thing about in your shorts?
The baculum is old, evolutionarily speaking, and the fact that humans have lost it is an interesting side-note. The human erection works by fluid hydraulics, and requires good circulation and blood pressure. A weak erection can be a sign of illness or disease, and emotional problems like excessive stress or depression. In the ancestral environment, a weak erection is a warning sign for weak genes. As the baculum can disguise this fact, without it the human male is left with his vigor on display. An advantage, certainly, to choosey females who want healthy children.
Deeper in the myth-time, you’ve probably heard the story that God made Eve from Adam’s rib. Yet, astonishingly, human males are not missing a rib. What bone are human males missing? Right. Some scholars believe that God removed Adam’s baculum to make Eve. I’m not making this up. It’s a real thing. Consider that the Hebrew word “tzela,” which has been translated as “rib” in most editions of the Bible, also means “structural support beam.” Also note, in Genesis that God closes up the wound he makes in Adam in making Eve, but there is no mark or scar along the ribs. Look out below, and you’ll find a distinct seam or suture called the “raphe” right down the middle of every man’s cock and balls.
Also from Genesis (the Robert Alter translation), when Eve is presented to Adam, he says: “This one at last, bone of my bones/and flesh of my flesh/This one shall be called Woman,/for from Man was this one taken.” The “one at last” is certainly the one woman for the one man, but it is also the one bone, which must be the baculum. What man would call a useless rib the “bone of my bones”? No one I know. Imagine sitting at a bar. A woman walks up to whom you are immediately attracted. You turn to her and say: “Would you like to have a look at the bone of my bones?” I’m nearly certain she won’t think you are talking about a rib. Giving up the baculum to create women has been a major sacrifice for men, and so far we have received little credit.
One more thing to bring this wonderful museum into focus, and then I’ll make my exit. Most travelers in Iceland will happen upon stories about “Hidden People,” elves really, in which most Icelanders believe. So, in a small room at the back of the museum, you’ll find the folklore collection. Here are the penises and parts of various fantastic creatures that wander back and forth between the world that we know and the world that we don’t know. Included is: the prick of an Icelandic elf preserved in “pure Arctic water,” a troll (Homo gigantus islandicus), a water-horse, a merman, a sea howler (a kind of sea monster), Thorgeir’s Bull (the most famous ghost in Iceland), the baculum of an enriching beach mouse (which pulls money from the sea for its owner), and the shrunken testicles of the Corpse-eating Cat of Thingmuli. Fascinating.
And yet, it’s hard to know how to “take” Iceland’s Phallological Museum. It’s a bit overwhelming, really. I walked about with my camera trying to document the madness of it, the scariness of it, the utter amazement of a whale dork as big as a man. At first, I regarded the place as novelty, a playful game for tourists. Later, I began to see that serious study might take place here. But to what end? What might we gain from focused study of mammal penises? What, I wondered, might we learn by exploring rates of testicular cancer in other mammals? Of prostate cancer? Of erectile dysfunction? Are these primarily problems in humans, or are they also problems for marsupial mice? What is the relationship between such cancers and the quality of our air, our water, our diet? I learned recently that the bonobo, our closest primate relative, is vegetarian and doesn’t get prostate cancer. So, can a museum like this help us cure and prevent such diseases? Or perhaps the benefits are social: greater understanding of ourselves might be achieved by looking closely at the male organ that is mostly hidden. Then another thought came clear as I exited through the gift shop: as much as we know about our world, there is always more to discover. A comforting thought for a traveler like me to recognize that the capacity of the earth to excite and amaze—let us state it freely—is boundless.