The Long, Strange History of Sex Toys
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Physical representations of the phallus have been around for almost as long as there have been penises. Whether for fashion, decor, worship, or for fun, dildos are a part of human history. So let's take a look at the long, strange trip dildos have taken.
In the Beginning ...
The first known dildo recovered by paleontologists dates to the Paleolithic era. Made of siltstone and polished to a high gloss, the debate rages on about whether its primary purpose was for religious ritual or personal pleasure. To my mind, this debate has more to do with puritanical paleontologists who can't conceive of a society where religion and sexuality commingle. The fact remains that dildos made of carved stone or bone were widely discovered among normal personal artifacts like combs and sewing needles. I imagine this eventually led to the invention of nightstands, and nightstand drawers.
Leave it to the Greeks and Romans to take the next leap forward. To get a feel for the time, it's important to keep in mind that Greeks and Romans were polytheists who worshiped a variation of Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. Also called Bacchus or Liber, worship of the sex god included parades through the streets, where giant phalluses were raised up like protest signs. At the end of a marital fertility parade, a maiden would come forth and crown the religious phallus with a wreath of flowers.
We also know that both male and female Romans and Greeks used dildos for pleasure. In Aristophanes' anti-war comedy "Lysistrata," women discuss using and sharing dildos while withholding sex from their partners in an effort to stop the war. Men going off to war also gave their wives so-called "olisbos" to prevent "hysteria," which was then thought to be caused by lack of sperm. Since these olisbos did not actually contain sperm, I'm not sure they'd really thought that one through.
Historically, the connection between female hysteria and dildos was something male doctors had a hard time letting go of. Romans are also thought to have invented double dildos for use in ceremony, or with a friend. The Greeks are responsible for the first use of leather or animal intestine to cover a carved penis, adding a more natural feel and a complexity of texture.
Take THAT, Silicone!
There's a funny historical rumor that it was legendary seductress Cleopatra who invented the first vibrator. Rather than being carved from wood or rock, this one consisted of a gourd hollowed out and filled with … wait for it … angry bees. If true, that might make Cleopatra the biggest risk taker in all of history. But then, what else would you expect from a people who thought crocodile dung was the best method of birth control? Although the bees make for a better story, it's more likely that Cleopatra used the same lacquered wood or stone dildos as the other ladies of her time. There is even record of Julius Caesar giving Cleo an elaborately carved, gold inlaid penis "sculpture." Whether she ever tried it out is something we'll probably never know. (Learn more about the vibrator's strange history in Vibrators: Bigger and Generating More Buzz Than Ever.)
The Chinese were also considered great innovators in female masturbation. Back in the day, wealthy Chinese men were apt to have too many wives for them to service regularly. It was thought that providing penis substitutes would keep these wives faithful and prevent them from resorting to lesbianism. Ancient Chinese dildos have been discovered that were cast of bronze and other metals. Some of these were hollow and allowed liquid to be released at the appropriate time. Fancy!
In India and Persia, virgins were sought after and yet somehow reviled. You'd think the people who gave us the "Kama Sutra" would be a little more sex-positive. Blood from the hymen was thought to be unclean and best avoided by new husbands. Therefore, the local holy man would show up on the wedding night and use a large stone dildo to break the hymen. Sometimes this was done in the center of town, either in celebration or to confirm the virginity of the bride. In the story "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights," dildos are discussed as being made from gold or silver, or intricately carved and inlaid ivory.
The use of dildos remained more or less the same for a long portion of history. Some cultures didn't create dildos at all, preferring more natural items like gourds, plantains or unripe bananas. Like everything else in the Renaissance, dildos of this era were ornate, inspired and appreciated for their artistic merit. In fact, the word dildo comes from the Italian "diletto,"meaning "delight." Even as Christianity entered the scene and puritanical values gained a foothold, substitute penises were still an active industry. After all, they still had to deal with the menace of "feminine hysteria."