Sculptures from the Secret Museum: The Visual Anthropology of Phallic Worship – A Talk by Dr H Wickstead

Another lecture at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, this time Dr Helen Wickstead, Course Director of MA Museum and Gallery Studies at Kingston University, London. Helen has written widely on prehistoric archaeology, histories of archaeology, heritage and the relationships between archaeology and contemporary art amongst her many other achievements. She is currently working on a book entitled Phallus: A History of Archaeology and Sex which develops on her Welcome Trust funded research into prehistoric phalli in national and regional museum collections and the talk she gave on Wednesday revolved around one particular collection; the British Museum Secretum

Up front disclaimer – This was not a talk about phallic cult worship. Dr Wickstead was very clear that it isn’t possible to give a talk on this because, like the matriarchal cult of Margret Murray, it was entirely fabricated by the gentleman scholars of the early London Anthropological Society and the men behind the Secretum. As a pagan, I’m quite comfortable with this notion as I am long over the Margret Murray power of the matriarchal cult. 

That doesn’t mean to say that there is no connection between the world these men were doing and modern paganism. Beyond the obvious phallic connection, these men influenced perceptions of Stonehenge, people like Freud and Alistair Crowley and brought us the westernised version and concept of tantric sex which is still popular today.  

Origins of the British Museum Secretum

The exact date that the Secretum was established is unclear. The core items within the catalogue were gifted to the Museum by George Witt, Mayor of Bedford (1804–1869) and certain items were put on display in the 1830s. In particular, a collection of wax copies of votive offerings from a Catholic origin were displayed alongside an ancient Herme at Witts assistance. It is not clear exactly when the items were removed from public display and placed in the private cabinets but it was at some point in the 1860s, probably sometime between 1865 and 1866, the catalogue was formally recognised. The collection was opened up in 1991 and the best of the collection shared across the general catalogue and other museums across the country. Now all that remains is Cabinet 55, the repository of the unloved and unwanted items such as wax votive phallus’s, the out and out forgeries and a collection of scrapbooks, which have been the main focus of Dr Wickstead’s recent work. 

At first glance, the books look like a titillating collection of naughty images. Including both drawings and copies of objects both originally in the British Secretum and from others around Europe in addition to contemporary pornography photos which make little to no sense until you start to read the accompanying commentary and consider the men who were working with the collection and creating the scrapbooks.

Secrets Can Be a Good Thing

Dr Wickstead had three strong points that she made through out the presentation. 

Firstly, although the formalisation of the catalogue was a direct act of preservation with the passing of the Obscene Publications Act in 1847 it was not the only reason for the secret nature of the collection. Limiting knowledge of the collection to the select few gave a greater degree of control of how the artefacts were studied. The restricted nature meant that it could be made available to “men of taste and education” (in the words of the Museum of the time) and whilst this may be seen as gender restriction to a modern mindset it reflected not only the mentality of the men who were accessing the collection but to a degree the mindset of the society of the time.

Secondly, it was not just a store for the artefacts but represents a way of organising information and reproducing knowledge for peer review. The other side to the secret nature of the collection is that it creates a set of exclusive knowledge, to the extent that anyone wishing to publish and comment of the subjects relating to the collection who did not make reference to the collection could be called into question. 

Finally, whilst the anonymity of donors at the time obscured individuals and thus protected them but now it is a source of debate and discourse as modern scholars attempt to identify individuals who contributed to the collection and to the study of it. Like any good historical subject it will be possible to talk back and forth endlessly about who a particular set of initials or monogram belongs to and leads of course to other avenues of research. 

Men of Taste and Education

The British Museum on the 1800s felt that the collection should be available to those “men of taste and education”. Most of the men involved were founding members of the London Anthropological Society which hived off the Archaeological society after it voted to include women in their membership (because you can’t do this kind of science with women around), were pro-slavery, interested in sciences like Craniometry, were involved in some very shady stock market manipulation including dodgy deals involving South American railways and were all round dilettantes and homo-socialites (aka a rather touchy feely old boys club). 

These were men with a mission, to prove the existence of an ancient phallic cult, and the scrapbooks and collection were the way they were going to achieve it. 

The secret collection is undoubtedly contains very ancient examples of phallic imagery, including but not limited to the illustration of statues, herms etc but it also contained wax casts from Catholic phallic cults and the very best in 1800’s French pornography. The artists involved, in particular Edward Sellon also included art of their own.

The No So Ancient Phallic Cult

This ancient cult has as much historical reality as Margaret Murray’s prehistoric matriarchal society in truth and like Murray’s work had a great deal of influence on the evolution of the new age perception of phallic worship. 

Certainly in the case of the most ancient examples the emphasis behind the objects was an apoptotic impulse to avert evil, give the enemy a one eyed up yours and generally bring good luck into their lives. This is the masculine equivalent of the Sheela-na-gig, who’s graphics display is intended to do the same. 

This wasn’t the interpretation of the men of taste and education, and they put a lot of time and energy building up the evidence to support their own hypothesis. The result are the wonderfully illustrated and annotated scrapbooks, which were clearly never finished judging by the numbered but blank pages that remain. The art work represents incredible talent, and represents artefacts from around Europe both known and currently lost to the record. They also show the evolution of that early tantric movement and how sacred geometry influenced its development. 

Final Thoughts

All in all it was a very interesting discourse which was recorded for posterity. I found out at this event that the lectures at the Henry Moore Institute are usually recorded and the recordings are available via the research facilities at the Institute. I am not sure how one would access the catalogue, or indeed what exactly is included in the 20 or so years worth or recording, but it is good to know these interesting discourses have not been lost.

I have kept the post  safe for work in terms of image content so I’m not including actual pictures to illustrate the post. Here are some useful searches which will yield images.

Priapus statues

You should also consider downloading Dr Wicksteads publication on as it also contains images from the scrapbooks themselves and those are as rare as hen’s teeth on the internet.

Dr Wickstead was evasive as to when Phallus: A History of Archaeology and Sex will be ready for publication but if the article above is any indication it will be interesting to any pagan wishing to understanding where the phallic undertones of the modern pagan movement evolved from. 


About knotmagick

Weaving Magick and Crochet in the madhouse I call home. I am a devotee of Hekate and a follower of Pan.
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