Obsidian cylinders of irregular shape were not a rare find at Mexico’s archaeological sites, but for decades their purpose had remained an enigma.
Various theories were put forward, most of them focusing on the cylinders’ likely ritual purposes, with one particularly ghastly assumption that the objects were used to cause profuse anal bleeding, until one day archaeologists asked people in a village close to their site if they had any idea how Aztecs might have been using those blocks of volcanic glass. It turned out the cylinders were still in use. Travelling haberdashers would chip a needle off them whenever their customer was asking for one. Making a stock of needles was impractical because obsidian, while quite durable, was also highly brittle. Yes, it was that simple – and I can only marvel at the academic effort that had been wasted.
A European enigma of a similar calibre has been taunting historians for quite some time now.
It has to do with leaden badges that pilgrims were using between 1350 and 1500. Tens of thousands of them have been found – mostly in rivers around holy sites – and all together they are the largest corpus of extant medieval objects. There’s a problem with them, though. While medieval paintings, weapons, or buildings are more or less well documented, pilgrim badges were used by the common folk, and no written record of their true purpose exists.
Obviously, most had religious connotations. The head of Thomas Becket used to be peddled in Canterbury to those who came to visit his shrine, Virgin Mary would fit any destination, and a shell had a clear meaning for the admirers of Santiago de Compostela.
These badges could be worn as an outward manifestation of the intended destination, confirmation of the pilgrim status or were bought upon arrival as a symbol of reaching the pilgrimage objective. A fridge magnet today serves a similar purpose for the weary tourist.
The question is, why did some pilgrims wear sex badges?
Medievalists proposed a number of theories about the role of these badges. One world-famous academic suggested some of them were advertising the wearer’s availability for sex while others were mocking religious rituals. Another saw the vulva dressed as a pilgrim a sign of male pilgrims’ concern over their female companions.
Finally, Frederick Elworthy, an English philologist and antriquary, linked up all the available evidence into a hypothesis that these badges were amulets against the evil eye. He didn’t get the mechanism of how exactly a leaden penis was working to dispel the problem though. He thought the badges were used as protective amulets with their symbolism dating back to the Ancient Rome’s winged phalluses.
All he and his academic friends had to do was to ask a superstitious Russian* to get the right answer.
Let’s get back to the late Middle Ages for a moment.
It was the time when the Black Death was ravishing the continent. Bubonic in the South of Europe, the plague was predominantly pneumonic in the North of France and the Netherlands, where most of the badges were found. This type of plague was the deadliest. Half of the doctors believed it was transmitted by sight or evil eye, with the other half blaming miasmic air. There was no cure for pneumonic plague at the time, so people reverted to superstitions and magic.
But instead of trying to counter plague by magical means, they focused on the disruption of the disease’s transmission in a practical way. You see, evil eye and sight are two different mechanisms. A sick person may begrudge a healthy one, and thus the envious glance of the sick carries over the disease to the healthy. That’s the evil eye. Sight does not have an evil intention, and it only passes the disease over if the already dying person eyed a healthy one. In both cases, eye to eye contact is necessary.
What better way to draw attention away from what matters (eye-to-eye contact) than pointing it towards porn? A decent person would look away in shame. It annuls the possibility of sight transmission. Evil people are drawn to anything and everything evil, so an evil person looks at the porn badge first and seeks eye-to-eye contact with you second. It gives you precious seconds to spot them looking at your porn badge and to turn your back on them, look away, and never meet their eye. This busts up the evil-eye transmission.
I think it was both simple and clever. If only plague was transmitted the way doctors believed it was at the time! Yet, this medieval ingenuity presents us with a new way to enforce and maintain social distance in today’s trying times too, don’t you think?
* Why ask a Russian? Because Russians are madly superstitious. It is a side-effect of their fatalistic mindset. As a Russian who has been studying Russians for 25 years, I know.