It is easy to fall into the error of thinking of all these ceremonies as having been simply quaint survivals, as we should now regard them today. But it cannot be doubted that they were perfectly real and extremely important at the time. Only if we accept the fact that there was a persistent conviction that phallic religion was the true religion, and that, in the last resort, the phallic deities were more powerful and more beneficent than the upstart Christian god, can we understand such things as the belief that one could avoid the plague by committing incest on the altar: for this was evidently an act which asserted in the strongest imaginable form one’s adherence to phallicism and mother worship, and at the same time one’s contempt for the cruel father-deity who had sent the plague.
Phallic practices continued long after the end of the Middle Ages. In 1786, the British Minister in Naples wrote to the president of the Royal Society explaining how, in a little explored part of Isernia, he had found the peasants worshipping “the great toe of St. Cosmo” (i.e. the phallus) with appropriate rites. During the three-day feast, peasants, chiefly women, would present waxen ex votos, kissing them before giving them to the priest and saying “Santo Cosimo benedetto, cosi lo voglio” (Blessed St. Cosmo, that’s how I want it to be). Men would present their afflicted members to the priest to be anointed with oil, and 1,400 flasks of oil were consumed every year for this purpose. (148)
In modern times, in the big cities, science has replaced religion, and the preoccupation with fertility expresses itself by the numerous aphrodisiac devices exposed for sale. It is also said that a great part of the sale of vitamin pills is due to a belief in their aphrodisiac effects. But in more backward parts, peasants still hope for fertility from deities which are barely distinguishable from those of the pagan world. Frazer says that the Virgin is worshipped under the title Panaghia Aphroditessa, and Hogarth records that the peasants of Kuklia in Cyprus until recently did, and perhaps still do, anoint the corner stones of the temple of Aphrodite in honour of the Virgin, and pass symbolically through perforated stones to remove the curse of barrenness from the women, or to increase the manhood of the men.
Equally persistent has been the idea of the importance of a periodic cathartic discharge of repressed desires and aggressions. The extraordinary ceremony known as the Feast of Fools, or sometimes as the Feast of Asses, perhaps represents an attempt by the Church to tame the demand for a Saturnalia by adopting it as a church feast. This took place on the Feast of Circumcision or of Epiphany. It is certainly of early origin, since we find the Council of Toledo condemning it as early as 635: it continued to be popular until at least the seventeenth century. In 1414, the Theological Faculty of the University of Paris sent out a circular letter, addressed to all prelates and chapters in the Kingdom of France, condemning it, from which we may derive a detailed account of the Festival. It starts by pointing out that “this filthy custom” has been derived from the pagans, who, deceived by devils, were spurred on by passions. During it the people of the Church relapse into open and unpunished lewdness and harlotry. The priests and clergy themselves take part, appearing at divine service in masks, or in women’s clothes or dressed as panders or minstrels. They dance, play dice, eat bread and black pudding from the altar and sing indecent songs while the celebrant is saying Mass. Leaping and Jumping, they course through the church without shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres and cause laughter with infamous performances, scurrilous verses and indecent gestures. In this way, it says, they celebrate the rites of Janus, and thus profane the holy place. To lead the revels a bishop, or in some places, a pope of fools was elected. The Mass was “farced“, or sung with howls.