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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The fascinating source of the word "fascinating"

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Sometimes we are "fascinated", attracted, impressed, or touched (touché in French) to find out the origin of a word, as if as we removed the curtain we could look at what was behind or buried in the deepest part of valley. That is the strength of the etymology of the words, the knowledge of which provides us basic information on which their later extended meaning sits.

Well, "to fascinate", according to the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, derives from the Latin "fascinare" and has three meanings: 1. Deceive, to hallucinate, obfuscate. / 2. Attract irresistibly / 3. Make evil eye.

"Fascinare" in Latin means: cause or make evil eye, hex, enchant, bewitch. For Pliny the "fascinating men" are medicine-men, sorcerers. "Fascinatio" is the action to fascinate, to bewitch, it´s the fascination, enchantment, spell, charm.

Catullus used the term “fascinare” this way or with this meaning in his Poems 7, 12:

(so many kisses) that neither the curious people can count
or hex with their bad language.

(basia) quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

Or Virgil in his Eclogue 3,103:

I do not know what eye hexes my tender lambs.

Nescio quis teneros oculus  mihi fascinat agnos.

So it's easy to understand the first meaning of our dictionary, which does not really match with the Latin meaning, although it does derive from it.

Well, "fascinare" is an action verb formed from the word "fascinum or fascinus" that means "charm, hex, spell”. The Latin term would correspond to the Greek βάσκανον "baskanon", according to Aulus Gellius 16, 12, 4:

So Cloatius Verus calls it "fascinum" like "bascanum" and "fascinare" is like "bascinare".

(Cloatius Verus) Item fascinum appellatum quasi “bascanum” et “fascinare” esse quasi “bascinare”

βάσκανον "baskanon” means fascinator, sorcerer, envious person, snoop, slanderer, malicious person.

But it also means male member, penis, phallus, although the Latin people have another term (among many other terms of figurative or metaphorical sense that I may explain at another time) to name the phallus, penis or male member: mentula, so "fascinus" seems to refer more to the erect member.

It is used in this sense by Horace in Epodes, 8, 15-20

quid? quod libelli Stoici inter Sericos
iacere puluillos amant,
inlitterati num minus nerui rigent
minusue languet fascinum?
quod ut superbo prouoces ab inguine,
ore adlaborandum est tibi.

So what? Because the booklets of the stoics
like to rest on silken cushions,
have the muscles of the illiterate men less force
or have they got less languid members?
If you want to make it come out from my proud crotch,
you have to work it with the mouth.

Porphyry in his "Ad Horatii epodon 8, 18" explains why Horace used this term:

"(…) he put "fascinum" instead of virile part because the deformity of the male member is usually placed among the things that can fascinate us"

“fascinum pro virili parte posuit, quoniam praefascinandis rebus haec membri deformitas apponi solet

Arnobius, after his conversion to Christianity, pokes fun at the pagan gods and so uses the term "fascinus" with this same meaning in his Adversus nationes libri VII, 4, 7

And does Tutunus also exist, on whose huge private parts and horrent male member you want your matrons to ride and consider it as a propitious sign?

etiamne Tutunus, cuius inmanibus pudendis horrentique fascino uestras inequitare matronas et auspicabile ducitis » et optatis ?

Fascinus is even the name of the patron god who was worshiped by the Vestal Virgins against the evil eye and envy, and so it is used, for example, by Pliny in Naturalis Historia, XXVIII, 7, passage which also tells us that a symbol of him stood below the victorious general´s truck to prevent him from “fascination”.

Maybe I will write about the phallus as a divinity and about its worship at another time.

Well, at this point the obvious and required question is what will have to see the so-called penis or male member with fascination, spells, evil eye?

Both things must have to see something and not only linguistically, because a well-established custom among the Romans is to place a small necklace with a phallus shape around children´s neck, or to hang tintinabula or bells on the doors of the houses with phalluses, or to place phalluses, engraved or carved at the entrance of the houses or other places, or to decorate lamps, chandeliers and other objects with them. We already saw on another occasion how Hermes or Terminus, the messenger of the gods, was figured with a pillar with god's head and well marked genitals or phallus.

This topic is very widely documented in texts and in the numerous archaeological remains. Por example, Varro tells us in his "De lingua latina" VII, 97:

"Or can (come) from the custom of hanging certain obscene objects around the children´s necks to keep them safe from anything bad that could happen to them ..."

Potest vel ab eo quod pueris turpicula res in collo quaedam suspenditur, ne quid obsit…

That is, it is a phallus-shaped amulet that is worn to ward off the evil eye, the spell, the enchantment. This function is called technically "apotropaic" (which comes from the Greek ἀποτρέπω apotrépō, “keep away", keep off, get out), of ἀπό (apó, "away, out", “far”) and τρέπω (trépō, "turn, spin"), word that literally means "averting", in this case of evils and calamities. So apotropaic magic ( from Greek apotrepein , to ward off: apo - , away + trepein , to turn ) is a type of magic intended to " turn away" harm or evil influences, as in deflecting misfortune or averting the evil eye .

Fascinum is then the phallus-shaped amulet that children wear around the neck to avoid the evil eye. Nowadays it is relatively common to find people with such hanging on the neck, in some cases as mere decoration but in many others also because of persisting an ancient superstition. About the "evil eye" we will discuss at another time, because besides the phallus there are other apotropaic instruments and methods too, such as spitting three times to the ground.

But the really difficult issue is to understand why the phallus and its representation have apotropaic value and ability to prevent the evil eye.

Traditionally, in the few and timid studies that the prevailing morality allowed, it was interpreted that the phallus was a symbol of fertility and abundance of goods and therefore the opposite of the curse. 

It was also interpreted that it avoided the evil eye because the vision of the penis, which is considered obscene, forced to look away, so the evil eye turned out impossible to be made if the eye focuses elsewhere.

But Pascal Quignard, contemporary French author, in his book "Sex and fright",  in which he makes an unhibited interpretation of the rigid Roman sexuality, opposed to the cheerful Greek sexuality, dives into the deepest part of men´s psychology and offers a more suggestive and deep explanation about it but it´s also a more difficult one to be understood: the man is the result of a generative act in which he was not present and that causes him an enormous curiosity and restlessness ; the vision of the sexual act or copulation or the vision of the fascinum ( erect penis ) paralyzes the man, fascinates, attracts and bewitches him, stops his gaze; the vision of the direct representation of the human intercourse always generates for humans an extreme thrill seeking from which we defend ourselves with horror .....

Quignard relates the fascinum to the spicy and obscene “fescennine” verses that were sung at weddings, whose role or function would be similar to that already described and to the " fascia " or band that Roman women used as bra to support their breasts; and he also relates it to " fasces " or bundle of sticks tied with a red belt (from where incidentally comes the word "fascism”).

The fear that produces the vision of the “fascinum " or intercourse is what explains, according Quignard, that in the Pompeian paintings women maintain the look oblique , lateral, avoiding the direct view of the incomprehensible scene of the animal generation.

If the main function is to prevent the " evil eye" in terms of the "fascination" that the   "fascinum" causes, it should be mentioned that the evil eye consists precisely on “in- videre” (from in-, against , videre , see ) "envy", "throw the look against" someone.

And on this lies precisely the envy or "in-videre”, which consist on accumulate all the evil you want for someone inside and express it through the more clearly door of the soul, the eyes, through the look. Forcing someone to look away is to prevent him or her from "envying” us or looking bad at us.

Deep psychology also helps us to understand ancient myths and rituals, already incomprehensible to the ancients themselves that sometimes seek rational explanations, and absolutely dark for us nowadays, although we sometimes keep their practice today too, but usually we do it without knowing their origin or meaning.

   
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