This article originally appeared on VICE US
Since time immemorial, men have worried irrationally about perceived threats to their penises. Long before there was castration anxiety, there was something far more sinister: the myth of phallus-stealing witches who kept wriggling, dismembered members as pets.
The best-known description of this practice occurs in the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century witch hunting manual written by Heinrich Kramer. Historians typically regard it as a ludicrous and misogynistic text that nonetheless resulted in countless vicious murders of women accused of witchcraft; in The Salem Witch Trials Reader, Frances Hill describes it as "one of the most terrifying and obnoxious books ever written." The Malleus is rife with obvious anxieties about female sexual desire—as folklorist Moira Smith notes in her paper, Penis Theft in the Malleus Maleficarum, "Many of the crimes (maleficia) attributed to witches concerned sexuality: copulation with incubus devils, procuring abortions, causing sterility and stillbirth, and impeding sexual relations between husbands and wives."
Read more: The Real Witches of Salem, Massachusetts
In the Middle Ages, witches were thought to have various magical dick-ruining capabilities, the most sinister of which is the ability to make the sex organ vanish entirely. According to Smith, the Malleus Maleficarum details three specific case studies in which witches were said to have magically deprived men of their penises. The first two simply involve men having their genitals hidden by some magical illusion—witches "can take away the male organ," Heinrich Kramer writes, "not indeed by despoiling the human body of it, but by concealing it with some glamour."
The third account notoriously mentions the phenomenon of witches keeping disembodied penises as pets and feeding them oats and other nutritious grains:
[W]hat shall we think about those witches who somehow take members in large numbers—twenty or thirty—and shut them up together in a birds' nest or some box, where they move about like living members, eating oats or other feed? This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk. It is said that it is all done by devil's work and illusion, for the senses of those who see [the penises] are deluded in the way we have said.
Kramer goes on to describe one man's quest to restore his missing member. By his account, the poor, castrated fellow "approached a certain witch" who instructed him to "climb a particular tree where there was a nest containing many members, and allowed to take any one he liked." (He was unfortunately rebuffed after trying to pick a particularly large one because "it belonged to a parish priest.")
Gonad-bearing flora were not uncommon in the Middle Ages. In a 2010 article published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, historian Johan J. Mattelaer states, "Between the end of the 13th century and the early 16th century, the phallus tree was quite a phenomenon." Penis trees flourished throughout Europe, according to his research: A 14th century French manuscript contains two images of nuns harvesting penises from trees and tucking them into their robes; a wood carving from the early 15th century currently kept at a museum in Germany depicts a woman casually plucking penises while her lover peruses a vulva tree; and a decorative badge found in the Netherlands "shows a couple making love under a phallus tree, possibly being watched by a voyeur."
In 2000, archaeologists uncovered a particularly impressive penis tree specimen: a massive mural from the 13th century, located in Tuscany. It depicts a tree covered in male sex organs ("It is indeed a phallus tree!" Mattelaer notes jovially), all of which were "disproportionately large and... clearly in an aroused state." By the noble plant's roots stand eight women, two of whom appear to be fighting over a penis and one of whom is trying to knock one off a branch using a stick. Beside them is another woman who appears to be mostly uninvolved—but who, upon closer inspection, as Mattelaer notes, "has one of the fruits of the tree protruding from her bottom." George Ferzoco, the director of the Center for Tuscan studies, has argued that the mural constitutes "the earliest depiction in art of women acting as witches," citing ancient Tuscan folklore about witches keeping penises captive in nests.
In the Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer writes, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable." In its purest essence, the penis tree—and its association with endlessly lascivious witches—raises a compelling question: If dick grew on trees, would anyone need men?