Ancient History & Civilisation

Eco-friendly—& sometimes edible!

As the story goes, two women went shopping at a farmer’s market. Spotting a display of firm, tasty-looking cucumbers, they stopped. The sign said, “Three for a dollar!” After some discussion, with a wink one gal said to the other, “Well, I suppose we could alwayseat one of them.”

Although cucumbers, plastics, and K-Y Jelly weren’t readily available long ago, imaginative Greeks, male and female, got alongjust fine in the bedroom department with the help of olive oil, wheat, and fine leather.

Being intensely phallocentric, Greek men confidently assumed that when lacking male partners, women used dildos or other phallic objects—because sex was mostly about penetration. Comic plays such as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata got many of their laughs through dildo jokes. Countless drinking cups also portrayed slaves and hookers putting leather phalluses to good use.

Greek men were partly right.

Lonely housewives in Athens, off-duty courtesans in Corinth, widows in the wilds of Arcadia, gay couples everywhere, females seeking same gender Many-Splendored for soulful get-togethers, playwrights producing satyr plays that featured comic genitalia, and event organizers for processions that featured oversize phalluses all made use of objects that would be called sex toys today. The Greeks slangily referred to dildos as “sliders” or “strikers.”

Everywhere you looked in ancient Greece and other locales around the Mediterranean, phallic symbols were proudly on display. Temples were rife with rocket-shaped monuments to testosterone. Standing at every crossroad and street corner in Athens were stone markers called herms, each sporting the head of Hermes (the god Mercury among the Romans) and his perky phallus, but they were sacred boundary markers, not incitements to lust. Standing in gardens, temples, and other sites throughout Rome and Italy were ferocious images of Priapus, his oversize red erection a warning to thieves. These phallic symbols, however, were warding-off measures, apotropaic objects to deflect the evil eye and protect humans from malign forces. (Learn more details at the entries for Priapus, hymen, and marriage.)

For personal lovelife aids, ancient Greek consumers turned to the experts in the tannery industry, who obligingly took the softest leather, formed it into a hot-dog shape, stuffed it with wool, then polished it to maximum smoothness. Greek dildos, calledolisboi,did not vibrate or possess any bells and whistles. But padded leather in the shape of a male organ, lavishly anointed with good-quality olive oil, did have a lively, humanoid feel to it (or so it was said).

Discerning shoppers knew that the best olisboi were made in Miletus, a prosperous Ionian city-state on the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey today). Specialty items included ones carved from ivory, wood, and marble.

From the abundant materials that have survived, including satyr plays and comedies by Herodas, along with thousands of portrayals on painted Greek pots, vases, and cups, it’s clear that dildos came in all sizes. There were dildos-for-two models, some joined end-to-end, others strung together with woolen ties. Dildos could also be attached with soft leather straps to satisfy oneself or one’s partner. A more expensive model, called a baubon, was made of red leather, as most of the dildos used in comedies were. Besides being festive and highly visible, they imitated sexual arousal.

In Herodas’s popular play Mime, a courtesan of Miletus asks where her friend got her bright red dildo made—which leads to the other gal’s fury, because her new dildo was loaned out before she even got to use it. The purpose of the plot was to exaggerate excessive female lust, but it also reveals interesting details about such devices and how they were used. Or lent. And even how sex-toy manufacturers of long ago kept their enterprises secret to avoid taxes.

Somewhere in the fifth century B.C., a historic breakthrough occurred within the dildo industry—one that might resonate today as well.


The inventive Greeks had surprisingly modern ideas about recycling. Around the fifth century B.C., a Greek baker invented the first biodegradable sex toy: the breadstick dildo.

It was a slow day at the bakery. An unknown Greek, a genius at baking who also happened to be an outside-the-box thinker, started fooling around with some extra bread dough. She was kneading the dough; and kneading brought to mind the Greek word for masturbation, dephesthai, which evolved from a word meaning “to mold” or “soften by kneading.” So her mind was already in the gutter, and one thing led to another.

After a while she saw what she had wrought. And it was good.

Thus was born the olisbo-kollix: the breadstick dildo.

With that vivid image in mind, it’s easy to fantasize further scenarios. A Greek matron serving lunch to her often-absent husband, for example. She brings him a salad and a breadbasket, remarking with a twinkle in her eye, “Nothing says lovin’ like something from my oven!”

While this entry might sound fanciful, the discovery in question came about through a neat bit of research by a Greek professor named Alexander Oikonomides. In 1986 he rediscovered this remarkable, edible, easy-to-dispose-of invention of ancient times after seeing a jocular reference in an inscription to kollix (“breadstick” or “baguette”) with olisbos, the Greek word for dildo. He later found the word olisbokollix in a lexicon of classical Greek that dated to the fifth century A.D.

Further confirmation came from pictorial evidence. Certain Greek vases bear artwork, heretofore puzzling, that depicts women with baskets filled with phallus-shaped breadsticks. One famous illustration shows a nude female taking part in a religious procession, proudly carrying a gigantic phallus (ceremonial, we hope!) clearly made from bread dough.

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