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The first time I saw kotekas, also known as phallocrypts or penis sheaths, was at the Museum of Cultures in Helsinki. Made of gourds and shells, they covered the male organ. The decorative sheaths reminded me of the time when I was a little boy and dressed up my willy with colourful, pretty ribbons and showed it off proudly – until the look I got from Grandma hinted that it was not quite proper. The memory made me wonder how people would experience the sheath if it were used in the West today, what value we would place on this traditional, penile symbol of virility, what forms it might take.
The koteka is today worn by tribesmen in Melanesia, South America and Africa. Anthropologists have long speculated about its meaning. The shape, appearance and significance of the koteka varies between different tribes and areas. It can be an accessory, a ritual tool, or have some practical purpose.
I ask people of different ages and professions in my home region of Aland if they would like to create a free interpretation of their own of a penis sheath. Those who participate often feel it is important that the koteka expresses something of their personality. It is heart warming to see their enthusiasm when they receive a carte blanche to interpret, create and shape a sheath for themselves. The result is often colourful, bombastic and a bit raunchy. The material may be the wife’s knitted woollen sock, cherished Phantom comics from the wearer’s childhood, or colourful, beautiful ribbons.
The men in the pictures create a free interpretation of the phallus and give it a personal twist. The penis sheaths seem to become extra-bodily manifestations that reflect some part of their internal self-image.
Making a sheath for myself, I use a rake with splayed tines. The tines turn into different paths to follow. It is green and innocent and reminds me of the last time I wore something similar.