Among the more mysterious prehistoric lucky charms and amulets are the so-called phallic or penis-shaped charmstones of central and northern coastal California. Made in several styles and sizes by the pre-Columbian Indians of the region, they are frequently found in areas of shallow muddy water and among the grave goods of men, women, and children who were buried from 3,000 B.C.E. until the advent of European colonization. The name "charmstone" is a modern appelation; it is not known what these object were called by their makers. Among modern Indians they have been called, in various languages, "unuk," "kwungate", and "chi-la" -- variously translated as "mysterious thing" and "medicine stone."
Superficially, charmstones are similar to the fishing net weights archaeologists call plummets. The latter are usually tear-drop or pear-shaped pieces from 4" to 12" long, which are either pierced or fitted with a groove around one end to accept a hanging-cord. Plummets are found in shallow water and in the graves of coastal California Indians as well as those of coastal Indians of Louisiana, Maine, and Florida -- but phallic charmstones only occur with great frequency in California.
Charmstones come in several forms, but the most intriguing are those that resemble double-ended human penises. Like plummets, they range in length from 4" to 12", but many are a fairly life-sized 6" in length. The older ones from Sonoma and Marin counties tend to be pierced and grooved on one end and have a plain knob-like glans at the other end, as shown here; later examples lack the hole and groove and were hung from a cord that ran under the glans. Those from the Sacramento River Delta region are quite elaborated in form and have a flaring "Japaneque" glans and a central knob that, while obviously phallic, does not directly refer to actual human anatomy.
This charmstone is a modern reproduction based on originals found in Marin and Sonoma County, California. It was carved by a Sonoma County stoneworker named Fred Sampson, who is part Pomo Indian. Ancient charmstones were often carved from a locally common tough, dark grey stone called amphibolite schist, but the material Sampson uses is grey or white marble, which he gets as scrap from the makers of tombstones and other monuments.
The conquest of the California Indians, first by Spanish and Mexican colonists and later by Anglo-Americans, left the native culture in disarray. By the time surviving California Indians were interviewed by American anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th century, they had lost most of the traditions connected with the charmstones. Although many of the magic-workers interviewed owned one or more stones, they said that had not carved them themselves. Interestingly enough, some of the interviewees claimed that the stones were alive and could crawl about underground. It was said that if a person called out to the stones, they might come to the surface and could then be dug out of the dirt or from the mud in shallow water. These latter-day shamans may in fact have been inavdvertently looting the grave goods of their ancestors.
The manner in which charmstones was used by their original makers is not known. It is thought by some archaeologists that just as in neolithic Europe, where the common stone axe (celt) became a religious object as well as a tool, so did the charmstone in the Bay Area evolve both as a tool, derived from the common plummet, and a religious symbol -- with the most finely made ones reserved for use as grave goods.
Although some scholars believe that even the most elaborate phallic charmstones were simply fancy fishing weights, other anthropological reports have noted that modern informants told them that the penis-shaped stones in particular were used to summon good luck when hunting or fishing, to cure disease, and to bring rain. The latter is an important magical function in dry-summered California and would be in line with similar sympathetic magic concepts from other areas of the world in which rain and semen are connected. Some 20th century informants said that the stones were to be sprinkled with an intoxicating liquor to bring on their fertilizing qualities. Beer or distilled spirits were used by early 20th century shamans, but in Central Califrnia it was mentioned that previously a decoction of the psychotropic Datura plant had been used to anoint the charmstones and was also drunk by the owner of the stones as part of the rain-bringing ceremony. Datura juice seems like a good candidate for use by prehistoric Indians too, as it is white and milky like semen, and it induces powerful psychedelic visions.
Most of the information on this page was supplied to me by the archaeologist Pete Rhode, for which i am very grateful
For other lucky charms in the form of genitalia or copulating couples, see:
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