Within the Ripley collection of rare artifacts and curious treasures are a few oddities that would make some of us blush, but as our Vice President of Exhibits and Archives explains, there’s nothing funny about penis sheaths from New Guinea.
Penis sheaths are called koteka locally and have nothing to do with sex as many of our Odditorium guests might assume, but instead simply protect male tribesmen from the vexing bites of insects in the dense jungles of New Guinea.
Koteka are worn in the Dania tribe, and just like a person might have a number of hats, pants, shoes, or shorts; a man in New Guinea may have a vast wardrobe of penis sheaths to choose from.
The sheaths themselves were either made from gourds, woven materials, or a combination of both. Some were plain, but others are ornately decorated with paint, feathers, and cowry shells—much like other artifacts from New Guinea.
The gourds used in koteka-making are specially grown near the houses of villagers so they can be constantly monitored. If a long, straight gourd is desired, they’ll even tie stones to the plant as it grows, carefully molding it into the desired shape.
Despite their apparent lack of lascivious intent, the Christian sensibilities of visiting tourists to the island of New Guinea have long made koteka inherently interesting to outsiders. Penis sheaths have been exotic souvenirs for close to 100 years now, and the tradition itself is slowly disappearing.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that we learned much about the tradition, as British anthropologist Karl Heider spent over two years studying them. He noted that the koteka weren’t just for protection, but were also incorporated into their language. The loud sound of their nails flicking their gourd was sometimes used to communicate messages, ranging from fear to excitement.
Believe it or not, some tribesmen even used empty spaces in their penis sheaths to store money or tobacco. Despite cold conditions and even snow, many Danai continue to just wear their koteka, affording them little pocket space.