A death erection, angel lust, rigor erectus, or terminal erection[1] is a post-mortem erection, technically a priapism, observed in the corpses of men who have been executed, particularly by hanging.[2]



The phenomenon has been attributed to pressure on the cerebellum created by the noose.[3] Spinal cord injuries are known to be associated with priapism.[4] Injuries to the cerebellum or spinal cord are often associated with priapism in living patients.[2]

Death by hanging, whether an execution or a suicide, has been observed to affect the genitals of both men and women. In women, the labia and clitoris may become engorged and there may be a discharge of blood from the vagina[5] while in men, "a more or less complete state of erection of the penis, with discharge of urine, mucus or prostatic fluid is a frequent occurrence ... present for one in three cases."[5] Other causes of death may also result in these effects, including fatal gunshots to the head, damage to major blood vessels, and violent death by poisoning. A postmortem priapism is an indicator that death was likely swift and violent.[5]

  • In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion,[6] art historian and critic Leo Steinberg alleges that a number of Renaissance era artists depicted Jesus Christ with an emphasis on his genitalia — including after the crucifixion with a post-mortem erection — a motif which Steinberg named ostentatio genitalium. The artwork was suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church for several centuries.
  • The "Cyclops" section of James Joyce's Ulysses makes multiple uses of the terminal erection as a motif.[7]
  • In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon relates an anecdote attributed to Abulfeda that Ali, on the death of Muhammad, exclaimed, O propheta, certe penis tuus cælum versus erectus est (O prophet, thy penis is erect unto the sky).[8] This understanding of the anecdote, however, is based on a mistranslation of the Arabic source by John Gagnier, who translated Abulfeda's Life of Muhammad into Latin. The English translation of the Arabic source should read: "In one account, ʿAlī, may God be best pleased with him, was called upon, while he was washing him [the Prophet], to raise his gaze to the sky."[9]
  • This phenomenon is a recurring theme in the writing of William S. Burroughs, appearing in many of his books including Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night.[10]
  • The movie Clerks refers to the phenomenon in a dark satirical manner. The scene in question involves a male customer passing away of a heart attack in the bathroom of the store after having recently read an adult magazine. The protagonist's girlfriend believes her boyfriend is the person in the bathroom and that he was waiting to surprise her.
  • The Apple TV+ series Bad Sisters opens with one of the characters experiencing this while lying in his coffin shortly before his wake, while his wife desperately attempts to cover it up before guests arrive.
  • In the HBO series In Treatment a patient, Alex, talks about having a near death experience where he felt scared to have an erection since it would mean he was actually dead.
  • The play Waiting for Godot includes a conversation between the two main characters, Vladamir and Estragon, where they contemplate suicide by hanging. Ultimately, they decide against it because they will get an erection.
  • In the HBO series Six Feet Under the body of a man is shown being moved from a hospital bed to a gurney in the episode The Will. As the body is moved, a sheet falls off the body, and the man’s penis is exposed. A character from the show, Frederico, then tells Nate about “Angel’s Lust” which is another term for a death erection.

See also



  1. ^ Helen Singer Kaplan; Melvin Horwith (1983). The Evaluation of Sexual Disorders: Psychological and Medical Aspects. United Kingdom: Brunner Routledge. ISBN 9780876303290. Retrieved 2007-01-26. "Men subjected to capital punishment by hanging and laboratory animals sacrificed with cervical dislocation have terminal erections. The implication is that either central inhibition of erection is released and erection created or that a sudden massive spinal cord stimulus generates an erectile response. There is ample experimental and clinical evidence to support the former supposition."
  2. ^ a b Willis Webster Grube (1897). A Compendium of practical medicine for the use of students and practitioners of medicine. Hadley Co. p. 455. Retrieved 2007-01-26. "Erection has long been observed to follow injuries to the cerebellum and spinal cord. Out of eleven cases of cerebellar hemorrhage, erection of the penis was noted six times by Serres. Death by hanging is often accompanied by partial erection."
  3. ^ George M. Gould; Walter L. Pyle (1900). Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. W. B. Saunders. p. 683. Retrieved 2007-01-26. "Priapism is sometimes seen as a curious symptom of lesion of the spinal cord. In such cases it is totally unconnected with any voluptuous sensation, and is only found accompanied by motor paralysis. It may occur spontaneously immediately after accident involving the cord, and is then probably due to undue excitement of the portion of the cord below the lesion, which is deprived of the regulating influence of the brain... Pressure on the cerebellum is supposed to account for cases of priapism observed in executions and suicides by hanging. There is an instance recorded of an Italian castrata who said he provoked sexual pleasure by partially hanging himself."
  4. ^ David Levy, DO. "Neck trauma". eMedicine.com. Retrieved 2007-01-26.
  5. ^ a b c William Augustus Guy (1861). Principles of Forensic Medicine. London: Henry Renshaw. p. 245. Retrieved 2007-01-26.
  6. ^ Steinberg, Leo (January 1996). The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. University of Chicago Press. p. 315-316, 324-325. ISBN 978-0-226-77187-8.
  7. ^ Tholoniat, Yann [in French]. "Joyce's Cyclops". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help) Yann Tholoniat is a professor at the University of Lorraine.
  8. ^ Gibbon, Edward; Milman, Henry Hart (2008-06-07). Widger, David (ed.). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireTable of Contents with links in the HTML file to the two Project Gutenberg editions (12 volumes). Vol. IX.
  9. ^ Ismael Abu'l--Feda, De vita, et rebus gestis Mohammedis, Moslemicæ religionis auctoris, et Imperii Saracenici fundatoris. Ex codice MSto Pocockiano Bibliothecæ Bodleianæ textum Arabicum primus edidit, Latinè vertit, præfatione, & notis illustravit Joannes Gagnier, A.M.. Oxford, 1723, p. 140, note. c. Retrieved 25-06-2014. The English translation of the Arabic source should read: "In one account, ʿAlī, may God be best pleased with him, was called upon, while he was washing him [the Prophet], to raise his gaze to the sky."
  10. ^ "Pleasures of Hanging".
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