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In Greek mythology, Priapus or Priapos (Greek: Πρίαπος), was a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus was best noted for his large, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.

Relationship with other deities

Priapus was described as the son of Aphrodite by Dionysus, or son of Dioysus and Chione[1], perhaps as father or son of Hermes,[2] son of Zeus or Pan, depending on the source.[3] According to legend, Hera cursed him with impotence, ugliness and foul-mindedness while he was still in Aphrodite's womb, in revenge for the hero Paris having the temerity to judge Aphrodite more beautiful than Hera.[4] The other gods refused to allow him to live on Mount Olympus and threw him down to Earth, leaving him on a hillside. He was eventually found by shepherds and was brought up by them.

Priapus joined Pan and the satyrs as a spirit of fertility and growth, though he was perennially frustrated by his impotence. In a ribald anecdote told by Ovid,[5] he attempted to rape the nymph Lotis but was thwarted by an ass, whose braying caused him to lose his erection at the critical moment and woke Lotis. He pursued the nymph until the gods took pity on her and turned her into a lotus plant. The episode gave him a lasting hatred of asses and a willingness to see them destroyed in his honour.[6]The emblem of his lustful nature was his permanent erection and his giant penis.[7]

Worship and attributes

The first extant reference to Priapus is in the eponymous comedy Priapus, written in the 4th century BCE by Xenarchus. Originally worshipped by Greek colonists in Lampsacus in Asia Minor, the cult of Priapus spread to mainland Greece and eventually to Italy during the 3rd century BCE.[8] Lucian (De saltatione) tells that in Bithynia Priapus was accounted as a warlike god, a rustic tutor to the infant Ares, "who taught him dancing first and war only afterwards," Karl Kerenyi observed.[9] Arnobius is aware of the importance accorded Priapus in this region near the Hellespont.[10] Also, Pausanias notes:

This god is worshipped where goats and sheep pasture or there are swarms of bees; but by the people of Lampsacus he is more revered than any other god, being called by them a son of Dionysus and Aphrodite.[11]

Outside his "home" region in Asia Minor, Priapus was regarded as something of a joke by urban dwellers. However, he played a more important role in the countryside, where he was seen as a guardian deity. He was regarded as the patron god of sailors and fishermen and others in need of good luck, and his presence was believed to avert the evil eye.[12]

Priapus does not appear to have had an organised cult and was mostly worshipped in gardens or homes, though there are attestations of temples dedicated to the god. His sacrificial animal was the ass, reflecting his lustful nature, but agricultural offerings (such as fruit, flowers, vegetables and fish) were also very common.[8]

Long after the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity, Priapus continued to be invoked as a symbol of health and fertility. The 13th century Lanercost Chronicle, a history of northern England and Scotland, records a "lay Cistercian brother" erecting a statue of Priapus (simulacrum Priapi statuere) in a bid to end an outbreak of cattle disease.[13]

In the 1980s, D. F. Cassidy founded the St. Priapus Church, a new religious movement centred on worship of the phallus.[14][15]

Depictions

Priapus' iconic attribute was his priapism (permanently erect penis); he probably absorbed some pre-existing ithyphallic deities as his cult developed. He was represented in a variety of ways, most commonly as a misshapen gnome-like figure with an enormous erect phallus. Statues of Priapus were common in ancient Greece and Rome, standing in gardens or at doorways and crossroads. To propitiate Priapus, the traveller would stroke the statue's penis as he passed by. The Athenians often conflated Priapus with Hermes, the god of boundaries, and depicted a hybrid deity with a winged helmet, sandals and huge erection.[7]

Statues of Priapus were often hung with signs bearing epigrams, collected in Priapeia (treated below), which threatened sexual assault towards transgressors of the boundaries that he protected:

Percidere, puer, moneo; futuere, puella;

barbatum furem tertia poena manet.

Femina si furtum faciet mihi virve puerve,

haec cunnum, caput hic praebeat, ille nates.

Per medios ibit pueros mediasque puellas

mentula, barbatis non nisi summa petet.

I warn you, boy, you will be scr**ed; girl, you will be f***ed;

a third penalty awaits the bearded thief.

If a woman steals from me, or a man, or a boy,

let the first give me her cunt, the second his head, the third his buttocks.

My d*** will go through the middle of boys and the middle of girls,

but with bearded men it will aim only for the top.[16]

Another example comes from the works of Martial (6.73):

Non rudis indocta fecit me falce colonus:
Dispensatoris nobile cernis opus.
Nam Caeretani cultor ditissimus agri
Hos Hilarus colles et iuga laeta tenet.
Adspice, quam certo videar non ligneus ore,
Nec devota focis inguinis arma geram:
Sed mihi perpetua nunquam moritura cupresso
Phidiaci rigeat mentala digna manu.
Vicini, moneo, sanctum celebrate Priapum,
Et bis septenis parcite iugeribus.

I am not hewn from fragile elm, nor is my member which stands stiff with a rigid shaft made from just any old wood. It is begotten from everlasting cypress, which fears not the passage of a hundred celestial ages nor the decay of advanced years. Fear this, evil doer, whoever you are. If your thieving rod harms the smallest shoots of this here vine, like it or not, this cypress rod will penetrate [i.e. sodomise] and plant a fig in you.[17]

A number of Roman paintings of Priapus have survived. One of the most famous images of Priapus is that from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. A fresco depicts the god weighing his phallus against a bag full of money; it appears that his phallus is heavier. In nearby Herculaneum, an excavated snack bar has a painting of Priapus behind the bar, apparently as a good-luck symbol for the customers.

In literature

Priapus gave rise to a genre of poetry collectively termed Priapeia. The genre shows how Roman poets in particular invented comic and obscene situations for the deity, giving him more literary prominence than he enjoyed in rites or cult, though masked phallic figures were prominent on many festive occasions, both in Greece and in the wider Roman world.

In Ovid's Fasti,[18] the nymph Lotis fell into a drunken slumber at a feast, and Priapus seized this opportunity to advance upon her. With stealth he approached, and just before he could embrace her, Silenus' donkey alerted the party with "raucous braying". Lotis awoke and pushed Priapus away, but her only true escape was to be transformed into the lotus tree. To punish the donkey for spoiling his opportunity, Priapus bludgeoned it to death with his gargantuan phallus. In later versions of the story, Lotis is replaced with the virginal goddess Hestia. Ovid's anecdote served to explain why donkeys were sacrificed to Priapus in the city of Lampsacus on the Hellespont, where he was worshipped among the offspring of Hermes.[19]

Priapus is mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale", part of The Canterbury Tales. During a description of a garden that the protagonist, Januarie, creates, Priapus is invoked in his form as god of gardens:

Ne Priapus ne myghte nat suffise,
Though he be God of gardyns, for to telle
The beautee of the gardyn and the welle,
That stood under a laurer alwey grene. [20]

Priapus might not suffice,
Though he be god of gardens, to tell
Of the beauty of the garden and the well
That stood under the laurel, always green.

Priapus serves to remind the reader, or listening audience, that Januarie's intentions are driven by lust and not love.

Priapus is repeatedly mentioned in Petronius's Satyricon. William Arrowsmith, in the introduction and notes to his translation of the work, draws parallels between his hounding of the protagonist and that of Poseidon in Homer's Odyssey.

Patron of merchant sailing

Priapus’ role as a patron god for merchant sailors in ancient Greece and Rome is that of a protector and navigational aide. Recent shipwreck evidence contains apotropaic items carried onboard by mariners in the forms of a terracotta phallus, wooden Priapus figure, and bronze sheath from a military ram. Coinciding with the use of wooden Priapic markers erected in areas of dangerous passage or particular landing areas for sailors, the function of Priapus is much more extensive than previously thought.[21]

Although Priapus is commonly associated with the failed attempts of rape against the nymph Lotis and the goddess Vesta in Ovid’s comedy Fasti[22] and the rather flippant treatment of the deity in urban settings, Priapus’ protection traits can be traced back to the importance placed on the phallus in ancient times (particularly his association with fertility and garden protection)[21]. In Greece, the phallus was thought to have a mind of its own, animal-like, separate from the mind and control of the man.[23] Represented in its erect form, the phallus was present in almost every aspect of daily life, reaffirming the male-dominant state of affairs in its overt presence.[24] The phallus is also associated with “possession and territorial demarcation” in many cultures, attributing to Priapus’ other role as a navigational deity. [21]

Modern derivations

Medical terminology

The medical condition priapism derives its name from Priapus, alluding to the god's permanently engorged penis.

Natural history

  • The group of worm-like marine burrowing animals known as the Priapulidea, literally "penis worms", also derives its name from Priapus.
  • Mutinus caninus, a woodland fungus, draws its first name from Priapus's Roman name, due to its phallic shape.

In popular culture

  • It has been suggested by some scholars that the modern popular garden gnome is a descendant of Priapus. [25]
  • The Marvel Comics series Terror Inc. featured a villain character, Priapus, possibly based on the god.
  • In Sherrilyn Kenyon's Fantasy Lover, Priapus is Julian's half-brother, who cursed him to live in the book and only come out to be someone's lover from full moon to full moon.
  • In Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House, Paul names his horse Priapus I (Pg. 140).

References

Notes

  1. Scholia on Theocritus, 1. 21
  2. Kerenyi, Gods of the Greeks, 1951, p. 175, noting G. Kaibel, Epigrammata graeca ex lapidibus collecta, 817, where the other god's name, both father and son of Hermes, is obscured; Hyginus (Fabulae 160) makes Hermes the father of Pan.
  3. "Priapus". The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. David Leeming. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  4. An elaboration on a scholium on Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica i. Kereny remarks of the jealousy of Hera in this case, "a cheap theme, and certainly not an ancient one" (Kerenyi 1951, p.176).
  5. Ovid, Fasti, vi.319ff
  6. "Priapus." Who's Who in Classical Mythology, Routledge. 2002.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Priapus." Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. 1996.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Robert Christopher Towneley Parker. "Priapus". The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth. Oxford University Press 2003.
  9. Kerenyi, Gods of the Greeks, 1951, p. 154, also pp. 175-77. .
  10. In ridiculing the literal aspects of pagan gods given human form, he mentions "the Hellespontian Priapus bearing about among the goddesses, virgin and matron, those parts ever prepared for encounter." (Arnobius, Seven Books against the Heathen III.10 (on-line text).
  11. Pausanias, Description of Greece IX.312.
  12. "Priapus." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007
  13. Yves Bonnefoy, Roman and European Mythologies, pp. 139-142. University of Chicago Press, 1992. ISBN 0226064557
  14. J. Gordon Melton (1996, 5th ed.). Encyclopedia of American Religions (Detroit, Mich.: Gale) ISBN 0810377144 p. 952.
  15. Andy Nyberg, "St. Priapus Church: The Organized Religion", The Advocate, Sep. 1983, pp. 35–37.
  16. Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, p. 21. Oxford University Press US, 1999. ISBN 0195125053
  17. Quoted in Eric Csapo, Theories of Mythology, p. 168. Blackwell Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0631232486
  18. Fasti, 6.319ff.
  19. Hyginus, Fabulae, 160.
  20. G. Chaucer, The Merchant's Prologue and Tale, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006), p63
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Neilson III, Harry R. 2002. “A terracotta phallus from Pisa Ship E: more evidence for the Priapus deity as protector of Greek and Roman navigators.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 31.2: 248-253.
  22. Fantham, Elaine. 1983. “Sexual Comedy in Ovid’s Fasti: Sources and Motivation.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87: 185.
  23. Csapo, Eric. 1997. "Riding the Phallus for Dionysus: Iconology, Ritual, and Gender-Role De/Construction." Phoenix 51.3/4: 260.
  24. Keuls, Eva C. 1985. The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles: 4-5.
  25. Peter D. Arnott, An Introduction to the Roman World. London: MacMillan, 1970; Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery. I.B.Tauris, 2007, p. 117. ISBN 1845112415. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Greek in a Cold Climate. Rowman & Littlefield, 1991, p. 64. ISBN 0389209678.

Bibliography

  • Brown, Emerson, Jr. "Hortus Inconclusus: The Significance of Priapus and Pyramus and Thisbe in the Merchant's Tale". Chaucer Review 4.1 (1970): 31-40.
  • “Priapus and the Parlement of Foulys”. Studies in Philology 72 (1975): 258-74.
  • Coronato, Rocco. “The Emergence of Priapism in the Two Gentlemen of Verona”. In Proteus: The Language of Metamorphosis, ed. Carla Dente, George Ferzoco, Miriam Gill and Marina Spunta. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, chapter 8, 93-101.
  • Delord, Frédéric. "Priapus". 2009. In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.
  • "'O, the difference of man and man!' (IV.ii.26): Références et différences génitales dans King Lear" in Autour de King Lear, ed. A. Lafont and M.-C. Munoz, with F. Delord. Montpellier: IRCL, February 2009.
  • Érubescences et turgescences dans l’imaginaire shakespearien et la culture de la Renaissance, thèse dactylographiée (Ph.D). Montpellier : Université Montpellier III – Paul Valéry, 2008.
  • Franz, David O. "Leud Priapians and Renaissance Pornography". Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 12, n°1 (winter 1972): 157-72.
  • Morel, Philippe. "Priape à la Renaissance: Les guirlandes de Giovanni da Udine à la Farnésine". Revue de l’Art 69 (1985): 13-28.
  • Peyré, Yves. "Priape dénaturé: Remarques sur les Apotheseos…Deorum Libri Tres de Georges Pictor et leur adaptation anglaise par Stephen Batman". Influences latines en Europe (Cahiers de l’Europe Classique et Néo-Latine). Toulouse: Travaux de l’Université de Toulouse - Le Mirail, A.23 (1983): 61-87.

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