Priapus. A Neoplatonic Essay

Category: Ancient Learning > Theology > Original Writings

For the sources of most of the information referred to here, see my page on Priapus.

1 Introduction

I rarely venture from compilation to original theology, but in this essay, I will give it a try, because Priapus is demanding my attention, and the ancient Neoplatonists provide no help for understanding him – with the sole exception of Porphyry, who (in a Stoicizing essay On Cult Statues) writes that Priapus represents the ‘seminal pattern’ (gr. spermatikòs lógos) descending into the Earth. The seminal pattern here means something more concrete than in Stoic philosophy, namely the power which presides over the growth of vegetation from seeds. It divides into that over dry fruits (crops like wheat), called Kore, and that over moist fruits (like wine grapes) and hard-shelled fruit, called Dionysus. Further, Attis symbolizes the power over plants cut down prematurely, Adonis after reaching maturity.

This interpretation cannot stand as is from a Neoplatonic perspective, but it provides a point of departure. Firstly, Porphyry teaches us that Priapus is not a local daemon of Lampsacus, but a great god set over great gods in their spermatuchic (spermatoûkhos, ‘seed-possessing’) activity, presiding not only over Attis and Adonis, who are images of Dionysus, so to speak, but over Dionysus himself, although mythology makes Priapus his son. But since others, more mystically, have held that Priapus is Dionysus; and the sixth Orphic Hymn calls Phanes Priapus; and other Orphic poems called Phanes Dionysus; but Proclus explains that Phanes is called ‘Dionysus’ symbolically, because he is the cause and paradigm of Dionysus’ demiurgic role – in light of all this, we may conclude that the name of Priapus too is given to Phanes symbolically, and that of Dionysus to Priapus because he is a lower cause and paradigm of Dionysus’ activity.

Phanes (called ‘Priapus’ and ‘Dionysus’ as their paradigm)
→ Priapus (called ‘Dionysus’ as his paradigm)
→ Dionysus

Not, however, as the paradigm of his demiurgic function; that is Zeus. Priapus foreshows not the demiurgic but the life-originating (zoogonic) powers of the second demiurge (Dionysus) and the third (Attis/Adonis). This is why the seminal power is said to divide into Dionysus and Kore, the latter being a life-originating goddess; or rather, the power of whom Porphyry speaks is the terrestrial (chthonic) Dionysus, who is named Priapus after his father, and even is Priapus by participation; and this Dionysus is masculine and feminine, as Porphyry writes:

“The power that rules over the seeds (spermatoûkhos) is Kore, […] but the power over fruit-trees and planting in general is called Dionysus. Consider the images: Kore carries the symbols of the production of the plants which grow above the earth in the crops; and Dionysus has horns in common with Kore, and is furthermore feminine in physique (thēlymorphos), indicating the bigendered power over the fruit-trees.”

This coincides with Orphic Hymn 42 to the goddess Misē, where Dionysus is called Thesmophóros (a byname of Demeter, the mother of Kore) and “much-wooed seed”; the ineffable queen Misē; and “masculine and feminine” Iacchus. Although we do not know what the late Neoplatonists made of Iacchus, it is clear that he is Dionysiac, but also Demetriac. I posit that he is the life-originating chthonic Dionysus – called Dionysus because he springs from the first Dionysus; Priapus after the paradigm of his life-originating activity; Iacchus as the son of Demeter, i.e., as sharing in her power over reproduction on the Earth; and Kore because of their close kinship, or due to a mystic unity of their divinities. But Misē is perhaps her truest, ineffable name.

2 Priapus himself

In the Latin hymn of Julius Agathemerus, it is left open “whether you wish to be called the father and creator (cf. Plato, Timaeus 28c3) / of this sphere, or Nature (Physis) herself and the Universe (Pan), […]. / For it is by your ‘vigor’ that everything is conceived / which fills the earth, aether and sea.” But as I have already said, Priapus is not rightly understood as demiurgic in the manner that Zeus is. Nor, as a god, and a divine intellect, can he be the cosmos or its nature, which spring forth from Soul, the daughter of Intellect. I shall propose that, in the terminology of the late Neoplatonists, not yet available to Agathemerus, Priapus is a life-originating god, indeed the life-originating god.

In the Greek myths, the life-originating deity is called Rhea or the Mother-of-Gods, the spouse of Kronos and the mother of Zeus, the demiurge. But we can see in Priapus that the paternal role of the demiurge already preexists in the life-originating deity (who is goddess, as the Mother-of-Gods, and god, as Priapus), and can therefore be omitted from an account of the origin of the cosmos. No one has said that Zeus is the son of Priapus, because all the works that we attribute to the demiurge, we can attribute in a higher measure to his parent, and so all the creations of Zeus can be said, even more truthfully, to be the products of Priapus himself.

3 Priapus and Aphrodite

Why, however, is it said that Priapus is the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite? In fact, the myth points to the opposite, because “when Aphrodite had given birth to the disfigured Priapus in Lampsacus, she rejected him” – not as disowning her true child, but pointing to the fact that he was truly older than his birth in the cosmos. So, while the Priapus in the cosmos is the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, the first Priapus anticipates them, and he contains the first founts of both streams – the Aphrodisiac and the Dionysiac – within his orchards, preceding even the fatherhood of Zeus. For this reason, not only is there one Priapus who is the child of Aphrodite and Dionysus (after the first Priapus who is their parent and the parent of all), but there are many Priapi – daemons as the ancients say, but also angels and heroes as we can deduce – in the train of both of his ‘parents’, as well as the Satyrs with their erect phalluses, and the Priapus-like Tychon and Orthanes around Aphrodite, and also Aphroditus.

And why is Priapus associated with Hermes if not for the same reason, that the first origin of this god is within Priapus? This is why they are both depicted as herms with erect penises, and also why Hermes and Aphrodite are said to have a child, Hermaphroditus, who is an image of Priapus. Or why is Priapus said to be the Sun, if not again because he is the cause of the Sun?

And so it seems to be that of the seven planets, three who are neighbors (the Sun, Venus and Mercury) all bear the imprint of one god, father Priapus, as do Dionysus and Attis and Adonis and Hermaphroditus; and our hymns to Kore and Misē refer back to him, because he is the source of all our nourishment; just as he is the cause of procreation and the wellspring of delight, not just by himself but through great multitudes of angels and daemons who watch over and under us. And queer people come from him as they do from the Mother-of-Gods—

Mother, Father, maker of women,
Who preside over Dionysus, Attis and Adonis,
Who give light to the Sun, to Venus and to Mercury,
Who attend the gods, and the gardens of people,
The woods, the orchards, the baskets of fruit,
Receive this offering of words and devoted thought!

Status: completed (June 2022)