Cf. Priapus. A Neoplatonic essay.

1 Opening

Let us talk about “Priapus, who has saffron-colored ivy wreathed around his joyful head” (Theocritus, Epigram 3.3–4; cf. Athenaeus 5.33)!

Sacrificial pig being led to an ithyphallic image (Priapus?); from a Pompeii fresco (Wikimedia Commons). Note wreaths around head and phallus and the flowers on the altar

2 Prelude: Priapic gods and daemons

Some poets speak of multiple Priapi (e.g., Pseudo-Moschus, Epitaph of Bion 27), but it may be that in such cases, we should think of the multitude of his images or of the several gods who are like him, and which lexicographers called “Priapic gods” (Priapṓdeis theoí). A relatively prominent example is Orthanes, who is “one of the gods under Priapus, who also has erect genitalia” (Hesychius, Lexicon ο 1175), or according to another authority, “a Priapic god, who is classed with Hermes and the Nymphs” (Photius, Lexicon s.v. Ὀρθάνης), or “a Priapic daemon around Aphrodite” (Isaac and John Tzetzes, Scholia on Lycophron 538). The Titans as a group (Photius, Lexicon Τιτανίδα γῆν), the Egyptian god Pamylēs (Lexicon Παμύλης) and a certain Hilaōn (Hesychius, Lexicon ι 533) are also described as Priapic gods, and Konisalos (Scholia on Aristophanes, Lysistrata 982; Suda κ 2040) as a Priapic daemon. Hermes is said to have “priapic genitals, with a large erection” (Scholia on Aristophanes, Lysistrata 1055).

Herm (=Hermes, not Priapus) with an altar before him; from ancient pottery (Wikimedia Commons)

To be clear, however, these deities are not identified with Priapus (for an exception see the passage from Diodorus Siculus below). Rather, the Lampsacene Priapus only “resembles the Attic Orthanes, Konisalos, Tychon and those of this kind” (Strabo, Geography 13.1.12). The fullest list is given by Photius: “Aphroditus: Hermaphroditus. Very much like him are also other daemons: Orthanes, Priapus, Aiacus, Genetyllis, Tychon, Gigon, Konisalos, Kynneios and others, whom Aristophanes mentions in the Heroes. Apollophanes in the Cretans: ‘Asclepius, Kynneios, Aphroditus, Tychon’” (Lexicon α 3404).

Of the deities just named, Orthanes, as we saw, could be grouped under Priapus, with Hermes and the Nymphs, or around Aphrodite. Tychon is “a daemon around Aphrodite” (Aelius Herodianus, De prosodia catholica, ed. Lentz, vol. 3.1, p. 37). Hilaōn is alternately a “a son of Poseidon, a hero who is extraordinarily large (lit. ‘overgrown’) and not affable” (Pausanias, Compendium of Attic Words ι 4), “after whom Aristophanes, in He with Three Phalluses by transference calls phalluses Hilaōnes, as being excessive in size; just as he called them Tityoi or certain such names” (Hesychius, Lexicon ι 533). Tityoi might be a misspelling for Tityroi, another name for the satyrs (Hesychius, Lexicon τ 996) or similar daemons around Dionysus (Strabo, Geography 10.3.10;15). The phalluses in question were large simulacra of erect penises carried around in processions. As another word for phallus was phalēs, Aristophanes in one of his plays depicts a procession accompanied by a phallikon or “song upon the phallus” (Scholia on Aristophanes, Acharnanians 261) which is actually addressed to Phalēs. He is called “the companion of Bacchius”, i.e., of Dionysus (Aristophanes, Acharnians 263), because the phalluses were assigned to Dionysus (Suda φ 50). For those who care to read it (with some of the copious annotations/scholia from antiquity), I have translated that passage on another page.

To return to the list of daemons in Photius, Aiacus is a prominent hero, but I do not know that other sources ever describe him in ways that explain his presence here. Genetyllis is not Priapic, but analogous to Priapus, as being “a daemon around Aphrodite and an overseer of procreation (genesis)” (Scholia on Aristophanes, Clouds 52). She could be called a goddess as well as a daemon: “Some consider her to be one of the deities (theoi) around Aphrodite, as being the cause of procreation for humans and overseeing marriage and the mysteries in marriage (or ‘in sex’), whence also among the Romans, there is a Venus Genetrix (Béneris genetríkis) in the fora” (ibid.). And alternately grouped around Artemis: “Genetyllis is a daemon around Aphrodite; they say that her name is coined from procreation (gennēsis). But some people say that the Genetyllides are around Artemis, as overseers of childbirth.” (Scholia on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 130; genesis can also mean birth, and thus be associated with the virginal helper of birthing parents, Artemis.)

Gigon is found elsewhere as a byname of Dionysus (Etymologicum Magnum s.v. Γιγωνίς), perhaps again related to procreation (gig-). Kynneios is an epithet of Apollon (Hesychius, Lexicon κ4591), also found as Kyneios and Kynēeios (Photius, Lexicon Κύνειος); Aristophanes may have been connecting it to kyneō, ‘to kiss’.

Finally, Hermaphroditus is represented as a beautiful female deity (like Aphrodite) with a prominent phallus (cf. the mention of Hermes’ Priapic genitalia above), and the name Aphroditus is connected to “the statue of Venus in Cyprus (which) is bearded, female in body and clothes, but with masculine scepter and stature; and they believe that she is male and female.” So Macrobius, Saturnalia 3.8.2–3, which continues: “Aristophanes calls her Aphroditos, and Laevinus says: ‘So I worship parent Venus, whether they are female or male, as she is Mother Noctiluca [‘night-shining’, i.e., the Moon]’. Philochorus in his Atthis confirms that she is the Moon and that men sacrifice to her in womanly dress, women in manly, because she is regarded as male and female.” The lexicographers equate Aphroditus and Hermaphroditus (Photius, Lexicon α 3404).

Note that hermaphroditos also meant something like ‘intersex’ (Galen, Medical Definitions, ed. Kühn, vol. 19, p. 453) or “someone who both does and has done to them shamefully”, in other words, someone who boths tops and bottoms (probably specifically in anal sex; Photius, Lexicon s.v. Ἑρμαφρόδιτος)

3 Introducing the god Priapus

Priapus shared his name (gr. Príapos or Príēpos, rarely Príepos) with a town on the Hellespont, near Lampsacus, where he was especially revered, except that the name of the town Priapos is a feminine noun (Stephanus, Ethnica, p. 535).

Priapus on the right, from a Roman coin (Wikimedia Commons); motif taken from Lampsacene coins

As for his relationship to Lampsacus, one report says he founded it: “Demosthenes says that it was a foundation of Priapus, the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, on account of the abundance of wine there” (Stephanus, Ethnica, p. 410).

According to the more common story, he was born there: “Sophocles […] narrates that when Aphrodite had given birth to the disfigured Priapus in Lampsacus, she rejected (aparn-) him and called the country Aparnis; and by corruption, it is also called Abarnis” (Stephanus, Ethnica, p. 4).

Another version (which further explains the so-called disfigurement) has him be born as a mortal and become a god only by merit: “This Priapus was from Lampsacus, a city of the Hellespont, from which he was expelled because of the size of his masculine organ. When he was later received among the gods, he merited to be the divine power over gardens (numen hortorum). […] And he is said to preside over gardens because of their fertility (fecunditas); for while other land may bring forth something at one time, gardens are never without fruit” (Servius, On the Georgics 4.111).

Still another version drops his rejection: “He was raised in Lampsacus, a city of the Hellespont. They believe him to be the son of Liber (=Dionysus) and Venus (=Aphrodite), and the guardian of gardens and vineyards” (Servius auctus, ibid.).

His phallus was so central to how Priapus was understood that priapism, a “permanent growth or permanent swelling” of the penis, was named after him, because “people sculpt and paint him as having genitals of this sort” (Galen, De locis affectis, ed. Kühn, vol. 8, p. 438). Dilators were also called priapiskoi (‘little Priapi’) after him, and the naked man orchid was called by the same name or by priapēïon, alongside similar names, like entatikon (‘erective’) and satyriskos (Additions to Dioscorides 3.126;128). According to one herbal text, a preparation made from priapiscus can help “when someone is impotent with women” (Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbarius 15.3).

Petals of the naked man orchid (Wikimedia Commons)

Some were even led to believe that Priapus was nothing more than a mythical representation of the penis: “They say that Priapus is the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, because those who have drunk wine are naturally invigorated to sexual (aphrodisiakai) pleasures. And some say that the ancients mythically call human genitalia Priapus. But some say that the sexual member is the cause for human procreation, and on this account, it attains immortal honor for all eternity; just as the Egyptians said that Isis searched for the organs of Osiris, but was unable to find his genitalia, and contrived to honor it as a god and set it up erect in the temple” (Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 2.2.12).

These, then, are probably the central facts about the god: his name, city, parentage, domain and most prominent attribute: a large, erect penis. Of course there are differing traditions even regarding these things, and there is much else to say besides.

4 More (variant) traditions about Priapus

A few more things may be said about the local importance of Priapus in and around Lampsacus. Apparently, the town of Priapos was also called Priapis, or at any rate Hesychius quotes a fragment of poetry speaking of “Priēpis, the city before the Bosporus”, which he glosses as “a Hellespontiac city; they say that Priapus, the son of Dionysus, and Perkōtē founded it” (Hesychius, Lexicon π 3283). This Perkote must have been another local deity, such as a nymph, sharing her name with a place in the same country: according to the Scholia on Iliad 15.548b, it was “a (the?) region of the Lampsacenes”, according to the D Scholia on Iliad 11.329, “a city of the Hellespont”.

Priapus was also worshipped in Parion or Parium, another town in the vicinity: “On the mainland (of Phrygia) there are the towns Priapos, Parion, Lampsacus, Perkote and Abydos” (Scylax 94). Hence he was called ‘the Parian’ or Parianos “as an epithet” (Hesychius, Lexicon π 928).

At the city of Lampsacus itself, according to Athenaeus, Priapus was worshipped with certain Dionysiac epithets. From this, Athenaeus concluded that they regarded him as Dionysus himself: “Priapus is honored by the Lampsacenes as being the same as Dionysus, and called so by (force of) epithets, like Thriambos and Dithyrambos” (Athenaeus 1.54). He was not alone in thinking so, as we will see, but it can hardly have been the prevailing opinion in Lampsacus, which was evidently the center of his worship as a distinct deity.

Theocritus, Idylls 1.21 refers to some statues of “Priapus and the Kranides”, which the scholiasts explain as follows: “Priapus is the son of the Naid (fresh-water) nymph Chione and Dionysus, and they say that he founded the city that has his name near Lampsacus. According to some, he is the same as Dionysus. And he appears as the same from the etymology of his name, since he is, as it were, Briēpyos (‘loud shouter’) on account of the loud shouts made in Bacchic frenzies and drunken bouts. Or he is Priēpos from ejaculating (prohisthai) sperm.” (The real etymology of Priapus is unkown; the name is probably from one of the local indigenous languages.) The Kranides are certain “Nymphs set up beside Priapus,” named after krēnai, ‘nymphs’, kranai in the dialect used by the poet. Theocritus also introduces Priapus as one of the mourners of the beautiful young Daphnis, “appropriately, since Priapus was a country dweller like Daphnis and likewise, because of his beauty, a son of Aphrodite.” [I have not yet been able to look at scholia on Theocritus beyond those edited by K. Wendel, 1914; there may be more material.]

[Work in progress]

5 Diodorus of Siculus on Priapus

[Work in progress]

6 Offerings for Priapus

The epigrams of the Greek Anthology contain many fairly straightforward dedicatory epigrams that tell us about the kinds of offerings made to the god, and on what occasions (whether these were written for real occasions or are purely literary). A good number of these were composed by quite famous poets. The Latin Carmina Priapea and some other Latin Priapean compositions also contain information of this kind.

One kind of offerings is vegetable produce, in thanks or in prayer for a good harvest; these would have been laid out on offering tables or altars at rural shrines and before statues, be these private or public.

  • In Carmen Priapeum 16, apples are placed on the offering table (mensa) for “nude Priapus” by the owner of a small plot (from which the apples probably came). In Carmen Priapeum 21, the apples being offered are bought rather than home-grown, and the speaker asks Priapus to keep this a secret.
  • In Carmen Priapeum 42, Aristagoras, the overseer of an estate, is offering fuits made of wax in thanks and in hopes of real fruits.
  • In epigram 6.102 of the Greek Anthology, by Philip of Thessalonica, the gardener (phytoskaphos) Lamon dedicates to Priapus, the “lover of travellers” (philoditēs), a “yellow-robed” pomegranate, wrinkly figs, rosey grapes, a fuzzy quince, a walnut in its green shell, a cucumber with its leaves and olive(s), “praying that his trees and his own limbs may flourish.”

[Work in progress]

Other offerings are connected to Priapus’ rule over matters of sex (and arguably gender, but not in a binary fashion). They are of more varied types, mostly permanent dedications.

  • In Carmen Priapeum 37, a tablet depicting a penis is dedicated to Priapus because he has healed the penis of a man who entrusted its care to this god rather than other deities or human doctors. The prayer that lead to the healing is written out as follows: “Give assistance, Priapus, to the part of which you, father, seem to be a part yourself! If it is made healthy without surgery, a painted one, its equal in size, shape and color, shall be dedicated to you.” (Fer opem, Priape, parti / quoius tu, pater, ipse pars videris; / qua salva sine sectione facta / ponetur tibi picta, quam levaris, / compar consimilisque concolorque.) At this, Priapus nodded his penis as Zeus would nod his head, and the request was fulfilled.
  • In Greek Anthology 6.292, by Hedylus, a young woman Nikonoe dedicates a fawn-skin and a golden jug to Priapus for winning in a beauty-contest (of which “he”, that is to say the judges’ arousal, “was the judge”).
  • In Carmen Priapeum 27, Quintia, a kind of erotic dancer performing in the Circus Maximus, dedicates cymbals, rattles and tambourines, such as are used in the performances, and prays that audience may always be as erect as the god.
  • In Carmen Priapeum 4, Lalage dedicates a pornographic book (the infamous work of Elephantis) and prays that Priapus help her get to try out all the positions depicted in it.
  • In Carmen Priapeum 50, a man offers to cover the entire penis and testicles of a Priapus statue in wreathes if a woman that he has been dating (so to speak) will finally have sex with him.
  • In Carmen Priapeum 34, a prostitute (puella) who was hired for a celebration (sacrum) of Priapus to sleep with the attendees dedicates as many willow-wood penises as men she was able to satisfy in that one night.
  • In Carmen Priapeum 40, Telethusa, famous among the “girls of the Subura” (the rid-light district of Rome, as it were), crowns the penis of a Priapus statue with a wreath of gold after she has paid for her manumission through sex work, since “submissives (pathicae) hold him as the highest deity (summum numen).”
  • In Greek Anthology 6.254, by Myrinus, “the queer woman (malakē) of Paphia [=Aphrodite], the androgynous Statyllios”—as we might say, a trans woman—dedicates certain gifts for the front hall of a Priapeum or temple of Priapus (Priēpeia) as she is on her deathbed, namely: light summer garments dyed scarlet and crimson, a wig or wigs, shoes, her box of cotton fabrics(?), “and the flutes that breathed sweetly in the hetaireioi revels” (where hetairia may refer to queerness and/or sex work). Existing translations of this epigram, distatefully, misgender Statyllios (unless it were argued that Statyllios, whether real or imaginary, is actually a gay man misgendered as female; but why assume malice?).
  • In Carmen Priapeum 47, Priapus warns the male guests at his banquet (cena) that, if they do not offer some verses to him, their wives and girlfriends will sleep with other men while they will be alone at home, horny but unfulfilled. Carmen Priapeum 60 also refers to the abundance of poems dedicated to the god.

An aspect of Priapus known primarily from the Greek Anthology is his connection to the sea, with fitting offerings described in various poems. This includes both dedications and perishable offerings:

[Work (list) in progress]

The visual sources catalogued in the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (treated in more detail below) show other kinds of (perishable) offerings:

  • In LIMC 142, a herm of Priapus is pouring oil or ointment onto its own altar with its right, holding a thyrsus in its left; there are also two statuettes pouring liquid onto their own phalluses (LIMC 13 and 28). Obviously the actions of devotees are here being projected onto the god.
  • Incense in LIMC 44.
  • Altar with fruits (probably not to be burned) in LIMC 94.
  • Burning altar in LIMC 97.
  • A billy goat in LIMC s.v. Priapos 19.
  • A bull in LIMC 20.
  • A rooster in LIMC 21 and 90.
  • […] LIMC 46.
  • […] LIMC 47.
  • […] LIMC 93.
  • Herm of Priapus with wreathed head and phallus; stone altar with fruits and flowers; sacrificers approaching with torch and pig (LIMC 129, the first image on this page).
  • In LIMC 149, the pedestal of a Priapus herm is decorated with garlands; before it is an altar with a fruit basket on it; a Satyr is drawing a billy goat to the altar.
  • In LIMC 127, a pillar, on which rests a herm of Priapus, is decorated with garlands and ribbons, while those making sacrifice carry a thyrsus.

[Work in progress]

7 Statues of Priapus

[Work in progress]

8 Priapus in philosophy

Although Priapus is often (and with some justification) called a minor god, ancient writers sometimes interpret him in the loftiest terms. Arrian, for instance, interpreted him as the Sun, “on account of his/its fertility” (Eustathius, On the Iliad, vol. 2, p. 499).

A Byzantine text (Suda s.v. Πρίαπος), also identifying him as the Sun, tells us that “they make the cult statue of Priapus, who is called Horus by the Egyptians, anthropomorphic, holding a scepter in his right hand, representing the dry land and the sea coming to light through him. In the left hand, he holds his erect genitalia, because he makes the seeds hidden in the Earth come forth and appear. The wings represent the speed of his motion, and the sphere represents the circumference of the (solar) disk, since they believe him to be the same as the Sun.” The connection to Priapus is obvious, but the scepter, wings and sphere seem to be features of Egyptian iconography. In a later text, Pseudo-Codinus’ Patria 2.12, the same paragraph is found, but with another sentence, which the Suda omitted: “For as was said, he has an anthropomorphic cult statue holding a scepter in the right hand, his erect genitalia in his left hand, and above him are wings, and between the wings, a disk-like sphere.”

Priapus a.k.a. Horus, or more technically, a statue of Min (Wikimedia Commons); note the flail, not scepter

This is technically the iconography of Min (eg. mnw, copt. Ⲙⲓⲛ), namesake of the city Akhmīm (locally, his name was pronounced Ⲙⲓⲙ Mim). This city was called Panopolis in Greek, reflecting a translation Min=Pan, but in the present case, something different is at work. Within the Egyptian framework, Min is being equated with Horus, presumably because of shared solar associations, and secondarily, this solar Horus is identified with Priapus on account of the ithyphallic Min iconography.

Hieroglyph representing Min

Porphyry, in a work On Cult Statues, where he describes the gods as powers of Zeus pervading the cosmos, makes one of the most important powers that around the Earth, and one of its principal subordinate powers Priapus. He is said to be the seminal power, or seminal Logos (spermatikos logos), in general, while Kore, Dionysus, Attis and Adonis are the powers over specific groups of plants.

In a Latin hymn (see next section), it is offered that Priapus may be the “Father and maker”, that is, the Platonic demiurge of the cosmos, or “Nature herself and the Universe” (Physis ipsa Panque).

[Work in progress]

In the idiosyncratic Christian system of Justin the Gnostic, described in his lost Book of Baruch and summarized in a heresiographical work, Priapus is used as a name for the highest of his three principles, the Good (agathos), because he pre-created (-priopoi-) all things (Refutation of All Heresies 5.26.32).

9 The hymn to Priapus from Tivoli

This Latin inscription (CIL XIV.3565) was dedicated by “Julius Agathemerus, a freedman of Augustus, to the genius of the deity Priapus, the potent, the powerful, the unconquered (Genio numinis Priapi potentis pollentis invicti), through the help of his friends, after he was instructed in a dream.” It is unclear whether the well-preserved 52-line hymn that makes up the bulk of the inscription was also written by Agathemerus, in the way that Aelius Aristides composed several of his extant prose and lost verse hymns after being told to in dreams. In any case, here is my translation and the Latin (source off-site; I have added marks for long vowels and synaereses):

“Hail, holy Priapus, father of all things,
Hail! Give me a flourishing youth
So that, be it boys be it girls,
I can please them with my horny dick (fascinus),
And with frequent games and jokes,
I may dissipate the worries that vex the mind
And not fear heavy old age too much,
That I not be vexed with terror of miserable death,
Which will drag me to the jealous mansions of Avernus (i.e., the underworld)
Where their king holds sway over the fabled Manes (i.e., the dead)
And the fates deny anyone a return.

“Hail, holy father Priapus, hail!
Come gather at once, however many you all are,
You girls who tend the sacred grove,
You girls who tend the sacred waters,
Come gather, however many you are, and with a pleasing
Voice, speak to beautiful Priapus:
Hail, holy Priapus, father of all things!

“Next, place a thousand kisses on his crotch,
Gird his dick well with fragrant wreaths,
And once more all say to him:
Hail, holy Priapus, father of all things!

“For warding off evil, blood-stained people,
He grants you to go through the woods
And through the unbloodied shady silences.
He also wards off wrongdoers from the springs,
Who with illicit foot would walk across
The sacred waters and disturb them,
Who wash their hands and do not first
With many a prayer invoke you, you girlish goddesses (=Nymphs)!
All say: o Priapus, be favorable, father (o Priape fave alme),
Hail, holy father Priapus, hail!

“O Priapus, potent friend, hail,
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), hail!
For it is by your ‘vigor’ that everything is conceived
Which fills the earth, aether and sea.
So hail, Priapus, hail, holy one!

“Jupiter himself, when you wish it,
Puts down his thunderbolts at once
And in his lust leaves his bright dwellings behind.
Good Venus, glowing Cupid,
The Grace and her twin sisters worship you,
As does Lyaeus (=Liber/Dionysus), the giver of joy.
For without you Venus is little regarded,
And the Grace, Cupid and Bacchus are without charm.
O Priapus, potent friend, hail!

“Chaste virgins call on you in prayer
That you may open their long fastened girdle,
And the bride calls you, so that her husband
May often have a hard and always a potent member.
Hail, holy father Priapus, hail!”

Latin text

Salve, sāncte pater Priāpe rērum,
salve. mīhī flōridam iuventam
dā mihi‿ut puerīs ut puellīs
fascinō placeam bonīs procācī
lūsibusque frequentibus iocīsque
dissipem cūrās animō nocentēs
nec gravem timeam nimis senectam,
angar haud miserae pavōre mortis
qua‿ad domūs trahet invidās Avernī,
fābulās Mānēs ubi rēx coërcet,
unde fāta negant redīre quemquam.

Salve, sāncte pater Priāpe, salve.
convenīte simul quot estis omnēs,
quae sacrum colitis nemus puellae,
quae sacrās colitis aquās puellae,
convenīte quot estis atque bellō
vōce dīcite blandulā Priāpō:
salve, sāncte pater Priāpe rērum.

Inguinī‿ōscula fīgite‿inde mīlle,
fascinum bene‿olentibus corōnis
cingite‿illī‿iterumque dicite omnēs:
salve, sāncte pater Priāpe rērum.

Nam malōs arcēns hominēs cruentōs
īre per silvās dat ille vōbis
perque opāca silentia‿incruenta,
ille fontibus arcet et scelestōs,
inprobō pede quī sacrōs liquōrēs
trānseunt faciuntque turbulentōs
quī lavantque manūs nec ante multā
invocant prece vōs, deae puellae.
ō Priāpe fave‿alme, dīcite‿omnēs,
salve, sāncte pater Priāpe salve.

Ō Priāpe potēns amīce, salve,
seu cupis genitor vocārī‿et auctor
orbis aut Physis ipsa Pānque, salve.
namque concipitur tuō vigōre
quod solum replet aethera‿atque pontum.
ergo salve, Priāpe, salve, sāncte.

Saeva Iūpiter ipse tē volente
ultro fulmina pōnit atque sēdēs
lūcidās cupidus suās relinquit.
tē Venus bona, fervidus Cupīdo,
Grātia‿et geminae colunt sorōres
atque laetitiae dator Lyaeus.
namque tē sine nec Venus probātur,
Grātiae‿illepidae, Cupīdo, Bacchus.
ō Priāpe potēns amīce, salve.

Tē vocant prece virginēs pudīcae,
zōnulam‿ut solvās diū ligātam,
tēque nūpta vocat sit ut marītō
nervu(s) saepe rigēns potēnsque semper.
salve, sāncte pater Priāpe, salve.

10 Priapeia, a literary genre

[Work in progress]

11 Priapus in visual art: an overview

(Since I am less familiar with the visual arts, this section will be the least comprehensive.)

As described in the LIMC or Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (in the supplement in vol. 8; off-site link to the German article; and to the volume with photographs), most depictions of Priapus come from the period between ca. 100 BCE and 200 CE, with no novel modes of depicting him emerging during this period, but iconographies standardized in the Hellenistic period persisting. He is almost universally depicted with a beard and a prominent erection; whether and how he is dressed or what attributes he carries can vary. (I will not attempt to survey all these variations here.)

The LIMC divides representations of him into various types, all given modern names: the Lodrosis type has Priapus lean back and push his groin forward, sometimes with his hands on his backside (see next image); he may or may not be naked, but the phallus is uncovered. In the Anasyrma type (see the Roman coin above, and the second and fourth image after this), the god is wearing a chiton, which would cover his genitalia, but he is pulling it up with one or both hands, and often holding fruits in the fold of his garment. Then there is the so-called normal type, in which (as I understand it) his posture is less peculiar; and the type of the “noble Priapus”: fully clothed but with the outline of the erection visible (see third image after this).

Man sitting before semi-herm of the Lodrosis type; intaglio from a gem (Wikimedia Commons)
Priapus in the Anasyrma type; ancient statue (Wikimedia Commons); note the feminine breasts
so-called noble Priapus; ancient statue (Wikimedia Commons)

There are also the partially abstract herms, some with only the head and phallus differentiated (cf. the herm painted on pottery near the beginning of this article), sometimes with the torso also chiseled (but often still lacking arms; see third image before this). Some other special types will be mentioned in due course. I omit discussion of busts, as I am unclear how these can be confidently assigned to Priapus.

More important, I think, than this classification of types are the different media and motifs in which Priapus is depicted. Most of the extant examples. Sometimes, he is merely worked into vessels or tools as a decorative element (e.g., LIMC s.v. Priapos 12). Not too dissimilar from this, in a way, is his function as a supporting structure for a dynamic statue of Aphrodite loosening her sandal (LIMC 14); but this is not purely instrumental, as we can also find a small Priapus next to his mother where no such structural necessity exists. In this case, he is obviously intended as a deity (whether god or daemon) in the retinue of the goddess.

Venus Ansotica, with Priapus (in Anasyrma type and wearing a miter) in subordinate position; Roman statue (Wikimedia Commons)

My point is that the same type can serve very different functions, from the purely decorative to the manifestly devotional. Besides, there are not only depictions of the god, but also depictions of depictions. That is to say, some more complicated scenes include a statue of the god alongside human or divine persons represented directly, and for Priapus this is in fact the more common case. For instance, LIMC 16 (a vessel) and 17 (a gem) have such an idol, on a tree next to Venus, Nymphs and Pan, and on a pillar next to a Satyr, respectively. Here, the presence of the Priapic image is a signifier of a rustic location and a Dionysiac/Aphrodisiac atmosphere. At other times, devotional activity is actually being represented, as in the image at the beginning of the page, which depicts a sacrifice (=LIMC 129). There are also examples of gods, such as Dionysus, sacrificing to a Priapus herm (LIMC 148). Here, the fact that the figure of Priapus is less realistic (less detailed or more abstract, or with the color of some material images are made of), smaller and/or on a plinth indicates that it is actually an image, not the god himself.

To avoid going through each scene with multiple figures individually, let me briefly list all the deities he appears with more than once in the (non-comprehensive) LIMC catalogue. (As for information from the scenes depicting worship, this has already been utilized above). The gods are as follows: Achelous, Aphrodite, Ariadne (with Dionysus), Cupids, Dionysus and Dionysiac worshippers (Maenads etc.), Earth, Heracles, Hermaphroditus, Hermes, Nymphs, Pan, Satyrs and Silenus.

In terms of the types of objects, the most obviously important are actual sculptures of Priapus (with surviving examples in bronze and marble, but also clay, ivory and tuff); some at least of those extant would surely have been used in worship, albeit not as the central statue of a temple. Reliefs, by contrast, were usually not objects of worship in Greco-Roman culture, but they could be dedications or votive offerings, or built into a temple, as well as decorations or art in a straightforward sense. Statues too of course could be dedications rather than cult statues. So could paintings, but as far as Priapus is concerned, it is largely wall paintings in Pompeii or Herculaneum that survive, with different functions.

Especially striking, in the sacred sphere, is that there are altars on which scenes of sacrifice to Priapus, including altars, are depicted (LIMC 89=168, 124), and which would in turn be used for sacrifice (to Priapus?).

Gods on coins often represent specific statues; Lampsacene coins of Priapus (LIMC 68, 104) may very well depict cult statues of his major temple(s), as symbols of civic identity and pride. But this is not necessarily the case (Priapus presumably was the pride for Lampsacus in any shape or form), and there are other, often obscure motivations for specific numismatic motifs.

When Priapus is depicted on sarcophagi, it is often in the context of essentially Dionysiac scenes, which were seen as relevant to the fate of the soul. But LIMC 44 depicts a sacrifice specifically to Priapus.

In the basically decorative/artistic category, I would place mosaics, various kinds of vessels, including cups and jugs, lamps, a gladiator helmet’s helmet (LIMC 150), and jewelry. However, see the next section on gems.

With these generalities out of the way, there are a few specific pieces I would like to mention.

[Work in progress]

Finally, I wish to add a note of caution: not everything that has been identified as a depiction of Priapus really is one (especially if the only source for an identification is some website). As we saw at the beginning of the article, there are many Priapic deities, some of them rather ephemeral, but Hermes in particular far more prominent than Priapus himself, and he too could be depicted as bearded. In other words, the fact that the only consistent attributes of Priapus are a phallus and a beard does not mean that a phallus and a beard are consistently attributes of Priapus and Priapus alone.

12 Gems depicting Priapus

[Work in progress]

13 Constructing a Neoplatonic “series” of Priapus

While there is no extant text, to my knowledge, that discusses Priapus within the paradigm of Neoplatonic philosophy, the god can serve as a good example of how the idea of a “series” or “chain” (seira) suspended from a deity is only an attempt to systematize long-standing opinions. Proclus tells us that, for instance, “the Seleniac (lunar) is among divine souls, among daemonic and human ones, among irrational animals, among plants and even among stones” (On the Timaeus, vol. 2, p. 201), and we have examples of all of this for Priapus.

The divine soul, of course, is Priapus himself. His daemons would be the multiple Priapi or the Priapic daemons, although some of these instead (or additionally) belong to other series, as Tychon does that of Aphrodite. Human souls belonging to Priapus might include some of the characters encountered in the poems about the god. Among animals, one would have to name the donkey, among plants the naked man orchid and the lotus, and among stones, those used in gems engraved with him.

In addition, as mentioned by Sallustius XV, there are cult statues, prayers and symbols (kharaktêres), which imitate life, intellect and the ineffable powers of the gods, respectively. The iconography of the god has been repeatedly touched on above; several prayers have been quoted; and while there may be no “ineffable” symbols, it seems fair to say that (by Neoplatonic logic) phallic shapes, both in lifelike and abstracted representations, carry an “ineffable” imprint from the god that is not simply reducible to the biological functions of the penis or a straightforward allegorical meaning.

We might justly imagine that there are other, “magical” names for the god and the Greater Beings below him, or more mystical symbols that carry no representative value. However, simply because Neoplatonic theory predicts that such would exist, this does not mean that they were ever historically in circulation. It may be that ritual experts never attempted to invent or discover such things.

14 A model rite for Priapus

Since no ancient ritual instructions for the worship of Priapus survive, I have written the following as an example of how he might be worshipped. But please note that this is not a reconstruction of historical practice, nor normative in any sense whatsoever. It incorporates ancient materials and customs into a new composition.

Have a figurine of the god or any kind of phallic object – even of the crudest material and quality – to use as his cult statue, and paint it red (or refresh its red paint, if you have used the idol before) under the light of the Sun. Meanwhile, as if greeting the god’s arrival, say:

Sálve, sâncte páter Priâpe, sálve.

(Hail, holy father Priapus, hail!)

Then install the image in a space that has been cleaned and sprinkled with salt water (for purification). Set down offerings of fruit or candy that seem fitting, and burn an incense stick before the god. A donkey of dough is also appropriate. Meanwhile, recite the following excerpt from Agathemerus’ hymn, or even the whole composition:

Ô Priâpe pótēns amîce, sálve,
seû cúpis génitor vocâr’ et aûctor
órbis aût Phýsis ípsa Pânque, sálve.
námque concípitur túō vigôre
quód sólum réplet aéther’ átque póntum.
érgo sálve, Priâpe, sálve, sâncte.

(O Priapus, potent friend, hail,orph
Whether you wish to be called the father and creator
Of this sphere, or Nature herself and the Universe, hail!
For it is by your vigor that everything is conceived
Which fills the earth, aether and sea.
So hail, Priapus, hail, holy one!)

Add any prayers you may have, and after you remove the offerings (the incense stick once it has burnt out, the fruit and candy at any point before they go off), periodically repeat the ritual and the prayer. Once the paint has dried, you may also show devotion to the image with kisses (and so on), and, if compatible with the paint, by salving it with oil or salve. If you can set up the image permanently, you may affix offerings such as flower chains and pendants to the phallus.

If your prayers have been fulfilled, or if you feel that the efficacy of the rite has lessened, add a new coat of red paint, either to reinforce the effect or as an expression of gratitude.

If you recite the hymn excerpt in Latin, observe the following conventions (which are more precise than those used in the complete Latin text above):

  • ⟨a⟩ : unstressed short vowel.
  • ⟨ā⟩ : unstressed long vowel.
  • ⟨á⟩ : stressed short vowel (or stressed antepenultimate diphthong ).
  • ⟨â⟩ : stressed long vowel (or stressed diphthong , ).
  • The word et carries no stress.