Last updated
God of fertility, vegetables, nature, livestock, fruit, beekeeping, sex, genitals, masculinity, and gardens
Pompeya erotica6.jpg
Fresco of Priapus, House of the Vettii, Pompeii
SymbolDonkey, flowers, fruit, vegetables, fish, bees
Personal information
Parents Aphrodite and Dionysus;
Hermes and Aphrodite;
Dionysus and Chione;
Zeus and Aphrodite
Siblings Charites, Eros, Hermaphroditos, Hymenaios, Pan, satyrs
Roman equivalent Mutunus Tutunus

In Greek mythology, Priapus ( /prˈpəs/ ; [1] Ancient Greek : Πρῐ́ᾱπος, Príāpos) was a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism. He became a popular figure in Roman erotic art and Latin literature, and is the subject of the often humorously obscene collection of verse called the Priapeia .


Relationship with other deities

Priapus was described in varying sources [2] as the son of Aphrodite by Dionysus; as the son of Dionysus and Chione; [3] as perhaps the father or son of Hermes; [4] or as the son of Zeus or Pan. [5] According to legend, Hera cursed him with inconvenient impotence (he could not sustain an erection when the time came for sexual intercourse), 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. [6] 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, [7] he attempted to rape the goddess Hestia but was thwarted by an ass, whose braying caused him to lose his erection at the critical moment and woke Hestia. The episode gave him a lasting hatred of asses and a willingness to see them destroyed in his honour. [8] The emblem of his lustful nature was his permanent erection and his large penis. Another myth states that he pursued the nymph Lotis until the gods took pity on her and turned her into a lotus plant. [9]

Worship and attributes

Priapus depicted with the attributes of Mercury in a fresco found at Pompeii Pompeya erotica5.jpg
Priapus depicted with the attributes of Mercury in a fresco found at Pompeii
Bronze Bust of Priapus, Roman 100 BC found in the Villa di Papiri in Herculaneum Bust Priapus Bronze Roman 100BCE Museo Archeologico Nazionale Naples found in the Villa di Papiri 1.jpg
Bronze Bust of Priapus, Roman 100 BC found in the Villa di Papiri in Herculaneum

The first extant mention of Priapus is in the eponymous comedy Priapus, written in the 4th century BC 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 BC. [10] 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. [11] Arnobius is aware of the importance accorded Priapus in this region near the Hellespont. [12] 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. [13]

In later antiquity, his worship meant little more than a cult of sophisticated pornography. [14]

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. [15]

Priapus does not appear to have had an organized cult and was mostly worshiped in gardens or homes, though there are attestations of temples dedicated to the god. His sacrificial animal was the ass, but agricultural offerings (such as fruit, flowers, vegetables and fish) were also very common. [10]

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 an attempt to end an outbreak of cattle disease. [16]

In the 1980s, D. F. Cassidy founded the St. Priapus Church as a modern church centred on worship of the phallus. [17] [18]


Gallo-Roman bronze statuette (ca 1st century AD) of Priapus (or a Genius cucullatus?) discovered in Picardy, northern France, made in two parts, with the top section concealing a giant phallus. Musee Picardie Archeo 03.jpg
Gallo-Roman bronze statuette (ca 1st century AD) of Priapus (or a Genius cucullatus?) discovered in Picardy, northern France, made in two parts, with the top section concealing a giant phallus.

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. The Athenians often conflated Priapus with Hermes, the god of boundaries, and depicted a hybrid deity with a winged helmet, sandals, and huge erection. [9]

Another attribute of Priapus was the sickle which he often carries in his right hand. This too was used to threaten thieves, doubtless with castration: [19] [20] Horace (Sat. 1.8.1–7) writes: [21]

Olim truncus eram ficulnus, inutile lignum,
cum faber, incertus scamnum faceretne Priapum,
maluit esse deum. deus inde ego, furum aviumque
maxima formido; nam fures dextra coercet
obscenoque ruber porrectus ab inguine palus;
ast importunes volucres in vertice harundo
terret fixa vetatque novis considere in hortis.
"Once I was a trunk of fig, a useless piece of wood,
when a carpenter, unsure whether he should make a bench or a Priapus,
decided to make a god. So I am a god, of thieves and birds
a very great scarer; for my right hand curbs thieves,
as does the red pole which projects from my indecent groin;
but as for the importunate birds, the reed fixed on my head
terrifies them and forbids them to settle in the new gardens."

A number of epigrams, apparently written as if to adorn shrines of Priapus, were collected in the Priapeia . In these, Priapus frequently threatens sexual assault against potential thieves: [22]

Percidere, puer, moneo; futuere, puella;
   barbatum furem tertia poena manet.
"I warn you, boy, you will be screwed; girl, you will be laid with;
   a third penalty awaits the bearded thief."
Femina si furtum faciet mihi virve puerve,
   haec cunnum, caput hic praebeat, ille nates.
"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."
per medios ibit pueros mediasque puellas
   mentula; barbatis non-nisi summa petet.
"My dick will go through the middle of boys and the middle of girls,
   but with bearded men it will aim only for the top."

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 large bag of coins. In nearby Herculaneum, an excavated snack bar has a painting of Priapus behind the bar, apparently as a good-luck symbol for the customers.[ citation needed ]

In literature

As well as the collection known as the Priapeia mentioned above, Priapus was a frequent figure in Latin erotic or mythological verse.

In Ovid's Fasti , [23] 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's 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.[ citation needed ] 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. [24]

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 .

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. [25]

(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 mentioned in William Carlos Williams's poem "Paterson". Priapus is also mentioned in John Steinbeck's East of Eden : "She conducted her house like a cathedral dedicated to a sad but erect Priapus."

Priapus is referred to in Henry Miller's 1939 novel Tropic of Capricorn , in a passage railing against society's refusal to talk about sex as an act of pleasure.

T.S. Eliot refers to Priapus in his poem "Mr. Appolinax" (published in Prufrock and Other Observations, 1920):

When Mr. Apollinax visited the United States
His laughter tinkled among the teacups.
I thought of Fragilion, that shy figure among the birch-trees,
And of Priapus in the shrubbery
Gaping at the lady in the swing.

Priapus is also mentioned in Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading : "Or when you, with eyes closed tight, devouring a spurting peach and then, having finished, but still swallowing, with your mouth still full, you cannibal, your glazed eyes wandered, your fingers were spread, your inflamed lips were all glossy, your chin trembled, all covered with drops of the cloudy juice, which trickled down onto your bared bosom, while the Priapus who had nourished you suddenly, with a convulsive oath, turned his back to me, who had entered the room at the wrong moment."

Priap[us] is mentioned as well in Nabokov's Lolita : "She was the loveliest nymphet green-red-blue Priap himself could think up".

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. [26]

Although Priapus is commonly associated with the failed attempts of rape against the nymphs Lotis and Vesta in Ovid's comedy Fasti [27] 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). [26] In Greece, the phallus was thought of to have a mind of its own, animal-like, separate from the mind and control of the man. [28] The phallus is also associated with "possession and territorial demarcation" in many cultures, attributing to Priapus' other role as a navigational deity. [26]

Modern derivations

Medical terminology

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

Natural history

See also

Related Research Articles

Aphrodite is an ancient Greek goddess associated with love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation. She was syncretized with the Roman goddess Venus. Aphrodite's major symbols include myrtles, roses, doves, sparrows, and swans. The cult of Aphrodite was largely derived from that of the Phoenician goddess Astarte, a cognate of the East Semitic goddess Ishtar, whose cult was based on the Sumerian cult of Inanna. Aphrodite's main cult centers were Cythera, Cyprus, Corinth, and Athens. Her main festival was the Aphrodisia, which was celebrated annually in midsummer. In Laconia, Aphrodite was worshipped as a warrior goddess. She was also the patron goddess of prostitutes, an association which led early scholars to propose the concept of "sacred prostitution" in Greco-Roman culture, an idea which is now generally seen as erroneous.

Hades God of the underworld in Greek mythology

Hades, in the ancient Greek religion and myth, is the god of the dead and the king of the underworld, with which his name became synonymous. Hades was the eldest son of Cronus and Rhea, although the last son regurgitated by his father. He and his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, defeated their father's generation of gods, the Titans, and claimed rulership over the cosmos. Hades received the underworld, Zeus the sky, and Poseidon the sea, with the solid earth, long the province of Gaia, available to all three concurrently. Hades was often portrayed with his three-headed guard dog Cerberus.

Hephaestus Greek god of blacksmiths

Hephaestus is the Greek god of blacksmiths, metalworking, carpenters, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes. Hephaestus' Roman equivalent is Vulcan. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was either the son of Zeus and Hera or he was Hera's parthenogenous child. He was cast off Mount Olympus by his mother because of his deformity or, in another account, by Zeus for protecting Hera from his advances.

Hermes ancient Greek god of boundaries, roads, merchants, and thieves

Hermes is a deity in ancient Greek religion and mythology. Hermes is considered the herald of the gods, as well as the protector of human heralds, travellers, thieves, merchants, and orators. He is able to move quickly and freely between the worlds of the mortal and the divine, aided by his winged sandals. Hermes plays the role of the psychopomp or "soul guide" — a conductor of souls into the afterlife.

Mercury (mythology) Ancient Roman god of trade, merchants, and travel

Mercury is a major god in Roman religion and mythology, being one of the 12 Dii Consentes within the ancient Roman pantheon. He is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication, travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. He was considered the son of Maia, who was a daughter of the Titan Atlas, and Jupiter in Roman mythology. His name is possibly related to the Latin word merx, mercari, and merces (wages); another possible connection is the Proto-Indo-European root merĝ- for "boundary, border" and Greek οὖρος, as the "keeper of boundaries," referring to his role as bridge between the upper and lower worlds. In his earliest forms, he appears to have been related to the Etruscan deity Turms; both gods share characteristics with the Greek god Hermes. He is often depicted holding the caduceus in his left hand. Similar to his Greek equivalent Hermes, he was awarded the caduceus by Apollo who handed him a magic wand, which later turned into the caduceus.

Vesta (mythology) Ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, home, and family

Vesta is the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family in Roman religion. She was rarely depicted in human form, and was often represented by the fire of her temple in the Forum Romanum. Entry to her temple was permitted only to her priestesses, the Vestals, who tended the sacred fire at the hearth in her temple. As she was considered a guardian of the Roman people, her festival, the Vestalia, was regarded as one of the most important Roman holidays. During the Vestalia matrons walked barefoot through the city to the sanctuary of the goddess, where they presented offerings of food. Such was Vesta's importance to Roman religion that hers was one of the last republican pagan cults still active following the rise of Christianity until it was forcibly disbanded by the Christian emperor Theodosius I in AD 391.

Dionysus Ancient Greek god of winemaking and wine

Dionysus or Dionysos is the god of the grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre in ancient Greek religion and myth.

Semele Mother of Dionysus in Greek mythology

Semele, in Greek mythology, was the youngest daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus and Harmonia, and the mother of Dionysus by Zeus in one of his many origin myths.

Adonis Greek god of beauty and desire

Adonis was the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite in Greek mythology. In Ovid's first-century AD telling of the myth, he was conceived after Aphrodite cursed his mother Myrrha to lust after her own father, King Cinyras of Cyprus. Myrrha had sex with her father in complete darkness for nine nights, but he discovered her identity and chased her with a sword. The gods transformed her into a myrrh tree and, in the form of a tree, she gave birth to Adonis. Aphrodite found the infant and gave him to be raised by Persephone, the queen of the Underworld. Adonis grew into an astonishingly handsome young man, causing Aphrodite and Persephone to feud over him, with Zeus eventually decreeing that Adonis would spend one third of the year in the Underworld with Persephone, one third of the year with Aphrodite, and the final third of the year with whomever he chose. Adonis chose to spend his final third of the year with Aphrodite.

Pan (god) Ancient Greek god of the wilds, shepherds, and flocks

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and companion of the nymphs. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. With his homeland in rustic Arcadia, he is also recognized as the god of fields, groves, wooded glens and often affiliated with sex; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of spring. The ancient Greeks also considered Pan to be the god of theatrical criticism. The word panic ultimately derives from the god's name.

Hermaphroditus Son of Aphrodite and Hermes in Greek mythology

In Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus or Hermaphroditos was the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. According to Ovid, he was born a remarkably handsome boy with whom the naiad Salmacis fell in love and prayed to be united forever. A god, in answer to her prayer, merged their two forms into one and transformed them into an androgynous form. His name is compounded of his parents' names, Hermes and Aphrodite. He was one of the Erotes.

<i>Priapeia</i> literary work

The Priapeia is a collection of eighty anonymous short Latin poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus. They are believed to date from the 1st century AD or the beginning of the 2nd century. A traditional theory about their origin is that they are an anthology of poems written by various authors on the same subject. However, it has recently been argued that the 80 poems are in fact the work of a single author, presenting a kind of biography of Priapus from his vigorous youth to his impotence in old age.

Cult of Dionysus

The Cult of Dionysus was strongly associated with satyrs, centaurs, and sileni, and its characteristic symbols were the bull, the serpent, tigers/leopards, the ivy, and the wine. The Dionysia and Lenaia festivals in Athens were dedicated to Dionysus, as well as the Phallic processions. Initiates worshipped him in the Dionysian Mysteries, which were comparable to and linked with the Orphic Mysteries, and may have influenced Gnosticism. Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus.

Phallus any aesthetic or practical object having penis-like quality

A phallus is a penis, an object that resembles a penis, or a mimetic image of an erect penis. In art history a figure with an erect penis is described as ithyphallic.

Erotes Greek love deities

The Erotes are a collective of winged gods associated with love and sexual intercourse in Greek mythology. They are part of Aphrodite's retinue. Erotes is the plural of Eros, who as a singular deity has a more complex mythology.

Priapea 68

Priapeia 68 or Priapea 68 is the sixty-eighth poem in the Priapeia, a collection of Latin poetry of uncertain authorship. The eighty poems lack a unified narrative, but share Priapus, an ithyphallic god of fertility worshiped in both Ancient Hellenic and Roman religions, as by turns a speaker and subject. While the Priapeia's author is unknown, Franz Bücheler has claimed that the poems are Augustan in style, and probably were the work of a single writer in the circle of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, a Roman general and art enthusiast who “like other distinguished men of that age, occupied himself with amusements of this kind.” Earlier traditions credited Vergil with the authorship of at least some of the Priapeia.

Tychon A god

Tychon or Tykhon is the name of two minor deities in Greek mythology. One was a daemon of fertility associated with Phales, Priapus and his mother Aphrodite. He and his companions Orthanês and Konisalos were associated with Dionysos or with the Hermai. Although nowhere stated, his father was likely one of these two gods, who were half-siblings, sons of Zeus.



  1. "Priapus". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
  2. Scholia on Theocritus, 1. 21
  3. 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.
  4. "Priapus". The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. David Leeming. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  5. 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).
  6. Ovid, Fasti , vi.319ff
  7. "Priapus." Who's Who in Classical Mythology, Routledge. 2002.
  8. 1 2 "Priapus." Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. 1996.
  9. 1 2 Robert Christopher Towneley Parker. "Priapus". The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth. Oxford University Press 2003.
  10. Kerenyi, Gods of the Greeks, 1951, p. 154, also pp. 175–77. .
  11. 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).
  12. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.31.2.
  13. Mark P.O. Morford, Robert J. Lenardon, Michael Sham. (2011, 9th ed.). "Classical Mythology" (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press) ISBN   978-0-19-539770-3
  14. "Priapus." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007
  15. Yves Bonnefoy, Roman and European Mythologies, pp. 139–142. University of Chicago Press, 1992. ISBN   0-226-06455-7
  16. J. Gordon Melton (1996, 5th ed.). Encyclopedia of American Religions (Detroit, Mich.: Gale) ISBN   0-8103-7714-4 p. 952.
  17. Andy Nyberg, "St. Priapus Church: The Organized Religion", The Advocate , Sep. 1983, pp. 35–37.
  18. deMause, Lloyd (ed.) (1976), The History of Childhood, p. 46.
  19. For the sickle used for the castration of sacrificial animals, see Burkert, Walter (1983) Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Ritual and Myth, translated by Peter Bing, p. 68, quoting Martial 3.24.
  20. Moul, V. A. (2016). "The Source for Priapus in Cowley’s Ode “To The Royal Society” (1667)", p. 3.
  21. Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, p. 21. Oxford University Press US, 1999. ISBN   0-19-512505-3
  22. Fasti, 6.319ff.
  23. Hyginus, Fabulae, 160.
  24. G. Chaucer, The Merchant's Prologue and Tale, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006), p63
  25. 1 2 3 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.
  26. Fantham, Elaine. 1983. "Sexual Comedy in Ovid's Fasti: Sources and Motivation." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87: 185.
  27. Csapo, Eric. 1997. "Riding the Phallus for Dionysus: Iconology, Ritual, and Gender-Role De/Construction." Phoenix 51.3/4: 260.
  28. 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   1-84511-241-5. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Greek in a Cold Climate. Rowman & Littlefield, 1991, p. 64. ISBN   0-389-20967-8.


Wiktionary-logo-en-v2.svg The dictionary definition of Priapus at Wiktionary