Knight, Richard Payne (1751-1824)
Knight, Richard Payne (1751-1824)
Richard Payne Knight, an amateur archeologist and advocate of an esoteric Pagan philosophy as an alternative to orthodox Christianity, was the son of an Anglican clergyman from Herefordshire, England. His father retired relatively early in his life and married the daughter of a carpenter who had served as his housekeeper. A sickly child, young Richard was kept at home and thus received little formal education, though he was tutored by his father, and following his father's death in 1764, by a tutor hired by the family. He did not attend a university, but was able to travel extensively. As he entered adulthood he inherited a large sum from his grandfather, which provided him the necessary funds to pursue his various independent intellectual pursuits.
By the time of his third trip to Italy in 1777, Knight had rejected the Christianity of his father, which he had come to view as a degenerating force. He had also become interested in exploring a neglected aspect of the ancient world, the worship of Priapus, the Roman god of fertility, the signs of his cult having survived in a variety of images and statues. Sir William Hamilton, who at the time headed the British embassy in Naples, had begun research into the survivals of Priapus worship in the local traditions. Knight found himself in a circle of independent scholars who shared a dislike for Christianity and whose research had the additional agenda of challenging the uniqueness of Christianity.
During his travels Knight explored a variety of ancient ruins and found himself particularly drawn to the many representations of the male generative organ. The philosophy that emerged from his work was originally published in his 1786 book-length essay, "A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and Its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients." Five hundred copies were privately published. Knight suggested that the phallus was a symbol of the God of Nature who generated the universe in his threefold aspects as creator, destroyer, and renovator. God is both male and female. His passive and active sides manifest as divine essence (life force) and universal matter (substance). The widespread images of sexual intercourse found in ancient art and statuary symbolized the universal process of creation.
Knight also posited the previous existence of a universal theology that resembled eighteenth-century Deism. This worldview survives in a more-or-less degenerate form in various contemporary religions. He rejected these modern religious forms as they tended to lead to religious bigotry, a view that led him to become an outspoken advocate of religious liberty.
Knight never married. He spent much of his time with the large collection of classical artifacts he had assembled on his travels and which he left to the British Museum. In 1809 he turned the family estate over to his brother and moved into a modest cottage away from the main house. Unlike many of his contemporaries who also advocated allegiance to the God of Nature, Knight seemed actually to enjoy the solitary contemplation of nature and took daily walks through the countryside.
While Knight had little use for popular occultism or astrology, his sexually oriented philosophy would serve as a major source for twentieth-century ceremonial magic, especially the thelemic philosophy of Aleister Crowley.
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Theosophical Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Knight, Richard Payne. A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and Its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients. 1786. Reprint, Secacus, N.J.: University Books, 1974.
——. On the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology. London: Black and Armstrong, 1836.
Knight, Richard Payne
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M. Clarke & Penny (eds.) (1992);
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Knight (1794, 1972);