PRIAPUS was an ithyphallic deity of ancient Greece and Rome. He is known mainly as the god of Roman gardens, where images of him, usually holding up his fruit-laden garment to exhibit his outsize sexual organ, were often placed. However, from the time of his appearance at the dawn of the Hellenistic age well into the Christian Middle Ages, Priapus (Gr., Priapos) may have a basis in some very different realities. From Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Athenaeus, 5.201c), for whom Priapus occupies a mythico-political position, to the epigrams in the Greek Anthology or to the kitchen gardens of Priapea in the Corpus Priapeorum, this god—whom Horace makes into an obscene scarecrow (Satires 1.8)—finds no place among the theological definitions proposed by the ancients. Neither do they seem to have assigned him his own place in their pantheon, even though he was traditionally considered to be the son of Dionysos and Aphrodite and could have been part of the Dionysian thiaseii ("revels"). There is, however, one notorious exception: in the system of Justin the Gnostic, the ithyphallic Priapus becomes central to cosmogony; indeed, he is the supreme being, "the one who made creation, even though nothing existed before" (Elenchos 5.26.33).
The fate that history has dealt this divus minor ("minor god"; Corpus Priapeorum 53) is therefore surprising, for both ancient and modern authors have ceaselessly confused him with other figures of sexuality: Pan, the satyrs, and Hermaphroditus, as well as his own father, Dionysos. This confusion is perhaps due to the fact that Priapus's congenital feature is his oversize and perpetually erect penis, so that authors have often tended to identify everything hypersexual with him. It is as if his excessive sexuality has confused the erudite mythographers. Also, when Diodorus Siculus (4.64) and Strabo (13.1.12) try to describe Priapus, they can do so only by mentioning his "resemblance" to the Attic gods Ithyphallos, Orthnes, Konisalos, and Tychon, all ithyphallic powers about whom almost nothing is known except the priapic resemblance that defines them.
However, in spite of these frequent confusions, the ancient sources give this divinity a specific character. Unlike his phallic colleagues, Pan and the satyrs, who are hybrids, Priapus is fully anthropomorphic. He has neither horns nor hoofs nor a tail. His sole anomaly and unique pathology is the immense sexual organ that defines him from birth. Fragments of myths tell how the newborn Priapus was rejected by his mother, the beautiful Aphrodite, for no other reason than his deformed ugliness (amorphos ) and his disproportionate virile member. It is this oversize organ, described by the Latin texts as "terribilis" (Columella, De re rustica 10.33), that allows Priapus to be recognized in images and that identifies him in writings by giving him the form necessary to one of his major functions, that of protecting small-scale cultivations against the evil eye or against thieves by threatening sexual violence to all who pass near the domain he guards (Planudean Anthology 241; Corpus Priapeorum 11, 28, 44, 59, 71).
In both Greek and Latin epigrams, it is the ithyphallic effigy of the god, often carved from the ordinary wood of a fig tree and daubed with red, who is the speaker pronouncing obscene threats. But Priapus is all talk and no action. In guarding his little gardens, as well as in his amorous adventures, he is often ineffectual. Ovid (Fasti 1.391-440, 6.319–348) relates how Priapus failed in his courtship of the beautiful Lotis (or Vesta in another version) and found himself empty-handed every time, his sex up in the air, derided by an assembly laughing at the obscene spectacle of the god frustrated and obliged to flee, his heart and his member heavy.
But it is perhaps the ancient physicians who, in their nosology, best illustrate certain aspects of this impotent phallocrat. Priapism is the term they use to name an incurable disease in which the male organ persistently remains painfully erect. The medical texts of Galen (8.439, 19.426) and Caelius Aurelianus (3.18.175) also insist on an important point: Priapism must not be confused with satyriasis, a comparable disease in which the pathological erection does not exclude either seminal emission or erotic pleasure, which is not the case in priapism.
This difference between the ithyphallism of Priapus and that of the satyrs may indicate still another division: Priapus, the citizen of Lampsacus, whose representations are always anthropomorphic, can be classified close to humans, whereas the satyrs, who are hybrids between men and beasts, belong with demons and the wild. It is as if immeasurable sexuality, which is impossible for a human, is viable for beasts and half-humans.
Aristotle specifies in his biological writings that nature has endowed the virile member with the capacity to be or not to be erect, and he wryly notes that "if this organ were always in the same state, it would be an annoyance" (De partibus animalium 689a). This, however, is precisely the case of Priapus, who, always ithyphallic, never knows the slightest sexual relief. The ancients considered such phallic excess to be a kind of deformity. The same kind of ugliness characterizes the functional aspects of apotropaic objects that, like Priapus, evoke laughter (Aristotle, Poetics 5.1449a) in order to distance evil. This also holds for those amulets that, as Plutarch noted, "draw the bewitcher's gaze" with their strange aspect (atopia ).
Given his laughable ugliness, which turns people away, and the Dionysian milieu he belonged to, Priapus remained for a long time a vulgarized figure of ancient fertility. Yet, the appeal of this little god of gardens has endured across the centuries. In the late Middle Ages he was known even to the Cistercians (Chronique de Lanercost, 1268); he was rediscovered by the artists and craftsmen of the European Renaissance; and his image has continued in use as guardian of gardens down to the present day.
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Translated from French by Claude Conyers