Priapus: The God of the Garden
Most Greek gods adhered to a set of physical and moral ideals. They were handsome, strong, and even if they had many lovers they followed certain rules of decorum in their relationships and expressions of love and desire.
Priapus was none of these things. The rustic god was driven by sexual vice, even though he could never fulfil the base desires that seemed to define his personality.
Despite this, however, rural Greeks venerated Priapus as a guardian who watched over their crops and livestock and protected them from harm. Urban Greeks thought he was an absurd joke.
Priapus was an impotent god who was associated with fertility in his connection with nature as well as his imagery.
Read on to find out how the impotent phallic god was seen as both a protector and the butt of bawdy jokes in ancient Greece!
While a few ancient writers said that his father was Zeus or Pan, most seemed to agree that Priapus was the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite.
With such esteemed parents, it could be reasonably assumed that their son would be honored among the gods and goddesses of Olympus. This was not the case, however, all because Hera bore a grudge against his mother.
Priapus was born shortly after the Trojan War, and the insult of being judged less beautiful than Aphrodite was still fresh in Hera’s mind. As an act of petty revenge for the goddess of beauty winning the judgement of Paris, Hera placed a curse of Aphrodite’s unborn child.
Hera condemned the child to be ugly and have an impure mind. Worse yet, she cursed him to never be able to act upon the dirty desires that dominated his thoughts.
The Greeks valued sexual modesty and control.It was a sign of manliness to have many lovers, but it was base and shameful to be overtaken by lust and desire. Click To Tweet
Because of the curse Hera placed on him, Priapus would always be defined by his inability to control his passions. His constantly erect phallus was a grotesque visible marker of his lack of decorum, but it was also useless.
Despite his near-constant lust, Hera also cursed him to never be able to act upon it.
When Priapus was born, Aphrodite was disgusted by his appearance. The Greeks widely believed that physical appearance was a reflection of one’s morality and nobility, so the goddess of beauty knew from his features that Priapus was as morally corrupt as he was ugly.
The other gods refused to allow someone so corrupted to live among them on Mount Olympus, believing he would bring shame to the entire company of gods. Olympus was modelled on the great cities of Greece and was a place where the nobility held themselves to a higher standard than Priapus embodied.
Despite being the son of two of the highest-ranking Olympians, the child Priapus was exiled from the mountain and disowned by his mother.
He was thrown down to Earth where he was eventually discovered by a group of shepherds. They raised him for a time, until he was sent to join the satyrs and rustic gods whole held sway over the countryside.
As the story of his birth late in the Age of Heroes implies, Priapus was a late addition to Greek mythology. There is no record of his worship in Greece before the 3rd century BC.
Priapus was introduced to the Greek people through their colonies in Asia Minor. Lampsacus, a Greek city on the eastern side of the Hellespont, is traditionally given as his place of origin and was the center of his cult.
Slightly to the north in Bithynia, Priapus was worshipped as a warlike god who was the tutor of Ares. But from his origin in Lampsacus most people in the Greek world regarded him as a rustic fertility god.
The late introduction of Priapus is much different than the other rustic gods of Greece. Gods like Pan were among the most ancient in the region, dating back to a time before the establishment of great cities and classical culture.While Pan and his company had been worshipped for centuries before the gods of Olympus, Priapus was new to the region. Click To Tweet
Many of the rustic gods of the ancient Greek countryside were also associated with fertility and sexual impropriety, making them logical companions for Priapus even if he wasn’t originally one of them.
While the exact origins of Priapus are unknown, it is likely that the Greek colonists in Anatolia included a local fertility god in their deity.
He may not have been one of the ancient rustic gods of Greece, but Priapus may have been derived from a similar rustic god of ancient Anatolia.
Fertility in Greece was often seen as a female domain. Goddesses like Demeter, Gaia, and even Aphrodite were linked to agriculture and growth.
It was unusual, then for a male god to be linked to vegetation as much as Priapus was. Being unable to consummate his lusts made him a poor example of male fertility, but he was closely associated with gardens and food production.
His role, however, was less in growth and nourishment than most fertility deities. He took on the role of protector and guardian of people’s gardens.
We shall at this point discuss Priapos (Priapus) and the myths related about him, realizing that an account of him is appropriate in connection with the history of Dionysos . . . Honours are accorded him not only in the city, in the temples, but also throughout the countryside, where men set up his statue to watch over their vineyards and gardens, and introduce him as one who punishes any who cast a spell over some fair thing which they possess. And in the sacred rites, not only of Dionysos but of practically all other gods as well, this god received honour to some extent, being introduced in the sacrifices to the accompaniment of laughter and sport.
-Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 6. 1 (trans. Oldfather)
Priapus was not just the protector of vegetation, but also of other parts of rural cultivation. He watched over beekeepers’ hives, guarded fruit trees, and kept a close eye on livestock in addition to tending to fruit and vegetable gardens.
What set Priapus apart from all these examples of unchecked male sexuality, however, was that he was incapable of following through on his desires. While Pan and his fellows had frequent affairs and trysts with nymphs, Priapus was impotent.
This is often thought to be the reason he was connected to Dionysus – he depicted one of the negative affects wine could have on a man who consumed too much.
This competition between his lustful nature and his inability to find release from it made Priapus a very frustrated god. The myths concerning Priapus are largely centered around his desire for, and embarrassment by, the goddesses around him.
- The nymph Lotis was spotted sleeping away from her companions after reveling with Dionysus. When Priapus attempted to creep up on her in as she slept, Silenus’s donkey brayed loudly and woke her up. Priapus was said to hate donkeys after this event.
- Some stories of Lotis go on to say that she ran away when awoken by the ass, and Priapus chased after her. She was turned into the lotus plant to save her from assault.
- The nymph Pomona walled in her garden to keep the lustful rustic gods at bay. Priapus was named among those who tried to breach the walls to reach her.
- In an alternative story, it is the virgin goddess Hestia that falls asleep after a feast of the gods. Silenus happened to have tied up his donkey nearby and she was the one alerted to Priapus’s approach by its brays.
In most versions of Priapus’s myths, he kills the donkey that betrayed his schemes.
These stories served to explain a part of the god’s worship. In his home country it was common to sacrifice donkeys.
The stories of Priapus don’t just illustrate his constant frustration, but also anecdotally explain a colonial behavior that was unusual to mainland Greeks.
Priapus was typically worshipped as a rustic god of the land who was connected to farmers and shepherds. However, his worship appeared in another, perhaps unexpected, place as well.Priapus was popular among merchant sailors, who regarded the god as a protector and a patron of navigation. Click To Tweet
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence from ancient shipwrecks that points to the widespread veneration of Priapus among sea men.
Figures of the god and his attributes have been found among the wreckage of ancient ships, often as personal totems or charms. His image was also used to mark areas of difficult navigation to alert sailors to the possible danger they faced.
It may seem unusual for a god of gardening to be so closely associated with sailing, but the reason for the link comes from ancient ideas about the body.
Male sexual organs were associated with concepts of territory and possession. A phallus was often used to symbolically de-mark territorial boundaries.
Male organs were also thought to almost literally have a mind of their own. They could steer the body they were attached to into unintended circumstances unless closely controlled.
This, the god that was most identified by his own prominent anatomy was the perfect aid for sailors. He was already associated with protection, but his symbolic association with territory and being turned in a different direction than intended made him a fitting patron for men at sea.
Worship of Priapus was most noteworthy in the areas surrounding the Hellespont, particularly the city of Lampsacus.
While his cult spread to Greece by the 4th century BC, there were no temples or major shrines in his honor. Individual homes had small shrines to him or phallic totems in his honor, but there was no centralized and codified form of worship.
He was seen by rural farmers and villagers as a protective figure who oversaw their well-being by ensuring the success of their agricultural work.
Priapus was considered especially important in protecting against thieves. Theft of both crops and livestock was common in the ancient world, and could be devastating for small-scale rural farmers.
Priapus was generally shown carrying a sickle, which he used to threaten would-be thieves. His threats were often of sexual violence, including castration with his sickle.
While he was a guardian deity in the countryside, city dwellers had a less serious view of Priapus.
His prominent phallus and rustic nature made him a deity that was more often joked about than venerated in the cities. With the exception of Lampsacus, most cities had few true worshippers of the garden god.
When Priapus was depicted in the art of the cities, it was often in a humorous and pornographic way. Images of the god, for example, were featured in the brothels and taverns of Pompeii.
Priapus was occasionally conflated with Hermes, particularly in Attica. Both gods were patrons of territorial boundaries and livestock, so Hermes was often shown with the phallic attributes of Priapus even in places where the more rustic god was not widely venerated.
Priapus is most identifiable in ancient art from his grotesquely enlarged phallus. The son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, he was rejected by the gods of Olympus for her physical and moral ugliness.
Priapus became associated with the rustic gods of Greece such as Pan and the satyrs. While he shared their lustful nature and connection to agriculture, his origins were likely in Anatolia and he was never as widely recognized in Greece itself as the older rural deities.
Despite his association with sexuality, Priapus had been cursed to be an impotent god. His stories often depict his frustrations in pursuit of sexual satisfaction, particularly the interruption of his attempts by the donkey that belonged to Silenus.
Priapus was a protective god for farmers and rural residents but was treated as a source of humor by urban Greeks. Sailors also venerated him as a protector and navigator.
Priapus was a god of fertility not because he encouraged growth, but because his sexuality and violent nature protected crops and livestock from theft.