The worship of the god Priapus began at Lampsacus, a city on the Hellespont (modern-day Turkey); it spread first to Greece and, by the third century BC, to Italy, where it remained popular far into the Roman period. Priapus' Roman equivalent -- an earlier god who was conflated with Priapus in the Hellenistic period -- was called Mutinus Mutunus. Priapus was still being referenced as late as the Middle Ages: he is mentioned by Chaucer.
Though Priapus wore several guises, he always retained one characteristic: his large, erect penis. Priapus himself was usually represented as merely a prop for this massive phallus. His primary role was an apotropaic one. HIs image warded against evil and instilled fear as a guardian of crossroads and doorways. His subordinate roles, which developed especially in the Roman context, were as a protector of gardens, Commerce and general good fortune, due to his obvious connections to fertiliy.
The first extant mention of Priapus is a comedy named after him by the Greek Xenarchus in the fourth century BC. Priapus' mythological origin is preserved in the later writings of Strabo and Pausanias. According to Pausanias, "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 as son of Dionysus and Aphrodite" (Description of Greece IX.31.2). Other tales have him as the son or companion of Pan, the randy satyr or as connected in some way to Hermes/Mercury. (indeed, the two share the similar duties of guardianship of and responsibility for commerece.) Priapus is said to have been cursed by a jealous Hera to be impotent (perhaps surprisingly so) and homely, and was rasied by shepherds after being thrown down from Olympus.
The worship of Priapus tended to be a more serious affair in rural areas that it was in urban centres. In the countryside, the god's connection to fruitfulness and protection was a blessing to pray for and rely on. There are references to temples to Priappus, but he was often worshipped at home. However, in Roman cities, Priapus was regarded with a mixture of laughter and solemnity. His enormous phallus was, in the Greek tradition of idealizing the small penis, condered vagely obscene, a sign of excess and lack of control; it made him inherently comedic, not sexually attractive.
This did not stop Priapus from remaining in charge of luck and safe passage. Yet he could also be very intimidating. The Roman view of sex was based on the concept of activity versus passivity; the man with the erect penis was this a symbol of power and discipline. Statues of Priapus places at boundaries bore warning epigrams threatening transgresssors with sexual assault and rape. A first century AD Roman anthology entitles the Priapeia includes many of these epigrapms, presented as collected graffiti.
Paintings and statues of Priapus have been found inside Roman homes and gardens. Our painting of Priapus is from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii and is this dated to the first century AD. Pripaus wears a Phrygian cap, denoting his Eastern origins. He weighs his phallus against a bag of gold, and a basket of fuit rests at his feet, illustration both fertility and dominance.
The House of the Vettii belonged to two brothers, freedmen named A. Vettius Restitutus and A. Vettius Conviva. They were wealthy businessmen and were keen, like most Romans, to display their social and economic standing. Their house is full of vivid paintings -- Priapus, Eros, Hermaphroditus, couples having sex, Fortuna, Mercury -- images common in Pompeiian homes. Priapus was particularly relevant to the Vettii, having by this point become closely tied to monetary fortune and the protection of merchants.
The painting itslf is just inside and to the right of the house's main enterance, placing Priapus at his customary boundary-protecting station. He was the first thing visitors saw upon entry, acting as both a ward and a blessing. Beyond him, the visitor could see through the house to the peristyle, or garden, where another representation of Priapus was placed: a statue which spouted water from its penis. Thus, the House of the Vettii and its inhabitants were doubly protected, and their visitors were duly warned -- or amused.
date 1st century ad
provenance room a-b, house of the vettii, pompeii
dimenstions 76x42 cm
replica acrylic on plaster and wood
by kat bens