Myths about the Roman God Priapus

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Myths about the Roman God Priapus

Priapus is said, by some, to have been the son of Bacchus and Nais, or as others will have it, of Chione; but the generality of authors agree, that he was son of Bacchus and Venus. He was born at Lampsachus, a city of Mysia, at the mouth of the Hellespont, but in so deformed a state, that his mother, through shame, abandoned him.

On his growing up to maturity, the inhabitants of the place banished him their territories, on account of his vicious habits; but being soon after visited with an epidemic disease, the Lampsacans consulted the oracle of Dodona, and Priapus was in consequence recalled. Temples were erected to him as the protective and supervisory deity of vineyards and gardens, to defend them from thieves and from birds.

He is usually represented naked and obscene, with a stern countenance, matted hair, crowned with garden herbs, and holding a wooden sword, or scythe, whilst his body terminates in a shapeless trunk. His figures are generally erected in gardens and orchards to serve as scarecrows. Priapus held a pruning-hook in his hands, when he had hands, for he was sometimes nothing more than a mere log of wood, as Martial somewhat humorously calls him. Indeed the Roman poets in general seem to have looked on him as a ridiculous god, and are all ready enough either to despise or abuse him.

Trimalchio, in his ridiculous feasts described by Petronius, had a figure of this god to be held up during his dessert: it was made of paste, and, as Horace observes on another occasion, that he owed all his divinity to the carpenter, Petronius seems to hint that he was wholly obliged for it to the pastry cook in this. Some mythologists make the birth of Priapus allude to that radical moisture which supports all vegetable productions, and which is produced by Bacchus and Venus, that is, the solar heat, and the fluid whence Venus is said to have sprung. Some affirm that he was the same with the Baal of the Phoenicians, mentioned in scripture.

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