Priapus, in Greek religion, a god of animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus.
He was represented in a caricature of the human form with an enormous phallus. An ass was sacrificed in his honour, probably because the ass symbolized lecherousness and was associated with the god’s sexual potency.
He was also honoured as the protector of sheep, goats, bees, the vine and of all garden produce.
In Greek mythology his father was Dionysus, the wine god; his mother was either a local nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Statues of Priapus were often hung with signs bearing epigrams, collected in Priapeia, which threatened sexual assault towards transgressors of the boundaries that he protected:
‘I warn you, boy, you will be screwed; girl, you will be fucked; a third penalty awaits the bearded thief. If a woman steals from me, or a man, or a boy, let the first give me her cunt, the second his head, the third his buttocks. My dick will go through the middle of boys and the middle of girls, but with bearded men it will aim only for the top.’
– Williams. C.A. 1999. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, Oxford University Press. p. 21
In Hellenistic times Priapus’ worship spread throughout the ancient world. Sophisticated urban society tended to regard him with ribald amusement, but in the country he was adopted as a god of gardens, his statue serving as a combined scarecrow and guardian deity. He was also the patron of seafarers and fishermen and of others in need of good luck; his presence was thought to avert the evil eye.
In later antiquity, his worship meant little more than a cult of sophisticated pornography.