The Supreme God Priapus

The Dilettante society was founded in 1734 by Sir Francis Dashwood as a dining club for gentlemen who had travelled in Italy. Horace Walpole scathingly observed that the real membership qualification was being drunk. Nevertheless the society did embark on some very serious work, including funding scholarships for the Grand Tour and campaigning for the foundation of the Royal Academy. One of its publications was Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, Theology of the Ancients, which came out for strictly limited circulation, in 1780. The author, Richard Payne Knight (1750-1824) was to become a man of many accomplishments, classical scholar, collector, numismatist, amateur architect, landscape gardener, aesthetician and member of parliament.

Knight inherited the fortune which his grandfather, an ironmaster, had made in the early years of the industrial revolution. His father was a rector, who married beneath him, one of his servants, Richard’s mother. Richard was largely self educated, which presumably contributed to his originality of mind as well as his reputed arrogance. In 1777 he went on the Grand Tour. He left a diary of his travels in Sicily which later came into the hands of Goethe who published part of it. Like other Englishmen of the era, Dashwood for example, his travels in Italy gave him a loathing of priestcraft.

He versified the dissipation of his own youth:-

Ungovern’d passions led my soul astray
And still where pleasure laid the bait for wealth
Bought dear experience with the waste of health
Consumed in riot all that life adorned
For joys unrelished, shared with those I scorned.

However, this renunciation of the life of a rake was very far from turning him into a repentant sinner. He never married.

He developed strong and controversial views on aesthetics, notably the subject of picturesque. On landscape he had a disagreement with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton, successfully pioneering, with his friend Uvedale Price, a wilder form of landscaping. In accordance with his own principles he himself designed the castle and grounds of his estate at Downton in Herefordshire. In 2009 neither are open to the public but are said to be still in good condition. In painting he particularly admired Rubens, Rembrandt and Claude, but preferred Salvator Rosa to Michelangelo. The French Revolution, with its impoverished aristocrats, brought rich pickings for an art collector. Not quite wealthy enough for the best oil paintings, his collection of drawings was particularly impressive. He was one of the first to take an aesthetic interest in coins, extolling the beauty of the antique silver coins of Sicily, which he collected, as well as Etruscan bronzes.

The Discourse was professedly inspired by Sir William Hamilton’s account of some peculiar modern phallic ceremonies in Sicily, which had unfortunately died out by the time of his visit. Sir William Hamilton, also a friend and fellow Dilettante, one time British envoy in Naples, was the cuckolded husband of Nelson’s famous mistress. The basis of Knight’s thesis came from the theories of his friend the Frenchman Pierre François Hugues, who called himself Baron D’Hancarville. D’Hancarville wrote a vast and diffuse study, said to be largely unreadable.

Knight begins with a discussion

"Of all the profane rites which belonged to the ancient polytheism, none were more furiously inveighed against by the zealous propagators of the Christian faith, than the obscene ceremonies performed in the worship of Priapus; which appeared not only contrary to the gravity and sanctity of religion, but subversive of the first principles of decency and good order in society. Even the form itself, under which the god was represented, appeared to them a mockery of all piety and devotion, and more fit to be placed in a brothel than a temple…."

On the usual account, Priapus, son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, has a humble place among classical divinities. Hera, Queen of the gods, disapproving of Aphrodite’s adultery with Adonis while her husband was on his expedition to India, cast a spell on her while she was about to give birth. So Priapus was born hideously ugly with a grotesquely enlarged genitals, as a punishment for the immorality of his mother. He became the ithyphallic god of male virility, used as a scarecrow. At the present time his image is sold in Greece as bawdy souvenirs for the amusement of tourists. According to another story, found in Macrobius, his father was Pan. In fact, argues Knight, Priapus was the original godhead, though in later antiquity his reputation sadly declined.

“as the symbols were multiplied, particular ones lost their dignity; and that venerable one which is the subject of our consideration, became degraded from the representative of the god of nature to a subordinate rural deity, a supposed son of the Asiatic conqueror Bacchus, standing among the nymphs by a fountain, and expressing the fertility of a garden, instead of the general creative power of the great active principle of the universe. His degradation did not stop even here; for we find him, in times still more profane and corrupt, made a subject of raillery and insult, as answering no better purpose than holding up his rubicund nose to frighten birds and thieves.”
Knight amplified and developed D’Hancarville’s theories. D’Hancarville had argued that the universality of phallic worship argued for a common source. For Knight this religion was the natural product of common and universal experience. Greek religion connected naturally with the Hindu lingam/yoni worship of which Europeans were becoming aware. There was a universal language of symbols, which can also be read in what we know of the ancient Egyptian religion. That religion had been comprehensively destroyed by the Persians when Egypt was part of their empire, so we cannot learn its true nature from the accounts that have survived, like those of Herodotus or Manetho. Knight was also far more explicit than his predecessor about including Christianity in his theory. Identifying Christ himself with Priapus, he interpreted the Cross as a phallus. After writing of shells that are worn as amulets to symbolise the female genitals, he continues:-
“The male organs of generation are sometimes found represented by signs of the same sort, which might properly be called the symbols of symbols. One of the most remarkable of these is a cross, in the form of the letter T, which thus served as the emblem of creation and generation, before the church adopted it as the sign of salvation; a lucky coincidence of ideas, which, without doubt, facilitated the reception of it among the faithful. To the representative of the male organs was sometimes added a human head, which gives it the exact appearance of a crucifix; as it has on a medal of Cyzicus, published by M. Pellerin.”
He provides his readers with many engravings of such curious and amusing little objects.
He once said he would be happy to count himself a “good Christian, did I understand the meaning of the term” in which case we would have to consider his Christianity to have been of an esoteric variety. That would make him a phallus worshiper.

His phallicism offered an alternative to the normal Neo-Platonist view of religious symbolism, a very different interpretation of the secret. He makes it plausible in a psychological sense, phallus worship comes across as healthy, understandable and acceptable to thinking people. We might say he shifts the secret from philosophy to psychology, bypassing Plato altogether. Going further than Freud and Jung in the twentieth century, he effectively created a new religion, based on interpretations of the mysteries and symbols as they appear on coins and medals. For him Priapus was originally the ultimate reality. He viewed the neoplatonic 'One' as an abstracting reinterpretation of this elemental religion.

He goes to some lengths to ridicule the abstractions of the ‘Ammonian Platonists’ as he calls Plotinus and his followers. Ammonius Saccas is known as the Socrates of neoplatonism. Though leaving no writings he was the teacher of Plotinus and also, it is believed, of the Christian Origen, the Church Father who castrated himself. Most unusually for a philosopher Ammonius is said to have made his living as a porter in the port of Alexandria. Neoplatonic ideas were taken up not only by pagans and Christians but also by Muslims. In the early Muslim world Al Farabi, explained how the purpose of religious symbolism is to transmit the teachings of the philosophers.

To discover the truth about Greek religion, Knight says. we should look at the Orphic hymns, rather than the usual sources like Homer or Hesiod, let alone Ovid. Then we can correctly read the symbols put on coins by magistrates who were initiates into the mysteries. What we discover is a subversive Eros based mystery religion. The Orphics, as they are known, did indeed identify Priapus with the fertility principle that, under the name of Bacchus, was central to their worship. Knight explains:-

“The case is, that antiquarians have been continually led into error, by seeking for explanations of the devices on the Greek medals in the wild and capricious stories of Ovid's Metamorphoses, instead of examining the first principles of ancient religion contained in the Orphic Fragments, the writings of Plutarch, Macrobius, and Apuleius, and the Choral Odes of the Greek tragedies. These principles were the subjects of the ancient mysteries, and it is to these that the symbols on the medals always relate; for they were the public acts of the states, and therefore contain the sense of nations, and not the caprices of individuals.”

So instead of Ovid and Hesiod, we must study Plutarch, the Orphic fragments, Apuleius and Macrobius in order to learn how to read between the lines. Macrobius (active c 430 AD) was an ancient antiquarian, much a man after Knight’s stamp, a collector of curious information. He is normally omitted from the history of neoplatonism. He gives a philosophy without arguments, formulated as dogmas. It has been defended as the easy philosophy, for which there is said to be as much a need as for the difficult reasonings of the more academic variety. In his Saturnalia, a discursive work formed on the pattern of Plato’s Symposium, he expounded solar theories about the origins of religion, which anticipated nineteenth century anthropology. As a writer his influence on the middle ages was immense. For Knight, sun worship was a natural part of that of the principle of fertility.

Significantly, Knight believed the God of the Jews and Christians was Himself by origin none other than the supreme principle of the Orphics.

"It was the opinion however, of many of the most learned among the ancients, that the principles of the Jewish religion were originally the same as those of the Greek, and that their God was no other than the creator and generator Bacchus, who, being viewed through the gloomy medium of the hierarchy, appeared to them a jealous and irascible God; and so gave a more austere and unsociable form to their devotion. The golden vine preserved in the temple at Jerusalem, and the taurine forms of the cherubs, between which the Deity was supposed to reside, were symbols so exactly similar to their own, that they naturally concluded them meant to express the same ideas; especially as there was nothing in the avowed principles of the Jewish worship to which they could be applied. The ineffable name also, which, according to the Massorethic punctuation, is pronounced Jehovah, was anciently pronounced Jaho, Ιαω, or Ιευω, which was a title of Bacchus, the nocturnal sun

Knight’s close friend was Charles Townley, a fellow Dilettante, who like him bequeathed a substantial collection to the British Museum. The Townley collection in the British Museum is of markedly erotic Roman marble sculpture. Seen together it can still inspire a lascivious frisson. ‘A lot of nice bums in here’ said one lady visitor I took to the newly furbished gallery in the 1980s. Townley sent Knight’s essay to Wilkes with a recommendation. John Wilkes, famous Hell Fire Club member, was the author of the Essay on Woman, which expressed to a much higher degree much the same blasphemous and ironical spirit.

There is a story repeated by many writers to the effect that horrified by the hostile reception Knight suppressed the copies of his Discourse. This does not appear to be true but it appealed to the prudish minds of Christian commentators who preferred to ascribe his masterpiece to some deplorable youthful aberration. At the end of the century some attacks on him were inspired by a clearly reactionary motive. In the years after the French Revolution any hostility to Christianity was considered politically subversive. In 1794 he was fiercely denounced by a high Tory church magazine The British Critic. Shortly afterwards he was viciously satirised by Thomas James Mathias in a scurrilous poem Pursuits of Literature, where he was dismissed as producing material for the ‘obscene revels of Greek scholars’, conjuring up distasteful images of masturbating professors.

Nearly a hundred years after its first publication there was a disparaging reference to Knight’s essay in Adolf Michaelis’ survey Ancient Marbles in Britain (1882). The author expresses astonishment that such a ‘despiser of Christianity’ should ever have become an arbiter of taste. He says he had been bewitched by D’Hancarville. However surprising in retrospect it was to the Victorians, in the last part of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth ‘Priapus’ Knight had been one of the most influential intellectuals in the country. In landscape gardening his ideas won out. Unfortunately he seriously damaged his reputation with his dismissal of the Elgin Marbles, which he at first attributed to the age of Hadrian. He acquired the soubriquet of ‘the arrogant connoisseur’.

D’Hancarville in his turn was said to have been much influenced by the spirit of eighteenth century French materialism. Lest we be tempted to think of materialism as the antithesis of any form of esotericism, we should remember that it has generally been forbidden, and as Ovid tells us, ‘nitimur in vetitum’, we strive for the forbidden. An article by Lawrence Lampert on esotericism , argues that atheistic materialism has been the secret thread running throughout the history of philosophy. He puts forward an interpretation of Descartes as an esoteric thinker, suggesting his real intention was a kind of scientific materialism and that all the talk about God was a blind. He writes that Plato’s notorious tyranny was a concern for the protection of his friends from religious bigotry. Not till Nietzsche did the time come to reveal the esoteric truth, by which time the threat to philosophers had become something different. Lampert confesses he has little time for the occult aspects of esotericism which are those that are primarily interesting for this study. The occultist seeks the secret source of intense satisfaction symbolised by the elixir of life, and this might fit a materialist interpretation. Much of the appeal of early materialism was the kick it brought with it, the excitement it conveyed, which was far from incidental. Also much eighteenth century materialism was infused with a spirit of very intense sensuality, as we see from the rococo voluptuousness in the writing of La Mettrie, author of the scandalous L’homme Machine.

Part of the zeitgeist of the mid eighteenth century was an exhilarating defiance of Christianity. Even the sober Hume was in tune with the spirit of defiance and blasphemy that ranged from Wilkes’ Essay on Woman to Gibbon’s gentler irony. This is evident in his brilliant dialogues, which a recent critic has understood as expressing ‘irreligion’ rather than straightforward scepticism. The ‘despisers of Christianity’ may well be said by Christian commentators to have been a small minority, but they were often the intellectual leaders.

The hostility of the orthodox is obviously valuable in contributing to the piquancy of this defiance. A self-righteous sanctimony has long been one of the elements of English life. We still have to live with the prurience of critics and gutter journalism, and this can act as a foil to our own heretical affirmation. Like the ancient Gnostics, we seek the more complete liberation that comes with overcoming oppression. The joy in that depends to a great extent on the continued existence of that which is to be overcome.

For Knight even the shapes of churches have an erotic signification.
“An ancient medal of Apollonia in Illyria, belonging to the Museum of the late Dr. Hunter, has the head of Apollo crowned with laurel on one side, and on the other an obelisc terminating in a cross, the least explicit representation of the male organs of generation. 5 This has exactly the appearance of one of those crosses, which were erected in church-yards and cross roads for the adoration of devout persons, when devotion was more prevalent than at present. Many of these were undoubtedly erected before the establishment of Christianity, and converted, together with their worshippers, to the true faith. Anciently they represented the generative power of light, the essence of God; for God is light, and never but in unapproached light dwelt from eternity, says Milton, who in this, as well as many other instances, has followed the Ammonian Platonics, who were both the restorers and corrupters of the ancient theology. They restored it from the mass of poetical mythology, under which it was buried, but refined and sublimated it with abstract metaphysics, which soared as far above human reason as the poetical mythology sunk below it. From the ancient solar obeliscs came the spires and pinnacles with which our churches are still decorated, so many ages after their mystic meaning has been forgotten. Happily for the beauty of these edifices, it was forgotten; otherwise the reformers of the last century would have destroyed them, as they did the crosses and images; for they might with equal propriety have been pronounced heathenish and prophane.”
Knight’s investigations were expanded by Thomas Wright, 1810-1877, who wrote a companion essay for the reprint of 1865. Wright was another antiquarian, born in Tenby in Worcestershire, in the same part of the country as Knight. For the latter part of his life he lived in Chelsea in London. He was a mediaeval scholar who brought out editions of Chaucer, Langland and The Owl and the Nightingale. Unlike Knight, the rich dilettante, he had to write to survive. He did a lot of hack work on all sorts of subjects and died in poverty. His varied and voluminous writings are said to show much carelessness and some striking originality.

He was much interested in the archaeology of Roman Britain, and supervised some important excavations, but he adhered to an outdated model which discredited him to some extent. He rejected what was known as the Danish three age theory which came to dominate European archaeology. This was the division of prehistory into Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, now a mere commonplace. He disliked the idea of Darwinian evolution. Though evidently not an orthodox Christian, he too was badly out of touch with the times. Thus he curiously echoes Knight’s blunder over the Parthenon sculptures. Wright also contributed to the development of the tradition which is the subject of this study. In 1872 he suffered mental collapse at the same time as his wife, and had to be rescued from destitution by concerned friends.

Wright does not give so much intellectual foundation as Knight, but he expands a lot on the evidence. He describes many more medals and curiosities. According to him the “worship of the generative powers”, as he calls it in his essay, survived in a debased form well into the middle ages and even beyond. He tells what has now become a familiar story of how the old rites transmuted into the practices of the Templars and the witches Sabbath. Long before Margaret Murray he put forward the idea that the old religion survived and that the witch trials were therefore based on a strong measure of truth. He appeals to authorities such as Von Hammer and De Lancre. Joseph Von Hammer Purgstall was an Austrian orientalist who published a book on the Templars in 1810, exploring the Gnostic character of various symbols on mediaeval monuments and artefacts. De Lancre was a French judge involved in a witch persecution in 1609 who wrote a thorough account of what he thought he had discovered about the Sabbath from the confessions extracted by torture.

Knight saw Priapus worship as something almost rational. Wright adds to the examples but is less philosophical. Nevertheless his research suggests the question of what such worship might feel like and what we might do with it. Knight’s heresy is attractive on an intellectual level but it needs to be filled out if it is to be fully understood. Some of the original Roman rites as Wright describe them do indeed sound attractive, and we can gather some idea of what it could have felt like to have practiced this religion. This was the Floralia:-
The loose women of the town and its neighbourhood, called together by the sounding of horns, mixed with the multitude in perfect nakedness, and excited their passions with obscene motions and language, until the festival ended in a scene of mad revelry, in which all restraint was laid aside. Juvenal describes a Roman dame of very depraved manners as-
… . Dignissima prorsus
Florali matrona tuba.
Juvenalis Sat. vi, I. 249.
These scenes of unbounded licence and depravity, deeply rooted in people's minds by long established customs, caused so little public scandal, that it is related of Cato the younger that, when he was present at the celebration of the Floralia, instead of showing any disapproval of them, he retired, that his well-known gravity might be no restraint upon them, because the multitude manifested some hesitation in stripping the women naked in the presence of a man so celebrated for his modesty.
To the modern heretic this vignette from a vanished civilisation contains all the sweetness of Christianity overcome. Thus he may feel he gains access to ancient religious feeling. For all their salacious value, the revelries of the Sabbath have not so much in the way of practical appeal. To Wright the Witches Sabbath was the direct descendant of the Priapus worship of the Roman Liberalia. It has degenerated into something merely grotesque. Wright tells the story of sex worship as it might also be understood from the perspective of the church, or a modern newspaper. The affirmation of the generative powers has become something merely outrageous.
They found there a multitude of people, of both sexes, and of all estates and ranks, even wealthy burghers and nobles—and one of the persons examined declared that he had seen there not only ordinary ecclesiastics, but bishops and even cardinals. They found tables already spread, covered with all sorts of meats, and abundance of wines. A devil presided, usually in the form of a goat, with the tail of an ape, and a human countenance. Each first did oblation and homage to him by offering him his or her soul, or, at least some part of their body, and then, as a mark of adoration, kissed him on the posteriors. All this time the worshippers held burning torches in their hands. The abbot of little sense, already mentioned, held the office of master of the ceremonies at these meetings, and it was his duty to see that the new-comers duly performed their homage. After this they trampled on the cross, and spit upon it, in despite of Jesus and of the Holy Trinity, and performed other profane acts. They then seated themselves at the tables, and after they had eaten and drunk sufficiently, they rose and joined in a scene of promiscuous intercourse between the sexes, in which the demon took part, assuming alternately the form of either sex, according to that of his temporary partner. Other wicked acts followed, and then the devil preached to them, and enjoined them especially not to go to church, or hear mass, or touch holy water, or perform any other of the duties of good Christians. After this sermon was ended, the meeting was dissolved, and they separated and returned to their several homes

One might want to say the old religion has been grossly libelled. Unchecked by standards of enlightenment the hostility of the orthodox to the idea of the Great God Priapus has gone some way beyond the wholesome stimulus. The venom and prurience of earlier ages far outdid that of the British Critic or even today’s News of the World. This was not what Knight and his friends had in mind. Looked at dispassionately their irreligion was a valid and acceptable form of religion. Probably some of Knight’s historical speculations do not hold up in the light of the most rigorous modern research. Orphism may be later than he thought it was. This need not be a fatal objection. Whatever the shortcomings of the phallicist theories from a historian’s viewpoint, they as seminal and suggestive as much of Freud.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License