Shakespeare's Myths

Priapus, also Priap, Priape, Priapos, Pryap, Pryapus


Related Entries
 Bacchus, Diana, Pan, Venus


Priapus is a fertility God like Pan – albeit a more “rustic” version. He is the protector of livestock and gardens and more particularly of vineyards and orchards. While his mother is commonly accepted to be Venus (even though the nymphs Naiad and Chione are sometimes cited), his father’s identity remains a puzzle. Priapus is probably Bacchus’ son, but Mercury and Adonis have also been mentioned by mythographers. 

Classical representations of Priapus picture him as an ithyphallic figure (endowed with a massive erected penis). His deformity is said to be the result of Juno’s jealousy: fearing Venus’ offspring might inherit its mother’s beauty, she touched Venus’ belly and cast an evil spell on the baby – hence Priapus’ disproportionate phallus. Ashamed of her son’s appearance, his mother abandoned him in the city of Lampsacus (Asia Minor), on the Hellespont. He was then taken in by shepherds.

Priapus is associated with donkeys, which he hates. There might be two reasons for that:

(1) One night, he was about to rape the nymph Lotis, who had fallen asleep. He approached her silently, but she was suddenly awakened by Silenus’ donkey, which started to bray. She pushed Priapus away and fled, but only found safety when she was eventually turned into a lotus. Furious with the donkey which had ruined his occasion, Priapus slaughtered the animal. This episode is sometimes applied to Hestia/Vesta instead of Lotis, which would explain why asses are crowned with flowers on the feast of Vesta.

(2) Another version of the myth provides a different explanation for Priapus’ hatred of donkeys. Bacchus thanked Silenus’ donkey (who had carried him on the occasion of his journey to India) by giving him human speech. Priapus and the ass then had an argument about their respective “endowments”. They consequently compared their phalluses during a contest. According to some, Priapus lost but could not bear the humiliation and he killed the ass. Others say that the animal was killed precisely because he was defeated. Since then, donkeys have been sacrificed in Priapus’ honour.

Romans used statues of Priapus as scarecrows to ward off the evil eye and thieves, protect their orchards and ensure abundant crops.

How to cite

Frédéric Delord. "Priapus."  2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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