On-campus lecture: Priapus

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Classics Department hosted a lecture by Classicist Joseph Farrell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  His talk was about the ancient Roman god Priapus, whose most celebrated…um, attribute was his mythically large manhood.  While Dr. Farrell’s talk leaned more towards Priapus’ role as garden guardian and full-time lecher, he also mentioned the differences between ancient Roman and modern Western perceptions of what was appropriate to put on public display, as well as some of the ancient Roman assumptions made about masculinity and the link between male sexual organs and gendered behavior.

The most well-known collection of ancient Roman poetry about Priapus is the Carmina Priapea, written largely in dialogue form, either through the prayers of suppliants to the god, or speeches attributed to Priapus himself.  Priapus is the protector of gardens and fertility, an overtly sexual deity known for his frankness, roughness, recklessness, and occasionally even violence, using his abnormally large “tool” to violate any man who trespasses on and steals from his neighbor’s garden.  In the poetry, he often uses vulgar language to describe his appendage, the acts he wants to do with it, and the potential partners (particularly young, shy women and garden thieves) with whom he wants to do them.  These poems depict Priapus as a swaggering, confident god full of machismo.  His character evokes comparison with young men who wolf-whistle and heckle women on the street.  More generally in ancient Rome, it was believed that the size of a man’s penis gave an indication of his overall self-control and trustworthiness.  A small penis was a sign of integrity and humility.  The opposite of everything about Priapus, who embodied hypermasculine traits.

This attribution of gendered behavioral traits to sexual characteristics is very interesting, especially as it also helps to explain the artistic trend in ancient Greece and Rome of drawing and sculpting the more “respectable” male members of the Olympian pantheon with unusually tiny genitals.  From what we have discussed in class about the difference between sex and gender, and the tendency in Western society to value larger male genitals while viewing exceptionally small genitals as a problem to be fixed as early as possible, it is interesting that in a society such as ancient Rome, large genitals were associated with hypermasculinity, but hypermasculinity itself was not a positive attribute.

Another interesting and relevant subject which Dr. Farrell mentioned was the conventionality of graphic sexual images in ancient Roman culture.  Priapus, with his exceptional appendage completely bared, was minted on the backs of coins during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, and was frequently depicted on wall frescoes in the dining parlours of well-to-do Romans (not an image I’d particularly want to look at while eating, but to each his own, I guess).  The notion of a man with an enormous erect phallus adorning the tails-side of an American quarter, with George Washington’s head on the front, was a completely ludicrous idea to contemplate, and Dr. Farrell discussed the differential perceptions of nudity in ancient Rome and modern Western culture.  Priapus’ nudity, although certainly sexual to an extent, was associated more with his status as a protector and god of fertility, both very positive attributes in Roman society.  By contrast, in today’s society a well-endowed, sexually aroused naked man is typically seen only in pornography, and is emblematic only of the act of sex, making him less appropriate to be displayed in a position of prominence (no pun intended) next to the dining room family Christmas photos.

The lecture was funny, informative, and a little bit raunchy at times, and the topic was pertinent both in its treatment of gender in mythological literature and in a diachronic setting.


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