Pompeii fresco depicts hapless Priapus with a painful condition
Maybe Priapus, the ancient Greek and Roman god with the enormous phallus, was not so lucky after all. An Italian doctor and researcher says one of the most famous paintings of the rustic divinity depicts the god with severe phimosis—a painful, unhygienic condition where the foreskin of the penis cannot be retracted. To make matters worse for poor Priapus, the goddess Hera laid a mighty curse on him to make him ugly, impotent and foul of mind.
A fresco in the House of Vettii in the ancient ruins of Pompeii shows the god weighing his huge member against a bag of gold. In Greek mythology, Priapus was a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. He is usually depicted with an oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism, a painful medical condition in which the erect penis does not return to its flaccid state.
Due to Google rules on nudity, the image could not be displayed here, but can be viewed here.
According to Dr Francesco M. Galassi, an MD now back in Italy after working at Imperial College London, the Pompeii fresco depicts Priapus with a case of shut phimosis—in which the prepuce covering the head of the penis does not withdraw down the shaft, says a new study he co-authored, along with Stefano Galassi. The condition has been treated historically with circumcision, but more recently males who have the painful condition are given corticosteroids.
“This condition presents different grades of severity, and this specific case appears to be of the highest grade, in which there is no skin retractability on the glans,” writes Dr Galassi in a new paper in the journal Urology. Dr Galassi told Ancient Origins via e-mail that phimosis can be very painful and predispose a person to infections.
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Dr Galassi wrote that in rural Italy, images of Priapus were often shown with shut phimosis as a way to ward off the condition in the male family members. Even in more recent times, he wrote, wax phallic images continued to show the condition as an apotropaic measure. Apotropaic means it has the power to ward off evil.
“These symbols were meant to propitiate a rapid resolution of phimotic conditions in adolescents who experienced this medical problem,” he wrote.
... defects of the genitourinary tract including phimosis, have been the subject of artistic representation since the dawn of mankind, dating back to prehistory and showing a high degree of precision, which permits to formulate retrospective diagnoses. –Dr Galassi
Bronze statuette possibly of the Roman fertility god Priapus, made in two parts (shown here in assembled and disassembled forms). This statuette has been dated to the late 1st century C.E. It was found in Rivery, in Picardy, France in 1771 ( Wikimedia Commons )
The image from Pompeii shows Priapus with a bowl of fruit, one of his symbols. The son of Dionysus and Aphrodite was also symbolized by the donkey, flowers, fish, vegetables and bees. Hera, jealous of Aphrodite because she was declared most beautiful, cursed Priapus in the womb. Aphrodite was scared of Hera and abandoned Priapus on the banks of a river near the Hellespont. His cult later spread to Greece and Italy.
The ancients identified Priapus with agrarian divinities, Pan in particular.
Writing to Ancient Origins in e-mail, Galassi said: “Priapus was very popular in ancient Italy, but he was more of a rustic god. So it's better not to look at it as one would look at the Olympian gods with their nobler attributes, in my opinion.”
“The ancients would place in orchards and gardens a phallic stone to promote blossoming and fructification,” says the book Larousse Greek and Roman Mythology.
Phallic stones or herms were also placed to propitiate the Greek gods Dionysus and Hermes, who was sometimes said to be Priapus' son or father. Propitiation or celebration of phalluses has also been known in Japan, China, Bali, India, Russia, the Americas, parts of Africa and other places around the world. One myth says Shiva's phallus was so gargantuan, even Brahma flying up and Vishnu flying down could not find the limits of it.
While many men may consider Priapus lucky with this enormous appendage, Hera actually cursed him with impotence, a foul mind and ugliness. One story says he tried to rape the goddess Hestia, but a braying ass wakened her, causing him to lose his erection. Priapus hated donkeys thereafter, and as part of his cult donkeys were sacrificed to him.
Top image: Main: The House of Vettii in Pompeii. Inset: A fresco of Priapus from the House of Vettii in Pompei—the hapless Priapus must have been very unhappy indeed. (Image from Wikipeida)
By Mark Miller