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Painting of Priapus found at Pompeii.

Priapus Fresco Tips the Scales in Pompeii


An archaeological dig at a prestigious residence on the slopes of Regio V, overlooking Via del Vesuvio in Pompeii, has unearthed “in elegantly decorated rooms” a fresco of Priapus, a god of Graeco-Roman mythology, weighing his massive member on a scale.

The ongoing archaeological operations form part of the wider 22 unexcavated hectares of Pompeii envisaged by the Great Pompeii Project. “Safeguarding of heritage at Pompeii, carried out correctly and systematically, leads to extraordinary finds” declared Director General Massimo Osanna in a report which appeared on Pompeii - Parco Archeologico's Facebook Page last week.

Via di Vesuvio has been subjected to “repeated collapses and loss of archaeological material, including the face of Priapus” but for the first time at Pompeii, a large interdisciplinary team of professionals including “archaeologists, architects, engineers, geologists, vulcanologists and restorers” are working on a daily basis developing a site of “all-inclusive’ archaeology.” The figure of Priapus was found located at the entrance to the “House of the Vettii, and it now emerges “for the second time in this domus, 120 years after its first discovery” according to a report in Archaeology News Network,

The second Priapus fresco has been found in the House of the Vettii. (Image: La Repubblica)

The second Priapus fresco has been found in the House of the Vettii. (Image: La Repubblica)

What’s Behind the Priapus Fresco?

Before we attempt to answer ‘why’ the god Priapus is depicted weighing his penis on the Priapus fresco at the House of the Vettii, we must first understand ‘how’ he was worshiped.

The first mention of Priapus was found in the 4th century BC comedically obscene collection of verse called the  Priapeia, written in the by Xenarchus. He was originally worshipped by Greek colonists in Lampsacus in Asia Minor but the cult of Priapus spread to mainland Greece and eventually to Italy during the 3rd century BC. Sometimes regarded as the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus or the son of Zeus and Pan, he was often thought of as the father or son of Hermes.

Autumn in the guise of Priapus by Pietro Bernini. (Public Domain)

Autumn in the guise of Priapus by Pietro Bernini. (Public Domain)

In Greek mythology, Priapus was a minor rustic fertility god associated with protecting livestock, fruit, gardens and especially the male genitalia and he was often stylized with an oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism. This condition means the penis remains erect for several hours after stimulation has ended, or sometimes without any stimulation whatsoever.

According to Greek legend, seeking revenge for the hero Paris having judged Aphrodite more beautiful than Hera, while Priapus was still in Aphrodite's womb, Hera cursed him with impotence, ugliness and foul-mindedness and was rejected by the gods of Mount Olympus. Priapus' most iconic symbolic attribute was his permanently erect penis which was often depicted in frescoes and mosaics as we see in the Via del Vesuvio in Pompeii.

Another fresco found at the domus. (Image: La Repubblica)

Another fresco found at the domus. (Image: La Repubblica)

A Stroke of Luck

Because his penis was held to be the origin of life, according to an article in Forbes while some archaeologists are certain that it was believed to have warded off evil, others see it as a way to ward off bad luck but also to wish for fertility, health, good business and wealth.

Statues of Priapus stood not only in doorways like at the Via del Vesuvio in Pompeii, but they were installed in Greek and Roman gardens and at crossroads. To propitiate Priapus, travelers would be obliged to stroke the statue's penis while passing by and in some cases statues of Priapus were hung above properties with signs threatening sexual assault to those who broke the defined boundaries that he protected.

Priapus' was also a patron god for merchant sailors in ancient Greece and Rome and wooden Priapic markers were erected in areas of dangerous passage or to indicate specific landing areas for sailors. According to an article on Science Direct “a shipwreck yielded apotropaic items carried onboard by mariners… including “a terracotta phallus, wooden Priapus figure, and bronze sheath from a military ram.”

Images of nature also adorn the walls. (Image: La Repubblica)

Images of nature also adorn the walls. (Image: La Repubblica)

Priapus' perceived powers of protection, particularly his association with fertility and garden protection, can be traced back to ancient times when great importance was given to the phallus. In ancient Greece, the phallus was thought of as having a mind of its own and an animal-like nature which existed separate from the mind and controlled the man. Because the phallus was also associated with "possession and territorial demarcation" this is why we find Priapus’ worshiped as a navigational deity.

Top image: Painting of Priapus found at Pompeii.  Source: La Repubblica

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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