Priapus, God of Lust and Fertility

Painting from the Ruins of Herculanum
Frederic Soltan / Getty Images

Priapus was a minor Greek fertility god best known for his large and permanently erect phallus. He was the son of Aphrodite, but there's some question as to whether his father was Pan, Zeus, Hermes, or one of Aphrodite's other numerous lovers. Priapus was a protector of gardens and orchards, and is typically portrayed as a homely old man with a raging erection.

According to legend, before his birth, Hera cursed Priapus with impotence as payback for Aphrodite's involvement in the whole Helen of Troy fiasco.

Doomed to spend his life ugly and unloved, Priapus was tossed down to earth when the other gods refused to let him live on Mount Olympus.

He was raised by shepherds, and spent a lot of time hanging out with Pan and the satyrs. However, all this cavorting in the forest with the fertility spirits proved frustrating for Priapus, who remained impotent. Eventually he tried to rape a nymph, but was thwarted when a braying donkey alerted her to his presence. He pursued the nymph, but the other gods helped her hide by turning her into a lotus plant.

In some stories, his lust left him with a permanent erection, and in others, he was punished by Zeus for the attempted rape by being bestowed a set of huge (but useless) wooden genitalia.

Diodorus Siculus wrote, "Now the ancients record in their myths that Priapus was the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite and they present a plausible argument for this lineage; for men when under the influence of wine find the members of their bodies tense and inclined to the pleasures of love.

But certain writers say that when the ancients wished to speak in their myths of the sexual organ of males they called it Priapos. Some, however, relate that the generative member, since it is the cause of the reproduction of human beings and of their continued existence through all time, became the object of immortal honor."

In the Greek countryside, Priapus was honored in homes and gardens, and doesn't appear to have had an organized cult following. He was seen as a protector deity in rural areas. In fact, statues of Priapus were often adorned with warnings, threatening trespassers, male and female alike, with acts of sexual violence as punishment.

His name gives us the medical term priapism, which is a condition in which a man can't get rid of his erection, despite a lack of stimulation, within four hours. It is actually considered a medical emergency.

In 2015, the medical journal Urology released a paper asking "Did Greek God of fertility Priapus have a penis disorder known as phimosis?" Study co-author Francesco Maria Galassi, MD, said, "The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterized by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis. This condition presents different grades of severity, and in this specific case appears to be of the highest grade, in which there is no skin retractability on the glans." 

This wasn't the first study focusing on Priapus and his penis. However, the size of it is often connected to prosperity and wealth. In 2006, UPenn researcher Claudia Moser said, “Priapus and his giant phallus represent three different kinds of prosperity: growth, represented by his enormous phallus; affluence, represented by the bag of coins which he holds and weighs; fertility, symbolized by the basket of fruit at his feet.

The combination of money and the large member allowed the viewer to link the two, to equate the extensive quantity of each, an association evoked in the juxtaposition of the phallus and the bag of coins on the scale.”