Priapea: Poems for a Phallic God
At a time when obscenity has been so long the rage that it is becoming as big a bore as prudery was a century ago, there was bound to be a new translation of the Priapea, which are widely regarded as the most obscene poems in Latin surviving from antiquity. In 1931 A.E. Housman, who was then generally recognized to be the most distinguished living Latin scholar, offered to the leading classical journal of his own country a set of notes about problems in various obscene poems, mostly from this collection. Although presented in what Gibbon calls “the decent obscurity of a learned language,” to wit Latin, his contribution was rejected, and had to be published in Germany, whose scholars he had so often excoriated. Only two translations into English have been made before. Of that which appeared under the pseudonym Outidanos, a Greek word meaning “worthless,” but came from the pen of the famous traveler, explorer, and translator of the Arabian Nights, Sir Richard Burton, W.H. Parker truly says that it is “often clumsy, stilted and unnatural”; I have not seen the version (in a limited edition of 150 copies) of the American M.S. Buck (1937).
A modern version was certainly to be expected; but I am surprised at the quarter from which it comes. Dr. Parker is a respected scholar, who for many years taught geography at Christ Church, Oxford. I have many times enjoyed his company in the common room of that college without ever suspecting that he was not only a geographer, but a classical scholar. He has provided us not only with a translation, but with a useful introduction that contains a history of the genre of priapic poetry, an account of the collection and of its history, a text with a selection of the comments of earlier critics, and brief notes and appendixes dealing with difficult problems of Dr. Parker’s own. I do not think Dr. Parker would echo the publisher’s claim that the book is “a major contribution to the field of classics.” Indeed Dr. Parker has carefully studied the literature of the subject, though he has unfortunately not used J.N. Adams’s The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Johns Hopkins Press, 1983), an excellent book which would have helped him greatly. But he is not well qualified to decide between the opinions of the scholars whom he quotes, still less to make new and independent interpretations of the text. Of the translation I shall speak later. Still, this is a useful and respectable contribution to the understanding of a work that English-speaking scholars have almost entirely neglected.
The god Priapus, around whom priapic poetry revolves, is very much an outsider in the Greco-Roman pantheon. His cult originated in Lampsacus, a town in the Troad, on the east coast of the Hellespont, and from about the time of Alexander the Great began to make its way around the Mediterranean world. Priapus was a humble god, similar in status to such a minor divinity as Pan; he was worshiped by sailors and fishermen, and also by modest agriculturalists, such as the keepers of gardens and of orchards. He was represented holding a sickle; and although he might be given an effeminate appearance, his distinguishing attribute was an unnaturally large erect penis, usually painted red. He had an obvious affinity with certain Greek cults in which the phallus was venerated, notably that of Dionysus. The Greeks equipped him with a noble pedigree, making him son of Dionysus by Aphrodite; in Italy he superseded the old phallic god Mutinus Tutinus and became widely popular. It was common for a garden to contain his statue, usually of figwood, placed there in theory to deter those fruit stealers who have always been the bane of people who keep fruit trees.
From the late fourth century BC, Priapus figured in some kinds of literature. Xenarchas, an Athenian comic poet of that time, wrote a comedy called after him; in Alexandria his statue was carried in the great procession in honor of Dionysus arranged by King Ptolemy II, and a poet of that place and time, Euphronius of Chersonnese, wrote a kind of priapic poetry. From the third century on Priapus often figured in Greek epigrams, including some by eminent poets like Theocritus and Leonidas of Tarentum. Some were written to accompany dedications to the god; others contained prayers or expressions of thanks to him, often in his capacity as a protector of sailors; in others he figured as the guardian of gardens.
From early times gardeners had threatened thieves, male or female, with sexual violation. The chorus of Aristophanes’ comedy The Acharnians, produced in 425 BC, addressing a rural deity called Phales who is nothing but a personified phallus, hails him as a “fellow reveller, wanderer by night, adulterer, pederast.” After years of war, the members of the chorus tell him, they will find it far more agreeable.
to catch thieving a pretty girl who carries wood, Strymodorus’ slave Thratta from the rough country, to grab her round the waist, lift her up, put her down and stone her cherry.
The German scholar Detlev Fehling, who has effectively used the results of modern ethology to throw light on certain features of the ancient world, has connected cults like those of Dionysus and Priapus with the behavior of the male leaders of colonies of apes, who are accustomed to scare off intruders by an ithyphallic demonstration. Statues of Priapus became a regular feature of gardens and orchards. They were supposed to protect the fruit against thieves, but in practice fulfilled the functions of scarecrows or of garden gnomes.
Three poems about Priapus are among the minor works attributed to Virgil, who also mentions him in his Eclogues and in his Georgics; they are the work of a skilled poet, and one cannot exclude the possibility that one or other of them may be genuine. Here Priapus appears as the protector of gardens, menacing thieves with his erect member. The eighth poem of Horace’s first book of satires is a monologue put into the mouth of a statue of Priapus, standing in a squalid cemetery for the burial of the poor. The god complains not so much of the thieves and wild creatures whom it is his duty to scare off as of the revolting activities of witches. The fourth poem of the first book of the elegies of Tibullus is a dialogue between the poet and Priapus; Tibullus asks for advice that will help him to persuade a handsome boy, and the god gives sage advice, recommending compliance and persistence, then lapses into a lament over the tendency of modern boys to demand remuneration for their favors.
Ovid tells two amusing stories that purport to explain why in Priapus’ original cult at Lampsacus the beast commonly sacrificed to him was the ass, with which he had in common his most notable characteristic; the ass, by braying, once frustrated Priapus’ attempt to surprise in the first story a nymph and in the second the chastest of all goddesses, Vesta, whose Roman cult was supervised by the Vestal Virgins. In the Satyrica, the great novel of Petronius, Priapus plays a dominating role. Just as in the Odyssey the long tribulations of Odysseus are caused by Poseidon, whose son the Cyclops Polyphemus he had blinded, so in Petronius the sufferings of Encolpius and his companions are caused by the wrath of Priapus, whom he had offended by killing one of his sacred geese. Every time that Encolpius is on the point of carrying a love affair to a successful consummation, he experiences fiasco, a calamity in whose literary potential Petronius has anticipated Stendhal in exploiting it to the full.
The collection known as the Priapea numbers eighty short poems. It went underground during the middle ages, but surfaced during the fourteenth century in a manuscript copied by no less a person than Boccaccio, who probably unearthed its original at Monte Cassino; there are a good many other manuscripts, which Vincenz Buchheit, who has promised what will be by far the best edition, divides into four groups. Many manuscripts ascribe the Priapea to Virgil, and the earliest printed editions of his works include some or all of them. They were popular with the humanists of the Renaissance, and inspired the Hermaphroditus, the collection of licentious epigrams with which Panormita (Antonio Beccadelli), active at the courts of the Aragonese kings of Naples during the fifteenth century, delighted and scandalized his contemporaries.
Who really wrote the Priapea? The question has been much debated. The fifteenth-century antiquarian Pomponius Laetus challenged the attribution to Virgil, on the ground that Virgil could have written nothing so indecent. The great Florentine scholar and poet of that time Politian attributed the collection to Ovid. In the elder Seneca’s collection of Roman declamations, one of the speakers alludes to the belief that some husbands on their wedding nights, taking pity on their wives when they ask them to spare their virginity, content themselves with taking a virginity of a different kind. In doing so he quotes two words from a couplet referring to this belief that occurs in the Priapea, ascribing it to Ovid, and the observation of this fact led Politianus to advance his theory. But this did not convince the public, for since that time most scholars have believed that the collection was by many hands. The great sixteenth-century scholar Joseph Scaliger, who in 1573 produced the first serious commentary on the Priapea, held the poems to have been composed by Catullus, Tibullus, Ovid, and Petronius, and most scholars have agreed that they are an anthology, though few have ascribed them to such distinguished authors. In 1921 Politian’s view was revived by R.S. Radford, who argued with much reason that the style and language of the poems reveal a singular consistency. Buchheit in his admirable monograph of 1962 made a powerful case for ascribing all the poems to a single poet. Not that he believes that this was Ovid. He suggests that the passage quoted by the elder Seneca came from an Ovidian poem now lost which was imitated or borrowed from by the author of the Priapea, and since the collection contains many such imitations of and borrowings from earlier poets, particularly Ovid, he is likely to be right.
The Priapea are not quite good enough for Ovid, but every competent critic who had not been blinded by prejudice has acknowledged that they are very skillfully composed. The obvious danger for poems moving within such a limited sphere is that of monotony, and this is successfully avoided; the author rings the changes on the standard themes with great address. He uses a variety of meters, handled with much competence; he is familiar not only with the Latin classics, but with Homer and probably with the great Hellenistic Greek poet Callimachus, and one of the poems is translated from an epigram by another leading Hellenistic poet, Leonidas. His elegance, and still more his wit, make one grateful to Dr. Parker for having made the poems once more generally available. The mention of the dancer Telethusa (19 and 40), whose way of moving certain parts of her anatomy while having very little on would excite not only Priapus but even the chaste Hippolytus, may give an indication of his date, for she is also mentioned by Martial (6,71 and 14,203), and in a way that suggests that she was his contemporary. This seems to supply some reason for thinking that the author of the Priapea wrote during the second half of the first century of the Common Era, at the same time as Martial, with whom he has a good deal in common.
The first of two introductory poems warns us that these poems are for Priapus, not for the chaste Diana or the chaste Vesta, and unless we prefer to veil the naked member of the god, we must look upon the poems with the tolerance with which we view that member. The second informs us that the poet has not sought the help of the usual patrons of poets, the Muses, thus disavowing any claim for the poems to be taken seriously. It is a pity that some readers have not paid enough attention to these warnings. The poems belong to a genre in which it was possible to use some very vulgar words, words of a kind that were strictly excluded from epic or tragedy, and indeed from elegy. If Ovid’s Art of Love is indecent it is not indecent because of its language; the language of the Roman elegists, though not that of Catullus, is singularly free from obscenity. (From now on I shall be obliged to use a number of very vulgar words, if I am to describe the poems rightly.) As to the second warning, the truth is that at no time did the Greeks or the Romans take Priapus very seriously. His cult reached the Greek world only after that world had attained a degree of comparative sophistication, and Priapus was a minor god like Pan, not on a level with the great deities. Humble people like fishermen and peasants might honor him, but in the gardens of cultivated persons even his menace against thieves was hardly taken seriously; in one of the priapic poems attributed to Virgil, a trespasser defied the god, only to be confronted with the manager of the property, who breaks off the god’s member to use it as a club.
Dr. Parker finds that the poems fall into three groups; in the first, of twenty-seven poems, we are concerned with Priapus as a god; in the second, also of twenty-seven poems, we are concerned with Priapus as a statue; and in the third, of twenty-six poems, “we see a sexually depraved and degenerate Priapus, who has become a cynical fornicator, pederast and irrumator.” But when was he ever anything else? These categories shade off so easily into one another that this classification does not work at all; and it is better to attempt a rough grouping according to subject matter, while remembering how many poems fall into more than one category.
First, some twenty-four poems lay down, in various ways, the fundamental rule that if a girl steals the fruit, she will be fucked, if a boy steals it, he will be buggered, and if a mature man does so he will be irrumated (i.e., forced to perform fellatio). In two poems the threat is conveyed in general terms, and with silky urbanity: “If you take from my garden, I will take from yours” and “If you give me what I want, you will get what you are asking for.” Two other poems each consist of a single elegiac couplet, in which these alternatives are stated with the same brevity and the same precision with which the lines prefaced to the Aeneid in many manuscripts give Virgil’s successive places of residence and then, in one word each, the subjects of his three famous works.
Another poem turns on a pun; if the thief thinks that no one will know he has been buggered, he is mistaken, for “magnis testibus ista res agetur,” “the matter will be dealt with with great testes,” the same word meaning “witnesses” and “testicles.” In 23, the god wishes on the thief his own priapism; in 28, the thief is warned that for one offence he will be buggered, for a second irrumated, and for a third both. In 44, all thieves will be irrumated four times over. In 64, the god declines to gratify a homosexual, who keeps stealing fruit because he would enjoy the penalty. If you pass through without stealing, says the god in 31, you can stay as chaste as Vesta; if not, “you will be made to pass through your own arse.” In 69, the thief is asked to consider how huge a penis he will be forced to shit out. In 68, the god’s member is referred to as a scepter, with delicate allusion to a famous passage of Homer about Agamemnon’s scepter; this scepter is sought after by lascivious girls, even kings wish to possess it, it is kissed by noble perverts, and it shall go right up the arse of any thief.
It will be clear from this summary that the appeal of the poems is in no way pornographic, at least if one defines pornography as literature designed to stimulate the reader sexually. Like most dirty jokes, they derive much of their appeal from the pleasure given by the mention of words and subjects not usually alluded to in polite literature or polite society; but they derive a good deal more from their style, their humor, and their wit, which are not easy to describe except to people able to read them in their original language.
Jasper Griffin, in his intelligent and entertaining book Latin Poets and Roman Life (University of North Carolina Press, 1986), has lately protested against the tendency of scholars to assume that the picture of Roman sexual life drawn by the Augustan poets can have had little relation to reality. I feel great sympathy with his general attitude; but in the particular case of the Priapea, I am not persuaded that the poems throw much light on Roman social history. Dr. Parker is certainly right in thinking that a good deal of homosexual activity went on; but when he writes that “Its readers would have shared the distinctive sexual attitudes and assumptions of the Roman male which it displays,” I do not think that he makes enough allowance for the degree of exaggeration that must be expected in the case of a modest kind of poetry written simply to amuse.
Dr. Parker quotes with apparent approval the pronouncement of Professor H.D. Rankin that “the ambivalence [does he mean “ambidexterity”?] and irresponsibility of the Roman ruling class in general is revealed in these pages.” This is not far from the attitude of Professor Amy Richlin, who in The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor (Yale University Press, 1983) writes that “One minatory figure stands at the center of the whole complex of Roman humor; he will be represented here by the god Priapus. The general stance of this figure is that of a threatening male.” Making full use of Freud’s analysis of humor. Professor Richlin warns us against being deceived by the humorous character of this kind of poetry into ignoring its insidious tendencies; “any behavior, any speech is supposed to be allowed if it is in the form of a joke.”
“Who,” Dr. Parker asks, “would want to read about such an unpleasant character as the Priapus of the Priapea? For he is nasty, aggressive, arrogant, crude, cruel, cynical, exhibitionist, filthy-minded, foul-mouthed, lewd, sadistic, sarcastic and selfish, yet self-pitying.” The answer, I am afraid, is “Most human beings.” Priapus represents a type of humor that is extremely ancient and survived even the establishment of Christianity; Hermann Usener’s famous book Pulcinello sketches its history. Mr. Punch has inherited all the characteristics that Dr. Parker deplores in Priapus; yet the audience at the Punch and Judy show finds him sympathetic and is diverted by his antics, though its members are not likely to be stimulated by them to copy his behavior. Professor Richlin might like to substitute for the traditional puppet show one from which the familiar kind of sexual humor would have been eliminated; but so long as the facts of human biology remain unaltered, one may doubt whether audiences would find the reformed kind of entertainment equally diverting.
Priapic poetry aims to shock; and though few people now will be shocked by its obscenity, for some the thought of the reaction to it of earnest feminists may add to its attraction. But unfortunately Dr. Parker’s translation is not well calculated to exploit this advantage; its marked simplicity, descending at times to doggerel, gives no notion of the laconic elegance of the original. It is not possible to recommend this version to readers ignorant of Latin; but those who know some Latin, but would welcome the assistance of a trot, will find that the new translation adequately serves their purpose.