Love Hunt: Priapus, Comedy or Tragedy?

Love Hunt: Priapus

Welcome to our new blog series, highlighting the great treasures in our British Museum Love Hunt. Discover some of the most famous lovers in history: Thetis and Peleus, The Ain Sakhri Lovers and Cupid and Psyche. This upright fellow has become a bit of a mascot for our Love Hunt at the British Museum. This…ahem, impressive piece has a hilarious and surprisingly stories history behind it. 

Metal figure with a large erect phallus with bells hanging off. A tintinnabulum depicting Priapus from the British Museum
The Priapus tintinnabulum in the British Museum

Priapus seems to have originated as a minor greek god in Asia Minor, the then greek controlled west coast of modern day turkey, and been particularly worshipped around the city of Lampascus. He was seen as a nature god and protector of farms, associated with an abundance of fruit, vegetables and livestock. The Greek historian Pausanius writes: 

This god is worshipped where goats and sheep pasture or there are swarms of bees; but by the people of Lampsacus he is more revered than any other god, being called by them a son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. 

However being the son of the gods of wine and love does not seem to have helped poor Priapus. I’m sure many of us have had our share of misfortunes mixing love and wine, but Priapus was cursed for his parents’ indiscretions to be forever saddled with a giant… well we now call it a priapus after the god himself, but if you’re not a classics scholar you probably call it an erection (It’s ok, you can admit that’s the first thing you noticed!) But sadly this was not much use to the god as the curse meant that it was always useless right when he needed it most! 

A greek painting of Priapus with a comically large phallus

Comedy or Tragedy?

City dwellers in Athens and later Rome don’t seem to have respected the nature god and his powers of fertility as much as the countrysiders and Priapus becomes a bit of a joke through the centuries, starting with Xenarchus writing a comedy play called Priapus in the 4th Cetury BC. Even iconic poets like Ovid and Chaucer have joked about powerless Priapus! 

A winged phallic tintinnabulum hung with many bells, to be hung as an amulet over a doorway

However our one from the British Museum collection has been well hung with little bells to create a tintinnabulum. These were suspended, like wind chimes or a mobile, above doorways as a good luck charm. This one is Roman however, not Greek so Priapus has been combined with Mercury, protector of boundaries, to guard your doorway. It was thought the sound of bells and the image of the penis kept evil spirits at bay. Of course, the bigger the better so Priapus finally found his time to shine, fighting off evil. Would you like to protect your home from the evil eye by hanging these by your front door? What would the neighbours say?!

Book a Love Hunt at the British Museum, or the Louvre for you next party or team buillding event!

5 Comments on “Love Hunt: Priapus, Comedy or Tragedy?

  1. Pingback: Love Hunt: The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus | THATMuse

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