Odes to the Big Dick God: Introduction to the Priapea

The Priapea is unique. Perhaps no other work of ancient literature is as strange as this anthology of 80 poems dedicated to the ithyphallic garden deity Priapus. Nothing else like it survives from antiquity and it has no modern counterpart. The primitive phallic worship and bawdy humor of the Priapea are presented in the same elegant and sophisticated verse forms used by the best Latin poets. The Priapea, an anonymous collection, has been attributed at times to Vergil, Ovid, Martial, and Tibullus. Not only is the Priapea unique but it is also a work of high quality.

The humor, with, and well-constructed verses of the Priapea make it rewarding reading in its own right, but it is also invaluable ancillary reading for the well-known Latin poets. The puns and word-plays provide clues for the innuendoes of the other poets. In addition, it is a valuable anthropological document because it points up one of the major differences between ancient and modern culture: For Romans, phallic worship and humor was natural and necessary.

Priapus, in his capacity as garden god, had two duties: the encourage the fecundity of the garden and to act as a scarecrow. He accomplished both tasks by means of his huge erect phallus. Much of the anthology's language is a consequence of the god's responsibility to protect the crops -- by threatening and punishing thieves with the weapon he has at hand, his giant erection.

The three translations here are from my 1981 translation of the Priapea. At that time, this was the only English translation of the work in its entirety.

-- Ned Tuck

Tuck has a bachelor's and a master's degree in classics. He currently teaches Latin at a secondary school; his past accolades include a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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