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