The Return of Priapus:
Gay Sexual Transgression

by Cliff Bostock
Pacifica Graduate Institute

(WARNING: This essay includes graphic sexual pictures. An edited version of this essay appeared, without illustrations, in the Summer 1999 issue of Psychological Perspectives. This paper also became the inspiration for my doctoral dissertation.)

Debio tibi nihil ("I owe you nothing")
--a prayer to Priapus (Quinn)

Sexual transgression has become the primary public theater of our time. From the underclass gladiatorial contests of lust and jealousy aired daily on Jerry Springer's television show to Geraldo's whining inquiries into the U.S. President's sexual peccadilloes, the agonies of eros have suddenly become the entire culture's main entertainment.

In this paper, I am going to examine, from a depth psychological perspective, a particular inflection of the new erotic climate of transgression, which I am characterizing as a return of Priapus, the freakish child of Venus. The phenomenon I am examining is gay sexual culture and "barebacking," a slang term for the practice of unsafe sex among gay men. This practice continues to grow despite AIDS - if not in actual reaction to it. (According to a source at the Centers for Disease Control, one third of gay men surveyed at any time say they have engaged in unprotected anal sex in the last three months.)

There are other obvious examples of the return of Priapus - in Viagra, the drug for impotence, and President Clinton's alleged sexual foibles involving exhibition of his penis. I have chosen to deal with gay culture because I think it represents particularly potent priapic energies still somewhat concealed in a subculture on account of their power to subvert the foundational values of our society.

Priapus in history

Priapus is a Roman god of the phallus, fertility and gardens. He was a member of the Greek pantheon (as Priapos), introduced around 400 BC from the Dardanelles off the coast of present-day Turkey. Priapus was never very popular among the Greeks but acquired a large following among the Romans, especially during the decadent times of Nero.

His mythological parentage is unclear. His mother, we know, was Aphrodite but his father is variously described as Hermes, Dionysus, Adonis and Zeus himself. He was born - to his mother's horror, for she abandoned him -- with a permanently erect, oversized penis, sometimes said to be pointing toward the rear. In most depictions, he is also dwarfish, possessed of a grotesquely long tongue and has a pot belly.

Thus, as Rafael Lopez-Pedraza (pp. 175-201) writes, Priapus carries not just a strong sexual content but the character of a freak too. Indeed, the Romans set sculptures of him, painted red, amid their gardens as scarecrows. Thus he assumed a dual function. Through the image of the phallus, he suggested fertility (as the same image, though veiled, did in the cults of Demeter and Dionysos), but the very appearance of the phallic creature was frightening, gargoyle-like. One speculates that is how Priapus also came to be the guard against thieves and bad luck: He scared away evil. Indeed, to this day, there survives in Italy the habit of inserting the thumb between the forefinger and middle finger to represent a phallus - a sign made to ward off the evil eye.

Priapus is thus a paradox - a monstrous protector, an unlovable love god. It is his dilemma to be perpetually tumescent but never actually able to ejaculate and reach satisfaction. Thus he is at once in a state of sexual urgency and impotence. As a result, he often links sex and violence in his effort to satisfy himself. The Priapeia, a collection of largely obscene poems through which he sexualizes everything, repeatedly make this point (Quinn).

Priapus is interesting among the gods, too, because he seems to invite disrespect, perhaps because of his freakish appearance. (Thus the prayer in the Priapeia, "I owe you nothing.") The animal sacrificed to him is the donkey, reports Lopez-Pedraza (p. 177), and that indicates his reputation: macro-phallic and obscene of course, but also obstinate and foolish, even stupid. In the popular imagination, his role as a fertility god was rather beside the point of his penis' awesome appearance.

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Satyricon (1959), the world's first novel, penned by Petronius during Nero's rule during the first half of the 1st Century. While the novel only survives as a fragment, it is hilarious satire of Nero's Rome. Its narrative is the story of a young Greek scholar, Encolpius who, having stumbled upon a ritual in the temple of Priapus near Rome, is then sodomized in revenge. He is cursed by Priapus with impotence that is later cured by Hermes. In his wandering with his friend Ascyltos and the beautiful boy Giton, after whom they both lust, Encolpius describes, often with brilliant invective, the decadence of Rome.

Scholars have not agreed on the meaning of The Saytricon. Although it is inarguably a satire, it is less clear - because of the many lacunae - how much of what is being satirized was literally true. Was, for example, there really a cult and temple of Priapus in which violent sexual rituals, including homosexual sodomy, were performed? Or is this a literary device that parodies the mystery cults of the time? Even the book's title eludes definition. Scholars argue whether its etymological orgins are closer to "satyr" or "satire" and whether the mentioned aphrodisiacal herb satyrion, which more ostensibly explains the title, was real or not.

In the depth-psychological view all of these interpretations are possible, even likely, since The Satyricon was written completely outside the Christian monotheistic culture - in a fully pagan time when different meanings, like the gods themselves, disappeared into one another. It is ironic that a work about a god who so embodies paradox should continue to present such a frustration of unrecognized paradoxes to contemporary scholars. But these layers of meaning, of the power of the "freaks" to both confer and withdraw potency, I speculate, is the very strength of the work - then and in its reading now.

The priapic queer

To my reading, Priapus and his followers in Satyricon embody a conflation of Freud's thanatos and eros principles. This does not necessarily constitute a sadomasochistic dynamic, since pain is not eroticized as pleasure. On the other hand, the conflation certainly does give rise to expressions of "dark eros," to use Tom Moore's phrase (1996).

There is present in the pansexual universe of the novel, if anything, a kind of hysteria (and we might recall that Freud called hysteria, in whose pathology psychoanalysis was founded, a prodromal symptom of bisexuality). In Priapus there is a somatic (hysteric-like) expression of the erotic instinct's block which in turn gives rise to aggressions. Thus the oscillations between lust, impotence and violence, against a horizon of nearly histrionic and very comedic machinations.

In contemporary gay culture we find striking parallels to the cult of Priapus described by Petronius. I don't suggest this simply as a gay-studies project. I think if we contextualize The Satyricon in present culture, the way Fredrico Fellini did with his masterful film 30 years ago, we can see through its purely satirical veils to its psychological meanings. But first we need some pure description.

The first obvious parallel is phallo-centrism. The iconography of gay erotica is almost universally macrophallic. The illustration above is an example of this. Tom of Finland, the artist, remains one of the most popular among gay men, despite the fact that his work was mainly produced 20 years ago. There is typically in his work an association between the macrophallic and the hypermasculine, whose secondary signifiers are almost always muscles and uniforms of some sort.

This image lives quite fully in contemporary gay culture, where military haircuts and muscles are the most popular look. (In its extreme expression it is fetishized in the gay "leather" community, a term which has come to include men interested in many "kinky" forms of sex besides sadomasochistic ones.) The widespread practice of vacuum pumping (left) and the frequent subtext of priapic anxieties (below, paintin by Olaf, 1993) demonstrate the extent to which a large penis is important in the gay erotic imagination.

Gay erotic media perpetuate not only an ideal stereotype of the enormously hung gay man but one who is - like Priapus -- permanently ready for sex too. Michelangelo Signorile has written critically about this stereotype in his book Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men. In it he observes the subculture of so-called circuit boys, men who travel all over the U.S. to attend "circuit parties," Dionysian revels frequently fueled by drugs known for their aphrodisiac qualities: cocaine and ecstasy. (Cocaine, a drug that often produces insatiable lust and an inability to reach climax is arguably a priapic substance.) Public sex, often in groups and unprotected, is often part of these parties.

The parallels of the circuit party to the orgiastic banquet of Trimalchio are obvious. It is astonishing, in fact, how often circuit parties take Greco-Roman themes, often employing the images of the gods. Moreover, Encolipus' description of the banquet are wickedly sarcastic, so that the emerging picture is "campy," to use the word gay culture employs to describe vulgarity so rococo it becomes almost self-parodying and attractive as artifice.

Another similarity, is the way social boundaries are completely transgressed in the Priapus cult. Everyone screws everyone, regardless of class. Trimalchio himself is a former slave. This democratization on behalf of the libido is one of the first things gay men recognize when they first become sexually active.

The final parallel of gay men to the role of Priapus and his followers is their function as freaks in society. While nearly every other minority in American society has received legal protection, gay men continue to be pathologized in the culture at large as perverts and deviants.

Thus, de-literalizing Priapus, gay men, in their erotic imaginations, bear nearly all the outward signs of his cult: a preoccupation with the phallus, the will to continual lust, a taste for the histrionic (the "camp") and the uncoveted role of freak in society.
But why should gay men, rather than some other group, embody Priapus today?

Pathology and Priapus

The cult of Priapus is, quite expectedly, pathologized by most readers of The Satyricon. I include here, not just Christian fundamentalists but most psychologists. At its most charitable, this pathologizing comments on the failure of Priapus to gain satisfaction, to orgasm. He rejects, in a sense, his own fertility and indeed it was mainly quite beside the point in the popular imagining of the god's occupancy of Roman gardens. (Even in Renaissance depictions, Priapus is seen leering outdoors, not gardening.)

Priapus thus represents lust without procreative telos: pure sexual pleasure, the itch that can never be scratched. Lust does not disappear in the absence of procreative intention, so the priapic does not signify the unusually perverse. Arguably, shame is given with lust, but it is nonetheless natural. Still, the ultimate effect of continual lust is a kind of impotence that reveals a profound and terrifying truth: the erotic can never triumph over thantatos. Death is the end of fucking.

The banishment of Priapus, along with the other gods, required that someone in the culture incarnate his role. Christianity's monotheistic triumph, by which all instincts and terrors are repressed in the unconscious as sin or pathology, leaves the procreative guilty and anxious in the presence of pure lust. Is it any wonder that the one segment of the population that cannot procreate then incarnates Priapus and that, in the demonization of lust, the population is stigmatized as freaks and outcasts? (Indeed, the pathologizing of queer sexuality also gave rise to a completely bogus mythology of seduction of children in the absence of procreative capacity.)

This was also true in Roman times, when there was much less tolerance for what we call homosexual behavior than among the Greeks. Thus, most of the explicit sex scenes in The Satyricon themselves are of homosexual rape. But, Lopez-Pedraza's own pathologizing aside, I don't think this is at depth a comment on hysteric style or a failure to integrate shadow material. The choice of homosexual rape underscores the theme of lust's inherent insatiability and inability to overcome thanatos.

Encolpius and his companion are abducted by Quartilla, the Priapus cult's priestess, for illegally observing their rites. (The latter scene, unfortunately, is one of the surviving text's lacunae.) Their punishment is to be anally raped by a Priapus-manifest, a figure playing the god's role. The rape scene includes a fascinating detail. It is comically presented, for the two clearly enjoy the rape at some level, but they beg Quartilla to bring it to an end. She pulls the Priapus figure off Encolpius before he can climax, thus insuring the frustration of the Priapus figure's lust and thereby symbolizing his nature. (Fascinatingly, as Quinn observes, the rape, which turns out also to be an initiation into the cult, preserves its secret, because the rape's story is considered too shameful to tell to anyone. Yet, of course, in another layer of paradox, Encolpius is telling the story to us.)

Then, we learn Encolpius himself has been struck with impotence. He now lives out the aspect of lust that cannot satisfy its own longing. He lives in the death instinct, a conflated longing for the erotic and death, neither of which are satisfied. (Let's remember that orgasm has also been called "the little death.") He become fully hysteric - and hilarious.


If lust is the impossible longing of the erotic instinct to overcome death - which paradoxically precipitates a continual encounter with death, therefore - what do we make of seed, semen itself? Several considerations come to mind.

In the interrupted rape of Encolpius we find a particularly stark analogy to present day sexual encounters between gay men: the danger of AIDS transmission through unprotected anal sex. Semen must not be shared. And yet, even in such danger, men continue - despite massive education -- to have unprotected anal sex in large numbers (Appendix). HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has been fetishized by some as "the gift," meaning that the risk of infection and death is not unconsciously taken in the heat of passion. It is actually sought.

To my mind, this is evidentiary of how strong the erotic principle is and how much it depends on the death instinct for the constellation of its psychological meanings. The depositing of seed, like the exercise of lust, is not just a physically procreative act. It is a psychological defiance of death that, paradoxically, always invites death as inevitabilty. Even among healthy heterosexuals, there is present in the encounter of sperm and ovum, the horizon of one's own death ahead and one's birth behind, to say nothing of a variety of STDs. Thus the deposit of seed is both potency and impotency: the priapic paradox.

The willful risk of the transmission of AIDS is an intensification of the erotic and a likely quickening of the inevitability of death. It does not change life's fundamental narrative. (One thinks of the film Crash, in which auto accidents are eroticized in the same manner.) It is, I have demonstrated, natural that this should become exhibited in a community characterized by phenomenologically priapic styles.

In AIDS, gay men, already stigmatized, take on the role of the culture's greatest freaks. The disease is horribly disfiguring, often many months before death arrives. Thus the gay Priapus, at the end of his life, embodies even the last character of the god: outright ugliness. In this image, the Priapic finds its most ghoulish form. In dementia and disfigurement, men with late-stage AIDS sometimes regress to sexual aggression, committing verbal and physical molestations. Ironically, too, AIDS patients in mid-stage are now typically given steroids that, combined with weightlifting, produce bodybuilder physiques, making them the community's most sexually desirable, fully conflating eros and thanatos.

It is easy to become outraged by this - the gay politically correct make a career of it --but, in a way, Priapus tells us how to die. He withholds his seed and yet, despite the discounting of his role as a fertile god, he is also imagined to cause the fields to bloom and ripen. He is ugly but he attracts the frenzied following of beautiful men and women. How can a freakish god who withholds his seed and who curses men with impotence also be described as fertile and desirable?

It is, I submit, in the very image of his grotesqueness that Priapus redeems himself - and by which Encolpius is "healed" of his literal impotence (not long after encountering the alchemical-like conjunctio of a hermaphrodite). Priapus is fully awake to life, his lust, eros, simply for the reason he can never satisfy his longing, despite his continual tries. Thus he holds death in his consciousness at all times too. In the queer erotic imagination, we find this same attitude fully present. Even if one is not engaging in patently unsafe sex, one screws with the angel of death always present. One may drug oneself to forget temporarily, but the angel always returns as a memory of a dead friend.

Gay men perform the priapic role for the entire culture. We more consciously than anyone else confront the dance of eros and thanatos. Our descent from beauty into the freakish disfigurement of AIDS is an enactment watched by the entire civilization. I am reminded of another ritual - the habit of the Aztecs to choose the most beautiful man in their community to treat as an incarnation of the sun god for a year. He was given wealth and wives, all the indulgences of the senses. Then, at the end of the year, he was taken to the steps of a temple and his chest was suddenly ripped open. A priest tore out his heart and bore its still palpitating form aloft.

This is the fate of everyone. Life throbs through our organs and takes us directly into death, as we still throb with expectation and hope and the thought that we might escape death. There are those whom the gods choose to remind us of our fate. To them, too, we owe nothing.


Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael (1989). Hermes and His Children. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon.

Moore, Thomas (1996). Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism. Woodstock, Conn.: Spring.

Petronius (1913). The Satyricon. Translated by M. Heseltine. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library. (Also: A translation by William Arrowsmith, New York: Meridian, 1959)

Quinn, Dennis P. (1997) Quartilla's Curse, published on the World Wide Web, www.arespress.com.

Signorile, Michelangelo (1997). Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men. New York: HarperCollins.

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