Priapus of the sailors

About two weeks ago I wrote about Aphrodite and her role as a sea goddess. Finding the epigrams about this aspect of hers led me to a rabbit hole of extracting dedicatory epigrams from the Palatine Anthology. Sixteen of them mentionned Priapus, of those, eleven epigrams present Priapus under a different aspect than the one we are used to: as a god of sailing and patron to fishermen.

Priapus is a complex and foreign god. Myth makes Aphrodite abandon him in the city of Lampsacus in Asia Minor (now in Turkey), which is, in fact where his cult is attested as soon as the 4th century BC. Mainland Greece wouldn’t adopt him until a century later at least.

The Palatine Antholology epigrams

I won’t be listing all eleven, as some are very similar. So I chose three of them as example:

Maecius Quintus

“Priapus, who does delight in the sea-worn rocks of this island near the coast, and in its rugged peak, to you does Paris the fisherman dedicate this hardshelled lobster which he overcame by his lucky rod. Its flesh he roasted and enjoyed munching with his half-decayed teeth, but this its shell he gave to you. Therefore give him no great gift, kind god, but enough catch from his nets to still his barking belly.”


“You fishermen who pulled your little boat ashore here (Go, hang out your nets to dry) having had a haul of many sea-swimming gurnard (?) and scarus, not without thrissa, honour me with slender first- fruits of a copious catch, the little Priapus under the lentisc bush, the sea-blue god, the revealer of the fish your prey, established in this grove.”

Theaetetus Scholasticus

“Already the fair-foliaged field, at her fruitful birth-tide, is aflower with roses bursting from their buds ; already on the branches of the alleyed cypresses the cicada, mad for music, soothes the sheaf-binder, and the swallow, loving parent, has made her house under the eaves and shelters her brood in the mud-plastered chamber. The sea sleeps, the calm dear to the Zephyrs spreads tranquilly over the expanse that bears the ships. No longer do the waters rage against the high-built poops, or belch forth spray on the shore. Mariner, roast first by his altar to Priapus, the lord of the deep and the giver of good havens, a slice of a cuttle-fish or of lustred red mullet, or a vocal scarus, and then go fearlessly on your voyage to the bounds of the Ionian Sea.”

The Palatine Anthology is a difficult source, as it is a late Byzantine text that gathers epigrams from different periods of Antiquity and attributed to various authors. The epigrams alone do not constitute a solid foundation to come to conclusion, but we can clearly see a trend of associating the god with humble fishermen and other mariners.

Archaeological evidence

Thankfully, there are archaeological elements that seem to back up the importance of Priapus as a sailing deity.

Let’s start with this 3rd century BC Greek inscription:

“I, Priapus, the Lampsacan, am at hand to help the city in any way, I who embark and return bringing wealth”

What is especially interesting with this inscription is that it predates a lot of the roman material we have for Priapus and gives us a more accurate idea of his role as a deity. However, his function has a wealth and luck bringer stayed the same over the centuries, whether that is through a bountiful harvest or fishing.

Findings of a terracotta phallus in the Pisa Ship E has been used a suggestion that Priapic images were carried aboard of Roman ships as a protective device. However, the problem with this particular phallus is that nothing else nearby where it was found indicated a religious context. Another find, coming from another wreck, the Planier A, found near Marseilles (France) is more explicit. The ship, dating back to the 1st century AD, contained a wooden figurine which hs been identified as Priapus: the figurine shows him lifting his tunic to show his member. The phallus is now absent. The figurine has a socket where the phallus would be, indicating that the phallus was a seperate piece that would be attached to the figurine.

In the same wreck has been found another wooden figure, which depicts a man in a toga. Taken as a pair, they would indicate the presence of an onboard shrine (lararium) directly on the ship. The other figurine could represent the captain or the ship’s genius. Either way, the shrine’s role was probably linked to guaranteeing the safety of the ship, the crew and the cargo.

One last example before wrapping up this post: underwater survey on the coasts of Caesarea (Israel) brought up a bronze figurine portraying Aphrodite with her son, Priapus. The statuette was found at a depth where other Roman artefacts were found, which places it around the second half of the 1st century AD. This statuette is also thought to be part of objects brought by mariners aboard to bring them luck and protection.

Aphrodite and Priapus being honored together is a very interesting contrast with myth, where Aphrodite is portrayed as too disgusted by her son’s ugliness to accept him. Yet, Priapus has inherited of his mother’s role as a protector to seafarers.

Further reading:

Neilson III R. H., A terracotta phallus from Pisa Ship E: more evidence for the Priapus deity as protector of Greek and Roman navigators, in: The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 2002
Galili E., Rosen B., Protecting the ancient mariners, cultic artifacts from the holy land seas, in: Archaeologia Maritima Mediterranea, 2015
Paton R. W., The Greek Anthology, Volumes 1 (book 6) and 4 (book 10), 1927

Image: wirestock @freepik

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