ON THE WORSHIP OF PRIAPUS
IN THE KINGDOM OF NAPLES
Naples, Dec. 30, 1781.
HAVING last made a curious discovery, that in a Province of this Kingdom, and not fifty miles from its Capital, a sort of devotion is still paid to PRIAPUS, the obscene Divinity of the Ancients (though under another denomination), I thought it circumstance worth recording; particularly, as it offers a fresh proof of the similitude of the Popish and Pagan Religion, so well observed by Dr. Middleton, in his celebrated Letter from Rome: and therefore I mean to deposit the authentic 1 proofs of this assertion in the British Museum, when a proper opportunity shall offer. In the meantime I send you the following account, which, I flatter myself, will amuse you for the present, and may in future serve to illustrate those proofs.
I had long ago discovered, that the women and
children of the lower class, at Naples, and in its neighbourhood, frequently wore, as an ornament of dress, a sort of Amulets, (which they imagine to be a preservative from the mal occhii, evil eyes, or enchantment) exactly similar to those which were worn by the ancient Inhabitants of this Country for the very same purpose, as likewise for their supposed invigorating influence; and all of which have evidently a relation to the Cult of Priapus. Struck with this conformity in ancient and modern superstition, I made a collection of both the ancient and modern Amulets of this sort, and placed them together in the British Museum, where they remain. The modern Amulet most in vogue represents a hand clinched, with the point of the thumb thrust betwixt the index and middle 1 finger; the next is a shell; and the third is a half-moon. These Amulets (except the shell, which is usually worn in its natural state) are most commonly made of silver, but sometimes of ivory, coral, amber, crystal, or some curious gem, or pebble. We have a proof of the hand above described having a connection with Priapus, in a most elegant small idol of bronze of that Divinity, now in the Royal Museum of Portici, and which was found in the ruins of Herculaneum: it has an enormous Phallus, and, with an
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EX VOTI OF WAX, FROM ISERNIA
arch look and gesture, stretches out its right hand in the form above mentioned 1; and which probably was an emblem of consummation: and as a further proof of it, the Amulet which occurs most frequently amongst those of the Ancients (next to that which represents the simple Priapus), is such a hand united with the Phallus; of which you may see several specimens in my collection in the British Museum. One in particular, I recollect, has also the half-moon joined to the hand and Phallus; which half-moon is supposed to have an allusion to the female menses. The shell, or concha veneris, is evidently an emblem of the female part of generation. It is very natural then to suppose, that the Amulets representing the Phallus alone, so visibly indecent, may have been long out of use in this civilized capital; but I have been assured, that it is but very lately that the Priests have put an end to the wearing of such Amulets in Calabria, and other distant Provinces of this Kingdom.
A new road having been made last year from this Capital to the Province of Abruzzo, passing through the City of Isernia (anciently belonging to the Samnites, and very populous 2), a person of liberal education, employed in that work, chanced to be at
[paragraph continues] Isernia just at the time of the celebration of the Feast of the modern Priapus, St. Cosmo; and having been struck with the singularity of the ceremony, so very similar to that which attended the ancient Cult of the God of the Gardens, and knowing my taste for antiquities, told me of it. From this Gentleman's report, and from what I learnt on the spot from the Governor of Isernia himself, having gone to that city on purpose in the month of February last, I have drawn up the following account, which I have reason to believe is strictly true. I did intend to have been present at the Feast of St. Cosmo this year; but the indecency of this ceremony having probably transpired, from the country's having been more frequented since the new road was made, orders have been given, that the Great Toe 1 of the Saint should no longer be exposed. The following is the account of the Fete of St. Cosmo and Damiano, as it actually was celebrated at Isernia, on the confines of Abruzzo, in the Kingdom of Naples, so late as in the year of our Lord 1780.
On the 27th of September, at Isernia, one of the most ancient cities of the Kingdom of Naples, situated in the Province called the Contado di Molise, and adjoining to Abruzzo, an annual Fair is held,
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ANCIENT AND MODERN AMULETS
which lasts three days. The situation of this Fair is on a rising ground, between two rivers, about half a mile from the town of Isernia; on the most elevated part of which there is an ancient church, with a vestibule. The architecture is of the style of the lower ages; and it is said to have been a church and convent belonging to the Benedictine Monks in the time of their poverty. This church is dedicated to St. Cosmus and Damianus. One of the days of the Fair, the relicks of the Saints are exposed, and afterwards carried in procession from the cathedral of the city to this church, attended by a prodigious concourse of people. In the city, and at the fair, ex-voti of wax, representing the male parts of generation, of various dimensions, some even of the length of the palm, are publickly offered to sale. There are also waxen vows, that represent other parts of the body mixed with them; but of these there are few in comparison of the number of the Priapi. The devout distributers of these vows carry a basket full of them in one hand, and hold a plate in the other to receive the money, crying aloud, "St. Cosmo and Damiano!" If you ask the price of one, the answer is, più ci metti, più meriti: "The more you give, the more's the merit." In the vestibule are two tables, at each of which one of the canons of the church presides, this crying out, Qui si riceveno le Misse, e Litanie: "Here Masses and
[paragraph continues] Litanies are received;" and the other, Qui si riceveno li Voti: "Here the Vows are received." The price of a Mass is fifteen Neapolitan grains, and of a Litany five grains. On each table is a large bason for the reception of the different offerings. The Vows are chiefly presented by the female sex; and they are seldom such as represent legs, arms, &c., but most commonly the male parts of generation. The person who was at this fete in the year 1780, and who gave me this account (the authenticity of every article of which has since been fully confirmed to me by the Governor of Isernia), told me also, that he heard a woman say, at the time she presented a Vow, like that which is presented in Plate 1, Fig. i., Santo Cosimo benedetto, cosi lo voglio: "Blessed St. Cosmo, let it be like this;" another, St. Cosimo, a te mi raccommendo: "St. Cosmo, I recommend myself to you;" and a third, St. Cosimo, ti ringrazio: "St. Cosmo, I thank you." The Vow is never presented without being accompanied by a piece of money, and is always kissed by the devotee at the moment of presentation.
At the great altar in the church, another of its canons attends to give the holy unction, with the oil of St. Cosmo; 1 which is prepared by the same receipt
as that of the Roman Ritual, with the addition only of the prayer of the Holy Martyrs, St. Cosmus and Damianus. Those who have an infirmity in any of their members, present themselves at the great altar, and uncover the member affected (not even excepting that which is most frequently represented by the ex-voti); and the reverend canon anoints it, saying, Per intercessionem beati Cosmi, liberet te ab omni malo. Amen.
The ceremony finishes by the canons of the church dividing the spoils, both money and wax, which must be to a very considerable amount, as the concourse at this fete is said to be prodigiously numerous.
The oil of St. Cosmo is in high repute for its invigorating quality, when the loins, and parts adjacent, are anointed with it. No less than 1400 flasks of that oil were either expended at the altar in unctions, or charitably distributed, during this fête in the year 1780; and as it is usual for every one, who either makes use of the oil at the altar, or carries off a flask of it, to leave an alms for St. Cosmo, the ceremony of the oil becomes likewise a very lucrative one to the canons of the church.
13:1 A specimen of each of the ex-voti of wax, with the original letter from Isernia. See the Ex-voti, Plate I.
14:1 See Plate II., Fig. 1.
17:1 In the first volume of the Bronzes of the Herculaneum.
17:2 The actual population of Isernia is 6156.
18:1 It appears the modern Priapi were so called at Isernia.
22:1 The cure of diseases by oil is likewise of ancient date; for p. 23 Tertullian tells us, that a Christian, called Proculus, cured the Emperor Severus of a certain distemper by the use of oil; for which service the Emperor kept Proculus, as long as he lived, in his palace.