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Middle Ages and Renaissance

This brings us to the close of the fourteenth century, and shows us how long the outward worship of the generative powers, represented by their organs, continued to exist in Western Europe to such a point as to engage the attention of ecclesiastical synods. During the previous century facts occurred in our own island illustrating still more curiously the continuous existence of the worship of Priapus, and that under circumstances which remind us altogether of the details of the phallic worship under the Romans. It will be remembered that one great object of this worship was to obtain fertility either in animals or in the ground, for Priapus was the god of the horticulturist and the agriculturist. St. Augustine, declaiming against the open obscenities of the Roman festival of the Liberalia, informs us that an enormous phallus was carried in a magnificent chariot into the middle of the public place of the town with great ceremony, where the most respectable matron advanced

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and placed a garland of flowers "on this obscene figure;" and this, he says: was done to appease the god, and "to obtain an abundant harvest, and remove enchantments from the land." 20 We learn from the Chronicle of Lanercost that, in the year 1268, a pestilence prevailed in the Scottish district of Lothian, which was very fatal to the cattle, to counteract which some of the clergy--bestiales, habitu claustrales, non animo--taught the peasantry to make a fire by the rubbing together of wood (this was the need-fire), and to raise up the image of Priapus, as a means of saving their cattle. "When a lay member of the Cistercian order at Fenton had done this before the door of the hall, and had sprinkled the cattle with a dog's testicles dipped in holy water, and complaint had been made of this crime of idolatry against the lord of the manor, the latter pleaded in his defence that all this was done without his knowledge and in his absence, but added, 'while until the present month of June other people's cattle fell ill and died, mine were always found, but now every day two or three of mine die, so that I have few left for the labours of the field.'" Fourteen years after this, in 1282, an event of the same kind occurred at Inverkeithing, in the present county of Fife in Scotland.

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[paragraph continues] The cause of the following proceedings is not stated, but it was probably the same as that for which the cistercian of Lothian had recourse to the worship of Priapus. In the Easter week of the year just stated (March 29-April 5), a parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, performed the rites of Priapus, by collecting the young girls of the town, and making them dance round the figure of this god; without any regard for the sex of these worshippers, he carried a wooden image of the male members of generation before them in the dance, and himself dancing with them, he accompanied their songs with movements in accordance, and urged them to licentious actions by his no less licentious language. The more modest part of those who were present felt scandalized with the priest, but he treated their words with contempt, and only gave utterance to coarser obscenities. He was cited before his bishop, defended himself upon the common usage of the country, and was allowed to retain his benefice; but he must have been rather a worldly priest, after the style of the middle ages, for a year afterwards he was killed in a vulgar brawl.

The practice of placing the figure of a phallus on the walls of buildings, derived, as we have seen, from the Romans, prevailed also in the middle ages, and the buildings especially placed under the influence of this symbol were churches. It was believed to be

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a protection against enchantments of all kinds, of which the people of those times lived in constant terror, and this protection extended over the place and over those who frequented it, provided they cast a confiding look upon the image. Such images were seen, usually upon the portals, on the cathedral church of Toulouse, on more than one church in Bourdeaux, and on various other churches in France, but, at the time of the revolution, they were often destroyed as marks only of the depravity of the clergy. Dulaure tells us that an artist, whom he knew, but whose name he has not given, had made drawings of a number of these figures which he had met with in such situations. A Christian saint exercised some of the qualities thus deputed to Priapus; the image of St. Nicholas was usually painted in a conspicuous position in the church, for it was believed that whoever had looked upon it was protected against enchantments, and especially against that great object of popular terror, the evil eye, during the rest of the day.


31:20 S. Augustini De Civit. Dei, lib. vii, c. 21.

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