Book: The Priapeia
Author: Richard Francis Burton and L. C. Smithers

The Priapeia By Richard Francis Burton and L. C. Smithers

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 145
Publication Date: 1890

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The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems about the phallic god Priapus. It was compiled from literary works and inscriptions on images of the god by an unknown editor, who composed the introductory epigram. In the 19th century, the Priapeia were translated into English by Leonard Smithers and Richard Francis Burton, who provided numerous notes concerning the sexual practices that are referenced in the poems. These explanatory notes address such topics as irrumation, cunnilingus, masturbation, bestiality, sexual positions, eunuchism, phalli, religious prostitution, aphrodisiacs, pornography, and sexual terminology.

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The Priapeia, now for the first time literally and completely translated into English verse and prose, is a collection of short Latin poems in the shape of jocose epigrams affixed to the statues of the god Priapus. These were often rude carvings from a tree-trunk, human-shaped, with a huge phallus which could at need be used as a cudgel against robbers, and they were placed in the gardens of wealthy Romans, for the twofold purpose of promoting fertility and of preventing depredations on the produce.

Most of these facetiae are by unknown authors. Although they appear in early editions of Vergil, and are attributed to that writer by J. M. Catanaeus, it is, to say the least, doubtful that he played any part in their authorship. Politian attributes them to Ovid; others, such as François Guiet, hold Domitius Marsus to be their author. The general opinion is that they are the collective work of a group of beaux esprits who formed a reunion at the house of Maecenas (the well known patron of Horace), and who amused themselves by writing these verses in a garden-temple consecrated to Priapus. Subsequently Martial and Petronius added several imitative epigrams, and eventually the whole were collected in one volume by the writer of the opening verses. Catullus, Tibullus, Cinna and Anser are also credited with a share in the work. The cento consists chiefly of laudatory monologues by Priapus himself, jocosely and satirically written, in praise of his most prominent part--the mentule--and of fearful warnings to thieves not to infringe upon the Garden God's domains under pain of certain penalties and punishments, obscene and facetious. At times a witty epigram sparkles from the pages, notably numbers 2, 14, 2 5, 37, 47, 69 and 84, the Homeric burlesque in number 69 being merum sal, whilst numbers 46 and 70 show a degree of pornography difficult to parallel.

That the Priapeia has not hitherto been translated into the English tongue is to be expected: the nature of the work is such that it cannot, be included in a popular edition of the classics. But to the philological and anthropological student this collection is most valuable, and the reason for omitting it from the list of translations is not applicable to a version produced for private circulation and limited to an edition of five hundred copies. Putting aside conventionalities, the translators have endeavoured to produce a faithful reflection of the original Latin, shirking no passages, but rendering all the formidably plain-spoken expressions in a translation as close as the idioms of the two languages allow. Indeed the keynote to the volume will be found in Epigrams 1 and 46, on pages 33 and 70, verses probably scrawled on the temple walls of Priapus or scribbled upon the base of his statue by some libertine poet.

Although the value of the work in illustrating the customs of the old Romans may be small per se, yet when read in conjunction with the legacies of certain writers (Catullus, Petronius, Martial, Juvenal and Ausonius, for example), it explains and corroborates their notices of sundry esoteric practices, and thus becomes a supplement to their writings. With the view of making the work an explanatory guide to the erotic dicta of the authors above-mentioned, the bulk of the notes and the excursus explaining and illustrating the text and exceeding its length by some five times is devoted to articles on pederasty with both sexes, irrumation, the cunnilinges, masturbation, bestiality, various figurae Veneris (modes and postures of coition, particularly that in which the man lies supine under the woman); excerpts from the Latin erotic vocabulary, including exhaustive lists of Latin terms designating the sexual organs, male and female; a list of classical amatory writers, and a host of miscellaneous matters, e.g. the habits of the Roman dancing-girls, eunuchism, tribadism of the Roman matrons, the use of phalli, religious prostitution, aphrodisiacs, the 'infamous' finger, tabellae or licentious paintings, the fibula as a preventive of coition, the crepitus ventris, etc., etc., illustrated by poetical versions of many of the epigrams culled from various sources, by parallel elucidatory passages (many hitherto untranslated) from classical writers, and by quotations from authors, ancient and modern.

English literary students have good reason to congratulate them selves on the collaboration of a certain talented littérateur, the mere mention of whose name would be a sufficient guarantee for the quality of the work. He has most kindly enriched the volume with a complete metrical version of the epigrams, and this is, indeed, the principal raison d'être of this issue. I have also gratefully to acknowledge obligations of no small weight, not only for his careful and thorough revision of the prose portion of the translation, but also for the liberal manner in which I have availed myself of his previous labours in the preparation of my notes and excursus. The name of Sir Richard F. Burton, translator of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, has been inadvertently connected with the present work. It is, however, only fair to state that under the circumstances he distinctly disclaims having taken any part in the issue.

And here I may state that a complete and literal translation of the works of Catullus, on the same lines and in the same format as the present volume, is now in preparation. Catullus is, of all the Latin poets, the one who has been oftenest paraphrased and traduced, and even yet, in the year of grace 1890, we have no version of him in our tongue which can be regarded by the student as definitive. Of the merits of Catullus's poesy and the desirability of a trustworthy translation there is no need to speak.

A long dissertation on Priapic worship, the Linga-pújá of the Hindus, considered as an ancient and venerable faith, would be out of place in this recueil; consequently that subject is merely glanced at in the next few pages, most of the information here presented being drawn from modern volumes which contain a digest of the writings of well-known authorities and specialists.