Priapus was a Greek god with one stand-out feature: throughout his life, he was afflicted with a large and permanent erection. The story goes that he came to be endowed with the abnormality over a feud between his mother, Aphrodite, and Hera, the goddess of marriage and birth.
Hera was burned following the Judgement Of Paris in which she lost out to Aphrodite in a beauty contest. By way of revenge, Hera cursed Aphrodite’s unborn child so that he would be born ugly, impure, and unable to act on his impulses. This was Priapus.
The Greek god came into the world defined by his lack of restraint, which materialized in the form of a permanent erection that couldn’t be concealed or used, meaning he was never able to satisfy his urges. That’s not to say he didn’t try, however, but here it seems Priapus came across another insurmountable obstacle: the interfering nature of donkeys.
In several tales, Priapus was said to sneak up on sleeping nymphs in an attempt to satisfy his urges, only to have the braying of a loud donkey give the game away. His frustration apparently grew to such an extent that he came to hate donkeys, and later killed one in a contest with an ass.
Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysippus of Soli would no doubt have supported Priapus’s fight, having himself died after laughing to death over a joke he told about a donkey eating figs.
As the god of gardens, Priapus found a way to make his priapism work for him. Image credit: By Trieu Mai via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
What Priapus lacked in intercourse he made up for in vegetable fertility, going on to become the god of gardens for rural Greeks. In the city, he was the butt of the joke; but out in the countryside, he was believed to protect livestock and crops, which is perhaps why he’s often depicted carrying bushels of produce atop his erect penis. People would place wooden effigies in their fields to keep pests away, making today’s erectionless scarecrows look a bit boring by comparison.
In modern times, Priapus is remembered in the naming of a medical condition in which a penis becomes engorged with blood for a prolonged period of time that sits outside of the normal range of a healthy erection. Priapism can be painful, and depending on the cause sometimes even dangerous, which is why anyone experiencing an erection for longer than two hours should seek medical attention.
Priapism is associated with sickle cell disease, but can also be caused by blood thinning medications like warfarin, other prescription and recreational drugs, as well as spider bites, injury, and blood disorders including thalassemia and leukemia. People can also experience prolonged erections after taking erectile dysfunction medication, so it’s important to follow the safety pamphlet provided if you’re concerned as to whether your reaction to a certain medicine is normal.
Urinating, walking, taking a warm bath, and exercise can help to reduce short-term priapism, while cold compresses, showers, and having sex or masturbating can actually make the symptoms worse. In the most severe cases, if treatment is received within 24 hours interventions are usually able to preserve erectile function in 50 percent of patients.
There were no such treatments for the condition’s namesake, Priapus, but he was remembered in a unique sculpture contained within an ancient Pompeii villa that was recently opened to the public, and contains some spectacularly raunchy frescoes.