Priapus: personification of the creative force

Mercurius-Priapus. Français : Mercurius-Priapus- circa 50 and circa 79. Heald at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. US Public Domain.
Priapus- between circa 50 and 79 AD. Naples National Archaeological Museum. US Public Domain.

The phallus, as the generative member, holds great importance in psychic life. Carl Jung says:

“The psychic life-force, the libido, symbolizes itself… through phallic symbols” (para. 297)

Phallus, like fire and the sun, “symbolize the libido” (para 298). These libido symbols are expressions and representations of the life force. As Coleridge says, the symbol “partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible.” The fire, the sun and the phallus are symbols of libido in precisely that sense.

In the above image we see Priapus displaying his large phallus, an archetypal image of the creative force. Priapus is the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. Ancient historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote between 60 and 30 BC, speaks of Priapus:

“Now the ancients record in their myths that Priapos was the son of Dionysos and Aphrodite and they present a plausible argument for this lineage; for men when under the influence of wine find the members of their bodies tense and inclined to the pleasures of love. But certain writers say that when the ancients wished to speak in their myths of the sexual organ of males they called it Priapos. Some, however, relate that the generative member, since it is the cause of the reproduction of human beings and of their continued existence through all time, became the object of immortal honour” (Diodorus Siculus, also see Theoi).

According to the common story, Aphrodite procreates with Dionysus, giving birth to Priapus. Aphrodite and Dionysus are themselves images of libidinal relations, as the primal relation between the masculine and feminine elements of psychic life. In one of the classic tellings of the myth, Aphrodite cheats on Dionysus. In response Hera (the mother Goddess) takes revenge, causing Aphrodite to give birth to a deformed child, with an extraordinarily large phallus.  Here is the story:

“Aphrodite, it is said, had yielded to the embraces of Dionysus, but during his expedition to India, she became faithless to him, and lived with Adonis. On Dionysus’ return from India, she indeed went to meet him, but soon left him again, and went to Lampsacus on the Hellespont, to give birth to the child of the god. But Hera, dissatisfied with her conduct, touched her, and, by her magic power, caused Aphrodite to give birth to a child of extreme ugliness, and with unusually large genitals” (from The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology or see Theoi)

Such stories show the ways in which the creative force must be contained for physical (pro)creation to emerge. When Aprodite’s cheats on Dionysus, she violates the creative union, giving birth to the deformed child Priapus. While Priapus’s deformity offers him extra potency in the form of a large phallus, his (pro) creative potency is deformed, and well nigh uncontainable. This is evident in a story from Ovid’s Fasti:

“‘Tis wantonness alone forbids thee to grow old. But crimson Priapus, glory and guard of gardens, lost his heart to Lotis, singled out of the whole bevy. For her he longs, for her he prays, for her alone he sighs; he gives her signs by nodding and woos by making marks. But the lovely are disdainful, and pride on beauty waits: she flouted him and cast at him a scornful look. ‘Twas night, and wine makes drowsy, so here and there they lay overcome with sleep. Weary with frolic, Lotis, the farthest of them all, sank to her rest on the grassy ground under the maple boughs. Up rose her lover, and holding his breath stole secretly and silently on tiptoe to the fair. When he reached the lonely pallet of the snow-white nymph, he drew his breath so warily that not a sound escaped. And now upon the sward fast by he balanced on his toes, but still the nymph slept sound. He joyed, and drawing from off her feet the quilt, he set him, happy lover to snatch the wished-for hour. But lo, Silenus’ saddle-ass, with raucous weasand braying, gave out an ill-timed roar ! The nymph in terror started up, pushed off Priapus, and flying gave the alarm to the whole grove ; but, ready to enter the lists of love, the god in the moonlight was laughed at by all.” (FASTI, I. 426-456).

In the story as told by Ovid, Priapus’s deformed phallic energy is comically mismatched against a disdainful soul image of the nymph Lotis. A deformed and oversized masculine force finds no containment for his desire.  Incapable of enduring the frustration of his overwhelming phallic force he attempts to overpower an unwilling feminine soul. With this mismatch between the container (soul/womb) and contained (phallus)  no creative union ensues but rather a comic and shame inducing farce.

Creative union between container and contained is generative  (pro) creation in psychic life.  We will see this in various mythic stories as told by Carl Jung.  When container and contained are not matched, capable, willing, constant then no (pro) creation can take place.


  1. In some stories Dionysus is said to have mated with a Nymphe (Theoi).
  2. Orphically, too, [Phanes] has the significance of Priapus (see CW5, para. 198)
  3. “the concept of libido in psychology has functionally the same significance as the concept of energy in physics” (see CW5, para. 189)
  4. Melampus introduced into Greece the name of Dionysus, and “is said to have introduced the cult of the phallus.” (see CW5, para. 183)


  2. Carl Jung, Cw 5, Symbols of Transformation (in US Pubic Domain, first published 1912)