The Worship of Priapus
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Worship of Priapus is a book by Richard Payne Knight, published in 1786. The book sought to recover the importance of ancient phallic cults. Knight's apparent preference for ancient sacred eroticism over Judeo-Christian puritanism led to many attacks on him as an infidel and as a scholarly apologist for libertinism. This ensured the persistent distrust of the religious establishment. The central claim of The Worship of Priapus was that an international religious impulse to worship ‘the generative principle’ was articulated through genital imagery, and that this imagery has persisted into the modern age. In some ways the book was the first of many later attempts to argue that Pagan ideas had persisted within Christianity, a view that would eventually crystalise into the neo-Pagan movement over a century later.
In the Alexander Wilder preface of The symbolical language of ancient art and mythology; an inquiry, one can read:
- "In 1786, he published a limited edition of a treatise, entitled, "An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, lately existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples, etc." ; to which is added a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients." Although the subject was extraordinary and prohibited from common conversation as indelicate, Mr. Knight had discussed it with moderation and remarkable caution, giving little occasion to prudishness or pruriency, or even to " prurient prudes " to resort to his pages for their accustomed aliment. He added engravings, however, from coins, medals, and other remains of ancient art, which he had collected ; all of which were genuine and authenticated, but were made a handle by which to misrepresent and vilify him. Having been elected to Parliament, a member who was opposed to him in politics, took the occasion in debate to assert that he had written an improper book. Mr. Knight, long before, in consequence of the clamor and of the calumny to which he was subjected, had suppressed a portion of the edition, and destroyed whatever copies came in his way. But indecency did not constitute the offense of the book. Facts were disclosed in regard to the arcana of religion, which the initiated had before sedulously kept vailed from popular knowledge. Mr. Knight had only endeavored to present to scholars a comprehensive view of the origin and nature of a worship once general in the Eastern world ; but it was easy to perceive that many of the elements of that worship had been adopted and perpetuated in the modern faith by which it had been superseded. A philosophical reasoner can not perceive why it should be otherwise. Opinions and institutions are not revolutionised on a day, but are slowly modified by reflection and experience."