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A Phallic Knight – II

As I hope the treatise may be forgotten I shall not name the author, but observe, that all the ordure and filfth, all the antique pictures, and all the representations of the generative organs, in their most odious and degrading profusion, have been raked together, and copulated (for no other idea seems to be in the mind of the author) and copulated, I say, with a new species of blasphemy. Such are, what we would call, the records of the stews and bordellos of Grecian and Roman antiquity, exhibited for the recreation of antiquaries, and the obscene revellings of Greek Scholars in their private studies. Surely this is to dwell mentally in lust and darkness in the loathsome and polluted chamber at Capreae.”
Thomas James Mathias

Given that I’m going to give a lecture on Richard Payne Knight for the London Fortean Society in October, I thought I’d better get on with the series of posts on Knight I started last June.

For this second post, I’m going to focus on the first publication of A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, its major themes, and its reception.

Frontispiece of DiscourseIn 1781 Sir William Hamilton wrote to Sir Joseph Banks (1744-1820, president of the Royal Society and member of the Society of Dilettanti) confirming that he had “discovered the cult of Priapus in full vigour” at Isernia in Abruzzo. Hamilton subsequently explained that an engineer working on a road had witnessed the celebration of a feast in honour of two saints – Cosmus and Damainus – in the remote town of Isernia. During the course of this ceremony, waxen objects representing the “male organs of generation” had been offered for sale and subsequently taken to the church dedicated to the saints and given as offerings “chiefly by the female sex” who kissed them as they offered them to the saints. Hamilton had himself visited Isernia hoping to see this ceremony himself, but it had been apparently supressed by the time he arrived. (He did however, manage to salvage the “Great Toes” as these waxen phalli were quaintly known, and he brought them to the British Museum in 1784. 1)

1786 saw the first publication of An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, lately existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples: In Two Letters; One from Sir William Hamilton, K.B. His Majesty’s Minister at the Court of Naples, to Sir Joseph Banks, Bart., President of the Royal Society; The other from a person residing at Isernia. To which is added, A DISCOURSE ON THE WORSHIP OF PRIAPUS, and its Connection with the mystic Theology of the Ancients. With 18 Plates. By R.P. Knight, Esq. London. (hereafter referred to as Discourse)

The first edition was intended for private circulation amongst the fellows and friends of the “Society of Dilettanti” and to various learned bodies such as the British Museum and the Royal Society. Only 80 copies were printed, and their distribution was initially controlled by Sir Joseph Banks. For the first four years after publication, no public commentary appeared.

The book’s frontispiece (above) showed an illustration of four isernian phallic simulacra lying on a napkin. Other illustrations included examples of sexually symbolic art from different cultures – including India, which was something of a novelty at the time. Knight also reproduced an illustration of the already notorius statue of a satyr making love to a goat (see Pan: “disreputable objects of pagan licentiousness” for more details).

Hamilton’s contribution was his short dissertation; his letter of 1781 to Sir Joseph Banks, together with what turned out to be the un-named engineer’s account of the festival plus some notes on ancient inscriptions found around Isernia. Hamilton comments, at the beginning, on the similarity between the amulets worn by Neapolitan “Women and Children of the lower class” against the “mal occhii” (‘evil eye’) and “the ancient inhabitants of this country”. He goes on to say that:

“The modern Amulet most in vogue represents a hand clinched, with the point of the thumb thrust betwixt the index and middle finger; the next is a shell; and the third is a half-moon. These Amulets (except the shell, which is usually worn in its natural state) are most commonly made of silver, but sometimes of ivory, coral, amber, crystal, or some curious gem, or pebble. We have a proof of the hand above described having a connection with Priapus, in a most elegant small idol of bronze of that Divinity, now in the Royal Museum of Portici, and which was found in the ruins of Herculaneum: it has an enormous Phallus, and, with an arch look and gesture, stretches out its right hand in the form above mentioned; and which probably was an emblem of consummation: and as a further proof of it, the Amulet which occurs most frequently amongst those of the Ancients (next to that which represents the simple Priapus), is such a hand united with the Phallus; of which you may see several specimens in my collection in the British Museum.”

In his introduction to Discourse, Knight writes that he intends to show “from what principles of the human mind it [the symbolism and cult of the phallus] was first adopted and how it connected with the ancient theology”. His explanation is couched in the distinction between the rational and the irrational – “in morals, as well as physics, there is no effect without adaquate cause” – that the mind can only to a limited effect be modified by culture (“education and science”); that whilst rationality is associated with the evidence of the senses – religious beliefs, uncontrolled by sense-data, are the source of irrational prejudices and clerical bigotry.

The phallus, if its allegorical meaning is understood, is “a very natural symbol of a very natural and philosophical system of religion” first introduced in an age when “no prejudices of artificial decency existed.”

Discourse begins as as response to Hamilton’s letter, and postulates a fundamental worship of creative energy, preceding any notions of anthropomorphic or external deity, and using the sun and the sexual organs as its major symbols. Knight acknowledges the work of both William Jones and Charles Wilkins, 2 and suggests that India is an early repository of this ur-religion, and that the creator-preserver-destroyer triad is the source of later trinities – including the Christian.

Whilst Egyptian sun worship still reflected this ur-religion, in the Greek world it was perpetuated through the Orphic mystery cults, whose surviving texts indicate the symbolic functions of images such as bulls, snakes, winged figures, as well as male and female procreation, which, taken literally by the uninitiated, construct the fantastic narratives of popular mythology. Knight saw Jewish monotheism as an attempt to return to the primal ur-religion, but vitiated by misreading the recreative force as literal creation.

As a concession to his readers Knight adds that superstition had taken over when the original meaning had been lost and that such was the case with phallic rites. Nothing could be more monstrous and indecent, if considered in its plain or obvious sense or as part of Christian worship, but if its original use was considered it was the natural symbol of a natural and philosophical system of religion. Knight proposes that in order to realise the true meaning of phallic rites in antiquity, one must turn to the corpus of Orphic texts. When he describes the creator as combining the active/male & passive/female principles, and possessing light as his prime attribute, he is referring to the Orphic Phanes/Eros. He stresses that there existed in ancient societies, side by side with vulgar superstition, a form of mystical and secret religion which imparted divine truths by means of symbols and allegories. He identifies – for example, the siva linga as representing the union of the male and female organs of generation, and drew attention to a passage in the introduction to Charles Wilkes’ translation of the Bhagavad Gita: 3

“The Brahmans esteem this work to contain all the grand mysteries of their religion; and so careful are they to conceal it from the knowledge of those of a different persuasion, and even the vulgar of their own…”

Knight draws on the Enlightenment proposal that human nature is essentially the same, and that men usually worship the same thing under different forms. he interprets the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries in relation to phallic worship – since the phallus “represented the generative and creative attribute” – men worshipped the creator by paying homage to his creative principle, the most convenient symbol of which is the erect organ of generation. Knight dismisses the notion that ancient symbol or myth arose from verbal ambiguities – arguing that ideas must exist before the words. On the evidence of the medals and gems, he asserts that the female genitalia generally represent the generative power of nature, while the male genitalia represent the generative power of a force beyond nature – God. He demonstrates that most ancient – and modern symbols – can be reduced to or derived from the male or female genitalia – with numerous examples. The Christian Cross therefore, is nothing more than a late and stylised symbol of the phallus. He also implies that Christianity can be traced back to Bacchic and Priapic origins.

Knight favoured a comparative approach to the study of art – since all ancient nations had been closely related, the art of one could be profitably employed to explain another. This approach encouraged some scholars to take Indian art seriously – rather than being dismissed as monstrosities too bizarre for scholarly interest – they required interpretation. Moreover, Knight and his contemporaries also contributed to the view that the sexual imagery of India must be accepted in terms of different religious values, something which Europeans had been reluctant to do.

The Scandal of Discourse
Trouble over Discourse was not long in coming. 1788 saw George III issue a “Royal Proclamation For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality. Beginning “Whereas We cannot but observe, with inexpressible Concern, the rapid Progress of Impiety and Licentiousness, and that Deluge of Profaneness, Immorality, and every Kind of Vice, which, to the Scandal of our Holt Religion” and ushered in an increased suppression of “loose and licentious Prints, Books and publications, dispersing Poison to the minds of the young and unwary”. 4

In 1790 Thomas Mathias, satirist and editor of The Pursuits of Literature (a somewhat scurrilous bibliographic report in the form of a satiric poem in four parts) went on the attack. Mathias called for Discourse to be publically burned, calling it a “criminal obscenity” that would promote lewdness and debauchery and prophesying an apocalyptic end to England in the manner of the judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah, should Discourse find its way into schools. Others joined in, and according to George S. Rousseau (1987, p132), the majority judgement of Knight by commentators in the first two decades of the 18th century was the accusation of being a sensualist and Discourse as a corrupting influence. He was also accused of encouraging feminism (Knight was a member of the same radical circle that included Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine) and Priapism was also linked to the support of revolutionary France.

Lady Holland wrote in her diaries that Knight had corrupted several women of her acquaintance with his ideas – in particular, encouraging Lady Oxford to exclaim against the institution of marriage. Walpole dubbed Knight “the new Priapus” and Coleridge, having obtained a copy of Discourse, commented of a single (unknown) page that “this single Period contains an absolute demonstration that Mr. Knight is just as ignorant in head of Taste, and its Principles, as the author of the Priapus must needs have been ignorant in heart of Virtue & virtuous feelings.” There was also much gossip over Knight’s patronage of younger men such as the painter Richard Westall.

Hamilton too, did not escape criticism, although the scandal over Lady Emma Hamilton’s affair with Nelson overshadowed his contribution to Discourse. Hamilton found himself the target of satirists such as James Gilray’s 1787 engraving ‘A cognocenti contemplating ye beauties of ye antique’ (see previous post).

In 1808 Mathias described Discourse as: “One of the most unbecoming and indecent treatises which ever disgraced the pen of a man who would be considered a scholar and a philosopher.”

It is often said that Knight’s response to all this was to try and recall all the copies of Discourse which had been circulated. But again, like so many other facets of Knight’s life, some historians have contested whether this was actually the case. Towards the end of the eighteenth century however – some of Knight’s suggestions did gain some limited approval, particularly within the pages of the journal Asiatic Researches. In 1790, one Reuben Burrow took up Knight’s interpetation of ancient monuments as phallic symbols, arguing that the pyramids of Egypt, Ireland, Cleopatra’s Needle, and in all probability the Tower of Babel, were (phallic) images of “Mahadeo” (i.e. Shiva). This linkage between India, Egypt, and the phallic origin of religion continues into the nineteenth century – but more on that in a future post.

In the next post in this series I’ll take a look at eighteenth century ideas about progress and the past, then briefly discuss some of Payne Knight’s later works and related arguments he became embroiled in.

Giancarlo Carabelli In the Image of Priapus (Duckworth, 1996)
Michael Clarke, Nicholas Penny (eds) The Arrogant Connosisseur: Richard Payne Knight 1751-1824 (Manchester University Press, 1982)
Whitney Davis Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2010)
Jocelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (State University of New York, 1994)
Partha Mitta Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
George S. Rousseau & Roy Porter Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (Manchester University Press, 1987)
George S. Rousseau Perilous Enlightenment: Pre- and Post-Modern Discourses-Sexual, Historical (Mancheter University Press, 1991)


  1. It was during this stay in London that Hamilton met his wife-to-be, the infamous Emma Hamilton.
  2. Wilkins produced the first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1785.
  3. See also Ganapati variations: an eighteenth-century interpretation for further discussion on Knight and India.
  4. see for more discussion of George’s Proclamation.