Quartilla's Cure


Dennis P. Quinn

In this paper I intend to argue that it is possible that Petronius presents a mystery cult of Priapus in his Satyricon 16-26.1 I begin with the questions: (1) does he use the rubric of Priapic mysteries as a humorous framework to create a literary construct of a sexually explicit cult, divorced from any reality? (2) Does he use some elements of actual Priapic ritual to move in and out of fiction and reality as his satirical mind pleases? Or (3) could he be describing actual practices of a cult of which he had substantial knowledge, having the characters do humorous things within its established framework? I hope to show that an affirmative answer to the first question is unlikely, that second is probable, and the third is indeed a possibility. I will analyze the major events in this ritual in light of what is known about mystery cults in general, particularly that of Dionysus, and what is known about the god Priapus specifically. I intend to show that, along with similarities with other mysteries, the mystery cult of Priapus contained some peculiar elements that distinguish it from the rest.

For the most part we will discover that ritual rape is central to the cult. The cult is officiated by the Priestess Quartilla with at least two maid servants, one named Psyche, as assistants to the ritual. Male sexuality controlled by females dominates the ritual and the two main characters, Encolpius and Ascyltos, are subjected to several ordeals culminating in a final rape by a Priapus-manifest. There is much use of an aphrodisiatic drug called satyrion and expensive wine is imbibed during the ceremony. There is a ritual meal, another rape by "Priapus," and then a puberty initiation of two children in the form of a wedding ceremony, with references to its consummation. Since Petronius' work was designed to be comic in nature, it is difficult for historians to distinguish the "fact" from the "fiction." The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, also a comic novel, presents an initiation scene into the cult of Isis, and most scholars agree that it gives tremendous insight into actual cult practices when taken seriously. As with the case of Apuleius, I ask, what if we take Petronius seriously for a moment in his portrayal of the cult of Priapus? Certainly if any of the cult can be taken seriously it could help in our understanding of ancient religions in general, and, perhaps, the cult of Priapus in particular.

The Quartilla episode in Satyricon 16-26 has been explained by scholars in a number of different ways, but none through the lens of what is known about ancient mystery cults. I intend to fill this gap here. P. G. Walsh describes the scene purely within the context of sexual humiliation: the effeminate men are simply raped by domineering women.2 J. P. Sullivan argues that the scene reveals Petronius' own psychosexual interests and should be understood to be a product of his own fantasies and sexual fetishes.3 P. B. Corbett, following Sullivan, sees the Quartilla episode as pure escapism from an uncertain society, and all the scenes are completely unreal.4 H. D. Rankin argues that the characters were taken by a 'monumental bluff.' A joke was played on the main characters, much like the plot of a mime on stage.5 C. Panayotakis emphasizes the scene's theatricality and sees it completely within the context of the Roman stage. All of the events in this section of the Satyricon was designed to evoke laughter, even the main characters' 'alleged' intrusion of the cult of Priapus was simply a theatrical device to appease Quartilla's nymphomania.6 N. W. Slater believes that Quartilla's people are very un-Priapic and the scene should be viewed as a 'striking disjunction of emotion and expression,' emphasizing its potency as a theatrical device.7 But these scholars have not examined in detail the events in relation with other mystery cults for what it might tell us about Priapic rituals. Thus my concerns are historical rather than literary, and recourse to what is known about other mystery cults will be our valuable guide. It will be helpful to briefly explore what is known about Priapus, that quite unusual god.

Priapus was a fertility god originating from Lampascus around the forth-century BC, and when it reached Rome it was often identified with Mutunus Turtunus, an Italian god of nature and procreation.8 His statue becomes popular in gardens and acts as a kind of crude scarecrow, a protector from birds. In Rome he represents both gardens and sexuality, but in Petronius it is his sexuality that is emphasized. His is represented as a small ugly male, always anthropomorphic, with oversized genitalia, but he is sometimes symbolized by a simple tree stump with a single protruding branch. Priapus seems to have become rather popular in the late Republican and early Imperial periods, favored by the respectable supporters of Augustus, springing up in literature as if from nowhere.9 Catullus dedicates the walls of his rather large estate to him, no doubt in honor of the god's protective and procreative abilities.10 The great poet Virgil presents Priapus as a rather humble deity, the centurion against thieves and birds in the poor man's garden,11 deserving of simply a pale of milk and some cakes once a year as a votive offering.12 Ovid tells a story of Priapus' attempted rape of the Goddess Vesta foiled by braying ass, and thus, we learn, Priapus demands an ass as sacrifice once a year.13 Horace writes of a talking Priapic statue that scares witches away from a cemetery by means of a loud fart.14 Diodorus, on the other hand, connects Priapus with the cult of Dionysus as his son with Aphrodite. According to this historian Priapus is accorded great honors throughout Italian cities, temples, and countryside where there are many statues to him. This god watches over vineyards and gardens, punishing anyone who casts a spell over anything that the owner's posses.15 Moreover, Diodorus claims that Priapus is honored at many sacred rites, and is of particular importance to the cult of Dionysus.16 Priapus also has a literary genre all his own, called Priapea. These works are highly sexually explicit both in language and content. These works are very helpful in gaining an understanding of how this god was conceived in the ancient world. They are crafted to be the actual sayings of Priapus himself, and we find that he is a quite single minded god who sees everything in a sexual context. Moreover, he is fond of bridging the gap between sex and violence, often equating the two. The women who pay homage to him are not, in his view, worshipers, but rather nymphomaniacs that seek the satisfaction that only he could offer.17 His magical fertilizing powers apparently mean nothing to him. He is skeptic, like many Romans of his day, and regards himself as a piece of raw material, a phallus.


Now that we know a little about Priapus as he is portrayed in the popular literature of Petronius' day, we now turn to an analysis of the Quartilla scene in the Satyricon. The scene begins with the arrival of Quartilla's ancilla, or maid-servant (16.1). Her entrance is quite dramatic and indicative of some sort of divine help: the door to Encolpius' room opened on its own accord, creating an atmosphere of mystery and magic. This is perhaps an indication to the reader that what was to follow should be considered a supernatural event.18 Also, her arrival being announced by a maid, rather than the Priestess Quartilla simply coming to the door herself, stresses that she in an important member of the community: as a priestess she should be held in some high esteem. The ancilla, who is veiled, then introduces herself as Quartilla's maid and reveals to Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton that they had intruded upon Quartilla's devotions (sacrum) before the secret chapel (criptam). Unfortunately this previous scene is no longer extant and it is not clear whether they entered the Priapic criptam to steal something, or to watch the rites, or perhaps they simply fell upon the ritual by accident, which is how Encolpius happened upon the brothel in the previous scene (7-8). We will discover that Quartilla considers them to be thieves. Nevertheless, they are informed that the Priestess Quartilla has arrived and desires to speak with them, but the ancilla reassures them that the priestess is not angry and will not punish them: "On the contrary, she wonders how deus brought such polite young men to her place" (16.2). There are two important points here. First, she does not intend to punish them. Many commentators on this episode have stressed that the main characters were punished sexually because of their transgressions of the earlier, now lost ritual.19 Certainly this is the impression we get from Encolpius, who often asks to be rescued from the ordeal, as we will see below. But in Petronius' building of the later events, we are told that Quartilla is not going to punish them, but rather have them participate in Priapic ritual, in which punishment is simply one element of the larger rite. The second important point that the ancilla reveals is that the god, although unnamed here but it is clear that this god is Priapus, has sent Encolpius and his friends to her. This reveals divine favor that they should be participants and included in the cult.

Quartilla finally arrives with an adolescent girl (virgo, called virguncula later) (17.1) and the priestess in a highly exaggerated state of despair, which, as Encolpius narrates, seemed "carefully arranged" (ostentationem doloris paratas). We will see later that her mood changes drastically, and quickly from despair to extreme levity. These extreme emotions could be a variation on the well known feigned ecstasies of the Bacchic revelers as seen in Euripides.20 Petronius could also be basing his farce loosely on Livy 39.13 in which Hispala Faecenia wept and trembled at the prospect of revealing the Bacchic mysteries. Similar secretes were apparently already revealed to our characters. Nevertheless, after Quartilla's exaggerated sorrow, she reveals that she considers them to be thieves (latrocinii), and it is clear that they stole what she believes is her most valuable possession: knowledge of the secret mysteries. Had this information been transmitted to the uninitiated, not only would it destroy the foundation of the mysteries, but it could perhaps prove fatal, as it happened for the Bacchae in Livy 39, who were systematically persecuted by the powerful Roman government. Quartilla proclaims: "A man cannot look upon forbidden things and go free" (17.2). She will indeed not let them go free until they too are initiated into the cult of Priapus.

After the priestess blames their intrusion on their youth, Quartilla reveals that, because of their invasion of the secrets, she has been inflicted with malaria (tertiana), for which she sought remedy in a dream. She was told, although she does not reveal by whom, that somehow Encolpius and his friends can cure her.21 Her illness appears to be associated with the condition of the cult if its secrets got out, an illness that could prove fatal for the cult as a whole.22 She voices her primary concern:

I am afraid that youthful indiscretion will lead you to publish abroad what you saw in the chapel of Priapus (in sacello Priapi), and reveal our god's counsels (deorumque consilia) to the people. So I hold out my folded hands to your knees, and beg and pray you not to make a laughing-stock of our nocturnal worship (nocturnas religiones), not to deride the immemorial mystery (tot annorum secreta) to which less than three people know (vix tres homines noverunt).23

This is an important passage because it reveals how Petronius would like this cult to be conceived. First, Priapus was worshipped in what Quartilla calls a sacellum. It is not clear where this was but it was probably some undisclosed secret location in Rome.24 Second, it is clear that Priapus was considered to preside over the assembly of worshipers, as deorum counsilia, but the form that the god took is not clear from this passage. I will argue later that the god took the form of a man, called a cinaedus (a man rapist), playing the role of the god Priapus. Third, the rites took place at night, which is certainly very common to practically all mystery cults, but due to the frequent use of the word hodie (today) in the first half of the episode, it is clear that part of the ritual could take place during the day. Fourth, there is indeed a religious secret, or mystery, which is believed to have a long and established history. We will discover one of those secrets, which is a play on words that merges Priapus, a cinaedus, and phallic-shaped mug. Last, there is a select group of initiates who know the Priapic mysteries, although it is not clear why Quartilla says there are three with such knowledge, but perhaps it is an exaggerated low number to prove it was a very closed secret, or perhaps it is a clue that our three characters, Encolpius, Ascyltos, and Giton, are about to be given this knowledge.

As the scene continues, Quartilla persists in her weeping. Then, in a fusion of pity and fear, Encolpius assures her that they would not betray her devotions: "we would risk our lives to assist the will of the gods, if the deus had shown her any further cure for her malaria" (18.2). With these words Encolpius, although unwittingly, volunteers to be initiated into the cult, for it seems that initiation into mystery cults, generally, needed to be consentual.25 Then, Quartilla's mood suddenly changes from weeping to laughter. She begins to kiss Encolpius and rejoices in the prospect of following what course she pleased (18.3). She then clapped her hands and began to laugh so loud that it frightened our three main characters. The ancilla and virguncula joined in with the farcical laughter (mimico rusu), leaving Encolpius at a loss at how they could have changed their mood so quickly (19.1). There is a commonality to other mystery religions here. For example, the participants in the Isis cult would begin one part of the sacred drama in exaggerated sorrow for the fate of Osiris' dismembered body, and then, when Isis' re-assembly of the god was proclaimed, the worshippers would all break out in hysterical laughter.26 So it is possible that, although the Priapic rite has not yet begun, Petronius is poking fun at the use of emotion in ritual, of which the Priestess Quartilla seems to be experts. But perhaps extreme emotional shifts were actually a part of Priapic ritual. When we examine some of the sources describing the Dionysiac cult, for example, like Diodorus who describes the laughter when the Priapic figure is introduced at the beginning of the ritual,27 or Augustine who describes in disgust the anticipatory giggles of an audience about to see the huge prick of a Priapic mime,28 it becomes clear that laughter was an important element of Priapus' appeal. He looked so disgusting that he was funny. This is also true for the initiation scene as Petronius constructs, or reconstructs: the actions are so disgusting that they are funny, or at least intended to be so for some. Indeed laughter is often portrayed throughout the initiation scenes.

After Encolpius' "consent" is given, Quartilla gives a clear indication of her plan: "I forbade any mortal man (mortalium) to enter this inn today (hodie), just so that I might get you to cure me of my tertianae without interruptions." This passage is key. First, as we will discover Quartilla is completely in control of the rite we are about to witness, and her claim that no mortal man will be present must be taken seriously throughout the rite.29 But there is actually a male figure that later appears and attempt to inflict all sorts of crude sexual acts upon both Encolpius and Ascyltos. Quartilla's command is a clue that this man is actually the incarnation of Priapus, which we will see later. Furthermore, Quartilla says that what is to follow will cure her of her malaria. This is certainly a twist to what we know about mystery initiations. Usually, it is the initiates that are cured, not the initiator.30 So why will Quartilla be cured? Could it be that gathering new adherents for Priapus was an important element of the cult? Or is this a special case, as Petronius presents it to us? Regardless, it is clear that Quartilla believes that she will not be cured unless she initiates the three 'thieves' into the cult in which they already saw too much to continue as a non-initiate.

Both Encolpius and Ascyltos know their fate. Ascyltos was struck dumb for a moment and Encolpius "turned colder than a Gallic winter, and could not utter a word" (19.2). Why such fear? The answer probably lies in our lost section of the Satyricon in which they stumbled upon the Priapic rites, but in the initiation scene which follows we may be able to get a sense of what they saw. They already knew what was in store for them. Encolpius was prepared to fight, but soon, "all our resolution yielded to astonishment, and the darkness of certain death proceeded to fall upon our unhappy eyes" (19.3). Why did Petronius make Encolpius think he was about to die? It could be from what he learned from Livy about the initiates in the cult of Dionysus: "If any of them were disinclined to endure abuse or reluctant to commit crime, they were sacrificed as victims" (pro victimis immolari).31 Or it could have been the prospect of the Priapus ritual, of which he had already seen at least part. Much of what is said in the literature about Priapus seemed laughable, but frightening at the same time. Columella writes that Priapus' mighty member (terribilis membri) scared many boys.32 Virgil even felt the need to assure farmers that Priapus' sexual prowess should not be feared.33 In the initiation scene to follow, we will see that Encolpius and Ascyltos both are raped, or nearly raped, twice by a Priapus-like figure. This is why they should be terribly frightened. But this was apparently all part of the ritual.


The initiation, as we have it, begins with some ordeal that Encolpius does not consider fitting for even the worst criminals to endure. Unfortunately, because of the broken nature of the text here, we do not know what that was. Then we meet another ancilla named Psyche who carefully places a rug (lodiculiam) on the floor begins to pay particular attention to Encolpius' penis, attempting, no doubt, to bring him to erection. Diodorus informs us that the male member was often called "Priapus,"34 and this may have some ritual significance here. Some negative sources categorize the women worshipers of Priapus as being infatuation with the god's penis. Arnobius in mortified at many women's wanton lust for the god's member.35 Columella, in a more positive light, reveals that invoking the name of ithyphalic Priapus helps maintain a husband's erection.36 Thus the significance of this scene may be more religious ritual rather than simply sexual in nature. Nevertheless, Petronius is certainly having fun with granting this preparatory duty being the responsibility of a woman named Psyche, the Soul. At this, Ascyltos, who was nearby, buried his head in his cloak. This was certainly not due to his modesty, for earlier (11.2) he had asked to join in with Encolpius' lovemaking with Giton. He averted his head because the ritual forbade it. Encolpius explains: "I suppose he had warning that it is dangerous to pry into other people's secrets (admonitus scilicet periculosum esse alienis intervenere secretis) (20.2). This may be just the kind of lewdness that Livy eludes to in describing the public conception of the Bacchic mysteries.37 This passage also perhaps lends weight to my assertion that they were initiates rather than simply victims of sexual torture, although all part of the initiation.

Next, both Encolpius and Ascyltos are bound at their hands and feet by flounces (instatas) that an ancilla took from her pocket. The binding of initiates appears to have been rather commonplace in Roman mystery cults. For example, in a fresco from Capua Vetere we see a man bound by the hands, and perhaps by the feet, during a Mithraic initiation.38 There is then another lacuna, and unfortunately we do not know what happens to them while they are bound, (The next scenes indicate that they were no longer bound) adding further weight to the initiation thesis. The next extant part of the text has Ascyltos asking for a drink. It is apparent from Encolpius' laughter at this remark and the ancilla's reply that he had already had quite a few. But so has Encolpius. They are not yet drinking wine, but rather a liquid called satyrion, made from orchids and some other plants, and believed to be highly aphrodisiatic. I am inclined to believe that it also contained some highly intoxicating, even hallucinogenic properties. Nevertheless, the use of drugs in mystery cults was very commonplace,39 and the initiates appear to be rather enjoying this aspect of their ordeal. Then the ancilla's reply that she had indeed given him a drink leads her to ask Encolpius: "Did you drink the whole of the medicine (medicamentum) yourself" (20.2)? It is of interest to compare this passage with Euripides' Bacchae where Dionysus calls wine the "all healing medicine of our woes."40 The satyrion is indeed helping them cope with the ordeal, of which more is to follow. Then the Priestess Quartilla is back in the narrative again: "did Encolpius drink the whole of the satyrii."41 This event started a fit of laughter, including Encolpius' young lover Giton, who was currently being showered with kisses by the virguncula. Then there is another break in the text, and we enter again with Encolpius crying for help, overtaken by the pains he is experiencing during the ritual. At this heartened plead, Psyche pricks Encolpius with a hair pin (acu comatoria),42 while a puella threatens Ascyltos with a sponge soaked with satyrion (21.1). At this point Ascyltos apparently has had enough of the intoxicating drug. These last two actions may seem little more than pure harassment. But new initiates into mystery cults were often subjected to humiliation, pain, or even injury, as our two main characters have experienced here.43

The next scene must be understood within the context of Quartilla's arrangement that no mortal man will disturb her plans to relieve herself of her bout with malaria, the brief description of the cult mentioned earlier which describes the deorum consilia, as well as the larger role of Priapus in Roman mythology. It must be pointed out, however, that this scene begins with the word ultimo, or lastly. This indication of finality gives us a hint that at least one part of the ritual has reached a conclusion, which, I propose is indeed the case. As the text continues, we only get a partial description of an individual who suddenly arrives. He is described as a cinaedus adorned with a myrtle-colored woolen robe and girdle (gausapa cinuloque).44 This could fit the description of Priapus, but since the rest of the description is lost it would be unwarranted to make to much of it. But he acts as Priapus would, especially to thieves, which is what Quartilla considers Encolpius and Ascyltos (and Giton) to be. This could very well be the deorum concilia that Encolpius and his friends witnessed in the lost section. In many of the Priapea dating from the first century, there are graphic details, set in marvelous pentameter, about Priapus' anal rapes of thieves.45 Lactantius had the impression that Priapic ritual included even more repugnant acts then the Roman poets cared to include.46 After another lacuna, Encolpius and Ascyltos are in the midst of being anally raped by the Priapic figure who was just introduced. Our texts has: "he nearly ruptured our buttocks (modo extortis nos clunibus) with his thrusts, [and] he nearly defiled us with his nasty kisses (modo basiis olidissimis inquinavit)" (21.2).47 Livy records that in the Dionysian cult the male priests sexually violated male initiates,48 and later writes: "There are more lustful practices among men with another than among women" (Plura virorum inter sese quam feminarum esse stupra).49 This certainly illustrates the Roman disdain for the anally penetrated male. But within the context of this Priapic ritual, this brutal violation served a religious function as well, much like Dionysus proclaims in Euripides: "Your dark orgies sanctify me."50 As Tertullian reminds us, Priapus is one of the imprudent gods.51 For many, Priapus is all penis. Therefore the Priapic cult is rooted in sex, more specifically the act of penetration. It should come to no surprise that a cult based upon a phallic god centers around the functionary aspect of the male sex organ, the god's counsel, and potentially its regenerative powers. Unfortunately, we do not get a description of the Priapus-incarnate's penis, so it is not clear whether the cinaedus wore some attachment, was naturally endowed, or its size simply did not matter. Due to the broken nature of the text in this section, it is futile to speculate. But what we could have here is essentially fertility ritual, however twisted.

Then, in the middle of the ritual rape, Quartilla performs her priestly duties: "Quartilla, holding her whalebone staff (balaenaceam virgam) in her hand, and in the other a succincta, discharged poor us of the service (missionem)." Here we have two interesting elements of the ritual that must be discussed. First, the whalebone staff does not occur an any other Roman texts prior to Petronius (or after Petronius for that matter) as far as I can tell.52 What can this mean? I can think of a few possibilities. One possibility is that Petronius simply made it up. The use of staffs, or other types of long poles, in mystery cults is quite common in art from the period. There is one such pole laying across the lap of Dionysus in the Vile of the Mysteries in Pompeii, so Petronius may have felt the cult needed a staff. Of course this is possible, but one might ask, Why a whalebone staff? Another possibility is perhaps he or someone else he knew had one, but of course this is impossible to tell. But what seems more possible is that the priestess for the Priapic cult actually used a whalebone staff in the mysteries. This could explain its very existence in the text, and thus give the possibility that he is at least mocking an actual cult. Virgil relates that Priapus carries a willow sickle (falce saligna),53 but this does not actually help us in our endeavors here.

The second interesting element that this last passage reveals is twofold: first, the priestess is in complete control of the ritual rape; and second, moreover, the rapist has apparently not ejaculated. There is no doubt that Quartilla is dictating the events here, and if we accept that the cinaedus is performing his functions as a Priapus manifest, a priestess in control of the situation has fascinating implications on how the god was conceived in relation to his mortal worshipers. The Priapea often ridicule Priapus, even placing him below humans. One prayer to Priapus boldly states, "I owe you nothing" (debio tibi nihil).54 This shows the potential for a rather unique, inverted relationship between god and mortal. This is why Quartilla can order the Priapus-manifest off his "victims." Secondly, one may ask, why is it important that the rapist be pulled of Encolpius and Ascyltos before he is satisfied? The answer rests firmly within the tradition of the Priapus myth. Priapus is never sexually satisfied, and exists in a perpetual ithyphalic state. This is evident in nearly every artistic portrayal in the early imperial period. In the literary sources, moreover, his prevailing sexual frustration is paramount. Ovid relates the popular myth that just before he could molest Vesta, an ass brayed, woke the accompanying gods, and foiled his plans, while he ran away ridiculed and still erect.55 Arnobius could not help but mock Priapus for his continual ithyphalic condition,56 and Galen reports that the medical condition in which a man has a continual erection was called Priapism.57 Therefore, the Priapic figure, in order to be true to the tradition, could not reach climax, and Encolpius and Ascyltos are saved the honor of satisfying the cinaedus.

This is an end of an important part of the ritual, and perhaps the most painful and humiliating. Fortunately, the punch line of this scene has been preserved for posterity: "We both of us took a solemn oath (religiousissimus iuravit) that the dreadful secret (horribile secretum) should die with us two" (21.2). This is a clear double entendre: such a humiliating experience should never be told anyone one outside the cult; and, as Quartilla has assured, the Priapic mysteries are safe because they experienced the initiation. It is probably these kinds of socially humiliating activities that preserved the secrets: perhaps the secrets were far too embarrassing.


Then, after another lacuna, our main characters are being treated like honored guests. Wrestling-masseurs arrive, rubbed them down with oils, and refreshed (refecerunt) them. This could perhaps be considered a kind of purification rite after their long sacred ordeal. Nevertheless, after this rub-down, Encolpius and Ascyltos58 were shown into the next room where three couches were laid beside a rich diner table that was stacked with fine foods and wine. This scene is somewhat reminiscent of both the feast and couch arrangement for the Isiatic initiates.59 A feast had been prepared by Quartilla which included unmixed Falerian, one the finest wines in Italy. Diodorus warned against drinking unmixed wine because it led one to a state of madness, much like the worshipers of Dionysus experience.60 To the contrary, however, in this case they had imbibed so much wine that they became drowsy, at which Quartilla quipped: "Well how can you think of going to sleep, when you know that it is your duty to devote the whole wakeful night to the genius of Priapus (Priapi genio)"? All night vigils and heavy drinking of wine in honor of the god are certainly characteristic of the Dionysus cult, as Livy relates.61 But why does Quartilla exhort the revelers to hold the vigil in honor of Priapus' genius rather than Priapus himself? The genius, we recall, is the indwelling spirit of a man which gave him the power of generation, thus the marriage bed (lectus genialus) was part of its sphere.62 Certainly fertility was an important element of the Priapus cult, although Priapus himself was not fertile because he could never plant his seed, so to speak. The Priestess Quartilla later invokes her own genius, that is her Iuno, in reference to her own prolific sexuality just before the "wedding" scene to follow. Nevertheless, the genius of a god is difficult to reconcile. I have seen no other examples of such a reference. If we remember, however, the Priapic-like cinaedus that violated Encolpius and Ascyltos is the previous scene, we could have an answer to the problem of the god's genius. It is possible that the participants are drinking to the Priapus-manifest, the cinaedus with a human genius, which, if indeed the case, and Petronius is relating some truth about the cult, this opens up a wealth of questions about how the god-man relationship could be conceived in the ancient world. This is a topic deserving of further inquiry, far beyond my scope here.

It is clear, however, that our characters are having a sacred meal, not only because Quartilla says it, but also because of the quantity and quality of food and wine, which is in stark contrast to the common folk's usual subsistence.63 Our characters were now partaking in an all-night vigil, so indicative of a mystery cult. When Ascyltos fell asleep, an ancilla rubbed his face all over with soot, and colored his lips and neck with some other substance that, unfortunately, is lost from our text. There is evidence that some worshipers of Dionysus are presented with a mixture of clay and chaff on their faces.64 Could it be possible that the soiled Dionysian initiates were marked for some sort of transgression against the god, as is the case here with Asclytos? In Euripides' Bacchae Dionysus has no patience for the irreverent: "The rites of our god scorn irreverent unbelievers."65

Then, it appears that no one was able to stay up for their vigil, and, while the lamps grew dim, two Syrians (Syri) came in to rob the dining room. While they were quarreling over the silverware, they broke a large jug that crashed on the ground, a table fell over, a plate broke, and, if this was not loud enough, a cup flew in the air and landed on the head of an ancilla who promptly screamed while the thieves watched in panic as some of the drunken revelers began to stir from their slumber. The thieves promptly hid behind a couch, and when they realized that they were being noticed, proceeded to snore as if they had been sleeping for sometime, like welcomed guests (22.2-3). We never hear again of the fate of these thieves. But why are they included? Many literary scholars have been at a loss to explain this scene. Some have claimed that these thieves appear simply for comical levity,66 even slapstick comedy,67 or simple role playing as in the theater.68 But it is possible that these scholars have simply missed the point of this scene. Priapus was a guardian against thieves and their entry during his vigil, and particularly their evasion of capture, flies in the face of Priapus, actually humiliating the god, which is so common in Priapea literature of the first century.69 Likewise, Encolpius and his friends interfered with Priapic ceremony in a lost scene, but were caught. Had these thieves been discovered as well, it might have perpetuated the cycle of initiates. Here is some of the humor that has escaped many scholars. First, Encolpius watched while the Syrian thieves escaped notice, while the reason Encolpius is there is because he could not could not escape the notice of Quartilla. Because Encolpius and his companions were caught witnessing the Priapus ritual is the reason he is there in the first place! If this conclusion is valid, than it could also prove that the Priapic ritual is not yet over. Second, like the god humiliated the characters with the rape, Petronius humiliates Priapus, which leaves Petronius actually one-upping the character Quartilla who pulls the Priapic figure off the two young men. Here is where this part of the Satyricon is actually a kind of Priapea, which as a genre often served to poke fun, or even humiliate the god. Petronius has played a trick on us here, showing his hand, interacting with Priapus himself, giving the god a literary slap in the face.

Directly after this interlude with the thieves, a girl with cymbals (cymbalestra) arrives and the Priestess Quartilla calls everyone back to their cups. The use of cymbals in mystery cults is also very common. According to Livy the cymbals play during the Dionysiac ceremony to hide the cries of the sexually assaulted.70 Cymbals were also used in the Cybele cult,71 the Syrian cult of the Great Mother,72 and an element of the Eleusian sacred formula was, "I drank from the cymbal."73 The Dionysiac cult had a heavy cymbal accompaniment while the worshippers sang, "Evoe! Evoe!," if we can believe Euripides.74 Apuleius informs us that if anyone heard the cymbals playing, they knew that a cult was in session.75 Then after another break in the text, a cinaedus enters where Encolpius is apparently lying down. It is quite possible that it is the same one who appeared earlier to sexually assault Encolpius and Ascyltos. The only description we get from Petronius, that is on the lips of Encolpius, is that this individual was "truly dignified in this house" (plane ille domo dignus) (23.2). Who more dignified to be in a house honoring Priapus than Priapus himself? Furthermore, this cineadus recites an obscene Priapea of Petronius' own composition: these works of literature were often constructed to be the actual sayings of Priapus.76 So here we have "Priapus" reciting his own poem to the beat of the cymbalestra. After this Priapea was recited, which glorifies the buttocks and anal copulation, this personification of Priapus begins kissing Encolpius and attempts to arouse him, but to no avail. Encolpius could hold his tears no longer and gives us a hint about a missing section of the text. He cries: "I ask, o madam, you certainly had given orders that a phallic drinking glass (embasicoetan) be given to me" (24.1). It was this phallic drinking glass that Encolpius was expecting, and not the sex fiend who actually arrived. Here we might have a clue about, or a variation on, a Priapic mystery, evident when Quartilla quips: "What? Hadn't you understood that embasicoetan is what we call the cinaedum?" The use of a double entendre here would lack significance other than that of a crude joke had it been revealed to the uninitiated. In the Priapea, Priapus' word plays and puns are usually blatantly sexual. But in the context of the ritual, such a distinction makes a dramatic difference: between drinking a fine wine, and being ritually raped. Furthermore, if my thesis about the incarnate Priapus is valid, we have the merging imagery of god with drinking cup. Later in this scene Quartilla orders this individual off Encolpius so that Ascyltos can be served this "drinking glass" (24.4).


So far the young boy Giton has, apparently, had a very limited role. But this soon changes, and the priestess begins to take in interest in this boy, starting to kiss him and fondle his privates. Then she says that Giton should perform is some sort of sexual-military function on the next day, which I am at a loss to explain,77 but today, Quartilla proclaims, he is to be married to a young girl of no more than seven named Pannychis ("All-Night Girl") so that she may be de-flowered (25.1). She is, by the way, the same girl who came into Encolpius' room with Quartilla at the beginning of the ritual scene (16). This wedding rite seems to be a kind of climax to this Priapic ritual. After Quartilla remarks how she was about Pannychis' age when she "first endured a man," Encolpius relates that he is worried about any injury done to his frater, so he decided to celebrate the nuptias along with them.

Psyche placed a flame-colored veil (flameo) upon the girl's head, the embasicoetas carried a torch in front, and a long train of drunken women (ebriae mulieres) followed shouting and wearing dishonorable clothing to the bridal chamber.78

The flameo, torch bearer,79 and the train of women following gives a ring of an authentic marriage rite. But of course there are some twists here. The procession is led by the torch bearing embasicoetas, who we have learned is the secret name of the cinaedus, and who, as I have argued, is actually Priapus manifest. What we could have here is a child sex-initiation ritual played out as a sacred wedding. Ritual weddings for children, or at least some sort of sexual initiation, is quite common to ancient mystery cults.80 Augustine condemned the Priapus cult on these grounds: it promoted the early loss of virginity in the youngest of children.81 We can see in the Dionysiac rites that children were subjected to some sort of puberty ritual. Livy also informs us that children were initiated in the Bacchanalia when they were quite young, which appearently included sex acts.82 As we have learned from Quartilla above, she too was sexually active at a young age, but it is not clear whether this was due to initiation or promiscuity,83 as was the case for Hispala in Livy. Furthermore, the procession of drunken women is reminiscent of the Dionysiac cult.84 Diodorus echoes the common view, also in Euripides, that drunken maids walk in their processions in a state of madness.85 But the Priestess Quartilla took first Giton into the bedroom and performed some undisclosed sex acts on him, and then Giton and Pannychis make love while the procession watches. Then the priestess begins to kiss Encolpius. This is where the scene ends, and the famed Cena Trimalchionis begins.

Unfortunately, we never find out whether Quartilla is ever cured of her malaria. But we did realize, I hope, that Petronius could be revealing actual cult practices in light of the parallels that exist between his presentation of the Priapus cult and other mystery cults. Let's list a few things that we could have learned about the cult of Priapus in the Satyricon. First, there is the potential for healing, as we have seen of the priestess, although the mechanics of this are far from certain. Second, extreme emotional variation could be an element of the cult; we have seen that laughter certainly permeates the rest of the ritual. Third, the Priapus cult has at its core a mystery or mysteries (secreta) that Quartilla is dreadfully afraid of reaching the masses. Forth, there is a secret chapel (sacellum) in honor of Priapus somewhere in or near Rome. Fifth, the ritual consists of the something called the god's counsel (deorum consilia) which I have argued consists of ritual rape by a Priapus-incarnate. Sixth, female members of the cult prime the male initiates by sexual arousal, of which I have argued has some significance other than sexual due to the peculiar nature of their phallic god. Seventh, initiates are bound during some part of the ceremony. Eighth, the aphrodisiacal drug satyrion is used, perhaps to heighten the sense of (male) sexuality. Ninth, humiliation, pain, and injury are all important elements of the initiation. Tenth, a Priapus-incarnate, described as a cinaedus, anally rapes the initiates and is ordered off by the priestess before ejaculation, keeping the Priapus-incarnate actor in the state of sexual frustration like the god himself. Eleventh, the priestess wields a whalebone staff (banaenaceam virgam) in the ceremony and she is not only in control of the initiates and her ancillae, but the manifested god himself, as we see in number ten. Twelfth, after the rape there is an all night vigil in honor of the genius of Priapus. The reason it is in honor of Priapus' genius and not the god himself, I argue, is because it for the Priapus-incarnate who is a man with a genius. This vigil consists of a ritual meal with expensive wine. Thirteenth, the mysteries continue with a young cymbal player (cymbalestra) who plays her instrument while the Priapus-incarnate returns to recite a Priapea and then continues to rape the initiates. Fourteenth, a phallic drinking glass (embasicoetan) is used in the drinking of wine, and is equated with the cinaedus, the Priapus incarnate, so drinking from the cup has a deeper religious, and at the same time sexual meaning. Fifteenth, there is a fertility ritual with the "wedding" of children. There is a long procession, with the Priapic cinaedus, now identified with the phallic cup, leading the way to the bridal chamber in which the priestess first primes the boy, and then the children make love. All these events may be indicative of a Priapic mystery cult.


1) The best edition of the Satyricon is still M. Heseltine's Petronius (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1913; revised 1987), and it is the edition that I use throughout this study.
2) P. G. Walsh, The Roman Novel, (Cambridge, 1970) 77.
3) J. P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius. A Literary Study, (Indiana, 1968) 34, 251.
4) P. B. Corbett, Petronius, (New York, 1970) 50-51.
5) H. D. Rankin, Petronius the Artist. Essays on the Satyricon and its Author, (The Netherlands, 1971) 40.
6) C. Panayotakis, Theatrum Arbitri. Theatrical Elements in the Satyrica of Petronius, (Leiden, 1995) 36, 42.
7) N. W. Slater, Reading Petronius, (Baltimore, 1990) 42.
8) J. Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire,(Cornell, 1970) 71.
9) H. D. Rankin, Petronius the Artist, 59.
10) Catullus, Fragment 2.
11) Virgil, Georgics, 110.
12) Virgil, Bucolics, 6.4.
13) Ovid, Fasti, 4.295f.
14) Horace, Satires, 1.8.
15) Diodorus, History, 4.6.1.
16) Diodorus, History, 4.6.4.
17) See for example, Priapea, 8, 19, 26.
18) Dio Cassius often portrays self opening doors as an indication of the presence of a god. See for example, Historia, 61.35; 63.185, 235. See also the entrance of the witches Meroe and Panthia in, Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 1.11. P. B. Corbett, Petronius, 49, argues that the door opens because of the forceful pounding of the ancilla, but this is not supported by the text.
19) See for example, C. Gill, The Sexual episodes in the Satyricon, Classical Philology 68 (1973) 177.
20) Euripides, Bacchae, 216. See also ibid 156, where Dionysus is proclaimed the maddening god.
21) J. P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius, 122-3, argues that her illness was actually nymphomania, but this interpretation suffers from his blind dependence on Freudian psychoanalysis.
22) C. Panayotakis, Theatrum Arbitri, 44, believes that because the god is not mentioned it proves that Petronius lacks any serious intentions to portray a Priapic ritual, and thus lends weight to her thesis that this episode is primarily a theatrical comedy. It is clear that she reads far too much from this silence. For dreams in Petronius see, P. Kregelund, "Epicures, Priapus and the Dreams in Petronius," Classical Quarterly 39 (1989) 436-50.
23) Satyricon, 17.3.
24) For the setting of the first half of the Satyricon, see M. Heseltine, Introduction to Petronius, in idem, Petronius, (Loeb, 1987) xxv. See also, K. F. C. Rose, The Date and Author of the Satyricon, (Leiden, 1971) 6.
25) See W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, (Harvard, 1987) 10-11.
26) Burkert, Homo Necans: The anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth, (Berkeley, 1983) 26.
27) Diodorus, History, 4.6.4.
28) Augustine, City of God, 6.3.
29) I do believe that the word mortalius should be considered as male gender specific, rather than simply meaning "anyone" in a neuter sense, as I hope to make clear below.
30) See for example, Apuleius, Metamorphoses, book 11, in which Lucius is cured of his terrible sickness by initiation into the Isis cult.
31) Livy, 39.13.10.
32) Columella, On Agriculture, 10.33.
33) Virgil, Copa, 22.
34) Diodorus, History, 4.6.2.
35) Arnobius, Contra Gentes, 4.7.
36) Columella, On Agriculture, 10.108.
37) Livy, 39.11.7.
38) CIMRM 188. Photo from W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, fig. 12.
39) W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 108-9.
40) Euripides, Bacchae, 294.
41) M. Heseltine, Satyricon, 14, n. 1, citing Pliny 26.99. Encolpius earlier (8.3) believed that the prostitutes and their clients were drunk on such an aphrodisiac.
42) I am inclined to think this pricking with Psyche's hairpin might be symbolic sexual penetration, although it would be difficult to support this contention.
43) W, Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 102.
44) I take issue here with the Loeb translation of this line which distorts the description of this individual. The passage in Latin: Ultimo cinaedus supervenit myrtea subornatus gausapa cinguloque succinctus. This is the Loeb rendering: "Last there arrived a sodomite in a fine brown suit with a waistband. Satyricon, trans. M. Heseltine, 34-35.
45) Carmina Priapea, 6,11,15,17,25,31,41,51,52,64,69,76,77. Quoted from A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus, 121. See also, W. H. Parker, Priapea: Poems for a Phallic God, (London, 1988) 9.
46) Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 1.21.
47) This difficult passage is also poorly translated in the Loeb, making the rape include two separate individuals, while the original gives no such reason.
48) Livy, 39.10.7., per vim stuprum inferatur.
49) Livy, 39.13.10-11. Notice Livy's more restrained language as opposed to that of Petronius throughout.
50) Euripides, Bacchae, 231.
51) Tertullian, Adversus Nationes, 2.11.
52) In the several Latin lexicons I have examined, the only reference to balaenaceam virgamis is Petronius' Satyricon.
53) Virgil, Georgics, 4.110; Copa, 22.
54) Virgilian Appendix, 15. Quoted in A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus, 119.
55) Ovid, Fasti, 1.437; 6.319f.
56) Arnobius, Contra Gentes, 3.9.
57) Galen, 8.439; 19.426. Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 689a, quips, "if this organ were always in the same state, it would be an annoyance."
58) It is not clear where Giton is during these next few chapters.
59) W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 110.
60) Diodorus, History, 4.3.4.
61) Livy, 39.15.10.
62) See, "Genius," in P. Harvey, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1959) 185.
63) W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 110.
64) W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 96.
65) Euripides, Bacchae, 485.
66) J. P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius, 54.
67) C. Panayotakis, Theatrum Arbitri, 46-7.
68) N. W. Slater, Reading Petronius, 43.
69) A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus, 118-21.
70) Livy, 39.10.8.
71) Catullus, 63.8.
72) Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 8.24.
73) W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 98.
74) Euripides, Bacchae, 171.
75) Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 8.30.
76) A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus, 116; H. D. Rankin, Petronius the Artist, 60; W. H. Parker, Priapea, 3-4.
77) Petronius, Satyricon, 24.4. Haec belle cras in promulside libibinis nostrae militabit.
78) Satyricon, 26.1.
79) The use of a torch may indicate that this scene should be considered to be occurring at night.
80) W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 52. idem, Greek Religion,(Harvard, 1985) 260-64.
81) Augustine, City of God, 6.9.
82) Livy, 39.13.6.
83) Petronius, Satyricon, 24.2.
84) Livy, 39.12.6.
85) Diodorus, History, 4.2.5.

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