Greek god of fertility was depicted with a penis disorder in 2,000-year-old fresco in bid to protect others from debilitating disease

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The fresco depicts Priapus with a large and constantly erect penis

  • Rather than representing fertility, it may show the disease phimosis 

  • This is an inability to retract the foreskin and can be caused by infection 

  • Phimosis was widespread among men in Pompeii and the ancient Greeks may have thought this depiction could help ward off the disease

29bf887400000578 3130219 the famous fresco found in the ancient ruins of pompeii shows th m 14 1434648420160This fresco found in the ancient ruins of Pompeii shows Priapus with what scientists believe to be phimosis - an inability to fully retract the foreskin
A famous fresco of the god of fertility shows a serious penis disorder, researchers claim.

The 2,000-year-old fresco of Priapus, which was rescued from Pompeii following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, depicts the fertility god with a large and constantly erect penis.

But a new study argues that this celebrated symbol of male virility actually shows a painful disease that can cause infertility.

Scientists are still unsure why Priapus was depicted in this way, although one suggestion is that the painting was used to help ward off the disease. 

'The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterised by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis,' Francesco Maria Galassi from the University of Bologna told Discovery News.

Phimosis is an inability to fully retract the foreskin, and can be caused by an infection, or by scar tissue that formed as a result of injury or inflammation.

Before the introduction of topical drugs, it could only be treated by circumcision or surgery to widen the foreskin.

In Greek mythology, Priapus was a fertility god, protector of livestock, gardens fruit plants, and male genitalia 

Galassi says the image of the deity in this instance shows the 'highest grade' of phimosis.

But why would the artist want to portray the god of fertility with such a severe condition?

Phimosis was widespread among the male population in Pompeii, and one theory is that the painter wanted to make a comment on that through his work.  

29bf886e00000578 3130219 a separate fresco of priapus found in pompeii this image shows h a 1 1434723176479A separate Fresco of Priapus found in Pompeii. This image shows how the god's penis usually appears in art, compared with the 2,000-year-old painting that shows him suffering from phimosis

It is not unlikely the painter might have desired to report objective evidence of a high prevalence of that anatomic defect in Pompeii, at a time mixing it with fertility attributes traditionally ascribed to Priapus,' Galassi said. 

Another theory is that it was used to protect people against suffering from the disease. 

Dr Galassi said that in rural Italy, images and sculptures of Priapus may have been shown with a shut phimosis as a way to ward off the condition in the male family members.

Jessica Hughes, a lecturer in classical studies at Open University, told Discovery News that it was 'intriguing' that a condition causing sexual problems had been given to the god of fertility.

'Perhaps we need to see this painting as a comment on the power of the divine body, which didn't suffer from the same biological limitations as the mortal body,' she said.


In Greek mythology, Priapus was a fertility god, protector of livestock, gardens fruit plants, and male genitalia. He is usually depicted with an oversized, permanent erection. 

The size of his penis is so enormous that it has been called 'column', 'twelve-inch pole', 'cypress', 'spear', 'pyramid'.

Primitive statues of the god were traditionally set-up in vegetable plots to promote fertility with the added benefit of acting as a type of 'scarecrow.'

According to legend, Hera cursed him with impotence, ugliness and foul-mindedness while he was still in Aphrodite's womb.

This was  in revenge for the hero Paris having the temerity to judge Aphrodite more beautiful than Hera.

The other gods refused to allow him to live on Mount Olympus and threw him down to Earth, leaving him on a hillside. He was eventually found by shepherds and was brought up by them.