Knight, Richard Payne (1751–1824)
Richard Payne Knight, an amateur archeologist and advocate
of an esoteric Pagan philosophy as an alternative to orthodox
Christianity, was the son of an Anglican clergyman from
Herefordshire, England. His father retired relatively early in
his life and married the daughter of a carpenter who had
served as his housekeeper. A sickly child, young Richard was
kept at home and thus received little formal education, though
he was tutored by his father, and following his father’s death in
1764, by a tutor hired by the family. He did not attend a university,
but was able to travel extensively. As he entered adulthood
he inherited a large sum from his grandfather, which provided
him the necessary funds to pursue his various independent intellectual
pursuits.
By the time of his third trip to Italy in 1777, Knight had rejected
the Christianity of his father, which he had come to view
as a degenerating force. He had also become interested in exploring
a neglected aspect of the ancient world, the worship of
Priapus, the Roman god of fertility, the signs of his cult having
survived in a variety of images and statues. Sir William Hamilton,
who at the time headed the British embassy in Naples, had
begun research into the survivals of Priapus worship in the local
traditions. Knight found himself in a circle of independent
scholars who shared a dislike for Christianity and whose research
had the additional agenda of challenging the uniqueness
of Christianity.
During his travels Knight explored a variety of ancient ruins
and found himself particularly drawn to the many representations
of the male generative organ. The philosophy that
emerged from his work was originally published in his 1786
book-length essay, ‘‘A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and
Its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients.’’ Five
hundred copies were privately published. Knight suggested
that the phallus was a symbol of the God of Nature who generated
the universe in his threefold aspects as creator, destroyer,
and renovator. God is both male and female. His passive and
active sides manifest as divine essence (life force) and universal
matter (substance). The widespread images of sexual intercourse
found in ancient art and statuary symbolized the universal
process of creation.
Knight also posited the previous existence of a universal
theology that resembled eighteenth-century Deism. This worldview
survives in a more-or-less degenerate form in various
contemporary religions. He rejected these modern religious
forms as they tended to lead to religious bigotry, a view that led
him to become an outspoken advocate of religious liberty.
Knight never married. He spent much of his time with the
large collection of classical artifacts he had assembled on his
travels and which he left to the British Museum. In 1809 he
turned the family estate over to his brother and moved into a
modest cottage away from the main house. Unlike many of his
contemporaries who also advocated allegiance to the God of
Nature, Knight seemed actually to enjoy the solitary contemplation
of nature and took daily walks through the countryside.
While Knight had little use for popular occultism or astrology,
his sexually oriented philosophy would serve as a major
source for twentieth-century ceremonial magic, especially the
thelemic philosophy of Aleister Crowley.
Sources
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Theosophical Enlightenment. Albany
State University of New York Press, 1995.
Knight, JZ Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
868
Knight, Richard Payne. A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus
and Its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients. 1786.
Reprint, Secacus, N.J. University Books, 1974.
———. On the Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology.
London Black and Armstrong, 1836.

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