Magna Mater to the Romans, crazy Goddess to Greeks, beloved Mother Cybele to the common folk, the queers, outcasts and rebels. Worshipped from 600BC in Greece, 200 BC in Rome and then across northern Africa, southern Europe and up as far north as Britain for 700 years, her priest/esses were known as the Gallae. The Sufi sect of Islam also originated in the same place and are sometimes considered to be the last manifestation of her cultic devotees. In Spain she became associated with Santa Eulalia de Boveda, whose sacred day is February 12th.
“They wear effeminately nursed hair,” complained Firmicus Maternus (4th century) “and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”
WIth frenzied dancing, drumming, whipping and screaming, long haired genderqueer outsiders brought the spring blessings to the people. St Paul was outraged. “for even their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature, and likewise also the males, having left the natural use of the female, were inflamed by their lust for one another, males with males.”
“The Galli come: And hollow cymbals, tight-skinned tambourines Resound around to bangings of their hands; The fierce horns threaten with a raucous bray; The tubed pipe excites their maddened minds In Phrygian measures; they bear before them knives, Wild emblems of their frenzy.” Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 1st century
Cybele worship originated in the Anatolian region of Turkey, on the Asian mainland of the country, several thousand years before Christ, where she was simply known as Matar (Mother), and was for several centuries a prominent feature of religious life across southern Europe. We know that her genderbending priests, the Gallae were operating in Phrygia from at least 3000 BCE, and the statue above is dated to 6000 BCE. Both the Greek and Roman civilisations feared and respected the power of this Goddess and her flamboyant, loud and effeminate genderbending priests. Of these Gallae priests Augustine said “They are the sons of the earth. The Earth is their mother”, but he also complainted virulently about their habits, calling them “castrated perverts….. madmen…. foully unmanned and corrupted.”
Cybele was a nature goddess, whose worshippers were often from the lower orders of society including outcasts, slaves etc. Her gender-bending priests shocked the conservative Greeks and Romans, and both empires denied them citizenship, or even the right to enter the Great Mother’s temples. Instead they lived together in bands and travelled around bringing their popular, wild and exciting, ceremonies to the people. The lions at Cybele’s side (leopards in the earliest iconography) represent her loyal queer male servants. Her female priestesses were known as the Melissae (the ‘bees’) and her gendervariant priests as the Gallae (term said to mean ‘cock’ or to refer to the river Gallus, which ran by Cybele’s temple in Phrygia, the waters of which were said to drive people mad if drunk; gallus was also used widely as term for eunuchs).
The Gallae were known for their skills in divination, healing and the magical arts as well as for self-castration and flagrant sexuality. Worship of the Goddess through ecstatic and sexual rites was akin to the tradition of Goddess Ishtar/Inanna worship that had existed in the lands we call the Middle East for millennia, and when her religion arrived in Greece from the 8th century BCE she was associated with their Goddess Rhea, the Mother of the Gods, who gave birth to Zeus. The priests of the rational God Apollo warned the nervous Greeks that Cybele must be accepted into their pantheon or her wrath would be very destructive. The Greeks disliked the effeminacy, cross-dressing and sexual practices of the Gallae, so when temples to Cybele were erected the priests were forbidden from entering. So the Gallae became wandering, itinerant priests, bringing Goddess worship wherever they went. In due course, travelling widely with the armies of Rome, they spread their worship as far as Britain – one of their highly decorated tools used for the castration rite that formed a central part of their worship was found in the Thames at London Bridge, picture below, and a Gallus tomb has been found at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.
Cybele worship was brought to Rome with great fanfare at the start of the 2nd century BCE, with a temple dedicated to her in 191. Rome was losing against Hannibal of Carthage in the Punic Wars – a consultation with the Cybelline oracle produced an ancient prophecy from the time of Rome’s founding, stating that at this low point it would be necessary to bring the Goddess in to the republic’s rescue. The Gallae in Phrygia were contacted and a black meteorite, symbolising her power, was brought by ship to Italy. In due course the worship of Cybele, known in Rome as the Magna Mater, became Rome’s only official religion. Caesar Augustus (27BCE – 14CE) acknowledged her as the chief divinity of the Roman Empire.
We know a lot about the Gallae from the complaints that Greek, Roman and Christian writers made about their clothes, jewellery, make up, pierced ears and tattoos, long hair dyed blond, habit of depilation and loud wailing cries. First century Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom railed against men shaving their genital area as coming from their desire to be women, saying the men of the day saw masculinity as defective (toxic?) and so wished to become “whole beings and natural epicenes”. (Epicene referred to having characteristics of both genders, or being of indeterminate sex). Firmicus Maternus, who live in the 4th century rein of Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity said that in the Cybele temples “one may see scandalous performances… men letting themselves be handled as women.” We know less of the practices of the all-female Amazon warrior women of ancient Scythia, but they too were Cybele devotees: classicist Walter Tyrell wrote that “their rites were orgiastic, attended by frenzied dancing and music, their votaries were women and eunuchs”.
“As the Gallae sing and celebrate their orgies, frenzy falls on many of them and many who had come as mere spectators afterwards are found to have committed the great act. I will narrate what they do. Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd, and picks up a sword from a number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself and then runs wild through the city, bearing in his hands what he has cut off. He casts it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women’s raiment and ornaments. Thus they act during their ceremonies of castration.” Lucian, De Dea Syria 2nd century CE
During the first century of Cybele’s time in Rome, Roman citizens were not allowed to undergo the ritual castration, but in 101 BCE the law was changed so that certain citizens might become Gallae, and Emperor Claudius (41-53CE) removed the remaining restrictions. This tolerance did not last long. Domitian (81-91CE) once more forbade Roman citizens from becoming Gallae, and although this was reversed again by 239 CE, this last freedom to self-castrate was soon removed for good as Christianity consolidated its power in the Empire.
This castration ceremony stems from the mythology of Cybele and her consort Attis. Different versions of their story exist of course, and actually most of the iconography and story of this Goddess and her lover is lost to us, as the Christians made a special effort to destroy all trace of her worship from the 4th century onwards.
Attis, the youthful consort of Cybele, was linked to Ganymede and often compared to Adonis and Pan. There are striking resemblances to Jesus too. It seems that the proud Cybele spurned the amorous advances of Zeus, who in his frustration masturbated his seed onto a rock. The rock gave birth to Agidistis, a being so powerful the Gods sent the young new god Dionysis to castrate them at birth. The pomegranate grew from their blood. Nana, a water spirit daughter of the River God, ate the fruit and became pregnant, giving birth to the beautiful Attis. However the River God, Sangarios, would not accept that this was a virgin birth and he sent Attis away to be brought up by goatherders. Attis and Agidistis met in the woods one day and became lovers – a tale full of shock and significance to the ancient Greeks as it involved the reversal of the accepted homosexual relationships of the time. In Greek culture it was considered acceptable for the older male to penetrate the younger in the sexual act. As Agidistis was a eunuch he took the passive role with the young, virile Attis.
Attis, Agidistis and Cybele became a Trinity of queer lovers. But Attis, brought up in the goatherder family, was also due to marry a human girl. Tales tell of frenzied ritual magic in the run up to the wedding, Cybele sending Agidistis to wreak chaos on the event. The guests go crazy, the bride cuts off her own breasts and Attis castrates himself to avoid the marriage. The castration botched, Attis died and violets bloomed from his blood. Bereft, Cybele took her lover’s testicles, bathed them in holy water, wrapped them in his clothes and buried them in the earth. In the oldest versions of this tale Attis was reborn as the daughter of the goddess. As the Christian religion grew, and as the theme of death, resurrection and salvation took a more central place in religious thought, the Attis tales changed to depict him resurrected with a crown of stars, associating him with the Milky Way and calling him ‘the leader of the all the tribes of divine beings’ and the ‘servant and charioteer of the Mother’.
This very queer faith was one of the main rivals to Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era. Christians hated the effeminacy and sexual profligacy of the Gallae – similarly the ecstatic rites of Dionysus/Bacchus upset them too, because of the wild, uncontrollable, lusts and behaviours that the bacchanalian rites inspired in women, as well as between men. Roman historian Livy recorded that at first only women worshipped Dionysus, and by day – once men got involved the worship moved to the cover of darkness. “When the license offered by darkness has been added, no sort of crime, no kind of immorality, was left unattempted.” Dionysus was a queer deity, known to be gender fluid, who, like Jesus was born of a divine father and human mother, and who was also said to have been killed (by the Titans) and restored to life. He visited Cybele in Phrygia and there learnt about the Mysteries, going on to bring the gift of wine – of ecstatic intoxication – to the people. Worship of this popular wine drinking reveller was a serious competitor to Christianity, we might note that Jesus felt the need to state ‘I am the true vine’, recorded in John 15.
In the ancient European pagan world the arrival of Spring was the occasion for energetic revelry, aimed at shaking off the residue of winter and riding the rising energies in collective ecstatic communion. Bacchic cults were banned in Rome from 186 BCE because of the scandals increasingly associated with them, but they continued underground for centuries, and also from that time the Spring revelries were led by the Gallae devotees of the Magna Mater Cybele and her beloved Attis.
The main annual festival of Cybele, as with Bacchus/Dionysus, took place in the early Spring: the period March 15th to April 10th was known as the Megalensia. This period of celebration of Cybele and her consort Attis started with a period of fasting leading up to the mania of the Day of Blood on March 24th. On the Day of Blood frenzied ritual dancing took place, the Gallae working themselves into an ecstatic state, tearing their clothes, biting and flagellating themselves and each other. At the ceremony’s peak initiates castrated themselves, part of bringing themselves closer to the goddess and pursuing their spiritual growth. It seems that these frenzied Spring celebrations may have proven attractive to men in the crowds, who would be whisked up in the energy and leap forth to self-castrate. This may be why the Empire decided to ban this again so quickly.
On the 25th March Attis’ triumph over physical death was celebrated. The festivities continued with a period of games and entertainments leading to Cybele’s birthday feasts on April 10th. People loved these festivities, and so it is no surprise that the Christians chose this time of the year to mark Easter, the death and resurrection of their own deity.
St Paul‘s attacks on same-sexuality in the New Testament are entirely related to his dislike of the pagan practices going on around him. He said that in their idolatry, “God gave them up to passions of dishonor; for even their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature, and likewise also the males, having left the natural use of the female, were inflamed by their lust for one another, males with males, committing what is shameful…”. In fact Jesus was most certainly referring to the Gallae also when, quoted in Matthew 19:11-12 that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” He then added, “Let anyone accept this who can.”
Apuleius (2nd century CE) tells an archetypical story of the Gallae, here meeting a travelling band Goddess servants:
“The eunuch, whose name was Philebus, led me off to his lodgings. When he reached the door he called out: “Look, girls, Look! I have brought you a lovely new man-servant!” The girls were a set of disgusting young eunuch priests who broke into falsetto screams and hysterical giggles of joy, thinking that Philebus really meant what he said, and that they would now have a fine time with me… This queer family included one real man, a great big slave, whom they had bought with money collected by begging. When they went out, leading the Goddess in procession, he would walk in front playing a horn–he played extremely well–and at home they used in him all sorts of ways, especially in bed.”
|Apuleius also wrote that the devotees of Cybele, during rituals,|
“went . . . forth, shouting and dancing . . . they bent down their necks and spun round so that their hair flew out in a circle; they hit their own flesh; finally, every one took his two-edged weapon and wounded himself in divers places. Meanwhile, there was one . . . who invented . . . a great lie, noisily . . . accusing himself, saying that he had displeased the divine majesty of the goddess . . . wherefore he prayed that vengeance might be done to himself. And therewithal he tools a whip . . . and scourged his own body . . . so that you might see the ground wet and defiled with the womanish blood that issued forth abundantly”
We also have a record left by Philostratus (end 2nd century CE), describing Gallae rituals where the priests embodied the deity Attis in order to have sex with worshippers who came to receive the essence and power of the God. He said that “The tie between god and man cannot be thought of in closer or stronger terms, and they are joined by a feeling not only of lifelong gratitude but of personal love, which in its expression passes over into sensual terms.”
Note too that the leader of the Gallae, the Archigallus, led the ceremonial processions wearing a tall mitred cap, which was adopted by the Roman Catholics and is still worn by the Pope today.
Although conflicts between Christians and pagans built up from the 1st century onwards, the queerness of faith and worship in the ancient world was taken for granted until at least the 4th century and the eventual adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperors. Many Greek and Roman deities were served by single sex cults which employed erotic energy in their acts of worship. Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), a devotee of Earth Mother Demeter, had his own male lover, Antinous, raised to the level of a deity when he died in mysterious circumstances on a trip down the Nile, and within ten years this cult that honoured same sex-love had spread throughout the Roman world.
In the first centuries of the ‘Common Era’ it was by no means certain that Christianity would become the dominant religion. For one thing the Christians could not agree among themselves about their practice and belief. Some gnostic groups such as the Naasenes tied their faith in with Cybeline worship, and took the view that male-female sexual relations binds the soul to incarnation, due to reproduction, and that same sex love was much more pure and holy. This echoed ancient Greek views. Conflict around sexuality would continue to be an issue in the heretical movements that competed with the Roman church for the next ten to twelve centuries, several of which considered same sex activity more ‘pure’, or at least on a par with, heterosexuality.
The last record we have of Cybeline worship is from Aucun in France in the 5th century, after that the Church pretty much succeeded in wiping out all memory of her and her priests, to the extent that few queer people alive in the 21st century have any knowledge of this aspect of our ancestry. She became absorbed into the legends of local Catholic saints in many places, which enabled the ordinary people to continue to celebrate her for many centuries. An example is Santa Eulalia de Boveda, in Allariz Spain, whose sacred day is February 12th, where the saint’s shrine was built on the site of a Cybele temple.
In the pagan world, deities were the gateways to ecstatic experience through ceremony, which was for all people, was known for being led by genderqueer priest/esses and was particularly focussed on the arrival of Spring. Queers today are drawn to ecstatic, intoxicated, sexual experiences but in a world that has forgotten Cybele, Attis and Dionysis. Bliss is a soul state, not a chemical experience, but the modern world has lost touch with this. Yet the ecstatic call of the Goddess, suppressed for centuries in Judaeo-Christian-Islamic cultures, is ringing out in the world once more. Queer visibility in the world is a sign of her return. Queer energy often seeks ecstatic expression: Every journey into ecstasy changes us, transforms us – ask Dionysis or Attis – and ultimately heals or destroys us and the world we think we live in.
SPRING IS COMING
THE PURPOSE OF ECSTATIC RITUAL IS TO REMIND US WE ARE HELD WITHIN A WHOLENESS
THAT OUR INDIVIDUALITY IS TEMPORARY AND ILLUSORY
THAT BLISS IS THE DESTINY FOR ALL
WHO RESPOND TO CYBELE THE GREAT MOTHER’S CALL
THE BEST TIME TO REACH FOR THE STARS IS AS THE WINTER FALLS AWAY