In the ancient pagan world the arrival of Spring was time for ceremonies celebrating rebirth and renewal. Christianity followed this pattern with its Easter festival.
Will Roscoe writes in Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same Sex Love (published 2004):
In late antiquity, the worship of Cybele and Attis was one of Christianity’s chief sources of competition. It is not surprising, therefore, that Christian authors were venomous in denouncing the goddess and her priests.
Around 340 c.e., Firmicus Maternus wrote: ‘In their very temples can be seen deplorable mockery before a moaning crowd, men taking the part of women, revealing with boastful ostentation this ignominy of impure and unchaste bodies. They broadcast their crimes and confess with superlative delight the stain of their polluted bodies’. (De errore profanarum religionum 4.2)
The cult of Attis had begun competing directly with Christianity with the introduction of a rite called the hilaria in the mid-third century. This annual, springtime festival celebrated Attis’s rebirth and incorporated themes of death, salvation, and resurrection quite similar to those of Christianity. In fact, the hilaria was often held at the same time that Christians observed Easter, leading to street battles between the two groups in some cities.
The relationship between the religion of Jesus and that of Cybele resulted in more than just antagonism, however. Evidence suggests that the two religions influenced each other, as well. In the mid-second century, for example, Montanism, the so-called Phrygian heresy, arose in the traditional homeland of Cybele. Its leaders included two female prophets, Maximilla and Priscilla, one of whom had visions of Christ as a woman. According to Epiphanius, the sect ordained women as priests. Both Montanism and the cult of Attis featured sacramental meals, blood offerings, and baptisms.
The Roman bishop Hippolytus, writing in the first half of the third century, described at length the cult of the Naasenes in which Christianity and Attis worship appear to have been thoroughly merged. According to Hippolytus, the Naassenes: … ‘constantly attend the mysteries called those of the “Great Mother,” supposing especially that they behold by means of the ceremonies performed there the entire mystery. For these having nothing more than the ceremonies that are performed there, except that they are not emasculated: they merely complete the work of the emasculated. For with the utmost severity and vigilance they enjoin (on their votaries) to abstain, as if they were emasculated, from intercourse with a woman. The rest, however, of the proceeding (observed in these mysteries), as we have declared at some length, (they follow) just as (if they were) emasculated persons.’ (5.9.74-81)
This revealing passage provides evidence not only of contact between the cult of Attis and Christianity, but precisely how this contact occurred.
In many respects, Attis worship was the pagan cult most like Christianity. The key difference was that in Christian mythology Jesus is sacrificed and then revived through the agency of a father god, while Attis’ transubstantiation is effected by a mother goddess. Even so, the ascetic practices of the galli, which included not only emasculation but blood-letting and self-flagellation, were not unrelated to the forms of self-abnegation practiced by some Christians. Indeed, for men of a certain disposition, both religions may have had equal and similar appeal.
Consider the statement attributed to Jesus in Matthew: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (19:12). The phrase “kingdom of heaven” links this passage to mystical ascents and the Secret Gospel. Indeed, self-castration would be a practical if crude way of achieving what the Gospel of Thomas recommends as a means for entering heaven: making “the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female” (22).
Hetero-androgyny, asceticism, and sexual transformation all lead to similar ends—becoming spiritual by shedding gender and sexual desire and thereby entering the kingdom of heaven. Basilides, a Gnostic Christian in Alexandria sometime between 125 and 150, gave Matthew 19:12 a suggestive interpretation. Jesus, he argued, was referring to three types of male celibates: those with a natural revulsion to women; those who practice asceticism out of a desire for glory from their peers; and those who remain unmarried to better do the work of the kingdom (quoted in Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.1.1-4). Basilides’ first category would include individuals who are not necessarily castrated but are classified as eunuchs because they lack heterosexual desire—or preferred same-sex relations.
Long after pagan temples throughout the Mediterranean stood in ruins (the last observance of the rites of Cybele and Attis in Rome occurred in 394), Church authorities found it necessary to pass canon laws against the practice of self-castration. This appears to have been a particular problem in the very areas where eunuch priesthoods originated—ancient Turkey and Syria.