“…the mother of the gods … commanding him to restrain his infinity, converted him to herself.” Emperor Julian on Attis in the Discourse on the Mother of the Gods C4
The ancient Great ‘Mother of the Gods’, Cybele, was worshipped in Phrygia in the Anatolian region of modern Turkey since way back in pre-history – the oldest terracotta model of her, which shows her with enormous breasts and thighs and is seated between two big cats, dates from 6000 BCE. Her worship reached Greece in the 6th century BCE and Rome in 204 BCE, when she became the official protectress, the Magna Mater, of the growing Roman power. She remained on that throne until the rise of Christianity in the 4th century CE, and her son/lover, Attis, whose story involves an act of self-castration leading to his death then resurrection in spirit, was an immensely popular deity and a principle rival to Jesus in the first centuries of the Christian era.
“She arrived from Asia Minor where, for centuries if not millennia, matronal and nurturing goddesses, often accompanied by wild animals, had been revered and regarded as protectresses of the dead whom the earth reabsorbed into its bosom. They lived in rocks, mountains and woods, had command over the animal and plant world, and were the secret and inexhaustible sources of fecundity. They were sometimes worshipped in the forms of sacred stones…” [Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire 1996]
Cypriot terracotta pieces from the 6th century BCE show Cybele seated with a child in her arms, he wearing the iconic ‘Phrygian cap’ of Attis. The appearance of this cap is associated with the liberty cap, the psilocybin mushroom, that gives psychedelic communion with nature to those who eat it, and Cybele worship included mystery rites where such sacraments revealed the intricacies of the Goddess’ universe to participants. Five centuries later, once Cybele worship was well established in Rome, an Attis cult also emerged, with the Emperor Claudius (10-54 CE) establishing a ‘holy week’ of celebrations commemorating his death and resurrection, that preceded the structured programme of the Christian Easter week by a century.
Cybele and Attis had arrived in Rome in the 3rd century BCE as a result of an appeal by the Senate to the Sibylline Oracles in 205 asking for assistance in the ongoing wars with Carthage. The oracle said the enemy could only be defeated if the ‘Idaean Mother of Pessinus’ was brought to Rome, which was arranged, in the form of a black meteorite that had long been Cybele’s icon. The poet Ovid records the reluctance of King Attalus of Pessinus to yield the stone, but an earth tremor was believed to be Cybele expressing her annoyance, and she was said to prophesy (through her priest) that “Rome is worthy to become the meeting place of all the gods.” She arrived in style on 4 April 204 BCE and was greeted by the great and good of the city – the stone was installed temporarily in the temple of Victory until her own sanctuary was opened on 10 April 191 BCE. The period 4- 10 April became the Megalesian festival from then on, commemorating her arrival.
Along with Cybele came her loud, colourful, queer eunuch priests, the Gallae. The Senate insisted they be confined to her sanctuary except for during the April festivals, when they were allowed to dance through the streets of Rome “to the sounds of auloi and tambourines, in their exotic ‘get-up’, with their feminine garments, long hair and amulets. At that time they were allowed to make door-to-door collections, for the upkeep of the temple and its emasculated staff. Afterwards they were not seen against until the next year.” [Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire 1996]This mystery around the Gallae excited interest in the Mother cult.
The Gallae priests were eunuchs, in honour of Attis, whose premature death came from his own attempt to self-castrate:
THE ATTIS MYTH
Attis, the youthful consort of Cybele, was linked to Ganymede and often compared to Adonis and Pan. There are striking resemblances to Jesus too in the virgin birth, plus his death and resurrection. 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 combining both masculine and feminine energy so powerfully and destructively that the Gods decided to castrate them, sending Dionysus to get them intoxicated and sort this. The pomegranate grew from Agidistis’ 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 lovers. But King Midas wanted Attis to marry his daughter, and had the town walled and locked up to avoid any disturbance to his plan. The Mother of the Gods wanted to rescue her lover, and broke through the town’s ramparts (which is why she is depicted with towers on her head). Agidistis burst in, bringing a collective madness to the guests – the bride cut her breasts, her father castrated himself, and Attis fled into the wilds where he fell at the foot of a pine tree after cutting off his genitals. 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. Agidistis pleaded with Zeus to revive Attis, and in honour of the fallen Attis set up a cultic priesthood of castrated eunuchs. As the theme of death, resurrection and salvation took a more central place in religious thought, of which Christianity is the most famous example, the Attis tales developed 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’.
According to Hippolytus of Rome, a third century CE church father, Attis cut off his testicles to “[pass] over from the earthly parts of the nether world to the everlasting substance above, where, he says, there is neither female or male.”
Archaeological work has revealed Attis statuettes from the early days of the Roman temple, when he arrived as Cybele’s child. By the 1st century CE Attis had grown up and been assigned cult practices of his own – the Emperor Claudius instituted public ceremonies which started with a nine day period of penitence, during which people abstained from many foods, leading up to 22 March when a pine tree was cut and processed through the streets to the Goddess sanctuary. The image of Attis, and violets, were attached to the tree and the next day dedicated to mourning and lamentations. The peak came on the 24 March, the Day of Blood, when the gallae led a wild, frenzied dance around the tree, at the height of which new priests would self-castrate. The tree was buried and a vigil undertaken until the next day when the resurrection of Attis was proclaimed and the ‘Hilaria’ festival of rejoicing begun. The 26th was a rest day, and on the 27th the Cybele idol, with the black meteorite as its head, was taken to the river Almo and bathed. A week later the Megalesia festival celebrated her original arrival in the city. Robert Turcan says that “Phrygianism was thus well and truly officialized. It became popular and imperial.”
First century Emperor Claudius may also have instituted the office of the archigallus – the high priest of the Cybele temple, of which role there is no earlier evidence – and the role was taken by a Roman citizen. However, laws forbade Roman citizens from self-castration in order to become Gallae, so the archigallus underwent a taurobolium ceremony: records of these come to us from 4th century Christian writers. The taurobolium was a pit into which a man descended – the pit covered with an openwork platform or floor with many holes in it. A bull was sacrificed above the pit, it’s guts cut open and its insides pouring all over the person beneath. Its testicles were buried beneath the altar, offered to the Goddess instead of those of the archigallus. This was considered enough to purify the blooded man to join the official hierarchy of Roman priests as the pontiff of the Mother Goddess – and this ceremony took place in what is still the home of the Christian pontiff – the Vatican, which site Turcan says was, “the Mecca of Mother-cult consecration.” One Roman emperor underwent the ritual – Heliogabalus (218-222). Taurobolic altars were found buried in front of St Peter’s Basilica in the early 17th century. Note that the name Vatican refers to the ‘vaticinations’ – ie prophesying – of the pagan priests during the ceremonies. The Pope today still wears the white mitre cap that was once on the archigallus’ head.
One early Christian Gnostic group – the Naassenes were a group who eschewed all sexual relations, sang hymns to Attis that that syncretised him with Pan and Dionysus/Bacchus. They taught that the Mother of the Gods castrated Attis for him to break with the material world and gain immortal life: “although she had him for her lover; it was because, on high, the blessed Nature of beings who are above the world and eternal wants to make the masculine virtue of the soul rise towards her.” (Philosophoumena V)
Cybele and Attis worship spread through the Roman Empire, as Gallae took their mission to wherever the army marched. From Britain, Gaul and Spain to the Black Sea, Cybele and her eunuch lover were celebrated and honoured until the end of the 4th century.
In that century Roman Emperor Julian devoted a powerful hymn to Cybele – Discourse on the Mother of the Gods –in which she crowns her beloved Attis, whom Julian calls the “… intellectual god Gallus, i.e. a deity who contains in himself material and sublunary forms, and who associates with the cause presiding over the fluctuating nature of matter,” with a ‘star-spangled tiara‘
“Attis is a certain demigod, (for this is the meaning of the fable) or rather he is in reality a god: for he proceeds from the third demiurgus, and after his castration is again recalled to the mother of the gods; but as he persuaded himself wholly to verge, he appears to incline into matter. Indeed he who considers this deity as the last of the gods, but the head of all the divine genera, will by no means deviate from the truth..
“Attis spreads himself round the heavens, which cover him like a tiara, and tends, as it were, from thence to the earth. And after this manner does the mighty Attis present himself to our view; and from hence the lamentations for his long departure, and concealment, for his vanishings and falling into a cavern, arise. But the time in which his mysteries are performed sufficiently evinces the truth of what I have here advanced: for they say that the sacred tree should be cut down on the very day when the sun arrives at the extremity of the equinoctial arch; that on the following day the sounding of the trumpets should take place; that on the third day the sacred and arcane fertile crop of the god Gallus should be cut down; and that after all this, the hilaria and festive days should succeed.
“The sacred institution, therefore, exhorts us, who are naturally celestial plants, though detained on the earth, that collecting together virtue in conjunction with piety from a terrestrial polity, we should eagerly hasten to the primogenial and vivific mother of the gods. But the recalling signal by the sound of a trumpet, which is given to Attis immediately after his castration, is also a signal to us, who, flying from heaven, have fallen upon earth. But after this symbol king Attis stops his infinity through the castration; and the gods by this means exhort us also to cut off the infinity of our nature, and hasten back again to that which is bounded and uniform, and, if possible, to the one itself; after which, when perfectly accomplished, it is proper that the hilaria should succeed. For what can be more joyful, what can be the occasion of greater hilarity, than the soul flying from infinity and generation, and the storms in which it is perpetually involved, and by this means returning to the gods themselves? But Attis being among the number of these, the mother of the gods by no means neglected him in his progressions beyond what was proper, but commanding him to restrain his infinity, converted him to herself…
“Attis, then, has been said by us to be a certain cause and divinity who proximately fabricates the material world, and who, descending even to the extremity of things, is at length stopped by the demiurgic motion of the sun, when the solar god arrives at the extreme bounded circumference of the universe, and which, from its effect, is called the equinoctial circle. But we have said that castration is the restraining of infinity, which takes place no otherwise than by a revocation and emersion to a more ancient and primary cause; but we consider the elevation of souls as the ultimate design of lustration.” Quoted from Discourse on the Mother of the Gods
Gay/transgender priesthoods served the ancient pagan gods for thousands of years – and we can see a vestige of their craft in the transgender priestesses of the Indian deity Aravan. Known as the Aravanis, this ‘trans’ sect is similar to the Hijras, who worship the Goddess Bahuchara Mata. The Aravanis celebrate Aravan, the son of the great warrior Arjuna in the epic tale Mahabarata, who offers to sacrifice himself in battle but receives the boon of getting married first. As no woman wishes to marry then become a widow, Krishna changes into his feminine form, Mohini, marries Aravan, then mourns his death. To commemorate this story, the worship of the Aravanis includes ecstatic grief ritual, just as the Gallae of Cybele once mourned for Attis.
Of the Hijra priestesses, Jenny Wade of the California Institute of Integral Studies has written: “Their public behavior—and society’s perception of them—resemble that of the Galli: they are exaggeratedly made-up cross-dressers who dance wildly to loud, percussive music and engage in transgressive bawdy behavior; they beg; and they are paid sex workers in “deviant” sex.”
QUOTATIONS ABOUT THE GALLAE:
“The Mother of the Gods also admits effeminates, and the Goddess would not judge so, if by nature unmanliness were a trivial thing.” Sextus Empiricus, 2nd century.
“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
“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.” Philostratus(end 2nd century CE)
The devotees of Cybele “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”
Apuleius The Golden Ass, VIII. 2nd century.
“They wear effeminately nursed hair, 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?” Firmicus Maternus, 4th century
“They are the sons of the earth. The Earth is their mother”, he also called them “castrated perverts….. madmen…. foully unmanned and corrupted.” Augustine, 4th century