Cybele's cult may have originated in Mesopotamia, arriving in Greece around 300 BCE. It originally kept its sacred symbol, a black meteorite, in a temple called the Megalesion in Pessinus in modern Turkey.
The earliest surviving references to the galli come from the Greek Anthology, a 10th-century compilation of earlier material, where several epigrams mention or clearly allude to their castrated state. They are often referred to as "she".
Stephanus Byzantinus (6th century CE) said the name came from King Gallus, while Ovid (43 BC – 17 CE) said it derived from the Gallus river in Phrygia. The same word (gallus singular, galli plural) was used by the Romans to refer to Celts and to roosters, and the latter especially was a source of puns.
Arrival in Rome
The cult of Magna Mater arrived in Rome sometime in the 3rd century BCE. There are no contemporary accounts of its arrival, but later literary sources generally hold that stones began falling from the sky in 205 BCE. The Syblline books identified the event as an omen that the Romans should import Magna Mater, who would help them win the Second Punic War. In 204 BCE, the Roman Senate officially adopted Cybele as a state goddess, and the cult brought the meteorite by boat to Pergamum and then to the gates of Rome, and it was ceremonially brought into the city. According to Livy, it was brought to the Temple of Victory on the Palatine Hill on the day before the Ides of April, and, from then on, the anniversary was celebrated as the Megalesia on April 4–10 with public games, animal sacrifices, and music performed by the galli. Over a hundred years later (according to Plutarch), when the Roman general Sulla planned to fight Marius, a priest of the galli named Bataces prophesied Roman victory and consequently the Senate voted to build a victory temple to the goddess.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed that Roman citizens did not participate in the rituals of the cult of Magna Mater. Literary sources call the galli "half-men," leading scholars to conclude that Roman men looked down upon the galli. But Roman disapproval of the foreign cult may be more the invention of modern scholars than a social reality in Rome, as archaeologists have found votive statues of Attis on the Palatine hill, meaning Roman citizens participated on some level in the reverence of Magna Mater and her consort.
The archigallus was a Roman citizen who was also employed by the Roman State and therefore walked a narrow line: preserving cult traditions while not violating Roman religious prohibitions. Some argue that the archigallus was never a eunuch, as all citizens of Rome were forbidden from eviratio (castration). (This prohibition suggests that the original galli were either Asian or slaves.) Claudius, however, lifted the ban on castration; Domitian subsequently reaffirmed it. Whether or not Roman citizens could participate in the cult of Magna Mater, or whether its members were exclusively foreign-born, is therefore the subject of scholarly debate.
In the provinces
The remains of a Roman galla from the 4th century CE were found in 2002 in what is now Catterick, England, dressed in women's clothes, in jewelry of jet, shale, and bronze, with two stones in his mouth. Pete Wilson, the senior archaeologist at English Heritage, said, "The find demonstrates how cosmopolitan the north of England was." Hadrian's Wall in Corbridge, England also has an altar to the goddess Cybele.
The galli castrated themselves during an ecstatic celebration called the Dies sanguinis, or "Day of Blood", which took place on March 24. On this day of mourning for Attis, they ran around wildly and disheveled. They performed dances to the music of pipes and tambourines, and, in an ecstasy, flogged themselves until they bled. This was followed by a day of feasting and rest.
A sacred feast was part of the initiation ritual. Firmicus Maternus, a Christian who objected to other religions, revealed a password of his former cult: "I have eaten from the timbrel; I have drunk from the cymbal; I am become an initiate of Attis." The Eleusinian Mysteries, reported by Clement of Alexandria, include a similar formula: "I fasted; I drank the kykeon [water with meal]; I took from the sacred chest; I wrought therewith and put it in the basket, and from the basket into the chest." Clement also reported (as paraphrased by a 20th-century historian) "carrying a vessel called a kernos" and entering "the pastos or marriage-chamber".
The signs of their office have been described as a type of crown, possibly a laurel wreath, as well as a golden bracelet known as the occabus. They generally wore women's clothing (often yellow), and a turban, pendants, and earrings. They bleached their hair and wore it long, and they wore heavy makeup. They wandered around with followers, begging for charity, in return for which they were prepared to tell fortunes.
In Rome, the head of the galli was known as the archigallus, at least from the period of Claudius on. A number of archaeological finds depict the archigallus wearing luxurious and extravagant costumes. The archigallus was always a Roman citizen chosen by the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, whose term of service lasted for life. Along with the institution of the archigallus came the Phrygianum sanctuary as well as the rite of the taurobolium as it pertains to the Magna Mater, two aspects of the Magna Mater's cultus that the archigallus held dominion over.
Shelley Hales wrote: "Greek and Roman literature consistently reinforces the sexual and racial difference of eunuchs by stressing how different they look. They were presented as wearing bright clothes, heavy jewellery, make-up and sporting bleached and crimped hair." Because the galli castrated themselves and wore women's clothing, accessories and makeup, some modern scholars have interpreted them as transgender. Firmicus Maternus said "they say they are not men... they want to pass as women." He elaborated, "Animated by some sort of reverential feeling, they actually have made this element [air] into a woman [Caelestis, the goddess]. For, because air is an intermediary between sea and sky, they honor it through priests who have womanish voices."
The galli may also have occupied a "third gender" in Roman society. Jacob Latham has connected the foreign nature of Magna Mater and her priests' nonconforming gender presentation. They may have existed outside Roman constructions of masculinity and femininity altogether, which can explain the adverse reactions of Roman male citizens against the galli's transgression of gender norms.
Some scholars have linked the episode of the self-castration of Attis to the ritual castration of the galli. At Pessinus, the centre of the Cybele cult, there were two high priests during the Hellenistic period, one with the title of "Attis" and the other with the name of "Battakes". Both were eunuchs. The high priests had considerable political influence during this period, and letters exist from a high priest of Attis to the kings of Pergamon, Eumenes II and Attalus II, inscribed on stone. Later, during the Flavian period, there was a college of ten priests, not castrated, and now Roman citizens, but still using the title "Attis".
This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (November 2017)
The following are quotations from the English translation of the Greek Anthology by W. R. Paton (1920).
To thee, my mother Rhea, nurse of Phrygian lions, whose devotees tread the heights of Dindymus, did womanish Alexis, ceasing from furious clashing of the brass, dedicate these stimulants of his madness— his shrill-toned cymbals, the noise of his deep-voiced flute, to which the crooked horn of a younger steer gave a curved form, his echoing tambourines, his knives reddened with blood, and the yellow hair which once tossed on his shoulders. Be kind, O Queen, and give rest in his old age from his former wildness to him who went mad in his youth.
Clytosthenes, his feet that raced in fury now enfeebled by age, dedicates to thee, Rhea of the lion-ear, his tambourines beaten by the hand, his shrill hollow-rimmed cymbals, his double-flute that calls through its horn, on which he once made shrieking music, twisting his neck about, and the two-edged knife with which he opened his veins.
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 94
The priest of Rhea, when taking shelter from the winter snow-storm he entered the lonely cave, had just wiped the snow off his hair, when following on his steps came a lion, devourer of cattle, into the hollow way. But he with outspread hand beat the great tambour he held and the whole cave rang with the sound. Nor did that woodland beast dare to support the holy boom of Cybele, but rushed straight up the forest-clad hill, in dread of the half-girlish servant of the goddess, who hath dedicated to her these robes and this his yellow hair.
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 217
A begging eunuch priest of Cybele was wandering through the upland forests of Ida, and there met him a huge lion, its hungry throat dreadfully gaping as though to devour him. Then in fear of the death that faced him in its raving jaws, he beat his tambour from the holy grove. The lion shut its murderous mouth, and as if itself full of divine frenzy, began to toss and whirl its mane about its neck. But he thus escaping a dreadful death dedicated to Rhea the beast that had taught itself her dance.
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 218
Goaded by the fury of the dreadful goddess, tossing his locks in wild frenzy, clothed in woman's raiment with well-plaited tresses and a dainty netted hair-caul, a eunuch once took shelter in a mountain cavern, driven by the numbing snow of Zeus. But behind him rushed in unshivering a lion, slayer of bulls, returning to his den in the evening, who looking on the man, snuffing in his shapely nostrils the smell of human flesh, stood still on his sturdy feet, but rolling his eyes roared loudly from his greedy jaws. The cave, his den, thunders around him and the wooded peak that mounts nigh to the clouds echoes loud. But the priest startled by the deep voice felt all his stirred spirit broken in his breast. Yet he uttered from his lips the piercing shriek they use, and tossed his whirling locks, and holding up his great tambour, the revolving instrument of Olympian Rhea, he beat it, and it was the saviour of his life; for the lion hearing the unaccustomed hollow boom of the bull's hide was afraid and took to flight. See how all-wise necessity taught a means of escape from death!
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 219
Chaste Atys, the gelded servant of Cybele, in frenzy giving his wild hair to the wind, wished to reach Sardis from Phrygian Pessinus; but when the dark of evening fell upon him in his course, the fierce fervour of his bitter ecstasy was cooled and he took shelter in a descending cavern, turning aside a little from the road. But a lion came swiftly on his track, a terror to brave men and to him an inexpressible woe. He stood speechless from fear and by some divine inspiration put his hand to his sounding tambour. At its deep roar the most courageous of beasts ran off quicker than a deer, unable to bear the deep note in its ears, and he cried out, "Great Mother, by the banks of the Sangarius I dedicate to thee, in thanks for my life, my holy thalame and this noisy instrument that caused the lion to fly."
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 220
The long-haired priest of Rhea, the newly gelded, the dancer from Lydian Tmolus whose shriek is heard afar, dedicates, now he rests from his frenzy, to the solemn Mother who dwells by the banks of Sangarius these tambourines, his scourge armed with bones, these noisy brazen cymbals, and a scented lock of his hair.
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 234
The priest of Rhea dedicated to the mountain-Mother of the gods this raiment and these locks owing to an adventure such as this. As he was walking alone in the wood a savage lion met him and a struggle for his life was imminent. But the goddess put it in his mind to beat his tambourine and he made the ravening brute take flight, dreading the awful din. For this reason his locks hang from the whistling branches.
Greek Anthology, Book VI, 237
- Elagabalus (deity)
- Gala (priests) of Inanna
- Priesthood of Atargatis
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