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. In 204 BCE, when the Senate officially adopted Cybele as a state goddess, 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.
Thus the first galli arrived in Rome. Stephanus Byzantinus said that the name came from King Gallus, while Ovid (43 BC – 17 CE) says that the name is derived from the Gallus river in Phrygia.
The earliest surviving references to the galli come from the Anthologia Palatina, a 10th century compilation of earlier material. These references do not explicitly mention emasculation, but a fragment attributed to Callimachus cites the term gallai as denoting castration.
The galli castrated themselves during an ecstatic celebration called the Dies sanguinis, or "Day of Blood", which took place on March 24. At the same time they put on women's costume, mostly yellow in colour, and a sort of turban, together with pendants and earrings. They also wore their hair long, and bleached, and wore heavy makeup. They wandered around with followers, begging for charity, in return for which they were prepared to tell fortunes. On the 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.
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.
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.
Laws and taboos
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.
In the 4th century, some currents of extreme asceticism in Christianity advocated self-castration. This practice was attacked as a return to the religious excesses of the galli by Basil of Ancyra. John Chrysostom in 390 attacked self-castrating Christians of being Manichaean heretics. Augustine likewise phrased his opposition to self-castration as an attack on the galli. By extension, Luther would later use the same comparison in his attack on clerical celibacy.
A connection has been made[by whom?] between the episode of the castration of Attis and the ritual mutilation 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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