About the Galli
The first Galli arrived in Rome when the Senate officially adopted Cybele as a state goddess in 204 BC. Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Galli, which meant that they were all orientals or slaves. Under Claudius, this ban was lifted. Eventually Domitian reaffirmed that Roman citizens were forbidden to practice eviratio (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 ear-rings. They also wore their hair long, and bleached, and wore heavy make-up. 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.
Origins of the name
Stephanus Byzantinus said that the name came from King Gallus. Ovid (43 BC - 17 AD) says that the name is derived from the Gallus river in Phrygia. The term Gallus is also a multiple pun in Latin, meaning a Gaul, or a rooster, as well as a castrated priest.
While these efforts at "folk" etymologies were widespread in classical times, it has been suggested that gallu comes from the Sumerian Gal meaning "great" and Lu meaning "man", humans or sexually ambivalent demons that freed Inanna from the underworld. They originally seem to have been consecrated to the god Enki.
By coincidence there was a category of Mesopotamian priests called kalu; in Sumerian gala. These priests played the tympanum and were involved in bull sacrifice. Another category of Mesopotamian priests called assinnu, galatur, and kurgarru had a sacred function. These transgender or eunuch priests participated in liturgical rites, during which they were costumed and masked. They played music, sang, and danced, most often in ceremonies dedicated to the goddess Ishtar.
The Galli and Attis
Fundamental to understanding the meaning and the function of the myth and ritual related to Attis in Rome is his relationship with the Galli. The role of prototype of the mythical castration of Attis for the institution of the "priesthood" of the Galli has almost always been emphasised, even if to different degrees. Scholars have attempted to draw a connection between the episode of the castration of Attis and the ritual mutilation of the Galli as a reflection in myth of a secondary ritual action or conversely, as the mythical foundation of a ritual action. This kind of interpretation appears to be too simplistic as, to some extent, it fails to consider that this connection has served different purposes in different periods. The emasculation of Attis in the "Phrygian" version of the myth is the basis for an institution that is both political and religious, the institution of his priests in Pessinous, the "non-kings", who don't simply coincide with the Galli.
The earliest references to the Galli come from the Anthologia Palatina although they don't explicitly mention emasculation. More interesting is the fragment attributed to Callimachus, in which the term Gallai denotes castration that has taken place.
The high priests are well-documented from archaeology. 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 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".
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.
Being a Roman citizen, as well as being employed by the Roman State, meant that the archigallus had to preserve the traditions of Cybele's cult while not violating Roman prohibitions in religious behavior. Hence, some argue that the archigallus was never a eunuch, as all citizens of Rome were forbidden from emasculation. However, under Claudius Roman citizens were permitted to be castrated up until the reign of Domitian. The signs of his office have been described as a type of crown, possibly a laurel wreath, as well as a golden bracelet known as the occabus.
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.
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
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- Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: the myth and the cult, translated by A. M. H. Lemmers, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977, p.97.
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- Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: the myth and the cult, translated by A. M. H. Lemmers, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977, p.96: "But according to others their name was derived from King Gallus 495 who in a state of frenzy had emasculated himself..." and p.199, "495. Steph. Byz. s.v. γάλλος (= H. Hepding, Attis, 74)."
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