March 24th in ancient days was the Day of Blood, a peak moment annually in the worship of the Great Mother Cybele and her consort Attis. This was part of a Spring celebration of Cybele lasting several weeks. On the Day of Blood frenzied ritual dancing took place, the participants, known as the Galli, working themselves into a mania, tearing their clothes, biting and flagellating themselves and each other. At the ceremony’s peak initiates castrated themselves, part of bringing themselves closer to the goddess and pursuing their spiritual growth.
Attis was one of several ‘saviour’ figures who were competing for popularity in the first few centuries of the Common Era, others included Jesus, Antinous and Mithras. They all had in common that they died and were resurrected, symbolising spiritual transformation – Attis died having castrated himself to avoid being married. Violets sprang from his blood. The goddess wrapped his testicles in his clothes and buried them in the earth. In early legends Attis was reborn as the daughter of Cybele, in later he was seen as having transcended to the starry heavens.
Worship of Cybele was centred on the land of Phrygia, in Asian Turkey, for at least 1000 years before Christ. It spread throughout the Mediterranean, even as far as Britain – an elaborate bronze castration instrument, decorated with pictures of Cybele and Attis, was found in the Thames near London Bridge. There are records of young men still self-castrating in Autun, France, in the 5th century.
The Galli were mainly wandering priest/esses, setting up shrines and enacting ceremonies wherever they went. Historians often tell us that their effeminate nature and frenzied behaviour was tolerated but not really welcome among the, in comparison, relatively uptight Greeks and Romans – but the fact is Cybele was welcomed into Rome with great ceremony (she was credited with helping the Romans win the Punic War) and her faith established as the official state religion from the 3rd century BCE. At first Roman citizens were not allowed to undergo ritual castration, but this law was changed in 101 BCE, with certain citizens allowed to take part, and removed all together under Claudius (42-54 CE). This tolerance did not last – Domitian (81-91 CE) forbad Roman citizens to become Galli. Apparently castration was proving a bit too popular.
Much of what we know about the Galli comes from greek, roman and christian writers who deplored their behaviour and their femininity. Firmicus Maternus wrote that in their temples “one may see scandalous performances… men letting themselves be handled as women”. Augstine called Cybele’s Galli priests “castrated perverts”, “madmen”, “totally unmanned and corrupted”.
Conflicts between Christians and pagans increased at an exponential rate from the first century. The occasional Roman emperor converted back to pagan ways, but over time they became more and more determined to wipe out the goddess worshippers. Emperor Theodosius in 390: “All those who shamefully debase their bodies by submitting them, like women, to the desire of another man, in giving themselves to strange sexual relations, shall be made to expiate such crimes in the avenging flames, in view of all the people.” Emperor Justinian was the most intolerant, using torture, confiscating property, destroying temples and burning alive the queer servants of the goddess.
March 15th to April 10th was known as the Megalensia. This special period of celebration of Cybele and Attis started with a period of fasting leading up to the frenzies of the Day of Blood on March 24th. On the 25th Attis’ triumph over physical death was celebrated. The festivities continued with a period of games and entertainments leading to Cybele’s birthday feasts on April 10th.
By the end of the 4th century CE there had been a wholesale effort to erase all statues, temples and memories of Cybele. The Christians were trying to eradicate all connection between genderqueer trans and gay priest/esses and holy practice, after some 1500 years when sexuality had been treated in temples and orgiastic rituals as sacred, as a way of communing with the gods. The persecution of gay/queer/trans people in the world today stems from this time when our sexuality or gendervariant identities were associated with the pagan goddess religions. The Churches have forgotten that this was at the root of the condemnation of our kind. And so few of us queers today have any clue about this.
But the Great Mother never went away. And nor did her people. We are still here, finding out who we are and what roles we are called to play today.
Oration to Cybele, by the last non-Christian emperor of Rome, Julian II:
“She is in control of every form of life and the cause of all generation; She easily brings to perfection all things that are made. Without pain, She brings to birth.”