Friday, 8 March 2013

The Golden Ass and the Catamite

Patera depicting Cybele and Attis, 4th century CE, source:
As the traditional time to mourn and then celebrate the death and resurrection of Cybele's beloved Attis (a festival since subsumed by Easter) draws near there is perhaps no better time to look at the role of the galli in ancient Rome. The galli were priests of the great Goddess Cybele, also called the Magna Mater. In imitation of her lover, Attis, who was said to have castrated himself after being driven into a frenzy by a jealous Cybele, the galli castrated themselves during the festival of Attis. Thereafter these “mad eunuch priests” (to quote Lucretius) dressed in women’s clothing, which were typically brightly coloured, wore earrings and heavy make up, and became well known for their wild rites in which they ritualistically flogged and mutilated themselves whilst in an ecstatic frenzy brought on by boisterous music and dancing. They were also well known fortune tellers and were perhaps the only priests permitted to beg during the Roman era.
This much I already knew when I came across the following passage from books 8-9 in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a humorous and very readable novel written in the 2nd century CE (note that the priests of the Dea Syria are here referred to - a sister/similar cult to that of Cybele; many ancient Romans considered both the Dea Syria and Cybele to be the one Goddess, whom they called the Magna Mater):
“… Fortune … once again turned her blind eyes on me and … produced a buyer who could not have suited my unhappy circumstances more perfectly [the narrator is a man named Lucius who has, through his own folly, been turned into an ass in a bungled attempt to practice magic]. Let me describe him: he was a real old queen, bald apart from a few grizzled ringlets, one of your street-corner scum, one of those [galli] who carry the Syrian Goddess around our towns to the sound of cymbals and castanets and make her beg for her living. He was keen to buy me … [after growing weary at being made the butt of jokes by the auctioneer, the priest, named Philebus, while] putting on a great show of indignation … retorted: 'You zombie, you stuffed dummy, damn you and your auctioneer's blether, may the almighty mother of all, she of Syria, and holy Sabadius and Bellona and the Idaean Mother and queen Venus with her Adonis strike you blind for the coarse buffoonery I've had to take from you. You bloody fool, do you think I can entrust the Goddess to an unruly beast who might suddenly upset the divine image and throw it off; leaving its unfortunate guardian to run about with her hair all over the place looking for a doctor for her Goddess lying on the ground?' … [Philebus purchases Lucius the ass, so to carry the statute of the Magna Mater during their processions, and] taking delivery of this new member of the family he led me off home, where as soon as he got indoors he called out: 'Look, girls, at the pretty little slave I've bought and brought home for you.' But these 'girls' were a troupe of queens, who at once appeared jumping for joy and squealing untunefully in mincing effeminate tones, in the belief that it really was a human slave that had been brought to serve them. When they saw that this was not a case of a hind substituting for a maiden but an ass taking the place of a man, they began to sneer and mock their chief; saying that this wasn't a servant he'd brought but a husband for himself.' And listen,' they said. 'You're not to gobble up this nice little nestling all on your own – we're your little dovvies too, and you must let us have a share sometimes.' Exchanging badinage of this sort they tied me up next to the manger. They also had in the house a beefy young man, an accomplished piper, whom they had bought in the market from the proceeds of their street collections. Out of doors he tagged along playing his instrument when they carried the Goddess around, at home he was toyboy in ordinary to the whole establishment. As soon as he saw me joining the household, without waiting for orders he served me out a generous ration of food and welcomed me joyfully. 'At last,' he said, 'here's somebody to spell me in my loathsome duties. Long life to you! May you please our masters and bring relief to my exhausted loins!' When I heard this I began to picture to myself the ordeals that lay ahead of me.
Tomb portrait of a gallus, 2nd century CE
Next day they all put on tunics of various hues and 'beautified' themselves by smearing coloured gunge on their faces and applying eye-shadow. Then they set forth, dressed in turbans and robes, some saffron-coloured, some of linen and some of gauze; some had white tunics embroidered with a pattern of purple stripes and girded at the waist; and on their feet were yellow slippers. The Goddess, draped in silk, they placed on my back, and baring their arms to the shoulder and brandishing huge swords and axes, they capered about with ecstatic cries, while the sound of the pipes goaded their dancing to frenzy.  After calling at a number of small houses they arrived at a rich man's country estate. The moment they entered the gates there was bedlam; they rushed about like fanatics, howling discordantly, twisting their necks sinuously back and forth with lowered heads, and letting their long hair fly around in circles, sometimes attacking their own flesh with their teeth, and finally gashing their arms with the weapons they carried. In the middle of all this, one of them was inspired to fresh excesses of frenzy; he began to gasp and draw deep laboured breaths, feigning madness like one divinely possessed – as if the presence of a God sickened and enfeebled men instead of making them better!
Anyway, let me tell you how heavenly Providence rewarded him. Holding forth like some prophet he embarked on a cock-and-bull story about some sacrilegious act he accused himself of having committed, and condemned himself to undergo the just punishment for his crime at his own hands. So, seizing a whip such as these effeminates always carry about with them, its lashes made of twisted wool ending in long tassels thickly studded with sheep's knuckle-bones, he laid into himself with these knotted thongs, standing the pain of the blows with extraordinary hardihood. What with the sword-cuts and the flogging, the ground was awash with the contaminated blood of these creatures. All this worried me a good deal: seeing all these wounds and gore all over the place I was afraid that, just as some men drink asses' milk, this foreign Goddess might conceive an appetite for asses' blood. Finally, however, exhausted or sated with lacerating themselves, they gave over the carnage, and started to stowaway in the roomy folds of their robes the coppers, indeed the silver money, that people crowded round to bestow on them – and not only money but jars of wine and milk and cheeses and a quantity of corn and wheat; and some presented the bearer of the Goddess with barley. They greedily raked in all this stuff, crammed it into the sacks that they had ready for these acquisitions, and loaded it on my back, so that I was carrying a double load, a walking barn and temple combined.
In this way they roved about plundering the whole countryside. In one village they enjoyed a particularly lavish haul and decided to celebrate with a banquet. As the price for a fake oracle they got a fat ram from one of the farmers, which they said was to be sacrificed to appease the hungry Goddess. Having made all the arrangements for dinner they went off to the baths, whence having bathed they brought back with them to share their dinner a robust young peasant, finely equipped in loin and groin. Dinner was hardly begun and they had scarcely started on the hors-d'oeuvre when the filthy scum became inflamed by their unspeakable lusts to outrageous lengths of unnatural depravity. The young man was stripped and laid on his back, and crowding round him they made repeated demands on his services with their loathsome mouths. Finally I couldn't stand the sight and tried to shout 'Romans, to the rescue!'; but the other letters and syllables failed me and all that came out was an 'O' – a good loud one, creditable to an ass, but the timing was unfortunate. It so happened that some young men from the next village were looking for an ass that had been stolen that night and were conducting a thorough search of all the lodging-houses. Hearing me braying inside and believing that their quarry was hidden away there, they burst in unexpectedly in a body to reclaim their property then and there, and caught our friends red-handed at their vile obscenities. They immediately called all the neighbours to witness this shocking scene, ironically praising the priests for their spotless virtue.
Demoralized by this scandal, news of which soon spread and naturally got them loathed and detested by one and all, they packed up everything and left the place surreptitiously at about midnight.”
Male lovers embrace at Roma Euro Pride
I was thunderstruck by this passage when I read it. Two things in particular struck me – the first was that I was somewhat shocked to learn that a Pagan during the Roman era could treat the cult surrounding a major deity of Rome with so much disrespect. Though, to be clear, Apuleius does not disrespect the Magna Mater in this passage, but rather her priests. The second thing was that I quite suddenly realised that, contrary to some of the neo Pagan material floating around the internet, ancient Rome was not some sort of rainbow coloured, LGBT golden age. I started to get an inkling of this recently when I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, wherein “catamites” (receptive partners in male homosexual sex) are occasionally referred to with distaste.* Then I read the above passage from The Golden Ass and decided to research this subject in more depth. I will not treat the matter with too much detail,** as the subject is huge, but essentially it appears that ideas about sexual preference in ancient Rome bore little resemblance to those of our own times – Romans were not greatly interested in who you were f—king, they were interested in how you were f—king. A dignified, virile, self-respecting and wholly Roman man penetrated his sexual partners. Typically these sexual partners would be wives, concubines, and teenage slaves and prostitutes of either gender. Far from celebrating homosexual love in ancient Rome, there was actually a law that penalised receptive homosexual sex among free born men (the Lex Scantinia) and homosexual love between soldiers was severely punished (but, in keeping with the values of the time, active/penetrative sex with prostitutes, slaves and captives of either gender was fine). The rationale for these prohibitions appears to have been that for a man to allow his body to be used for pleasure by others was to render the man submissive, passive and effeminate – in short it amounted to an abrogation of (Roman ideas about) masculinity.
Thus Apuleius’ mockery of the catamite priests of the Magna Mater is partly explained by the macho and patriarchal attitudes prevalent throughout the Roman era. Let us not condemn ancient Roman society for bigotry too swiftly though – it was a different and more violent age, where dominant, even aggressive, masculinity could ensure survival, freedom, prosperity and dignity for yourself, your family, your tribe, your people. As Roman ideas about masculinity appear to have a relationship to notions of what constitutes femininity, another related point to make about the Roman era is that it was a time when neither reliable methods of contraception nor paternity tests existed, which had consequences for women – weighed down by the repeated demands of motherhood, they often necessarily became submissive to and reliant on their menfolk to protect them and their children, and their chastity thereby became their greatest virtue (in the eyes of men) as it was the sole safeguard of rightful paternity. Which brings me to another point about the galli described above. While we have established that ancient Rome was no rainbow coloured paradise, nor was it the hell that it has been for many LGBT people in Western nations until the last few decades. It may be that Apuleius was not really homophobic so much as sexist. Perhaps what is shocking about the behaviour of his galli is not so much that they so enthusiastically enjoy receptive homosexual sex, for ancient Roman men must have frequently encountered this during their mix-gendered sexual adventures. What may be happening is that as the galli were quasi-women they were expected to abide by the norms that applied to Roman women, ie, chastity. Just as Apuleius elsewhere mocks “leather skinned whores” in The Golden Ass, perhaps his mocking treatment of these no longer youthful but horny “women” is just as we should expect.
A hijra, sourced from
What then to conclude other than that the role of the galli in ancient Rome was strange and colourful; that Roman men were expected to be sexually dominant and definitely not effeminate; that men who enjoyed being anally penetrated by men were regarded as bringing dishonour upon themselves; and that women who were unchaste were thought to dishonour themselves likewise. All of this meant that sexually receptive, effeminate, cross dressing galli were inevitably figures of fun for Apuleius, who treats most of The Golden Ass’ characters irreverently in any case. His allegiance to the cult of Isis may also have had something to do with his disrespectful treatment of what he may have perceived as a rival cult.
Finally, if we really want to understand the galli we can perhaps look beyond the few pages of material we have inherited from ancient Rome and study the hijras of contemporary India – cross dressing men, some of whom are castrated, known for performing religious ceremonies associated with fertility, fortune telling, begging and sex work. Despite their low social status and almost certainly like the galli of times past, it appears their favour is sought to bring good luck and fertility; likewise, their curse is feared lest it bring bad luck and infertility, and therein lies a measure of respect.

As close as it gets to a contemporary incarnation of a gallus? A transexual 
fortune teller, image sourced from
Likewise, but more playfully, Ovid suggests men who desire men are sick, in The Art of Love ("cetera lascivae faciant, concede, puellae, et siquis male vir quaerit habere virum" – virum means "virus"). The relevant line comes at the end of a passage which has been imprecisely translated as follows:
“And don't, for heaven's sake, have your hair waved, or use powder on your skin. Leave such foppishness as that to the effeminate priests who wail their Phrygian chants in honour of Cybele. Simplicity in dress is what best befits a man ... be clean ... see that your hair and your beard are decently trimmed. See also that your nails are clean and nicely filed; don't have any hair growing out of your nostrils; take care that your breath is sweet, and don't go about reeking like a billy-goat. All other toilet refinements leave to the women or to perverts [Ovid's The Art of Love, translated by J. Lewis May (1930)].”
Another translation of the same passage is:
“Don't torture your hair with curling-tongs or depilate your legs with pumice – that belongs to Mother Cybele's eunuch priests who shriek their Phrygian choruses. Casual chic suits men best ... be neat and clean ... hair and beard need an expert's hand; nails should be pared and kept clean; make sure there isn't an obscene tuft in your nostrils; and guard against halitosis, don't be a prime goat who offends all noses. Further refinements leave to the courtesan and the half-man cruising for another man [Ovid's The Art of Love, translated by James Michie (1993)].”
** For a well written article on the subject of homosexuality in ancient Rome see M Milligan, Roman Same-Sex, Slaves and Lex (May, 2012).

For more on the galli see Mary Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook at 8.7 (page 209 ff).

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at and Roman Pagan on Facebook


  1. Interesting article. Some additional points for examination.

    1. There is often tension during the Empire between conservative traditional Roman religion and the more orgiastic imported mystery cults. This just serves as a reminder that Romans were diverse in their opinions and interests.

    2. Becoming Galli was prohibited for Roman citizens despite the fact the Magna Mater cult was present in Rome. Again this demonstrates the tension as well as the tendency of Rome to be a point.

    3. The idea that Rome's objection to LBGT issues has to do with gender and not sex is not abnormal to me. In fact I think our culture has a tendency to behave in similar fashion. Note the obsession with feminine things turning a boy gay. The tendency to think all gay men are effeminate. Once upon a time an individual handed me an anti-gay religious track and the quote number reason not to be gay was that it "wrecked your rectum" I think that clearly shows the author's obsessive fear of penetration. No admonition was given to the penetrating males or to lesbians.

    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful comments:)

  2. Wonderfull article again.

    Just one little addition: Philebus and the Galloi who bought Lucius actually served the Dea Syria who was not fully identical with the liturgy about Cybele, thought the two cults may be considers as twin-cults. Dea Syria's holy city was Hierapolis in Syria, Kybele's was Pessinus in Phrygia. In the "Golden Ass" Philebos and his queens are arrested because they stole a holy grail out of the sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods (=Kybele), arguing that she (Kybele) gave this grail to their goddess (=Dea Syria) as a gift. But nevertheless: the galli of the Syrian Goddess were very similar to the galli of the Great Mother of the Gods. Nice that you referred to the Indian Hijira's and moderndays transsexuals. You might be interested in Asushunamir as well. It's a sort of "Adam/Eve" of the homo- and transsexuals since it was he who saved Ishtar/Inanna from hell.

    1. haha, looks like I have applied the interpretatio Romana a little too enthusiastically? Luckily it seems I am not alone. According to Salzman in "On Roman Time" it was not uncommon for ancient Romans to consider Kybele/Cybele and the Dea Syria as the one Goddess (ie, Magna Mater). Though I noticed Apuleius referred to the "Syrian Goddess" I just assumed, because of the nature of her cult, she was one and the same as Cybele. Thank you for emphasising the difference. I will try to correct this somehow ...