Friday, 15 November 2013

The Gallae - Ancient and Modern : Part 1 - Ancient

The growth of wicca and neo-paganism in the late 20th century had an effect on the lgbt community. Christianity, even that of the lgbt churches such as the Metropolitan Community Church, didn’t offer what some people were seeking. Other established religions and faiths were also perceived to be too non-lgbt inclusive and people began to look to the past to find inspiration for modern beliefs. Long-established beliefs like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhist, etc., have the benefit of centuries of evolution and development, but newly-formed beliefs like Wicca have had to rebuilt from the past to reflect the present. This is the case with the transgender faith of the Gallae of Cybele.

The original Galli were male priests of the Mother Goddess, Agdistis (whom the Greeks called Kybele and the Romans called Cybele) and her associated deity Attis. The cult of Agdistis dates back several thousand years to Phrygia, the central region of modern-day Turkey. The cult expanded across the Mediterranean, and in 2-4 BC it became recognised as an official cult by the Roman state.

The significance of the cult of Cybele to the trans community originates in the legends of Agdistis and Attis. The legends evolved as it spread across to Greece and then Rome, but remnants of the original Phrygian version are still traceable.

Cybele’s earliest cult is associated with mountains. Her first incarnation was as Agdistis (a later Greek version of her Phrygian name), the hermaphrodite deity of Mount Agdistis in Phrygia. She was the daughter of the Sky God and the Earth Mother, and from this parentage she acquired the role of Mother Goddess in the Greek and Roman pantheons.

It seems that it was colonists from Greece who reinterpreted Agdistis as Kybele. The Greeks brought the hermaphrodite into their pantheon, adapting her cult to align it with their own social attitudes at the time. Agdistis belonged to a tradition of double-gendered gods and goddesses of ancient Turkey that was largely alien to the Greeks. To make Agdistis less alien the Greeks developed the legend of how their own king of the gods, Zeus, fathered this hermaphrodite. The Greek gods feared this strange new double-gendered member of their family and as Agdistis slept they castrated her. From that moment Agdistsis became known as Matar Kubileya and later Kybele. The name means Mother of Mountains, keeping reference to original her Phrygian role as a mountain or earth deity.

The severed genitals fell into the soil and from them grew an almond tree. A daughter of the local river god gathered some of the almonds and one impregnated her. The resulting child was called Attis.

Attis was also originally a Phrygian deity, though not as ancient as that of Agdistis. Their cults were closely associated and the Greeks worshipped the two together in several of their colonies. Later Attis’s cult became secondary to Kybele’s and the Greeks developed legends to explain this.

Following his almond-birth Attis grew up into a beautiful young man. Kybele fell in love with him, though by the time this legend originated Kybele had been well removed from her Agdistis origins (otherwise the relationship would have been incestuous). At Attis’s wedding to a local princess Kybele appeared to him in all her divine glory, and it sent him mad. In his madness Attis castrated himself. In like madness Attis’s prospective father-in-law also castrated himself.

This myth also served to explain the priests of the Phrygian cult of Attis and Agdistis/Kybele. The priests in both cults were eunuchs who went through ritual castration in a ceremony held near the Spring equinox. When the cults spread into Greece these eunuch priests acquired the name “galloi”, probably named after the River Gallus in Phrygia whose waters are reputed to drive people mad, or from the region of Galatia. Although eunuchs were not unknown in Greek or Roman cultures the Galloi, or Galli to the Romans, were seen as subjects of derision. Whereas eunuchs were castrated, the Galli completely removed all male sexual organs, thus removing themselves totally from all masculinity. This complete emasculation went further with the Galli cross-dressing and behaving as women, and in some recorded instances offering themselves to men as prostitutes. This behaviour was far in excess of what Roman society accepted and eventually, in the 1st century, genital mutilation was declared illegal.

Along with other pagan religions the cults of Cybele and Attis were banned in the Roman Empire when Christianity became the state religion. Where these banned religions existed outside the empire they remained as local cults for several more centuries.

During the neo-pagan resurgence in the 20th century members of the transgender community began searching for a faith that reflected their lifestyle and spiritual needs. Several activists researched religions of the Mother Goddess, and Cybele stood out as being a fitting spiritual focus.

In Part 2 of Gallae – Ancient and Modern in two weeks time I’ll write about the modern revival of Cybele and her Gallae priestesses.

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