April 4 marked the beginning of a multi-day festival in ancient Rome dedicated to Cybele, the mother of the gods; Cybele is the Roman version of the Greek goddess Hera. Cybele originated from Crete, with her sanctuary atop Mount Berekynthos (Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 77; “Berekynthos Mt. (Chania) 16 Malaxa – Βερέκυνθον”). In Virgil’s Aeneid, it is written “Behold, my son, under his command glorious Rome will match earth’s power and heaven’s will, and encircle seven hills with a single wall, happy in her race of men: as Cybele, the Berecynthian ‘Great Mother’, crowned with turrets, rides through the Phrygian cities, delighting in her divine children, clasping a hundred descendants, all gods, all dwelling in the heights above” (Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, line 777). Cybele herself is depicted as a woman riding a chariot pulled by a pair of lions instead of horses, indicating her abilities to tame wild beasts. She herself wore a crown atop her head fashioned to look like city walls with towers, since it was believed that she had given people the idea to add towers to their walls (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).
April 4-10 was the period of the Ludi Megalenses, “the Games of the Great Mother”, which was one of the titles given to Cybele. This festival was first held in 204 BC. Ovid says that the courts were closed on the first day of the festivities (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4). As Marcus Varro explains, “The Megalesia ‘Festival of the Great Mother’ is so called from the Greeks, because by direction of the Sibylline Books the Great Mother was brought from King Attalus, from Pergama; there near the city-wall was the Megalesion, that is, the temple of this goddess, whence she was brought to Rome” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 15. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 189).
The games began on April 4, the Feast of Cybele. The celebration commenced with the blasting sound of a musical instrument called the Berecynthian pipe, a reference to the goddess’ Cretan origin. It was apparently a curved flute or horn made of boxwood which produced a loud buzzing sound similar to a bagpipe or perhaps a super-sized kazoo. That un-earthly sound was the signal that the festivities were about to begin (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book 4, chapter 522; Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4; Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 590).
Eunuchs, the priests of the Galli who castrated themselves in an act of dedication to Cybele, led the public procession through the streets, pounding on drums and crashing cymbals together, trying seemingly to make as much noise as possible. Meanwhile, they beat and whip themselves, and moan and shriek in pain and despair, in emulation of the tortured mind of Attis, Cybele’s lover. Behind them, a statue of Cybele was be carried atop people’s shoulders (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).
Let me stray for a moment from my main narrative and provide some information about these priests who served Cybele. These people were known as the Galli, not because they were of Gallic or Celtic ancestry but because, as Ovid relates, in Phyrigia there is a river near the shrine of Cybele called the Gallus and anyone who drinks its water goes insane. Famously, the Galli as they were called castrated themselves by crushing their testicles in a bronze vice. What on earth would induce them to do such a thing? This practice had its basis in Roman mythology. A handsome Phrygian boy named Attis fell in love with the goddess Cybele. However, it was inappropriate for a god to have sexual relations with a mortal, so Attis vowed that since he loved her so much he would never be intimate with anyone else. Cybele was impressed by his devotion, and asked him to forever serve her and protect her temple, and as long as he held to his vow of virginity, she would treat him very well. Unfortunately, when he met the extremely beautiful nymph Sagaritis, he was filled with lust, and it got the better of his senses, and the two of them had sex. Almost immediately, he was filled with immense guilt over what he had done, and it drove him to madness. In an act of self-punishment, he ripped off his clothes and fiercely whipped his own back. Feeling that this pain, no matter how severe, was still not sufficient, he took a sharp stone and started stabbing and lacerating his naked body all over with deep gashes, and smeared dirt and mud all over himself to show how filthy he thought he was. “I deserve this! I deserve this!” he cried out. “Let me pay for my sin with my own blood! Let the parts of my body that brought me to this state perish, let them perish!” and taking a knife, he sliced off his own balls. Ever since then, in emulation of Attis, the Galli castrate themselves, beat themselves, whip themselves, and wail and cry in lamentation. A comparison might be made here between the Galli and the medieval flagellates, who punished their bodies so that they could gain God’s favor and remove the Black Death (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).
The Roman writer Lucian provides us with some information on the Galli. In The Syrian Goddess, he explains how there is a temple in Syria at a place called Hierapolis, “the Sacred City”, which is devoted to the worship of Cybele, known in that region as Rhea. According to his story, Queen Stratonice of Assyria received a vision from Hera/Cybele/Rhea to build a temple dedicated to her in Hierapolis. Her husband the king could not go, so he sent his best friend Combabus to go with her. What the king did not realize was that Combabus had a crush on the king’s wife, but had never made his feelings known. Combabus believed that the journey in addition to the actual time constructing the temple would be long, and it might be possible that the queen might develop feelings for him during that time. Not wanting to be involved in adultery, he castrated himself so that he couldn’t give in to temptation. Building the temple took three years, and sure enough, the queen began to develop romantic feelings for her companion. One night, when she was drunk, she came to his bedroom and tried to seduce him. When persuading her to go back to sleep and to think of her husband didn’t work, Combabus revealed himself to her, showing her that he had, to use the term of the day, “un-manned” himself, and that immediately killed all romantic sentiments in her. Lucian then gives an intriguing statement: “The memory of this love is still alive at Hierapolis and is maintained in this way; the women still are enamoured of the Galli, and the Galli again love the women with passion; but there is no jealousy at all, and this love passes among them for a holy passion” (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 22). Lucian goes on to say that the priests of Cybele in Hierapolis still castrate themselves, and thereafter wear only women’s clothing and perform what is typically thought of as “women’s work”. “Combabus accordingly in despair at his incapacity for love, donned woman’s attire, that no woman in future might be deceived in the same way. This is the reason of the female attire of the Galli” (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 10, 15, 17-27).
Lucian’s description of the feast of Cybele in Hierapolis bears several similarities to those conducted in Rome: a procession of the Galli priests accompanied by loud music. The women in the audience become “frenzied and frantic”. The Galli slice their arms with knives and whip each other on their backs. Lucian comments that sometimes men in the audience are so swept up in the emotion that they castrate themselves on the spot (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 43, 50-51)
The 19th Century religious pseudo-historian Samuel F. Dunlap says of the Galli, “The priests and the Galli, dressed like women, with turbans, appear in a band. One who surpasses all in the tonsure begins to prophesy with sighing and groaning; he publicly laments for the sins he has committed, which he will now punish by chastisement of the flesh. He takes the knotty scourge which the Galli are accustomed to carry, whips his back, cuts himself with swords until the blood runs down. The whole ends by taking up a collection [of coins]. Copper and silver coins are flung into their lap; some give wine, milk, cheese, [or] flour, which are eagerly carried off” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 42).
Alright, I think I’ve talked enough about those people. What else do we know about the Feast of Cybele? In truth, once all of the sensationalist information about the Galli has been dispensed with, the answer is “not much”. We know that offerings of salad, herbs, and cheese were made to the goddess (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4), and we know that the games held in her honor lasted for seven days. On the last day, April 10, a chariot race dedicated to the goddess Cybele was held at the Circus Maximus, bringing the Ludi Megalenses to an end (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 10).
- Dunlap, Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.
- Poetry in Translation. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 10. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Poetry in Translation. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Sacred Texts. Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 10, 15, 17-27, 43, 50-51. Translated by Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, 1913. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/tsg/tsg07.htm.
- Topos Text. “Berekynthos Mt. (Chania) 16 Malaxa – Βερέκυνθον”. https://topostext.org/place/355241LBer.
- Topos Text. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book 4, chapter 522. https://topostext.org/work/668#4.522.
- Topos Text. Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, line 777. https://topostext.org/work/245#6.777.
- Topos Text. Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 590. https://topostext.org/work/245#9.59.
- Topos Text. Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 77. https://topostext.org/work/245#9.77.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 15. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.