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social sciences

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Galli: Ancient Roman Priests  
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Catullus, in poem 63, describes how Attis, a pais kalos ("lovely boy"), was swept away by galli and finally joined their ranks. Attis castrates himself and thereby abdicates his manhood. Catullus refers to the galli as gallae (feminine plural), suggesting that the loss of their private parts has in fact perversely changed their gender, just as Attis has become a notha mulier, a "fake woman."

In his inability to make the transition from eromenos (beloved) or puer delicatus to erastes (lover) or husband, Attis represents in Roman eyes an appalling failure of culturally sanctioned masculinity.

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Juvenal, in the Second Satire, compares hypocritical priests to galli: "Here is Cybele's crew, with their uninhibited babel / Of squeaky voices. A crazy old man with snow-white hair / Presides at the rites, a rare and truly remarkable case / Of voracious greed. He ought to be paid to give masters classes." Juvenal sarcastically adds: "It's time to follow the Phrygian mode: / Just take a knife, and sever the lump of useless meat."

In Apuleius' The Golden Ass, a eunuch buys the ass Lucius. Lucius describes his new owner: "he was a real old queen, bald apart from a few grizzled ringlets, one of your street-corner scum, one of those who carry the Syrian Goddess around our towns to the sound of cymbals and castanets." The buyer takes Lucius home and introduces him to his cohorts (fellow priests and eunuchs): "Look, girls, at the pretty little slave I've bought." The "girls" at first think that their chief has brought them a handsome man, but, seeing the deception and disappointed that "this was not a case of a hind substituting for a maiden but an ass taking the place of a man," they sneer at their boss, saying that this was not a servant for them but "a husband for himself."

Later, they carry the Syrian Goddess in procession: "Next day they all put on tunics of various hues and 'beautified' themselves by smearing colored gunge on their faces and applying eye shadow. Then they set forth, dressed in turbans and robes, some saffron-colored, 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." They eventually repair to the baths, where they pick up "a robust young peasant, finely equipped in loin and groin," on whom they perform oral services.

Tibullus, in his book of elegiac poems, asks the god Priapus for advice on dealing with boys, especially his favorite Marathus. Boys should value the gift of poetry rather than cheap tokens of love, which is something the followers of Cybele on Mount Ida cherish in particular: "But the one deaf to the Muses, who sells his love, / Let him follow after Luxury's / Idaean Chariot, fill three hundred cities / With his vain footsteps, hack his worthless flesh / As Phrygian music blares."

Virgil, in the Aeneid, contrasts decadent/effeminate Easterners and strong/manly Italians; Numanus insults the Trojans by calling them Phrygiae (feminine plural) rather than Phryges; and Turnus offends Aeneas with the term semivir Phryx ("half-male Phrygian"), which alludes to the Phrygian cult of Cybele and her "half-male" priests.

The high and mighty were also not exempt from suspicion and ridicule. For example, Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, compares the emperor Augustus, who reputedly enjoyed passive intercourse in his youth, to a gallus on a Roman stage.

Even Christian writers were concerned with the galli. St. Augustine, in City of God, uses the rites of Cybele as examples of pagan atrocities, religious prostitution, and same-sex promiscuity. Anna Klosowska explains: "For Augustine, Cybele is a paradox: a fertility goddess who requires infertility from her castrated priests." (But do not the Roman Catholic Church and some other Christian denominations require from their priests a similar sacrifice, a life of sexual renunciation? To be sure, celibacy is not equivalent to sexual mutilation, but modern religions are no less paradoxical than Cybele in their expectations of priests and their attitudes toward sex.)

Sex and Sexuality

For embracing a permanent state of feminine subjugation, the galli were marginalized to the fringes of Roman society. They seem to have converged in a subculture that protected them from the enmity of the majority. In the cult of Cybele, they were able to pursue their minority sexual interests without the ostracism that they experienced in the larger society.

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