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Galli: Ancient Roman Priests  
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In ancient Rome, the galli (galloi in Greek, Latin singular gallus), translated as both "cocks" and "Galatians," were castrated priests of Cybele, the Asian Mother Goddess, and of the Syrian goddess Atagartis. They were named after the river Gallus, whose waters supposedly drove people crazy but also helped purge them. The cult of Cybele was widespread, like that of Dionysus. People other than the galli, such as priestesses and musicians and other adherents, participated in the mystery rituals of the cult, which included role-playing and inducing states of ecstasy, but only the galli were officiants.

The many-faceted literary evidence presents the galli as figures of unmanliness for having abdicated male cultural responsibility. As Craig Williams notes, "Castration is an extreme instance of a conceptual all-or-nothing tendency that pervades Roman texts: softening a male constitutes a direct infringement upon his masculine identity." Moreover, since they adopted women's clothing and seemed to prefer the receptive role in anal intercourse (in violation of the rigid Roman gender system), the galli are an important factor in the history of gender and sexuality as well.

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Cult and Castration

As priests of Cybele, the galli devoted themselves to their goddess by castrating themselves (apparently removing both the testicles and the penis), cross-dressing, and, in some cases, offering themselves to other men for sex. A tax may even have been levied on them as prostitutes.

Cybele was accepted into the state cult in 204 B.C.E., and she thus became an official goddess of the Roman state. From that point, the religion was funded by public money, but also placed under stricter control of the state.

Although Cybele was an official goddess, the Senate refused Roman citizens the right to participate in her rites as priests, reflecting the Roman distrust and fear of the galli, for both their infertility and their rejection of masculinity. The galli not only deliberately made themselves unable to produce offspring, but they served as bad examples to others, tempting young men to join their ranks. Because of their effeminate nature, the galli flouted Roman exhortations toward virtus, the ideal of manliness. In brief, the Roman reverence for paternity and masculinity made castration a highly stigmatized activity, especially for Roman citizens, and made the galli a distinctly marginalized community.

The galli were often described in derogatory terms such as pathicus ("faggot"), mollis ("softie"), or cinaedus (originally an Eastern dancer, but later a term for a grown man who displayed effeminate behavior and/or desired to be penetrated). Being a gallus was deemed the ultimate in unmanliness.

Because of wide-spread castration anxiety, the emperor Domitian (81 to 96 C.E.) declared genital mutilation illegal. Once Christianity triumphed over paganism and became the state religion, the highly institutionalized Greek and Roman mystery cults finally disappeared, although some galli may have plied their trade as late as the fifth century.

Continence and Castration

Why castration? Eugene Rice explains the self-castration of the galli as a failure to reconcile two crucial beliefs in the ancient world. Only people of perfect continence may perform sacred functions, and voluntary continence is impossible for a male. As a result, the enthusiast is left "no alternative but chastity by the knife."

Rabun Taylor argues that some of the galli may have had strong "gynemimetic" urges and so, in effect, gave themselves a partial sex change because of tendencies and in order to identify more closely with the mother goddess.

It may be that castration was a sign of reverence for the goddess; in mutilating themselves, the galli gave up something that was important to them. From this perspective, castration functioned to indicate the galli's devotion to their deity.

Certainly, a radical practice such as castration must have been motivated by complex psychological reasons, and may have originated in ideas of ritual purity and sexual continence. What we know is that, in the eyes of most Romans, the galli failed miserably to live up to their ideals. According to the literary testimony, at any rate, the galli were perfectly incontinent, eagerly profaned their religious services, and devoted themselves to money-making.

Literature and Lampooning

To the point of caricature, the literary evidence concerning the galli focuses on physical emasculation, effeminacy of manner and dress, sterile lasciviousness, religious mockery, and materialistic greed. Roman authors often use feminine nouns and pronouns to denounce the galli.

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A sculpture of the Roman goddess Cybele in Madrid, Spain. Photograph by Miguel A. Monjas.
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