33 Magna Mater and the Galli


The Galli were priests of the great goddess Cybele, a goddess with an important cult centre in the region of Phrygia,[1] but who was worshipped around the East.[2] The Romans referred to Cybele as the Magna Mater, or, the Great Mother. They invited her to Rome in an attempt to gain her favour during the Second Punic War; she came from Pessinus, in Anatolia in 204 BCE (in modern Turkey), and her arrival resulted in a bond of friendship between the Romans and Pessinus (it did not hurt that, after she arrived, the Romans went on to conclusively win the war.) The chief of the Galli was called Attis, and the priests wore saffron robes and clashed metal cymbals together as they walked the streets. They also performed self-castration as a show of devotion to the goddess. Romans were not allowed to become priests of Cybele, with the exception of the chief priest.

In 103 BCE, a priest from the shrine in Pessinus addressed the Roman Senate, either to have restoration of some harms committed at his shrine, or to predict a Roman victory. The Senate supported him; and, when a plebeian tribune who had violently opposed his right to address the Senate died of a fever (or, in the alternative scenario, when the prophesied Roman victory came), Magna Mater’s power was assured in Rome. Some Greeks, however, like Dionysius of Halicarnassus, argued that the Romans tried to keep a boundary between themselves and this cult:

3 And — the thing which I myself have marvelled at most — despite the influx into Rome of innumerable nations which are under every necessity of worshipping their ancestral gods according to the customs of their respective countries, the city has never officially adopted any of those foreign practices, as has been the experience of many cities in the past. But, even though she has, in pursuance of oracles, introduced certain rites from abroad, she celebrates them in accordance with her own traditions, after banishing all fabulous clap-trap. The rites of the Idaean goddess [Cybele] are a case in point; 4 for the praetors perform sacrifices and famous games in her honour every year according to the Roman customs, but the priest and priestess of the goddess are Phrygians, and it is they who carry her image in procession through the city, begging alms in her name according to their custom, and wearing figures upon their breasts and striking their tambourines while their followers play tunes upon their flutes in honour of the Mother of the Gods. 5 But by a law and decree of the senate no native Roman walks in procession through the city arrayed in a multi-coloured robe, begging for money or escorted by flute-players, or worships the god with the Phrygian ceremonies. That is how cautious are they about admitting any foreign religious customs and how great their aversion is to all pompous display that is wanting in decorum.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 29.3-5

In the following passage, you will see how Livy described the coming of the Magna Mater and her priests to Rome. As detailed below, it was a great state occasion, and also involved  a famous case of a woman proving her chastity publicly:

In addition they deliberated on the reception of the Idaean Mother [Cybele/Magna Mater], in regard to whom not only had Marcus Valerius, one of the ambassadors, arriving in advance, reported that she would be in Italy very soon, but also there was recent news that she was already at Tarracina. 6 It was no unimportant decision that occupied the senate — the question who was the best man in the state. 7 At any rate every man would have preferred a real victory in that contest to any high commands or magistracies, whether conferred by vote of the senators or of the people. 8 Publius Scipio, son of the Gnaeus who had fallen in Spain, was the young man not yet of an age to be quaestor, whom they judged to be the best of good men among all the citizens. 9 If writers who lived nearest in time to men who remembered those days had handed down by what virtues the senate was led to make that judgment, I should indeed gladly hand it on to posterity. But I shall not interject my own opinions, reached by conjecture in a matter buried by the lapse of time. 10 Publius Cornelius was ordered to go to Ostia with all the matrons to meet the goddess, and himself to receive her from the ship, and carrying her to land to turn her over to the matrons to carry. 11 After the ship had reached the mouth of the river Tiber, in compliance with the order he sailed out into open water on a ship, received the goddess from her priests and carried her to land. 12. The foremost matrons in the state, among whom the name of one in particular, that of Claudia Quinta, is conspicuous, received her. Claudia’s repute, previously not unquestioned, as tradition reports it, has made her purity the more celebrated among posterity by a service so devout. 13. The matrons passed the goddess from hand to hand in an unbroken succession to each other, while the entire city poured out to meet her. Censers had been placed before the doors along the route of the bearers, and kindling their incense, people prayed that gracious and benignant she might enter the city of Rome. It was to the Temple of Victory, which is on the Palatine, that they carried the goddess on the day before the Ides of April, and that was a holy day. 14.The people thronged to the Palatine bearing gifts for the goddess, and there was a banquet of the gods, and games also, called the Megalesia.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 29.145.14

The poet Lucretius describes the procession of the Magna Mater in Rome:

Seated in a chariot in the realms of air

To drive her team of lions, teaching thus

That the great earth hangs poised and cannot lie

Resting on other earth. To her chariot

They’ve yoked wild beasts, since offspring

However savage, must be tamed and guided

By care of parents. They have crowned

With turret-crown the peak of her head,

Since, fortressed in her divine, lofty strongholds,

She is who sustains the cities; now, adorned

With that same token, today is carried forth,

With solemn awe through many a mighty land,

The image of that mother, the divine.

Her the wide nations, after antique rituals

Name the Idaean Mother,[3] giving her

Escort of Phrygians, since first, they say,

From out those regions it was that grain began

Through all the world. To her do they assign

The Galli, the emasculate, since thus

They wish to show that men who violate

The majesty of the mother and have proved

Ungrateful to parents are to be adjudged

Unfit to give unto the shores of light

A living progeny. The Galli come:

And hollow cymbals, tight-skinned tambourines

Resound around to bangings of their hands;

The fierce horns threaten with a raucous bray;

The tubed pipe excites their maddened minds

In Phrygian measures; they bear before them knives,

Wild emblems of their frenzy, which have power

The rabble’s ungrateful heads and impious hearts

To panic with terror of the goddess’ might.

And so, when through the mighty cities borne,

She blesses man with silent salutation,

They strew the highway of her passage

With coin of brass and silver, gifting her

With alms and generosity, and shower her and shade

With flowers of roses falling like the snow

Upon the Mother and her companion-bands.

Here is an armed troop, which by Greeks

Are called the Phrygian Curetes.[4] Since

among themselves they use to play

In games of arms and leap in measure round

With bloody mirth and by their nodding shake

The terrorizing crests upon their heads,

This is the armed troop that represents

The arm’d Dictaean Curetes, who, in Crete,

As runs the story, whilom did out-drown

That infant cry of Zeus, what time their band,

Young boys, in a swift dance around the boy,

To measured step beat with the brass on brass,

That Saturn might not get him for his jaws,[5]

And give its mother an eternal wound

Along her heart. And it is on this account

That armed they escort the mighty Mother,

Or else because they signify by this

That she, the goddess, teaches men to be

Eager with armed valour to defend

Their motherland, and ready to stand forth,

The guard and glory of their parents’ years.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things Cybele


Catullus in Poem 63 imagined Attis, the original castrated priest of Cybele/Magna Mater, in a rather dramatic fashion. As seen in this telling, the mutilating act results in a fluid ambiguity in the identification of Attis’ gender:[6]

Over the vast main borne by swift-sailing ship, Attis, as with hasty hurried foot he reached the Phrygian wood and gained the tree-girt gloomy sanctuary of the Goddess, there roused by rabid rage and mind astray, with sharp-edged flint downwards dashed his burden of virility. Then as he felt his limbs were left without their manhood, and the fresh-spilt blood staining the soil, with bloodless hand she hastily took a tambour light to hold, your tambourine, Cybele, your initiate rite, and with feeble fingers beating the hollowed bullock’s back, she rose up quivering thus to chant to her companions.

“Haste you together, she-priests, to Cybele’s dense woods, together haste, you vagrant herd of the dame Dindymene,[7] you who inclining towards strange places as exiles, following in my footsteps, led by me, comrades, you who have faced the ravening sea and truculent ocean, and have castrated your bodies in your utmost hate of Venus,[8] make glad our mistress speedily with your minds’ mad wanderings. Let dull delay depart from your thoughts, together haste you, follow to the Phrygian home of Cybele, to the Phrygian woods of the Goddess, where sounds the cymbal’s voice, where the tambourine resounds, where the Phrygian flutist pipes deep notes on the curved reed, where the ivy-clad Maenads furiously toss their heads, where they enact their sacred orgies with shrill-sounding ululations, where that wandering band of the Goddess flits about: there we should run with hurried mystic dance.”

When Attis, spurious woman, had thus chanted to her group, the chorus straightway shrieks with trembling tongues, the rapid tambourine booms, the concave cymbals clang, and the troop swiftly rushes with rapid feet to green Ida. Then raging wildly, breathless, wandering, with brain distraught, hurries Attis with her tambourine, their leader through dense woods, like an untamed heifer shunning the burden of the yoke: and the swift Gallae press behind their speedy-footed leader. So when the home of Cybele they reach, wearied out with excess of toil and lack of food they fall in slumber. Sluggish sleep shrouds their eyes drooping with faintness, and raging fury leaves their minds to quiet ease.

But when the sun with radiant eyes from face of gold glanced over the white heavens, the firm soil, and the savage sea, and drove away the glooms of night with his brisk and clamorous team, then sleep fast-flying quickly sped away from wakening Attis, and goddess Pasithea received Somnus in her panting bosom.[9] Then when from quiet rest torn, her delirium over, Attis at once recalled to mind her deed, and with lucid thought saw what she had lost, and where she stood, with heaving heart she backwards traced her steps to the landing-place. There, gazing over the vast main with tear-filled eyes, with saddened voice in tristful soliloquy thus did she lament her land:

“Mother-land, my creatress, mother-land, my begetter, which full sadly I’m forsaking, as runaway slaves do from their masters, to the woods of Ida I have rushed on foot, to stay amid snow and icy dens of beasts, and to wander through their hidden lurking-places full of fury. Where, or in what part, mother-land, may I imagine that you are? My very eyeball craves to fix its glance towards you, while for a brief space my mind is freed from wild ravings. And must I wander over these woods far from my home? From country, goods, friends, and parents, must I be parted? Leave the forum, the palaestra, the race-course, and gymnasium? Wretched, wretched soul, it is yours to grieve for ever and ever. For what shape is there, whose kind I have not worn? I (now a woman), I a man, a stripling, and a lad; I was the gymnasium’s flower, I was the pride of the oiled wrestlers: my gates, my friendly threshold, were crowded, my home was decked with floral garlands, when I used to leave my couch at sunrise. Now will I live a priest of gods and slave to Cybele? I a Maenad, I a part of me, I a sterile trunk! Must I range over the snow-clad spots of verdurous Ida, and wear out my life beneath lofty Phrygian peaks, where stay the sylvan-seeking stag and woodland-wandering boar? Now, now, I grieve the deed I’ve done; now, now, do I repent!”

As the swift sound left those rosy lips, borne by new messenger to gods’ twinned ears, Cybele, unloosing her lions from their joined yoke, and goading, the left-hand foe of the herd, thus speaks: “Come,” she says, “to work, you fierce one, cause a madness urge him on, let a fury prick him onwards till he returns through our woods, he who over-rashly seeks to fly from my empire. On! thrash your flanks with your tail, endure your strokes; make the whole place re-echo with roar of your bellowings; wildly toss your tawny mane about your nervous neck.” Thus angry Cybele spoke and loosed the yoke with her hand. The monster, self-exciting, to rapid wrath spurs his heart, he rushes, he roars, he bursts through the brush with heedless feet. But when he gained the humid verge of the foam-flecked shore, and spied the womanish Attis near the opal sea, he made a bound: the witless wretch fled into the wild wood: there throughout the space of her whole life a bondsmaid did she stay. Great Goddess, Goddess Cybele, Goddess Dame of Dindymus, far from my home may all your anger be, O mistress: urge others to such actions, to madness others hound.

Catullus, Poem 63

The Christian author Prudentius described the Taurobolion, the sacrifice of a bull for the Magna Mater. It should be said that this description is part of anti-pagan poem, so it is surely somewhat embellished:

Content Warning

In the following passage, the author uses explicit and descriptive imagery that can be considered gory and disturbing.

The high priestess who is to be consecrated is brought down under ground in a pit dug deep, marvellously adorned with a fillet, binding her festive temples with chaplets, her hair combed back under a golden crown, and wearing a silken toga caught up with Gabine girding. Over this they make a wooden floor with wide spaces, woven of planks with an open mesh; they then divide or bore the area and repeatedly pierce the wood with a pointed tool that it may appear full of small holes. Here a huge bull, fierce and shaggy in appearance, is led, bound with flowery garlands about its flanks, and with its horns sheathed—its forehead sparkles with gold, and the flash of metal plates colors its hair. Here, as is ordained, they pierce its breast with a sacred spear; the gaping wound emits a wave of hot blood, and the smoking river flows into the woven structure beneath it and surges wide. Then by the many paths of the thousand openings in the lattice the falling shower rains down a foul dew, which the priestess buried within catches, putting her head under all the drops. She throws back her face, she puts her cheeks in the way of the blood, she puts under it her ears and lips, she interposes her nostrils, she washes her very eyes with the fluid, nor does she even spare her throat but moistens her tongue, until she actually drinks the dark gore. Afterwards, the corpse, stiffening now that the blood has gone forth, is hauled off the lattice, and the priestess, horrible in appearance, comes forth, and shows her wet head, her hair heavy with blood, and her garments sodden with it. This woman, all hail and worship at a distance, because the ox’s blood has washed her, and she is born again for eternity.

Prudentius, Peristephanon

On the whole, we are often left with Roman perceptions of Eastern religions – with the exception of Judaism and Christianity, and those are not very helpful for understanding the appeal and impact of the various mother goddesses. Hence, included are the following by the Roman-Syrian author Lucian. It describes the religious cult for the ‘Syrian Goddess’ at the temple of Hierapolis Bambyce in Syria, where she too [Cybele?] was served by eunuch priests. In Lucian’s retelling of the cult of the Galli’s [same cult? it is referenced as Galli below] foundation story, the Assyrian queen Stratonice dreamt that she must build a temple at Hierapolis to the goddess, and so, the king sent her there with a young man named Combabus to ensure that it was done. Just in case of any trouble with the queen, Combabus castrated himself and left his genitals sealed in a box with the king. When the queen fell in love with Combabus and tried to seduce him, he revealed his condition; but this didn’t prevent her from wanting him around all the time. After they got back home, she turned on Combabus and accused him of attacking her. Combabus was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Then – and only then for some reason – did he ask for the sealed box to prove his innocence, where upon the king relented and rewarded Combabus.

Combabus had stood up to this point in silence, but as he was being led to his fate, he spoke out, and demanded the restoration of his pledge, affirming that he was to be killed not for rebellious conduct against his king, nor for any violation of the king’s married life, but solely because of the king’s eagerness to possess what he had deposited at the royal court at his departure. The king then summoned his treasurer and bade him bring fout what he had committed to his custody. On its production, Combabus removed the seal and displayed the contents of the vessel, and showed how he himself had suffered thereby; adding, “This is just what I feared, O King, when you sent me on that errand: I left with a heavy heart, and I did my duty, constrained by sheer necessity. I obeyed my lord and master to mine own undoing. Such as I am, I stand accused of a crime which none but a man in every sense could have committed. The king cried out in amazement at these words, embraced Combabus and said with tears, “What great ruin, Combabus, have you brought upon yourself? What monstrous deed of ill have you, alone of men, wrought to your sorrow? I cannot praise you, rash spirit, for enduring to suffer this outrage; would that you had never borne it; would that I had never seen its proofs! I needed not this your defence. But since the deity has willed it thus, I will grant you, first and foremost, as your revenge, the death of the informers: and next there shall follow a mighty gift, a store of silver and countless gold, and raiment of Assyria, and steeds from the royal stud. You shalt enter freely to us unannounced and none shall withstand you: none shall keep you from my sight, even were I by my wife’s side.” Thus he spoke, and thus he acted; the informers were led off straightway to their execution; Combabus was laden with gifts, and the king’s attachment to him was increased. No one of the Assyrians was deemed equal in wisdom and in fortune to Combabus.

26. On his request that he might complete what was unfinished in the construction of the temple—for he had left it unfinished—he was despatched anew; and he completed the temple, and there he lived. To mark his awareness of the bravery and good deeds of his architect, the king granted him a bronze statue of himself to stand in the temple of his construction. And even to the present day this bronze statue is seen standing in the temple, the work of Hermocles of Rhodes. Its form is that of a woman, but the garments are those of a man. It is said, too, that his most intimate friends, as a proof of their sympathy, castrated themselves like him, and chose the same manner of life. Others there are who bring gods into the story and affirm that Combabus was beloved by Hera; and that it was she who inspired many with the idea of castrating themselves, so that her lover should not be the only one to lament the loss of his virility. 27. Meantime the custom once adopted is still in practice, and many persons every year castrate themselves and lose their virile powers there, either out of sympathy with Combabus, or to find favour with Hera. They certainly castrate themselves, and then cease to wear man’s clothing; they put on women’s dress and perform women’s tasks. I have heard the origin of this ascribed to Combabus as well, for the following event occurred to him. A certain foreign woman who had joined a sacred assembly, beholding a human form of extreme beauty and dressed in man’s attire, became violently enamoured of him: after discovering that he was a eunuch she killed herself. Combabus accordingly in despair at his incapacity for love, put on women’s clothing, that no woman in future might be deceived in the same way. This is the reason of the female attire of the Galli. Enough of Combabus and his story: in the course of my story I shall make mention the Galli, and of their castration, and of the methods employed to effect it, and of the burial rites wherewith they are buried, and the reasons why they have no ingress to the temple; but before this I am inclined to speak of the site of the temple and of its size: and so I will even speak.

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 51


Bibliography and Further Reading:

  1. In classical antiquity, Phrygia was a kingdom in western-central Anatolia (modern day Turkey)
  2. To learn more about the Galli, please see the previous section on Eunuchs.
  3. Cybele is sometimes given the epithet Idaea--called Mater Idaea (Idaean Mother)--in reference to her association with Mount Ida, which is located in Anatolia
  4. The Curetes, or Korybantes, were armed dancers who worshipped Cybele with drumming and dancing.
  5. While Zeus was hiding in a cave in his youth--Rhea having replaced his body with a stone to save him from being swallowed by his father, Kronos (Greek counterpart to Saturn)--the Kouretes danced and drummed so that Kronos would not be able to hear Zeus' cries (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.1.5-7)
  6. In Phrygian and Greek mythology, Attis was both son and consort to his mother, Cybele. His self-castration sets an example for the Galli priests to follow.
  7. Dindymene is one of the names given to Cybele
  8. Venus is the Roman goddess of love and beauty; her Greek counterpart is Aphrodite.
  9. Pasithea, a Grace/goddess of relaxation, was married to Hypnos (the Greek counterpart of the Roman god of sleep, Somnus)


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