The Galli: The Cross-Dressing Cybele Cult Priests Who Castrated Themselves
The galli were priests who formed the cult of the goddess Cybele (Magna Mater in Rome) and her consort Attis. Because of the galli’s adoption of women’s clothing and jewelry, self-castration, and preference for anal intercourse, all of which violated Roman gender norms, they present an interesting juxtaposition to what was expected of men in ancient Rome.
It is thought that the cult originated in Mesopotamia and then traveled to Greece around 300 BC. It then arrived in Rome as the cult of Magna Mater in the 3 rd century BC. Originally, its sacred symbol, a black meteorite, was located in a temple named Megalesion in modern-day Turkey.
It is thought that the word galli, or galloi in Greek, can be translated as either ‘cocks’ or ‘Galatians.’ The origin of the name is unclear. Some claim that the name came from King Gallus or the river Gallus, which was said to drive people crazy but also purge them.
Funerary relief of a gallus priest, member of the Magna Mater cult of Cybele, 2nd century AD (Public Domain)
The Goddess Cybele
Cybele was the Phrygian goddess of fertility and the mother of all gods, humans, animals, and plants. In Rome, she was given the Latin title Magna Mater or ‘great mother’. She was accepted into the state religion in 204 BC and made an official Roman goddess.
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Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome, 1505 painting by Andreas Mantegna (Public Domain)
In addition to this, she was often seen as the personification of Mother Earth. In contemporary art, she was often pictured sitting on a throne or in a chariot. She was frequently depicted wearing a tall crown and accompanied by a lion.
Ceremonial Plaque depicting Cybele on her chariot, early 3rd century BC (Public Domain)
Who Were The Galli?
The cult of Cybele, or Magna Mater, is thought to have first entered Rome during the wars with Carthage in the 3rd century BC and became an important part of pre-Christian Roman religion. The cult was widespread, like the cult of Dionysus was.
Although Magna Mater was recognized by the state, there was some hostility. The religion was funded by public money, but the state placed worshippers under strict control. The Senate refused Roman citizens the right to carry out Magna Mater’s rites as priests. This seemed to be because of the distrust which surrounded the galli.
In the early period of the Roman Empire under Augustus, Roman territory expanded, and many new individuals moved to Roman settlements and became citizens. With this, there was an increase in concerns surrounding what Roman identity and masculinity were and should be.
The galli became more visible in Rome after Augustus rebuilt the Temple of Cybele/Magna Mater in 3 AD. This made the cult more accessible to everyday Roman citizens. This had both positive and negative repercussions for the galli. They were transformed from a curiosity to a threat. This was no doubt because of the galli’s rejection of Roman gender norms.
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Relief of a gallus making sacrifices to Cybele and Attis (Sailko / CC BY 3.0)
The state believed the galli were tempting young men to join them; this was seen as a negative thing because of their effeminate fashion and perceived lack of manliness.
The understanding that the galli also worshipped Magna Mater’s consort comes from the fact that they castrated themselves, as Attis did in a divine frenzy. This act of castration took place during a celebration called Dies Sanguinis, or Day of Blood.
They would perform dances, play music with pipes and tambourines, and flog themselves until they bled. It was said that Magna Mater’s statue was paraded through the streets, followed by long-haired galli priests, some flagellating themselves while others played music. The following day, they would feast and rest.
Illustration of the month of April based on the Calendar of Filocalus (354 AD), perhaps either a Gallus or a theatrical performer for the Megalesia (Public Domain)
After their act of castration, the galli wore exclusively women’s clothing. As signs of their positions, they wore a type of crown, maybe a laurel wreath, as well as gold bracelets called an occabus. The women’s clothing they wore was often yellow and accompanied by a turban and earrings. It is thought that these men also bleached their hair, which they kept long, and that they wore makeup. They would have walked around in groups telling fortunes in exchange for charity.
Non-galli people could take part in the rituals of the cult, like role-playing and inducing states of ecstasy, but the galli remained the officiants.
In a time before Christianity in Rome, the galli differentiated themselves from the standard Roman religion in the way they dressed. It was also this practice which gave rise to much of the talk surrounding their existence.
The Galli in Britain
Evidence has been found of galli in Britain. Altars to Magna Mater and figures of Attis were found on Hadrian’s Wall. It is therefore possible that they were worshipped in the country, and that their cult priests the galli were present there as well.
Although this is the only evidence that remains, and indirect evidence at that, it remains interesting, nonetheless. The altar found on Hadrian's Wall at Corbridge in 1913 was broken up and used to fill a gap in a floor.
Across Britain, images of Attis have been found. He was commonly shown wearing a Phrygian cap (soft hat with a folded tip). One of these images was found at Corbridge also, and is thought to have dated from the 3rd century AD.
An Attis theatrical mask from the 2nd century AD. Attis’ self-castration was emulated by the galli, the priests of the cult of Cybele (Egisto Sani / CC BY NC 2.0)
In 2002, south of Hadrian’s Wall in Catterick, North Yorkshire, archaeologists stumbled upon what seemed to be an unusual burial in what was once a Roman Cataractonium. The skeleton was a male, but the individual had been buried in women’s clothes and jewelry. Although it is impossible to know with certainty what was intended by the burial, it is plausible that the man who was buried here was not seen as a man by those who conducted the burial.
Analysis of the bones suggests that the individual was from Britain. The jewelry is thought to have come from Whitby or nearby, and the jewelry also indicates that the individual was wealthy. Archaeologists have come to the conclusion that this individual must have been a gallus.
The Galli in Contemporary Literature
The galli were ostracized throughout most of Roman society. They were labelled as unmanly and to some extent un-Roman. Writers and poets sought to distance them from normal Roman society. It was common that they were depicted as curiosities.
This was heightened by the fact that, in ancient Rome, how a man presented himself was deemed highly important. It was thought to reflect heavily on how he conducted himself in private as well as his strength and power.
Furthermore, some literary sources referred to the galli as ‘half-men’ which suggests that they were somewhat emasculated, or at least assumed so by other Roman men. For example, Crag Williams wrote that:
"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." (Williams, 1999)
The well-known Roman poet Catullus (84-54 BC) touched on these themes in his Poem 63. He mentioned Attis and his castration, and proceeded to question his gender identity. His gender shifts throughout the poem through grammatical changes, sometimes referring to him as ‘he’ and sometimes ‘she’.
For many writers, poems, myths, and stories provided a safe, fictional space where they could assess gender and have conversations about identity which perhaps weren’t acceptable in normal society. Because the galli were characterized by their gender ambiguity, writers were able to examine masculinity by commenting on their actions, without risking their own gender identities.
While Catullus goes as far as to offer Attis sympathy, the galli doesn’t seem to have conjured the same reaction. This suggests that the issue of castration and manliness only became uncomfortable and taboo when it was considered in relation to a real body.
A statue of a reclining Attis, after the emasculation. In his left hand is a shepherd's crook, in his right hand a pomegranate. His head is crowned with bronze rays of the sun and on his Phrygian cap is a crescent moon. (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY SA 2.0)
After Augustus rebuilt Magna Mater’s temple in 3 AD, the cult came under more attacks. The Roman poet Martial, for example, wrote on masculinity and sexuality more generally. In one of his works, Epigram 5.41, he mentioned that another man was even more feminine than Attis. He, therefore, brought into question the man’s rights and privileges as a married Roman man.
Because the man had lost his masculinity, according to Martial, how could he be treated by society as a man? Furthermore, Martial went on to mention castration in his texts as a form of emasculation. In doing so, he demonstrated the cultural importance of masculinity and how it was tied to one’s ability to provide heirs. In his work, Martial reduced the galli to tools he could use to criticize and demean other men.
It is important to note, however, that some of the prejudice towards the galli may be influenced by modern interpretations of the original writings. This is why the physical evidence found by archaeologists must be taken into account as well. For example, archaeologists have found statues of Attis on Palatine Hill. This would suggest that Romans were worshipping, or at least acknowledging on some level, Magna Mater, and her consort.
Palatine Hill is one of the richest archaeological sites in Rome. The site includes the birthplace of Augustus, Lupercal Cave, the residence of Augustus' wife, the Temple of Cybele, and Flavian's Palace. Active excavations are ongoing. (Rennett Stowe / CC BY SA 2.0)
The Downfall of the Cult of Cybele/Magna Mater
In the late Roman period, the galli were mentioned again in literature. However, this time the focus shifted. The galli were next used not as a tool to discuss gender, but instead as a tool of Christians to oppose paganism and castration.
One of these authors was Prudentius (348-413 AD), who mentioned the galli in his Crown of Martyrs. Here they featured an attack on pagan religion. Furthermore, he did not ascribe them a gender, but rather argued that they belonged to ‘a gender between the two.’ (Poem X, 1072). However, his intentions with this statement are unclear. It is hard to tell if he meant the statement as an insult or was genuinely reflecting how the galli thought about themselves.
By this time, paganism was increasingly repressed by the Roman state. In 389-91 AD, Theodosian decrees banned pagan worship, and the last known reference to the cult and to the galli was a dedicatory inscription found in a temple to Magna Mater from 390 AD. Unfortunately, after that, the fate of the galli has been lost to history.
Nevertheless, the galli tell an interesting story of Roman identity and sexuality. They demonstrate how gender norms and roles were upheld and valued in Roman society.
Top Image: Left: This illustration was reproduced widely in media reports concerning the discovery of a skeleton determined to be a gallus in ancient Roman Catterick. Right: The skeletal remains were laid to rest in women’s clothing and jewelry. Source: Historic England and Northern Archaeological Associates
By Molly Dowdeswell
Blood, Lead, and Tears: The Cult of Cybele as a Means of Addressing Ancient Roman Issues of Fertility. Discentes. August 28, 2020. Available at: https://web.sas.upenn.edu/discentes/2020/08/28/blood-lead-and-tears-the-cult-of-cybele-as-a-means-of-addressing-ancient-roman-issues-of-fertility/#:~:text=The%20priests%20of%20the%20cult,in%20Pergamum%20in%20105%20A.D
Endres, N. Galli: Ancient Roman Priests. glbtq archive. 2015. Available at: http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/galli_S.pdf
The Galli: Breaking Roman Gender Norms. English Heritage . Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/lgbtq-history/the-galli/
Williams, C. 1999. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.