(My Topic Summary from Lynn Roller’s book, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele.)
There are many misunderstandings about the use of castration by the priests of Kybele. Most of this misunderstanding can be blamed on cultural differences. Kybele’s cult was practiced as early as the first millennium BCE in Phrygia. It was practiced by the Greeks in the sixth century BCE and in Rome in the late third century BCE. During this time the cult changed dramatically.
The cult of Attis does not appear until the middle of the fourth century in the Greek World. There is no evidence of this cult in Phrygia before the Roman period. Attis is an ordinary Phrygian name, much like John or Henry in modern times. In religious connotations, it referred to someone of the Phrygian ruling class, maybe the king, whose job it was to placate the state’s greatest deity. Once the ruling class disappeared, it became the name of the Chief Priest for the Mother Goddess. Phrygian cult regulations required a high degree of morally uplifting behavior which extended to sexual fidelity. Castration may have been seen by priests as a way to prove their fidelity to the goddess. It was a means of chastity and an act of love. Christians advocated castration in the second and forth centuries CE for the same reasons.
There are many versions of the Kybele and Attis myth, but it did not appear until the early Hellenistic period. Attis went from being unknown to a prominate cult figure in less than a century. Evolution of the Attis cult took the myth even further from Phrygian rites and traditions. So while the Phrygian tradition played a part in the Attis myth, it became something completely different due to Greek and Roman misunderstandings of Phrygian traditions, rites of mourning for a priest-king, the reasons for castration and the generally negative perceptions of the Phrygians as barbaric Orientals. The addition of Attis’ castration in the myth may have been the way that Greek and Roman writers explained a distasteful aspect the Mother’s. Such an explanation was needed because of the prominence of the cult in Rome despite its foreign origins. Romans, in general, approved of the goddess but did not approve of her eunuch priests, the Galli.
The Galli not only castrated themselves but they also flaunted it. They emphasized their artificial femininity through feminine dress and manners, high pitched voices, long wild hair and garish costumes. Romans were fascinated and repelled by them all at the same time. They were derided for being half men. No Roman citizen could be a Galli either. Yet they were popular for erotic liaisons with both men and women. This was a long way from the original purpose for castration which was fidelity to the Mother Goddess. So while Kybele’s priests may have been castrated over the many centuries of her worship, it wasn’t until the cult came to Rome that they lost their way and became objects of derision and ridicule. In a way, their feminine ways gave them power because no one was quite sure how to treat them. They were priests to one of the most revered gods of Rome yet they were not masculine or manly.
The way the Roman Galli comported themselves was in response to the cultural misunderstanding. For the Phrygians, castration was a way of proving your love and devotion to the Mother Goddess. It wasn’t something horrific or ridiculous. Yet when viewed through different eyes, it was seen as a disgusting barbaric custom. This mode of thought has been past down to present day and needs to be changed in order to even begin to understand the goddess Kybele.