Gender-nonconforming ancient Romans found refuge locally dedicated to the goddess Cybele

An announcement from the Vatican that “Infinite dignity“has brought renewed attention to how religions define and interpret gender and gender roles.

The Vatican statement was approved by the Pope on March 25, 2024 and reiterates the Vatican's opposition to gender-affirming surgeries and surrogacy. While noting that folks shouldn’t be “imprisoned,” “tortured,” or “killed” due to their sexual orientation, it states that “gender theory” and any gender reassignment intervention reject God’s plan for human life.

The Catholic Church has long emphasized traditional binary views on gender. But in lots of places, each present and past, individuals have been in a position to resist gender norms. Even in the traditional Roman Empire, individuals were in a position to transcend traditional ideas about gender roles in a wide range of ways. For example, while Roman ideas of femininity and masculinity were strict regarding clothing, there may be evidence that individuals could and did violate these norms, although they were more likely to be met with ridicule or scorn.

As a Scholar of Greek and Latin literatureI studied the “Galli,” male followers of the goddess Cybele. Her appearance and behavior, often considered feminine, were commented on extensively by Roman authors: They were said to curve her hair, to smooth her legs with pumice stones and wear nice clothes. They also, but not at all times, have their testicles surgically removed.

Cybele: mother of the gods

In the philosophical treatise “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods“Julian the Philosopher, the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire, writes in regards to the history of the cult of Cybele. In this treatise he describes the primary characters of the cult and the way a few of its rites were carried out.

A bronze statuette of a woman riding a cart pulled by two lions.
Image of the goddess Cybele.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1897.

Cybele is also known as the mother of the gods and was first worshiped in Anatolia. Their most famous place of worship was at Pessinous, the trendy Turkish village of Ballıhisar, about 95 miles southwest of Ankara, where Julian stopped to pay a visit on his journey to Antioch in 362 AD

Cybele was in Greece around 500 BC. It was known sometime between 205 and 204 BC. Introduced to Rome in BC. In Rome, where she was recognized because the mother of the state, her veneration was included within the official list of Roman cults and her temple was built on the Palatine Hill, the political center of Rome.

A yellowed map of ancient Rome marked with black lines.
The location of the Palatine Hill in ancient Rome.
Internet Archive Book Images: Image from page 958 of A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Bible (1871)

From the cult of Cybele emerged a bunch of male followers or companions often called Galli. Extant material evidence of their existence includes sculptures in addition to a Roman tomb of a single Gallus discovered in northern England.

Attis: Cybele's human companion

A statue from Ostia, Rome's port city, depicts a reclining Attis, Cybele's youthful male human companion.

Sculpture of a reclining figure with an ornate crown around which rays of sunshine shine.  A piece of clothing covers the upper body but exposes the genitals.
An ancient Roman statue of Attis present in Ostia, now within the Vatican Museum.
Grant Showerman, 1870-1935, contributing library: Robarts – University of Toronto via Flickr

What is extremely unusual about this statue, situated within the Vatican Museum, the sculptor draped the clothing to attract attention to Attis' groin and stomach: no visible genitals are visible. At first glance, Attis appears to be a lady.

Greek and Roman authors provide different versions of Attis' self-castration of their accounts of the parable of Cybele. The Roman poet Catullus describes how Cybele drives Attis right into a state of frenzy through which he castrates himself. Immediately afterwards, Attis is referred to with feminine adjectives as she calls to her companions, the Gallae, using the female form as an alternative of the masculine Galli. Catullus' poem highlights the paradox of the gender of Attis and that of Cybele's companions.

Material evidence for the Galli

A relief sculpture from Lanuvium, now within the Musei Capitolini in Rome and dated to the 2nd century AD, is certainly one of the few surviving depictions of a Gallus.

A decorated figure with several objects engraved on one side, such as a musical instrument and a box.
Relief of a Gallus within the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Anna-Katharina Rieger, via Wikimedia Commons

This person is surrounded by Items commonly related to the cult of Cybele, including musical instruments, a box for cult objects and a whip. The sculpted figure is adorned with an elaborate headdress or crown, a torque necklace and a small breastplate, and ornate clothing.

The objects and decorations not only signal the person's connection to the cult of Cybele, but additionally suggest that the person's gender identity is somewhat ambiguous, as Roman men shunned extravagance and ornamentation.

At Cataractonium, a Roman fortress in northern EnglandIn 1981–82, a skeleton was uncovered during excavations on the Bainesse necropolis. Based on the accompanying grave goods, which included a torque anklet, bracelets and a necklace constituted of some variety of gemstone has been dated to across the third century ADArchaeologists thought that these were the stays of a lady.

However, an examination of the bones revealed that the stays were those of a young man – probably in his early twenties. Since Roman men didn’t normally wear the variety of jewelry present in the tomb, Archaeologists got here to the conclusion that the person was possibly a Gallus.

Respect for Galli

Galli were attached to temples where they formed a community. During processions in honor of Cybele, they followed the cult image and the priests and sang alongside the musical instruments they played.

In Rome, They had permission to ask the population for alms; They also offered prophetic readings or ecstatic dances for a fee. They could have improved their appearance to earn more money.

Some scholars have argued that her feminine appearance was a way of distinguishing herself from most people; likewise, that her voluntary castration signaled her renunciation of the world and her devotion to Cybele, in imitation of Attis, her companion.

However, it seems not unusual that some Galli were drawn to the cult of Cybele since it offered them a possibility to accomplish that escape the strict binary gender system of the Romans. Galli, unlike other men in Rome or its empire, was in a position to openly present themselves or live as a lady, no matter their assigned gender or identity.

Catullus' poem and comments from other authors indicate that they perceived the Galli gender as deviating from Roman ideas of masculinity. However, the Galli were also reluctantly respected for his or her role within the cult of Cybele. It is due to this fact difficult to know Who exactly joined their communities, how they saw themselves, and whether the sources accurately describe them.

It's tempting Consider the Galli as non-binary or Transgender people, although the Romans didn’t know or use concepts akin to non-binary or transgender. Nevertheless, it is just not inconceivable that numerous individuals within the Galli found each a community and an identity that allowed them to precise themselves in ways in which traditional Roman masculinity didn’t allow.

The Vatican statement asserts that the dichotomy between woman and man is established and points out that gender-affirming care could “endanger the unique dignity that the person has received from the moment of conception.”

Nonetheless, the existence of transsexuals today, in addition to individuals who have resisted the gender binary prior to now – including the Galli of ancient Rome – demonstrates that it’s and was possible to live outside of prevailing gender norms. In my opinion, this makes it clear that it’s unjust to impose moral lessons or judgments on how people experience their bodies or themselves.

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