The Gallae were the most widely known part of the cult of Cybele
(and also of the Syrian goddesses Atargatis
). In Greece the gallae of Cybele were also known as Corybantes.
The gallae of Atargatis dressed as the Goddess in Egyptian feminine attire. Their duties included caring for sacred fish and participating in the Feast of Fire in Early spring. They were involved a great slave rebellion of 135-131 BCE and later were victims of Hebrew zealots.
The gallae of Cybele were not her only followers, but they were the most notorious, known for their self inflicted castrations, loud music and wild dancing. The rest of this page describes aspects of their life and practice.
Historically the Gallae were referred to as Galloi or Galli (plural) and sometimes Gallae, or Gallus or Gallos (singular). This is the Roman title and is similar to the Latin name for rooster(1)
. The name however may be derivative from the river Gallos, a tributary to the Sangarios river in Phrygia.
The Gallae originated from Phrygia (part of Asia Minor), a territory that included Mount Ida, Troy, Pessinus and Pergamum. The worship of Cybele spread to the Greek mainland through trade, and by metragytes, who were ;roaming gallae. They would wander the countryside, begging for alms and telling fortunes. On the whole however the gallae were shunned by the Greeks, either through xeno- or trans-phobia.
In 205 BCE Cybele was imported to Rome. The gallae and their head priest the Battakès went with Her.
Initially the Senate confined the gallae to the enclosure of the sanctuary at the Palatine. A priest and priestess from Phrygia was in charge of the clergy and recruitment was from outside Rome. Once a year during the April festivals, the gallae were allowed to dance through the streets of Rome to the sound of tambourines in full dress (see below). They were also allowed to make door-to-door collections for temple and staff upkeep. Thereafter they returned to the temples until the following year.
Roman citizens were forbidden to become priests, enter these areas, or join in the frenzied celebrations and undergo ritual castration. In 101 BCE restrictions were relaxed so that certain citizens might become gallae if they so desired, and these restrictions were removed entirely under the rule of Claudius. Under Domitian (81-91 CE) citizens were once gain forbidden to become gallae. This was reversed yet again in 239 and this period of tolerance lasted until the adoption on Christianity as the state religion.
Many gallae perished at the hands of zealous Christians. The Emperor Valentinian II officially banned the worship of Cybele and forbade citizens to visit Her temples or make sacrifice to Her. Justinian had transgendered persons such as the gallae tortured, forced to commit suicide and burnt at the stake. Their property was confiscated and the temples razed, just as those of the witches was during the "burning times".
The gallae were concerned with fashion, both for themselves and as an expression of reverence for the Goddess. They tended to dress in combinations of feminine and sacerdotal dress, only infrequently wearing men's garments (and then mostly of foreign design).
They dressed in silk or linen stolea and chiridotae -- robes and tunics worn by women and gender variant men in Roman and Greek society. Popular colours were grass-green, chartreuse, purple and saffron, and may have had patterns of arrows, checks and stripes. On their feet they wore gold, red or pink sandals or slippers. On their heads they wore golden hairnets or wreaths of gold leaves. On other occasions those of the highest rank might were miters, turbans or tiaras with ribbons falling to the shoulder.
The gallae also sometimes wore exquisite jewellery -- necklaces, brooches, rings, earrings and ankle bracelets. Pierced ears signified devoted service to the Goddess. They also wore make-up, plucked their eyebrows (and indulged in depilation), and outlined their eyes with Kohl. Their hair was allowed to grow long though it was seldom let down. Instead elaborate hairstyles were common, and those who were bald wore wigs. The gallae also used oils and perfume.
They were also said to have certain speech and mannerisms peculiar to themselves. They were also said to speak in shrill tones, to lisp, to giggle and whisper, to use women's oaths and address each other in feminine gender.
As a transgendered person myself, I believe I know where they were coming from. The gallae (on the whole) were not just strange eunuchs -- many must also have been transgendered. Why? Because after their "day of blood" when they would voluntarily castrate themselves (primitive reassignment surgery?), they made an effort to appear and behave as women.
That these attempts may have been mocked by outside observers or were successful is not the point. Rather, it is that the effort was made at all. The myth of Attis gave them a religious basis for being who they could be. Of course with any large body of people, over such a long period of time, it would be impossible to say this of all gallae.
For a start, the Romans later added the position of archigallus. As high priest of the Mother-worship cult, the archigallus was a Roman citizen. This was an official duty and considered to be incompatible with castration, so an alternative was created. This was the taurobolium, in which the initiate or official was baptised by the blood of a sacrificed bull, whose testicles were also removed and offered to the Goddess. Thus, a substitute offering was made. It should be remembered that the gallae were only one branch of Cybele followers. There were others.
The other point is that castration can mean different things. Sometimes it was clearly the removal of both penis and testes, other times just the testes, and sometimes the cutting of certain veins. The practice varied over a period of time, and for different people. There are many similarities between the Gallae and the Hijras.
In different places, and at different times, different cultures have produced groups and subcultures of striking similarities.
The Hijras are transgendered males in contemporary Indian society. Some come from a Hindu background, others from a Muslim one. As a rule they live in their own households headed by gurus with the rest being chelas (or followers).
Most are followers of Bahuchara (a Mother Goddess) and undergo emasculation rites, thereafter dressing and appearing in feminine modes as women. The Hijras are reputed to have the power to bless or curse, sometimes tell fortunes, and perform dances at marriages and naming ceremonies. Some go begging on the streets, threatening to expose themselves to men if alms are not paid to them.
On the whole the Hijras occupy a lower economic niche in Indian society. They are both feared and respected, and considered "neither men nor women" by some. Just like the gallae of old, who were respected and feared by some, and mocked by others.
And here I am -- a modern Galla, looking at my ancient antecedents, and my overseas cousins from a distance. And what I see are people who found themselves a niche, so that they could (and can) become more who they want and need to be. In either case the justification may have been a religious one, but the result was the same -- a place and community to be in. Can I ask for more?
I love happy coincidences. I was born in the Chinese year of the cock, love wearing sandals, and my name Laura (derivative of what my old male name was) means "of the laurel", which some gallae wore around their heads.
Sources for this page include:
- Conner, Sparks and Sparks (eds); Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit; Cassell, ISBN 0-304-33760-9.
- Rousselle, Aline; Porneia: on desire and the body in antiquity; Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-19208-5
- Nanda, Serena; Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India; Wadsworth Modern Anthropology Library, ISBN ;0-534-12204-3.
- Sexual Life in Ancient Rome; Constable and Company, ISBN 0-09-4731705.
- Turcan, Robert; The Cults of the Roman Empire; Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-20047-9.
- Vermaseren, M.J.; CYBELE AND ATTIS, the Myth and the Cult; Thames and Hudson, 1977.