This relief, found in Lavinium (near Rome) and dated to the 2nd century, depicts a priest of the goddess, Cybele (also known as Kybele or Kybebe), whose worship originated in the Anatolian region of Phrygia. Eventually known as the Magna Mater (Great Mother), Cybele’s cult was officially adopted by the Romans around 204 BCE, at a time when Rome was desperate for divine aid against Hannibal of Carthage. When Rome eventually emerged victorious over Carthage, the Romans believed that worshipping Cybele had played a role in shifting the fortune of war to their favor. In consequence, the Roman government would remain friendly and supportive of Cybele’s cult for centuries.
In the relief featured above, you may have noticed that the male priest has feminine qualities in his appearance—rest assured that your observation is not wrong. Cybele’s priests, known as Galli, were known to adopt feminine dress and demeanor after joining the goddess’ priesthood. Crossdressing, however, was not the only reported requirement for becoming one of the Galli. These priests, unfortunately, could not ascend the hierarchy of the cult unless they reenacted the myth of Cybele’s lover, Attis—a grim tale that involved castration.
Although the stone relief shows no color, the wardrobes of the actual Galli were reportedly quite colorful and elaborate. A detailed description of how the Galli purportedly dressed was recorded by Apuleius (c. 2nd century), a writer from North Africa who was greatly interested in the different cults that had been adopted by Rome. Apuleius featured the Galli in his humorous book, The Golden Ass (also known as Metamorphoses), which tells the odd tale of a man who was transformed into a donkey. The following description was given by Apuleius after the donkey-protagonist in his book ran into a troupe of Galli priests:
“Next day they all put on tunics of various hues and ‘beautified’ themselves by smearing coloured gunge on their faces and applying eye-shadow. Then they set forth, dressed in turbans and robes some saffron-coloured, some linen and some of gauze; some had white tunics embroidered with a pattern of purple stripes and girded at the waist; and on their feet were yellow slippers…baring their arms to the shoulder and brandishing huge swords and axes they capered about with ecstatic cries, while the sound of the pipes goaded their dancing frenzy” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, book 8, chapter 27).
Such are colors that might have once adorned the wardrobe of the priest on the relief above. Despite the effeminate appearance of the Galli, theirs was one of the bloodiest cults that operated in Rome. Besides the aforementioned talk of castration, the cult of Cybele also was known to sacrifice bulls and practiced self-flagellation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Marvin W. Meyer. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
- The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses by Apuleius, translated by E. J. Kenney. London: Penguin Books, 1998 and revised 2004.