The myth of Cybele and Attis has inspired one of the greatest of
all Roman poems, the Attis of Catullus, his 63rd poem, remarkable
for the interaction of its meter, language, and subject-matter.
Cybele's eunuch priests are called Galli (feminine, Gallae). In
the poem Attis castrates himself and becomes, we may say, unmanned;
the poet plays with the ambiguity of his sex with the subtlety only
a highly inflected language can achieve. The English must plod to
make the same point. Dindymus is a mountain in Mysia sacred to Cybele.
Attis was whisked over the deep sea in a swift ship. As soon
as he set foot in the Phrygian woods, eagerly and quickly he entered
the shadowy forest-crowned haunts of the goddess. Then and there,
driven by a frenzied delirium, Attis, out of his mind, hacked
off the burden of his genitals with a sharp piece of flint. And
so when she (no longer he) sensed that her manhood was gone, while
still staining the soil of the earth with fresh drops of blood,
she impetuously took up in her snowy-white hands your light tambourine,
Cybele, took up your mysteries, O Mother. Shaking the hollow ox-hide
of the tambourine with delicate fingers, tremuloulsy she began
to sing this exhortation to her companions.
"Gallae, come and go to the forest-heights of Cybele, all
together, together go, you wandering herd of the Lady of Didymus,
you, who sought alien lands, like exiles, and followed my rule
with me as your leader. My companions, you endured the rapid sea
and the turbulent deep because of your inordinate hatred of Venus.
Delight the heart of your Lady by your headlong pursuit. Dismiss
any thought of tardy delay. Together come and follow to the Phrygian
home of Cybele, to the Phrygian forests of the goddess, where
the clash of cymbals ring, where tambourines resound, where the
Phrygian flute-player blows deeply on his curved reed, where ivy-crowned
maenads toss their heads wildly, where they brandish their holy
emblems with piercing cries, where the wandering cohort of the
goddess is accustomed to range. To this place it is right that
we rush in swift dances."
As soon as Attis, not a real woman, finished this song to her
companions, the holy band of followers suddenly cried aloud with
tremulous tongues; the light tambourine resounds, the hollow cymbals
renew their clash, the rapid chorus on rushing feet ascends verdant
Mount Ida. At the same time, their leader Attis, frenzied, gasping,
and bereft of sense, wanders through the shadowy forests to the
sound of the tambourine, just like an untamed heifer avoiding
the burden of his yoke. The swift Gallae follow their fleet-footed
leader. And so, as they reached the home of Cybele, all worn out
after too strenuous exertion, without food, they seize upon sleep.
Deep exhaustion covers their eyes drooping with weariness, and
the mad fury of their minds is dispelled in restful peace.
But when the sun with the radiant eyes of his golden countenance
illuminated the clear aether, hard earth and wild seas, and dispelled
the darkness of night with his vigorous, tramping horses, then
Sleep in flight quickly left Attis awakened and the goddess Pasithea
(Sleep's wife) received him in her trembling breast. So after
gentle rest and freed from fierce madness, as soon as Attis himself
realized in his heart what he had done and saw with mind clear
where he was and what he had lost, with a surge of emotion he
rushed back to the sea-shore. There, looking out over the vast
expanse of water, miserable, with eyes full of tears, she spoke
to her fatherland in a pitiful voice.
"O my country, land of my birth, my country, my fatherland,
which I, poor wretch, abandoned, as runaway servants desert their
masters. I made my way to the forests of Ida so that I might be
amidst snow and the cold haunts of wild animals and, in my madness,
might frequent all their lairs. Where, in what region, do I think
that you, my fatherland, are situated? My very eyes desire to
direct their gaze upon you while, for a brief time, my mind is
free from wild madness. Shall I be borne from my home into these
remote forests? Shall I be away from my fatherland, possessions,
friends, and parents? Shall I be away from the market-place, the
wrestling ground, the race-course, and gymnasium? O wretched,
wretched heart, you must bewail again and again. For what form
of human being is there which I have not had? I, now a woman,
I, who was once a young man, an adolescent, and a boy. I was once
the flower of the gymnasium. I was once the beauty of the wrestling-ground.
For me, doorways were crowded, for me, thresholds were warmed
by lingering crowds of admirers, for me, the house was decked
with garlands of flowers when I had to leave my bedroom each sunrise.
Now am I to be called a handmaid of the gods and a female slave
of Cybele? Am I to be a Maenad, I only part of myself, I a man
barren? Am I to live in the frigid snow-clad regions of verdant
Ida? Am I to live my life under the lofty summits of Phrygia,
where the hind dwells in the woods, where the boar wanders the
forests? Now, now I am sorry for what I have done. Now, now I
am full of regret!"
As this cry quickly rose from his rosy lips, bringing news of
a change of heart to both ears of the gods, then Cybele loosened
the fastened yoke of her lions and goading the one on the left,
enemy of the flock, speaks as follows:
"Come on now," she says, "be fierce, go, and see
to it that madness drives him on, see that by a stroke of madness
he make his return into the forests, he who too freely desires
to flee from my domination. Come, lash your back with your tail,
endure your own tail-lashes, make all places resound with your
bellowing roar. Fiercely shake your ruddy mane on your brawny
Cybele utters these threats and with her hand frees the lion
from the yoke. He urging himself on incites his heart to rage.
He rushes, roars, and breaks through the brushwood with his speeding
paws. But when he approached the watery stretch of the white shore
and saw tender Attis by the marble surface of the sea, he makes
his attack. Attis, out of his mind, flees into the wild woods.
There, always, for the whole span of his life, was he her handmaid.
Great goddess, goddess Cybele, goddess, Lady of Didymus, let
all your fury be far from my house. Drive others to frenzy, drive