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Greek Myths 1 - Priest of Cybele              by: Debbie Cybill

 

A little history

Three thousand years ago the state religion of Phrygia (in what is now Turkey) was centred around the worship of the Mother Goddess, there called Cybele. In many parts of the eastern Mediterranean the Mother Goddess, under a variety of names, was served by a priesthood that often consisted of TG persons. This story is an attempt to reconstruct the initiation of one such priest/ess, using the scant information that has come down to us, chiefly from Greek and Latin sources. The historical king Midas ruled in the eight century B.C.E., but he seems to have been only one of many, and Midas may have been a title rather than a name. We do not know what the priests were called in the Phrygian language; in Latin they were gallae, which means literally ‘hens’, and the high priestess was the arch galla. The meteorite, which was thought to represent the physical presence of the goddess, in the temple in the Phrygian capital (which has a variety of spellings) was moved to Rome under the empire and became the centre of renewed worship of Cybele in Rome.

Most of what we know about the cult stems from Latin sources and the rites in Rome may well have differed from those in Phrygia. We also have some Greek accounts of Phrygia itself, including the myth of king Midas.

 

THE PRIEST OF CYBELE

I could hardly wait for the spring fertility festival held at the vernal equinox. That was when I would finally make my gesture and enter the priesthood. Ever since puberty I had been increasingly unhappy with my gender and at each of the three succeeding spring festivals this feeling had been growing that I should become one of the priests of Cybele, not perhaps one of the inner circle of the highest priesthood, but at least one of the second circle. Of course my real dream was to enter the inner circle but I doubted if I had the courage.

Phrygia at this time of year was frigid. So far from the sea it has a climate of extremes, not at all like that of Greece and Macedonia, or so I had been taught by my tutors. All my tutors were slaves of course, demagogues who had been captured in battle. Xenosthenes was from Macedonia and had been a captain of cavalry before my people captured him; Aristhocles was from Athens itself and considered himself a learned man.

The snows were receding and spring was on its way. The astrologers had set up their observing platforms to try to predict the exact day of the equinox when the sun would finally pass into the House of Aries, and the mares were beginning to take an interest in the stallions out on the steppes. It would soon be time to bring them in to the paddocks. A few flowers were already breaking through the sod, chiefly crocuses and snowdrops, but the wild tulips would soon follow.

Finally the opening day of the festival was less than ten days away. The snows had quite disappeared and the days were noticeably longer. The tulips were flowering in the hills, no more than a hand-span high. The ewes had begun to give birth and lambs were frolicking in the pastures. The first day of the festival, the day before the equinox, finally arrived. All work in our city of Pessenus ceased and the priests processed to the forum. There, they took turns in reciting the story of the death of the demigod Attis in honour of our Great Mother Goddess Cybele, how he had castrated himself under a pine tree, how his semen had fertilized the ground and enabled it to bring forth the crops of wheat for the people and of hay for our herds, how his sacrifice had ensured the fertility of our fields, of our herds and of our women, and of how he had died in the furrows of our fields. It was all intensely moving.

As soon as darkness fell many couples sought out darkness in order to fertilize the fields by their own actions, for in our faith copulation in the newly turned furrows will ensure a heavy crop, while a woman taken in this way is more likely to conceive a child. Many such trysts end in marriage when the girl becomes pregnant.

But that was not what I was about. The following day I intended to make my gesture, and I spent the evening in prayer and preparation.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and it promised to be the first really hot day of the spring. I dressed in my finest toga instead of the trews I wore for riding on a normal working day. Those decadent Greeks never wore trews even for horseback riding, and our warriors felt that kept them at a disadvantage; no wonder we could trounce them so easily and take so many slaves from them. My toga was woven of fine linen and had a border of Tyrian purple, that expensive dye that came, or so my tutors said, from some shellfish on the coast of Phoenicia. Not only was today the actual vernal equinox, when the sun would pass into the House of the Ram, but it was also my sixteenth birthday.

I spent the morning prowling around the patricians’ quarter of the city, trying to find out if anyone would be fulfilling a vow today, and discovered that Archiston’s majordomo showed all signs of preparing for such an event. I determined that I would make my gesture there, and hoped that no other young man would have the same idea. I did not want any rival for what I was about to do. I was too excited to eat, so at noon I repaired to the forum where the games were to take place, with competitions for running, archery, throwing the javelin, chariot racing, wrestling, fencing, boxing and jumping. The music and poetry competitions would take place the next day.

I was too restless to watch for long, and soon wandered away. Besides, I had no real interest in the athletic competitions, and was too dispirited by my problems to behave as any young man should. The sun was about halfway down to the horizon when I saw that Archiston’s majordomo had completed the preparations. He had set out a table in front of the wall of Archiston’s compound, covered with a snow-white linen cloth, finely woven. On the cloth was placed a bronze sword, all alone, carefully aligned with the edge of the table and lying dead centre. I stared at it, knowing that the time had come, but terrified all the same.

I picked up the sword and tested it for balance then gingerly felt the edge with my thumb. It was beautifully balanced and sharp enough for shaving. I made one or two passes with it, the sort of passes that I had been taught in the gymnasium in lessons in swordsmanship, but that was only a delaying action on my part. I realized that I was nervous and putting off my gesture by this kind of play. It was time. I released the pin at my shoulder that secured my toga and let it fall across the table, leaving me naked, just like the athletes in the forum who had recently adopted the Greek idea that athletic competitions should take place in the nude.

I seized the sword in my right hand and grabbed my balls with my left. I still hesitated, although I had dreamed of this moment for over a year.

Then I cut off my testes.

I felt no pain at first, and managed to retain control. I dropped the sword back on the table, transferred my amputated member to my right hand and threw it with what force I could muster over the wall of Archiston’s compound, as custom demanded. I remained on my feet for a moment longer while I tried to wipe the blood off the sword, for in my fogged mind I seemed to feel that such a magnificent instrument should not be allowed to remain besoiled. Then I fainted. It was Archiston’s eldest son who caught me as I fell, and he and two slaves carried me into the compound. Or so they told me later.

I remember waking in a torment of pain, then the fever came down again, and it was not until the fourth day that I finally came round and the fever subsided. As I expected, I was in the women’s quarters of Archiston’s household and his womenfolk, as soon as they noticed that I was conscious, came around and chanted songs of Cybele to me. They held a kylix to my lips with a mixture of wine and water, and I quenched my raging thirst that way from this shallow cup. It was two more days before I could leave my bed, and then they dressed me in women’s clothes, the tunic cinched in with a girdle over a linen skirt. At least my sacrifice had not resulted in my death as it had done for Attis and for so many of the supplicants like me.

A slave took a message to Archiston, asking him to come to see me, for as a new honorary daughter of his household I would not be allowed to move from the women’s quarters for the time being. He came in beaming all over his face. "Welcome, daughter, you have helped me to fulfil the vow I made to the Great Goddess Cybele after my number one wife recovered from her illness." He kissed me on both cheeks. "You shall have a beautiful wardrobe and shall live here as my daughter for as long as you choose."

Custom demanded that he only provide a single suit of clothing for me, and adopt me as his daughter, but he was clearly proving more generous than this.

"I intend to apply to enter the priesthood as soon as I have recovered sufficiently, sir, but I appreciate your kindness in housing me like this."

"You must call me ‘father’, my daughter, and I am truly delighted to have you here. Don’t hurry with your application to the priesthood, but make sure you are over your fever before you try."

I examined myself carefully, and found that I still had a penis, so I had just castrated my self without completing the job by peotomy. Now I could never aspire to the higher ranks of the priesthood but only to the second circle. But at least I should not serve the Goddess as a mere acolyte, dressed as a woman but possessing a full male equipment.

It was two weeks before Archiston’s family physician, a slave from the Aesculapian temple, pronounced me fit enough to venture as far as Cybele’s temple. I was escorted to the temple of Cybele by Archiston himself, both his wives, his three sons and a retinue of slaves, and carried in a litter, like a great lady. The chief image of the goddess is a great black stone that dropped from heaven. It is twice as tall as a man and as much around as the girth of a war horse. Other images of her in human form are placed at the end of the temple, opposite the entrance, but they are lesser icons, not like the great worshipful black meteorite which draws all eyes.

Our retinue was met first by a group of acolytes, all dressed as women. I despised these creatures who had not taken the important step. Then four gallae stepped out, the self-castrated priestesses of the main cult of the Goddess. The slaves lowered the litter and I stepped out. Archiston came forward and bowed deeply. "My daughter wishes to be admitted to the ranks of the priesthood. She castrated herself, as custom demands, at the festival of the vernal equinox, and I have adopted her. If she is not acceptable to the priesthood she will remain in my household as my daughter and I shall seek a marriage for her." He bowed again and stepped back.

The four gallae led me to the inner sanctum of the temple where they lifted my skirt and examined me to ensure that conditions were as Archiston had described. Once they were satisfied they led me to the Archaegalla, the high priestess, self-castrated and self-peotomized. I prostrated myself, my head on the paving flags. "Rise up my daughter." the tones of the high priest were surprisingly dulcet and warm. I stood erect and found that she towered over me. I am of average height for a young man of my people, but the Archaegalla was surely taller than most men. Then the catechism began, questions about the fundamentals of the worship of Cybele, the myths that attach to Her Person, the role of the priestesses, the importance of transvestism in promoting fertility among the Phrygians. Apparently I answered well, for I had been studying these matters in preparing myself, when I should have been engaged in other studies.

To my delight I proved acceptable, and was admitted as a novice to the order. I discovered later that three other youths had castrated themselves at the festival but none of them had proved acceptable. Two had done the deed while drunk, more as a dare than anything else, and were not committed to the deepest religious feelings of our people. The third was an illiterate youth, no doubt troubled by his gender dysphoria, but with no real aptitude for the priesthood.

My training now was in the rituals and chants of the priesthood and also in how to behave as a priestess and a woman, in the deeper mysteries of our faith, and in the ways to help troubled individuals, for one of the functions of a priestess is to counsel the common people. I lived with the other novices in the annex behind the temple, and Archiston paid for all my expenses and brought me my robes. As custom demanded, I saw nothing of my own blood parents, for I had been formally adopted by Archiston and was now his daughter.

It was at ceremonies for the summer solstice in the following year that I was formally admitted to the second circle of the priesthood as a galla. The central part of the ceremony of my admission was my deflowering by the Archaegalla, who wore a dildo for this purpose. This was performed ceremonially before the public in the central courtyard of the temple. I was grateful that she greased my anus with lard for the occasion for it would have been painful otherwise. I then spent the next four days in the temple as one of the temple prostitutes, loving every moment of it as man after man took me in the rear. This is done by these men as atonement for sins against the Goddess, and by the initiate as a further sacrifice to Her.

Now I was a full-fledged priestess, and far happier than I had ever been as a youth. I started on my mission of providing counsel to troubled people and proved very good at it. I also took my part in all ceremonies, and I seemed to please the upper priesthood. Finally one of them took me on one side and said, "You have an unusual talent, my daughter, for comforting people. You have a full understanding of our mysteries and customs. You read and write well, and perform our dances gracefully. My sisters and I would like you to become one of us."

I paled at this, for I knew that this would involve removing my penis, and I did not think that I had the courage to perform this myself. "Must I cut off my own penis, mother," I asked, "Or will that be done for me?"

"You have already proved your willingness to perform the sacrifice of Attis for our Great Mother, my daughter, and we do not require you to perform the second operation unaided. You will be assisted."

I fasted for three days in preparation, then I was given poppy, that herb of Morpheus. In a daze I was led to the great altar in front of the Black Stone, stripped and spread-eagled across it. An obsidian knife was placed in my right hand, and other hands, I know not whose, guided mine to my crotch. I was powerless to control my hands, but I felt my penis somehow placed in my left hand, and the knife, still in my right, drawn across the base. The Archaegalla burst into song and held my member aloft for all to see as I fainted. Apparently I had performed the operation myself, aided as I had been promised.

As soon as I recovered I was led once more before the Archaegalla and admitted to the inner circle of the priesthood. I received further instruction in the inner mysteries of our faith and in the use of herbal potions to enter into prophetic trances. Archiston was delighted at my elevation and made costly offerings to the temple.

Now, forty years later, as I sit surrounded by my court, wearing a tunic embroidered in gold, I am myself the Archaegalla, the High Priestess of Cybele, and I barely remember the days when I was an effeminate youth, those days when I had no future as a warrior, those days when I was a failure as a man. The courtyard offers a beautiful peaceful vista of the hills, the flowery pastures and the herds. I have the highest status of anyone in the kingdom, next only to my monarch, King Midas of the golden touch, and almost as rich as him. It is my prophecies that have given him the golden touch and he has rewarded me richly.

 

 


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