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Cybele and Attis

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 neck.”

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 others mad.

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