Romans 1 Part 2: Context, Castration and Cybele the Great Mother

A post by Neil Hart on homosexuality, LGBT, lesbian and gay stuff and the Lutheran Church of Australia.

Last post i talked about context. Context is everything. Without context there is no communication. When is comes to understanding a passage from the Bible which was written to a culture radically different to our own in a completely different historical framework the chance for misunderstanding is very high and the need for accurate context is of supreme importance.  We need to fill our minds with as much information as we can about the ancient world that Paul was writing to so that we have the best chance of understanding what he meant when he wrote those words to the people in ancient Rome some 2000 years ago.

One way of describing context is to picture a person stepping backwards. Initially, they see a leaf in front of their face, but only a leaf. As they step backwards their field of vision increases and they see that the leaf is attached to a stem and that there are other leaves. Further back and branches and then a whole tree comes into view, majestic in its height and girth. A little further back and we see that it is surrounded by the stumps of felled trees. and now we see a man with a chain saw working hard to fell this tree also.

With our Romans passage, Id like us to step away from Romans 1:26-27 until we see all of Romans 1…then all of Romans…and back one more step…where we see what Paul sees in his minds eye as he sits down to write the letter. We see the city of Rome in all its ancient beauty and ugliness, culture and customs strange and wonderful and , sometmes, barbaric. Lets fill our minds, as much as we are able, with that first century culture and, in so doing, begin to understand why Paul said the things he did to explain the things of Jesus to this ancient civilisation.

The time of Jesus and the beginning of the early Chrsitian Church was known as the Imperial period in the history of the Roman Empire. This was a time that was marked by the increasing influence of various religions and philosophies on the empire and in Rome itself. Ceasor Augustus was the emperor. (Yup. The same one who ordered the census that sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.)  Augustus encouraged the establishment of certain religions because they provided stability and unity to the state. He ordered that 82 temples be restored. Of prime populatrity and importance in Rome was the worship of the goddess Cybele…the Great Mother (magna mater).

Cybeleian worship was not restricted to Rome. The Great Mother was one of the most important religious figures in the whole Roman world. There was close association between Cybelian worship, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Temple of  Aphrodite in Corinth from where Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.  The impact of the community adherence to and worship of these Goddess figures cannot be ignored as we try to gain a picture of the ancient Roman culture. The following descriptions come from an excellent paper the full text of which is referenced below (1).

The importance of the goddess religions in the Greco-Roman period cannot be underestimated  During Paul’s missionary travels, the goddess religions were having a wide resurgence. Temples dedicated to Cybele/Attis, Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter and Venus were in most large cities of the region.  The temple to Artemis in Ephesus was claimed to be the largest building in the world and one of the Seven Wonders, and  Acts 19 describes a conflict between Paul and the followers of Artemis in Ephesus.  Strabo (somewhat dubiously) claimed that the temple to Aphrodite in Corinth had more than 1,000 temple prostitutes and it was this business that made the city rich.  Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20 (trans. H.L. Jones; The Geography of Strabo v. 4; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924).

In Rome, the Cybele/Attis temple was built in the heart of the city on one of the Seven Hills of Rome. The Roman temple to another goddess, Aphrodite, was on another of these hills. In addition, Cybele’s image was printed on Roman coins. Two major city festivals, the Day of Blood and the Megalensia, were organized around Cybele and Attis, and a statue of Cybele presided over the public games and events held during these festivals. Maarten Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 96.

Researcher, Lynn Roller describes the worship of Cybele as central to Roman life: By the first century CE, the Magna Mater was a divinity with a central place in Roman life.  And the place of honor created for her cult in the first two centuries of its existence in Rome continued under the early Empire. The prominence of the Magna Mater in literature, art, and practice speaks of a cult that lay at the very center of the Roman religious experience.  Her temple was located in the heart of the city, near its most venerable shrines. Lynn Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 315-16.

The documentary record indicates that male priests of many goddess religions, in particular the galli (priests of Cybele), castrated themselves as an important part of their devotion to the Goddess. This ritual was based on the legend of Attis, Cybele’s consort. Attis was said to have castrated himself and died after being driven mad by the goddess. Cybele then brings him back to life in the form of a pine tree. The historical sources describe the bloody and frenzied rituals which the Cybelian priests performed in public. By the time of Lucian (2nd CE), the rituals had long since become part of the official Roman religious calendar. It entailed 4 days of celebrations with the castrations occurring on the Day of Blood.

During these days they are made Galli. As the Galli sing and celebrate their orgies, frenzy falls on many of them and many who had come as mere spectators afterwards are found to have committed the great act. I will narrate what they do. Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd, and picks up a sword from a number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself and then runs wild through the city, bearing in his hands what he has cut off. He casts it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women’s raiment and ornaments. Thus they act during their ceremonies of castration (Lucian, De Dea Syria, 51, )

Another source describes the frenzied castration rituals in this way.

The annual festival of Cybele-Attis was held on the spring equinox and lasted four days, from March 22 to 25. On the first day, the trunk of a pine tree wreathed with violets and swathed with woolen cloth was carried ceremonially into the temple. Then, an effigy of the god Attis, Cybele’s lover who was reputed to have died by emasculating himself under a pine tree, was fastened to the decorated tree trunk. On the second day, a procession of mourners followed the statue of the goddess Cybele through the streets. They screamed, whirled, leaped, and in their frenzy slashed themselves with knives and swords. On the third day, the bloody passion-drama reached its climax. The novitiates sacrificed their virility by emasculation, so they could share Attis’s resurrection.

Castrated Whore Priests of Cybele

One of our fellow bloggers in an excellent post referenced below (2) makes mention of the following…

B.Z. Goldberg, author of the four-volume “Sacred Fire: The Story of Sex in Religion,” observes the following regarding the Goddess castration rituals…

“The frenzy and hysteria of the priests spread to the worshippers, and many a would-be priest fell into the wave of religious excitement. He sacrificed his virility to the goddess, dashing the severed portions of himself against her blood-besmeared statue. … With throbbing veins and burning eyes, they flung their garments from them and with wild shouts seized the knives of the priests to castrate themselves upon the very spot. Then, insensible to pain and oblivious of everything, they ran through the streets of the Sacred Ring, waving the bloody pieces and finally throwing them into a house they passed. It became the duty of the households thus honored to furnish these men with female clothes, and they, made eunuchs in the heat of religious passion, were to serve their goddess for the rest of their lives.”

Goldberg concludes:

The priest … who castrated himself in religious frenzy assumed feminine dress not without purpose.  He continued in the service of the temple and like the priestesses served man for the required fee.  They were male priests serving males in the temples of all the gods.

The preists  served as male temple prostitutes. It seems that the worshipper by engaging in the sex act with the galli “received the inner-most essence and power of a god”. The  galli, for their part through their identification with Cybele and Attis transcend their gender, to become more like the gods they served.  Randy Conner, Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections between Homoeroticism and the Sacred (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 116

Cybelian Castration Clamp

Reader, we have just begun to look at the customs and religious practices of the ancient Roman world. But already the importance of understanding the cultural context is obvious. The powerful images of these bloody practices would have filled Paul’s mind as he sat down to write. His feelings spill out onto the page as he writes…

The men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1 :27)

I wonder, dear reader, if you picked up on the fact that the Roman annual festival of Cybele which included the day of castration and the resurrection of Attis was at the time of the spring equinox…late March…

This  was also the time of the Hebrew passover and the early Christian’s memories of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  How those things must have clashed in Paul’s mind. On the one hand Paul was confronted by this bloody castration ritual and corresponding perverse acts of sex as a pathetic human attempt to commune with the god’s. And yet, Paul was filled with the knowledge of the sacrifice of God’s own Son Jesus on that bloody “tree” called a cross and His resurrection to bring forgiveness and new life to all who repent and believe.

It is no wonder that he starts to address this ancient idolatry in the very first chapter of his letter to the Romans.

Or… reader… perhaps you think that Paul ignored all of that Pagan idolatrous sexual perversion and bloodlust with its corresonding allusions to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps he  was simply filled with a sense of urgency to condemn people who entered into  loving committed same sex relationships.

I can just imagine it. Paul is in the crowd,,,three days before the Hebrew passover, watching the galli initiates gyrate and dance naked in a drug induced frenzy. He watches the Cybelian priest-in-the-making take the castration tongs and clamp it around his penis and testicles, grab a knife and cut them off. Blood flows as the screaming man runs down the street, severed flesh in hand..looking for a house to throw his castrated members into so that he can receive the female regalia that he will wear as he becomes a gender neutral temple prostitute for the remainder of his life.

BUT THEN! Paul sees two men in the crowd and they are holding hands! Horror and outrage drag him from his indifferent observation of the Cybeleian celebrations and he races home to put pen to page. He must warn the Romans and the all the world of the evil he has observed, an evil that will only find definiton and a name “homosexuality” some 1750 years later…

Your choice reader.  What say you?