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The Cybeline Cult

Edited down from a fascinating original paper by Jeramy Townsley.

It is plausible that Paul means to refer specifically to the Cybelean/Attic mystery cult in the first Chapter of Romans. This was one of the most prominent cults in Rome, and had an history going back several hundred years in the region. The priests and priestesses, called galli, attempted to achieve gender neutrality in service to their god/dess. The goal was to transcend gender in order to become more like Attis (the father God, son/lover of Cybele) and Cybele (the mother goddess). Attis was castrated and Cybele was a virgin. Both were sexually active in the myth (many of Cybele's counterparts were known as a fertility goddess), but engaged in sexual acts that could not produce children. In order to become more like their gods, all male galli castrated themselves, and were involved in ritual sexuality with the worshippers that would come to the temple.
Here is a brief comparison of verses in Romans 1 with galli practices
v. 21-22: they claimed to be wise but are foolish The galli claimed to tell people's fortunes, but everybody thought they were mad, because of the way they danced around and cut themselves. The Greek texts talk about the "mania" of their rituals. 
v. 23: they made images of man and animals to worship The Cybele's temple statues were of Attis, Cybele (and others), who were always surrounded by  images of animals, particularly lions and snakes. In addition, the galli's temples were always filled with doves, because the galli thought they were too holy to touch, to shoo them away. The fact that all of these animals were normative in the Cybelean temples and Paul mention them by name, makes it highly likely that Paul was specifically referring to this cult in Romans 1.
v. 26-27: exchanging natural relations, etc. One of the primary ideas of the galli was to remove gender differences. This occurred through transvestism, and physically cutting off one's genitals. Part of this was also assuming the sexual characteristics of the opposite gender, so the male galli would serve sexually "as women" to male worshippers in the temple. Women were known to cut off their breasts and have lesbian relationships to transcend their gender. Women had sex with men too, but in order to avoid pregnancy, again like Cybele, they would have anal sex, not vaginal. 

During their annual festival, the Day of Blood, the galli would wander around in the streets in full cross-dress: amulets, flowing robes, make-up, depilated bodies and long hair dyed blond. They would dance around in a frenzy with tambourines and flutes, often with knives or swords, with which they would cut their arms, letting blood to help them tell fortunes for the people who would give them money. In both the Greek and Roman sources, gender-variant, frenzied and orgiastic festival behaviours are described, continuing at least up to the forth century. Most of the Christian invectives focus on their gender-variant sexual behaviours, as encompassed in the pagan rituals. Firmicus describes their behaviour as follows (while Firmicus represents a later source, Juvenal and Lucretian of the first and second centuries give similar accounts, among many others), using language reminiscent of Paul's attacks in Romans 1:

"In their very temples one may see scandalous performances, accompanied by the moaning of the throng: men letting themselves be handled as women, and flaunting with boastful ostentatiousness this ignominy of their impure and unchaste bodies. They parade their misdeeds in the public eye. ... Next, being thus divorced from masculinity, they get intoxicated with the music of flutes and invoke their goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so that they can ostensibly predict the future to fools. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is all this? They say they are not men, and indeed they aren't; they want to pass as women." [Firmicus: "The Error of Pagan Religions" 4.2] Following the legend of the self emasculation of Attis, came the gallic practice of of self emasculation. There is significant evidence that males made themselves into eunuchs and that it was an essential aspect to their religion. Such ministerial eunuchism has been a common practice in many goddess rituals throughout history. The act of self emasculation had several purposes, one of which was that it helped the gallus transcend gender altogether. This belief was shared with one faction of the Gnostic movement, the Naassenes, as exemplified in the following text:
 "When you make the male and female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female .... then you will enter the Kingdom." [W. Roscoe, "Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion." History of Religions 35 (1996)]
In assaulting this teaching Hippolytus links Naassene beliefs and the mystery religion of Cybele and Attis religion to Romans 1: "But if the mother of the gods emasculate Attis, and herself has this person as an object of affection, the blessed nature of the supernatural and everlasting alone recalls the male power of the soul to itself. For (the Naassene) says, there is the hermaphrodite man. According to this account of theirs, the intercourse of woman with man is demonstrated, in conformity with such teaching, to be exceedingly wicked and filthy. For, says the Naassene, Attis has emasculated himself and has passed over from the earthly parts of the nether world to the everlasting substance above, where there is neither female or male, but a new creature, a new man, which is hermaphrodite .... 'Wherefore also God gave them up unto vile affections; for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature.' [Rom 1:24] What, however, the natural use is, according to them, we shall afterwards declare. 'And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly.' [Rom 1:27a] Now the expression "that which is unseemly" signifies, according to these (Naasseni), the first and blessed substance, figureless, the cause of all figures to those things that are moulded into shapes. 'and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.' [Rom 1:27b] For in these words which Paul has spoken they say the entire secret of theirs, and a hidden mystery of blessed pleasure, are comprised. [Hippolytus: "Refutation of All Heresies" Book V] What most today see as a condemnation of homosexuality, the Naassenes understood as an Apostolic recommendation of such behaviour! They took "unseemly" to be a good term, referring to the form before and of all forms. They believed that ritual gendervariant sexual practices helped them to transcend sexual identity, and thus become closer to God. They certainly understood St Paul to be describing cultic sexuality.

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