A Gallus (pl. Galli) was a eunuch priest of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her consort Attis, whose worship was incorporated into the state religious practices of ancient Rome.
Queen Kubaba (in the Weidner or Esagila Chronicle; Sumerian: Kug-Bau), the only queen on the Sumerian King List, which states she reigned for 100 years – roughly in the Early Dynastic III period (ca. 2500-2330 BC) of Sumerian history was the founder and first ruler of the Third Dynasty of Kish, while other versions combine her with the 4th dynast.
Shrines in honour of Kubaba spread throughout Mesopotamia. In the Hurrian area she may be identified with Kebat, or Hepat, one title of the Hurrian Mother goddess Hannahannah (from Hurrian hannah, “mother”). Abdi-Heba was the palace mayor, ruling Jerusalem at the time of the Amarna letters (1350 BC).
Her cult later spread and her name was adapted for the main goddess of the Hittite successor kingdoms in Anatolia. This deity later developed into the Phrygian matar kubileya (“mother Cybele”), who was depicted in petroglyphs and mentioned in accompanying inscriptions. In Greece, Cybele met with a mixed reception. She was partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, her Minoan equivalent Rhea, and the Harvest-Mother goddess Demeter.
Some city-states, notably Athens, evoked her as a protector, but her most celebrated Greek rites and processions show her as an essentially foreign, exotic mystery-goddess who arrives in a lion-drawn chariot to the accompaniment of wild music, wine, and a disorderly, ecstatic following. Uniquely in Greek religion, she had a eunuch mendicant priesthood. In Rome, Cybele was known as Magna Mater (“Great Mother”).
Conflation with Rhea led to Cybele’s association with various male demigods who served Rhea as attendants, or as guardians of her son, the infant Zeus, as he lay in the cave of his birth. In cult terms, they seem to have functioned as intercessors or intermediaries between goddess and mortal devotees, through dreams, waking trance or ecstatic dance and song.
They include the armed Kouretes, who danced around Zeus and clashed their shields to amuse him; their supposedly Phrygian equivalents, the youthful Corybantes, who provided similarly wild and martial music, dance and song; and the dactyls and Telchines, magicians associated with metalworking.
Fundamental to understanding the meaning and the function of the myth and ritual related to Attis in Rome is his relationship with the Galli. The role of prototype of the mythical castration of Attis for the institution of the “priesthood” of the Galli has almost always been emphasised, even if to different degrees.
The Galli castrated themselves during an ecstatic celebration called the Dies sanguinis, or “Day of Blood”, which took place on March 24. At the same time they put on women’s costume, mostly yellow in colour, and a sort of turban, together with pendants and ear-rings.
They also wore their hair long, and bleached, and wore heavy make-up. They wandered around with followers, begging for charity, in return for which they were prepared to tell fortunes. On the day of mourning for Attis they ran around wildly and disheveled. They performed dances to the music of pipes and tambourines, and, in an ecstasy, flogged themselves until they bled.
The high priests are well-documented from archaeology. At Pessinus, the centre of the Cybele cult, there were two high priests during the Hellenistic period, one with the title of “Attis” and the other with the name of “Battakes”. Both were eunuchs.
The high priests had considerable political influence during this period, and letters exist from a high priest Attis to the kings of Pergamon, Eumenes II and Attalus II, inscribed on stone. Later, during the Flavian period, there was a college of ten priests, not castrated, and now Roman citizens, but still using the title “Attis”.
In Rome, the head of the galli was known as the archigallus, at least from the period of Claudius on. A number of archaeological finds depict the archigallus wearing luxurious and extravagant costumes. The archigallus was always a Roman citizen chosen by the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, whose term of service lasted for life.
Being a Roman citizen, as well as being employed by the Roman State, meant that the archigallus had to preserve the traditions of Cybele’s cult while not violating Roman prohibitions in religious behavior. Hence, some argue that the archigallus was never a eunuch, as all citizens of Rome were forbidden from emasculation.
However, under Claudius Roman citizens were permitted to be castrated up until the reign of Domitian. The signs of his office have been described as a type of crown, possibly a laurel wreath, as well as a golden bracelet known as the occabus.
Along with the institution of the archigallus came the Phrygianum sanctuary as well as the rite of the taurobolium as it pertains to the Magna Mater, two aspects of the Magna Mater’s cultus that the archigallus held dominion over.
In the Roman Empire of the 2nd to 4th centuries, taurobolium referred to practices involving the sacrifice of a bull, which after mid-2nd century became connected with the worship of the Great Mother of the Gods; though not previously limited to her cultus, after 159 CE all private taurobolia inscriptions mention Magna Mater.
Originating in Asia Minor, its earliest attested performance in Italy occurred in 134 CE, at Puteoli, in honor of Venus Caelestis, the Roman goddess whose functions encompassed love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, victory, and desire, documented by an inscription.
The term Gallus is also a multiple pun in Latin, meaning a Gaul, or a rooster, as well as a castrated priest. Nergal was a deity worshipped throughout Mesopotamia with the main seat of his worship at Cuthah represented by the mound of Tell-Ibrahim. According to the rabbins, his emblem was a cock and Nergal means a “dunghill cock”, although standard iconography pictured Nergal as a lion.
While these efforts at “folk” etymologies were widespread in classical times, it has been suggested that gallu comes from the Sumerian Gal meaning “great” and Lu meaning “man”, humans or sexually ambivalent demons that freed Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, sexual desire, fertility, knowledge, wisdom, war, and combat, from the underworld. They originally seem to have been consecrated to the god Enki.
There was a category of Mesopotamian priests called kalu; in Sumerian gala. The Gala (Akkadian: kalû) were priests of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, significant numbers of the personnel of both temples and palaces, the central institutions of Mesopotamian city states, individuals with neither male nor female gender identities.
These priests played the tympanum and were involved in bull sacrifice. Another category of Mesopotamian priests called assinnu, galatur, and kurgarru had a sacred function. These transgender or eunuch priests participated in liturgical rites, during which they were costumed and masked. They played music, sang, and danced, most often in ceremonies dedicated to the goddess Ishtar.
Originally a specialist in singing lamentations, gala appear in temple records dating back from the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. According to an old Babylonian text, Enki created the gala specifically to sing “heart-soothing laments” for the goddess Inanna. Cuniform references indicate the gendered character of the role. Lamentation and wailing originally may have been female professions, so that men who entered the role adopted its forms.
Their hymns were sung in a Sumerian dialect known as eme-sal, normally used to render the speech of female gods, and some gala took female names. Homosexual proclivities are clearly implied by the Sumerian proverb that reads, “When the gala wiped off his anus [he said], ‘I must not arouse that which belongs to my mistress [i.e., Inanna]’ “.
In fact, the word gala was written using the sign sequence UŠ.KU, the first sign having also the reading giš (“penis”), and the second one dur (“anus”), so perhaps there is some pun involved. Moreover, gala is homophonous with gal-la “vulva”. However, in spite of all their references of their effeminate character (especially in the Sumerian proverbs), many administrative texts mention gala priests who had children, wives, and large families. On the other hand, some gala priests were actually women.