Castration and the cult of the mother goddess
The thirtyfifth poem in Catullus’ collection of verse has been read for centuries as a friendly invitation to come over to the poet’s residence for a visit . It seems to have been taken as a simple and fairly innocuous poem suitable for young Latinists to peruse, since we find it appearing on the internet with notes and vocabulary aids for High School Advanced Placement Examination texts. It is true that Catullus did like to invite a friend for dinner, if he can furnish . . . . as in this very different Poem 13:
That is a fun poem which has amused the world for centuries, wit and imagination and good spirits. But Poem 35 is entirely different:
This is a strangely disjointed little poem, there are several segments which are apparently only loosely connected, if at all. First there is an invitation to come to Verona, which is a long trip to central north Italy from the lake resort at Comum in the upper west verging on the Alps, and this would be a hard trip unless there were a compelling reason. Coming in haste, eating up the highway, is hardly explained unless possibly as a refuge from a desperate and impossible love affaire.
There is a problem with the line about the Cogitations and exactly whose they really are. The words “cogitationes / amici accipiat sui meique” have been taken in two ways by critics over the years, as either “thoughts of his and my friend”; or it could be “of his friend and of me” , since the final word mei-que is also the genitive singular of pronoun ego. Are there two or three persons involved in the sharing of these un-named “thoughts”? If two persons, it has been suggested that the friend is the Attis of the poem, with whom Caecilius seems to have identified himself as less male than his girl wishes. But it is Catullus who invites to Verona, and who logically has thoughts to share with him, and I have preferred to include him in this line in the translation. Since the friend and his role is not defined, the argument could go either way without damaging the poem.
Then there is the fair girlfriend entreating him to stay, embracing and begging. Is there here a reason for his precipitous flight? It seems that she had read some of the draft of Catullus’ Poem 63, which would end up as the famous and frightening Cybele and Attis Poem 62 which now have as completed. This seems to have excited her into a flaming and sexually uncontrollable disposition, downn to her marrow. As a parallel we find the same passionused in Poem 45 of the young girl Acme boasting about the warmth of her sexual feelings, with the same word for marrow ‘medulla’:
There are two places in the poem in which Cybele is mentioned. First is the reading of the poem, where the girl had read the start of the ‘Lady of Dindymus’. Second, at the end, it is the goddess herself as a real personage, the Great Mother, who been activated and begins her dominance on Caecilius who is being drawn into the fringe of her ritual. In each case there is a reference to the dominating power of Cybele, first on the girl and then ion an opposite direction onto her man. The poem turns the girl to a frenzy of compulsive lovemaking, of possessing through love and of controlling her sexually inadequate lover, whom Catullus urges to flee.
It might seem surprising that a woman would be sexually excited by reading the a poem about Cybele the Magna Mater, who inspires the self-castration of young Attis in the throes of a cult ritual. But it is this very act of dominance which has a special meaning for the girl, since her love-making is not normal love-making but control through her driving sexuality. When her man is unable to reciprocate emotionally he turns in his impotence to the cult of Attis. dominated by and devoted to his goddess Cybele. The circle is complete for each of them in quite different ways.
The cult of Cybele had been founded in Rome after 200 BC and was a part of the Roman undercurrent of imported religious life in Catullus’ time. Coming from Asia Minor it found an audience in the changing mores of mid- first century BC, a time when the world was in general social turmoil. There are many things happening which would shock a serious old-line republican citizen. The politician Claudius renaming himself Clodius to change his social status for elections, had entered the forbidden rituals of the Bona Dea in December 62 BC dressed as a woman; he was reported to have had sex with his sister the infamous Clodia who poisoned her husband continuing a wild life with various lovers including Catullus. Described in Catullus’ words as “Lesbia” or the poetic lady and furthermore as “docta” or literary, Clodia became a well known figure in Roman history and at the same time in Catullus’ world of verse.
In this poem we find the girl associated with the words ‘Sapphica’ and ‘docta’, which were regularly associated with Catullus’ lady Clodia. We should have a second look at her identity, could this be the lady Clodia herself, residing with an unknown Caecilius at the well known Roman resort area at Como? There are no sure historical evidences for such a connection, and the fact that modern tourist Como has a Clodia Street and several Clodia hostelries only means that Italian readers of Catullus over the last centuries made the assumption that the girl of this poem was in fact Clodia, but without philological exactitude. Yet it is strange that modern philological readers who have perused this poem in detail for decades have never mentioned this curious suggestion, even as a possibility arising from Catullus’ actual words.
If we are tempted to think about Clodia at Comum, then what about Caecilius, who is usually noted as an unknown poet ? But we find the Caecilii well established in Comum in the time of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus and his uncle a century later, when the Gens Caecilia was prominent in that region. It does not surprise that a Caecilius of that gens could have been there in the previous century, since the name Caecilius turns up in many other dates and places in Roman society as well.
Among the politically dominant Caecilii Metelli of the first century BC we find the name of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, the husband of Clodia, who died in 59 BC perhaps poisoned by his wife. And by a strange chance we find this same man engaged in conversation with his wife Clodia and Catullus in poem 83 of Catullus, with the poet’s curious remark:
She is burning with ire and also with passion for Catullus, the husband has no idea of what this means, and when Catullus calls him “mule”, a non sexual animal unable to reproduce, he touches upon something critical for this impossible marriage. He may be wealthy and politically important, but if he is sexually incompetent, his relationship to this highly charged woman is impossible. His death from whatever cause in 59 BC is a relief and a release for her to continue her life in her own way. It is not a good or proper way, but it responds to her fervid personality and to her needs.
Now was this Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer possibly also a dilettant amateur poet? Then as now anyone who had a college education could write a few lines and fancy himself a poet of sorts. And could he be the same person who was vacationing at Comum before his death with his wife Clodia, the lady considered more literary than the muse of Sappho? There is certainly no proof of this, but there is one detail with is very interesting. It is odd that Catullus tells his friend to come to Verona “eating up the highway”, literally ‘viam vorabit’, considering that the man’s name includes the adjective ‘celer’ meaning swift. Puns are always interesting, but there must be an interesting connection of some sort or the pun falls flat. This curious one cannot be without an interior meaning, which has to be explained.
Consider further the cult of Cybele, which needs full background explanation to show its various dimensions and religious connections in Rome of this period. In a separate essay I have sketched out much material about Cybele’s religious cult with a translation of Poem 63 text and and accompanying scenario for a dramatic production. There is good background material here, especially about the modern Indian status of the castrated hijras on India who constitute a semi-religious sect which provides a social status for them as inter-sex persons.
But the cult at Dindymus was certainly based on deeper psychological considerations, the wish of some males to become feminized, even at the cost of dangerous surgery, as part of a release from male-dom while entering an inter-sex role as sexually preferable and probably in some degree erotically stimulating. Urges of this sort have become apparent in our time, both in the l9th century European tradition and in the post millennium Western world at large. The name Cybele has been replicated by the hundreds of minor cults in every major city with rites of domination of males by virtual Magnae Matres, whether iconic or psychologically keyed to a man’s questionable sexual identificatios.
More can be said about this, here it is enough to note in summary that the girl in Poem 35 of Catullus has been reading the Attis of our poet, that she is stimulated to sexual contolling love by the poem’s mention of castrating a man. She responds with a degree of erotic fantasy which she turns on her lover, who is incapable of dealing with her. Catullus having a sense of the situation, surprisingly tells the man to get away from her, advising him to rush down the road to Verona where he can share the “cogitation” and insights of Catullus and of his un-mentioned “friend”.
Who is the friend? Why, it is no other than the literary figment of Catullus’ poetic imagination, it is the handmaiden of Cybele, it is Attis the devotee of the dominant and dominating woman god. But to Catullus who must have entered for the writing into the psychological spirit of the poem, verging in imagination into the sphere of Cybelean influence, the idea of a sexual re-identification must have seemed for the moment quite real. It had to be involving or the poem could not have been written. And on the other side, for poor Caecilius, pathetic and impotent and faced by an over-sexual wife who is greatly excited by the mere idea of castrating her lover, this is an impossible situation. And where is better to flee to that the man who had concocted this religious castration ritual in his poen, even if he may know he has been be the lover of his real-life wife Clodia ?
“Yes, I will come quickly down the road to Verona, I will come now even as my name is Celer.”
And the poet Catullus watching the struggling man from a cool psychological distance, remarks at the end of the poem:
There are things in history which are to be clouded with the mist of time forever. But this poem cannot stand as a coherent piece of writing if taken in a literal way. There must be something else to it or the clever Catullus would not have put it into his carefully manicured and adjusted little book. Unless we find a reasonable pattern from beginning to end, we cannot regard this poem as the finsihed composition of a first-rate poet like Catullus.
Some factual history does seem to be involved here, and it would be unwise to dis-approve that automatically as not completely documentable. But in any case, I do not believe that we can go back to this poem as a pleasant piece of friendly verse, suitable for our amused perusal in the study, or for for high school students’ word-by-word reading while preparing for their Advanced Placement Exams. There are deep, if black and disturbing currents in this little poem of just eighteen lines.
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