About this Comic

Why do this Comic?

Tombstone of an ancient galli

So, why have I done a strip about a religious cult in ancient Rome? Why bother when all the characters must be long dead an buried?

The main reason is that I'm a modern follower of Cybele, a modern gallae. The idea of doing this strip grew on me as I was completing my Honours in Visual Arts and creating my Trans Tarot Deck. That project was all about showing how gender transition was a human process.

With this comic, I wanted to show how the ancient galli were first, real human beings, and not just mindless cult followers. The period I've set the strip in was the start of the end of the cult, as the Roman Empire was soon (50-60 years) to become "officially" Christian, and the old pagan religions would soon be ruthlessly repressed and/or destroyed.

Today, trans folk are being denied their history, and being taught to believe that being trans is purely a psychological/medical condition. And while this may in part be correct, it is not the whole story. Any gendertransition is a spiritual journey, and this strip is an attempt to acknowledge that. I hope that I've succeeded in showing this.

All hail the Magna Mater!

Related Web Sites

The Galli (wikipedia)
General information page.
The Temple of Cybele
Authoritative history, plus detailed info about the modern revival of the religion, written by a genuine transsexual Priestess
The Maetreum of Cybele
Website of the Maetreum of Cybele, Palenville, New York, USA.
Ancient Spirituality of the galli and Amazons
Detailed page from the Metro'on
Lucretius (98-c.55 BCE): The Worship of Cybele
Ancient History Sourcebook
The first Missionary War
The Church takes over of the Roman Empire

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The Magna Mater

Origin and Spread

Cybele originated as an earth goddess worshipped in Asia Minor, primarily at Çatal Hüyük. She was known as Kubaba and was earliest depicted as an earth mother -- in plump and heavy forms. The name may be derivative of the local word for cube and may refer to a black meteorite that was associated with Her.

She was also shown seated on a throne flanked by leopards (see left). This form persisted later as well, though the Romans showed lions instead, and these were thought to represent the Goddess's male sons, consorts or priests. She became primarily associated with the concerns of women, protection against one's enemies, the healing of grave illnesses, guardianship of the dead, a granter of boons and a giver of the gift of prophecy.

The Greeks colonised Asia Minor after the Trojan War and found worship of the Goddess everywhere. She was absorbed into their mythology about the 8th century BCE , though not willingly at first. Various stories tell of how a priest of Cybele appeared in Athens attempting to spread the religion. He was killed by the locals by being thrown into a pit. A plague followed and they received an oracle bidding them to appease the murdered man. This they did by building the Metro on (temple of the Mother), which also served as a repository of laws.

Cybele became associated with Rhea and Demeter and was later identified with the former. Rhea was mother of Zeus and others and thus Cybele became known as "Mother of the Gods". She was also considered to rule over Mt Ida, near Troy. This later became important as we she see. Main centres of worship were Pessinus and Pergamum.

A main symbol of the Goddess was a black meteorite that resided either at Pessinus, Pergamum, or Mt. Ida. There seems little mention of a Gallae(1) at this time, though some mention of Corybantes and Metragytes, who were begging priests.

Cybele's Advent in Rome

About 213 BCE the Romans were fighting a war with Carthage. It was not going well and panic and uncertainty was the rule. Many superstitious ideas and practices were about that were not Roman in origin. This alarmed the Senate, and to reinstate order, they issued a decree that all books of prayers, prophecies and manuals for the sacrificial cult to be delivered to the city praetor. Nor was anyone to sacrifice in public or in a sacred place according to a new or foreign rite.

Now some of the families in Rome were descended from Trojan emigrants, and prided themselves in their supposed Trojan origin. Rome was considered to be a "New Troy" by many, and thought that its fate might be dependent upon the Phrygian Goddess(2). The Sibylline books declared that "whenever a foreign enemy has invaded Italy, he can only be driven away and vanquished, if the Mother of Mount Ida is transferred from Pessinus to Rome".

A delegation was sent to Delphi to consult the Oracle and then to Pergamun where the ruling King (then allied with Rome against Philip V of Macedon) gave them the statue and the black meteorite that personified Cybele. This was carried on a ship built of pine trees from Mt Ida, through Tenedos, Lesbos, the Cyclades, Euboea, Cythera, around Sicily and then to Ostia (chief port of Rome).

From Ostia the Goddess was taken by boat up the Tiber to Rome. There is a legend that the boat carrying the holy aerolith became stuck in the mud of the port which had begun to silt up. Then a young matron, whose reputation had been tarnished , removed her girdle and tied it to the boat, freeing it easily. From there Cybele was moved hand to hand by the matrons of Rome, to the Temple of Victoria until a Metro on was built in 191 BCE . The black meteorite was adapted as the head of the cult statue. Cybele, like Artemis of Ephesus, was a "black virgin".

Rise and fall of the Cult

Caesar Augustus later rebuilt this temple after it burnt down, and he acknowledged Cybele as chief divinity of the Roman Empire. Cybele's retinue included many priestesses, including Amazonian, transgendered female priest/esse/s as well as traditional masculine functionaries such as the dendrophori (tree-bearer) and cannophori (reed-bearer), and transgendered males known as the Gallae.

At its peek, the Cult of Cybele was rivalled only by that of Isis, and there were temples in all provinces of the Empire. While Cybele was accepted, attitudes towards the Gallae changed over a period of time. When Cybele first entered Rome, there is no mention of the Gallae -- they were later arrivals. Romans were horrified at the frenzy in which the gallae behaved, and by their self-emasculations.

Initially the Gallae were confined to temple grounds, though later they were allowed to roam city streets with other followers. Some Emporers banned Roman citizens from taking part in the rites. At other times, rich and influential families patronised the temples.

[The Metro'on]

Cybele had a reputation for miracles and retribution. Apart from the re floating of the ship carrying the holy relic (see above), She was also held responsible for good crops and military victories (such as the one over the Carthaginians after She entered Rome. At other times She appeared to uphold her own and her follower's honour.

When the Battakès intended to harangue the crowds in the Forum, he was driven from the Rostra by a tribune Aulus Pompeius who called him a charlatan and the crowd hurled insults at him. The tribune was taken with a burning fever and died three days later, whereupon the Battakès reappeared at the Forum and a repentant populace honoured him with gifts.

On another occasion a lady of noble aspirations entered the Aedes Magna Matris and stole a string of pearls from a statue of Cybele. Several days later she was found strangled to death with them. You didn't muck around with the Magna Mater!

The early Christians were determined to destroy the cult and St Augustine condemns Her as a "demon" and a "monster" and the Gallae were "madmen" and "castrated perverts" (hardly an unbiased opinion). In the 4th century CE Valentinian II officially banned the worship of Cybele, and many of her followers perished at the hands of zealous Christians.

Justinian continued the persecution of the cult and the Gallae. Under his reign, transgendered persons, and those indulging in same sex eroticism had their property confiscated, sacred texts burned, temples raised; they were tortured, forced to commit suicide, or burned alive.

By the start of the 6th century CE, the Cult and the ancient Gallae were extinct. Elements of the cult were transferred into Christianity in a manner similar to that of Isis. There is a much of Cybele and Isis in the Virgin Mary.


(1) Gallae is derivative of Latin for chicken or rooster. Historically the Gallae were referred to as Galloi or Galli (plural), or Gallus (singular). This reflects I think how they were seen by those archivists whose works have survived -- as deviant males. However, this little red hen uses the feminine version of the title, reflecting current use for transgendered males.

(2) The fate of Troy had depended upon the the wooden Palladium, the Statue of Pallas-Athena, which Odysseus had stolen.

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The Real Galli


The Galli were the most widely known part of the cult of Cybele (and also of the Syrian goddesses Atargatis). In Greece the Galli of Cybele were also known as Corybantes.

The Galli of Atargatis dressed as the Goddess in Egyptian feminine attire. Their duties included caring for sacred fish and participating in the Feast of Fire in Early spring. They were involved a great slave rebellion of 135-131 BCE and later were victims of Hebrew zealots.

The Galli of Cybele were not her only followers, but they were the most notorious, known for their self inflicted castrations, loud music and wild dancing. The rest of this page describes aspects of their life and practice.


Historically the Galli were referred to as Galloi or Galli (plural) and sometimes Gallae, or Gallus or Gallos (singular). This is the Roman title and is similar to the Latin name for rooster(1). The name however may be derivative from the river Gallos, a tributary to the Sangarios river in Phrygia.

The Galli originated from Phrygia (part of Asia Minor), a territory that included Mount Ida, Troy, Pessinus and Pergamum. The worship of Cybele spread to the Greek mainland through trade, and by metragytes, who were roaming Galli. They would wander the countryside, begging for alms and telling fortunes. On the whole however the Galli were shunned by the Greeks, either through xeno- or trans-phobia.

In 205 BCE Cybele was imported to Rome. The Galli and their head priest the Battakès went with Her.

Roman Attitudes

Initially the Senate confined the Galli to the enclosure of the sanctuary at the Palatine. A priest and priestess from Phrygia was in charge of the clergy and recruitment was from outside Rome. Once a year during the April festivals, the Galli were allowed to dance through the streets of Rome to the sound of tambourines in full dress (see below). They were also allowed to make door-to-door collections for temple and staff upkeep. Thereafter they returned to the temples until the following year.

Roman citizens were forbidden to become priests, enter these areas, or join in the frenzied celebrations and undergo ritual castration. In 101 BCE restrictions were relaxed so that certain citizens might become Galli if they so desired, and these restrictions were removed entirely under the rule of Claudius. Under Domitian (81-91 CE) citizens were once gain forbidden to become Galli. This was reversed yet again in 239 and this period of tolerance lasted until the adoption on Christianity as the state religion.

Many Galli perished at the hands of zealous Christians. The Emperor Valentinian II officially banned the worship of Cybele and forbade citizens to visit Her temples or make sacrifice to Her. Justinian had transgendered persons such as the Galli tortured, forced to commit suicide and burnt at the stake. Their property was confiscated and the temples razed, just as those of the witches was during the "burning times".


The Galli were concerned with fashion, both for themselves and as an expression of reverence for the Goddess. They tended to dress in combinations of feminine and sacerdotal dress, only infrequently wearing men's garments (and then mostly of foreign design).

They dressed in silk or linen stolea and chiridotae -- robes and tunics worn by women and gender variant men in Roman and Greek society. Popular colours were grass-green, chartreuse, purple and saffron, and may have had patterns of arrows, checks and stripes. On their feet they wore gold, red or pink sandals or slippers. On their heads they wore golden hairnets or wreaths of gold leaves. On other occasions those of the highest rank might were miters, turbans or tiaras with ribbons falling to the shoulder.

The Galli also sometimes wore exquisite jewellery -- necklaces, brooches, rings, earrings and ankle bracelets. Pierced ears signified devoted service to the Goddess. They also wore make-up, plucked their eyebrows (and indulged in depilation), and outlined their eyes with Kohl. Their hair was allowed to grow long though it was seldom let down. Instead elaborate hairstyles were common, and those who were bald wore wigs. The Galli also used oils and perfume.

They were also said to have certain speech and mannerisms peculiar to themselves. They were also said to speak in shrill tones, to lisp, to giggle and whisper, to use women's oaths and address each other in feminine gender.

Transgendered Status

As a transgendered person myself, I believe I know where they were coming from. The Galli (on the whole) were not just strange eunuchs -- many must also have been transgendered. Why? Because after their "day of blood" when they would voluntarily castrate themselves (primitive reassignment surgery?), they made an effort to appear and behave as women.

That these attempts may have been mocked by outside observers or were successful is not the point. Rather, it is that the effort was made at all. The myth of Attis gave them a religious basis for being who they could be. Of course with any large body of people, over such a long period of time, it would be impossible to say this of all Galli.

For a start, the Romans later added the position of archigallus. As high priest of the Mother-worship cult, the archigallus was a Roman citizen. This was an official duty and considered to be incompatible with castration, so an alternative was created. This was the taurobolium, in which the initiate or official was baptised by the blood of a sacrificed bull, whose testicles were also removed and offered to the Goddess. Thus, a substitute offering was made. It should be remembered that the Galli were only one branch of Cybele followers. There were others.

The other point is that castration can mean different things. Sometimes it was clearly the removal of both penis and testes, other times just the testes, and sometimes the cutting of certain veins. The practice varied over a period of time, and for different people. There are many similarities between the Galli and the Hijras.

The Hijras

In different places, and at different times, different cultures have produced groups and subcultures of striking similarities.

The Hijras are transgendered males in contemporary Indian society. Some come from a Hindu background, others from a Muslim one. As a rule they live in their own households headed by gurus with the rest being chelas (or followers).

Most are followers of Bahuchara (a Mother Goddess) and undergo emasculation rites, thereafter dressing and appearing in feminine modes as women. The Hijras are reputed to have the power to bless or curse, sometimes tell fortunes, and perform dances at marriages and naming ceremonies. Some go begging on the streets, threatening to expose themselves to men if alms are not paid to them.

On the whole the Hijras occupy a lower economic niche in Indian society. They are both feared and respected, and considered "neither men nor women" by some. Just like the Galli of old, who were respected and feared by some, and mocked by others.

And here I am -- a modern Galla, looking at my ancient antecedents, and my overseas cousins from a distance. And what I see are people who found themselves a niche, so that they could (and can) become more who they want and need to be. In either case the justification may have been a religious one, but the result was the same -- a place and community to be in. Can I ask for more?


(1) I love happy coincidences. I was born in the Chinese year of the cock, love wearing sandals, and my name Laura (derivative of what my old male name was) means "of the laurel", which some gallae wore around their heads.

Sources for this page include:

  • Conner, Sparks and Sparks (eds); Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit; Cassell, ISBN 0-304-33760-9.
  • Rousselle, Aline; Porneia: on desire and the body in antiquity; Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-19208-5
  • Nanda, Serena; Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India; Wadsworth Modern Anthropology Library, ISBN ;0-534-12204-3.
  • Sexual Life in Ancient Rome; Constable and Company, ISBN 0-09-4731705.
  • Turcan, Robert; The Cults of the Roman Empire; Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-20047-9.
  • Vermaseren, M.J.; CYBELE AND ATTIS, the Myth and the Cult; Thames and Hudson, 1977.

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Cult Rituals

There were two basic types of rituals in the Cult of Cybele -- annual celebrations and other rituals.

Annual Celebrations

The following cycle developed in Rome over a period of time. It represents the death of Attis after his castration, and later resurrection.

Canna intrat (15 March)
The brotherhood of cannophori went into procession through the streets, carrying reeds cut from the banks of the Almo. This was the beginning of nine days of penitence when people abstained from bread, pomegranates, quinces, pork, and fish. Milk was mainly drunk instead.

Arbor intrat (22 March)
Before sunrise, a pine tree was felled in a sacred grove of Cybele. An effigy of Attis was attached to it and decorated in violets and ribbons. It was then carried in procession through Rome by the dendophori (to the weeping of the gallae) to the sanctuary, where it was exposed to the adoration of the crows before being laid in state.

The following day was a "day or mourning" and lamentation. The Salli (who were priest dancers of Mars) went in procession sounding their trumpets and beating their shields.

Dies Sanguinis (24 March)
This was the "day of blood". The high priest and the gallae did a wild dance around the sacred pine tree. He flagellated himself and them with a whip hung with knuckle bones. Clarinets and cymbals were played, and timbrels beaten furiously. People would also beat their breasts with pine cones and cut their arms and shoulders with knives. The blood from this was spilled on the pine tree or altars, with screams and yells that were echoed by the crowd. Some spectators entered the frenzied dances themselves and even participated in the next step. This was ritual castration of initiates, performed with broken pottery, sharp flint, and glass (in later times only the testicles were removed) (1). The pine was then buried. The high priest said prayers for the protection of the emperor and Empire.

Hilaria (25 March)
On the following day the resurrection of Attis was proclaimed. This was the day of "Hilaria" or rejoicing. The first day when day is longer then night. It was a festival of Spring and life rediscovered.

There was a triumphal procession which would feature Cybele's idol; borrowed works of art; knights and senators; freedmen; flute players; trumpeters; drummers and chanters. This was followed by a lavish feasting.

Requietio (26 March)
This was a day of rest. People probably needed it after the previous day.

Lavatio (27 March)
A procession was made with Cybele's Idol along the Appian Way until the Almo river was reached. Then the idol would be dipped into the river, rubbed with ash and then washed. Other religious artefacts were also washed. The Goddess was asked if she would return to Rome, and then taken back the way She came (so we assume the answer was YES).

Megalensia (4 April)
This was the anniversary of the entry of Cybele to Rome. It marked the start of season for plays, games, and other forms of entertainment.

Dies Natalis (10 April)
This was the anniversary of the founding of the Temple. People were entitled to chariot races in the Circus Maximus, where a statue of Cybele stood beside the central obelisk. It was on this day that the gallae were allowed to collect money.
The festivities from the 15th to 27th of March are clearly those of a dying and reborn God. Attis was originally a god of vegetation. Later he became associated with the Sun. There are also clearly similarities between these rites and those of Easter, but it most likely that the Christian rites were influenced by these, not vice versa. Christianity had a habit of incorporating pagan practices as a way of gaining converts. Mithra, another dying and reborn God, also had a popular cult about this time.

Of what relevance are these festivities to transgendered pagans today? The obvious correlation would be with reassignment surgery. Some of my male--female friends celebrate a "fanniversary" on the anniversary of their reassignment surgery. Not every transgendered person undergoes this, but at some point we give up the old life (and gender) and start living a new one (and a different gender).

Either can be involved in a cycle of grieving and celebration. Grieving, because he have let go of all the possibilities inherent in who we presented ourselves with. This might involve saying goodbye to friends, lovers and family (hopefully not). But in any case, something is lost, for better or worse. But something is gained too. We gain a new life and the possibility of developing ourselves in new ways and directions -- ways that were impossible before.

I won't describe a set of modern rituals here -- rather I'll leave that up to you. But grieving and rebirth are valid rituals to perform, and reflect the nature of The God within yourself, regardless of which direction you are moving (male to female or female to male). Set the dates for whatever is personally relevant to yourself. It need not be connected to spring rites.

Other Rituals

Two rituals should be noted in particular -- the Taurobolium and the Criobolium. These involved sacrifices of a bull or ram respectively to produce a baptism of blood. The initiate would stand underneath the sacrificial animal in a pit. It was then slaughtered and the blood poured up the person beneath it. Sometimes the testicles of the animal would be removed as well. It is thought that this was intended as a substitute castration. Instead of the initiate castrating themselves, the animal was sacrificed and castrated instead.

The rituals date from a much later period and were probably mechanisms by which citizens became archigallus and could remain citizens. I see no reason why this ritual should be revived today. rather then sacrifice our animals, let's respect and treasure them.

The gallae were also associated with fortune telling for money. They were also known to compose spells, create philtres, fashion amulets and talismans (for lovers, farmers and travellers) and supposed to hold power over wild animals. Some people thought they could make rain, and exorcise spirits and engage in rituals of purification.

I wish I could give you a list of suggested rituals and practices for these, but I can't. All this knowledge has been lost. However, there are numerous books and groups available now to help. Being a galla is not an exclusive things and doesn't stop one from following other disciplines and belonging to groups.


(1) After the castration, the lower bellies of the gallae were tattooed, and sometimes gold leaf was applied to the healed wound.

Sources for this page include:

  • Conner, Sparks and Sparks (eds); Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit; Cassell, ISBN 0-304-33760-9.
  • Rousselle, Aline; Porneia: on desire and the body in antiquity; Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-19208-5
  • Nanda, Serena; Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India; Wadsworth Modern Anthropology Library, ISBN 0-534-12204-3.
  • Sexual Life in Ancient Rome; Constable and Company, ISBN 0-09-4731705.
  • Turcan, Robert; The Cults of the Roman Empire; Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-20047-9.
  • Vermaseren, M.J.; CYBELE AND ATTIS, the Myth and the Cult; themes and Hudson, 1977.

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