International Transgender Day of Visibility: The Galli in Yorkshire

During an excavation at Hungate in York, a small Roman burial ground was unearthed. Among the various bones and grave goods was a particular individual buried wearing fine and unusual jewellery. The two bracelets – one made of individually carved chunky Jet segments, the other formed from a single smooth piece of shale – are strikingly similar to pieces of jewellery found in another grave in 2002.

In Catterick, North Yorkshire, archaeologists uncovered another skeleton wearing nearly identical pieces of jewellery. Jet jewellery in particular was strongly associated with femininity in ancient Roman culture, whilst the bones themselves have been identified as male. As such, archaeologists concluded that this individual was one of the Galli, a religious order of the goddess Cybele.

Who was Cybele?

Cybele (SIB-uh-lee) was an Anatolian deity originating in Phrygia, what is now Asian-Turkey. In 204 BC she was adopted into Roman religion via ancient Greece, and was known in Latin as Magna Mater, the great mother. As a mother goddess, her domain was far reaching, being a patron of health, home, fertility, and protection. As an imported “foreign” deity she carried associations of power, mysticism, and wilderness. During her festival in Rome a statue was paraded through the street of her enthroned upon a chariot drawn by lions. Often depicted alongside Cybele was her consort, Attis. Attis was Cybele’s mortal beloved and first devotee, who unfortunately died after being castrated. The figure of the “Eunuch” Attis became a key figure of the religion, and over time Attis evolved into an almost Christ-like figure, revered alongside the Magna Mater. 

When Cybele was imported from the East, her worshippers came with her. The most striking of these were the Galli.

Who were the Galli?

The Galli were a religious order dedicated to Cybele. Allowing only male (or at least, assigned male at birth) members, the Galli caused a stir when they first arrived in Rome. Brazenly transgressing Roman gender roles, the Galli donned “female” attire, wearing bright yellow dresses and jewellery. They presented an exaggerated femininity with bold, dramatic makeup and elaborate hairstyles. Most shocking to the early Roman mind, they followed the example of Attis and practised self-castration. As Cybele was integrated into the Roman pantheon, so too were the Galli integrated into Roman society. Castration was illegal for Roman citizens, and “Eunuchs” were forbidden from holding public office, but the religious order was organised into the class of priests headed by an “Archigallus”, a Roman citizen appointed by the state. 

The Galli drew a great deal of attention and intrigue from their contemporaries. During festivals they would dance through the streets playing loud and cacophonous music on drums, pipes and cymbals. On certain occasions, they would carry swords or whips and flagellate themselves as part of the performance. On non-festival days, they could be found by the temple of Cybele, where they had lodgings. They were a mendicant order, relying on donations, and so would often walk through the streets offering to tell people’s fortunes in return for some charity. Many members were also well known to engage in prostitution (which was of course perfectly legal and acceptable at the time.) The Galli were considered to occupy a space between the strict norms of society. They were referred to by contemporary writers as Media Genus and Tertia Sexus, the middle gender and the third sex. Their position, transcending the mundane, was believed to give them otherworldly abilities. A fortune telling from the Galli was likely to come true, and a curse from them was particularly terrifying. Thankfully, the need for such curses would have been rare, as their status among the priestly class garnered the Galli a good deal of protection.

What happened to the Galli?

The cult of Cybele actually proved to be one of, if not the most enduring pagan religion in the Roman Empire. Long after Christianity had been adopted as the state religion, after veneration of Jupiter or even the Emperor had died down, the Magna Mater prevailed. The cult did change somewhat over the years, though. Castration was never mandatory, and although the rules of the Roman state varied over time and location, it is reasonable to say that at least some proportion of the Galli chose not to undergo the procedure. As a contemporary to Christianity, the two religions often came into conflict. Early Christian writers condemned the provocative and often sexually explicit rites of the Galli, whilst the cult of Cybele moved one of its celebrations to the springtime, and added a theme of resurrection to Attis, in direct competition with the Christian Easter. Despite the effort, however, the cult of Cybele eventually died out. The last recorded rites were performed in 394 AD – which brings us back to archaeology.

The Galli in Yorkshire?

The body at Catterick dated from the 4th century AD, and isotope analysis showed that they originated in southern Britain or mainland Europe. The bones found here in York offered less information, but their location in a cemetery of a major city, buried still wearing their distinguishing jewellery, tells us about the respect they were afforded in life and death. Dedications to Cybele have been found at Corbridge and Chester Roman Fort, and the presence of Galli in important Roman cities such as Eboracum is not surprising. Despite this, the people who made up this striking, transgressive part of Roman life have often been ignored, avoided, or simply dismissed by later historians.

If you’re interested in seeing these up close, you can see the jewellery from Hungate at our attraction DIG: An Archaeological Adventure. The skeleton from Catterick is on display at the Yorkshire Museum.

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