Attis by the Thames

Who could come upon this ornate Roman testicular clamp in the British Museum and not think of Catullus?  Not I!

Yes, a testicular clamp, that’s what I said. A clamp that is meant to crush testicles. A castration device. It looks and works just like a nut-cracker, except that each shank is about a foot long.

Oh, I hear you say. Oh, it must be for animals. For gelding horses or spaying dogs or something like that. Of course! You had me worried there, you say with relief. Not so quick, my squeamish friend. Why would anybody go to the trouble of making such an elaborate set of emasculators for a horse or a cow bull, such as can be seen to the right?  Yes, I said “emasculators.”  That’s the technical term. Click here to learn more, but you should probably (ahem) gird your loins before looking at the images.

And these Roman emasculators are elaborate, don’t you think?  They are made of heavy bronze, and feature detailed busts of animals and divinities.  You can easily recognize near the top of the closer shank the heads of Mars (in a characteristic war-helmet) and Diana (with a crescent moon on her head). In an old British Museum Guide to the Antiquities of Roman Britain (1922) which I brought with me from Sewanee, it says that the clamp was “discovered in the bed of the Thames near London Bridge during operations for deepening the river in 1840.”  How it ended up in the river is anybody’s guess.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

At the top of the further shank we see the head of the goddess Cybele, wearing her traditional mural crown, as can be seen more clearly on the coin to the left.  This is enough to let us know that the clamp is likely a ritual implement of her cult, which prominently featured the castration of male priests in imitation of her mythological follower, Attis.  Such priests, known as galli, were found not only in the East, where the cult originated, but in even in distant Britain.  In 2002, in fact, a male skeleton from 4th century AD found in Catterick near York was identified as a gallus from the women’s clothing and jewellery in which he was buried.  In addition, two pebbles had been placed in his mouth, a reference to his castration, it seems.

The best known literary evocation of this ritual act is found in the long poem, no. 63, by Catullus, which opens thus (translation below):

Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria,
Phrygium ut nemus citato cupide pede tetigit,
adiitque opaca silvis redimita loca deae,
stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animis,
devolsit ili acuto sibi pondera silice,
itaque ut relicta sensit sibi membra sine viro,
etiam recente terrae sola sanguine maculans,
niveis citata cepit manibus leve typanum,
typanum tuum, Cybebe, tua, mater initia,
quatiensque terga tauri teneris cava digitis
canere haec suis adorta est tremebunda comitibus.

“Borne in his swift bark over deep seas, Attis,
when eagerly with speedy foot he reached the Phrygian woodland,
and entered the goddess’ abodes, shadowy, forest-crowned;
there, goaded by raging madness, bewildered in mind, he cast
down from him with sharp flint-stone the burden of his member.
So when she felt her limbs to have lost their manbood,
still with fresh blood dabbling the face of the ground,
swiftly with snowy bands she seized the light timbrel,
your timbrel, Cybele, thy mysteries, Mother,
and shaking with soft fingers the hollow oxhide
thus began she to sing to her companions tremulously.”

Note how Catullus cleverly changes the gender from male to female once Attis has castrated himself, not with a clamp but acuto silice, “with a sharp flint-stone.”  The poem goes on for another 80+ lines to describe Attis’ subsequent remorse and Cybele’s wrath (the full text and translation of the poem can be found here.)

Beyond the outré subject-matter, this poem is notable for its highly unsual meter, the galliambic or “limping iambic.”  The best online discussion of this complicated meter is to be found on the website of my former Sewanee colleague, Doug Seiters. The only imitation of the galliambic in English that I know of is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Boadicaea, the long poem about the native British queen who led a failed rebellion against Rome.  She rails against the Romans in Tennyson’s poem in fiery limping iambs,

Burst the gates, and burn the palaces, break the works of the statuary,
Take the hoary Roman head and shatter it, hold it abominable,
Cut the Roman boy to pieces in his lust and voluptuousness,
Lash the maiden into swooning, me they lash’d and humiliated,
Chop the breasts from off the mother, dash the brains of the little one out,
Up my Britons, on my chariot, on my chargers, trample them under us.’

The problem of imitating a Latin meter in English is problematic from inception, to be sure, but no matter how you look at it, the poem’s rhythm is not successful.  Nevertheless, I thought of these spiteful lines when I saw Boadicaea’s famous bronze representation on Westminster Bridge last week.  Perhaps, I like to imagine, she is casting a wrathful glance at the lustful and voluptuous Roman boys making galli of themselves downstream, close to London Bridge.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Bible, Classics, Emblems, England, Mythology, Poetry, Sewanee. Bookmark the permalink.

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