Catullus 63 is a remarkable poem. It sees Attis, a Greek youth, journey to Phrygia, the home of the goddess Cybele. Once there, he promptly castrates himself, then, possessed by religious ecstasy, he performs a frenzied dance, before falling asleep, exhausted. When he awakens the next day, he realises, with horror, what he has done. However, it is too late. He must remain as Cybele’s slave, in the forest wilderness, forever.
Poem 63 is written in vivid and sensual language, which creates a world full of colour and sound for the reader. A further distinctive feature of the poem is that it is written in galliambics. This metre is very rare in Latin, as the end of each line typically consists of a series of four or five short syllables, whereas in other metres the general preference tends to be for long ones. This produces a distinctive aural effect, which recalls the dialogue of kettle-drum and cymbals which characterises Cybele’s worship. The effect is mesmerising and I have tried to reflect it in my translation given at the bottom of this article.
The poem, probably composed in the early/mid 50s BC, is also difficult to categorise. It seems to be an aetiological myth, which explains why the Galli, the attendant priests of Cybele (whose cult was established in Rome in 204 BC), were eunuchs. Its metre, however, categorises it instead as a hymn. Its tone is similarly elusive, as it can be read in both “tragic” and “comic” terms.
Structurally, Carmen 63 can be seen as a mini-tragedy, divided into three dramatic “acts”, consisting of religious frenzy (lines 1–38); regret and repentance (39–73); then escape and recapture (74–90). However, there is surprisingly little authorial sympathy for Attis’ plight – he is depicted as a self-absorbed and cowardly youth; indeed, the final statement of the poem (91–3), made by a nameless – perhaps authorial – voice, boils down to “rather him than me”.
The “narrator” picks up Attis’ story as he arrives in Phrygia. No detail of the youth’s previous life, nor of the circumstances which drove him to join the cult of Cybele, is provided at this point, and the narrative voice does not speculate. Attis then performs his act of self-emasculation (4–5). One notable feature of the poem is that, from this point onwards, there are numerous references to him in the feminine grammatical form. At the same time, Cybele is depicted as a female of awesome power, who takes Attis’ regret at what he has done as a personal insult. Thus, the poem plays with expectations around gender roles.
A further example of this occurs at lines 50–73, where Attis laments his fate, tearfully addressing his own “spirit” – anime. As a song-form, lament is usually performed by women in a ritual context, as they bewail the loss of, typically, their dead and/or their homelands. Such laments often make extensive use of repetition and responsion and Attis’ bewailings follow a similar pattern. Thus, the six instances of ego (“I”) of lines 68–71, mingle with the three instances of mihi (“to me”) of 65–6; these echo the extended anaphoras of “ubi” in lines 21–5.
The various themes and formulations of ritual lament are often expressed in terms of contrasts, such as “now”/ “then”, “I”/”you” and “praise”/ “reproach” and Attis’s speech is no different. Using two emphatic pairings of iam (“now”) in line 73, he marks the contrast between his current, bleak position and the “then” of his previous life, when he enjoyed a privileged existence and was a highly sought-after object of (implicitly male) desire. This device makes his bitter regret – paenitet (73) – all the more devastating when it comes.
ego vitam agam sub altis Phrygiae columinibus,
ubi cerva silvicultrix, ubi aper nemorivagus?
iam iam dolet quod egi, iam iamque paenitet
Shall I pass my life in Phrygia, under towering mountain-top top top
With the wood-haunting deer and forest-ranging pig pig pig?
Now, now, what I have done appals me, now, now, I’m sorry for it it it. (71–3)
Attis’ situation finds its parallels in the plight of various tragic heroines, too. Like Euripides’ Medea, he leaves home and family in pursuit of divinely-inspired, but ultimately doomed, obsession. There are also parallels between his situation and that of Euripides’ Helen (412 BC), who becomes not the notorious adulteress of myth but a wronged woman, who never went to Troy. Instead, she was whisked away to Egypt, while an eidōlon, or ghost, took her place at Paris’ side. As she faces the prospect of an unwanted wedding to a “barbarian” husband, Helen states that she finds her own figure – which others regard as supremely beautiful – distasteful (Hel. 293–7). Attis, reflecting on the harsh reality of his “union” with Cybele, looks, equally aghast, at the ruins of his masculine body.
Attis remains an ambiguous figure, however, who can also be identified with a number of tragic males. Thus, his pattern of madness followed by regret is reminiscent of the eponymous heroes in Euripides’ Heracles and Sophocles’ Ajax. Attis’ stated motive for his emasculation – Veneris nimio odio (“excessive hatred of Venus”, 17), where the goddess’ name is used as a euphemism for sexual love – also invokes memories of Hippolytus, another Euripidean hero, who rejects intimate relationships with women and is horribly punished by Aphrodite, Venus’ Greek counterpart, as a result.
However, the most resonant of tragic echoes come from Euripides’ Bacchae (405 BC). Attis can be particularly identified with the Theban King, Pentheus, who adopts feminine clothing and a feminised demeanour (Bacch. 787–861) in order to spy on the (female) followers of Dionysus. Dionysus, like Cybele, is of foreign origin, sexually ambivalent, awesome, and proud. The cult practices of the two gods are strikingly similar, too. Catullus emphasises this by employing imagery and vocabulary which recalls the parodos of the Bacchae. For example, he includes references to the thiasos, or sacred band of worshippers (1115) and the “ivy-wreaths” (106) worn by its members. The text also mentions various items of cult equipment, such as the drum and pipes, which are common to the worship of both, as well as the tossing of the head that was particularly characteristic of Maenadic dancing (77 and Cat. 63.23).
Imagery of cymbals, kettle-drum and pipes; ivy-garlands and fawnskins also appear in the second choral song of Euripides’ Helen. However, this time, the ecstatic rites are performed in relation to yet another deity – Demeter, who is also referred to as “the Great Mother” – a title normally attributed to Cybele. In addition, although the relevant section of the text is unfortunately corrupt, it appears that Helen has offended Dionysus and Demeter/Cybele in some way, perhaps, it is suggested, by focussing too much on her beauty. This self-absorption seems to have led her to neglect her religious duties (1354–7) and thus to incur the anger of the god. If this reading is correct, then there are clear parallels between Helen and Attis, as both are vain individuals who incite the wrath of a mother goddess. A further intertextual link also appears in line 36, where Attis falls asleep sine Cerere. Although this phrase has been interpreted as a simple metaphor for a lack of food, Ceres, the corn goddess, is the Roman version of Demeter.
Pentheus in the Bacchae, like Hippolytus, Orestes and indeed Attis, is a young man on the verge of manhood. However, more particularly, he displays the physical characteristics of the Greek erōmenos, an effeminate youth who, with his “delicate fingers” (niveis manibus) and “rosy lips” (roseis… labellis), is the passive object of an older man’s desire. By his own admission, Attis has been a puer, an ephebus and an adulescens. What he is not – and now never will be – is a vir. The latter is the ideal of Roman manhood – someone whose masculinity is asserted through virtus (“strength”; derived from the word vir) and decus (honour, preferably military), who takes a sexually dominant role and acts as paterfamilias.
Kenneth Quinn made a compelling argument that Attis’ situation, as depicted in Poem 63, is an example of a “failed ephebic transition”. Certainly, the youth’s act of self-castration prevents him from becoming a husband and father. His decision to leave his homeland also rules out the possibility of military service. His role as a passive sexual partner marks him out as similarly “unmanly”.
The idea that Attis might be a “failed” vir is an intriguing one. The scholar Gerald Sandy identified marriage as the unifying factor of Catullus’ so-called Carmina maiora – the longer poems which form the centrepiece of Catullus’ surviving corpus. Carmen 63 sits in this section, between a marriage hymn, which is sung by a chorus of girls and a chorus of boys, and an epyllion, or minor epic.
In Poem 62, the two sexes present contrasting views of marriage in a simulation of a singing contest. The girls express a very personal fear of the institution, and the intimacy it implies, as well as dread at being separated from their mothers and homes. The boys, meanwhile, stress the legal, social, and political advantages of the married state. The latter “win” the argument. Attis’ fate also bears comparison with that of the Ariadne of Poem 64, whose tale is depicted on the marriage coverlet of Peleus and Thetis, which Catullus describes in great detail (64.50–253). Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus, whom she hoped to wed and, like Attis, she stands on the shoreline, tearfully lamenting her fate. However, unlike Attis, Ariadne is rescued – by Bacchus, the Roman version of Dionysus, whose bride she becomes.
Euripides’ Helen also gets a happy ending. Unlike Attis, she is able to expurgate her religious sins, through ritual, and to resume her role as a wife and mother. This is described in the third choral ode of Euripides’ play, which looks forward to Helen’s return to Sparta, where she will take her place as the head of a chorus of young girls dancing on the banks of the River Eurotas for a religious festival (Helen 1465–78).
Helen may seem an unlikely poster-girl for marriage, but Euripides’ poetry reflects an actual Spartan cult, where she was honoured by young girls on the verge of matrimony. Her deemed worthiness as a role model for would-be brides appears to derive from her beauty, her grace and (it is implied) her virginity. Similar ideals are expressed in Poem 62, which includes an extended simile that compares the loss of a girl’s virginity to the plucking of a flower. When this happens, the chorus of girls concludes, female desirability is lost forever.
Poem 63 shows Attis, like Helen, taking his place as the head (dux) of a chorus of “girls”. This is because, when he performs his initial, orgiastic rites, he is accompanied by a number of companions – other, recently-castrated males, who are referred to as feminine-form Gallae. They, however, mysteriously melt away once the rites are over. There is no hint that Attis has performed these acts of devotion incorrectly; however, unlike Helen, he is not rewarded with the consummation he desires.
Catullus gives his readers no literary clue as to how they are to take the bleak ending of Poem 63. This has not, however, prevented scholars from speculating on his poetic intentions. Some have seen the poem as a political allegory for the plight of the Rome of the Late Republic; others as a metaphor for Catullus’ own relationship with his faithless girlfriend, “Lesbia”. A different school of thought sees the poem, not as a dazzlingly original composition, but as a reworking of a lost Alexandrian poem. Some even dismiss it as a mere metrical “experiment”. However, its positioning in the Carmina maiora; the stark contrast between the respective fates of Attis and Ariadne, and the emphatic statement (at line 27) that Attis is a “notha mulier” – a “fake female” – all suggest that Catullus used the poem as a vehicle to explore ideas of masculinity and femininity.
This interpretation helps to explain why the poet chose Attis as a subject. The youth’s mythic status helps to position the poem as an allegory. Attis is also, very definitely, “other”; in iconography, he wears distinctive Phrygian attire and his status as the eunuch consort of a foreign goddess marks him out as decidedly un-Roman. However, Catullus’ decision to make Attis a Greek erōmenos also makes sense from a poetic perspective, as this social role was not replicated in the Roman world, where erotic relationships between older men and elite youths were frowned upon. It is implicit that no Roman could make the choices that Attis does.
Attis is fixated on his own beauty and the (male) admiration it attracts, so he rejects the logical next stage in his social development – “manhood”. Instead, he allows himself to be enticed by the allurements of the East and its duplicitous gods. However, not only is Attis punished most severely for this decision, but Catullus also makes it very clear that there is no going back. Attis’ rejection of his expected role is unforgiveable. He is no Helen, nor even an Ariadne; he will never be rescued, and he only has himself to blame.
Catullus is an endlessly inventive poet, whose work has fascinated generations of readers. However, for all his artistry and innovation, he is still a male, steeped in Roman values. In Poem 16, he subjects his critics to a barrage of (highly sexualised) invective for daring to impugn his manhood, because they misunderstand his poems as “soft” (molliculi) and “not quite decent” (parum pudici). It is entirely in keeping with this worldview that the ultimate message of his most fascinating poem would be a socially conservative one – that is, a good Roman man should get married, produce children and serve his country.
Anne Hardy is currently doing her Masters in Classics at University College London. Her previous article for Antigone looked at Horace’s thoughts on love and liquor.
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 ilei acuto sibi pondera silice. 5
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 10
canere haec suis adorta est tremebunda comitibus
“agite ite ad alta, Gallae, Cybeles nemora simul,
simul ite, Dindymenae dominae vaga pecora,
aliena quae petentes velut exsules loca
sectam meam exsecutae duce me mihi comites 15
rapidum salum tulistis truculentaque pelagi
et corpus evirastis Veneris nimio odio,
hilarate erae citatis erroribus animum.
mora tarda mente cedat: simul ite, sequimini
Phrygiam ad domum Cybebes, Phrygia ad nemora deae, 20
ubi cymbalum sonat vox, ubi tympana reboant,
tibicen ubi canit Phryx curvo grave calamo,
ubi capita Maenades vi iaciunt hederigerae,
ubi sacra sancta acutis ululatibus agitant,
ubi suevit illa divae volitare vaga cohors, 25
quo nos decet citatis celerare tripudiis.”
simul haec comitibus Attis cecinit notha mulier,
thiasus repente linguis trepidantibus ululat,
leve tympanum remugit, cava cymbala recrepant,
viridem citus adit Idam properante pede chorus. 30
furibunda simul anhelans vaga vadit animam agens
comitata tympano Attis per opaca nemora dux,
veluti iuvenca vitans onus indomita iugi:
rapidae ducem sequuntur Gallae properipedem.
itaque, ut domum Cybelles tetigere lassulae, 35
nimio e labore somnum capiunt sine Cerere. his labante langore oculos sopor operit:
abit in quiete molli rabidus furor animi.
sed ubi oris aurei Sol radiantibus oculis
lustravit aethera album, sola dura, mare ferum, 40
pepulitque noctis umbras vegetis sonipedibus,
ibi Somnus excitam Attin fugiens citus abiit:
trepidante eum recepit dea Pasithea sinu.
ita de quiete molli rapida sine rabie,
simul ipsa pectore Attis sua facta recoluit, 45
liquidaque mente vidit sine quis ubique foret,
animo aestuante rusum reditum ad vada tetulit.
ibi maria vasta visens lacrimantibus oculis,
patriam adlocuta maesta est ita voce miseriter:
“patria o mei creatrix, patria o mea genetrix, 50
ego quam miser relinquens, dominos ut erifugae
famuli solent, ad Idae tetuli nemora pedem,
ut apud nivem et ferarum gelida stabula forem
et earum opaca adirem furibunda latibula,
ubinam aut quibus locis te positam, patria, reor? 55
cupit ipsa pupula ad te sibi derigere aciem,
rabie fera carens dum breve tempus animus est.
egone a mea remota haec ferar in nemora domo?
patria, bonis, amicis, genitoribus abero?
abero foro, palaestra, stadio, et gymnasiis? 60
miser a miser, querendum est etiam atque etiam, anime.
quod enim genus figurae est ego non quod obierim?
ego mulier, ego adulescens, ego ephebus, ego puer,
ego gymnasi fui flos, ego eram decus olei:
mihi ianuae frequentes, mihi limina tepida, 65
mihi floridis corollis redimita domus erat,
linquendum ubi esset orto mihi sole cubiculum.
ego nunc deum ministra et Cybeles famula ferar?
ego Maenas, ego mei pars, ego vir sterilis ero?
ego viridis algida Idae nive amicta loca colam? 70
ego vitam agam sub altis Phrygiae columinibus,
ubi cerva silvicultrix, ubi aper nemorivagus?
iam iam dolet quod egi, iam iamque paenitet.”
roseis ut huic labellis sonitus citus abiit
geminas deorum ad aures nova nuntia referens, 75
ibi iuncta iuga resolvens Cybele leonibus
laevumque pecoris hostem stimulans ita loquitur.
“agedum,” inquit, “age ferox i, fac ut hunc furor agitet,
fac uti furoris ictu reditum in nemora ferat,
mea libere nimis qui fugere imperia cupit, 80
age caede terga cauda, tua verbera patere,
fac cuncta mugienti fremitu loca retonent,
rutilam ferox torosa cervice quate iubam.”
ait haec minax Cybebe religatque iuga manu.
ferus ipse sese adhortans rabidum incitat animo, 85
vadit, fremit, refringit virgulta pede vago.
at ubi umida albicantis loca litoris adiit
tenerumque vidit Attin prope marmora pelagi,
facit impetum. illa demens fugit in nemora fera:
ibi semper omne vitae spatium famula fuit. 90
dea magna, dea Cybebe, dea domina Dindymi,
procul a mea tuos sit furor omnis, era, domo:
alios age incitatos, alios age rabidos.
Over the high seas, Attis, carried in a rapid tub, tub, tub
Touched the grove in Phrygia, keen, with hurrying pad, pad, pad
Then neared the god’s shady, wood-crowned home home home
There, stung by raving rage, his mind a-flame flame flame
With sharp flint, he struck off the weight from his lap lap lap 5
Then, as he felt his left-over limbs, now not of a man man man,
Still with new blood staining the soil of the sod sod sod,
In snowy hand, she grabbed the light shallow drum drum drum
Your tambourine, Cybele, your cult-rites, mum mum mum,
Shaking with fine fingertips, the hollow bull’s skin skin skin 10
Thus began to sing, a trill to her mates mates mates
“Come to the heights, hurry, Gallae, to Cybele’s scrub scrub scrub
Come together, Mistress of Dindymus’ vagrant mob, mob, mob
Who, like a band of exiles seeking a foreign plot plot plot
And, following my path, my gang, led by me, me, me, 15
Having endured the wild salt sea and ocean’s rage, rage, rage,
And unmanned yourselves, through uncurbed hate of love love love
With your rash roving, gladden the heart of your lode-star star star
Rid your mind of slow languor, together, come follow me, me, me
To Cybele’s Phrygian home. To the Phrygian groves of the god god god 20
Where the voices of cymbals ring out, where tambours cry cry cry
Where Phrygian flautist plays bass on his curved pipe pipe pipe
Where ivy-clad maenads violently nod nod nod
Where shrill and wailing, they proclaim their holy rite rite rite
Where that roving band of the Goddess is used to flit flit flit 25
Where we must hasten and wildly skip skip skip.”
When fake female Attis had sung to her comrades thus thus thus
The celebrants promptly trilled, their tongues a-flap flap flap
The light tambour was thumped, the hollow cymbals hit hit hit
The troupe comes to green Ida, quick, feet a-flurry now now now 30
And, as if in delirium, with gasp, puff and blow blow blow
Attended by drums, through gloomy groves, Attis led led led,
A wild heifer evading the weight of the yoke yoke yoke
The swift Galli press behind him, fast and forging a way way way
And so they reached Cybebe’s home, tired out out out 35
Over-exerted, they fell asleep without grub grub grub
Sluggish sleep shrouds their eyes, drooping, tired (like a dog dog dog)
In gentle rest their minds’ mad fury is gone gone gone
But when golden-faced sun with radiant eye eye eye
Lit up the white sky, the hard lands and the wild sea sea sea 40
His clopping hooves drove away night-shades, dark dark dark
Then sleep from wide-awake Attis fled, flying fast fast fast,
To be embraced by Pasithea, a god, her breast a-stir stir stir
So, after gentle rest-time, with wild frenzy gone gone gone
When Attis’ self reflected on what she had done done done 45
And with clear mind saw without what and where she was was was
Mind a-muddle, she came back to the beach mud mud mud
There gazing at the wide waves with tearful eye eye eye
She wails thus at her country, her voice so sad sad sad
“Oh motherland, my parent; motherland, my mom mom mom 50
Whom I, as poor runaway slaves who flee their masters do do do,
Left, bringing myself to Ida’s forest, at pace pace pace,
That I may be among snow and the wild beasts’ den den den
And drawn near in my frenzy to their bolt-holes, so dark dark dark
Where or in what parts, my country, do I think you might be be be? 55
My eyeballs long to turn towards you and gaze gaze gaze
While my mind is free from mad frenzy, just for now, now, now.
Shall I rush to these forests, far from my home home home?
Be absent from my country, kit, friends, mum and dad dad dad?
Absent from forum, palaestra, stadium and gym gym gym? 60
Oh doomed, doomed spirit, you must forever and ever cry cry cry
Is there a type which exists which has not also been me, me, me?
I, a woman; I, a young man; I, a youth; I, a lad, lad, lad
I have been the flower of the gym, with oil shining on my skin skin skin
Mine were packed portals; friendly thresholds were all mine mine mine 65
There was a home decked with flower-garlands for me me me,
When I used to leave my bedroom at first sight of the sun sun sun
Now shall I be called god’s handmaid and Cybele’s girl girl girl?
Am I to be a maenad, a male unmanned, half me me me?
Am I to haunt green Ida’s cold spots, capped over with ice ice ice? 70
Shall I pass my life in Phrygia, under towering mountain-top top top
With the wood-haunting deer and forest-ranging pig pig pig?
Now, now, what I have done appals me, now, now, I’m sorry for it it it.”
As this sound quickly came from the youth’s rosy lip lip lip,
Bearing unpredicted news to the twin ears of the god god god 75
Then Cybele, loosening her lions’ harnessing yoke yoke yoke
And goading the left-hand foe of her flock, speaks thus thus thus:
“Come now” she says, “make ferocious frenzy; drive him him him
Make him retrace his footsteps forest-ward, frenzy-struck struck struck
He who too freely desires to escape from my rule rule rule 80
Come, lash your back with your tail, endure each blow blow blow
Make every corner again thunder with booming cry cry cry
Fierce one, toss your tan mane wildly on your muscled neck neck neck”.
Thus dire Cybele spoke, as her hands untied the yoke yoke yoke.
The beast, working himself up into the mood to take off off off, 85
Rushed forward, roaring; breaks the brushwood, with raging paw paw paw.
But when he came to the liquid stretches of foam-flecked shore shore shore
And spied the false female Attis, near the marbled expanse of sea sea sea
He charges; she runs off to the wild woods, quite gone gone gone
There she remained, for all time, life-long, as Cybele’s char char char. 90
God, Cybele, divine Dindymean Queen, so bad bad bad
Let all that frenzy of yours be far from my pad pad pad
Drive some to elation, drive others raving mad mad mad.
Guy Lee, The Poems of Catullus (Oxford World Classics, 1990). I really like this translation.
John Godwin, Catullus Poems 61-68 (Aris & Phillips, Warminster, 1995). This gives the Latin text of the longer poems, together with a translation and an accessible commentary for each.
Kenenth Quinn, Catullus: The Poems (Bristol Classical Press, 1973). Personally, I find this very dry, but I think it has to be included, as the standard student version!
Marilyn B. Skinner (ed.), A Companion to Catullus (Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2007). There are some really good essays in here for those who want to know more about Catullus’ work more generally.
|⇧1||NB: For consistency, Attis is referred to as “he” throughout this piece. However, “she” could equally well have been used for all instances after line 5.|