There have been a variety of attempts to equate, or at least link, Antinous to Attis. I’m rather unconvinced by most of these, for a variety of reasons, least of which is that the singular most direct link between them doesn’t present Antinous as syncretized to Attis, but instead in a different role, which will be examined below.
This might be somewhat due to the effect of “scholarly soft polytheism,” which is to say, the tendency for many classical scholars–who are usually not polytheists themselves–to not really understand the intricacies of syncretism, and to assume that possible common ancestors (linguistic or cultural) or archetypal similarities between mythic figures automatically equals union, equation, or synonymity amongst them. Since they’re “mythic” (i.e. fictional/”not real”), nobody really cares anyway, do they? (Or, so they would wish us to think.) So, because Frazer and others have written on how Osiris, Attis, Adonis, and others are really “the same” (and also Dionysos, Dumuzi, Tammuz, and others), therefore because Antinous is syncretized to Osiris, Dionysos, and Adonis in different places, Attis must likewise be a possibility. This is what has caused some scholars who have seen the Phrygian-capped statue shown in the Men and Antinous post yesterday to suggest that it could be Attis–though the other possibilities would include Ganymede and even Mithras. There is some cause to consider the first of these further suggestions (which we shall do in this series in turn), but no cause whatsoever to suggest the second. (That is true, despite whatever some other modern Antinous groups have created in their own priapic size-queen fantasies.) As mentioned yesterday, Men was also later syncretized to Attis as Attis Menotyrannus, and we have seen that there was a possible connection between that Phrygian figure and Antinous as well.
I have often wondered if there has also been an instinctive pull toward the figure of Attis for many scholars who have viewed the surviving statues of Antinous, since many of them are sadly damaged–deprived of some anatomical feature or other, but more often than not, missing their penises. Attis was missing more than that, of course, but nonetheless, seeing so many mutilated Antinous images would give one pause, perhaps. The one below is now in the Banca Italia in Rome (where it was found in the late 1880s during the construction of the building), and is a depiction of Antinous as Dionysos.
However, now we come directly to the evidence for Antinous’ connection with Attis. This is a single statue head from Ostia, found in a site associated with Magna Mater, which–if indeed it is Antinous (and current scholarly consensus includes it in the corpus of Antinous statuary), it does not show Antinous as Attis, but instead Antinous as a priest of Attis and Magna Mater/Cybele. It does strongly resemble the type associated with Antinous in terms of facial features, though the face itself is a bit fuller.
What can be said about Attis? The myth of Attis was imported to Rome from Phrygia, and concerns the great goddess of Mount Ida, Cybele or the Magna Mater (sometimes equated with Rhea). This myth begins with Zeus lusting after Cybele, but she refused him; he masturbates to relieve his sexual tension, and his semen falls on a rock, which then becomes the androgynous and extremely powerful being Agdistis. The gods greatly feared this being, and had it castrated by Dionysys and thereafter Agdistis was viewed as a male eunuch; Agdistis then became a hunter and lived in the forest, while a pomegranate (or almond) tree grew from the blood spilled from the castration. (In other versions, Agdistis was born hermaphroditic, was castrated, and became the female Cybele.) Nana, the daughter of the river-god Sangarios, ate a pomegranate (or an almond or a blossom; or placed the pomegranate in her womb) from this tree and became pregnant with Attis; Sangarios was not satisfied with the story of his conception, and had the youth reared by goatherds, from which his name Attis comes (it is connected to goats or goatherding). In turn, Attis meets Agdistis and the two become lovers, with Attis either being fellated by or anally penetrating Agdistis, which is an inversion of the common intergenerational model of Graeco-Roman homoeroticism. Cybele as well falls in love with the youth, and the three become something of a triad. However, Attis was promised to Ia the daughter of King Midas, and when the nuptials were supposed to take place, Agdistis and Cybele crash the party and cause havoc. Ia cuts off one of her breasts, and Attis castrates himself beneath a pine tree, but makes an error and dies from his wound. Violets spring from his wound, and Cybele weeps, and from her tears an almond tree grows. The goddess took Attis’ severed genitals, bathes them and covers them, and then chopped down the pine tree and had them transported to a sacred cave near Pessinus. Attis is eventually either then immortalized and crowned with stars, and became leader of the galli priests devoted to Cybele (on which more momentarily).
Agdistis and Cybele, in other versions of the myth, plead with Zeus for Attis’ renewed life, and Zeus refuses but allows that his body will not decay, and that one of his fingers will continually move (a phallic symbol, also associated with particular forms of anal eroticism); or he lives on as a sort of numinous presence. In still other versions of the myth, Attis is a beautiful youth living in the Phrygian woods, who is loved by Cybele; she decides to make him the guardian of her temple, so long as he remained a virgin, but Attis accepted love from they nymph Sagaritis. Cybele became enraged, and cut down a tree to which the life of the nymph was bound, and drove Attis mad so that he castrated himself, and was thereafter accepted back into Cybele’s service. While in still other versions, the castration takes place as the result of a boar, as in the Adonis myth, and is completely identified with the porcine animal (one thinks of the story of Diarmuid in Irish myth, where a boar and the hero’s lives are tied together, and they mutually slay one another). Initially, Attis was a minor part of Cybele’s worship, and was either an important mortal in her story, or perhaps a god of vegetation; but by the time of Claudius, he gained official status as a god, and during the Antonine period, he became equal to Cybele. Guilds of dendrophoroi or “tree-bearers” were associated with Attis’ worship, and as time went on, he became regarded as a solar deity and a savior, able to grant immortality to his initiates.
The galli priests of Cybele were said to be her lions; she is often represented seated on a throne, with a temple or throne in her hair, flanked by lions or leopards, which may connect her to very ancient goddesses in the Near East and at the ancient site of Catal Huyuk. The galli were said to take their name from the River Gallus in Galatia near her original temple, or from the cock which was one of their symbols; Galatia and Gaul also have similar sounding names to these, and all were known as gallus/Gallus (singular), galli/Galli (plural) in Latin. Homoeroticism was known amongst the Gauls/Galatians/Celts, and is noted in the writings of Aristotle, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Athenaeus, and the astronomer Ptolemy (the latter two contemporary with Hadrian), so perhaps there is some sort of punning occurring with these names that we are not aware of. A black meteoric stone was brought from Mount Ida to Rome in 204 BCE and set up in a temple to the Magna Mater on the Palatine Hill after advice from the Sibylline books and the Delphic oracle as a response to the Second Punic War.
The priests of Cybele performed the festival of the Megalensia from April 4 to 10 in honor of this temple’s foundation on April 11, 191 BCE; the goddess’ birthday was held to be April 10, and the festival was the occasion of theatrical performances, games in the Circus Maximus, banquets, and parades of the goddess’ image to tambourines and cymbals. The priests of Attis and Cybele, the galli, carrying pine-branches as dendrophoroi on March 22, mourned the death of Attis on March 23, then on March 24 had the dies sanguinis or day of blood, where a taurobolic sacrifice was performed (exactly like that seen in the first episode of HBO’s series Rome), and in ecstasy they would castrate themselves, preferrably with crude tools like stone knives or potsherds but sometimes with special castration clamps or swords. Then on March 25, the Hilaria was celebrated, a joyful day on which the resurrection of Attis was reckoned. The galli were regarded as gender-variant, though suggestions that they were homoerotically-inclined by some modern scholars and spiritual enthusiasts cannot be taken as necessarily given. They are dealt with at great length in the various works of Randy Conner as the most important homoerotic spiritual functionaries of ancient Europe.
What, therefore, is the implication of portraying Antinous as a priest of Attis and Cybele–in other words, as a gallus? Interestingly, there was a theory that was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s which suggested that Antinous’ death came as the result of a botched castration, as if perhaps he was undergoing this procedure to either become a gallus, or to become a eunuch so that he would not age and would forever appear youthful and beardless, in order to please Hadrian’s preference for youth. Suggestions of this sort no doubt took cues from the story of Nero and Sporus, the young man Nero had castrated, dressed as his empress, and whom he called “Sabina.” The principal biography of Nero was written by Suetonius, an historian who used to be an imperial official under Hadrian, and Suetonius’ work on The Twelve Caesars has been read for clues on Hadrian’s own principate.
We know little enough of Antinous’ life from ancient historical accounts; however, something as important and distinctive as being a gallus seems like it should have been noted somewhere, other than inferences made from an ancient historian who did not even live up to the time of Antinous’ death with any certainty. Both scholars and spiritual enthusiasts have often been either too quick or too misinformed in their assumptions about homoeroticism and gender variance, and though Hadrian seems to have had attractions to and interest in women to some extent, his relationship with Antinous was not predicated on the youth being feminine to the extent that he would have been, in essence, transgendered or a transvestite. (This is not to say that either of those identities in the modern world are not entirely good and wonderful things for those who have them!) Perhaps this was just the way that some Ostian galli decided to honor the god as one of their own. It’s impossible to say for certain, but nonetheless, the statue exists.
So, honor and glory to the god Attis and to Magna Mater, and to Antinous also!