Before getting into the specifics of today’s festival, I would like to note that on The Wild Hunt today, the Maetreum of Cybele was mentioned again, which is most appropriate given the festivals we’re currently celebrating! Best of luck to them in their further appeals for success in this entire legal difficulty…
I’d also like to note that yesterday, April 7, would have been the 99th birthday of Harry Hay, an Ekklesía Antínoou Sanctus and founder of the Radical Faeries and the Mattachine Society, whose death in late October of 2002 occurred just as we were about to have the first modern Foundation Day in Antinoan devotion. So, a belated Felix Dies Natalis to our Sanctus–may we sing Ignis Corporis Infirmat, Ignis sed Animae Perstat for The Duchess always!
This is now the fifth day of the Megalensia, the festival in honor of Magna Mater; the fourth, we spoke more of Cybele herself; the third, we spoke of her consort Attis; the second, we devoted to Agdistis. Today, I wish to focus upon a particular ritual associated with her, and some of the inaccuracies about it. This ritual is the taurobolium.
The taurobolium is a particular ritual in which a bull is sacrificed and bled, and a person stands beneath a grate upon which the bull is sacrificed and has the blood shower down on them as they do so. Perhaps one of the most well-known portrayals of this ritual takes place in the HBO/BBC series Rome in the very first episode in the first season, showing the self-flagellating galli as well as some sort of divinatory sacrifice attached to the ritual quite vividly and lavishly. However, the main historical inaccuracy involved there was that the ritual is not actually attested in Rome (or perhaps anywhere, for that matter) before the early second century CE.
The history of the ritual suggests that it was originally carried out in Asia Minor, and the pursuit and hunting down of the bull in question was a part of the rite in its oldest form. The first recorded performance of the ritual in Italy was at Puteoli near Naples, in honor of the goddess Venus Caelestis, in the year 134 CE–so, during the late reign of Hadrian! Venus Caelestis would correspond to the Greek Aphrodite Ourania, the patroness of male homoerotic love (honored by Hadrian in his Thespiae inscription); though there is no direct Hadrianic connection to this first Italian taurobolium to my knowledge, the coincidence is intriguing. I should also add that Venus was honored in various Roman festivals during the month of April, including on the Veneralia on the 1st of April, and the Vinalia Prima (a festival associated with wine-making) on the 23rd.
However, there are other interesting Antonine period and Antinoan connections to the taurobolium ritual. During the late reign of Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s successor, a taurobolic sacrifice took place on behalf of the emperor’s health in Lugudunum in Gaul (modern Lyon), in which the bull’s testicles were removed and offered, perhaps in place of a prospective gallus doing the same, since the Romans often didn’t like this particular aspect of devotion to Magna Mater. Cybele was the recipient of the sacrifice on this occasion, but the date of the entire occasion is interesting, because it was the year 160 CE, on November 27–the Natalis Antinoi! Had Antinous still been living, he would have been around 50 years old on that date. From that date forward, taurobolia were always connected to Cybele/Magna Mater in the inscriptions and altars that record them, so it is a significant date in the history of this particular goddess’ cultus, as well as in Antonine and Antinoan reckoning.
As a side matter, I would note that it is often suggested that bull sacrifices, perhaps similar to the taurobolium, took place in relation to the cult of Mithras. This is a severe exaggeration, and in fact there is almost no evidence that such sacrifices took place. Yes, the central iconography of the cult of Mithras is the tauroctony or “bull-slaying” scene, but that may have been a one-off, singular instance that the god himself did for the benefit of the cosmos, and not something that was re-enacted in his honor. Mithraea that exist (and there are many!) are not areas in which such rituals could have taken place, and the refuse piles that show what sorts of foods and animal remains were associated with the sites do not have bull bits aplenty by any stretch of the imagination–in the Romano-British Mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall, there is lots of evidence for boar being consumed in their communal feasts, but not bulls.
On previous days in this Megalensia festival, I have often tried to connect something in terms of the ongoing matters of transgender exclusion from various modern pagan groups and events to the theme of the day. I think I’ll keep it very simple for today, and note that just as there have been many exaggerations and misappropriations in terms of knowledge of taurobolic rituals in various places in modern pagan religions, so too is there a lot of bullshit in many other ways that needs to be seen through, sometimes cut through, and often shoveled through, to prevent it from raining down on those below who are devotees of Magna Mater.
May Cybele and Attis and Antinous, therefore, continue to harmonize amongst each other in their past and in their future histories, and may they make sure that each of us who are devoted to them are well-armed with shovels!