Sunday, December 7, 2008

Blast from the Past: Priest of Cybele Gravesite Found

The headline of this article from the is rather tastelessly sensational (what's new), but the article itself is extremely informative. It's a blast from the past that showed up in my weekly archaeological search today: Pagan transvestite priest? died after ritual castration? By David Keys Archaeology Correspondent Wednesday, 22 May 2002 Romano-British clergymen from exotic religious cults ministered to their congregants while dressed as transvestites weighed down with stone and bronze jewellery. A research report, published by the Council for British Archaeology yesterday, reveals that a pagan priest from Yorkshire was buried in the late 3rd century wearing what was probably full ritual regalia including a five-strand necklace of 600 jet beads, a jet bracelet, a brown shale armlet and a bronze anklet. He was buried immediately opposite a large stone building – possibly a temple. Investigations have been run by English Heritage and other archaeological organisations at the site, Bainesse near Catterick in North Yorkshire, over the past 20 years. They suggest that the building lay at the heart of a settlement strung out along more than half a mile of the ancient Roman Dere Street, which is now the A1 trunk road. Experts in Roman religion believe that the Yorkshire cleric belonged to the officially sanctioned and important religious cult of a mother goddess called Cybele, who originated in Anatolia, present-day Turkey. The cult was based on the great mother goddess and her toy-boy lover Attis who, guilt-ridden for having sexually betrayed her, went mad, castrated himself and, consequently, died. The cult's tradition dictated that its priests had similarly to mutilate themselves in painful solidarity with Attis, often using a piece of flint or a sharp fragment of pottery. Ritual clamps were then used to staunch the blood, but Cybelean priests often died in the process. Indeed, the Romano-British transvestite eunuch from Yorkshire probably perished from the wounds inflicted in just such an act. Osteological examination of his skeleton shows he died in his early 20s. The ritual self-castration, which was performed in a state of dance-induced ecstasy, was known in the Roman calendar as the "day of blood" and described by at least one Roman emperor as the "sacred harvest". The deity Cybele eventually became a universal goddess, viewed as mother of the gods, the goddess of everything from peace to war, from fertility to nature and from law to disease. In some respects, the cult of Cybele had certain similarities with early Christianity. Attis sacrificed himself and was resurrected from the dead. In the 4th century Attis became identified as a sun god, as was Christ at the time. And through Attis and Cybele, as in Christianity, the cult's followers were guaranteed immortality of the soul. The concept of priestly celibacy was also a common feature. Some 40 metres (130ft) from where the Yorkshire priest was buried was the substantial stone building. Its proximity to the burial, as well as an important feature of the structure – a subterranean chamber reached by a flight of stone stairs – suggests the building may well have been a temple of Cybele. Cybelean temples were unusual in having underground rooms, one for secret rites and another in which individuals wishing to achieve spiritual immortality bathed in the blood of ritually slaughtered sacred bulls. Other religious objects found near by include a bronze statue of a Roman god, a pair of bone dolphins, symbolising immortality, three small altars and a potentially ritual whetstone for sharpening cutting implements found immediately adjacent to the underground chamber. Inside the underground room itself were the remains of feasts held at least 16 centuries ago.

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