Episode 3: Cybele and Her Transgender Galli

In this episode we move from Sumeria to Anatolia, Greece, and eventually Rome. Cybele, also known as the Magna Mater, was an extremely popular goddess that spread across the Roman empire along with her transgender priestesses.





“As recently as yesterday, they plied the streets of Carthage, with their oiled hair,
their powdered faces, their languid limbs, and their feminine gait, demanding from
shopkeepers the means of maintaining their disgraceful existence.ˮ
St Augustine  The City of God 400 CE
Welcome to episode 3 of Valentineʼs Voice, the show for and by transgender
people, hosted by me Valentine Valcourt.
Iʼm going to be honest, when I started this show, I never thought that I would be
opening an episode with a quote from St. Augustine.
St. Augustine was referring to the Galli, the followers of Cybele. He was observing
them towards the end of their time, but we are going to start at the beginning.
The first evidence we have for Cybele is from an ancient city in modern Turkey, a
statue from around 6000 BCE. For those keeping track, this does predate
Enheduannaʼs writings about Inanna. We honesty donʼt know which cult
developed a transgender cult first.
They were geographically close enough that they could easily have influenced
each other. Aside from both cults having transgender priestesses though, they
share few similarities. While Inanna was viewed as a goddess of sex and war,
Cybele was a maternal goddess of the wild places of the world. Another
interesting note is that while we have evidence of transgender men, women, and
non-binary people in Inannaʼs cult, we only see transgender women in Cybeleʼs
Cybeleʼs cult lasted for thousands of years and spanned several influential
cultures. Due to both the time and cultural influences, it went through several
versions. Every time Cybele entered a new culture, she was merged with a similar
goddess from that culture. As I said, the first evidence of Cybele was in modern
day Turkey. There is a very similar goddess called Kotys in modern day Bulgaria
who also had a transgender priesthood. In Greece they seem to have remerged,
along with a Rhea, the mother of all the gods. However, it is the Romans who had
the most consequential contact with Cybele.
Episode 32If youʼre listening to the podcast version of the show, there is a map showing the
geographical range of the various goddesses available at vvalcourt.com.
From 218 BCE to 201 BCE, the Romans were in trouble. This was the second Punic
War, Rome vs. Carthage, because the Mediterranean was only big enough for one
regional superpower. The Carthaginian General Hannibal was marching around
Italy, destroying Roman armies seemingly at will. In desperation, the Romans read
through an ancient book of prophecies. They concluded that the only thing that
could save Rome was to bring the cult of Cybele to Rome. So they sent a
delegation, picked up the hunk of ancient meteor that represented Cybele on the
physical plane, and brought it, along with her priestesses, to Rome.
There were pros and cons to this maneuver. On the one hand, the Romans
defeated the Carthaginians and gave Cybele much of the credit. Cybele became
accepted as Romeʼs Magna Mater, the great mother, and cemented her place in
the Roman pantheon. On the other hand, this also cemented a place in Roman
society for Cybeleʼs followers, the Galli priestesses.
The Romans had no idea what to do with the Galli. At a base level we are seeing
the conflict of two different worldviews. Since we are going to run into this again
in our next week, it is worth exploring a bit. In the eastern cultures, there was a
more blurred line between the masculine and the feminine. While Persia was still a
patriarchal culture, it was less solidly so. As we mentioned in episode 2, the
Sumerians and Babylonians had no issue with having Inanna and Ishtar as prime
deities, the successor culture, the Persians, followed a religion called
Zoroastrianism, which taught equality between men and women.
The Greeks, and through their influence the Romans, developed a much more
patriarchal culture, with men having domain over women. The Greco-Roman
culture saw femininity as a possible contagion to be avoided. In this vein, they
developed a more complex view of sexuality. For men in this culture, there was no
difference between having sex with a man or a woman as long as one made sure
to remain the active partner. It was the act of being the passive partner that made
one effeminate, whether one was male or female. As long as one was suitably
quiet about their activities, Greece and Rome werenʼt overly judgemental.
So into this extremely patriarchal danced a wild crowd of singing, dancing
transgender women, complete with drums and tambourines. The Galli spoke in a
feminine manner, dressed as women, walked as women, wore makeup, and
Episode 33practiced a primitive form of a sex change in the form of self castration. There is
also evidence that a tax was levied on Galli as sex workers, so there is some sign
we have another cult that practiced sacred sex work. All of which was a dire threat
to the Roman concept of masculinity. The uneasy solution the Romans came up
with was a kind of dual religion. On the one hand there was the Magna Mater, who
was worshiped in the Roman manner with festivals and games. On the other hand
was the foreign Cybele, kept carefully sectioned off from Roman society. It was
quickly made illegal for a Roman, even a slave, to join the Galli. Despite this
restriction, Romans who felt the need to join Cybeleʼs cult either out of devotion or
dysphoria still managed to do so.
Another solution the Romans came up with to save their fragile masculinity was to
categorize the Galli as neither men nor Romans, and therefore outside their
masculinity scale. Through some strange path, the Roman bigotry managed to
land on the correct answer. These werenʼt men at all, they were women. Several
Roman authors referred the the Galli as women. For one example we have the
writing of Ovid from about 150 years after the Galli arrived in Rome:
Donʼt torture your hair though, with curling irons; donʼt pumice your legs into
smoothness. Leave that to the Mother Cybeleʼs votaries, ululating in chorus with
their Phrygian modes. Real men shouldnʼt primp their good looks.
This was the standard Roman perception of the Galli for hundreds of years. As
time went on and the Romans began to tire of their traditional gods, Cybele was
well positioned as a safe next step. She was both accepted as the Magna Mater
and had the allure of the foreign Eastern religions. This paired with the Galli
wandering the Roman territory as itenerant performers spread Cybeleʼs worship
throughout the Empire from Britain.
Similarly, another religion was gaining traction and acceptance. As you can guess
from the beginning of the episode, I am referring to Christianity. While I donʼt
have any issue with anyone believing whatever they want, as long as they arenʼt
hurting anyone else or trying to turn their beliefs into legislation, we can say that
the Christian stance towards transgender rights has been remarkably consistent.
For this we can turn to some of the earliest Christian apologists, such as
Lactantius, St. Augustine, Eusebius, and Philo. None of whom had a single positive
thing to say about the competing religion of Cybele.
Episode 34The hilariously named Firmicus Maternus seemed to sum up the major early
Christian complaints when he wrote, “They wear effeminately nursed hair and
dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks.
Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes,
they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict
the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?ˮ
I was born and raised in Christian fundamentalism, and in a later episode I do
intend to explore where this derision comes from, but it is enough for now to say
that they saw the followers of Cybele as both competition and as things to be
The worship of Cybele continued alongside Christianity for longer than many
pagan cults, but began to lose ground as Christianity merged with the equally
popular cult of Sol Invictus. There is an interesting side note, in the late second
century a priest of Cybele attempted to merge the religions of Christianity and
Cybele. The new Christian sect was born on Cybeleʼs home turf, the Anatolian
peninsula. It became known as Montanism and attempted to bring the passion of
Cybeleʼs worship with an even more ascetic version of Christianity. It was quickly
declared heretical by the Christian bishops, but lived on for several hundred more
Both Cybeleʼs religion and Montanism died out between 400 and 500 C.E. We
donʼt know as much as we would like to about Montanism or the followers of
Cybele because the early Christians were unrepentant book burners, destroying
documents our of religious fervor. It is difficult to get a clear picture of the Galli
priestesses because of this. They were frowned upon by the Greeks, despised by
the Romans, and utterly hated by the Christians. The writings that have made it to
our time are almost universally negative, and it is easy to think that the followers of
Cybele didnʼt have a single fan outside of their temples. There is one massive
glaring fact that puts the lie to this idea though, and that is the massive spread of
the religion. We have evidence of Cybeleʼs worship from Britain to Turkey, from
northern Africa to Germany and everywhere in between. While the writings of
senators and priests deride the Galli, the people of the Roman empire loved their
Great Mother. I take great comfort in the idea that for the majority of human
civilization, transgender people has a place to go where they would be safe and
Episode 35To finish out, I would like to recount the story of a grave in Cataractonium in
Northern Britain.
When initially unearthed, the jewelry in the grave led to it being marked as the
grave of a 2025 year old cisgender woman.
Upon further review, along with DNA testing, it was then categorized as the grave
of a male cross dressing eunuch. Finally, in our modern times, the occupant of the
grave has been revised to that of a transgender Galli priestess. This all begs the
question: how many transgender people have been mistaken as cisgender due to
being judged solely by the items that they were buried with? As archaeological
DNA testing becomes more wide spread, we will begin have a clearer view of how
widespread our transgender predecessors really were.
As always, sources for this episode along with other formats of the show can be
found at vvalcourt.com and I would like to with everyone a safe and happy
transgender day of visibility on March 31. Thank you for watching, and Iʼll see you
next week when we come back to the Roman empire to discuss the Empress
Elagabalus, widely regarded as one the absolute worst rulers of Rome.


Latham, Jacob. “‘Fabulous Clap-Trapʼ Roman Masculinity, the Cult of Magna Mater, and
Literary Constructions of the Galli at Rome from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity.ˮ The
Journal of Religion, vol. 92, no. 1, 2012, pp. 84122. JSTOR,
https://doi.org/10.1086/662205. Accessed 26 Mar. 2024.
Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion  Will Roscoe
Cataractonium. Roman Catterick and Its Hinterland. Excavations and Research 1958
1997 HEM Cool
Transgendered Archaeology: The Galli and the Catterick Transvestite Renato Pinto
Taylor, Rabun. “Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome.ˮ Journal of the History of
Sexuality, vol. 7, no. 3, 1997, pp. 31971. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4629633.
Accessed 26 Mar. 2024.

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