Taurobolium lugudunense

Cybele (Madrid)

The famous statue of Cybele, Great Mother of the Gods, in her chariot drawn by lions at Madrid’s Fuente de Cibeles.
(Photo by Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA)

Today, the 9th of December, commemorates an interesting foray into Phrygian religion on Gaulish soil. On this day in the year 160 CE, under the ægis of the divine Antoninus Pius, a public taurobolium was celebrated for the first time (as far as may be determined) in what is now Lyon. The taurobolium is a rite that permits the sacrifice of a bull in place of the self-castration that had characterized the galli or Phrygian priests of the Great Mother of the Gods from time immemorial. I say ‘Phrygian’, although other nationalities were doubtless represented—however, Roman citizens were not, because Roman law forbade the castration of citizens. Starting with the taurobolium of Lugdunum, the priesthood of the Great Mother was now open to Roman citizens—and indeed the high priesthood or office of archigallus. A citizen worshipper could thus be ritually reborn in the Great Mother—bathed, if Prudentius is to be believed, in the blood of the sacrificial victim, in lieu of that flowing from the act of castration.

With this innovation, the cultus of the Great Mother (Magna Mater deorum Idumæa) enjoyed a considerable accession of its prestige. The most high-born of citizens were now able to participate fully in its institutions. This was an ancient cultus that was felt to link Rome back to its Trojan origins, and the Great Mother figures in that context in the Æneid as a deity safeguarding the interests of Æneas and the Trojan exiles. The goddess with the lion-drawn chariot and the evergreen trees is identified in that poem as the mother of Jupiter (in place of, or in this context identified with, Rhea). Certainly public and private devotion to Magna Mater, including annual public outpourings of grief for the death of Attis, was widespread enough (near Trier, for example, a high-quality bronze statuette of Attis was ritually deposited in the Moselle). Catullus had earlier concluded his longish poem on Attis owning the Great Mother’s majesty and wishing to avoid for himself her cultus’ more sanguinary aspect:

Dea, magna dea, Cybebe, dea domina Dindymi,
procul a mea tuos sit furor omnis, era, domo:
alios age incitatos, alios age rabidos.

Goddess, great goddess, Cybebe,* O goddess (who are) lady of Dindymon,
far from my house, O mistress, may all your fury be:
let others be roused, let others be driven into madness.

As a person admittedly squeamish about the idea of self-castration—or self-mutilation generally, I must say—I appreciate the divine Pius’ giving devotees of Magna Mater other options. Let us therefore join with Catullus and the divine Pius in our praise, thanks, and gifts to the eternal Mother of the Gods!

The taurobolia of Lyon are one of several phenomena exhibiting interesting intersections between Gaul and Anatolia or its environs (others include the worship of Diana of Ephesus by the Massiliots and the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus by the Rhine legions). The divine Pius was himself a Roman citizen from Nîmes and was, perhaps, particularly sensitive to the potential for rolling out a new religious program in a place like Lugdunum. That city was a citizen colony, founded by L. Munatius Plancus, peopled in part by soldiers and their descendants, enjoying a peculiar Augustan prestige for a number of reasons,† and frequented by administrators, traders, and travellers from all parts (the Syrian community there was numerous, for example). The taurobolium of 160 was avowedly undertaken pro salute Imperatoris Cæs. T. Æli Hadriani Antonini Aug. Pii P. P. liberorumque eius et statús coloniæ Lugudun. ‘for the well-being of the emperor Cæsar Titus Ælius Hadrian Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of the country, and (that) of his children,‡ and also (that) of the condition of the colony of Lugudunum’ (CIL XIII: 1751), thus involving the imperial family as well as the city itself in this sacrifice to Magna Mater.

This connection with the divine Pius reminds me that I had promised to unveil a polychrome version of the Faustina the Elder statue in the Mount Holyoke Art Museum. I do wonder whether the divine Faustina would have intimated something to Antoninus Pius about his devotional engagements with the Great Mother, or for that matter with Dionysus, Jupiter, and other deities associated with that prince.
In any case, here is one such polychrome image (we’ll call this CC-BY):

polychrome Faustina the Elder

Polychrome version of the statue of the divine Faustina the Elder at Mt Holyoke.

I used to think that Faustina the Elder’s distinctive hairdo must be, in part, a sort of crown or bonnet. However, it turns out that people who are vastly more clever with their hands than I am can do this just with braids, a few bodkins, and (get this!) needles and thread! Yes, these braids would have been sewn together by some astonishing sleight-of-hand:

Finally, as a word geek, I have been delighted to learn that, as in French one may term the cult of Isis isiaque, that of Mithras mithriaque, and that of Dionysus dionysiaque, so the cult of Magna Mater has an evocative adjective in métroaque. I don’t believe I’ve seen ‘Metroac’ used in an English-language context (though we do have ‘Isiac’, ‘Mithraic’, and ‘Dionysiac’)—except perhaps as an expression of dismay towards a public transportation system?
_____________
* ‘Cybebe’ is a variant of the name ‘Cybele’ obviously closer to the original ‘Kubaba’. Even ‘Kubaba’, I believe, however, is less a name than a geographic epithet—like Idumæan or Dindymon.
† The federal cultus of Rome and Augustus took place at Condate, facing Lugdunum, as I have often had occasion to mention. This was first inaugurated by Drusus, the stepson of the divine Augustus (often rumoured to be the latter’s natural son, although the timing makes this unlikely). Augustus and Agrippa both, in turn, made extensive stays in Lugdunum, and Drusus’ son Claudius—the future emperor—was born there. The famous Tables claudiennes, commemorating one of Claudius’ speeches, were publicly displayed at Condate. In sum, modern-day Lyon enjoyed a curious density of Augustan (and Claudian) associations.
‡ The children of Antoninus Pius alive at this time would have been Faustina the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus (the latter two both sons by adoption).

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About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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3 Responses to Taurobolium lugudunense

  1. Your mention of the Gallo-Phrygian connection reminds me: have I told you my theory on Abraxas as an iconographic rebus of Gallo-Thracian syncretism? 😉

    • DeoMercurio says:

      No indeed! Pray tell! 🙂

      • As I recall it, I originally articulated this idea in a conversation–it was actually one of the first in-person conversations I had with the Thracian in San Mateo, not too long before we met you, I think!–in a public park, and then something rather strange happened that seemed portentous as we were having it, which is another story…!?! But anyway, the idea itself…

        So, the Gigantes are often shown to have snake legs in Greek art; and the Thracians are often said to be of the blood of the Gigantes. Snake legs (and often arms!) are one of the diagnostic features of Abraxas; He’s often described as a “cock-headed anguipede,” which is such a great phrase! ;). But, where does the Gaulish come in? The cock, of course, since the Latin callus can be: a) a cock/rooster; b) a Gaul or Galatian; c) one of the self-castrated gender-variant priests of Magna Mater. Thus, if you’ve got that visual pun, plus the anguipede, it could potentially suggest Gallo-Thracian syncretism…and, given that we know Gallo-Thracian syncretism did exist, there are geographical locations where it probably took place (all of Galatia, really, but some other places along the west coast of the Black Sea, too!), and the Gundestrup Cauldron is one of the best examples of it in terms of what is likely a Gaulish narrative core executed in a Thracian style…?!?

        So, that’s basically the theory. It’s not definitive, but it’s intriguing and fits the evidence to various extents.

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