Monday, August 9, 2010

Transvestitism and Jewish Militancy

A colleague at a internet discussion group brought up the following description of the devotees of the Syrian goddess:

These priests, like the Galli before them, became complete eunuchs. They grew their hair long, dressed in women’s clothing and perfumed themselves with fragrant oils, in a manner that was quite similar to Dionysus, who had been raised as a girl rather then as a boy. Becoming total, or complete eunuchs, required the initiates to go through more then just a simple castration. They actually had to take their transformation into women one step further, by having their entire penis removed. The amputation of their penis left an opening, where the root of that organ had once been, and they used that opening during sex, in the same manner as they would a woman's vagina. That particular metamorphosis, which changed men into women, actually required more then just the removal of their total genitalia. In order for a priest to truly seem like a woman, who had actually been born a woman, then he also had to cause his body to periodically bleed, as a way of imitating menstruation. The priests achieved this periodic bleeding by committing acts of self-mutilation.

He went on to ask if Christian eunuch's might also have appeared in public similarly attired - i.e. cross-dressing as women. I think there is already something anticipated in the Letter to the Corinthians. But I chose to answer him in another - wholly unexpected - manner. But before I tell you what I said, let's get a little background on these effeminate devotees of the Syrian goddess.

The Galli first became a part of Cybele’s worship, around approximately the same time that the Cult of Cybele and Attis first began. That was, indeed, in extremely ancient times, since that happened more then 500 years before the founding of Troy. Even in the very early days of the Cult, Attis never once appeared as a living and breathing entity, independent and separate from Cybele. Rather, he existed solely as a part of the worship of Cybele.

You bring up an interesting question Charles. We should remember in the description of the galli that they are indeed portrayed as heavily armed transvestites (or more accurately men who underwent a primitive sex-change operation to appear as women). This must indeed have been quite a picture!

The truth is that there is a pattern of such individuals WITHIN Judaism and Christianity from the time of the Jewish War. It is difficult to explain and so - scholars do what they always do in such situations - they ignore it. Look at the strange story in Josephus about the mannerism of the Jewish rebellions who seized Jerusalem:

And now, as soon as Simon had set his wife free, and recovered her from the zealots, he returned back to the remainders of Idumea, and driving the nation all before him from all quarters, he compelled a great number of them to retire to Jerusalem; he followed them himself also to the city, and encompassed the wall all round again; and when he lighted upon any laborers that were coming thither out of the country, he slew them. Now this Simon, who was without the wall, was a greater terror to the people than the Romans themselves, as were the zealots who were within it more heavy upon them than both of the other; and during this time did the mischievous contrivances and courage [of John] corrupt the body of the Galileans; for these Galileans had advanced this John, and made him very potent, who made them suitable requital from the authority he had obtained by their means; for he permitted them to do all things that any of them desired to do, while their inclination to plunder was insatiable, as was their zeal in searching the houses of the rich; and for the murdering of the men, and abusing of the women, it was sport to them. They also devoured what spoils they had taken, together with their blood, and indulged themselves in feminine wantonness, without any disturbance, till they were satiated therewith; while they decked their hair, and put on women's garments, and were besmeared over with ointments; and that they might appear very comely, they had paints under their eyes, and imitated not only the ornaments, but also the lusts of women, and were guilty of such intolerable uncleanness, that they invented unlawful pleasures of that sort. And thus did they roll themselves up and down the city, as in a brothel-house, and defiled it entirely with their impure actions; nay, while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and when their gait was effeminate, they presently attacked men, and became warriors, and drew their swords from under their finely dyed cloaks, and ran every body through whom they alighted upon. However, Simon waited for such as ran away from John, and was the more bloody of the two; and he who had escaped the tyrant within the wall was destroyed by the other that lay before the gates, so that all attempts of flying and deserting to the Romans were cut off, as to those that had a mind so to do.[Jewish War 4.10]

This account is so bizarre I have never ever read any serious commentary about what it means. Did the Jewish rebels really start taking themselves to transvestitism? This passage appears in pseudo-Hegesippus (the fourth century Latin translation) as:

They seethed with eagerness for plunder, desires of base deeds, profusions of riotous living, odors of perfumes. They crimped their hair with curling irons, painted their eyes with antimony. donned women's clothing. Not only the clothing of women but even women's effeminacy was striven for, and the passions of unlawful pleasures. Men exercised the role of women, made womanish sounds, destroyed their sex by the weakness of their body, let grow their hair, whitened their face, smoothed their cheeks with pumice, plucked their little beard, and in this effeminacy exercised an intolerable savagery of cruelty. Finally they were advancing with irregular steps and suddenly fighters for a short while, covering hidden swords with purple cloaks, when they had suddenly bared them, whomever they met with they tore open. Anyone who had escaped Simon was killed by Johannes if he took himself into the city, anyone who had fled Johannes and was captured by Simon was killed before the walls.

I think the passage is authentically Josephan insofar as it is connected with his introduction of the figure of John (who is strangely never seen by any living person other than Josephus). I think John is a backhanded way of absolving Simon (Josephus's brother according to the Jewish tradition) and blaming Agrippa and the 'Galileans.' I think John is connected with the Mandean John via Agrippa but more on that another time.

The strange situation with the transvestite Galileans is only the first in a series of weird references connection Jewish rebellion against Rome with such practices. We read in Jewish sources that:

Eighty thousand trumpeters besieged Bethar where Bar Kozeba was located, who had with him two hundred thousand men with an amputated finger. The Sages sent him the message, 'How long will you continue to make the men of Israel blemished?' He asked them, 'How else shall they be tested?' They answered, 'Let anyone who cannot uproot a cedar from Lebanon be refused enrollment in your army.' He thereupon had two hundred thousand men of each class; and when they went forth to battle they cried, 'O God, neither help nor discourage us!' That is what is written, Hast not Thou, o God, cast us off? And go not forth, o God, with our hosts? And what used Bar Kozeba to do? He would catch the missiles from the enemy's catapults on one of his knees and hurl them back, killing many of the foe. On that account, Rabbi Aqiba made his remark.[Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 2.2§4]

So the Jewish rebels 'cut off a finger' like St. Mark in order to make themselves 'adamantine.'  A finger always has a double entendre in ancient (and modern) languages.  In Aramaic, Greek, Latin it also is a euphemism for 'penis.'  Sounds sort of like Origen don't you think? The reference also references 'the uprooting' of cedars an allusion to castration.

So if we fast forward another two generations we see that almost all information about the second revolt has been wiped from the history books. We only know that after the war the Emperors all reinforced the ban on ritual castration - Hadrian and Antoninus - Origen mentions a ban on Samaritan circumcision dating from the war that was still in place in his day.

By the year 170 CE the headquarters of Christianity in Egypt was firmly established in a place called the Boucolia in the eastern part of Alexandria, what was formerly called the Jewish quarter in the first century. We hear in Justin that Christians came to Alexandria to get sex-change operations (sort of like Sweden used to connected with the operation in the seventies and eighties). We have Origen and reports about Demetrius the bishop during at least part of the Commodian period. Commodus became co-Emperor in 177 CE.

Yet there is also a clear sense that Christianity in Egypt came in the cross hairs of the Imperial government. If not during the rule of Commodus (as I claim) then throughout the reign of the Severan successors. Why is this? Well strangely there is a very important incident that leads to Commodus's rapid rise to the throne (he was very young) reported in Dio Cassius:

The people called the Bucoli2 began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands, and had then struck down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them. Isidorus surpassed all his contemporaries in bravery. Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they came near capturing Alexandria, too, and would have succeeded, had not Cassius been sent against them from Syria. He contrived to destroy their mutual accord and to separate them from one another (for because of their desperation as well as of their numbers he had not ventured to attack them while they were united), and thus, when they fell to quarrelling, he subdued them.[Dio Cassius 72]

Are these cross-dressing warriors under the rule of Isidorus Christians? Does this explain Basilides connection with a 'son' named Isidorus? We can't be sure of course but it is interesting that the general who subdued the residents of the Boucolia eventually enlists their aid and the assistance of other Alexandrians for his own coup d'etat.

By the time the dust settles, Commodus is on the throne and with him his mistress Marcia (or shortly thereafter) and an inner circle who effectively resigns Christianity away from its original Alexandrian model.

An interesting problem with no easy solution.

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