Cybele’s castration clamps – medical apparatus of the Magna Mater

A couple of years ago I mentioned the eunuch priests of Cybele here, together with a couple of illustrations of a set of ornate castration clamps, found in the River Thames in the 1840’s, and now, supposedly, in the British Museum.

This week I came across a 1926 article discussing how the items were used.[1]  The details are somewhat eye-watering, but the key point is that the clamps were used to prevent blood loss, and the actual cutting was done by a knife.

The item is rather ornate.  The heads protruding are those of the deities presiding over the eight days of the Roman week, four on either side, followed by the head of a bull, and ending in a lion head; the heads at the top are perhaps Cybele and Attis, each on the head of a horse.

The item is perhaps 2-3rd century, and probably made in Rome or Italy.  One of the arms was broken and mended in antiquity, indicating hard usage.  Here are a number of images from the internet, none especially good.

Roman castration clamps
Roman castration clamps
Roman castration clamps. Cult of Cybele / Attis.
Roman castration clamps. Cult of Cybele / Attis.

Roman castration clamps - detail

Francis prints a restoration of the clamp, with hinge and screw:


And, interestingly, he is aware of another example, of a rather cruder kind, preserved in Switzerland, and gives this illustration:


The items were originally identified as “forceps”.  It would be interesting to know whether other examples, perhaps mislabelled, are preserved in the museums of the West?

It is a commonplace of our day that “all religions are the same”, an opinion more frequently met with than examined.  We may be grateful that this particular ancient practice is no longer present in the modern world.

  1. [1]Alred G. Francis, “On a Romano-British Castration Clamp used in the Rites of Cybele”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 19 (Sect Hist Med),  1926: 95–110.  Online here.

Sudden ordination: the Great Mother wants you!

In ancient Rome, unless you were a senator, almost anyone could “get religion” really rather suddenly.  Martial[1] records one such instance:

When a dismissed veteran, a native of Ravenna, was returning home, he joined on the way a troop of the emasculated priests of Cybele.

There was in close attendance upon him a runaway slave named Achillas, a youth remarkable far his handsome looks and saucy manner. This was noticed by the effete troop; and they inquired what part of the couch he occupied. The youth understood their secret intentions, and gave them false information; they believed him.

After drinking sufficiently, each retired to his couch; when forthwith the malicious crew seized their knives, and mutilated the old man, as he lay on one side of the couch; while the youth was safe in the protection of the inner recess.

It is said that a staff was once substituted for a virgin; but in this case something of a different nature was substituted for a stag [=runaway slave].

An item found in the River Thames near London Bridge has been identified as a “castration clamp”.[2]  It is decorated with images of Attis, and also animals.  It may have been used to geld horses and bullocks; or for “religious purposes”, such as helping attractive young men find a religious vocation as Galli, priests of Cybele and/or Attis.

Cybele castration clamp

Makes your eyes water, doesn’t it?

Apparently this implement was vandalised before being thrown in the river.  The author whom I read[3] stated that the Christians — the fiends! — destroyed it.

I imagine it will be a while before the pseudo-pagans of our day reimplement this particular feature of ancient paganism.

  1. [1]Book 3, No. 91.
  2. [2]Image from Wikimedia Commons, but I’ve seen an “open” version of the same in a book recently so it is genuine.
  3. [3]Lesley Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, p.289, I think, although I cannot access the page at the moment.