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:

castration_clamp_restoration

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

castration_clamp_augst

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.