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Ego filia: Maternal Rejection in Catullus 63

Erin McKenna

Fordham University

In the relationship between mother and daughter, the question of what constitutes “mother” and “daughter” needs to be addressed. Biology does not necessarily dictate who is called “mother,” nor does sex dictate what individual identifies as “daughter.” In Latin literature, the strongest example we have of a mother-daughter relationship that hinges on gender identity is that of the Magna Mater and Attis in Catullus 63. This relationship, however, is strained. Attis believes in Cybele’s status as Mater, and so castrates himself in order to serve her more closely. At this moment, in line 5 of the poem, he goes through a ‘rebirth’ – Attis begins using female forms to describe herself; the son becomes a daughter. Yet when Attis struggles with her own actions and regrets them, the Great Mother expresses rage and hatred toward her ‘daughter,’ rejecting her sacrifice and gendering her male (hunc 78).

In the field of psychopathology, the term “maternal rejection” is used to describe this very phenomenon – the event of a mother emotionally rejecting her child, particularly in the first years of birth. Modern studies of Parental Acceptance-Rejection analyze the ensuing effects on the behavior of the child, with a recent study arguing for its diagnosis as a clinical syndrome (Brockington 2011). In Catullus 63, however, we are afforded little insight into the after effects of Cybele’s rage. Yet in viewing Catullus 63 through the lens of maternal rejection, we are afforded insight into the complicated mother-‘daughter’ relationship between the Magna Mater and the Galli/Gallae. These priests made an irrevocable decision and, due to their marginalized status in Roman society, would likely have felt compelled to suppress any regret for that decision. For a man to marginalize himself in such a way – to willingly take on the role of daughter rather than son – would have to carry with it significant psychological repercussions. It is my argument that we get a glimpse into these psychological repercussions, and their worst possible ends, in the figure of Attis.

In my paper, I will first discuss Cybele as mater in Late Republican Roman thought. The contemporary Cybele passage in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (2.598-645) provides helpful material – as do the arguments of Summers (1996) and Clayton (1999) – for understanding the Magna Mater as “great mother of gods, and mother of beasts, and our progenitor” (quare magna deum mater materque ferarum / et nostri genetrix DRN 2.598-99).

Second, I will frame Attis as filia within the context of Catullus’ poem. Harrison (2004) provides helpful suggestions here for reading Attis’ speeches in Catullus’ 63 as parallel with those of women from Greek tragedy – in particular Euripides’ Agave and Medea. What emerges from Harrison’s examples is that in the speeches made by Agave and Medea which, he argues, inspired Attis’ speeches in Catullus, both women speak as daughters addressing their parents and their cities. Attis’ lament of patria o mei creatrix, patria o mea genetrix (50) then takes on both tragic and Lucretian qualities.

            I will conclude my paper by discussing how Attis both embodies and challenges the notion of maternal rejection. While an infant has no choice in her mother, Attis chooses Cybele to be hers. In believing and therefore choosing Cybele to be her mater, Attis loses the power to regret her decision. Attis therefore experiences compounded psychological repercussions of Cybele’s maternal rejection. She experiences the emotional trauma resultant from Cybele’s verbal and then physical attack (Cybele sends her lion to chase Attis into the woods), but she also experiences the realization that her sacrifice is unwanted by both mother and daughter. Through Attis, we see the crisis of personal identity and potential for both maternal- and self-rejection that the ‘Gallae’ undoubtedly faced.

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Mothers and Daughters in Antiquity

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