Skip to main content

This paper focuses on the transgender identity of Attis in Catullus’ 63rd poem and, in particular, how the instability of the text compounds the ambiguity of Attis’ gender. Following Attis’ self-castration in line 5 of the poem, the narrator imposes a grammatical sex change on the youth, recently arrived from Greece to celebrate the rites of Cybele. In the manuscripts, at least, Attis’ gender continues to fluctuate grammatically, provoking questions about gender identity that each editor must confront. Lachmann, for example, emended all of the questionable masculine gender markers to feminine, except two found in Cybele’s speech. Some student editions take Lachmann’s emendations further, producing a univocal perspective that equates Attis’ sex change with her gender identity (Goodwin). Other editors and interpreters, however, have retained the MSS readings selectively, yielding an Attis who regains masculinity at different points in the narration based on his mental state: when rebelling from Cybele (Elder) or when briefly recovering his sanity (Thomson). Such readings endorse concepts of gender fluidity in antiquity, but also imply a sexist polarity to gender identity in Catullus’ narrative (servility is feminine, madness is feminine) (Skinner).

Rather than seeing the poem’s inconsistencies in grammatical gender as representative of a unified spectrum-based perspective, I use a narratological approach to argue that the poem contains multiple perspectives, varying in subtlety, on Attis’ gender: the text, the narrator, and the actors do not tell the same story. Distinguishing between instances of direct speech and narrative reporting, my argument relies on the assessment of textual variants through close readings and careful attention to how different variants and narratological situations change our understanding of Attis’ gender identity and experience.

Attis’ seaside lament, the cornerstone of any discussion of gender in the poem, provides several examples: near the beginning of the lament (ll.50-73), Attis regrets that he miserably (miser) left behind his homeland in order to be among all the lairs of the [beasts] (utearum omnia adirem furibunda latibula; l.54). Along with the line’s other problems (unmetrical, prosaic, repetitive), scholars also debate whether furibunda agrees with neuter plural latibula or an implied feminine ego (Lewis). Surprisingly, earlier discussions, for all their well-researched arguments, have underappreciated that the phrase occurs in a purpose clause: if furibunda is determined to agree with ego, then Attis may have come to Phrygia with transgender intentions. Furthermore, narratological close readings open up new interpretations even for textually secure moments in the lament, such as lines 68-69: “Am I to be called a servant (fem.) of the gods and a handmaiden of Cybele? Will I be a Maenad, a part of myself, a sterile man?” (ego nunc deum ministra et Cybeles famula ferar? | ego Maenas, ego mei pars, ego vir sterilis ero?). Far from directly self-identifying as a female, Attis asks whether he is to be called (ferar) a female attendant of the gods. Moreover, the feminine nouns Attis chooses reflect roles more than identities. Close readings along similar lines of Cybele’s short speech and key narrative moments reveal other distinct perspectives coexisting within the poem.

Through the exploration of perceptions of gender identity within a closed narratological structure, this paper seeks to contribute to discussions of gender fluidity and essentialism in antiquity. It will also suggest how the poem’s transmission reflects different readers’ understanding of gender roles and continues to impact not only its reception but also its very content.