Attis (Catullus 63)

*

A fast ship carried Attis across the sea.
Sighting the Phrygian grove, he could not wait
To reach the goddess’s dim sanctuary,

Forest-encircled, where, driven insensate,
With a sharp flint he hacked off his groin’s twin burden.
Seeing his manhood now emasculate

And fresh blood spattering the ground she stood on,
She seized the tambourine in snow-white hand
(Your tambourine, your initiate, Mother), spurred on

With song her followers to this land,
Tapping the taut bull’s hide with tender fingers,
Imparting madness no one could withstand:

“Come to the heights, quickly together, sisters,
Come to Cybele’s groves, O Gallae, come,
This mountain’s Mistress’s stray cattle – now! – who lingers? –

Like a band of exiles
Across the sea’s raging miles
Seeking new land
Under my command,
See how you bleed,
For your great hate
Of Venus self-unmanned,
Gadding out of control,
Gladden your Queen’s soul,
Let reluctance slide away,
Let distrust no longer stay,
Follow me without delay,
To Cybele’s Phrygian shrine,
Follow me and I will lead,
Together let us make our way
To the Goddess’s Phrygian groves,
Where voice of cymbals rings out,
Tambourines shout,
The bass-piper drones
On his curved reed,
Maenads ululate,
Ivy-bearing celebrate
In divine ceremony,
Tossing their heads back,
From side to side in ecstasy,
And her nomad company
Rush around in their frenzy,
Nor must we be slack
To join the leaping dance
But hold nothing back.”

Attis sang thus, this counterfeit female,
To her disciples, who shrieked their response,
Clanging and thumping all along the trail

Cymbals and tambourines, uttering shrill chants,
This rabble choir, which, panting, gasping, neared
Green Ida. Their disorderly advance

Was led by Attis, drummed on. As the herd
Follows the untamed heifer fearing the yoke’s load,
The Gallae followed her, scurrying on unscared.

Then finally they came to Cybele’s abode,
And there, unfed, worn out, they fell asleep
Finding some ease from frenzy’s unseen goad

While over their eyes they let oblivion creep
Listlessly. But when the sun with golden face
And flashing eyes began to steep

White aether, hard land, wild sea in pure grace,
With drumming hooves routing nocturnal shadows,
Sleep also fled roused Attis’s embrace,

Seeking protection in unearthly meadows
At Goddess Pasithea’s breast. Attraction
Pulled them closer. And madness also rose

And left Attis. Then she considered her rash action,
Saw clearly where she was and what she lacked.
Her spirit seethed with grief and disaffection

As she forced her steps back to the shore, where, racked
With shame and weeping piteously, she gazed
Out at the desolate immense expanse, invoked

Her land: “O country that gave me birth, O country that gave
Me being, whom I deserted as a fugitive slave
Deserts her master, fleeing into the East
To seek refuge in Ida’s forests, with every beast
That lurks in den or lair, or high among the snow,
In my madness. My country, how can I know
Where, in what region, you may lie? Eyes yearn
In this remission before insanity’s return,
To gaze on you! And shall I then be forced
Back to these distant forests and be cursed
To wander them? Shall I be absent from
My country, friends, possessions, parents, home,
Forum, gymnasium, stadium, wrestling ground?
Ah, wretched, wretched spirit, grief will grind
You down forever. What human shape have I
Not undergone? A woman – I – a young man – I –
An ephebe – I – a child – I! I’ve been the flower
Of the gymnasium, none could exceed my power
When stripped and oiled for wrestling. Crowds would swarm
Outside my door, would keep my threshold warm
Throughout the night to homage me, and at the day’s
Dawning I’d find my house hung with bouquets.
Shall I now be called the Gods’ handmaid, Cybele’s
Serving-wench, taking my place among the amputees,
A Maenad, part of myself, a gelded man?
Under Phrygia’s columns must I serve this ban,
This life-sentence, never to be revoked,
Haunting green Ida frozen and snow-cloaked?
Must I keep company with the deer that roves
The woodland, the boar that ranges all its groves?
Now truly my act appalls me, now truly I repent!”

No sooner had her rosy lips voiced this complaint,
Hoping to rouse the Gods’ compassion,
Than Mother Cybele – she would not relent –

With merciless contempt for such contrition,
Uncoupled her lions from their yoked submission
To her chariot, gave to the left-hand one this mission,

Gave to the predator of herds and flocks:
“Go to it now,” she said, “go now, my Ferox!
Let frenzy drive him on. And you, as frenzy strikes,

Drive him back to these woods who insolently wishes
To escape my commands, even as your tail lashes
Your own back, flicking blood from its gashes.

And, Ferox, toss your tawny mane on your
Neck bulging with power, and let your roar
Bellow through every quarter. From the shore

Drive her towards me!” And then the beast
Roused himself, goaded himself to fur-
-y, rushed forward, roared, with rage increased

Trampled the brushwood with a paw
Frantically scrabbling. But when he drew near
The whitening seashore, the moist sand, he saw

The tender Attis uttering her despair
Beside the translucent sea, and charged! She, mad
With fear, ran into the wild woods, and there

Remained enslaved forever a handmaid.

O Goddess, great Goddess,
Mistress of Dindymus,
Let your power be displayed
Far from my house.
Rouse others to madness.
I would be free
Of you. Spare
Me this ecstasy,
This despair.

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Notes

36. Maenads: ecstatic followers of Bacchus or Dionysus (here transferred to the cult of Cybele).

65. In Homer’s Illiad, Pasithea, one of the Graces, is, in return for a favor, promised in marriage to Sleep by Hera.

89. Ephebe: a youth aged 18-20 at Athens and other Greek cities spending two years under state supervision in military training.

Bios

Catullus

According to St. Jerome (mid-fourth century to early fifth century CE), Gaius Valerius Catullus was born in Verona in 87 BCE and died at the age of 30 in 58-7 BCE. However, given internal evidence in the poems, this end date cannot be right, so many scholars have brought the birth year forward by three years and made it 84 BCE. At any rate, it is the tradition that Catullus died as a relatively young man.

Catullus was a poet of great wit, power, and range (both in theme and in meter). He wrote poems celebrating friendship, mourning his brother, attacking enemies (including Julius Caesar) quite viciously and scabrously, recounting Greek legends (such as the one described here), and expressing his love, at first tender, later bitter and tormented, for his faithless lover, Lesbia , who was probably–though this also is disputed–Clodia Metelli, the wife and later widow of the soldier and politician Metellus Celer.

Ranald Barnicot

Ranald Barnicot has a BA in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Birkbeck College, London. He is a retired teacher of EFL/ESOL who has worked in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the UK. He has published original poems and translations from Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian in various journals, including The French Literary Review, Stand, Acumen, Orbis, Metamorphoses, Transference, and here at InTranslation. A Greek Verse for Ophelia, and other poems by Giovanni Quessep (Out-Spoken Press), co-translated from Spanish with Felipe Botero Quintana, came out in November 2018. By Me, Through Me, original poems and translations, was published by Alba Publications in early 2019.

English translation copyright (c) Ranald Barnicot, 2019.