Nana, watch out for that almond!


Nana, by Erika MeriauxToday’s post has been brought to you by Erika Meriaux, one of my favorite  artists, who has a really spectacular collection of paintings of Greek Myths (among other subjects). The first painting is of Nana*, the daughter of the River Sangarios, who became the mother of Attis. Here’s what Pausanias has to say about her:

“The gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Sangarios, they say, took the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child. A boy [Attis] was born, and exposed, but was tended by a he-goat.”

Obviously, there’s a lot going on there behind the scenes, but this is such an awesome story, and so full of awesome characters that I can’t help but share.

First of all, this is definitely a story about how sex – especially feminine sexuality – can be dangerous (to men). Keep that in mind as you learn who’s who.

So, the person whose “male organ” gets cut off? That’s Agdistis. I bet you’re now thinking that Agdistis was a man. In fact, Agdistis was a hermaphrodite, or to use a less loaded but more anachronistic term, intersex and also two-gendered. (Genderqueer people take note! There may be a little bit of room for reclamation here.) Anyway, Agdistis was conceived from the masturbation (or wet dreams) of Zeus, but once born, everybody started freaking out. They thought that having two genders meant that Agdistis was also doubly powerful, and so the penis severing was their violent attempt to neutralize what they perceived as a threat. What makes this even MORE awesome? Agdistis was Cybele, who is a totally rockin’ Phrygian goddess that often gets identified with Rhea, but also made it all the way to Greece (and Rome) to be worshiped in her own right.

Cybele, by Erika MeriauxNow you’d think that this would be the point at which I could talk about Nana, right? But no. After wandering by and accidentally getting knocked up with Agdistis’s almond-seed (heh), she disappears from view, and all attention gets put on Attis. Attis, by the way, is a gender neutral name in Greek, like Iphis, but this Attis was born a boy. However – and here’s where the stories are really different depending on who you’re reading – something screwed up happens. Either 1) Agdistis (Cybele) falls in love with him and shows up at the wedding whereupon Attis (and the father of the bride) castrate themselves and maybe die (there’s also a woman at the party who cuts off her breasts) OR 2) Attis grew up being totally devoted to Cybele which meant also staying a virgin, but then he eventually sleeps with a nymph named Sagaritis (which sounds suspiciously like Sangarios …), and the goddess kills the nymph and Attis castrates himself.

So there’s some incest in there, but MOSTLY this is seems to be a story about the dangers of a sexual fertility Goddess who is out of a more powerful male’s control. Which, given that she wasn’t considered monstrous, is pretty awesome. It’s worth mentioning too that even in later ancient Rome, there were priests to Cybele (called Galli) who castrated themselves when they entered her service, so this was obviously more than a powerful gender lesson.

Still interested? Read the whole story here. Also, I wrote a post about Transgender Myths to Know that you might also find interesting.

*The second painting is of Cybele, aptly set in the pine forest where Attis went insane and castrated himself, taking a break with her lions. Like much of Meriaux‘s work, I think this so perfectly captures the danger and sex and violence hidden in the banality of every day life.


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