by Bronwen Welsh
A transgendered archaeologist, I never expected that translating those ancient clay tablets would provide me with a personal link to the distant past.
My name is Sybil. I have a doctorate in philosophy and I am a reader in archaeology at a certain British university which I prefer not to identify. There is a reason for this of course. Like most transgendered people I prefer a low profile since certain people can never take you seriously once they know, or worse, they assume that you are in some way
mentally fragile. I admire people like the author Jan Morris, or the brilliant computer scientist Dr Lyn Conway - both real people -'Google' them if you like; who prove that transgender and brains can go together. What's more they are not afraid to 'come out', but some of us are not so brave.
Many people are unaware as they walk through the halls of the great museums, that beneath their feet, buried in the bowels of the building are vast store rooms crammed with artifacts which are too numerous to display or which do not excite the interest of the casual observer. I have spent most of my life engaged in the translation of ancient texts. It's not so 'sexy' as discovering an ancient tomb or gold artefacts, but it does add to the store of human knowledge, sometimes to a greater degree than other more spectacular finds. So it is there you will likely find me, pouring over yet another set of clay tablets inscribed with the curious markings of an ancient half-forgotten language.
It was just such a series of tablets which provided the story which I am about to relate. They were found in the ruins of an ancient temple in Asia Minor, roughly modern-day Turkey, sealed in a wall where they had lain undisturbed for over three millennia. It was when I first started to sort through them and make a tentative translation that I realized I had an affinity with the writer from those far-off times. What follows are not the writer's original words of course, but a translation, as accurate as I can make it, and which I hope is true to the spirit locked in those curious symbols incised in clay so very long ago.
Translation of Cilicia's story
'My name is Cilicia and in this my sixtieth summer I write of my life which must soon come to a close. I choose to pass my days sitting in the portico of the temple where I have lived so long, warming myself in the rays of the sun.
A short while ago, a mother with her young daughter came up the steps of the temple. The little girl had a bouquet of flowers as an offering and probably mistaking me for The Goddess, handed them to me with solemn eyes. Her mother looked alarmed as she hurried towards me, but I blessed them both, and assured her that the flowers would indeed be carried to lie before The Goddess in her inner sanctum where only the priestesses may go. She bowed deeply and taking her daughter's hand they departed with happy smiling faces.
When you in the future read this, will your world be so different that mine will be hard to understand? Is it possible that the ramblings of an old woman, even though she be the High Priestess of The Goddess will be dismissed as of no account? Will I achieve sufficient reincarnations to live in your world and see it for myself? But I digress.
I will begin my story when I was a youth of seventeen summers. Yes, I was a youth, tall and fair, with a slim body which was not unpleasant to observe, or so I was told. Many people commented upon my violet eyes and told me how striking they were, hoping to make me blush. Young girls fluttered their eye lashes at me, but I was not to be tempted by them nor by young men. Instead I worked hard with my father in his baker's shop, cooking the sweet breads and cakes for which he was famous.
In the Spring there was a great feast to The Goddess, and all the townsfolk came to offer gifts at her temple, imploring Her to smile upon us and give us sun and rain for a good harvest, and I went there with many others, bearing the finest breads from our ovens. The priestesses came out of the temple to receive our gifts and there was dancing and drumming,
feasting and singing all day long.
Then the priestesses came down amongst us young men who were gathered together, and they walked amongst us looking at each youth. They selected ten of us, picking only the tallest and slimmest, and I was amongst them. They bade us walk with them into the temple and we followed them up the marble steps as the people of the town stood silently praying. In the gloom of the great hall we saw an ornate chair on a dais at one end and on it sat the High Priestess. One by one she summoned us to come before her and we did so, each trying to conceal our fear, for we had never been allowed this close to The Goddess before. She questioned us for a long time and two of the youths were rejected because they had lain with a woman and two because they had lain with men, so now we were but six.
Then the priestesses brought us more wine and the drummers who sat around the walls of the great hall began their drumming. The beat of the drums throbbed through our bodies and we were ordered to cast off our tunics and then we
danced naked before the High Priestess. The heavy curtains at the end of the hall were drawn back, and there was the statue of The Goddess, a life- size woman, naked and covered in gold which glinted in the light of the lamps. We were served wine mixed with herbs and the drumming became ever more fast and furious as we danced in worship to The Goddess. Faster and faster we spun around in a frenzy of worship. Then the priestesses returned with silver plates, one for each of us, and on each plate was a sharp knife. Grasping the knife in an ecstasy of adoration I grasped my manhood and with one stroke severed my testes as an offering to The Goddess and placed them with the knife back on the silver plate which was born forth to lie as an offering before The Goddess.
Do you doubt me, you that read this far in the future? Be that as it may, it is all true. Five of us made the sacrifice and one fled, and we stood there with our blood pouring on the marble floor as an offering to The Goddess. Strangely at that moment I felt no pain, just an over-whelming feeling of love for Her for whom I had made my sacrifice. Then I felt the hall swirling around me even though I stood still, and I plunged into darkness.
When I awoke it was to daylight streaming through the windows of a strange room. I was lying on a couch, and I felt my body was tightly bandaged, and yes, then I did feel pain and I groaned in agony. Priestesses came to us and offered us wine mixed with herbs and after a while the pain became dulled. I looked around me and the others were there too, each of us lying naked and bandaged. When the High Priestess appeared later that day, we all tried to sit up out of respect, but we were too sore and stiff. She welcomed us and told us that now we had made the sacrifice of our manhood, we were
welcomed into the sisterhood of the priestesses to worship The Goddess for ever. We were to forget our old names and receive a new one, and mine was Cilicia. What was my name before? It is too long ago. I cannot remember.
We lay there for several days until we felt strong enough to arise and take a few tentative steps. The priestesses came bearing our new clothes, a silken shift worn under a colorful robe of rich cloth and slippers for our feet. They dressed our hair into a woman's style and wove flowers into it. It was at some stage of this dressing that I realised that the priestesses were once as we were now, youths who had sacrificed their manhood for The Goddess. Now we were to spend our lives in the service and worship of Her. This was to be our reward.
We spent our days studying the rituals and learning to serve The Goddess. Townsfolk came bearing offerings of food for us, and we in turn repaid them with our chants and offerings to The Goddess to assure the town of a good harvest, and indeed our prayers were answered for the harvest was great, and the storage jars overflowed with grains and with wine.
As the months passed by we found that our sacrifice had led to a change in our bodies, which became less muscular but softer and more subtle. We developed small breasts as The Goddess changed us into beings more suitable for Her worship.
When the sun started to sink lower in the sky and the fields turned golden for the harvest, then was the time of the great feast of Gathering the Seed. The High Priestess summoned us the younger priestesses and instructed us in the important role that we must play in the rituals which were to give thanks for the harvest. The great day of the Festival
arrived and all the townsfolk came to the temple, bearing sheaves of corn and barrels of wine, young animals and all the fruits of their labors.
The older priestesses sang and danced before the crowds, but we the younger ones did not appear but prepared ourselves. First we went into the inner courtyard of the temple where stood a column of stone about the height of two men, worn smooth by time and the touch of many hands. We cast off our robes and joining hands danced naked around the stone phallus. Then we immersed ourselves in a rock pool next to the column, which was filled with water from the sacred spring, and thus we purified ourselves for the rituals to come. Then we dressed ourselves and waited in the great hall of the temple.
Meanwhile the older priestesses examined the fruits of the farmers' labors. Those with the best produce or cattle knew they would take part in the rituals to worship The Goddess and competition was fierce for this honor. Eventually their selection was made and five farmers were summoned to walk up the marble steps to the temple. There they were led into the great hall where we awaited them. We were dressed for the occasion in the finest linen gowns, so fine that our bodies were barely concealed by them. Our hair was dressed with flowers and leaves woven into a coronet, our lips dyed a deep shade of red, and our bodies perfumed. Each man could choose the priestess with whom he would share the great feast, and I gazed at the man who approached me with great interest.
He was young and slim but I could see his muscular body through the white tunic that he wore, and how his skin was burnt to a deep brown by his many hours working in the fields. His hair was dark brown, short and curly and his eyes a deep blue. He was so handsome that although I concealed my feelings with a welcoming smile, I felt my body quiver with anticipation. He sat beside me on the couch, and wine, figs and honey were brought to us. We toasted each other and listened to the older priestesses sing songs of praise to The Goddess, and I felt the warmth of his body against mine, and his hands gently tracing the curves of my body, and I did not move away for this was all part of the ritual. Instead I smiled at him encouragingly and his hands strayed further.
Then I rose and took him by the hand and led him into my chamber. Once there we began to kiss and with my body pressed against his I felt his arousal and was glad. His strong hands were around me, pulling me to him and I did not resist. I lifted the tunic over his head and he stood naked and aroused before me like a veritable stallion. Now I sank to my knees
for this was the worship of the phallus, the next part of the ritual. This was the first time I had tasted a man, and I heard him groan with pleasure as I took him between my red lips. I worked on him with my lips and tongue and he was like a stallion indeed with the size of his member and his eagerness to give me what I desired. I cajoled and encouraged him with my tongue and lips, and stroked him with my fingers until with a loud groan he exploded in my mouth and stood there panting with his eyes shut in ecstasy. Discretely I deposited his seed into a small silver vessel,
for this was to be an offering for The Goddess, the 'Gathering of the Seed'.
Then I took my young farmer to lie on my couch and I lay beside him as he recovered his breath and his strength. The ritual continued as I fondled him once more, stimulating him into eager erection, and now he was to play the part of a stallion once more, and I a mare, for I stood and bend over the couch and he behind me lifted my robes and grasping my
thighs thrust forward and I felt a sharp pain and gasped as he entered me. I felt his excited thrusting and my body respond in kind, seeking to feel him fill me and in a short time, I felt his shuddering climax and his hot seed burst forth once more. What I did not expect was that I too felt my body shake in an intensity of pleasure such as I had never before known, so great that it was almost painful, but a pain which it was a joy to embrace. For a long moment we stood there, locked in close embrace, his hot strong hands around my body, as we gasped for breath and our hearts pounded. Then reluctantly we parted. Now I served him another cup of wine, this with special herbs of a narcotic kind and this time when he lay down on my couch, he slept deeply.
I took the silver vessel with his seed and made my way to the inner sanctum of The Goddess where the High Priestess waited to receive it along with the others and offer it up to Her for Her blessing upon the town. Then I made my way to another room in the temple. I was a little sore, but the feelings during my encounter with the young farmer would not leave me and lying down on a couch it was some time before I fell asleep. In the morning the older priestesses awoke the farmers and charged them that whatever they remembered of the previous night was not to be divulged to any living creature for it was sacred to The Goddess and Her wrath would descend upon any who spoke of it. Then they were given bread and wine and sent on their way.
Time passed with the coming and going of the seasons and ten times more I took part in the Gathering of the Seed but apart from those times, neither I nor the other priestesses knew man. Eventually our places were taken by younger priestesses as we in turn replaced those who had gone to The Goddess. Years passed and we all grew older and then one day a priestess went to awaken the High Priestess and discovered that during the night The Goddess had called her. A great ritual was held for we were filled with joy that she had gone to claim her reward, even though for us there was a
great sadness that we would see her no more. Now a great council was held to elect her successor and votes were cast by all present. To my shock and surprise, it was I who was chosen. Ritual songs were sung as the younger priestesses solemnly clad me in the robes of the High Priestess and led me to the golden chair that sat on the dais.
It was now my turn to preside at the solemn rituals and to chose the new priestesses and to ensure that the life of the temple carried on in harmony. Thus the years passed, and The Goddess smiled upon us and the harvests were plentiful. And the years passed and I grew older. One night I had a dream of The Goddess, and in my dream it seemed to me that I
awakened and saw Her standing at the foot of my couch. She smiled at me and spoke my name.
"Cilicia, you have served me well, and the time is approaching when I will stretch out my hand and take you to me."
I smiled with joy at the thought but She was not yet finished.
"I have a task for you. Change is coming to the world and a time will come when men and women no longer know my name. In the fullness of time my temple will crumble to dust and all will be lost."
I opened my mouth to protest that it could not be so, but she held up a hand to still my voice, and I was silent and obedient to Her.
"I charge you to write your story on clay tablets and conceal them where I direct you, so that in times to come, men may again know of Me and all that was done here in my name."
And in the dream it seemed I followed her deep into the temple and she showed me a secret recess in the wall of the inner sanctum that I had not seen before and told me to place the tablets there and seal up the entrance. When all this was done, She would come again to me and take my hand. Then it seemed to me that her face became brighter and brighter until I was dazzled and forced to bow my head and shut my eyes as I dare not look at her glory.
Then I awoke and it was daylight and I remembered everything which had been revealed to me, and I called for clay tablets and began to write my story as The Goddess directed me. Now it is done as she decreed and I will wait with gladness for Her to come to me.'
This was the conclusion of Cilicia's story as told by her and which I translated, but there is a postscript. There were other clay tablets found in the temple which were written by another hand. I had translated them earlier and they had made little sense to me, but now they did. They read as follows:
'I am Seleca, now High Priestess of the temple of The Goddess in place of Cilicia who has joined Her whom we serve. Cilicia was sitting in the sun in the portico of the temple one day as I busied myself inside when I heard a loud cry and a crash of something breaking. I hurried outside and saw a young woman carrying a baby and at her feet a broken vessel and oil which she had brought as an offering spilling down the temple steps. She stood before Cilicia and looking, I saw my old friend sitting quite still, a smile upon her face and knew that she had gone to The Goddess. I took the young woman inside the temple and calmed her and gave her water to refresh her.
She had come to present her baby, a girl child, to The Goddess for a blessing, and now that she was calm I led her to the great hall to make her presentation. As she lifted up the child before the statue of The Goddess, so the baby opened its eyes and looked at me with those violet eyes that I knew so well. My heart missed a beat for then I knew, and in my heart I praised The Goddess.'
I sat for a long time in deep thought after I completed my translation of all the clay tablets. For as long as I can trace my ancestors, the first female child has always been called Sybil, but in my generation there were no females and it was for that reason that after my transition I decided that would be my name. Well, that is the reason I thought I adopted the name, but now I began to wonder.. I stood and walked slowly to a mirror and gazed into it, and my violet eyes looked back at me.
In the tablets written by the High Priestesses Cilicia and Seleca, they never refer to The Goddess by name, presumably out of respect, but I know the name of the goddess to which they refer. Her name was Cybele.
Historical note: This is a work of fiction, but the worship of Cybele in Asia Minor did indeed involve self castration by her male devotees who thereafter dressed as women and worshipped her. Fertility rites involving sexual intercourse were also connected to certain deities in the ancient world. The worship of the phallus lives on to this day in a ritualized form in the maypole dances still performed in Britain and other parts of Europe.
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