Examination of Catullus 63


In Catullus’s Poem 63, an abundance of alliteration within each line serves to unify blocks of thought and expression, giving thrust and near-rage to every action Attis takes. Attis, in this poem, takes feverish steps in a fit of madness that, while rash, belies a deep-seated urge and unhappiness that are captured in six frenetic opening lines, an action that will be sung, regretted, and lamented in the length of the poem that follows.

In the first line, Attis “sailed the sea-deeps in a swift vessel,” and “arrived, ardently he entered / The Phrygian forest, set feverish foot” in the “dark, dense-leaved demesne of the Goddess.” This alliteration and dense, evocative diction emphasizes Attis’s determination and resolve; it also summons an idea of the closed-in desperation and unhappiness that Attis feels in his own body. In line 7, “Woman now, and aware of her wasted manhood,” wide-open vowel sounds in the words woman, now, aware, and manhood depict the wound Attis has created, an open, empty space that remains after a fit of action.

In the next line, “Still bleeding, the blood bedaubing the ground still,” the alliteration continues, but the blood itself has gained the agency here. The act of the blood “bedaubing the ground still” creates bodily time that stretches alongside the singular action that Attis has taken. The red blood falls in the forest that is “dark, dense-leaved;” Attis has changed himself and colored the earth with his change. “With feminine fingers she fetched the light drum / That makes the music, Great Mother, at your mysteries.” The Great Mother is Cybele, whose mysteries are orgiastic rites. Now that Attis has “feminine fingers,” how will she participate in these rites and mysteries?

Attis has been “moved by madness, bemused in his mind, [l]opped off the load of his loins with a sharp flint.” The “load of his loins” has a metaphorical sense, as Attis, a consort of Cybele, may have detested not only his physical form but also his lot in life. Attis, “holding the hollowed ox-hide and shaking it, // Sang to the servants of Cybele in a rapture.” The image of the hollowed ox-hide and the subsequent call to Cybele’s “wild drove of devotees” is reminiscent of the thyrsus sticks shaken by the Bacchae. The rites and mysteries alluded to in this poem, and the “mount Dindymus” mentioned, are strongly suggestive of Dionysian worshippers and of his childhood on Mount Tmolus. If Catullus intended to link this Phrygian narrative of self-castration to tales of Bacchae who tore men apart, Attis’s act seems to be one taken under the influence of a goddess. And Attis’s long apostrophe to his birthplace and to the sea at the end of the poem, a moment of regret and ruin, parallels Agave’s regret and lament at killing her son in the Bacchae, a regret that she feels only after she has come to her senses. “A slave now of Cybele, must I serve her sisterhood? / Be a maenad, a moiety of myself, a man-corpse?” The word “moiety” indicates that, far from curing his lack and unhappiness, Attis has made himself less himself. As the Latin reads, “ego mei pars, ego vir sterilis ero?” A man-corpse, a “sterile man,” Attis is chased by Cybele’s lions and driven to the woods. Another parallel exists with Dionysus here, who is drawn in chariots by lions and can transform into them. Catullus has created a myth within this poem in which a man can be driven to madness as easily as a woman, and can even be urged to become a woman to escape the feverish frenzy that gods instill in human beings.

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