Little is known about the ecstatic rites of Cybele, a pre-Hellenic goddess associated with nature and wildness. Shrines have been found throughout Europe, though she was originally from Mesopotamia. And numerous sources describe her mendicant priesthood: castrated men who bleached their hair, and wore heavy makeup and elaborate feminine costumes. They were said to mimic the mythic figure of Attis, a mortal who — the legend goes — was driven to a frenzy by a jealous Cybele, and castrated himself before becoming her deathless consort.
Cybele’s sidekick and her priests are just one example of the castrated divinities, and mortal men, who appear throughout history and culture, from the sun-god Osiris in ancient Egypt to Freud’s more metaphorical “castration anxiety”. And this figure — and fear — lurks even in the modern world.
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A rash of “trend” pieces has sought to encourage men to sterilise themselves — even, in one case, filming the actual surgery. Along with stories about chemicals destroying sperm counts and laboratories creating embryos without sperm, it’s no wonder some men might feel a little paranoid — all the more so since the vasectomy “trend” is clearly manufactured by a PR agency. It’s not strictly castration, but the two are routinely conflated in the popular mind. And this perception is expressed in increasingly colourful terms: for example, Tucker Carlson’s recent documentary, The End of Men, featured plenty of chaps who seem certain that something like a campaign to persuade men to self-castrate is at least metaphorically under way.
These same men often rail against a perceived feminine culture that stifles masculine vigour via mechanisms such as safetyism, victim culture and hatred of hierarchy. And with women now a majority in sectors such college admissions, journalism, teaching and HR, and even scaling the heights of the US military-industrial complex, it could indeed be that this increasingly palpable presence is changing public life in ways that are less than congenial to at least some men.
But the meanings of the castration complex are, well, complex. This most brutal un-manning has carried many meanings in different times and places. Xenophon writes about eunuchs as guards in ancient Persian harems, while the theme of (forcible) sexual continence was echoed in the early Christian era by Justin Martyr, who approvingly recounts a young man’s petition to a Roman prefect for permission to be castrated, so as to prove that Christians were as sexually chaste as they claimed to be. The Byzantine empire prized them as generals, because their lack of progeny meant they had no complicated ties to rival aristocratic families.
And if castration anxiety is rearing its head again, the underlying driver today may be more technology than ideology. When Freud described the “castration complex”, he was living through an age that saw perhaps the most drastic ever displacement of brute physical strength: an overwhelmingly male attribute. Thanks to technology, as Marx observes in Das Kapital, a male labour force could increasingly be replaced in factories with a less physically strong one comprising cheaper women and children.
Perhaps the fear Freud describes as universal was more historically specific than he thought. Strikingly, the first wave of industrialisation in Russia, from the 18th century onward, also saw the emergence of the first castration cult since antiquity. Calling themselves the Skoptsy — the “Castrated Ones” — this heretical Christian sect conducted religious services reminiscent of the rites of Cybele, while adherents of both sexes amputated all visible primary sex characteristics.
Since the Skoptsy were stamped out by Stalin in the early 20th century, the digital age has replaced the industrial one. In turn, this has arguably accelerated the obsolescence not just of men, but of biological sex, as an ever-growing swathe of work is now knowledge-based and thus equally open to both sexes, while more and more of us socialise in a disembodied way online. And in this context, the interactions of both sexes are long on talking and short on physical violence. Online, that is, both men and women are forced to socialise in a feminine key.
More than two millennia ago, the castrated figure of Attis was used by poets to convey ambivalence about masculine sexuality. For Catullus, Attis is driven to self-castration by Veneris nimio odio, “an excessive loathing of sex”. Ovid, meanwhile, characterises Attis along similar lines — except in this account, Attis is punished for seeking full adult sexuality. In his Metamorphoses, Attis promises Cybele that he’ll remain a boy — but when he breaks this by making love to a nymph, she drives him mad and he self-castrates.
So as the digital transition forces ever more social interaction into a disembodied, “post-gender” mode, perhaps it makes sense that we’re dusting off Attis and Cybele again. When all our social lives are virtual-only, how is any of us to make sense of our relationship to normal human sexuality?
As our technology lurches into the new and unsettling terrain of AI and biotechnology, echoes of the Skoptsy and the rites of Cybele are once again being heard — along with an increasingly tormented relation to normal human desire and procreation. The “nullo” subculture, for example, seek to “nullify” all visible sex characteristics: icons include the Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama, who cooked and served his penis and testicles for a paying private banquet in 2012, garnished with (what else?) button mushrooms.
Clinics now offer “Nullification” cosmetic surgeries as a “gender-expansive” option. And if you don’t want to pay for bespoke junk, the internet will provide: earlier this year, a basement flat in Finsbury Park was raided and several men arrested, following discovery that a man known as “The Eunuch Maker” was livestreaming consensual male castrations for a paying audience and promoting the events via Twitter.
According to some corners of the weird internet, this isn’t a disaster but our post-human future coming into view. The notorious, pseudonymous 2018 Gender Acceleration: A Blackpaper argues that “technocapital” is an accelerating, self-replicating, and increasingly autonomous process to bring about an ultimate victory of the feminine over the masculine principle, with “a return back to the ocean, back to a sexless, genderless slime swarmachine”.
And while this is unlikely to be literally true, the more respectable WEF-funded futurists are also now wondering now whether runaway technology could bring about the end of humanity (at least, of most of it). Yuval Noah Harari recently warned that because “the future is about developing more and more sophisticated technology” such as bioengineering and AI, we may end up with a situation where “we just don’t need the vast majority of the population”. While this future is less luridly rendered than Gender Acceleration’s “sexless, genderless slime swarmachine”, a scenario in which the human majority is dismissed as functionally irrelevant biomass is every bit as dystopian.
But even if escalating uncertainty about runaway technology were driving a few men to film their own neutering, whether on TikTok or the dark web, we probably shouldn’t jump from this to predicting the abolition of sex. We should take seriously the pathological symptoms accompanying our turbulent times — but only as pathological symptoms. Reports of men’s demise are as greatly exaggerated as progressive claims that we can somehow do without sex dimorphism.
And this is because conditions for a dreaded (or heralded) triumph of the technofeminine are very unevenly distributed. For one thing, most women have beloved male partners, relatives, friends and children, and most well-adjusted people of either sexes are revolted by the idea of one sex achieving total victory over the other.
And even those so online they’re immune to ordinary reality-checks may, in due course, be confronted by a more visceral one, should the world grow more unsettled. Throughout history, it’s usually been men who have defended order (and their loved ones), sometimes at great risk to their own safety. And the decades since the turn of the millennium have seen two international financial crises, terrorist attacks, a return of great-power politics, a global pandemic and rocketing inflation. This rolling crisis shows no signs of abating. And only peaceful and prosperous societies have the luxury of pretending we can do without brute force as a guarantor of peace and order.