Homosexuality, Passivity and the Catamite Priests

Apuleius’ discussion of the catamite priests in Book 8 is noteworthy for its treatment of homosexuality as a traditionally male gender role violation. Through the author’s descriptions of the events that take place and the characteristics of the priests, one gets a sense of the scorn the author feels toward the effeminate homosexual men who eventually were "deservedly hated and loathed by all." (Apuleius 8:30)

The excerpt begins in book 8 where Apuleius describes with disdain how a catamite priest is trying to purchase him. The term catamite derives from the Greek term for Ganymede (Catamus), and refers to a the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy that he fell in love with and kept for sexual purposes. For the purposes of this essay, catamite is treated as a synonym for homosexual, through reading homosexuality as antimasculine in its passive sex role identification (Montserrat 156).

The use of the term catamite to describe the priests is telling. The men are referred to as catamites, homosexual men who are generally frowned upon for their activities, at least as presented by Apuleius. The priests were disliked because of their effeminacy; dressing and acting like women renders the priests as men powerless, and thus reprehensible. Moreover, Apuleius’ purchase by a group of catamites is noted to be the obvious choice, in that it furthers Apuleius’ series of misfortunes by his being purchased by a representative of " the meanest dregs of society." (Apuleius 8:24) Later in the narrative, it becomes more clear that Apuleius’ distaste for the catamites stems from the fact that they are effeminate homosexuals, engaged in cultic ritual for profit of the Syrian goddess. The catamite priest is described as loathsome, and Apuleius considers rearing up to show his stubbornness as an ass to deter the purchaser; in the end, the catamite priest purchases him and leads him home to the rest of the cult.

It is here where the hatred for gender violation is most evident, where Apuleius describes his introduction to the catamite group; he notes that upon arriving, the purchaser announces his arrival:

"Look, girls, what I handsome wee slave I’ve brought for you!" The girls were in fact a bunch of catamites. Their joy was immediate and ecstatic; they cried out discordantly in their cracked, hoarse, and girlish voices, doubtless under the impression that some slave boy had been procured for them. (Apuleius 8:26)

The priests in the cult are seen and described as being "girls," their voices girlish and cracked, their homosexual intentions derided and demeaned. Apuleius takes great care to note his disgust at being in their care; he is concerned not only about their sexuality and its violation of gender norms, but also as an extension of their perversion, is afraid that they might use him sexually, committing acts of bestiality. (Apuleius 8:26) Surely this fear of bestiality stems from their being homosexual, or at the very least effeminate, which makes them, as Roman males, suspect in terms of sexual activity and impulse. It is here argued that their overt femininity is a sign of their moral degeneration, and powerless position as men in Roman society, reduced to lacerating themselves in front of a cult statue while wandering the countryside in attempts to solicit alms from legitimate members of the community (Apuleius 8:27)

Apuleius also speaks derisively of the make up that the catamitic priests wear when they go out (8:27); such a feminine pursuit is at odds with what a typical Roman male should be concerned with. Rather, this feminizing action is also looked down upon for violating typical gender norms of the Roman male; women wear make up, men (unless acting possibly) do not. Though still biologically men, wearing make up seems to make these catamites less masculine in terms of gender roles.

The catamites’ gender violations are further obviated when the group is translated with the adjective effeminate; that the priests are too womanly seems to be Apuleius’ general complaint, and he is hateful of the men primarily because they act too much like women, thereby subverting the power hierarchies of society by betraying their biological sex through gender identification with the opposite sex. He goes on in the paragraph to say that their blood was filthy when they were flaggelating themselves; perhaps the effeminate male’s blood was unclean because of the traditional gender role violation. Arguably, only truly masculine men might have "clean" blood. Perhaps because these men violate gender traditions, their blood is seen as tainted. In any event, Apuleius’ distaste for the catamites is relatively clearly connected to gender norm violations.

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Lastly, Apuleius’ account of the catamite orgy with the young man and their subsequent exile from the town evidence his general disregard for the priests, which is inextricably tied to their gender violations and the power hierarchy that they challenge. Upon a successful day of collecting alms, the priests return to their dwellings, bathing and setting out a banquet; one of the courses is a young man chosen for "the capacity for his loins and other parts." The "filthy reprobates" then go about beginning their salad course before lust overtakes them, and they move onto performing "the most despicable outrages of natural lust," homosexual intercourse. This conduct is described by Apuleius as evil, and he outs the group by braying loudly, summoning the townspeople to see the priests in their "obscenely foul practices." (Apuleius 8:29) The priests are then admonished severely by the townspeople, and are forced out of town, becoming "deservedly hated and loathed by all." (Apuleius 8:30)

From this passage summary, it is easily seen that the effeminate catamites are hated; words like reprobate, evil, and obscenely foul are used to describe the men and their practices. Further, the sexual practices of the group, which arguably subvert traditional gender norms by making a male sexual partner a passive participant in intercourse (Montserrat 156), are seen as unnatural outrages. Clearly, Apuleius finds these effeminates and their sexual praxis cause for serious concern, to the point that he "outs" them to the town, which he sees as a commendable act. Overall, the catamite priest excerpt seems to center around a specific point: effeminate men and homosexuality are evil, a group to be feared in their gender violation and subsequent undermining of Roman gender specific power structures.