Attis embodied: androgyny and the 'debased' divine in a second century statue from Ostia's sanctuary of Magna Mater

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Arts & Architecture


The unique physicality of the Reclining Attis had the potential to mark him as debased to a normative, elite Roman audience but for cult members or followers of Magna Mater it was necessary for the depiction of Attis as a god. The purpose of this paper is to interrogate and analyze the representation of the body of the Reclining Attis, dedicated by C. Cartilius Euplus to the Sanctuary of Magna Mater in Ostia, by comparison with other figure types in Roman statuary and in conjunction with the Roman literary tradition, in order to understand the defining of embodied identity for the divine Attis within this second century sculpture. Within the body of the Reclining Attis we can see a blending of masculine and feminine signs, associations with fertility, vegetation, and natural cycles, and an emphasis on the beautiful foreign body. These signs within the body can be read as an embodiment of Attis's divinity as third gender, as a vegetal deity, and as a repository for cultural dualities. Missing from current scholarship on the cult of Attis and Magna Mater is a concentrated, art historical reading of the figure of Attis. The use of the cult objects left behind, not merely as illustrations for the presence of the cult, but as significant pieces of evidence for what the cult believed about itself and its gods, and what it wanted to communicate to others. Representations, particularly representations of the body, are embedded with meaning within their cultural contexts, even bodies as unusual as that of Attis. Close analysis of representations of Attis, then, may help to inform more fully the continually developing conversation surrounding the figure and his meanings. This thesis has added to the ongoing scholarly discussion regarding Attis in Rome and has also begun to fill in the gap of art historical analysis in his study and can serve as a model for further interpretations of the Attis body as a representation of embodied, divine identity.




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