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A letter to Cybele: Goddess of thresholds, transitions, and street raves.

"If you’ll pardon the anachronism: you have always had a special relation to us t-girls.” 

McKenzie Wark26 September 2023

A letter to Cybele: Goddess of thresholds, transitions, and street raves.

You’ve had many names, Cybele. That one you got by chance. I call you that because of all your names it’s the one I find most pretty. It’s not your secret name. That’s not for all to know.

I’ve never written to a god before, Cybele, let alone the one who to the Greeks and Romans was the mother of all gods. It’s not a thing an atheist usually does. As an atheist, I might live without you, but somehow, you’re still there. You gods just refuse to die. You’re always around, undead, in the phantasmagoria of everyday life. You’re forever being invoked and involved.

It’s those who have the least that need gods the most. When a people have nothing, we can still have a god. When nobody will help us, comfort us, fight for us, there’s still the gods. This is tricky. There’s the gods of power and the gods of the people. Their gods and our gods—and they’re usually aspects of the same gods. Faith is folk fentanyl, but also the callus of a callous world.

Like in Jean Genet’s The Balcony, with the republic on fire, the ruling class sparks up holograms of the most terrifying versions of the reigning gods. Around here it’s the most domineering dickhead sort of sky-god, the god of order and punishment. The one who doesn’t play well with others. I suppose it’s to be expected, now that the republic is dying, that its most violent god would be emboldened to demand yet more sacrifices. The decaying rituals of this flailing state seem more wretched every year.

The thrall of god as order and order as god. Here in New York, the votaries of this order hang around street corners, in subway stations, devoted to the rosaries of their phones, in their robes of blue, stroking the butts of their guns. Every year, the city pays for more of them from our communal offerings. Spleen of a splenetic world.

There’s plenty of order-worshippers attracted to your cult too, Cybele, great mother that you are. They call you Nature. I wonder though if they honor you the way you crave. They make you an earth mother and use your nature as the alibi to declare girls like me unclean. This earth cult of order aligns itself so readily with the sky cult of order. It’s all about order to them, regardless of whether order comes from below or above, from earth or eternity, mommy or daddy. 

Gods are always all the things we say they are, even if they are contradictory: order and chaos, sameness and difference, death and creation. I just want other ways of saying your name, other rites that might entreat you. Cybele: goddess of thresholds, transitions, of the mountain and the city, of the deep, dark, silent caves and of the noisiest street rave. It won’t surprise you, or anyone, that it’s your messy, joyful, open, weirdo energy that I honor. Even if it isn’t all of you.

You came from the east, from Phrygia, and were always something exotic, other, troubling to the Greek or Roman sensibility. Nonetheless, they used you for their intrigues and colonial projects as they pleased. They tried to tame you. Yet there you sat with a lion in your lap. The lion answers to you, and you, to nobody. Power wants to claim you, use you, but those cats bite. 

To the Greeks, you were a bit of an underground sensation. Popular on the margins, with outsiders and with citizens who felt outsider-like. They robed themselves in your otherness and embroidered on it. Made you one of their rave gods. Singing and dancing and getting high as fuck. The Greeks put that tambourine in your hand. All the same to you: gods are protean. Take whatever work you can get. 

It’s what came with you that was trouble. They wanted you, Cybele, but not Attis, your lover, and what Attis might signify. They had to change the myth of Attis so they wouldn’t have to change their world. They changed the sequence of your myth to suit the ruling order.

The one thing their version of the Cybele and Attis myth have right is that this love cut deep. The Attis you loved was a mere shepherd, an ordinary worker, not some grand prince or king. Ordinary, but also not. Your love was for neither a man nor a woman, as they understand those things. In the language of my time, Attis was trans, a t-girl, a tall girl, a girl like us. It’s a scandal, as we’re not supposed to be loved—just fucked. 

You loved Attis, and your love didn’t waver. Attis loved you too, but not so well. She could not love herself. Attis, from the start, is what we’d now call trans, and you knew that, and loved her anyway. She just couldn’t believe in your love, Cybele. I know that feeling. Many of us do. When I transitioned, I thought I’d never be loved again.

Not believing in your love, Attis went off and fucked some other girl. Trust me, hun, it meant nothing. But it made you so terribly sad. The thunder and the floods, the fires and the gales. It’s your pain and rage. Which is why we party so hard for you. As if it might cheer you up. As if it might put you in your balmy, breezy mood.

The one constant in the stories is the part that’s right: Attis takes up a sharp implement and cuts away her testicles. It’s the sequence that got altered. Changed from a story about offering to a story about ordering. Attis does not de-nut out of penance for having left you for another. She did it long before. It’s how the story starts. She cut and offered them to you. It’s how you met. It’s two gestures: the cut, for herself; the gift, for you. Not a sacrifice; Attis feels well rid. Attis remakes her body and honors you as the goddess of the power to remake the world. 

Girls like us need no explanation for the cut of Attis. She’s just a t-girl crafting flesh. But the ancients were nuts about castration (like some today). They needed a story to explain why a freeborn “man” would do that. Unlike the moderns, they knew firsthand what happened if you cut the balls off a goat, ram, bull or horse—or a slave. Knew more than Freud at least, who was clueless about what bit got cut. But they could only think it as a taking-away, a loss, a fall.

There’s so many of their myths where the cut balls give rise to monsters. As if that could only be a bad thing. You and girls like me, Cybele, we love monsters. They’re modern. They demonstrate the ways the world could become otherwise. They’re the sign of fresh things. This is your world in all the ways it comes and cums.

This is what they never understand about you, and girls like us. If you are the goddess of creation, why take the t-girl Attis as a lover? Because creation is not just procreation. You are the goddess of all makings and doings. Of all the ways differences enters the world. Of all the ways the world edits and arranges its elements. Goddess of praxis. That’s why Attis offers her cut flesh to you. For love of the world.

In your mountain home, you surround yourself with lions, and sometimes wolves, but also with working people, with shepherds, hunters, foragers, blacksmiths, beekeepers. They dance for you, they dance with you, follow the lines you lay. They curve them, queer them, twist with you a living, healing, and home. All with a careful step, never forgetting that your lions kill at will.

Your making isn’t pure. There’s always a little art, a little technics. Something girls like us know well. If you’ll pardon the anachronism: you have always had a special relation to us t-girls. With those who honor you as mother and who are ourselves capable of mothering but always and only in ways made otherwise.

— An edited excerpt from Love and Money, Sex and Death: A Memoir by McKenzie Wark


Love and Money, Sex and Death
After a successful career, a twenty-year marriage, and two kids, McKenzie Wark has an acute midlife crisis: coming out as a trans woman. Changing both social role and bodily form recasts her relati...