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  • Liminality and Catullus's Attis
  • Annemarie De Villiers (bio)

Michael Putnam (1982, 46) singles out "personality" as Catullus's genius. One only needs to think of a few memorable characters such as (H)Arrius, Suffenus, the constantly grinning Egnatius, the abominable Gellius, and the abandoned Ariadne for this statement to ring true. In c. 63 Catullus deals with, arguably, the most difficult personality in the whole collection. The young Attis, who castrates himself of his own free will in a fit of madness, is not a very appealing protagonist; however, he does manage to evoke the reader's sympathy with his plight. Towards the end of the poem, Attis finds himself on a literal and figurative threshold: between the sea, which connects him to his former life, and the wilderness representing his new life, and between his former masculine self and the emasculated servant to Cybele that he has become. He is doomed to the life of a liminary, a threshold person, but without the forgetful ecstasy associated with the liminal phase. He is fully aware of the before and the after, and deeply regrets ever having engaged in the goddess's ritual.

The theory of liminality, which is now widely applied in many disciplines, has its origin in the work of French folklorist Arnold van Gennep. Van Gennep studied various ritual ceremonies in tribal as well as complex industrial societies and came to the conclusion that a person's life entails a sequence of "rites of passage," procedures, conditions, or ceremonies, which signal a transition from one state of being to another (1960, 2–3). Such rites may include initiation, birth, marriage, and funeral rites, as well as those associated with the passage from one occupation to another, or one economic or intellectual group to another (Van Gennep 1960, 1–3). Van Gennep identifies three stages that are in essence common to all ritual ceremonies despite cultural differences: rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of reincorporation. These stages may also be called preliminal, liminal, and postliminal (Van Gennep 1960, 10–11). Apart from this recurring pattern, which may be detected in a variety of ritual ceremonies, Van Gennep in the conclusion to The Rites of Passage stresses two further points that would be taken up by his successors: (1) the transitional phase may obtain a form of independence, such as betrothal, where adolescence is seen as the preliminal phase and [End Page 157] marriage as the postliminal; and (2) "the passage from one social position to another is identified with territorial passage, such as the entrance into a village or a house, the movement from one room to another …" (1960, 191–192). It is with this last point that the concept of limen (threshold) comes into play.

Victor Turner, in developing his concept of liminality, takes Van Gennep as his starting point. His three stages of rites of passage—or what he calls "transition" rites (1969, 94—are as follows. In the first phase of separation, the individual (or group) is removed from her position or state in society. In the liminal phase, the "ritual subject" acquires ambiguous characteristics as she passes through a stage with none of the features of the former or future phase. In the final phase, which Turner calls reaggregation (or reincorporation), the passage is complete and the ritual subject again finds herself in a state of relative stability and structure (1969, 94). The stability of the reaggregation phase demands that the individual abide by the norms and the behavioral code required by her new social position (1969, 95).

Turner, whose main focus is on the qualities of the threshold or liminal phase, identifies the following characteristics of "liminal personae" or "threshold people." Their nature is "necessarily ambiguous" since their situation cannot be defined in terms of the normal categories of cultural states. They are "neither here nor here; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (Turner 1969, 95). These ambiguous qualities are conveyed through different symbols in various societies, with the liminal situation often compared to death, invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, and the wilderness (Turner 1969, 95).

Its inherent ambiguity allows the liminal situation to...


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