Life can be hard, but in antiquity it was even harder, with many people living on the edge of subsistence or even under that edge. Combined with the belief in astrology, it could easily be believed that poverty was ones fate. One option was begging and this was also what the Galli (priests of Cybele) did, who, in return for money, told people their fortune. There was a price to be paid for joining this wandering priesthood: self-castration. Apuleius tells us in his Metamorphoses that he once was kept as an ass (asinus) and how they were begging, and making noise with their tambours (tympanum). Fortunately he regained his original human shape, but the poor ass in this fable did not.
Phaedrus 4.I. Asinus et Galli.
Qui natus est infelix, non uitam modo
tristem decurrit, uerum post obitum quoque
persequitur illum dura fati miseria.
Galli Cybebes circum in questus ducere
asinum solebant, baiulantem sarcinas.
Is cum labore et plagis esset mortuus,
detracta pelle sibi fecerunt tympana.
Rogati mox a quodam, delicio suo
quidnam fecissent, hoc locuti sunt modo:
"Putabat se post mortem securum fore:
ecce aliae plagae congeruntur mortuo!"
infelix: under an inauspicious constellation
decurrit vitam: runs through life (the word is used for horses running in the hippodrome)
Cybebe = Cybele
circum…ducere = circumducere
obitus obitus (m.): death
questus questus (m.): profit, gain (in questus : in their begging)
baiulo: to carry a burden
sarcina: burden, package
pellis pellis (f.): skin, hide
delicio suo: with their pet (in prose often deliciae, with the notion of a singular)
fore: inf. fut. of sum
congero congessi congestum: to heap up
Translation by Christopher Smart (1913)
The Ass and Priests of Cybele
The luckless wretch that's born to woe
Must all his life affliction know-
And harder still, his cruel fate
Will on his very ashes wait,
Cybele's priests, in quest of bread,
An Ass about the village led,
With things for sale from door to door;
Till work'd and beaten more and more,
At length, when the poor creature died,
They made them drums out of his hide.
Then question'd "how it came to pass
They thus could serve ther darling Ass ?"
The answer was, " He thought of peace
In death, and that his toils would cease;
But see his mis'ry knows no bounds,
Still with our blows his back resounds."