myth originates in Phrygia, as is testified to by two
versions that differ, the former in identifying Agdisis
as a lover of Attis, the latter in instead nominating
Cybele as the lover. The backdrop to the myth begins by
relating Zeus' attempts to have sexual intercourse with
Gea (identified as the Phrygian Cybele), goddess of the
Earth. Gea, according to the teogonia Esiodo, was born
from Chaos, divinized primordial matter which of itself
bears nothing of a personal nature. Chaos gives birth to
Gea who in turn, by parthenogenesis, gives birth to
Uranus (the sky) and Pontus (the depth of the sea). Gea
then couples with Uranus to create Ocean (the male water
deity who unites to the female water deity Teti, born
susequently from Uranus and Gea. Together with other
titans, Teti and Ocean generate 3000 rivers. From Uranus
and Gea Crono is then born, boding ill for his father
Uranus, and Rea too is born, who becomes the wife of
Crono. From these two, Zeus and six of the twelve gods
of Olympus are born (namely Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Ares,
Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis,
Demeter and Estia, who giives her place to Dionysus. At
2918 metres asl, Olympus is the highest mountain in
Attempts by Zeus to fertilize Gea at her consent fail,
the goddess having fled, and the seed of Zeus falls
instead to the ground. This act of Zeus is prompted by
his desire to take possession of the goddess from whom
all the world originated, the gods included, from Chaos
onwards. Zeus wishes in this way to rival Uranus, whom
Chronos, his father, hated.
the earth, rendered fruitful by the Zeus' seed, the
bisexual Agdistis emerges, who proves to be so violent,
so cruel, that he frightens the gods of Olympus, causing
Dionysus to conspire to tie his genitals to a cord
attached to a plant. Agdistis climbs down from the
plant and, in ascending to the earth, is castrated. From
the blood of Agdistis, shed upon the ground, an almond
springs (The almond tree is a symbol of youth, being the
first plant after winter to bloom in the spring).
Nana, daughter of the river god Sangarios (a river in
Phrygia), unwittingly eats of the fruit of the almond
tree and falls pregnant. Ignoring all, Nana's father
rejects his daughter, who is nevertheless assisted by
Gea (Cybele) in seeing her pregnancy to full term. Attis, who is forced to live in the mountains, where he
is suckled by a goat, is born to her (attagos, of the
Phrygians, hence the name Attis).
version of this myth, which soon ceased, gave way to
another, recounting that Attis became a hunting
companion of a now unisexual Agdisis, as well as her
lover. The King of Pessinunte, Mida, wished to marry his
daughter to Attis with a view to civilizing her.
Agdistis intervenes at the wedding feast, rendering the
bride mad through his powers so that she cuts off her
breasts. Distraught, Attis goes under a pine tree and
castrates himself, giving his genitals to Agdisis before
dying, to redeem the betrayal. Attis' wife then kills
herself over his corpse, upon which Gea (Cybele) buries
Another widespread version of the myth, prevailing upon
the first, centres on Agdisis and Attis and focusses
upon Cybele and Attis as lovers.
Attis, however, falls in love with the daughter of King
Midas and plans to marry her. Cybele, his betrayed
beloved, arrives and, in the midst of the wedding, casts
her madness upon Attis. He castrates himself as a means
of renouncing his marriage to the daughter of King Midas
and in retribution for his betrayal of Cybele, and so
dies. From his blood, fallen to the earth, violets
Cybele then obtains assurance from Zeus that the body of
Attis will not corrupt, that his hair will continue to
grow and that he will be able to move the small finger
of his hand. Cybele buries the genitals of Attis, which
become the god of vegetation, blossoming in spring
following the suspension of life in winter.
The Phrygian version of the myth
has Attis trying to free himself from Agdistis, so
exacting upon himself a terrible vengeance which affects
not himself, but his wife. The emasculated Attis decides
not to return to Agdistis, who instead hands over the
desired thing: viz his castrated genitals. These are
subsequently buried by Cybele. The evil caused by Zeus
in his lust for Gea (Cybele), is ovecome by an act of
love on the part of Attis towards his bride.
The second version relates Attis reduced to madness at
suffering Cybele's love for him, which he redeems
through castrating himself. By so doing, he returns to
tragedy of the myth stands out in the intensely
passionate love which, instinctive, becomes fierce in
the face of betrayal, and is mollified by a
self-betrayal which demands a triumph: that violets
sprout from his blood. Hence 'the god of vegetation'.
resurrection is excluded for Attis, only a hint
respecting vegetation as appropriate to the theme. Growing violets become the sign of Attis' triumph.
Death is induced by castration and bleeding. Nor is it
acceptable, even in jest, to fantastically relate the
crucifixion of Attis.
Entirely unrelated to the Gospel, the conception of Nana
arises neither from the creative power of God, nor from
human semen, but as a means of planting the seed of
Within the Hellenistic Myth : Mysteries of the Acts of
Attis and Cybele
The myth of Attis and Cybele in
the Hellenistic period is replete with novel sigificance. Firstly, the figure of Cybele rises dramatically in her
identification with Gea to become mother of all the gods.
The eviration of Attis increasingly becomes an act of
worship to the goddess, rather than as an opportunity
for celebration in a cult of vegetation. Attis'
eviration seals the goddess' possession of him and she
thus receives bodily life from Zeus, even if only
minimally. For devotees, the eviration is consequently
rendered the central event upon which the mysteries of
Attis and Cybele are hinged.
cult was introduced to Rome on April 4, 204 a.C. with
the construction, upon the Palatine, of a temple. Dubbed Coribanti, the priests within of the goddess
Cybele lived almost entirely segregated. Neither Roman
citizen nor slave would become a devotee by eviration. To Romans this would have been entirely without sense. The east had a long tradition of eunuchs, who occupied
positions of state and were often employed in the royal
However, as to the external aspects of the worship of
Cybele and Attis, a ban on participation was imposed. The celebration was held one day a year, before being
later accorded more space during festivities.
The worship of Cybele included the sacrifice of a bull,
whose blood was then sprinkled upon initiating members. The bull represented the power to fertilize, intact and
unfettered (the ox is a castrated bull). The loss
through castration of the generating power of the
initiated was compensated for by his being touched by
the blood of the sacrificed victim, which in worship
marked a mystery of accession and acquisition of a new
status. This was Taurobolium, celebrated once annually,
and endowed ritual purity either indeterminately or else
for only 20 years, according to the degree of initiation.
The formula first appears with the initiation of Firmico
Materno (early IV-350 AD) as the verse which introduces
us to the mystery religion: "I have eaten the eardrum,
drunk of the cymbal, taken the cerno, I have
descended to the nuptial chamber".
These words tell us that the mixture is swallowed to the
sound of music, leading the initiated into an ecstatic
state (we have had music). He had with him a terracotta
bowl : the vessel. Then, descent into the "bridal
chamber". This descent remains problematic, but
closer reading of the myth leads us to conclude that the
room was one assigned to castration. The terracotta bowl was intended for collection of the parts removed
and of the anatomic blood. Now barred from any further
relationships with women, the "Double wedding",
refers to the castrated devotee's espoused love for the
goddess. If done for the membership of the goddess,
eviration as irretrievable loss of virile power became
the recipe for ensuring the favoured protection of the
goddess, who had shown love at Attis' gesture of
mystery cult of Attis was developed in the Hellenistic
world as the cultural climate of the stoicism of
Neoplatonism, with Fate being the dark force dominating
the steps of men.
festival was held in Rome on April 4 and consisted in a
reorganization of parties, to whom the duration of six
days was given, came under the Emperor Claudius (10 BC -
54 AD). On the first day, March 22 (the spring equinox),
called "arbor intrat", a pine symbol of Attis was borne
about. On this first day the lamentations for Attis
took place. The 24th was dubbed "sanguis ”; in a
frenetic dance about the pine, priest eunuchs
flagellated themselves and tore their flesh till they
bled. Dancing and engravings have ancient origins:
the Bible (1 Kgs 18.20) mentions them in the worship of
Baal. Neophytes of the day too, with a view to reaching
a state of mystical exaltation, danced to music, a
practise concluding in self-castration. On the same day
the pine and cut body parts were also buried.
25th (or fourth day), was termed "hilario", or
day of joy for the revitalization of Attis, the 26th
termed "requieto", day of calm, of rest. On the
27th the statue of Cybele was taken to the river Almo to
be washed, so concluding all. (The Almo was the Roman
river which flowed into the Tiber. It was believed to
be home to a nymph, venerated as the statues of the gods
were immersed in the waters).
Any novelty concerning religion
comes as posthumous to Christianity, though we may see
no imitations here. The term "renatus in aeternum",
for celebrants of the blood rite in taurobolio, is not
derived from Christianity. Instead, the concept of
rebirth was a notion that Man developed upon reflecting,
for instance, upon a city rebuilt, or upon the fallen
fur of animals which grows again. The awakening of
vegetation suggested the idea of a rebirth. Of course,
the "renatus" of the devotee of Cybele was a mere
illusion. A non-god can hardly create.
way of paganism could only lead to monotheism, the
transcendence of the one God and, with that, to
We have it from Lucio Cecilio Firmiano Lactantius (circa
250 - 320) that in the face of paganism, Christians had
no difficulty in denouncing the falsity of the gods.
The first book of "Divinae institutiones" (which dates
back to soon after the Edict of Tolerance of April 311
by the Emperor Gaius Galerie Massimo - the same who, by
303, had persecuted Christians), is entitled "De
falsa religione". The ambitious motivation for the
work is immediately set: "if certain persons
thoroughly informed as to the rules of justice apply the
knowledge and compose and publish the "Institutions of
Civil Law" with a view to putting an end to the disputes
and quarrels of disagreeing citizens, then the term
"divine institution" is the more usefully and correctly
set down, there in which no mention of rain water or
irrigation is made ... , but rather of hope, of life,
salvation, the immortality of God, so avoiding morally
dangerous superstitions and destroying such errors as
are most shameful !" (Book I Ch 1, p 73).
"And what of the sacred rites? Some go even so far
as the sacrifice of human victims: the Tauri (the
Crimea) sacrificed their guests to Diana ; However,
being a barbaric people, this practice is of no wonder
to us. May the Latins then be thus justified in
revering Jupiter Laziale with human blood, those Latins
who claim themselves to be the glory of gentleness and
humanity? In addition to these, there are other less
inhumane rites, but such an undisceming act
as that consisting in mutilatation in honour of the
Magna Mater (Cybele) or in floggings and groanings in
memory of Isis' suffering for the loss of her son (not
the child, but her husband-brother Osiris) or in
sacrificing a donkey to Priapus, in Lampsaco, because
the bayings of the beast, upon which Silenus rode, had
awakened Vesta, the same of which Priapus, seized with
love, had taken advantage as she slept; quid turpius,
quid flagitiosius, quam si Vesta beneficio asini virgo
est? These stories, though told in the vibrant
colours of poets' works, are yet not pure inventions of
the imagination: the books of the pontiffs, too,
recount incredible feats : lasciviously dancing
men run either together or masked or covered with mud "
(Book I, Ch 21, p 99).
Lactantius does not stop here, saying that divine acts
were not performed by "Aesculapius, Apollo, Mars,
Mercury, Libero, Jupiter, also named Ottimo Massimo.
Instead, they are guilty of serious faults
adulteries, murders), of which any man should be
ashamed " (Book I Ch 10, p 96). Balordaggini defines "sacred rites imposed by men of power, who
took advantage of the ignorance and simplicity of the
common people, nourishing absurd beliefs in order to
attain the rewards of honour and tributes" (Book I,
Ch 22, p 99).
Lattanzio, Divinae institutiones. De opificio
Dei, De ira Dei, edited by Umberto Boella, Florence,
"Encyclopedia of religions”, ed. Vallecchi (Cybele
and Attis), Florence, 1973.
"Mysteries in Greece and Rome", shows
22/7/2005-8/1/2006 Colosseum, The Great Mother and Attis.
"Encyclopedia of religions”, ed. Vallecchi,
Giuseppina Mestice Sechi, "Universal Dictionary of
Mythology", ed. Rusconi, 1990.
Walter Burker, "Ancient mystery cults", ed. Laterza,
Giuli Sfameni Gasparri, "Attis and Cybele, cults,
etc." in the "Dictionary of Religions" (G.
Filoramo), ed. Einaudi, Torino, 1993.
Farioli Marcella, "The mystery religions", ed.
Xenia, Milano, 1998.
Paolo Scarpi, "Religions of the mysteries",
fondaz. Lorenzo Valla, ed. Mondadori, Milano, 2002.