The Myth of Attis and Cybele




This 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 Greece).
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.

From 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).

A 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 his genitals.

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 spring.

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 her.

The 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'.

A 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 mythical fancy. 

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.

The 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 harem.

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 passionate jealousy.

The 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.

The festival was held in Rome on April 4 and consisted in a procession.

The 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.

The 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.

The way of paganism could only lead to monotheism, the transcendence of the one God and, with that, to Christian revelation.

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 (rapes, 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, 1973.
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Walter Burker, "Ancient mystery cults", ed. Laterza, Bari, 1991.
Giuli Sfameni Gasparri, "Attis and Cybele, cults, etc." in the "Dictionary of Religions" (G. Filoramo), ed. Einaudi, Torino, 1993.
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Paolo Scarpi, "Religions of the mysteries", fondaz. Lorenzo Valla, ed. Mondadori, Milano, 2002.