The Importance of Attis in the Roman cult of Cybele
Attis was the youthful lover of Cybele, Mother of the gods. “Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation” (Frazer, 263) but, in Rome, at least, his fame was derived from the manner of his death, generally held to be by self-castration, and by the self-emasculated priests in the service of the Magna Mater. It is impossible to separate Attis from his consort Cybele, especially at the beginning of her reign in Rome, although later he became more important. Attis arrived in Rome from Anatolia in 204 B.C.E., when “the goddess was formally welcomed into Rome and accepted into the Roman pantheon; thereafter she was to function practically as a Roman national goddess” (Meyer, 113).
As with all the gods, there exist several versions of the myth of Attis, so there is no definitive explanation about his birth, his deeds or his death, however, “the relationship of Cybele and Attis appears in virtually all references to the myth” (Roller, 239). The “more widely known aspect of the myth of Cybele and Attis describes the relationship between the two, namely, their love affair and its tragic consequences, ending in Attis’s death” (Roller, 240). Roller states that the death of Attis through self-castration is the focal point of the myth. According to Roller, the Romans paid the most attention to this part of the myth, “in part because of the sensational nature of the material and in part because it provided the rationale for the self-castration of the Mother’s priests, an act otherwise inexplicable to the Greeks and Romans” (240). Some versions, however, claim that Attis was killed by a boar (like Adonis) sent by Zeus. Another version told how Cybele’s parents, upon finding out that she was pregnant by Attis, had him killed. In yet another story Attis was raped and then castrated by a king of an unnamed city, in retaliation for Attis having castrated the king after the rape (Roller, 240-1n11). But the accepted version was generally death by self-castration. Roller offers this explanation for the differences in the various versions:
“The differing versions of the myth among Classical authors may also be ascribed to their different purposes in relating the story. Ovid’s goal was to explain the Magna Mater’s public festival in Rome and the practice of ritual castration which took place there… Pausanias, a native of Anatolia, knew more about actual Anatolian cult practice and understood that there were regional differences in the Mother’s cult. Arnobius was intent on proving the superiority of Christianity and so preserved the most violent and unattractive version of the myth” (257-8).
Cybele arrived in Rome from Anatolia in 205 B.C.E., as per the order of the Sibylline Books, and “was solemnly installed in Rome, when the black stone which represented her was brought from Pessinus”(Hus, 136) towards the end of the Romans’ long struggle against Hannibal. According to the Books, bringing the great goddess to Rome would drive Hannibal out of Italy, and, in fact, “in the middle of April when the goddess arrived, and she went to work at once. For the harvest that year was such as had not been seen for many a long day, and in the very next year Hannibal and his veterans embarked for Africa” (Frazer, 265). According to Hus, this event of her arrival “was very important, for with Cybele there came to Rome what the Romans most disliked and feared: an orgiastic and barbaric cult whose ministers were the emasculated priests, the Galli” (136). Once the goddess and the Galli were brought to and installed in Rome, the Romans, surprised and horrified when they realized how the goddess was worshipped, then “tempered her rites and refused to let Roman citizens participate in them except in the role of spectators” (Lane, 339). There was no possibility of refusing the order of the Sibylline Books, so the Magna Mater was soon permanently installed in a temple on the Palantine. But the goddess did not come alone, and there is proof of Attis’s presence in Rome at this time: “On the Palatine, the Attis figures outnumber images of the Magna Mater by almost ten to one. They demonstrate that Attis was an essential part of the Mother’s cult from its inception in Rome” (Roller, 277).
The rites did not remain tempered for long, and Attis soon gained new importance and came into his own, thanks to the Emperor Claudius. Having been under careful control, the cult of Cybele “sprang into vigorous new life in the rein of Claudius and spread over the whole of the West with its liturgy in honour (sic) of Attis, the consort of the goddess” (Hus, 144). Included was “the feast of Attis, now official, [which] symbolized the drama of the life that followed death, and ended with the acclamation of the risen god… So Attis gradually acquired the status of supreme god: Holy, Great, Wise, Most High, he was the savior of the world” (Hus, 144). Claudius also “incorporated the Phrygian worship of the sacred tree [the pine], and with it probably the orgiastic rites of Attis, in the established religion of Rome” (Frazer, 266). However, the most important change Claudius made was probably the establishment of a new festival which honored the goddess and her now important consort which took place from the fifteenth to the twenty-seventh of March, which “put special emphasis on the resurrection of Attis” (Eliade, 466).
With the growing popularity of Attis, new rituals were established. “From the second century A.D. we have records of rites designed for the ordinary worshipper, man or woman” (Ferguson, 167), the taurobolium, which became associated with Attis. In this rite, the initiate would stand in a pit over which a bull was sacrificed, and the blood would pour down on him. “This sacrament of purification and redemption, this ‘baptism of blood,’ conferred divinity and immortality on those who received it” (Hus, 144). Sometimes a criobolium was performed instead, sacrificing a ram instead of a bull. Either way, the rite guaranteed eternal life. “Sometimes it seems as if the rite is regarded as having absolute efficacy, sometimes it was renewed after twenty years” (Ferguson, 167).
The cult of Cybele and Attis also included mysteries, although less information is available about them. Apparently included in the initiation into the mysteries was a sacred feast. “In the sacrament, the novice becomes a partaker of the mysteries by eating out of a drum and drinking out of a cymbal, two instruments of music which figured prominently in the thrilling orchestra of Attis” (Frazer, 274) Then a taurobolium was performed, with the usual idea that the initiate was reborn into eternal life. Frazer adds that “For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a new-born babe” (275). “The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of the god” (Frazer, 275), which would be during the March festival.
The festival opened on March 15th with the cannophori (reed bearers) bringing their reeds into the sanctuary. “The cut reeds may have been a symbolic representation of a feature of the story of Kybele (sic) and Attis: either the abandonment of the baby Attis by the side of a river or his self-castration later in life” (Meyer, 114). Following this event, certain foods such as bread and wine, as well as sexual intercourse, were avoided (Meyer, 114).
Then, on March 22nd,
“a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers [dendrophori]. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen (sic) bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem” (Frazer, 267).
Meyer sheds some insight on the meaning of the tree with these words: “According to the sacred myth, Attis castrated himself and died under a pine tree and even could be identified with the tree. As the pine tree was cut down in death, so also was youthful Attis cut down” (Meyer, 114).
On March 23rd, “the chief ceremony seems to have been a blowing of trumpets” (Frazer, 267).
March 24th was known as the Dies sanguinis (Day of Blood). The Archigallus (high priest) and others would cut themselves “in order to bespatter the altar and the sacred tree with their flowing blood… [in an offering that] probably formed part of the mourning for Attis and may have been intended to strengthen him for the resurrection” (Frazer, 268). The writer Lucian describes the scene thus:
“On set days the people crowd into the temple precincts and many Galli… perform the ceremonies, cutting their arms and presenting their backs to one another for lashing. Many of those present are playing flutes, many are beating tambourines, some are singing sacred songs under divine inspiration. This operation takes place outside the temple, and those who are responsible for it do not enter the temple” (Ferguson, 166).
Lucian goes on to describe the castration ceremony:
“This is the time when men become Galli. While the others are playing the flute and performing these rites, frenzy is already descending on many of them – and many who have come as spectators join in… The young man for whom this is destined throws off his clothes, rushes into the middle with a loud cry and picks up a sword… He grasps it and instantly castrates himself. Then he rushes through the city carrying his severed organ in his hands. He throws it into any house he likes” (Ferguson, 166).
“The household thus honored had to furnish him with a suit of female attire and female ornaments, which he wore for the rest of his life” (Frazer, 270). The reason behind this ceremony
“is not clear whether the severing of the genitals was intended as an offering of the male fertility exclusively to the service of the goddess, or the severing of the channel of emission, so that the fertility (believed to reside in the head) remained with the priests, and in that way was at the goddess’s service, while they were destined for immortality through not losing their life power” (Ferguson, 167)
Frazer believes that the Dies Sanguinis “witnessed the mourning for Attis over an effigy of him which was afterwards buried. The image thus laid in the sepulcher was probably the same which had hung upon the tree” (Frazer, 272). However, sadness became joy once night fell,
“For suddenly a light shone in the darkness: the tomb was opened: the god had risen from the dead; and as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation. The resurrection of the god was hailed by his disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the corruption of the grave.” (Frazer, 273)
On March 25th there was the Hilaria (festival of joy). During the Hilaria, “every man might say and do what he pleased. People went about the streets in disguise. No dignity was too high or too sacred for the humblest citizen to assume with impunity” (Frazer, 273).
March 26th seemed to be a day of rest with no particular activities.
On March 27th “the Roman festival closed… with a procession to the brook Almo. The silver image of the goddess, with its face of jagged black stone, sat in a wagon drawn by oxen. Preceded by the nobles walking barefoot, it moved slowly, to the loud music of pipes and tambourines, out by the Porta Capena, and so down to the banks of the Almo… There the high-priest, robed in purple, washed the wagon, the image, and the other sacred objects in the water of the stream [the lavatio]. On returning from their bath, the wain and the oxen were strewn with fresh spring flowers. All was mirth and gaiety” (Frazer, 273).
There existed not only the Galli, but also the Metragyrtai, who were mendicant priests of the Magna Mater, but little attention is paid to them when compared to the Galli, who caused problems for the Roman people by their very existence:
“The Romans evidently admired certain aspects of the Magna Mater and advanced her rites as one of the strong religious cults concerned with the safety of the state. At the same time, support for the goddess was by no means unanimous. And the goddess’ eunuch priests were becoming an increasingly visible presence in Rome, making the Magna Mater cult even more problematic” (Roller, 292)
The Galli were often described as “semimares” or “semiviri” (half-men) (301). Or they considered the Galli to be women, “and used the feminine pronoun to describe them” (Roller, 323). The Romans’ undisguised contempt for them could be seen in other ways:
“The Galli … emphasized their artificial femininity through feminine dress and manners, so their high-pitched voices, long wild hair, and garish costume made them instantly recognizable. Moreover, the implicit degradation of such female appearance reinforced popular assumptions about their licentious behavior… Numerous anecdotes and references portray the Galli as the purveyors of off-beat sexual activities” (Roller, 301).
Frazer also notes the high visibility of the Galli who often traveled in procession through the streets of Rome, “carrying the image of the goddess and chanting their hymns to the music of cymbals and tambourines, flutes and horns, while the people… flung alms to them in abundance, and buried the image and its bearers under showers of roses” (Frazer, 266).
Roller gives an example that demonstrates the attitude toward the Galli:
“In 77 B.C., a slave named Genucius received an inheritance from a freedman named Naevius Anius. Genucius, a priest of the Magna Mater, was a eunuch and was ultimately denied his inheritance on the grounds that he was neither man nor woman. Moreover, Genucius was not even allowed to plead his own case, lest the court be polluted by his obscene presence and corrupt voice…Roman approval of the goddess did not extend to her eunuch priests” (292).
Even in death, Galli were treated differently, as this passage from Lucian shows:
“When Galli die they are not buried in the same way as other men. If a Gallus dies, his associates take up his body and carry it outside the city. They set him down together with the bier on which they carried him, cover them over by throwing stones down on them, and having done this go back home. They observe an interval of seven days before entering the temple; to enter (167) before that would be an act of impiety. They observe the following regulations. If one of them sets eyes on a dead body, he does not enter the temple on that day, but enters it on the next day only after an act of purification. All of the dead man’s relatives observe an interval of thirty days, and shave their heads before entering; to enter before doing this would be an act of impiety” (Ferguson, 166-167).
Although he was not apparently an important figure when he first arrived in Rome, Attis became a key figure in Roman religion both through the use of his myth to explain the inexplicable Galli, and through Claudius’ support later on. Although the myth helped to explain the self-castration of the priests, it did not mean that Roman society tolerated their presence with any kindness, in fact, they “were considered alien fanatics even in imperial times” (Eliade, 465). Why anyone would choose to subject himself to such a life is a question about which it is difficult to even speculate an answer.
Eliade, Mircea, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 12, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company (1987)
Ferguson, John, Greek and Roman Religion: A Source Book. Park Ridge, New Jersey: Noyes Press (1980)
Frazer, Sir James George, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Part IV: Adonis Attis Osisris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion, Vol. 1, 3rd Ed. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited (1936)
Hus, Alain, Greek and Roman Religion. New York: Hawthorn Books (1962)
Lane, Eugene N., ed., Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren.
Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill (1996)
Meyer, Marvin W., ed., The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1987)
Roller, Lynn E., In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley: University of California Press (1999)