“Together come and follow to the Phrygian home of Cybele, to the Phrygian forests of the goddess, where the clash of cymbals ring, where tambourines resound, where the Phrygian flute-player blows deeply on his curved reed, where ivy-crowned maenads toss their heads wildly.”
— Catullus, poem 63
Kybele (pronounced Ku-bel-EE) is a Goddess of the fertility of all nature, humans and wild beasts included. She is a wild Goddess, by no means tame. She is especially related to forests and mountains, and is in fact called the Mountain Mother. She was served by transvestite priests, most of whom had castrated themselves to be more like their beloved Goddess. She is frequently pictured holding a round skin drum, and at many of Her nighttime festivals there was much drumming and dancing. Her rites were ecstatic and often included orgies. She is wild, primal, and uncontrollable. Her Mysteries were second only to the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, or Dionysos’ Orphic Mysteries.
She was correlated most strongly to Rheia, Mother of the Olympian Gods, by the Greeks. But depending on the area, Kybele was syncretized to other Greek Goddesses. These include Demeter in the Samothrakian cult, or Aphrodite at Mount Ida, or Artemis in Karia.
Kybele was originally a Phrygian Goddess Who became very popular in Greece. In fact, She is the only known Goddess from Phrygia, in Anatolia. Very little about the Anatolia cult is known, except that She is closely tied to lions, hawks, and mountains. Its possible that She has a precursor at Çatalhöyük, a very early human settlement from around the 6th millennium BCE. This Mother Goddess statue was found in a granary. Her body is more fleshy than the classical Kybele, invoking the Venus of Wilendorf, but there are many parallels with the classical Kybele. She is similarly enthroned, and the hand-rests of this particular statue are shaped into feline heads, much like Kybele’s attendant lions. Although I’m not entirely sure I agree that’s whats going on here, some people believe that She is giving birth on Her throne.
A shrine cut into rock in Phrygia bears the inscription Mater Kubileya, which is usually translated as “Mother of the Mountain”. This particular shrine dates to the first half to the 6th century BCE. Wikipedia has this to say about Kybele’s role as Mother Goddess and mediator between boundaries of wild nature and city life:
“Images and iconography in funerary contexts, and the ubiquity of her Phrygian name Matar (“Mother”), suggest that she was a mediator between the “boundaries of the known and unknown”: the civilized and the wild, the worlds of the living and the dead. Her association with hawks, lions, and the stone of the mountainous landscape of the Anatolian wilderness, seem to characterize her as mother of the land in its untrammeled natural state, with power to rule, moderate or soften its latent ferocity, and to control its potential threats to a settled, civilized life. In this view, the desire to harness her power led to her installation as a protective goddess of the city by Anatolian elites, possibly concurrent with some form of ruler-cult. …To show her role as protector of cities, or city states, she was sometimes shown wearing a Mural Crown, representing the city walls. At the same time, her power “transcended any purely political usage and spoke directly to the goddess’ followers from all walks of life1“.”
Greece had colonies around western Anatolia, Asia Minor, and the Aegean Islands. In the 6th century BCE, through these colonies, the worship of Kybele began to spread to mainland Greece. In Greece She is called Mistress of the Animals, Potnia Therōn, a title She shares with Artemis, and Mātēr or Mētēr , or “Mother”. She is also called Idaea, because She is believed to have been born on Mount Ida in Anatolia.. So in Athens She is sometimes called simply “the Idaian Mother of the Gods”. In Alexandria, Egypt, the Hellenistic Greeks hailed Her as “The Mother of the Gods, the Savior who Hears our Prayers” and also “The Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One”.
Under Hellenic influence along the coastal lands of Asia Minor, the sculptor Agoracritos, a pupil of Pheidias, produced a version of Cybele that became the standard one. It showed her still seated on a throne but now more decorous and matronly, her hand resting on the neck of a perfectly still lion and the other hand holding the circular frame drum, similar to atambourine, (tymbalon or tympanon), which evokes the full moon in its shape and is covered with the hide of the sacred lunar bull2.
In some versions, Kybele started out not as a wholly female Goddess, but as the hermaphroditic Agdistis, possessing both male and female parts. In the Greek version of this story, Agdistis was conceived when Zeus had a wet dream and His semen fell onto the ever-fertile earth. But the Gods were afraid of Agdistis, believing that His/His hermaphroditic body gave Agdistis the power to take over the universe. To subdue this threat, they had to castrate Agdistis. They buried the penis, and from that the first almond-tree grew. This tree will come into play later, in the story of Attis.
Scholars have theorized that Agdistis is part of a continuum of androgynous Anatolian deities, including an ancient Phrygiandeity probably named “Andistis” and one called “Adamma”, stretching all the way back to the ancient kingdom of Kizzuwatna in the 2nd millennium BC. There is also some epigraphic evidence that in places Agdistis was considered a healing goddess of wholly benevolent nature3.
Kybele and Attis
Kybele’s great love was Attis, a youth Who was some believe was a precursor to Adonis. Pausanias describes His hermaphrodite birth in the Phrygian legends, and the immaculate conception of Attis:
“The local [Phrygian] legend about him [Attis] being this. Zeus [i.e. the Phrygian sky-god], it is said, let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a Daimon, with two sexual organs, male and female. They call the daimon Agdistis [Kybele]. But the gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Sangarios, they say, took the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child. A boy [Attis] was born4.”
This boy became a shepherd, and His beauty was unearthly. He eventually became the beloved of Kybele, and there are several stories about what happened next. According to Ovid, Kybele made Attis Her priest, but required that He remain chaste to hold that position. He violated His oath with a nymph, and in punishment Kybele drove Him mad. In this state of madness Attis castrated himself, and when He died Kybele changed Him into a fir tree.
Pausanias relates a story that Attis was the son of the Phrygian king, and that He was born a eunuch. When He became a adult He introduced the worship of Kybele to Lydia. Zeus becomes jealous of Kybele’s attachment to Him, and the King of the Gods sent a wild boar to ravage Lydia. Many of the Lydians were killed by this boar, including Attis. This story gives Attis a death similar to that of Adonis; death by boar.
Pausanias also tells the story of how when Attis was sent to Pessinos to marry the king’s daughter. But according to Pausanias, Agdistis (Kybele) “appeared, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals, as also did he who was giving him his daughter in marriage. But Agdistis repented of what he had done to Attis, and persuaded Zeus to grant that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay. These are the most popular forms of the legend of Attis5.”
Ever since Attis was worshiped alongside Kybele as a dying and resurrecting vegetation God. After death He was turned into a pine tree. It was this myth that Her priests, the galli, re-enacted when they castrated themselves. Kybele was the nurse of Sabazios, Phrygian God equated with Dionysos. The orgiastic worship of Dionysos-Sabazios was heavily influenced from that of the Phrygian Meter Theon, Mother of the Gods.
At an early date there was associated with Cybele, the Great Mother, a hero-divinity called Attis who personified the life of the vegetable world particularly. … It is evident that in Rome there was a festival celebrating the death and resurrection of Attis. This celebration was held annually from March 22nd to 25th. … Again we may notice that at this same Attis festival on March 22nd, an effigy of the god was fastened to the trunk of a pine tree, Attis thus being “slain and hanged on a tree.” This effigy was later buried in a tomb. On March 24th, known as the Day of Blood, the High Priest, impersonating Attis, drew blood from him arm and offered it up in place of the blood of a human sacrifice, thus, as it were, sacrificing himself6.
Kybele in Rome
The Romans spelled Her name with the Latinized C, as Cybele, which is how you will most often see Her name written. Kybele’s cult was bought to Rome during the Second Punic War, or Rome’s second War with Carthage, around 218 – 201 BCE. During the War, there were also many dire signs that were taken as bad omens, such as a meteor shower, a failed harvest, and an ensuring famine. The Roman Senate were worried that these omens spelled defeat for Rome, and they consulted many religious advisers to see how they could avoid it. It was the Sibylline Oracle that recommended the adoption of Kybele’s cult into the Roman State Religion. The Oracle told them that the sacred image of the Great Mother from Phrygian Pessinos must come to reside in Rome itself. Since they were allies, the Romans sent ambassadors to Pessinos with the request. On the way, they stopped at the Oracle of Delphi, in Greece, just to check that this was the will of the Gods. The Romans were pragmatic people, and a move like was a big deal, so it was a good idea to consult more than one Oracle. It was granted, and the sacred rock was on its way. Because the image from Pessinos was not a statue, but a large, unshaped stone of black, meteoric iron. It would eventually become the face of Kybele’s statue when the Romans had finished Her temple; in the meantime, it was housed with honors in the Temple of Victoria.
In Rome She was called the Great Mother, Magna Mater. The Romans reinvented Kybele in some ways, claiming She was originally a Trojan Goddess. This would make Kybele an ancestral Goddess of the Romans, through the Trojan Aeneas who whose journey to Italia was chronicled in the Aeneid. As Rome spread its rule over the Mediterranean world, so did Kybele’s cult spread, at least in its Romanized forms.
Imperial Magna Mater protected the empire’s cities and agriculture — Ovid “stresses the barrenness of the earth before the Mother’s arrival. Virgil’s Aeneid (written between 29 and 19 BCE) embellishes her “Trojan” features; she is Berecyntian Cybele, mother of Jupiter himself, and protector of the Trojan prince Aeneas in his flight from the destruction of Troy. She gives the Trojans her sacred tree for shipbuilding, and begs Jupiter to make the ships indestructible. These ships become the means of escape for Aeneas and his men, guided towards Italy and a destiny as ancestors of the Roman people by Venus Genetrix. Once arrived in Italy, these ships have served their purpose and are transformed into sea nymphs7.
The Megalesia on April 4th celebrates the Goddess’s arrival in Rome. The rituals were kicked off by making an offering of a simple dish of dried herbs at the Temple of Magna Mater. Ovid gave the reason for such simple offerings as because “people of old are reported to have subsisted on pure milk and such herbs as the earth bore of its own free will. White cheese is mixed with pounded herbs, that the ancient gods may know the ancient foods8.”
The rites of the Magna Mater were celebrated by her eunuch priests, the Galli, sometime during March, but these rites, involving frenzy, violence, and self-mutilation, remained perverse and foreign to most Romans. The four-day rites of the Galli, however, cut to the core of the myth of Attis and his rebirth. In myth, Attis, beloved of Magna Mater, castrated himself, died, and was reborn. Male consort of the Great Mother, he was a vegetation God who returned every spring.
Roman citizens were not allowed to walk in the March procession, take part in the rites, or join the priesthood of Magna Mater “so great is the aversion of the Romans to all undue display lacking in decorum.” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.19.4) Instead, they initiated a more moderate Romanized annual festival to Cybele, or Magna Mater, the Megalesia, which began on April 4th. The April Megalesia was cheerful, festive, and raucous ritual of parties and theatrical events. The Megalesia was a time for giving and attending dinner parties and visiting friends. In fact, the banquets became so lavish that the Senate in 161 BCE by decree put a monetary limit on the amount a host could spend on a dinner party in addition to vegetables, bread, and wine, with no foreign wines allowed. The silverware could not weigh more than 120 pounds9.”
As you can probably imagine, Kybele has a somewhat complicated relationship with gender. Not only do some of the stories say that She started out as a hermaphroditic being, but Her priests were castrated transvestites who transgressed the social mores regarding gender in the ancient world. The Galli were not only castrated men, but they took on the roles of women. They wore women’s clothing (usually the color yellow), grew their hair long, wore make-up and heavy perfumes, and made a great show of taking on the female role. In some cases they even offered themselves for sexual encounters with other men.
The Romans had a conflicted relationship with the Galli. When Kybele’s sacred stone came to Rome in 204, so did the first Galli, as Her priests. Kybele may have become a state Goddess of Rome, but the castration required to be a Gallus was more than unseemly to Roman eyes, and because of this Roman citizens were forbidden from becoming Galli. (Emperor Claudius lifted this ban, but Domitian reinstated the ban on castration.) Because of this, all the Galli were either slaves or foreigners.
Although Cybele was an official goddess, the Senate refused Roman citizens the right to participate in her rites as priests, reflecting the Roman distrust and fear of the galli, for both their infertility and their rejection of masculinity. The galli not only deliberately made themselves unable to produce offspring, but they served as bad examples to others, tempting young men to join their ranks. Because of their effeminate nature, the galli flouted Roman exhortations toward virtus, the ideal of manliness. In brief, the Roman reverence for paternity and masculinity made castration a highly stigmatized activity, especially for Roman citizens, and made the galli a distinctly marginalized community.
The galli were often described in derogatory terms such as pathicus (“faggot”), mollis (“softie”), or cinaedus (originally an Eastern dancer, but later a term for a grown man who displayed effeminate behavior and/or desired to be penetrated). Being a gallus was deemed the ultimate in unmanliness.
…. For embracing a permanent state of feminine subjugation, the galli were marginalized to the fringes of Roman society. They seem to have converged in a subculture that protected them from the enmity of the majority. In the cult of Cybele, they were able to pursue their minority sexual interests without the ostracism that they experienced in the larger society10.
In Pessinus, there were two high priests during the Hellenistic period, who were also eunuchs like the rest of the Galli. However, in Rome, this changed, so that the head of the Galli, the Archigallus, was a Roman citizen. This most likely means he was not castrated, as this was forbidden, except between the time of Claudius and Domitian’s reign. The Archigallus was chosen by the quindecemviri sacris faciundis, a college of fifteen religious advisers and augers who, among other sacred duties, guarded the Sibylline Books. Archigallus was a lifetime position.
“Being a Roman citizen, as well as being employed by the Roman State, meant that the archigallus had to preserve the traditions of Cybele’s cult while not violating Roman prohibitions in religious behavior. Hence, some argue that the archigallus was never a eunuch, as all citizens of Rome were forbidden from emasculation. …The signs of his office have been described as a type of crown, possibly a laurel wreath, as well as a golden bracelet known as the occabus.
Along with the institution of the archigallus came the Phrygianum sanctuary as well as the rite of the taurobolium as it pertains to the Magna Mater, two aspects of the Magna Mater’s cultus that the archigallus held dominion over11.”
The taurobolium was a religious rite involving the sacrifice of an ox, and the supplicant was consecrated in its blood. The supplicant entered a chamber in an underground pit, which had a wooden floor above it with wide spaces between the the slats, described as open mesh. The animal is sacrificed on top of this mesh, so that the blood rains down on the supplicant below. This scene is dramatically depicted in HBO’s Rome, when Atia performed it to pray for the safety of her son in Gaul. According to Prudentis, this was performed for a priestess, who was then considered to have been “born again”. That is very interesting, considering that Christians see themselves as symbolically “washed in the blood of the lamb” to be “born again”. This was a literal bathing a blood, this time from a bull, to create a pagan rebirth. As Spock would say, “Fascinating.”
Then by the many paths of the thousand openings in the lattice the falling shower rains down a foul dew, which the priestess buried within catches, putting her head under all the drops. She throws back her face, she puts her cheeks in the way of the blood, she puts under it her ears and lips, she interposes her nostrils, she washes her very eyes with the fluid, nor does she even spare her throat but moistens her tongue, until she actually drinks the dark gore. … This woman, all hail and worship at a distance, because the ox’s blood has washed her, and she is born again for eternity12.
As much as Kybele is dear my heart, there is not really a lot that I can say about Her. For me, She is best experienced – in the beat the drum, in the pounding of your heart, in the burning of your muscles, the shortness of breath as you dance in abandonment till you drop in exhaustion. She was worshiped in ecstatic rituals in the ancient world, and this is where I have found Her today, in the same rituals of statistic drumming and dancing that belong to Dionysos as well.
Kybele has apparently been adopted by some transgender Pagans as something of a patron Deity in the modern era, although I did not find as much information about this as I would have liked. In any case, it is clear the Kybele is a great and powerful Goddess, Who deserves our worship and honor today as much as in the past. If anybody out there has any rituals honoring Kybele, or any experiences with Her, I’d love to here about it.
4Pausanias. Guide to Greece. 7.17.8
5Pausanias. Guide to Greece. 7. 19. 9-12
6The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/influence-mystery-religions-christianity
7Frances Bernstein, PHD. Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome: Myths, Gods, Goddess, Celebrations and Rites for Every Month of the Year. HarperCollins Publishers. New York.2000. pg 81
8 Ovid. Fasti. 4.367-73
9Frances Bernstein, PHD. Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome: Myths, Gods, Goddess, Celebrations and Rites for Every Month of the Year. HarperCollins Publishers. New York.2000. pg 81
10Nikolai Endres. Galli: Ancient Roman Priests. GLBTQ encyclopedia.
12Prudentis, as quoted in Ancient History Sourcebook: Roman Religiones Licitae and Illicitae, c. 204 BCE – 112 CE