About Catullus / About Attis / The Cult of Cybele and Attis / Catullus #63: "Attis"

About the Author
Of Gaius Valerius Catullus, the author of the following poem, very little is known. His dates are traditionally given as ca. 84 B.C. to ca. 54 B.C.; but their accuracy is disputed. That he died young, however, is a near certainty. Beyond this, we can sketch the details of his life only in the broadest strokes. He was born in or near the North Italian town of Verona, where his father seems to have been an important citizen and even to have entertained Julius Caesar during the latter's proconsulship of the region. After having completed his preliminary studies in his home town, Catullus went to Rome, probably to continue his studies there and to make a beginning in a political career, as was expected of a young man of his class and station. In Rome he moved in high circles socially, and came to know and, then, be a lover of Clodia, one of the most powerful and ambitious women in Roman history. Their affair was of short duration, for Clodia, or Lesbia--the name by which Catullus tried to conceal her identity in his poems--, was married and had many lovers. But the intensity of Catullus' love has been preserved for us in the first collection, and one of the most moving, of personal love poetry in European literature. Some years after the disillusioning break-up with this woman, Catullus went East to serve for a year on the staff of a governor of Bithynia (in Western Asia). His tour of duty complete, Catullus returned home, to Rome and to Verona, by way of Asia Minor and a visit to his brother's grave. Within a few years, Catullus himself was dead. Although he is usually remembered for the Lesbia lyrics and for other short pieces on friends and enemies, Catullus would have considered these pieces less significant as poetic works against the series of relatively long poems that dealt primarily with the ideas of love and marriage and with mythological themes. Among these longer poems is No. 63, the "Attis".

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Attis was a vegetation deity of the type commonly worshipped in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans into those areas. His annual birth, death, and resurrection not only symbolized, but actually realized, for ancient man the recurrent cycle of the seasons and the annual renewal of the crops that constituted the food supply. As a vegetation deity the fertility of the earth was in his care. Thus, like the Syrian Adonis (the consort of Astarte/Aphrodite) and the Babylonian-Assyrian Tammuz (beloved of Ishtar), Attis was the consort of Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods, who was worshipped in central and western Anatolia (i.e. the inland districts of central and western Turkey). And like his parallel gods, Attis was the lesser deity in the divine partnership.

In historical times, Attis and Cybele were deities of the Phrygian people. These people, however, were relative late-comers to the area which came to be known as Phrygia. They conquered the native inhabitants, but in the process adopted many of the indigenous customs and practices and, apparently, the native religion, including the worship of an earth-mother goddess and her youthful consort.

The name of the god probably means "father", although some ancient authorities derive his name from a Phrygian word for goat or goat-herder, for Attis, like Adonis, is said to have been a keeper of flocks.

In Greece, Attis appears only rarely, but in Rome, especially after the Emperor Claudius, who fully nationalized the cult, Attis figures strongly, and eventually becomes an equal partner with Cybele. During the later empire, Attis is invested with celestial attributes and he becomes a sun-god, supreme, all-powerful and capable of granting his worshippers immorality. In art attis is generally depicted as an effeminate youth; wears the distinctive Phrygian cap and trousers.

The Myth of Attis
Ancient literary sources preserve a fair amount of information about the myth of this god. Much of what is preserved, however, is contradictory or incomplete. Two main variant forms of the myth exist, one of which comes from Pessinus, the official priest-state of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia; the other seems to come from Lydia, a neighbor of Phrygia to the west.

(1) The Phrygian version traces to story of Attis' birth back two generations to Agdus, an Anatolian deity who is probably a by-form of the Phrygian mother-earth goddess. Zeus attempts to make love to Agdus, but she puts up a struggle against him, during which he loses his seed and impregnates her. In the tenth month she unwillingly brings forth Agdistis, an androgynous (i.e. bisexual) divinity capable of creating offspring by himself without the aid of any other being. Agdistis, however, is a very violent and powerful-hungry god who is soon feared by the other gods. They take counsel together and contrive to restrain him. When tricked by Dionysus into drinking from a stream whose waters have been secretly mixed with wine, Agdistis falls into a drunken slumber during which he is violently castrated. From the blood thus shed, the earth conceives a pomegranate tree or an almond tree. Some time later, Nana, the virgin daughter of the local king, or of Sangarius, a river god, picks the fruit/or almond, and places it in her lap. (In one account the fruit mysteriously disappears). Nana becomes pregnant by this fruit, and the child thus conceived is Attis. The child's grandfather orders the baby exposed, but the baby is saved by the goddess and under her care is nursed by a she-goat. When the young Attis grows up. Agdistis and/or the Mother of the Gods falls in love with him. In some versions Agdistis, to prevent Attis from contracting a marriage to another, drove the youth to castrate himself. In other versions, the Great Mother, insanely jealous when her young lover/husband becomes sexually involved with a mortal woman, drives Attis insane (sometimes by refusing to take him back as husband or lover), and in his frenzy Attis mutilates himself under a pine tree by the banks of the Gallus river, where he dies.

(2) The Lydian story gives little information concerning Attis' birth and childhood. His mother is unknown; his father is mentioned as Kalaos, and might have been a king. In this version Attis is a eunuch or a eunuch-priest of the Goddess who initiates the people into cult, and who is thus, like the Greek Triptolemus, or the Roman Numa, a religious culture hero. Later Attis is said to be killed by a boar, like his parallels, Adonis and Osiris.

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a secularized version of this story (1.34-35) when he tells the ironical tale of the death of Atys, son of the Lydian king Croesus, at the hands of a Phrygian suppliant and guest-friend, Adrastus, while on a boar hunt.

It is highly probable that both versions of the myth are aetiological in origin--a case in which the ritual comes first and the myth is developed at a later period to explain the rites. Frazer explains the aetiological associations in this way:

The story of the self-mutilation of Attis is clearly an attempt to account for the self-mutilation of the priest, who regularly castrated themselves on entering the service of the goddess. The story of his death by the boar may have been told to explain why his worshippers, especially the people of Pessinus, abstained from eating swine. In like manner the worshippers of Adonis abstained from pork, because a boar had killed their god. After his death Attis is said [by Ovid, Metamorphoses, X.103ff.] to have been changed into a pine-tree.

(Frazer, The Golden Bough, Part IV, pg. 265)

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The Cult of Cybele and Attis
Our knowledge of the cult is based on the way it was observed in Rome. The evidence from the ancient sources strongly suggests that Roman practiced differed little, if at all, form the Phrygian cult in historical times.

Of the prehistoric, pre-Phrygian cult, very little can be ascertained. In the early historical cult, Attis was a subsidiary figure--often he was not even a god--whose death is mourned but who is not, apparently, worshipped. From its original home in Anatolia, the cult spread to Thrace, to the Aegean islands, and eventually to mainland Greece. Its unhellenic nature, however, prevented the cult from ever assuming great popularity among the Greeks.

In 204 B.C. the cult was imported into Rome, on the basis of an obscure prophecy in the Sibylline Books, as part of a concerted attempt to drive Hannibal stone that represented or was the embodiment of the goddess, was "given" by the people of Pessinus to the Roman people. The cult was officially adopted by the State on a special status, and a temple was constructed for the Goddess on the Palatine hill (Livy 29.10-14). The rites of Attis was probably introduced at this same time.

The Romans' subsequent victory over the Carthaginians, together with an unexpectedly abundant grain harvest that years, assured the cult a permanent place at Rome. Until the middle of the first century, A.D., however, when the Emperor Claudius raised the cult to an equal status with the other official State cults, no Roman citizen was allowed to become a priest of the Goddess or a full-fledged initiate. Like the Greeks the Republican Romans found the cult practices, especially those of self-mutilation and -castration too foreign to be acceptable without qualification or restriction.

The great festival of Cybele and Attis were celebrated at Rome in the Spring. Frazer (op.cit. 267f.) gives the following description of the ceremonies:

On March 22, a pine tree was cut in the woods and brought to 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[Dendrophoroi]. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woolen 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. On the second day of the festival, the 23rd of March, the chief ceremony seems to have been a blowing of trumpets [apparently this is the result of syncretism with the native Roman religion which celebrated the feast of the tubilustrium, or purification of the trumpets on this day]. The third day, the 24th of March, was known as the Day of Blood: the Archigallus or high priest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. Nor was he alone in making this bloody sacrifice. Stirred by the wild barbaric music of clashing cymbals, rumbling drums, droning horns, and screaming flutes, the inferior clergy whirled about into a frenzy of excitement and insensible to pain, they gashed their bodies with potsherds or slashed them with knives in order to bespatter the altar and the sacred tree with their flowing blood. The ghastly rite probably formed part of the mourning for Attis and may have been intended to strengthen him for the resurrection... Further, we may conjecture, though we are not expressly told, that it was on the same Day of Blood and their virility [by self-castration]. Wrought up to the highest pitch of religious excitement they dashed the severed portions of themselves against the image of the cruel goddess. These broken instruments of fertility were afterwards reverently wrapped up and buried in the earth or in subterranean chambers sacred to Cybele, where, like the offering of blood, they may have been deemed instrumental in recalling Attis to life and hastening the general resurrection of nature, which was then bursting into leaf and blossom in the vernal sunshine. Some confirmation of this conjecture is furnished by savage story that the mother of Attis conceived by putting in her bosom a pomegranate sprung from the severed genitals of a man-monster, Agdistis, a sort of doublet of Attis.

The preceding description relates the events of that part of the festival that was known as the Tristia (from L. tristis, sad), or ceremony of sadness.

On the evening of the Blood, at nightfall, the second part of the spring festival begin. This part was called the Hilaria (from L. hilaris), or ceremony of joy, because, on the 25th of March, which was reckoned as the vernal equinox, the resurrection of Attis was celebrated. The evening celebration began when

suddenly a light 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 the disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the grave.

The 25th of March was celebrated as a carnival; universal license prevailed; and the merrymakers assumed costumes, played pranks, and had a very happy day. The 26th of March was designated as a day of repose, necessary after the excitement of the preceding days. On the 27th the Roman festival drew to a close with a procession to the brook Almo in which

the silver image of the goddess, with its face of jagged black stone, sat in [an ox-drawn wagon]. Preceded by the noble walking barefoot, it moved slowly, to the loud music of popes and tambourines, out by the Porta Capena [one of the gates of Rome], and so down to the banks of the Almo, which flows into the Tiber just below the walls of Rome. There the high priest, robed in purple, washed the wagon, the image, and the other sacred objects in the water of the stream. On returning from their bath, the wain [i.e. wagon] and oxen were strewn with fresh spring flowers. All was mirth and gaiety. None thought of the blood that had flowed so lately. Even the eunuch priests forgot their wounds.

In addition to public ceremonies, there were secret, mystic ceremonies, probably aimed at bringing the worshipper and especially the novice, into closer communication with the god. Our information of these rites is very scanty, but we know that there was some sort of sacramental meal in which worshippers became partakers of the mysteries by eating out of a drum and drinking out of a cymbal (the two chief instruments of the cult's music). In addition, the taurobolium was celebrated as an initiation practice (and it was renews every twenty years). This baptism made the worshipper reborn in the Goddess, and the fiction of rebirth was kept up for some time thereafter by dieting the new initiate on milk like a new-born babe. Thus the regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god.

Catullus' Poem
We can hardly guess what motivated the poet to chose this strange cult as subject matter for his poem. Nor do we posses any other literary work quite like it. The galleiambic meter which the poet employed had scarcely been used by anyone except the poet and hymn writers of the cult. Its rhythm was strong, exciting, intoxicating, for in the cult its purpose had been to arouse the worshippers and help them achieve ecstasy.

The subject of the poem. is named Attis, but he is not to be identified with Attis the god. Rather, he seems to have been a priest of the god. In Catullus' day the high priest, at least, and possibly all the priests, of Cybele and Attis were called "Attis" in Phrygian Pesserius. Even if that were not the practice in Rome, Catullus would have been familiar with it from his eastern travels.

The man who is Catullus' subject, then, had made a pilgrimage to Cybele's shrine. He is described as young, handsome, strong and is sought after by both men and young girls. He was hardly the ordinary candidate for Cybele's priesthood, and caught up in the frenzy of the rites the youth took the fateful step and emasculated himself. Apparently, he led a whole group of young men to do the same. The next morning, when the ecstasy was passed, he realized the implications of his actions.

J. P. Elder, a Catullan scholar, has described the poem as "the dramatization of a mental state, or to put it another way, the sympathetic delineation of a mind undergoing a psychological experience of the most extraordinary sort." (AJPL 68 [1947] 395). The poem presents, through two narrative sections followed by two speeches, the moods of such a man: the wild and dominant fanaticism culminating in the terrible self-sacrifice and the awakening and bleak despair at the realization of what has been done, what he now is and of the home and world to which he can never return.

The poem is one of the richest in imagery of all of Catullus' poems. For instance, Catullus first applies the image of the good shepherd and the flock to Attis and his followers; after the second speech, however, Attis is no longer the shepherd; Cybele is , and Attis is merely part of the herd. The poet also uses much of the imagery and language that normally associates with the bride in his marriage poems to describe Attis, the (non-man) bride of Cybele.

The end of the poem presents the reader with the terrifying side of the dread Mother of the Gods: she will gladly accept the worship and service of willing followers; she will exact with terrible coercion such loyalty from those who are unwilling. The prayer with which the poem concludes is no doubt a very genuine one against the sort of ecstatic madness that often dominated in the more orgiastic mystery cults.

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Catullus' "Attis"

Attis, propelled by his swift ship through deep waves, set his

quick feet upon the Phrygian shore;

entered the heavy sunless forest where his mind grew dark as

shadows over him

and there, his blood gone mad, seized a sharp stone, divorced his

vital members from his body,

then rising (the ground wet with blood) he was transformed, a

woman with her delicate white hands

sounding the tympanum, the tympanum singing praise through sacred

trumpets raised to goddess Cybele, mysterious mother of a sexless race.

Then in his sweet falsetto Attis sang: Now follow me, O priests

of Cybele, come follow, we are creatures

of this goddess, wind, dance, unwind the dance again, O exiles

from a far land, come with me

across the rapid salt sea wave. Your bodies shall be clean; no

more shall Venus

stain you with foul disease and move your limbs with power of love.

Now under my leadership (this mad delight) land in her rich

dominions, sing you her praise

make her heart leap with the same joy that rises in your blood at

this sweet liberty.

No longer wait for her, but come, follow my way that winds upward

to her temple.

making glad noises with the pipe that plays a song to welcome her,

clash cymbals, dance and shake the earth with thunder, your quick

feet sounding her glory, and like the girls

who follow Bacchus, toss your heads, shout songs in measure to

the Phrygian pipes, come join her merry

company where drunken cries rise in a chorus. The sacred symbol

of her worship trembles in air

that moves with noise poured from your lips here in this place

where the great goddess wanders.

Now Attis (not quite woman) called her followers, leading them

toward green blooming Ida where

his followers crowded, tongues trembling with shrill noises,

hollow cymbals crashed and the tympanum rang again, again

the race sped forward. Then wavering exhausted, the ghost of

their very lives issuing

from lips, circling in delirium they followed Attis through the

green shadows, she who sprang

like a raging heifer freed from harness, till they sank, defeated

(weariness in their eyes, and starved for lack of food) at

the high temple of Cybele, their goddess,

then madness declined into a heavy wave of sleep, minds sunk in


But when the sun transformed the skies into a radiant heaven, his

mighty rolling brilliant eye

disclosing hills, the savage sea all in clear outlines, and there

was liquid peace within his mind, the horses

of dawn rose galloping, trampling night underfoot, and Attis,

leaving sweet Pasithea wife of sleep, awoke,

looked back and saw what he had done, how his mad brain deceived

him saw how he lost

his manhood--all this in passionless clarity seized his mind, and

with his eyes turned homeward

across the sea, she wept, poor creature, neither man nor woman.

Land of my birth, creating me, my fatherland I left with you (O

miserably, a fugitive)

I have gone into this wilderness of snow to live with beasts that

circle Ida's mountain,

my brain in darkness--and where are you, and of my fathers, for

you have vanished and my eyes return

where you once rose before me. In this short hour while my brain

still welcomes sunlight,

I praise you--now shall I be driven back into this wilderness

where everyone,

my friends, my parents, and all I love shall fade. I shall not

walk again through the city streets, nor join the crowd,

(O glorious young men) who fill the stadium and who excel in many


Look at my misery and hear me cry my curse against this miserable


I am a woman, hear my voice and look at me who once walked

bravely hero of games, a boy who stood

rich flower of youth equal to all who challenged him. All these

were mine: friends crowding at my door,

wreaths of sweet flowers in my room when morning sun calls me

away, and a welcome threshold that I left

behind me. Witness me, a girl, a slave of Cybele, dressed like a

girlish follower of Bacchus,

half my soul destroyed, and sterile I must live on this cold mountain

and like all others in snow-bound Ida's province, follow the deer

and wild boar--a man undone,

longing for home again. And as these words flowed from her

glowing lips a prayer rose to the gods,

Cybele released her lions, driving one nearest to her side into

the forest saying:

Go follow him, he who is mad Attis, mangle his brain within your

claws, go follow

him who longs to leave my empire; give your rage to him,

transmute your madness to his person,

lash tail and throw your rolling head, mane erect in fury, follow him.

At this the creature sprang through the deep wilderness, and on a

glittering sunstruck beach found Attis

drove him back to Ida where now wandering forever Attis

delirious, sings praise, a servant to the goddess Cybele.

Great goddess, spare me, never haunt my home--take others for

your slaves, those creatures

that you have driven mad and those who in their madness wake

again your passionate cruelty.

ISSI402 Classical Mythology and Religion
Monmouth College
Monmouth, Illinois
Instructor: Thomas J. Sienkewicz (

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