The Mother Goddess (Cybele)

A. The goddess

The cult of this goddess of fertility was known all over the Mediterranean world under different names. She is the dominant partner in the cult, and her consort is a handsome young vegetation god who dies and returns annually (cycle of the year).

1. Babylonia and Syria: Ishtar or Astarte and Tammuz

2. Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy; Cybele or Magna Mater ("Great Mother") and Attis

3. Greece and Italy: Aphrodite (Venus) and Adonis (Ovid X, p. 239-245)

NOTE: Tammuz--Attis--Adonis are all names for the same dying consort of the mother goddess, who is also the same whether she is called Astarte-Cybele-Aphrodite or Magna Mater. In the discussion of cult which follows the names Cybele and Attis will be used.

B. The cult
1. The goddess: Cybele is pictured with a turreted crown, driving in a chariot pulled by lions (cf. the fate of Atalanta and Hippomenes). In addition to her role as a fertility goddess, she also protects her people like Athens and is a goddess of wild like Artemis. Her followers often accompany her, playing drums and flutes and shaking cymbals.

NOTE: Music, which sets a mood and encourages certain emotional states, is very important in many cults. Dancing and singing or chanting also enhance the appropriate reactions.

2. The central myth (Syrian-Asian version)
The goddess and her young lover have a passionate affair, after which she drives him mad. In his madness he castrates himself and dies. However, he returns annually in the spring, symbolizing the re-birth of vegetation, which in turn prefiguers another (or after) life for the worshipers. (Note also the obviously destructive aspect of the mother goddess.)

Compare this with Ovid's Greco-Roman version, where the story has been "humanized", and Adonis returns only as a flower. The memory of Aphrodite as the life-giving but also destroying mother goddess remains in this story, as it also does in the parallel tale of her affair with the Trojan Anchises. (In the earliest versions of the Anchises story he also was killed.)

Adonis was killed by a boar, almost always a symbol of danger and treachery (cf. the Calydonian boar hunt, Heracles' labor of the Erymanthian boar).

3. Rituals of worship
a. At the annual celebration of the death and return of Attis, processions of joyful worshipers danced through the streets and then attended ceremonies at Cybele's temple. The rites were ORGIASTIC, designed to increase human fertility; and ritual prostitution was considered a gift to the goddess.

The priests of Cybele, called Galli, were all eunuchs and practiced flagellation and self-mutilation (gashes on arms, etc.) during the climactic ceremonies. Young men who wished to serve the goddess full-time, carried away by the frenzy of the ritual, leaped into the center of the procession, castrated themselves with the sacred swords in imitation of Attis, and dressed themselves in women's clothes (identification with Cybele).

b. One of the major rites, prominent in other cults as well, was the TAUROBOLIUM or sacrifice of a bull*, with baptism in its blood as a ceremony of consecration or initiation.

*The bull, of course, is associated with fertility and power; and is often a symbol of (or connected with) Zeus, Poseidon and Dionysus in Greece, Baal in Palestine, and Osiris in Egypt.

The priest who was to be consecrated or the worshiper who desired and could afford the highest degree of initiation, dressed in fine clothes, descended into a pit over which was fastened a wooden floor with open spaces, and all the planks pierced with holes. The priests then sacrificed a bull on this platform, and the blood flowed down over the initiate below. He received this joyously and then re-appeared, dripping blood, to be hailed, by the assembled priests and worshipers as one"born again for eternity," having received the gift of divine life from the blood of the sacred bull.

4. Importance of the cult
Although the orgiastic worship of Cybele was basically foreign to the Greece-Roman tradition, it spread rapidly in the Hellenistic and Roman eras because for some people it answered that need for belonging and salvation which so man felt. It was in essence an emotional, non-thinking cult- but a very important one, which lasted late in the Roman Empire.

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

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