Cybele: The Great Mother



The first Oriental religion adopted by the Romans was that of the goddess of Phrygia, whom the people of Pessinus and Mount Ida worshiped, and who received the name of “Magna Mater deum Idea” in the Occident. Its history in Italy covers six centuries, and we can trace each phase of the transformation that changed it in the course of time from a collection of very primitive nature beliefs into a system of spiritualized mysteries used by some as a weapon against Christianity. We shall now endeavor to outline the successive phases of that slow metamorphosis.

This religion is the only one whose success in the Latin world was caused originally by a mere chance circumstance. In 205 B. C, when Hannibal, vanquished but still threatening, made his last stand in the mountains of Bruttium, repeated torrents of stones frightened the Roman people. When the books were officially consulted in regard to this prodigy they promised that the enemy would be driven from Italy if the Great Mother of Ida could be brought to Rome. Nobody but the Sibyls themselves had the power of averting the evils prophesied by them. They had come to Italy from Asia Minor, and in this critical situation their sacred poem recommended the practice of their native religion as a remedy. In token of his friendship, King Attalus presented the ambassadors of the senate with the black aerolite, supposed to be the abode of the goddess that this ruler had shortly before transferred from Pessinus to Pergamum. According to the mandate of the oracle the stone was received at Ostia by the best citizen of the land, an honor accorded to Scipio Nasica–and carried by the most esteemed matrons to the Palatine, where, hailed by the cheers of the multitude and surrounded by fumes of incense, it was solemnly installed (Nones of April, 204). This triumphal entry was later glorified by marvelous legends, and the poets told of edifying miracles that had occurred during Cybele’s voyage. In the same year Scipio transferred the seat of war to Africa, and Hannibal, compelled to meet him there, was beaten at Zama. The prediction of the Sybils had come true and Rome was rid of the long Punic terror. The foreign goddess was honored in recognition of the service she had rendered. A temple was erected to her on the summit of the Palatine, and every year a celebration enhanced by scenic plays, the “ludi Megalenses”, commemorated the date of dedication of the sanctuary and the arrival of the goddess (April 4th-10th).

What was this Asiatic religion that had suddenly been transferred into the heart of Rome by an extraordinary circumstance? Even then it could look back upon a long period of development. It combined beliefs of various origins. It contained primitive usages of the religion of Anatolia, some of which have survived to this day in spite of Christianity and Islam. Like the Kizil-Bash peasants of to-day, the ancient inhabitants of the peninsula met on the summits of mountains covered with woods no ax had desecrated, and celebrated their festal days. They believed that Cybele resided on the high summits of Ida and Berecyntus, and the perennial pines, in conjunction with the prolific and early maturing almond tree, were the sacred trees of Attis. Besides trees, the country people worshiped stones, rocks or meteors that had fallen from the sky like the one taken from Pessinus to Pergamum and thence to Rome. They also venerated certain animals, especially the most powerful of them all, the lion who may at one time have been the totem of savage tribes. In mythology as well as in art the lion remained the riding or driving animal of the Great Mother.

Their conception of the divinity was indistinct and impersonal. A goddess of the earth, called Ma or Cybele, was revered as the fecund (Fertile) mother of all things, the “mistress of the wild beasts” that inhabit the woods. A god Attis, or Papas, was regarded as her husband, but the first place in this divine household belonged to the woman, a reminiscence of the period of matriarchy.

When the Phrygians at a very early period came from Thrace and inserted themselves like a wedge in the old Anatolian races, they adopted the vague deities of their new country by identifying them with their own, after the habit of pagan nations. Thus Attis became one with the Dionysus-Sabazius of the conquerors, or at least assumed some of his characteristics. This Thracian Dionysus was a god of vegetation. Foucart has thus admirably pictured his savage nature: “Wooded summits, deep oak and pine forests, ivy-clad caverns were at all times his favorite haunts. Mortals who were anxious to know the powerful divinity ruling these solitudes had to observe the life of his kingdom, and to guess the god’s nature from the phenomena through which he manifested his power. Seeing the creeks descend in noisy foaming cascades, or hearing the roaring of steers in the uplands and the strange sounds of the wind-beaten forests, the Thracians thought they heard the voice and the calls of the lord of that empire, and imagined a god who was fond of extravagant leaps and of wild roaming over the wooded mountains. This conception inspired their religion, for the surest way for mortals to ingratiate themselves with a divinity was to imitate him, and as far as possible to make their lives resemble his. For this reason the Thracians endeavored to attain the divine delirium that transported their Dionysus, and hoped to realize their purpose by following their invisible yet ever-present lord in his chase over the mountains.

In the Phrygian religion we find the same beliefs and rites, scarcely modified at all, with the one difference that Attis, the god of vegetation, was united to the goddess of the earth instead of living “in sullen loneliness.” When the tempest was beating the forests of the Berecyntus or Ida, it was Cybele traveling about in her car drawn by roaring lions mourning her lover’s death. A crowd of worshipers followed her through woods and thickets, mingling their shouts with the shrill sound of flutes, with the dull beat of tambourines, with the rattling of castanets and the dissonance of brass cymbals. Intoxicated with shouting and with uproar of the instruments, excited by their impetuous advance, breathless and panting, they surrendered to the raptures of a sacred enthusiasm. Catullus has left us a dramatic description of this divine ecstasy.

The religion of Phrygia was perhaps even more violent than that of Thrace. The climate of the Anatolian uplands is one of extremes. Its winters are rough, long and cold; the spring rains suddenly develop a vigorous vegetation that is scorched by the hot summer sun. The abrupt contrasts of a nature generous and sterile, radiant and bleak in turn, caused excesses of sadness and joy that were unknown in temperate and smiling regions, where the ground was never buried under snow nor scorched by the sun. The Phrygians mourned the long agony and death of the vegetation, but when the verdure reappeared in March they surrendered to the excitement of a tumultuous joy. In Asia savage rites that had been unknown in Thrace or practiced in milder form expressed the vehemence of those opposing feelings. In the midst of their orgies, and after wild dances, some of the worshipers voluntarily wounded themselves and, becoming intoxicated with the view of the blood, with which they besprinkled their altars, they believed they were uniting themselves with their divinity. Or else, arriving at a paroxysm of frenzy, they sacrificed their virility to the gods as certain Russian dissenters still do to-day. These men became priests of Cybele and were called Galli. Violent ecstasies was always an endemic disease in Phrygia. As late as the Antonines, montanist [Montanus] prophets that arose in that country attempted to introduce it into Christianity.

…The sacred ecstasy, …and a fervent desire to free the soul from the bonds of matter. The ascetic tendencies went so far as to create a kind of begging monachism–the “metragyrtes”. They also harmonized with some of the ideas of renunciation taught by Greek philosophy, and at an early period Hellenic theologians took an interest in this devotion that attracted and repelled them at the same time. Timotheus the Eumolpid, who was one of the founders of the Alexandrian religion of Serapis, derived the inspiration for his essays on religious reform, among other sources, from the ancient Phrygian myths. Those thinkers undoubtedly succeeded in making the priests of Pessinus themselves admit many speculations quite foreign to the old Anatolian nature worship. The votaries of Cybele began at a very remote period to practice “mysteries” in which the initiates were made acquainted, by degrees, with a wisdom that was always considered divine, but underwent peculiar variations in the course of time.



TITLE: The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (1911)

BY: Franz Cumont

CONTRIBUTOR: Jenny Dunnaway


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