(Roman Statue of Cybele c. 50 CE, photo by Marshall Astor, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Blood and Body Mutilation in the Great Mother’s Cult
At the start of the 3rd century BCE, the Roman Republic was desperate. One of the greatest military geniuses in history, Hannibal of Carthage, had led a formidable army eastward through Spain and France and entered Roman territory through the frozen and mountainous Alps. Hannibal then massacred a major Roman military force at Cannae in 216 BCE, and was able to move freely throughout Italy. He had control of the Italian countryside, but lacked the men or materials required to break his way into the Roman cities; The Second Punic War was at a precarious stalemate. By 204 BCE, Rome was willing to accept any help they could receive to turn the tide of the war against the Carthaginians.
Grasping for any leverage or path forward, the leaders of Rome searched through their collection of prophecies—the Sibylline Books. What they found in the prophecies sent them eastward to the city of Pessinus, in the land of Phrygia, the home of a goddess who had a wide following in both Phrygia and Greece. The Romans sought out a meteor, or statue, or image (or a combination of the above) that was venerated by the goddess’ adherents and transported the item from Phrygia to the city of Rome, where the goddess was formally adopted into the growing family of Jupiter and the Capitoline Gods on the Palatine Hill. The Magna Mater (Great Mother), Cybele, was home.
Most cults of the ancient world were much more tame than modern readers may initially believe. The Mystery Religion cults of antiquity were most often small communities that gathered to worship a nationally-accepted deity (with the exception of the cult of Dionysus in Rome, which became outlawed). The ancient cults provided a more personal relationship with the gods than the detached rituals of the public temples. Orgies and sacrifices (other than the sacrifice of livestock) rarely took place in most Mystery Religion cults. Many college fraternity and sorority parties have more vice than most of the cults of antiquity.
The cult of the Magna Mater, however, was very different from many of the other popular Mystery Religions. The cult of Isis had shows of lights, sounds and costumes to convey emotions in its members. The cult of Dionysus held social drinking parties where they honored the god of earth, wine, and all emotions that result from indulging in drink. The cult of Cybele, however, was formed around a myth that featured castration and death caused by the resulting blood loss—there is no surprise, then, that the cult of Cybele featured ample amounts of blood.
Who was Cybele, the earth goddess of fertility and community protection? She was commonly depicted wearing a crown resembling the walls of a city and lions were often her companions, pulling her on a chariot, or loitering by her while she sat. No image or mosaic, however, describes the mindset of the Magna Mater cult better than the myth of Cybele and Attis.
The mythology of the Magna Mater and her lover—and possibly son—goes like this: Cybele and Attis (who, himself, was also a god of vegetation) were lovers, but Attis found a woman he wished to marry—that is very bad in mythological stories. Unsurprisingly, Cybele intervened in the marriage and caused Attis to go insane. Attis found his way to a pine tree where, with either a flute or a sharp rock, he castrated himself and bled to death. Cybele, not done with her lover, had Attis resurrected. Now that Attis had undergone castration, he forevermore identified as a woman. Supposedly, the two remained lovers, but it would be understandable if the couple had a tense relationship after such a cutting lover’s quarrel.
The 1st-century BCE poet, Catullus, dramatized the scene in prose, with Attis stating:
“A woman now, I have been man, youth, and boy;
I was athlete, the wrestler.
There were crowds round my door, my fans slept on the doorstep;
There were flowers all over the house
When I left my bed at sunrise.
Shall I be a waiting maid to the gods, the slave of Cybele?”
(Catullus. Poem 63, trans. Marvin W. Meyer).
With a myth like that, blood was a central feature in the worship of Cybele. One of the ways worshippers of Cybele were able to easily make a blood bath—literally—was through the sacrifice of bulls. The Mystery Religion of Cybele was not the only cult that practiced this act. The cult of Mithras (later known as Sol Invictus) sacrificed bulls. Bull sacrifice even had its own special name—taurobolia. Adherents of Cybele would lay in a space underneath a sacrificed bull as the blood drained out of the animal and onto the worshipper, below.
The 4th-century CE Christian poet, Prudentius, wrote a startling account of a bull sacrifice filled with gory, red imagery (be warned, it is not for the faint of heart). Do note that as a Christian, he viewed the cult of Cybele as a rival religion, and no doubt exaggerated his account:
“Through thousand fissures now the shower drips
Of sordid fluid down the dismal pit
And on his head the priest catches the drops
With upmost care, his vestment soiled with blood
And all his body dabbled with the gore,
Nay, bending backwards he presents his face,
His mouth and cheeks now to the scarlet flood;
His eyes he washes in the gory flow.
He moistens then his palate and his tongue
And sucks and sips and gulps the somber blood”
(Prudentius’ Peristephanon, trans. Marvin W. Meyer)
Despite that gruesome description, the taurobolia was one of the more tame aspects of the cult of Cybele. Like most of the Mystery Religion cults, the cult of Cybele had a structure of hierarchy. To ascend the ranks of Cybele’s cult, to become a priest, there was a heavy price. Imitation is a form of flattery, after all—unfortunately, what priests of Cybele had to imitate was the castration of Attis. The priests of the cult of Cybele, called Galli, were all eunuchs. They were not just eunuchs, however; they, like Attis, also adopted a feminine lifestyle after their castration.
The 2nd-century author, Apuleius, wrote a hilarious description of the Galli in his book (The Golden Ass), which is a story about a man named Lucius who is transformed into a donkey. In his adventures, Lucius the donkey is bought by a Galli named Philebus, who returning to a gathering of other Galli, calls out, “’Girlies, troop up and spy the darling slavelet I’ve brought you.’ The girls, however,” Lucius continues, “turned out to be a band of eunuchs, who at once began squeaking for delight in their splintering harsh womanish voices, thinking that it was really a man brought home trussed to do them good service” (Apuleius of Madauros, The Golden Ass, Book 8).
The greatest festival of the cult of Cybele was Megalensia, in late March. The festival was sustained over several days, from March 22-25. Leading up to the festivities, adherents of the cult would hold a fast, refusing themselves food, drink and sex. Then, a pine tree representing Attis’ place of castration was lugged in and decorated. Following the honoring of the tree, the ‘Day of Blood’ commenced. On this day adherents would flog themselves, bulls would be sacrificed and those who aspired to be Galli may have castrated themselves. Those who wanted to honor Cybele, but not with their own manhood, could offer the goddess bull testicles as a substitute. On the last day of the festivities, there was a feast, at least for those who were still fit enough to attend.
Despite the oddities of Cybele’s cult, it gained decent political support in the Roman Empire. The Roman Republic believed Cybele had helped them win the Punic Wars against Carthage. Later, the emperors Augustus and Claudius gave the cult of Cybele more Imperial support. The Magna Mater, Cybele, thrived in the Roman Empire until Christianity became the favored religion of the emperors in the 4th century.
To reiterate a point, most cults of ancient Rome, were benign and non-nefarious. The Mystery Religions of antiquity were usually gatherings of people who wanted a more private and intimate congregation with which to worship a deity. The cult of Cybele, however, was the exception—the strange and bloody, mutilated exception.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Catullus. Poem 63 in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
- Prudentius. On the Martyrs’ Crowns (Peristephanon) in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
- Apuleius of Madauros. The Golden Ass in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts by Marvin W. Meyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
- Marvin W. Meyer. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.