Cybele and Attis cult

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Cybele, Roman, about AD 50, J. Paul Getty Museum , Malibu

Cybele ( Greek Κυβέλη Kybélē , the great mother of gods ( Megále Meter ) from Mount Ida ; Latin Magna Mater ) is a goddess who was originally worshiped together with her lover Attis in Phrygia ( Asia Minor ) and later in Greece , Thrace and Rome . The Cybele and Attis cults were - like the Mithras cult - a mystery cult that was widespread throughout the Roman Empire until late antiquity .

The myth

According to the myth passed down by Pausanias and Arnobius , Zeus once fell asleep on Mount Agdos in Phrygia and dropped his seed to the ground. At this point the hermaphroditic Agdistis grew up out of the rock. He had a terrifying nature and was therefore castrated by the other gods. The Agdistis freed from his masculinity became the Great Mother Cybele, but Attis arose from the severed genitals . Since Kybele and Attis were originally one person, they attracted each other.

For a while they both roam happily through the Phrygian mountains, but then Attis decides to marry the daughter of the king of Pessinus . The wedding is already in full swing, when Cybele, raging with jealousy, appears at the court and hits the wedding party with madness. Attis goes mad too. He runs out into the forest and emasculates himself under a pine tree, bleeding to death. Cybele asks Zeus to bring the young man back to life. But that only guarantees that Attis's corpse should never rot. Cybele buries Attis in a mountain cave in or near Pessinus, appoints a priesthood made up of eunuchs and instigates a cult of lamentation with a large annual festival.

Early sources

Depiction of the Cybele with a Phrygian cap from Praisos in eastern Crete (5th century BC)

An attempt is made to trace the worship of the Magna Mater (Great Mother) in Asia Minor up to the 7th millennium BC. Details, especially the existence of matrilocal forms of society, are controversial. The excavator of the large Neolithic settlement Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, James Mellaart , interpreted wall paintings and a large number of female statuettes as signs of a devotion to a Great Mother Cybele, an interpretation that was not undisputed.

The name of the great goddess is passed down in Anatolian with Kybele or Kubaba . In Phrygia she was originally called Matar Kubile (mother Cybele). Cybele was considered the mistress of animals, was revered as a mountain and nature goddess, but also as an earth mother. As the mother of Mount Ida (Magna Mater Idaea) she was venerated in the sanctuary of Pessinus , about 130 km southwest of today's Ankara in the shape of a comet, in which form she entered Roman history (see below).


The oldest evidence of the worship of Kubaba comes from the Karum Kaneš in the 19th century BC. BC, where it is called Kubabat. In Bronze and Iron Age inscriptions of the city of Karkemish on the upper Euphrates , Kubaba is mentioned as the mistress of the city.


The myth apparently revolves around gender dualism. The myth explains the creation of the world through the interaction of the male and female elements of the universe: The heavenly Attis has to fertilize the mother earth Cybele with his blood so that the world can arise. The historian of religion Carsten Colpe denies the commonly accepted interpretation of Adonis, Attis and Osiris as fertility gods and sees a connection with the two sexes. Thus the Mystery God cannot be understood as a “God of vegetation”, but as a “God of fertility” in the fundamental sense.

The cult

The overpass

During the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), when Hannibal was on the march in northern Italy, the Romans found the doom in the Sibylline Books : You are missing your mother; So look for - I command you, Romans - the mother ... Only after information from the Delphic oracle did the Romans understand that the mother of the gods was meant on the Idean heights of Phrygia. In 205 BC It was solemnly brought to Rome by Pessinus in the form of a fist-sized meteorite (see also stone cult ) and incorporated into a black-faced silver statue. It was installed in the Victoria Temple on the Palatine Hill. 203 BC The Carthaginians withdrew from Italy, and 202 BC. They were defeated by the Romans. This victory was attributed to the protection of the Great Mother, and in 191 BC. BC she got her own temple built on the Palatine Hill. The goddess became an important part of the state cult. The annual games, the ludi Megalenses (April 4-11), were dedicated to her, and the praetor made an annual state sacrifice for her.

The Ludi Megalensis

One of the most important components of the cult were the so-called Ludi Megalenses. During this period, sacrifices were made, chariot races were held in the Circus Maximus and various theater plays were performed. On the first day of the Games, there was a procession during which a statue of the deity was led through the city on a chair. The destination was the Circus Maximus, where it was ultimately set up for the duration of the festival to watch the chariot races. During the march, the priests of the cult, the Galli , were allowed to collect money. On the two main feast days, a female calf was sacrificed by one of the two magistrates. In addition to the sacrifice, the statue of the Magna Mater was brought by the noble Moretum families . It is a paste made from goat cheese, garlic and various herbs, which was later eaten at a banquet. The Moretum probably had a deeper meaning, as it was supposed to honor the role of the deity as the creator of herbs and thus the food for humanity. These banquets were held several times during the holidays, to which the participants always invited each other. The games, which took place in the Circus Maximus, were financially mostly borne by the city of Rome itself, but occasionally richer citizens also took on the costs. Only later were the celebrations supplemented by theatrical performances. Various pieces had their premieres, such as B. The girl of Andros of Terence or Pseudolus of Plautus .

The March Festival

The cult seems to have continued to flourish over the next 500 years. Up until the beginning of the Roman Empire, the focus was on the goddess's maternal protective function, so that the orgiastic-ecstatic features of her Phrygian cult, such as the ritual self -castration of the priests, which was forbidden under Roman law, took a back seat .

However, this changed in the imperial era . From the 1st century AD the Phrygian ecstasy returned, as did the relationship between Cybeles and Attis. The goddess became one of the most important deities of the pantheon . Under Emperor Claudius (41–54 AD) the course of the festivities was changed and the ludi Megalenses, which had been celebrated from the beginning, were replaced by the March festival , which was introduced later from March 22nd to 27th, at the beginning of spring . The Christian Arnobius already gives an overview of the festive customs when he scornfully asks the Romans: What does z. B. the pine that you always carry to the shrine of the Mother of Gods on scheduled days? Is it not a symbol of the tree under which the mad and unfortunate young man laid hands on himself, and which the mother of the gods sanctified as a consolation in her sorrow? ... What do the Galli mean with their loose hair, who hit their chests with their hands? ... Why, in short, is the pine tree that was rustling in the forest shortly before ..., immediately afterwards set up as a most holy deity in the residence of the Mother of Gods?

Hugo Hepding has reconstructed the March Festival from numerous sources. It began with - as Arnobius mentioned - on March 22nd, just in time for the beginning of spring, a freshly felled pine tree was carried through the city to the temple of the Great Mother on the Palatine Hill. The pine tree under which Attis had died was regarded as an embodiment of Attis, the felling of the pine tree was therefore regarded as an image of the death of Attis and the procession with the pine tree as a funeral ceremony - undoubtedly accompanied by complaints. But the lamentations only reached their climax on March 24th (for the general phenomenon of the cult of lamentation, see cults of Isis and Osiris ). Now the Galli mentioned by Arnobius , the eunuch priests of the Great Mother, made their appearance. Hugo Hepding wrote:

The galls set themselves into a sacred frenzy by the din of the tympana, the cymbals and clatter, by the sound of the Phrygian horns and the enthusiastic sages of the flutes, by their wailing and the dance associated with the senseless waving of their loose hair. They tear their bodies to pieces with sharp astragal whips, and they cut their shoulders and arms with knives to offer their own blood as a sacrifice. Hugo Hepding also suspects that on this occasion new galls were accepted into the cult staff of the Great Mother , when healthy young men emasculated themselves along the lines of Attis. In an orgiastic frenzy, carried away by the sound of the flutes, they mutilated themselves voluntarily without feeling pain .

As I said, there is no talk of a resurrection of Attis. But the day of the blood ( dies sanguinis ) on March 24th is followed by the days of joy ( hilaria ) from March 25th to probably March 27th. The great March festival ended with the bath ( lavatio ) of the Great Mother on March 27th. On the morning of that day the silver cult image of the Great Mother was driven from the Palatine sanctuary to the small stream Almo (river) on a cart drawn with cows . There an old priest in a purple robe washed the mistress and all her sacred utensils with the alms / water. / The crowd of disciples howls loudly, a raging flute sounds… . On the way home (the goddess) sits on the wagon and walks through the Porta Capena , / and the cattle in the yoke are strewn with flowers . The purpose of this widespread Lavatio - in Athens was Athena in the sea and in Germania Mother Earth Nerthus bathed in a lake - is puzzling.

The initiation

All of these rites - mostly associated with sensational parades through the city - were public. But beyond that there were undoubtedly mysteries and secret initiation rites. A creed handed down by the Christian Clemens of Alexandria points to a secret cult : I ate from the tympanum, / I drank from the cymbal, / I carried the kernos around, / I went down to the bridal chamber (pastas) . Firmicius Maternus, also a Christian, complements this formula with the sentence: I became a mystic of Attis .

The confession underlines the importance that certain Phrygian musical instruments had in the cults of Cybele and Attis. Pictorial works show that the Attis pine was decorated like a Christmas tree with the Phrygian musical instruments. It is questionable whether people really ate and drank from these instruments . Perhaps it is just hearing certain wise men, perhaps certain sacred foods are meant. The kernos carried around is a container that probably contained the testicles of a sacrificed bull - evidence that the principle of the male was no less sacred to the Cybele and Attis cults than other mystery cults.

It is also unclear what is meant by the descent into the bridal chamber (pastas). It could be an allusion to a holy wedding, as it can be shown to belong to the Isis and Osiris cult and to the Mithras cult (see initiation , initiation of the mysteries). But as pastas and grave means so could it also alludes to the Taufgrube are where the baptism of blood through the taurobolium took place.

In contrast to the generally known rites of the cult of the Great Mother, Emperor Julian also knows celebrations according to the mystical and secret law .

The taurobolium

Taurobolium or consecration of the priests of Cybele under Antoninus Pius ( B. Rode , around 1780)

In the representations of the Cybele and Attis cults, the taurobolium occupies a large space, but the meaning of this rite is unclear.

The Christian writer Prudentius (4th century) gives a polemical description of the rite: A bull is slaughtered on a kind of grate over a pit. The person to be baptized is in the pit under the bars and is sprinkled with the blood of the dying bull. It is either fictitious or deliberately falsified, in reality the taurobolium was practiced similar to a Roman animal sacrifice. The taurobolium apparently always included the foundation of an altar with the name of the tauroboliatus and the time of the taurobolium. It was always priests and respected public figures who practiced this religious act.

In Rome in the late 4th century they mostly united the priesthoods of the most diverse mystery cults in one hand, as the pagan cults were increasingly hindered. Hugo Hepding brings among other things the example of a Tauroboliatus who is a priest not only of the Great Mother and Attis, but also a priest of the invincible sun god Mithras , the Liber Pater , Hecate and Isis . The earliest known Taurobolium altar dates back to 160 AD from Lyon. It is reminiscent of the Taurobolium in the Vatican Phrygianum in Lyon , very likely to mark the introduction of an Archigallus. A Roman altar from the year 376 AD praises the Tauroboliatus as in aeternum renatus , i.e. as reborn in eternal life . This inscription is the only sure reference to a rebirth rite in the Cybele and Attis cult.

The connection between the earliest known Taurobolium altar and the Vatican Phrygianum in Lyon is interesting . In Rome, in the course of time, the so-called Phrygianum on the Vatican Hill was built next to the sanctuary of Cybele on the Palatine Hill . It seems to have been located directly under the current St. Peter's Basilica , because when the cathedral was rebuilt in 1608 or 1609 a number of beautifully crafted and richly inscribed Taurobolium altars were unearthed. They can now be viewed in the Vatican Museum . It seems that, following the example of Rome, each community of the Cybele and Attis cult also had its own “ mons Vaticanus ” outside of Rome , because such a " mons Vaticanus " can be proven in Mainz as well as in Lyon .


The centers of the cult in Roman Germania ( Germania superior , Germania inferior ) were Mainz , Trier and Cologne . The cult was not carried, as in the case of the Mithras cult, by Roman legionaries, but by the local civilian population, i.e. by Celts and Teutons. Presumably the ancestral matron cult was conducive to the spread of the cult of the Great Mother.

The much-discussed inscription from the year 236 AD comes from Mainz-Kastel , according to which the Hastiferi (spear-bearers, a cult association) of the city of Mattiaker restored the mons Vaticanus , which had collapsed from old age, in honor of the goddess Bellona (probably identical to Cybele) . This begs the question of how a mountain or hill can collapse from old age . The only possible answer seems to be that the mons Vaticanus must have been a grotto sanctuary. That can collapse , and that can be restored too . The exact location of this sanctuary is unknown. On the other hand, another sanctuary was discovered in the city center of Mainz, which was jointly dedicated to Isis Panthea Regina and Mater Magna.

End of the cult

The cult survived all political turmoil of the late Roman period and was able to defy Christianity for a while. Even the ban on all so-called pagan cults, issued by Emperor Theodosius I in 391, did not bring the end; rather, the worship of the Magna Mater was expressly reintroduced by the Western Roman Emperor Eugenius (392–394). Their veneration was then lost in the fifth century. The stubborn adherence of parts of the population of the Roman Empire to their goddess is considered to be one of the reasons that supported the majority decision of 431 at the Council of Ephesus , with which Mary was declared Mother of God (Theotokos). Some authors see this as a continuation of the veneration of the Great Mother of God from Mount Ida.

Relations with other cults

In Roman inscriptions, Attis is often referred to as Attis Menotyrannus (once Minoturanos) . The meaning of this epithet is unclear. Possibly the name of the Etruscan goddess Turan , the great mother of the ancient Mediterranean region , is mentioned here. Their typical companion was called Atunis (Adonis).

In his drama “Die Bacchen” Euripides regards Dionysus as the companion of Cybele and thus Dionysus and Attis as completely identical (see Dionysus cult ). This can only be explained if one understands both as something like the primordial seed of the world, which produced the world and animated it from within.

The cult of Cybele and Attis is already close to the cult of Mithras through the common costume of Attis and Mithras. Both wear the same Phrygian hat and the same exotic trousers. In Ostia a Metroon of the Great Mother was wall to wall with a mithraium . Since it belongs to the peculiarity of the Mithras cult to cite images of gods from other cults, it is not surprising that the Agdistis of the Cybele and Attis myths, born from the rock, is regularly depicted in the Mithras grottoes. Like the Orphic Phanes (see World Egg ), he is obviously a manifestation of Mithras. Apparently they are all images of the All-God encompassing heaven and earth.

The ambivalent Kali standing on the body of Shiva, in the background the world egg

Most astonishing, however, is the correspondence between the Great Mother Cybele and the Great Mother of Indian Tantrism , Kali / Durga / Ganga . As Cybele belongs to the mythical - sometimes localized here and sometimes there - Mount Ida , so Kali belongs to the mythical Mount Meru . Both are accompanied by the lion, the animal that tears up and devours. But above all, both of them have a dead lover. Just as Cybele mourns forever at the grave of Attis, so Kali stands in all her temples over the corpse of her beloved, the sky and sun god Shiva . Both are also to blame for the death of their lover. Because Cybele at least drove Attis to suicide, and according to an esoteric teaching, Kali even tore and devoured Shiva. But Cybele also seems to have such a very dark and very esoteric aspect, because Nicandros reports in the 4th century BC. Chr. In his medical pamphlet "Alexipharmakon" incidentally that on a certain day of the year the Kernophoris priestess of Rhea rushes into the street and utters the terrible cry of Idaia , and he adds that the cry spreads terror in the hearts of all who hear him .

In the opinion of the linguist and cultural scientist Harald Haarmann , the Kybele cult "in its transformation to the cult of Mary " has been preserved to this day.


Cybele usually wears a crown in the form of a city wall on its head as an attribute and is particularly depicted in castles, monasteries and baroque gardens in the 18th century. She embodies the earth in cycles that show the four elements.


Web links

Commons : Kybele  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Pausanias, Description of Greece VII / 17, pp. 9-12; Arnobius, Adversus nationes V, 5-7.
  2. James Mellaart: Çatal Hüyük - City from the Stone Age. 2nd edition, Lübbe, Bergisch Gladbach 1973
  3. Lynn Meskell: Goddesses, Gimbutas and 'New Age' Archeology. Antiquity 69, 1995, pp. 74-86.
  4. Harald Haarmann: The Madonna and her Greek daughters. Reconstruction of a cultural-historical genealogy, Hildesheim et al. 1996, Georg Olms Verlag , ISBN 3-487-10163-7 , page 127 ff.
  5. Carsten Colpe: On the mythological structure of the Adonis, Attis and Osiris tradition. Festschrift for W. v. Soden, 1968
  6. ^ Ovid, Festival Calendar IV, 258
  7. a b Harald Haarmann: The Madonna and her Greek daughters. Reconstruction of a cultural-historical genealogy, Hildesheim; Zurich; New York 1996, Georg Olms Verlag, ISBN 3-487-10163-7 , p. 129
  8. ^ Jörg Rüpke : Errors and misinterpretations in the dating of the "dies natalis" of the Mater Magna temple in Rome . In: Journal of Papyrology and Epigraphy , No. 102 . 1994, pp. 237-240.
  9. Hans Kloft : Mystery Cults of Antiquity. Munich 2003, p. 59
  10. Maarten J. Vermaseren: Cybele And Attis. The Myth and the Cult . London 1977, p. 124
  11. a b Maarten J. Vermaseren: Cybele And Attis. The Myth and the Cult . London 1977, p. 125.
  12. Harald Haarmann: The Madonna and her Greek daughters. Reconstruction of a cultural-historical genealogy, Hildesheim; Zurich; New York 1996, Georg Olms Verlag, ISBN 3-487-10163-7 , pp. 129-130
  13. Arnobius, Adversus nationes V, 5-7.
  14. Hugo Hepding : Attis, his myths and his cult. Giessen 1903, p. 158
  15. Ovid, Festkalender 4,338.
  16. Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 15.1
  17. Firmicius Maternus, On the error of pagan religion 18.1.
  18. ^ Julian, Oratio V, 169A
  19. ^ Prudentius, Peristephanon X, 1006
  20. Hugo Hepding: Attis, his myths and his cult . Giessen 1903, p. 88.
  21. ^ Robert Turcan: The Cults of the Roman Empire. Blackwell 1996
  22. James Frazer: Adonis Attis Osiris. Vol. 1, p. 275
  23. Elmar Schwertheim: The monuments of oriental deities in Roman Germany. 1974, p. 291 ff.
  24. Deae Virtuti Bellon (a) e montem Vaticanum vetustate conlabsum restituerant hastiferi civitatis Mattiacorum, Hugo Hepding: Attis, his myths and his cult . Giessen 1903, p. 169. The Civitas Mattiacorum is otherwise known as castellum Mattiacorum .
  25. ^ MP Caroll: The Cult of the Virgin Mary, Psychological Origins. Princeton, New Jersey 1994, pp. 90 ff .; Harald Haarmann: The Madonna and her Greek daughters. Reconstruction of a cultural-historical genealogy, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim / Zurich / New York 1996, ISBN 3-487-10163-7 , p. 130
  26. A. Smart: The Etruscan religion. (1998) p. 263
  27. ^ The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna , New York 1942, p. 291
  28. Giulia Sfameni Gasparro: Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis. Leiden 1985, p. 68
  29. Haarmann, Harald: In the footsteps of the Indo-Europeans. From the Neolithic steppe nomads to the early advanced civilizations. CH Beck, Munich 2016, p. 263.