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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Attis, the reborn eunuch consort of Cybele (Magna Mater)

An Attis cult began around 1250 BCE in Dindymon (today's Murat Dağı of Gediz, Kütahya, Turkey). He was originally a local semi-deity of Phrygia identified as a god of vegetation, associated with the great Phrygian trading city of Pessinos, which lay under the lee of Mount Agdistis. The mountain was actually a deity (daemon) who, in human form, initially bore both male and female attributes. The Olympian gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ and cast it away whereby Agdistis transformed into the Great Mother Cybele. An almond tree sprouted from the discarded organ, and when its fruit was ripe, Nana, who was a daughter of the river-god Sangarius, picked an almond from it and laid it on her bosom. The almond disappeared, and she became pregnant. As frequently happens in Greek myths, Nana abandoned the baby (Attis), who was subsequently tended by a he-goat. As Attis grew, his long-haired beauty was godlike, and his original progenitor Agdistis as Cybele, then fell in love with him.  (Yes, its sort of another Oedipus-type scenario)

But the foster parents of Attis sent him to Pessinos, where he was to wed the king's daughter. Just as the marriage-song was being sung, Agdistis/Cybele appeared in her transcendent power, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals. Attis' father-in-law-to-be, the king who was giving his daughter in marriage, followed suit, prefiguring the self-castrating eunuch priests, called Galli by the Romans, who devoted themselves to Cybele. But Agdistis repented and saw to it that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay. His self-mutilation, death and resurrection came to represent the fruits of the earth which die in winter only to rise again in the spring.

Attis is the subject of one of the most famous poems by Catullus, even though at the time, Attis may  not have yet been worshipped in Rome. Cybele, on the other hand, was adopted as Magna Mater since the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) after dire prodigies, including a meteor shower, a failed harvest and famine, seemed to warn of Rome's imminent defeat. The Roman Senate and its religious advisers consulted the Sibylline oracle and decided that Carthage might be defeated if Rome imported the Magna Mater ("Great Mother") of Phrygian Pessinos. 

Most modern scholarship now agrees that Cybele's consort, Attis, and her eunuch Phrygian priests (Galli) would have arrived with the goddess, along with at least some of the wild, ecstatic features of her Greek and Phrygian cults. The histories of her arrival deal with the piety, purity and status of the Romans involved, the success of their religious stratagem, and power of the goddess herself, though. She had no consort or priesthood, and seems fully Romanised from the first. Some modern scholars assume that Attis must have followed much later, or that the Galli, described in later sources as shockingly effeminate and flamboyantly "un-Roman", must have been an unexpected consequence of bringing the goddess in blind obedience to the Sibyl.

Julian the Apostate gives an account of the spread of the orgiastic cult of Cybele in his Oratio 5.  He states the worship of Cybele spread from Anatolia to Greece and eventually to Rome in Republican times, and the cult of Attis, her reborn eunuch consort, accompanied her.

Bust of Attis as a child wearing the Phrygian cap, Parian marble, 2nd century CE, probably during the reign of Hadrian. The portrait bears ressemblance to those of Antinous, Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato

Statue of a reclining Attis. The Shrine of Attis is situated to the east of the Campus of the Magna Mater in Ostia. In the apse is a plaster cast (the original is in the Vatican Museums) of a statue of a reclining Attis, after the emasculation. In his left hand is a shepherd's crook, in his right hand a pomegranate. His head is crowned with bronze rays of the sun and on his Phrygian cap is a crescent moon. This suggests astrological aspects: Attis was regarded as a solar deity and identified with the moon-god Men. He is leaning on a bust, probably the personification of the river Gallos, where he had died. His posture is reminiscent of river gods (the river Gallos), but the statue also brings to mind sarcophagi, with a depiction of the deceased on the lid. The statue is a dedication by C. Cartilius Euplus. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor archer10 (Dennis)

Taurobolic altar with Cybele and Attis dedicated by Mousonius on May 27, 387 CE at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens courtesy of George E. Koronaios

Silver patera depicting Cybele and Attis thought to date to the period of pagan revival under Julian the Apostate (361-363 CE), now in the Archaeological Museum of Milan courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto.

Terracotta depicting Attis from Tarsus, 1st century BCE now in The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen. (white balance adjusted)

Bone plaque depicting Attis armed with a sword and holding a sceptre, inlay from a piece of Roman furniture, 1st - 2nd century CE, found in Egypt now in the British Museum.

Roman relief depicting an emperor (Julian?) making an offering to Cybele and Attis, Museo Ostiense, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

 

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