• HR Harrison

Research Tales: Mountain Mother Cybele

It's easy to forget that the Greek world existed alongside a myriad of other cultures and religions, in and around Greece. In part, this is because most of the surviving writing of the era is Greek (especially Athenian) and the Greeks Hellenized (and later the Romans Romanized) their own writings about their neighbors[1]. So, for instance, they assumed foreign gods were simply iterations of their own gods; the Phoenician sky god was Zeus, Egyptian gods Amon and Ptah were Zeus and Hephaestus, the Scythian goddess Tabiti was Hestia, and the Phrygian goddess of Cybele was the Mountain Mother, Rhea.

But outside from the stories she collected from her association with Rhea, who exactly was Cybele?

Well, she likely is descended from a mother goddess who was associated with a local mountain, whose cult spread into Greek areas of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) around the 6th century BCE and then across the Aegean islands and into the mainland, where her worship was assimilated with Rhea's. She was first known as Mātēr (Mother), and then Kubelē, which became Cybele in Latin, as her cult very much continued into the Roman Empire, where she was also known as Magna Mater, the Great Mother. See, the Romans decided she was a goddess of Troy, and thus an ancestor of their dude, Aeneas, and thus a mother of Rome.


But back to Greece. Cybele wasn't quite a proper fit for the Mycenaean-Minoan gods of cities like Athens, so her cult was often privately funded, unlike those of say, Apollo or Zeus, which got support from the polis, the city-state. She was a god of wilds, her chariot pulled by lions, and thus by her very nature, broke the mold.


Cybele's cult in Greece changed over time from its Phrygian source. Indeed, no real record of her original form remains. However, her consort, Attis, might have been a Greek invention, derived from the Phrygian word for her priests in general, or perhaps a higher title for them. In Greece, he became a deified figure all his own, with his own tales in relation with the Mother.


Be warned, this tale is rather gruesome. If you have a sensitivity to genital mutilation, or violence in general, skip to the ***.


There was once a daimon, spirit, named Agdistis, born of Gaia and Zeus. Depending on which source you read, Agdistis could be an epithet of Cybele, or another deity entirely. But either way, Agdistis was a dual-sexed goddess, much like Hermaphroditus. However, unlike Hermaphroditus, Agdistis was born how she was, not made.


The Olympians were threatened by the dual-sexed goddess, who lay outside the known order, and so by Zeus' command, Dionysus fed her a potent sleeping draught, and while Agdistis slept, he tied her genitals to her foot, and so when she woke and stretched out her leg to rise, she was castrated.


As her blood poured upon the ground, an almond tree grew.


Later, when Nana, the daughter of river-god Sangarius (another Phrygian god), came upon the tree, she plucked several almonds and held them against her breast. However, they vanished, and she became pregnant. (Hey ladies, you know how when you drop nuts on your boobs and get spontaneously pregnant?)


The son born was incredibly beautiful and when he was grown, Agdistis fell in love with him. However, his family had betrothed him to the princess of the ancient city of Pessinus. Or perhaps Agdistis and Attis did consummate their love, and the betrothal was punishment for their incestuous relationship (since she was his mother, in a sense).

Either way, at the wedding of Attis and the princess, Agdistis arrived during the wedding song. Her presence drove all those gathered to madness. The princess cut off her breasts, and both the king and Attis castrated themselves, a mirror to Agdistis' own mutilation. When all lay dead in their own blood, Agdistis regretted the death of Attis, and asked Zeus to protect his body from decay.


She then buried him beneath a hill, which came to bear her name.


***


Because Attis, who was often considered the founder of Cybele's cult, was a eunuch, Cybele's priests castrated themselves in her service. It's little wonder the average Greek man might find her cult a bit… uncomfortable.


Perhaps from her connection to Minoan Rhea, Cybele picked up certain things—including nine male (non-eunuch) demigods known as the Korybantes. They were said to be the children of Zeus by one of Apollo's Muses, and engaged in an armored dance known as pyrrhichios. This is the dance Achilles did at Patroclus'' funerary pyre. The Korybantes were said to have protected the infant Zeus when Rhea hid him from his cannibalistic father, and also the infant Dionysus, who was suckled by Rhea-Cybele in some stories.

Cybele is a fascinating goddess, and I've only touched on a few things here. I hope you enjoyed reading, and I will see you next week!


Today's song is Cybele by Black Mare.


[1] These are formally known as Interpretatio graeca and Interpretatio romana.

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