Cybele – Great Mother of the Gods

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Cybele was a Greco-Roman goddess, known as the Great Mother of the Gods. Often referred to as the ‘Magna Mater’, Cybele was worshiped as a goddess of nature, fertility, mountains, caverns and fortresses.  From being an Anatolian mother goddess, Cybele became the only known goddess in ancient Phrygia whose worship spread to ancient Greece and then to the Roman Empire, where she became the protector of the Roman state. She was among the most widely venerated of all deities from the ancient world. 

Myth of Cybele’s Origins in Phrygia

Cybele’s myth originated in Anatolia, located in modern day Turkey. She was seen as the mother but her myth grew and she later became known as the mother of all gods, life and things.

The origins of Cybele are clearly non-Greek in nature, involving a hermaphroditic birth.  Cybele was born when the Earth Mother (the earth goddess) found out that she was accidentally impregnated by the sleeping sky god of Phrygia.

  • A Hermaphroditic Birth

When Cybele was born, the gods discovered that she was a hermaphrodite, meaning that she had both male and female organs. This terrified the gods and they castrated Cybele. They threw away the male organ and an almond tree grew from it.

As time went by, the almond tree continued to grow and began to bear fruit. One day, Nana, a Naiad-nymph and River Saggarios’ daughter, came across the tree and was tempted when she saw the fruit. She plucked one and held it to her chest, but when the fruit disappeared, Nana suddenly realized that she was pregnant.

  • Cybele and Attis

Nana gave birth to a son whom she named Attis and he grew up into a handsome young man. Some say that he was a shepherd.  Cybele fell in love with Attis, and she made him promise that he would always be hers and never leave her. In the heat of the moment Attis promised, but he didn’t take it too seriously.  Later, he met the beautiful daughter of a king and fell in love with her. He completely forgot about the promise he had made to Cybele and asked for the princess’ hand in marriage.  

  • Cybele Takes Revenge on Attis

As soon as Cybele discovered that Attis had broken his promise to her, she became enraged and  was blinded by jealousy. On Attis’ wedding day, she arrived and drove everybody mad, including Attis. By now, Attis had realized the horrible mistake he’d made by forsaking the goddess and he ran away from everyone and into the hills. He thrashed about and screamed, cursing himself for his foolishness and then, in frustration, Attis castrated himself. He bled to death at the foot of a large pine tree.

  • Cybele’s Sorrow

When Cybele saw Attis’ dead body lying under the tree, she came back to her senses and felt nothing but sadness and guilt for what she’d done. In the Roman version, she expressed her feelings to Jupiter, the  king of the gods, and because he pitied her, Jupiter pitied Cybele and told her that Attis’ body would be preserved forever without decaying and the pine tree under which he died would always be considered a sacred tree.  

An alternate version of the story tells of how Attis tried to castrate a king and then he, himself, was castrated as a form of punishment, bleeding to death under the pine tree. His followers found him and buried him, after which they castrated themselves to honor him.  

Cybele’s Offspring

According to the ancient sources, Cybele gave birth to all the other gods as well as the first humans, animals and the nature. Simply put, she was the ‘universal mother’. She also had a daughter called Alke by Olympos and was said to have been the mother of Midas and the Korybantes, who were rustic demigods. They were crested and armed dancers who worshipped their mother with dancing and drumming.

Cybele in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, Cybele is identified with the Greek mother of the gods, the Titaness Rhea. She’s also known as Agdistis. The goddesses’ androgyny is symbolic of an uncontrollable and wild nature which is why the gods considered her a threat and castrated her when she was born.

The Greek myth of Agdistis (or Cybele) and Attis is slightly different to the version in Roman mythology. In the Greek version, Attis and his father-in-law, the King of Pessinus, both castrated themselves and Attis’ bride-to-be cut off both her breasts. After Zeus, the Greek equivalent of Jupiter, promised a distraught Agdistis that Attis’ body wouldn’t decompose, Attis was buried at the foot of a hill in Phrygia, which was then named after Agdistis.

The Cult of Cybele in Rome

Cybele was the first deity from Greece to be venerated and worshipped as a goddess. Cybele was a popular goddess in Rome, worshipped by many. However, her cults were initially banned since the leaders of Rome believed that these cults threatened their authority and power. Even so, her followers began to grow quickly.

However, Cybele’s worship continued to flourish. During the Second Punic War (the second of three that were fought between Rome and Carthage), Cybele became famous as the protector of soldiers who went to battle. A great festival was held every March in honor of Cybele.

The priests of Cybele’s cult were known as ‘Galli’. According to the sources, the Galli castrated themselves to honor Cybele and Attis, who were also both castrated. They worshipped the goddess by adorning themselves with pine cones, playing loud music, using hallucinogenic plants and dancing. During ceremonies, her priests would mutilate their bodies but did not feel pain.

In Phrygia, there are no records of Cybele’s cult or worship. However, there are many statues of an overweight woman who’s seated with a lion or two next to her. According to archaelogists, the statues represent Cybele. The Greeks and Roman kept better records of Cybele’s cult, but still there wasn’t much information to be gathered about who she was.

Cybele’s Depictions

Cybele appears in many famous works of art, sculptures and writings including in the works of Pausanias and Diodorus Siculus.  A fountain with the statue of the goddess stands in Madrid, Spain, showing her seated as the ‘mother of all’ in a charriot with two lions yoked to it.  She represents Mother Earth and the lions symbolize the duty and obedience of offspring to the parent.

Another famous statue of Cybele made of Roman marble can be found at the Getty Museum in California. The sculpture shows the goddess enthroned, with a lion on her right, a cornucopia in one hand and a mural crown on her head.

In Brief  

Although not many people know about Cybele, she was a highly important deity, responsible for the creation of everything – gods, goddesses, the universe and all. The most famous myths about Cybele focus on her origins and her incestous relationship with her own son, Attis, but aside from that, not much is known about the Phrygian goddess.