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Today we are talking about Cybele, or Rhea, or Magna Mater… and who knows what else she was called.
Her creation goes back a long way into mythical history and all kinds of attempts have already been made to clarify the goddess and the cult around her, because many things, as so often, cannot be fully grasped in our modern times.
It seems quite certain that Kybele is a kind of manifested femininity, because in her mythical context almost always a male counterpart appears. The story is about Kybele and a young man named Attis. But, there are also some other man-woman myths, which are even older(?) and show parallels to the myth of Kybele-Attis.
Inanna and Tammuz (In German he is called Dumuzi, for Dumuzi and Tammuz may be two different deitys.)
Isis and Osiris
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Venus and Adonis.
Anyone who likes can read the details in the corresponding Wikipedia articles. In short, all myths are about the men Dumuzi, Osiris and Adonis dying. How this happens is very different, sometimes there are other variations of the story, but what all stories have in common is that the women bring their dead men back to life.
Historically these myths(?) founded so-called mystery religions ((i. e. Roman-Greco mysteries, secret societies) that shared different religious practices.
This was also the case with Kybele, whose cult lies parallel to the cults of the above-mentioned variants and even more (Orpheus, Mysteries of Eleusis, the Samothraki Mysteries, the Dionysus cult, the cult of the Liber Father in Rome and in southern Italy, the Mithras cult, the cult of Isis and Osiris).
Some of these mystery cults do not refer to the variant “dead man”, but contain, for example, like the mysteries of Eleusis, the tale of Pluto and Proserpina (in which the God of Death robs a living woman from the earth). I assume that these are of a younger date, as the relationship and content is reversed.
We remember that Kybele/Rhea was also equated with the wife of Saturn. So it is not surprising that her myth and cult comes across quite bloody and once again there will be castration.
The Myth (basic features)
According to legend, Jupiter/Zeus once fell asleep on Mount Agdos (Phrygia) and lost his seed during his sleep. From this originated the hideous creature Agdistis, a kind of dwarf twitter thing, which the gods found so ugly that they castrated it.
The good-looking Attis was born from the severed limb, and the emasculated body became the goddess Kybele. In some variations there is also an intermediate narrative in which an almond tree plays a role and in which Attis is carried out by a nymph.
Still, Kybele and Attis were originally the same person in all variations. For this reason, of course, they were particularly interested in each other and in reuniting. After they have found each other, they lived very happily with each other for a while, but then Attis wants to become more independent and intends to marry another woman.
Of course, Kybele felt totally kicked and curses Attis and the whole wedding party with madness.
Attis – totally crazy in the head – runs into the forest and castrates himself under a pine tree, where he bleeds to death.
Kybele regrets her actions and then there are different variations of how the story ends.
Attis turns into a pine tree.
Kybele buries Attis, whose body is never putrefied due to the help of Zeus/Jupiter, in a mountain and lets him cry from priests.
Kybele awakens Attis from the dead and both are worshipped as gods
There are, as already mentioned above, further variants of the myth and it would probably require a doctoral thesis (or at least a very detailed thesis) to compare the different sources and contents.
In any case, even a superficial examination reveals that essential elements (love couple, death, resurrection) of other ancient myths come up here again.
But there are also other myths about the origin of Kybele.
There, for example, is the interesting story, in which the father of Kybele was Meon (or Protogonus), king in Phrygia and Lydia, and her mother Dindyma. Meon did not want a daughter and had the girl abandoned on Mount Kybelus after her birth. There she was raised by wild animals. Panthers and other predators gave the child milk until some shepherds found the baby and fed it.
Kybele grew up to be a beautiful maiden, who preferred to invent pipes, drums and cymbals, which later became important in the cult of the goddess, and she also dealt with medicine, especially for the benefit of the cattle and the children, which she healed with her words. Because of this special role, she was called “Mountain Mother”. A close friend of hers was Marsyas, her love was the beautiful male Attis.
In any case, it is remarkable that a typical storyline, as it is otherwise known only from male descendants (especially Romulus and Remus, Moses, perhaps even Jesus) is applied to a woman.
In fact, there are other myths in history where a woman is nourished by animals and then found by shepherds and/or wise men.
A well-known example of this is Queen Semiramis.
By Ernest Wallcousins (1883–1976) – From Myths of Babylonia and Assyria by D. MacKenzie (1915-now in the public domain).Originally uploaded to en.wikipedia; description page was here., Public Domain, Link
Where does the myth come from?
Many elements of the myth are of phrygian origin, as you can see in the numerous Attis depictions (phrygian clothes and especially: the cap!).
The Phrygians were a kingdom that was in the territory of today’s Turkey around the 8th century BC. A few centuries earlier, the Hittites lived there – and then there is a time around the year 1000 B. C., where one does not know exactly what happened.
Among the Phrygians, the goddess Kybele was a kind of main goddess. Apart from Midas City, she was also revered in other cities, such as Pessinus, where the legendary palace of King Midas is said to have been built.
King Midas was probably a “true” historical person, a (first?) king of the Phrygians. There are also various legends surrounding him. Thus he is said to have been a son of Kybele and Gordios, to whom, according to legend, the Gordian knot can be traced back, which Alexander the Great “loosened” in the 3rd century B. C. with a crude sword stroke.
Midas was also the one who allegedly had the foolish wish that everything he touched would turn into gold.
By Walter Crane (1845-1915) – http://www.reusableart.com/d/2974-2/midas-01.jpgGallery page http://www.reusableart.com/v/mythology/greek/midas/midas-01.jpg.html, Public Domain, Link
The gift proved to be extremely useless because it turned what he wanted to eat and drink into gold – and even his own daughter – but after a bath in the river Pactolos he was fortunately freed again.
Midas is also said to have acted as referee in the musical competition between Apollo and Pan. In some versions, he is also a referee in the dispute between Apoll and Marsyas. .
As punishment for his wrong decision (he did not choose the god Apollo in all variations, but decided that Marsyas was the better musician) Apollo bewitched him with donkey ears, which Midas then hid under the lovely Phrygian cap.
By Andrea Vaccaro – http://www.dorotheum.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16084069
The Roman poet Ovid (around the year 0) writes that Midas hides his donkey ears, but his hairdresser once got to see them and couldn’t keep the secret. Instead of just telling everyone, he digs a hole in the ground and whispers it into it.
Here reed grows, which told the peasants the secret.
All in all, it remains to be said that the Phrygians, and in particular the first great ruler of Midas, have experienced a certain ridiculousness throughout history.
It will not be too far-fetched to claim that this could also have had an impact on the cult of Kybele. The different variations of their myth and further details mentioned below let us assume that this is the case.
The fact that the historical losers of history are being denigrated is also something that can almost always be observed because history is known to be written by the victors, who have no interest in honoring the defeated.
Livius already pointed this out (as a Roman historian) when he had the Gallic king Brennus say:”Vae victis”, meaning “You poor defeated”.
Also in Rome’s victory over Carthage (Aeneas and Dido) one can presume such behavior, although Kybele plays an important part in this defeat.
But first, a few words about the cult around Kybele are to be mentioned.
The Korybantes. By Roscher, Wilhelm Heinrich, 1845-1923 – http://ia360615.us.archive.org/2/items/ausfhrlichesle0201rosc/ausfhrlichesle0201rosc.pdf, Public Domain, Link
So-called Korybantes danced at the celebrations in honor of the goddess Kybele. The myth says that the celebrations were held mainly in memory of her deceased beloved Attis, but we can also read about a very orgiastic celebration (developed from this funeral service?), which shows significant similarities to the party time of the Bacchantes.
By the way, the male priests of the Kybele are said to have castrated themselves during such orgiastic celebrations. To talk about castration again.
In the Roman Empire, Kybele is revered mainly after the battle of Zama. Carthaginian Hannibal had frightened Rome for decades, and Cornelius Scipio – as befits a good Roman – consulted the oracle in Delphi with the Senate before entering the battle against Hannibal.
There they were told that Rome could destroy Carthago if they imported the “Great Mother” (Magna Mater) from Phrygia.
So Kybele was identified as Magna Mater, shipped to Rome and the rest is history. I think that this is also the most likely answer to identify her with the Titaness Rhea.