FROM the Oriental as well as from the Hellenic world there emanated mystery
religions that made their appeal and offered their satisfactions to the individual
man. Like the Greek cults just described, they operated as private religious
brotherhoods, though in occasional instances they were brought under state patronage
and supervision. They came to the Graeco-Roman world with all the authority
of a venerable past, with a theology developed in mythological forms, with a
ritual, very crude perhaps, yet capable of lofty spiritual interpretation. Their
appeal was primarily an emotional one, and it was addressed specifically to
the individual; for all classes and all races, Greeks as well as barbarians,
slaves as well as free men, were welcomed to their membership.
Of these Oriental mystery religions the first to invade the west was the
cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, which came from central Asia Minor. The
divine personage in whom this cult centered was the Magna Mater Deum who was
conceived as the source of all life as well as the personification of all the
powers of nature. This aspect of universal motherhood was the comprehensive
feature of her character most frequently emphasized in the various cult titles
applied to her. She was the "Great Mother" not only "of all the gods," but "of
all men" as well. She was the "Mistress of All," the "All-Nourisher," and "All-Begetter,"
the "Mighty Mother," and the "Mother of Zeus Himself." "The winds, the sea,
the earth, and the snowy seat of Olympus are hers, and when from her mountains
she ascends into the great heavens, the son of Cronus himself gives way before
her, and in like manner do also the other immortal blest honor the dread goddess."
At Pessinus, the strongest center of her worship in Asia Minor, she was from
primitive times represented by a sacred stone, said to have fallen from heaven.
Indeed, the city itself, according to one legend, was named from this very circumstance
(pesein, "to fall"). Here all the vital forces of mother earth were concentrated
in "a stone not large, which could be carried in a man's hand without pressure--of
a dusky and black color--not smooth, but having little corners standing out."
This was the stone which was later carried to Rome when the worship of the Great
Mother was officially introduced to the Occident. Ensconced in a silver statue
where the face ought to be, it became the center of the Roman cult of the Great
Mother--the whole life of nature embodied in a small, rough stone.
The Magna Mater of all living creatures was especially the goddess of the
wilder aspects of nature. She was worshipped in the depths of virgin forests
and on the tops of mountains, and her cult titles named her the "Mountain Mother,"
and the "Divinity of the Mountains," not to mention such local appellations
as "Dindymene," or the "Idaean Mother." Even Cybele, the familiar literary designation
of the Great Mother, was, according to Strabo and Diodorus, derived from a mountain
or range of mountains. "A grove I had upon the mountains' crest, whither men
brought me offerings," said the goddess herself in describing one of her favorite
haunts, "a pine forest beloved for many years, dim with dusky firs and trunks
of maple." Anacharsis the Scythian was a typical devotee of the Magna Mater,
for he worshiped her in a place "full of trees." She was also the "Mistress
of Wild Beasts, and lions were her constant companions in literature and in
art. The author of the fourteenth Homeric Hymn addressed the Mother of the Gods
as one who "is glad in the cry of wolves and fiery-eyed lions, and in echoing
hills, and woodland haunts." Thus she appeared as the goddess of all natural
life, particularly in its wild and untamed aspects.
With her was associated a hero-divinity called Attis who personified the
life of the vegetable world particularly. The pine tree was peculiarly his own
and played a prominent part in his annual ritual. His priests were tattooed
with an ivy-leaf pattern. Statues represented him crowned with fruits and holding
ears of corn in his hand. He was himself addressed as the "reaped green (or
yellow) ear of corn" in the hymn of Hippolytus, and the myth of his sufferings
was interpreted now as the harvesting of ripened grain or again as the fading
of spring flowers. His devotees in their feasts, while they might eat the stalks
and upper parts of plants, were forbidden to eat seeds and the roots of vegetables
for in these the divine life of their god was especially manifested. Above all,
the great festival of Attis, held at the time of the vernal equinox, took the
form of a mystery drama which obviously represented the reviving of the vegetable
world at that season of the year.
Around these two divinities, the Great Mother and the god of vegetation,
there grew up a confused tangle of myths in explanation of their cult rites.
Various writers, pagan and Christian, gave different versions of the Cybele-Attis
myth. Pausanias recounted two very different renderings of the legend. One of
these was repeated by the Christian writer Arnobius, on the authority of a certain
Timotheus. In detail the final edition was much more elaborate than the earlier
rendition by Pausanias. Diodorus also recounted the Cybele-Attis myth with one
or two singular omissions, while Firmicus Maternus gave a markedly euhemeristic
interpretation of the legend. The accounts by Ovid, bv the philosopher Sallust,
and by the Emperor Julian were similar to each other at points, yet differed
in important respects from the other renderings of the legend.
The specific variations in all these diverse statements do not concern us,
for certain significant elements were common to all the various versions. In
each instance the relationship of Cybele and Attis was essentially the same,
and their experiences were much the same throughout. According to the myth,
the goddess-mother loved the youthful, virgin-born shepherd Attis with a pure
love. But Attis died, either slain by another or by his own hand. In the latter
instance, he was unfaithful to the Great Mother and in a frenzy of regret he
emasculated himself and died. The goddess-mother mourned her dead lover and
finally affected his restoration. Thus, in the end, the mortal Attis became
deified and immortal. These were the main elements in the developed myth which
bulked largest in the mind of the devotee as he participated in the rites of
The whole myth was palpably transparent. Attis, the god of vegetation grown
to youthful beauty, is loved by Mother Earth. But the flowers of springtime
faded and the fruits of summer are harvested. Nature is despoiled of her vegetation.
Attis dies. Then the Mother mourns her dead plant life and remains in sorrow
during autumn and winter. But with returning springtime vegetation revives and
the youthful god Attis is restored to life. These familiar natural phenomena,
dramatized in the ritual of the Cybele-Attis cult, became the basis on which
the devotees of the Magna Mater developed their personal religious experiences.
The primitive locus of this nature worship was in the uplands of Anatolia.
In a general way legends agree in locating the rise of the Cybele-Attis cult
in the area covered by Galatia, Phrygia, and Lydia. As M. Cumont has properly
emphasized, the development of a highly emotional cult was natural in this vicinity.
Here the climate went to extremes, cold and bleak in winter, hot and even scorching
in summer. These climatic contrasts made themselves felt on the character of
the inhabitants. Men were responsive to the varying moods of nature with the
changing seasons. During the winter months they shared the sorrow of nature
at the loss of her vegetation; but with the returning verdure of springtime
they hailed with joy the revival of nature. Thus there developed in the uplands
north of Paul's birthplace a cult distinguished for its excessive emotionalism.
Just when this religion had its inception it is impossible to state with
any exactness. It is clear, however, that from the sixth century B.C. onward
the worship of the Great Mother was dominant in Asia Minor. The earliest monuments
of the cult, the so-called Niobe of Mount Sipylus and two reliefs from the vicinity
of Prymnessus, date from the middle of the sixth century at least. Herodotus
was acquainted with certain external features of this worship, and he knew the
Great Mother as belonging to Sardis and enthroned on Mount Dindymon. By the
beginning of the fifth century Pessinus had become a center of her cult, and
a hundred years later Asia Minor generally was familiar with it. Considerably
before the period of Alexander, therefore, the worship of Cybele and Attis was
well established and widely spread in Asia Minor--mountains like Dindymon, Ida,
and Tmolus, and cities like Cyzicus, Sardis, and Pessinus being the importaint
centers of the cult.
The Great Mother early emigrated from her Asian home and travelled to Europe,
first by way of the Hellesspont and later by the Aegean Islands. Pindar knew
her worship at Thebes and Aristophanes ridiculed the goddess from Athens. The
chorus of Euripides' Bacchae came from Mount Tmolus and sang the praises of
the Great Mother as well as of Dionysus. By the end of the fourth century, the
worship of the Mother existed privately in the seaport town of the Peiraeus,
while the Emperor Julian had a story to tell concerning the introduction of
the Great Mother's religion at Athens. Admittedly, however, the cult of the
Magna Mater was not especially popular in Greece. The demand for a highly emotional
type of religious experience was already well satisfied among the Hellenes.
In the orgiastic rites of Dionysus, the Greeks had religious practices of strikingly
similar character which gave them the desired emotional stimulation.
The coming of the Magna Mater to Rome and the west was under the most dramatic
circumstances. It was in the year 204 B.C.; Hannibal was still in Italy and
Rome was thoroughly exhausted. Moreover, the people had become frightened because
of frequent showers of stones and other unusual phenomena. In desperation the
Sibylline Books were consulted, and it was learned that the enemy could be conquered
if the Idaean Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome. Accordingly, a
delegation was sent to King Attalus of Pergamum, who conducted them to Pessinus
and gave them the sacred stone which was the Mother of the Gods. On her arrival
in Italy, the goddess was officially welcomed by the "best man" of the Republic
and the leading matrons of Rome. Miracles attended the event, the citizens made
holiday, and an annual festival was instituted in honor of the goddess. As a
result--so it seemed--the crops of that year were successful and Hannibal was
driven out of Italy and conquered. So the Magna Mater came in triumph to the
west in 204 B.C.
Although the worship of the Great Mother was officially welcomed to Italy,
it seems to have been regarded with suspicion, treated as foreign, and subjected
to state regulation during the last two centuries of the Republic. Under the
Empire, however, the cult came into its own. By the first century A.D. the legal
restrictions of republican days were removed and the worship of the Magna Mater
easily became one of the most popular and favored religions of the time. The
Archigallus, or high priest of the cult, became the Attis populi Romani. During
the reign of Claudius, the annual festival was elaborated with even more impressive
rites than those of its native Phrygian home and it took on its final form as
one of the great festivals of the Roman Empire. The literature of the first
century shows the high degree of prominence attained by the cult during this
period. Livy gave an account of the coming of the Great Mother to Rome. Ovid,
in the Fasti, devoted much space to an explanation of the origin and significance
of her rites. Vergil told how the Great Mother had protected Aeneas, the ancestral
hero of the Roman race. Horace made several references to the Great Mother's
rites, and Propertius recounted the story of Claudia, who led the Roman matrons
in welcoming the goddess to Italy. Even Maecenas composed a poem in honor of
Cybele. The satirists, on the other hand, were unsparing in making the Galli
the butt of crude jokes. Thus, during the period when Pauline Christianity was
barely beginning to make itself felt as a missionary movement in the Graeco-Roman
world, the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods had already won a place of prominence
for itself in the life of the Roman Empire. It is important, therefore, to consider
the phenomena of this gentile religion in relation to the development of early
Our clearest index to the personal religious experience of the devotees of
the Great Mother is found in a study of cult ritual. Because of their public
character we possess the most extensive information concerning the annual spring
festival of Attis, and the Taurobolium of the Magna Mater--ceremonials that
had the official sanction of the Roman state. In considering the spring festival
which Claudius incorporated as a part of the established religion of the Empire,
it is important to bear in mind that it most it was but in elaborition of rites
that had long been practiced in Asia Minor. We are specifically informed that
the Roman ritual was celebrated Phrygio more. It may reasonably be assumed,
therefore, that the Roman ceremonies were not essentially different from their
The prelude to the annual festival began on the Ides of March. On the second
festival day, which was designated Arbor intrat in the calendar of Philocalus,
the guild of dendrophori, or tree bearers, were in charge of the ceremonial.
It was the duty of the dendrophori to cut down a pine tree in the woods and
bear it with due pomp to the temple of Cybele. The perennial pine was a natural
embodiment of Attis, the spirit of vegetation. According to legend, it was under
a pine tree that he had mutilated himself and died. He had himself been transmuted
into a pine tree and carried in this form into the cave of Cybele where the
goddess mothered her dead lover; hence the pine tree borne by the dendrophori
into the temple of Cybele was regarded as the corpse of Attis dead and treated
with divine honors. It was swathed with fillets of wool as the body of Attis
had been. Its branches were hung with garlands of violets, the flowers that
sprang from his blood. From the middle of the stem was suspended an image of
young man, who was doubtless Attis himself.' The ritual fact was that the dead
god was brought with funeral pomp to the temple of the Magna Mater.
The following day was one of fasting when the devotees of Attis mourned their
god. It was a peculiar fast, however; Jerome called it "a gluttonous abstinence,
when men ate pheasants in order not to contaminate cereals." Meats, in general,
were allowed, but fruits and vegetables were forbidden. This prohibition extended
to wine also. The vegetable abstinence was a natural one. As the cutting down
of the pine tree symbolized that the god of vegetation was dead, so the vegetable
world shared in the defunct condition of the god. To partake of vegetables and
cereals at such a season would be to violate the bruised and broken body of
a god. This fast probably began with the fifteenth of March, and it had its
influence as a physical preparation for the excessive emotionalism of the rites
which marked the climax of the festival.
These rites came on the twenty-fourth of March, a day that was called, significantly
enough, the "Day of Blood." At this time the Great Mother of the Gods inspired
her devotees with a frenzy surpassing that which the followers of Dionysus knew.
It was a madness induced not by wine, but by the din of crashing music, the
dizzy whirling of the dance, and the sight of blood. The music which accompanied
these rites was wild and barbaric, made by clashing cymbals and blatant horns,
shrilling flutes and rolling drums. It was maddening music, noisy and savage.
Lucian vividly described the wild tumult made by the Galli on Mount Ida blowing
their horns, pounding their drums, and clashing their cymbals. Music of this
kind--the Anatolian prototype of modern jazz--was popularly known as Phrygian
To the accompaniment of these barbaric strains a dance was staged. With wagging
heads and streaming hair, the devotees of the Great Mother whirled their bodies
round and round in a dizzy dance, shouting and singing as they gyrated. Apuleius
pictured such a dance performed in a Thessalian village by the mendicant priests
of the Syrian goddess.
"They went forth with their arms naked to their shoulders, bearing with them
great swords .... shouting and dancing like mad persons to the sound of the
pipe ..... They began to howl all out of tune and hurl themselves hither and
thither, as though they were mad. They made a thousand gests with their feet
and their heads; they would bend down their necks and spin round so that their
hair flew out in a circle; they would bite their own flesh; finally every one
took his two-edged weapon and wounded his arms in different places."
This cruel custom of lacerating one's own flesh during the frenzied ritual
was a distinctive characteristic of the Great Mother's cult. Slashing their
arms with knives, or gashing their bodies, the worshipers sprinkled with their
own blood the sacred tree that was Attis. When Martial was casting about for
a comparison to make vivid the dangerous habits of a certain barber he could
think of nothing more to the point than these bloody rites of the Great Mother.
"He who desires not yet to go down to Stygian shades, let him, if he be wise,
avoid barber Antiochus. White arms are mangled with knives less cruel when the
frenzied throng raves to Phrygian strains," he declared. To the modern mind
this sanguine rite seems cruel in the extreme. It is probable, however, that
the devotees, wrought up to a very high pitch of excitement by the din of the
noisy music and the frenzy of the wild dance, were largely insensible to the
pain. This ghastly ritual formed a part of the mourning for the dead Attis.
When the Great Mother saw the freely flowing blood of her worshipers, she could
not doubt that they shared with her in her sorrow. The blood may well have been
intended, also, to appease the manes of the dead Attis or to strengthen him
for his resurrection. To imitate Cybele in her grief and to call Attis back
to life were the purposes of this bloody rite.
But the devotees of the Great Mother did not stop with the shedding of blood
merely. Keyed up to the highest pitch of religious excitement, they followed
the example of Attis and emasculated themselves. With this final act of self-sacrifice
and consecration, the Dies sanguinis was crowned and the devotee became one
of the Galli, a eunuch-priest of the Asian goddess. This was the regular practice
in Phrygia, and in Rome, even, it is probable that the custom was followed.
In his account of the Syrian goddess, whose cult was strikingly like that of
Cybele, Lucian gave a description of this sacerdotal initiation. It is not only
a vivid depiction of the bloody scene itself but also a good piece of psychological
analysis, for it shows the strange fascination of these barbaric rites and reveals
their mesmeric effect upon the spectators witnessing the supreme act of consecration.
In abbreviated form Lucian's account is as follows:
"During these days they are made Galli. As the Galli sing and celebrate their
orgies, frenzy falls on many of them, and many who had come as mere spectators
afterwards are found to have committed the great act. Any young man who has
resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts
into the midst of the crowd and picks up a sword. He takes it and emasculates
himself and then runs wild through the city."
For one who had performed this irrevocable sacrifice in a moment of hot excitement
a strong revulsion of feeling was later inevitable. This emotional reaction
was powerfully depicted by Catullus in his famous poem bearing the name "Attis."
Undoubtedly for the devotee of Cybele the rite of self-mutilation had distinct
religious values. By the very act the devotee himself became another Attis.
He had done in the service of the goddess what Attis had already done. The Attis
in the poem of Catullus was not the original lover of Cybele but rather one
of her priests, who by the fact of priestly initiation had become identified
with the god. "Methought in a dream that I had become Attis, and that the festival
of the so-called Hilaria was fulfilled to me by the Great Mother," wrote Damaskios,
the last of the Neoplatonists. The name Attis was actually used as a traditional
title for the priesthood of the Great Mother. Just as Attis was believed to
have attained the state of deity by the passion of emasculation so by the way
of self-mutilation, the Gallus became a god instead of mortal.
The act that made an Attis of the votary placed him in peculiarly intimate
relationship to the Mother Goddess herself. The broken instruments of his manhood
were treated as an oblation to the goddess. Perhaps they were thrown into the
lap of her statue, is the "Passion of St. Symphorian" suggests. In the case
of a goddess of fertility, like the Magna Mater, this was a significant act.
Thus the ministers of the Great Mother, who personated her divine lover, made
it possible for her to exercise her beneficent function in renewing the life
of nature. As a new Attis the votary assumed the role of a bridegroom to the
goddess. There were "marriage chambers" in the sanctuary of the Great Mother
at Lobrinon near Cyzicus. In such a chamber the newly consecrated priest, kept
vigil during the night after his dedication, a bridegroom in the bridal chamber
of his goddess. Indeed, a specific cult designation of the GalIus was "bridegroom."
This indicates that the experiences of the Dies Sanguinus and the following
night were interpreted as a process of mystical union with the Great Goddess
herself, and by means of certain obscure ritual acts there was developed a sense
of intimate divine communion on the part of the devotee. From another standpoint
the newly consecrated priest was thought of as a male counterpart of the goddess.
Hence, he was called Kubebos. By the fact of emasculation he had assimilated
himself to the nature of the goddess. As an indication of this transformation
he henceforth wore feminine dress and allowed his hair to grow long. At some
point in the ceremony there was also a solemn enthronement and the consecrated
mortal was crowned in token of his deification. Nothing less than this, in the
experience of the Gallus, was the result of his act of devotion. It made him
realistically and mystically one with his goddess.
The day following the "Day of Blood" brought a delirium of joy to replace
the delirium of sorrow. Dead Attis had been buried and around his grave his
devotees had mourned his death long into the night. Toward morning, however,
a great light appeared in the darkness and the resurrection of the god was announced.
Firmicus Maternus thus described the scene: "When they are satisfied with their
fictitious grief a light is brought in, and the priest, having anointed their
lips, whispers, 'Be of good cheer, you of the mystery. Your god is saved; for
us also there shall be salvation from ills.'" Then joy took the place of sorrow,
for the resurrection of the god brought with it the assurance of salvation for
men, and this chiefly included the promise of a happy immortality. On the twenty-fifth
of March, the first day when daylight exceeded darkness, the resurrection of
the god was celebrated with universal license. The day's celebration was known
as the Hilaria and was characterized by the general good cheer. Mourning was
not permitted; but instead there were masquerades and banquets. Even the Galli
were eased of their wounds in their joy because of the resurrection of Attis.
There followed a day of much needed rest, the Requiratio. Then the festival
closed with the Lavatio, or washing of the goddess in the Almo, a rite that
aroused the scorn and sarcasm of Arnobius. The silver statue of the goddess
was placed in a wagon drawn by oxen and conducted in solemn procession to the
Almo where it was washed in the water of the river. Amid rejoicing the statue
was drawn back to its temple, showered with the flowers of springtime on its
way. This was probably a rite of purification considered necessary because of
the experience through which the goddess had passed on the Dies Sanguinis. After
marriage, purification was deemed essential even for a goddess. Because the
Magna Mater had been mystically united with her ministers, such postnuptial
purification was necessary in her case.
In this, the annual spring festival of their god and goddess, the Galli found
the beginning of a new life for themselves. It was a highly wrought emotional
experience induced by fasting, wild music, frenzied dancing, and the sight of
flowing blood. The sorrow thus aroused was interpreted as a sympathetic sharing
with the Great Mother in her grief at the death of her lover. The orgiastic
rite reached its climax in the irrevocable sacrifice of manhood, an act whereby
the devotee physically assimilated himself to divinity. He himself became Attis,
a god, mystically united,is a divine lover to the Great Goddess. In the resurrection
of his god he felt himself personally participant and he found therein the assurance
of a happy future life. The experience was a crudely physical one and realistic
in the extreme. Yet it had a strange fascination because of its very realism,
and it held out to the devotees who were willing to make the supreme sacrifice
the promise of a divinization of human nature and an immediate communion with
To this experience the figure of a new birth was not inappropriately applied.
The pagan writer, Sallust the Philosopher, used this very terminology in describing
the effect of the Attis festival on those who participated in it. He said that
those who passed through this form of initiation were actually treated as new-born
babes and dieted on milk for some time afterward. His exact expression was:
hosper anagennomenon, "as of those who are being born again." Thus, at the annual
spring festival the ministers of the Great Mother passed through a religious
experience so fundamental that it seemed to them the beginning of a new life,
essentially different from the life they had known before. It was a regeneration
that transformed their beings, gave them a present communion with their god
and goddess, and assured them of personal immortality.
Another bloody rite of great importance connected with the cult of the Great
Mother was the taurobolium, or sacrifice of a bull, with its variant, the criobolium,
or ram sacrifice. The origin of the taurobolium and its relationship to the
cult of the Magna Mater is obscure. Almost certainly, however, it was of oriental
origin localized in Anatolia, and it probably had its inception in the primitive
practice of washing in the blood of an animal in order to secure its vital energy.
In the cult of the Great Mother, however, the primitive notions attached to
the practice became transformed and spiritualized. When the rite came to prominence
in Italy early in the second century A.D. two distinct motives were apparent,
one official, the other personal. The taurobolium was officially performed vicariously
for the safety of the emperor, the empire, or a particular community--pro salute
imperatoris, pro salute imperii, pro salute urbis, etc. This was a purely official
and sacerdotal celebration, with the Archigallus presiding, and during the second
and third centuries this usage was especially prominent in Roman practice.
But the taurobolium might be a private ceremony also, performed by an ordinary
person who bore the expense of it himself--de suo, suo sumptu, or sua pecunia.
In this case the purpose was a purely personal one and the motive which actuated
the celebration was the purification and regeneration of the individual. This
private rite was performed on laymen as well as priests and by persons of all
classes and both sexes. It was strictly an individualistic ceremony. During
the third and fourth centuries, probably because of Christian competition, the
private celebration of the taurobolium came forward into particular prominence.
Between these two types of ceremony, however, the official and the private,
there can be no doubt as to which was prior to the other. The rite in itself
was essentially of a private and personal nature and its public, vicarious usage
was clearly a later adaptation. The devotees of the Mother and Attis certainly
experienced it for their own benefit before ever the rite was enacted for the
good of the community. Centuries before the taurobolium was performed in Italy
for the safety of the state, it was enacted in Asia Minor for the benefit of
the individual devotee.
The ceremony itself was picturesque. In the Peristephanon by the Christian
poet Prudentius there is a description of the rite which purports to be by an
eyewitness. A priest is the subject of the ceremony. With a golden crown on
his head and adorned with fillets, he descends into a deep trench which is covered
with a platform of perforated planks. A large bull, gleaming with gold and garlanded
with flowers, is led on to the platform. Here he is stabbed to death by the
consecrated spear, and his blood flows out over the covering of the trench and
rains down on the expectant devotee below.
"Through the thousand crevices in the wood the bloody dews run down into
the pit. The priest receives the falling drops on his head, clothes and body.
He leans backward to have his cheeks, his ears, his lips, and his nostrils wetted.
He pours the liquid over his eyes and does not even spare his palate, for he
moistens his tongue with blood and drinks it eagerly."
When the life of the bull is extinct, its body is removed and the neophyte
emerges from the trench, drenched and dripping with blood. He resents himself
to the expectant throng of worshipers who do obeisance to him as to a god, as
to one who has been born again to a divine life.
For the one who experienced the blood bath of the taurobolium this was exactly
the meaning of the rite. He came up out of the trench reborn to a new kind of
existence. In effect the bath of blood was believed to purify him from the sins
and evils of his old life and make him a new man, or rather a divinized human.
In some cases the efficacy of the rite was supposed to last for a period of
twenty years, and then the grace was renewed. In other instances, the conviction
was that the effect of the rite was everlasting and that the devotee was in
aeternum renatus, to quote the formula of the inscriptions. There is a strong
temptation at this point to question if this startling phrase and the whole
conception of the new birth experience in the cult of the Magna Mater may not
be due to Christian influence. There is not, however, a shred of evidence to
substantiate this contention. Against it is the purely pagan character of the
rite itself, its undoubted antiquity, and the fact that it naturally lent itself
to the new-birth interpretation. Held as it usually was, though not invariably,
at the time of the vernal equinox on the Dies Saguinis, the resurrection of
vegetation and of the god of vegetation naturally suggested the regeneration
of the individual. Thus the whole ritual became a sort of passion drama in and
of itself, involving three parties: the god, the neophyte, and nature in a single
cycle of events. The neophyte descended into the pit; Attis died; vegetation
withered. The neophyte came up out of the pit; Attis arose from the dead; vegetation
revived. In this way, at the spring festival of Attis, the regeneration of the
individual was made to coincide with the rebirth of nature.
The Cybele-Attis cult included certain strictly private rites that are quite
as important for the student of personal religion as the public ceremonies we
have just examined. Julian, the Emperor, in discussing the March festival, made
careful distinction between two series of rites following the cutting down of
the sacred pine, one secret and mysterious, the other open to the public. It
is probable, therefore, that the secret rites of the cult were more or less
co-ordinated with the public ceremonials. Augustine demanded to know of these
esoteric rites, "What good is to be thought of their sacred rites which are
concealed in darkness, when those which are brought forth into light are so
detestable?" This interrogation conveniently emphasizes the differentiation
between the public and private rites of the Attis cult.
In the nature of the case the public rites were open to a more or less limited
number of participants. The sacerdota] consecration of the Dies Sanguinis was
a restricted type of initiation available only for men and to those only who
felt impelled to make the supreme sacrifice. It was a masculine and priestly
initiation. But the cult of the Great Mother welcomed women as well as men and
included laymen as well as priests. Even the grace of the taurobolium was obtainable
only by those who could bear the expense of the ceremony. The private rites
of the cult, however, were accessible to a far larger group. They represented
the type of initiation as contrasted with the priestly. Hence they are of more
than usual importance from the point of view of personal religious experience.
Unfortunately, we know even less of these private ceremonials than of the
secret rites in other mystery cults, and for much the same reason. Their secret
has been too well guarded. Only a single formula has come down to us, in slightly
variant forms, from the esoteric liturgy of the Attis cult. According to the
version given by Clement of Alexandria the confessional of the initiate was:
I have eaten out of the drum:
I have drunk out of the cymbal:
I have carried the Kernos:
I have entered the bridal chamber.
Firmicus Maternus repeated the formula in a more brief form:
I have eaten from the drum:
I have drunk out of the cymbal:
I have become a mystic votary of Attis.
In this formula two experiential elements stand out clearly. One is union
with divinity by the semblance of a mystic marriage. "I have entered the bridal
chamber." The votary entering the shrine of the goddess went there as a bridegroom.
In the secret chamber divinity and humanity were united in marriage, and thus
the devotee attained communion with his goddess. This was the lay equivalent
for the priestly experience when the Gallus, as a new Attis, became the bridegroom
The second important element of mystical experience emphasized in this formula
was communion with the deity by the act of eating and drinking.
I have eaten from the drum:
I have drunk from the cymbal.
The similarity of this confessional to the Eleusinian password is incontestable.
Just as the initiate at Eleusis drank of the mixed barley potion and ate sacred
food from the chest, so the devotee of the Great Mother drank from the cymbal
and ate from the drum. The instruments mentioned, the drum and the cymbal, were
the favorite musical instruments of the Great Mother. It was natural, therefore,
that they should be used as cup and plate in this ceremony. Just what was the
sacred food which the devotees shared we have scarcely a hint. We know only
that it consisted of a beverage and of solid food.
Much more important than to know these external details is to understand
the psychological effect of this communion meal on the participants. Was it
merely a common meal that gave the votaries fellowship with one another, binding
them together in a brotherhood like that of a great family? It may have had
this meaning incidentally, but certainly this was not the inclusive significance
of the rite for the votary. It was a communion with divinity rather than a communion
with one's fellow devotees. Firmicus Maternus, in denouncing this rite, contrasted
it specifically with the Christian sacrament of the eucharist. His words show
clearly that there was a genuine parallelism between the Christian rite and
the pagan. Both were believed to communicate divine life to the devotee and
assure him of salvation. Maternus concluded his invective against the pagan
rite with the appeal, "It is another food that gives salvation and life. Seek
the bread of Christ and the cup of Christ!" Apparently, therefore, the sacred
meal in the Semele-Attis cult was a genuine sacrament that enabled the devotee
to absorb the divine life in a realistic manner. In the liturgy of the cult,
Attis himself was addressed as a "reaped ear of corn." It is not unlikely that
a corn product, or some other vegetable food in which Attis was believed especially
to dwell, formed a part of the sacred repast. In partaking of this meal, the
devotee was enabled to share in a materialistic manner the life of his god.
The common meal of the Great Mother's cult therefore was a means of attaining
to a realistic type of mystical communion with divinity.
All these various rites in the cult of the Great Mother were crude enough.
They were characterized by realism and naturalism. There was eating and drinking.
There was a bath in blood. There was an orgy of self-induced sorrow and joy
that had its climax in self mutilation. Yet these very rites with all their
primitive crudity and cruelty became transmuted into vehicles for really deep
religious experience. The act of eating and drinking became a sacrament of communion
wherein the devotee partook of a divine substance and thus attained actual union
with his deity. The semblance of a mystic marriage whereby the initiate as a
divine lover was united to the goddess was another means of attaining the same
end. The blood bath of the taurobolium brought with it the washing away of the
sins and evils of an old life. It was a regenerating experience by which the
neophyte was reborn for eternity. The passion drama depicting the death of natural
life and its renovation in the springtime was an allegory of personal resurrection
to eternal life. Even the act of self-mutilation became the means whereby the
devotee, like Attis himself, effected his own deification and assimilated himself
to the nature of the Great Mother. In the cult of the Mater Deum the communion
of eating and drinking, the semblance of mystic marriage, the purification in
the bath of blood, and the mortification of the flesh, all functioned as sacraments
of spiritual regeneration.
For the student of Christian origins a knowledge of the regenerative rites
of the Great Mother is doubly important because her worship was remarkably like
that in a whole group of cults with which Paul, the Christian apostle, had early
familiarity and contacts that were intimate. These were the religions indigenous
to the lands of Syria and Cilicia, where Paul was brought up and where he had
his early missionary experience. Unfortunately, our knowledge of these gentile
cults is fragmentary and chaotic. They had nothing like the solidarity of the
Greek and major Oriental systems, and it would be utterly impossible to reconstruct
their history or to outline their ritual in any detail. Still it is possible
to distinguish among them certain common elements that show a general resemblance
to the Phrygian worship of the Great Mother. Usually, the central place in the
cultus was held by a mother-goddess who embodied the power of life, and a somewhat
subordinate position was assigned to a youthful male deity who like Attis died
and rose again.
The prototype for this diversified, yet measurably unified complex of religious
systems seems to have been the Babylonian cult of Ishtar, the deified personification
of motherhood. She was known to biblical writers as Ashtoreth, and to the Greeks
as Astarte or Aphrodite. With her was associated a young and active deity called
Tammuz, who was slain but afterward revived. As in the case of Attis, lamentations
formed an important part of his worship. In Ezekiel's day this practice was
adopted by Jews, even, and among the "abominations" which the prophet saw perpetrated
at the very gate of the Jerusalem temple was the weeping of women for Tammuz!
In Phoenicia the mother-goddess was worshiped under the name of Ashtart, and
as early as the third century B.C. her cult was so pre-eminent that the kings
of Sidon served her as priests. She, too, had her consort, Eshmun by name. Their
houses were built together, and they were simultaneously glorified.
To the Greek world this immortal pair was familiar as Aphrodite and Adonis,
the goddess of love and her impetuous young husband. "The Fourth Venus," said
Cicero, "was a Syrian . . . . who is called Astarte and is said to have been
married to Adonis." Greek and Latin writers delighted to retell the story of
their love and of Aphrodite's loss. The tale was that of an ardent young hunter
who, all too rash, was wounded to death by a boar. Thus young Adonis died; but
the grief of his goddess-lover brought about his restoration to life. In the
cult of these divinities, also, traditional lamentations were a conspicuous
element of the ritual. Sappho more than once referred to this weeping for the
god, while Bion wrote a lament for Adonis which, though a conventional literary
product and not an actual cult hymn, yet gives a fairly accurate impression
of the mourning songs sung at Adonis' festivals.
The annual celebrations in honor of the god were elaborated as a drama of
marriage and passion. Around a ritual marriage bed the wedding of the divine
pair was celebrated. There followed a lament for the dead Adonis ending in a
forecast of the resurrection. Sometimes that joyous event was actually represented.
At all the important centers of Adonis worship, not only in Syria and Cyprus
but also in Athens and Alexandria, the festival of Adonis was one of the great
events in the religious calendar. Theocritus, in one of his Idyls, described
such a festival as it was conducted at the court of Ptolemy early in the Hellenistic
period. The marriage song sung at this celebration began with a description
of the wedding tableau and included an adequate account of the Adonis festival
as a whole.
The bridal bed for Adonis spread of my own making is;
Cypris hath this for her wrapping, Adonis that for his.
Of eighteen years or nineteen, is turned the rose-limbed groom;
His pretty lip is smooth to sip, for it bears but flaxen bloom,
And now she's in her husband's arms, and so we'll say good-night;
But tomorrow we'll come with the dew, the dew, and take hands and bear him away
Where plashing wave the shore doth lave, and there with locks undight
And bosoms bare all shining fair will raise this shrilling lay:
"O sweet Adonis, none but thee of the children of gods and men
'Twixt overworld and underworld doth pass and pass again:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Adonis sweet, Adonis dear,
Be gracious for another year;
Thou'rt welcome to thine own alway,
And welcome we'll both cry today
And next Adonis-tide."
Another Syrian goddess who gained considerable prominence in the Roman world
was Atargatis. Her consort was Hadad, with whom the belief in immortality was
connected at an early period. In his ritual, as in that of Adonis, an elaborate
show of grief was a characteristic factor, and the prophet Zechariah knew of
the lamentations for Hadad. But it was the goddess who attracted the attention
of the Roman world. In the eyes of the Greeks she was the "Syrian goddess,"
and among Latins this Dea Syria became popular as Iasura. During the latter
days of the Republic her cult was notably propagated by the agency of slaves
and under the Empire Syrian merchants became as her missionaries. She was especially
popular with the lower classes, though some in high stations affected her cult.
Marius was one of her devotees and Nero "held in contempt all religious rites
except those of the Syrian Goddess"--though his esteem for her was not lasting
one. The great slave uprising in Sicily in 134 was led by a slave who claimed
to be inspired by the goddess herself--a revealing illustration of the loyalty
she commanded for this class in society.
Her rites were such as would appeal to the proletariat and conserve religious
values for them. They were realistic, picturesque, sensuous, and fascinating
in their strangeness. Apulcius in an incidental account of the missionary operations
of her travelling priests gave a memorable picture of their methods in actual
practice among the rural population of Thessaly. The account was not a very
complimentary one, and it was doubtless exaggerated. Certainly the itinerant
priests of the Syrian goddess were generally actuated by more worthy motives
than this particular group was represented to be. Still the description of their
religious exercises was detailed by Apuleius with all the vividness of life
itself, and it may be considered a true representation of the cult rites on
festal occasions. Lucian, who was himself a Syrian and wrote as one wholly familiar
with this religion, also described the rites in a way that parallels and confirms
the account of Apuleius. The exercises were essentially the same as those that
formed the climax of the Great Mother's festival and made eunuch priests of
her male devotees. To the accompaniment of wild music men danced themselves
into a frenzy and then lacerated and mutilated themselves unsparingly. Here
again the central experience of the cult was ecstatic in character, with a cruel
and crudely physical emotionalism. But it was not without its mystical content;
for in this way the devotees sought to affiliate themselves with their pitiless
Altogether the cults of Cilicia and Syria may be grouped in the same class
as the Anatolian worship of the Cybele. They were redemption religions, the
deities of which were revered as the saviors of the individual man. In their
propagandist efforts they aimed at universalism through individualism. They
were still tainted with much of the grossness of primitive naturalism; yet this
very fact was not a disadvantage with the humbler folk in society whom they
captivated by the barbaric appeal of their ritual. They were religions of enthusiasm
which aroused fear, pain, hope, joy, all culminating in ecstasy. By mortification,
by stimulating music, by self-mutilation, and like means, these Syrian zealots
strove to rise to a higher state than mere mortality and unite themselves with
divinity. This was their rebirth to a new life and immortality.
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