CYBELE (Latin) or Kybele (Greek) is the Greek and Roman name given to a female deity of Anatolian origin whose worship was widely disseminated throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The deity's name in her homeland was Matar, or Mother; in some cases this was modified by the Phrygian epithet Kybeliya, meaning "mountain," the source of the term Cybele. The Greeks and Romans also addressed the goddess as Mother (Meter in Greek, Mater in Latin), and the epithet Megale (Greek) or Magna (Latin), meaning "great," was frequently used, causing her to become known as the "Great Mother." Both the name and the visual image of the goddess first appear in Phrygia, in central Anatolia (modern Turkey), during the early first millennium bce and spread from there, first to the Greek cities on the west coast of Anatolia, and then to mainland Greece and to Greek cities in the western Mediterranean. The goddess's cult was imported into Rome at the end of the third century bce, and she became an important figure in Roman religion also. The deity remained a prominent figure in Greek and Roman religious practice until the dominance of Christianity in the fourth century ce.
The Anatolian Background
The earliest clear evidence for the deity is found in ancient Phrygia. In this region there are numerous shrines to the goddess; frequently these contain an image of the deity, often placed within a sculptural relief that depicts the gabled end of a building in which the goddess appears as if standing in a doorway. Such shrines are particularly common in the region of Gordion, Ankara, and Boğazköy, and also further west in the Phrygian highlands, a region bounded by the modern cities of Afyon, Eskişehir, and Kütahya. The goddess is regularly shown wearing an elaborate gown and a high headdress, and often holds a predatory bird, perhaps a hawk; in a few cases the standing goddess is flanked by a composite human-animal figure, young male figures, or lions. In some shrines, only the architectural frame and doorway exist, suggesting that a portable image of the goddess (now lost) was placed there. Some of the doorway shrines are found on separate blocks, but others were carved directly into the natural rock of the landscape, where they form impressive monuments. Such monumental rock façades are particularly common in the Afyon-Eskişehir region; the façade at Midas City is the best known example. In several cases these façades bear inscriptions giving the name of the goddess, Matar, occasionally with a qualifying epithet, such as Kubeliya. Others bear the names of Phrygian kings, such as Midas and Ates, suggesting a close connection between the Mother goddess and Phrygian royalty. In urban centers the goddess's shrines are frequently located near the city gates. Shrines are also found along strategic transportation routes and passes, often in rural mountainous areas. Others are situated near springs and other water sources, or near burial tumuli.
The origins of the goddess are much disputed. While some have claimed that her roots lie in older Anatolian religious practice, there is no secure evidence for a mother goddess in this region during the Neolithic or Bronze ages. Female figurines from Neolithic sites such as Çatal Hüyük and Hacilar probably have no connection with Cybele, nor is there any direct antecedent for the goddess in Hittite or other second millennium bce Anatolian cultures. The Phrygians immigrated into Anatolia from the Balkan region during the Early Iron Age, and the origins of the goddess may lie in their ancestral homeland in southeastern Europe. On the other hand, it is clear that the cult of the goddess as practiced in Phrygia was extensively influenced by the religious imagery of earlier and contemporary Anatolian cultures; the visual image of the Phrygian Mother goddess bears a close resemblance to sculptural images of a contemporary Anatolian deity, Kubaba, worshiped in neo-Hittite cities in southeastern Anatolia. In addition, the attributes of the Phrygian Mother goddess, especially the hawk and the association with mountains, have affinities with both earlier Hittite cultures and with early first millennium bce Anatolian peoples, such as the neo-Hittites and Urartians. Yet the distinctive combination of name, physical appearance, and architectural shrines that characterize the cult of the Mother goddess is specific to Phrygia. The roots of the Greek and Roman Cybele lie in Phrygia.
Cybele in the Greek World
From Phrygia, the cult of the Mother goddess passed to Lydia, in western Anatolia, where a fine marble image of the seventh or sixth century bce depicting the goddess standing in a temple has been found in Sardis. During the same period, the earliest votive images of the goddess appeared in the Greek world, first in the Greek cities in Anatolia along the Aegean and Black Sea coasts, and then in numerous centers on mainland Greece and in Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean. In the Greek world the deity was addressed as Meter (Mother); Homeric Hymn 14, which probably dates from the sixth century bce, calls her "the Mother of all gods and all human beings." She was regularly called the Mother of the Gods and was often conflated with the Greek goddesses Rhea and Demeter. In Greek votive images the goddess appears as a seated figure, usually holding a tympanum (drum) and phiale (ritual cup); often she has a lion cub in her lap, or two lions standing on either side of her throne.
Shrines to Meter are found in virtually every community in the Greek world. One prominent example was in the Agora of Athens, which contained a cult statue made by Agoracritus, pupil of Phidias. Here the shrine of Meter served as the repository of Athenian laws, a practice followed in some Ionian Greek cities as well. The goddess was also worshiped with nocturnal mystery rites limited to initiates. Briefly mentioned by Pindar (Pythian Odes 3), Herodotus (4.76), and Euripides (Bacchae 78–79), these rites seem to have been characterized by music, dance, and expressions of emotional intensity, features that were viewed with suspicion by some Greeks, including Demosthenes (On the Crown 260).
During the Hellenistic period the cult of Meter became even more widespread and appears in a number of new Hellenistic city foundations. It is particularly well attested in Asia Minor, especially in Pergamum, where the goddess had an urban shrine with a magnificent marble cult statue. She was also worshiped in rural mountain sanctuaries near Pergamum, a link with her Phrygian identity as a mountain goddess. Another prominent Asia Minor sanctuary is Pessinus, in Phrygia, where the sanctuary of the Mother goddess was the center of a temple state controlled by priests who bore the title Attis.
During the Hellenistic period the cult of the Greek Cybele was increasingly associated with that of a young male figure, Attis. According to a complex mythological tradition preserved in variant sources (especially Ovid, Fasti 4.223ff.; Pausanias 7.17, 9–11; and Arnobius, Against the Pagans 5.5–7), Attis was a beautiful Phrygian shepherd boy whom the goddess loved. When he proved to be unfaithful to her, the goddess drove him mad, whereupon he castrated himself. In this action he supposedly served as a model to the priests of the goddess, the Galli, who emasculated themselves in honor of Cybele. The origins of this mythological tradition and of the practice of ritual castration have been much discussed, and the source and meaning of both myth and ritual practice remain unclear. A god named Attis does not appear in Phrygian cult practice, and the name may refer to a member of the Phrygian royal family who had important priestly functions, functions that survived the collapse of the Phrygian kingdom and are reflected in the survival of the title Attis in the Mother's priesthood, such as that at Pessinus. A fourth-century bce votive offering to Attis from the Piraeus forms the earliest indication of the cult of a god Attis in the Greek world, and his cult is attested there in the Hellenistic period as well. Votive images of Attis become common during the Hellenistic period; these depict him as a young man wearing a characteristic costume with a short tunic, leggings, boots, and a soft hat with a pointed tip. The costume, originally worn by Achaemenian Persians, became so closely associated with Attis that the dress, and especially the cap, are often called Phrygian.
Cybele in the Roman World
The cult of Roman Cybele, the Magna Mater, was imported to Rome, probably from Pergamum, in 204 bce, toward the end of the Second Punic War. This step was taken by the Roman government after consultation with the Sibylline Books and was approved by Apollo's oracle at Delphi. From the first, the goddess was connected with the Trojan origins of Rome. Members of several prominent senatorial families, including the Cornelians and Claudians, assisted in the transfer of the goddess's image, said to be an unformed black stone. The goddess was given a temple on the Palatine, dedicated in 191 bce, and an annual festival called the Megalesia was instituted. The cult of Attis was apparently introduced into Rome at the same time, as is suggested by the discovery of a great many images of Attis, dating from the second and first centuries bce, in the precincts of the Palatine temple. The Galli, the emasculated priests of the goddess, also appeared in Rome. Their flamboyant costumes, feminine manners, and practice of ritual castration attracted much negative attention, and they became the archetype of the effeminate male, as described in Catullus 63. According to a passage of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.19.5, from the first century bce, the Roman senate at first prohibited the participation of Roman citizens in certain ceremonies of the cult of the goddess.
The Megalesia festival of the Magna Mater, celebrated April 4 through April 10, was characterized by a procession of the Galli through the streets, in which an image of the goddess seated in a chariot drawn by lions was carried aloft. Theatrical performances and banquets shared among members of the aristocracy also formed part of the festivities. Her cult was administered in Rome by the castrated Galli, under the control of the chief priest, the Archigallus; during the second century ce these offices were opened to Roman citizens. Religious fraternities, such as the Dendrophori ("tree bearers") and the Cannophori ("reed bearers"), assisted in the ceremonies. The liturgical language of the cult seems to have been Greek, and the surviving images of the goddess are similar to the Greek model. The cult of the Magna Mater spread widely throughout the Western Roman Empire, and important shrines are known in Italy, Gaul, Germany, Spain, and North Africa. The cult continued to be prominent in the Eastern empire as well.
Under the empire, the role of Attis in the cult became greater. His part in the cult may have been officially recognized for the first time by the emperor Claudius, according to information contained in Johannes Laurentius Lydus's De mensibus 4.59, written in the sixth century ce. The codex calendar of 354 ce mentions five days of festivities in March in honor of Attis, followed by the ceremonial washing of the black stone in the Almo, a little river outside Rome. The increased participation of Attis in the cult seems to have been celebrated with mystery rites. In the fourth century ce, the resurrection of Attis is explicitly affirmed by Firmicus Maternus (De errore profanarum religionum 3), although it is doubtful whether the potential for resurrection was extended to the cult's practitioners.
The ritual of the taurobolium came to be associated with the Magna Mater cult during the second century ce. Originally a bull sacrifice to the goddess, the rite was frequently performed as homage to the emperor. During the late third and fourth centuries ce, the taurobolium entailed a form of baptism by the blood of a sacrificed bull, as described by Prudentius (Peri stephanon 10.1001–1050). In the fourth century ce, the cult of Cybele and Attis formed a conspicuous rallying point for that part of the Roman aristocracy that had not been converted to Christianity; in the mid-fourth century it attracted the emperor Julian, who wrote an oration in honor of the Magna Mater. Public sacrifices to the goddess disappeared at the end of the fourth century, although in the fifth century the philosopher Proclus wrote a book, now lost, on Cybele.
Borgeaud, Philippe. La Mère des dieux: De Cybèle à la vierge Marie. Paris, 1996.
Cerri, Giovanni. "La madre degli dei nell'Elena di Euripide: Tragedia e rituale." Quaderni di storia 18 (1983): 155–195.
Graillot, Henri. Le culte de Cybèle, Mère des dieux, à Rome et dans l'empire romain. Paris, 1912. Old, but still has important data on Cybele in Rome.
Gruen, Erich S. "The Advent of the Magna Mater." In Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, pp. 5–33. New York and Leiden, 1990.
Haspels, C. H. E. The Highlands of Phrygia: Sites and Monuments. Princeton, 1971.
Hepding, Hugo. Attis, seine Mythen und sein Kult. Giessen, Germany, 1903. Reprint, 1967.
Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between Myth and History: King, Priest, and God. Leiden, 2002.
Lane, Eugene N., ed. Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1996.
Mellink, Matcheld J. "Comments on a Cult Relief of Kybele from Gordion." In Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Kleinasiens: Festschrift für Kurt Bittel, edited by R. M. Boehmer and H. Hauptmann, pp. 349–360. Mainz am Rhein, 1983.
Nauman, Friederike. Die Ikonographie der Kybele in der phrygischen und der griechischen Kunst. Tübingen, 1983.
Pensabene, Patrizio. "Nuovi indagini nell'area del tempio di Cibele sul Palatino." In La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'Impero Romano, edited by Ugo Bianchi and Maarten J. Vermaseren, pp. 68–98. Leiden, 1982.
Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1999. A comprehensive treatment of the cult of Cybele in Anatolia, Greece, and the Roman Republic and early empire.
Rutter, Jeremy B. "The Three Phases of the Taurobolium." Phoenix 22 (1968): 226–249.
Sfameni Gasparro, Giulia. Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis. Leiden, 1985.
Vermaseren, Maarten J. Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult. Translated by A. M. H. Lemmers. London, 1977.
Vermaseren, Maarten J. Corpus cultus Cybelae Attisdisque. 7 vols. Leiden, 1977–1989. The most comprehensive collection of epigraphical and artistic sources for the Cybele cult; interpretations should be used with caution.
Wiseman, T. P. "Cybele: Virgil and Augustus." In Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, edited by Tony Woodman and David West, pp. 117–128. Cambridge, UK, 1984.
Lynn E. Roller (2005)
Virgil's Aeneid, Pausa-nias's Description of Greece
Mother of the gods
Cybele was the fertility goddess of Phrygia, an ancient country of Asia Minor. In Greek and Roman mythology , Cybele personified Mother Earth and was worshipped as the Great Mother of the Gods. The Greeks associated her with some of their existing goddesses, such as Rhea and Demeter (pronounced di-MEE-ter), and sometimes referred to her as Meter. She was also associated with forests, mountains, and nature. Although usually shown wearing a crown in the form of a city wall or carrying a drum, the goddess may also appear on a throne or in a chariot, accompanied by lions and sometimes bees.
According to myth, Cybele discovered that her youthful lover—and in some versions, her son—Attis was unfaithful. In a jealous rage, she made him go mad and mutilate himself under a pine tree, where he bled to death. Regretting what she had done, Cybele mourned her loss. Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) promised her that the pine tree would remain sacred forever.
In his Aeneid , Virgil relates a uniquely Roman myth about Cybele. Before the Trojan War, Cybele allowed her trees to be used by the Trojans to make warships. The goddess then asked Jupiter to make the ships so they could not be destroyed; Jupiter agreed to turn the ships into sea nymphs (female nature deities) after they had served their purpose, so that they would never be destroyed. After Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs) led his soldiers to Italy using the ships, his foes attempted to burn the ships. Since the ships had already served their purpose—to transport Aeneas and his army to Italy—the ships disappeared and became sea nymphs.
Cybele in Context
From Asia Minor, Cybele's popularity spread to Greece, where she was associated with Demeter, the Greek goddess of fruitfulness. She was regarded as the mother of all the gods. Around 200 bce, the worship of Cybele reached Rome, and she became well known throughout the Roman world.
During the Roman empire, followers of Cybele held an annual spring festival dedicated to the goddess. The ceremonies involved cutting down a pine tree that represented the dead Attis. After wrapping the tree in bandages, the followers took it to Cybele's shrine. There they honored the tree and decorated it with violets, which they considered to have sprung from Attis's blood. As part of this religious ceremony, priests cut their arms so that their blood fell on Cybele's altar and the sacred pine tree. They also danced to the music of cymbals, drums, and flutes. During these wild ceremonies, some followers even mutilated themselves by castration, as Attis had. The idea of death and rebirth, prominent in her relationship with Attis, also reflects the changing of the seasons.
Key Themes and Symbols
Cybele is widely regarded as a symbol of fertility and motherhood. Like many fertility gods and goddesses, she is also associated with agriculture and forests. She is sometimes depicted with tame lions, which may symbolize great power that can be easily controlled.
Cybele in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Though the Greeks imported Cybele from Phrygian mythology, she was a popular subject in both Greek and Roman art. Rome in particular was home to several temples honoring Cybele, including a shrine at the Circus Maximus. However, one of the most famous sculptures of Cybele can be found as part of a fountain built in Madrid, Spain, in the late eighteenth century. The fountain is located at a town square known as Plaza de Cibeles. As with many ancient mythological figures, Cybele has appeared with somewhat altered characteristics as a character in the Marvel Comics universe. In the comic world, Cybele is one of the Eternals, a race of superhumans conceived by Jack Kirby that first appeared in print in 1976.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Some ancient Roman followers of Cybele became so overwhelmed while celebrating that they would mutilate themselves in her honor. Some religious traditions, even in modern times, call for ritual mutilation or alteration of some part of the subject's body. Using your library, the Internet, or other resources, can you find similar modern examples of mutilation as part of a religious tradition? How does such an act compare to non-religious but culturally accepted acts of body alteration, such as ear piercing?
Cybele was the fertility goddess of Phrygia, an ancient country of Asia Minor*. In Greek and Roman mythology, Cybele personified Mother Earth and was worshiped as the Great Mother of the Gods. She was also associated with forests, mountains, and nature. Although usually shown wearing a crown in the form of a city wall or carrying a drum, the goddess may also appear on a throne or in a chariot, accompanied by lions and sometimes bees.
From Asia Minor, Cybele's following spread to Greece, where she was associated with Demeter, the Greek goddess of fruitfulness, and was regarded as the mother of all the gods. Around 200 b.c., the cult of Cybele reached Rome, and she became well known throughout the Roman world.
According to myth, Cybele discovered that her youthful lover Attis was unfaithful. In a jealous rage, she made him go mad and mutilate himself under a pine tree, where he bled to death. Regretting what she had done, Cybele mourned her loss. Zeus* promised her that the pine tree would remain sacred forever.
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
rite ceremony or formal procedure
During the Roman empire, followers of Cybele held an annual spring festival dedicated to the goddess. The ceremonies involved cutting down a pine tree that represented the dead Attis. After wrapping the tree in bandages, the followers took it to Cybele's shrine. There they honored the tree and decorated it with violets, which they considered to have sprung from Attis's blood. As part of this religious ceremony, priests cut their arms so that their blood fell on Cybele's altar and the sacred pine tree. They also danced to the music of cymbals, drums, and flutes. During these wild rites, some followers even mutilated themselves, as Attis had. Cybele was usually portrayed by artists in a chariot drawn by lions.
See also Anns.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Cybele was the great mother-goddess of Asia Minor. Primarily a goddess of fertility, but also a source of cures and oracles and a protector of her people in war, she was worshipped along with her lover, Attis, a god of vegetation, at Pessinus in Phrygia. The cult was introduced into the Greek world by the end of the 6th century b.c. and was brought to Rome near the end of the Second Punic War (205–204 b.c.). Cybele, under her Latin name, Magna Mater deorum, was worshipped by an elaborate ritual, her chief festival being celebrated in the last part of March. Eunuch priests or attendants, the Galli, had an important place in her cult.
Under the Roman Empire, the ritual of the tauro bolium, a form of initiation, was required; the candidate was placed in a pit and bathed in the blood flowing from a bull killed above the pit. The cult of Cybele and Attis, including the rite of Taurobolium, spread throughout the West, and was especially popular in Gaul and Africa. In some respects, it resembled the contemporary cults of Mithras and Isis.
See Also: mystery religions, greco-oriental.
Bibliography: f. r. walton, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 246–247. f. cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (Chicago 1911) ch. 3. k. prÜmm, Religionsgeschichtliches Handbuch für den Raum der altchristlichen Umwelt (2d ed. Rome 1954) 255–263.
[t. a. brady]