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Cybele in Rome

In 204 B.C.E the goddess Cybele was brought to Rome from Pessinus in the form of a meteorite. This was prompted by the threat posed by Hannibal's presence in Italy and the answers both of the Sibylline Books and the oracle of Delphi. She was welcomed as a national goddess by virtue of Rome's supposed Trojan roots. However, Cybele brought with her Attis and her priests, the Galli. Roman sensibilities were shocked by the ecstatic frenzies during which worshipers were possessed to castrate themselves. Until the reign of Claudius these and other disturbing practices were 'contained' through various measures. In this manner the Romans tried to deal with the problem of a national goddess with very 'oriental' features to her worship. Cybele was revered while Attis was reviled. In the time of Augustus and later Cybele is used to invoke Rome's ties to Troy and to show the Empire's connection with the divine. In this paper I will relate the various stages and aspects of Cybele in Rome, and attempt to show how Rome used and adapted to Cybele.

"...Hannibal was tormenting Rome during a decade marked by pestilence, crop failure and the bitterness of war...[the Sibylline Books] advised an appeal to the great mother goddess, Cybele."1 In great danger from Hannibal, and bewildered by various misfortunes, including that "it had rained stones that year more often than usual"2 the Romans were pleased to learn "if ever a foreign enemy should invade Italy, he could be defeated and driven out if Cybele, the Idaean Mother of the Gods, were brought from Pessinus to Rome"3. An envoy of notables, accompanied by five quinqueremes(for the sake of impressing others) was sent to King Attalus to see if he could help them acquire Cybele. When their mission was achieved arrangements were made for Cybele's welcoming. It was required that the best man in the state greet her; Publius Scipio was chosen. On Cybele's arrival, the stone was processed into Rome by the matrons of the city. In the words of Ovid 'in Phrygios Roma refertur avos [Rome is traced back to its Phrygian ancestors]'4 Once in the city "...they brought her to the temple of Victory on the Palatine. It was the day before the Ides of April, and that day was held sacred. People crowed to the Palatine with gifts to the Goddess, and there was a Strewing of Couches and Games, called the Megalesia."5 In this manner did Cybele enter Rome. Later the same year, Scipio (Africanus) defeated Hannibal near Croton. "The dark period of disaster came to an end, and the Magna Mater could rest on her laurels, sure of her reputation in Italy."6

However, while Cybele was considered a national goddess, a link between Rome and the Trojan homeland , and though thought the grantor of their recent victory, her worship was of such an alien nature that it could not be adopted as it was. "[T]he Phrygian worship contrasted violently with the calm dignity and respectable reserve of the official religion, and excited the minds of the people to a dangerous degree."7 "They were shocked by the Eastern rites, with their loud ululations and wild dances, with their entrancing rhythms, which by pipe and tambourine whipped up the people into ecstasies of bloody self-flagellation and self-injury."8 It was never a question of Cybele being despised, as many representations of her were made. Rome simply could not allow her men castrate themselves in religious fervor to honor Cybele. Thus we get two forms of Cybele worship; the State Megalensia (during which the galli were allowed to collect money)9 while foreign priests and priestesses performed "[t]he barbarous rites according to which the Great Mother was to be worshiped..."10 To give an example of public opinion on 'the oriental worship' I shall refer to an anecdote of Diodorus as recounted by Cumont.

In Pompey's time a high priest from Pessinus came to Rome, presented himself at the forum in his sacerdotal garb, a golden diadem and a long embroidered robe---and pretending that the statue of his goddess had been profaned demanded public expiation. But a tribune forbade him to wear the royal crown, and the populace rose against him in a mob and compelled him to seek refuge in his house.11

While Cumont feels the story shows " little the people of that period felt the veneration that attached to Cybele and her clergy after a century had passed." I feel one should not consider their reaction to the priest proof of their feelings towards Cybele. The general impression I gained from the material in Vermaseren's Cybele and Attis was that Cybele was loved, but in a more 'Roman' fashion. The Romans' problem was with the priests from Asia Minor. "It was the very voluntariness of this castration that bewildered the Romans as an incomprehensible act of insanity.... These half-men or half-women, whichever you like, that 'wandering herd of the Dindymean mistress', are really only to be pitied"12 Vermaseren also cites their appearance as a problem.

On the Day of Blood (dies sanguinis) he forever discarded his male attire; henceforth he wore a long garment (stola), mostly yellow or many-coloured, with long sleeves and a belt. On their heads these priests wore a mitra, a sort of turban, or tiara, the cap with long ear-flaps which could be tied under the chin.... They also wore their hair long, which earned for them the epithet of 'long-haired'; they sometimes dedicated a lock of hair to the Goddess. By preference they had their hair bleached.... On the day of mourning for Attis they ran around wildly with disheveled hair, but otherwise they had their hair dressed and waved like women. Sometimes they were heavily made up, their faces resembling white-washed walls.13

With this overview to Cybele's introduction to Rome, we are now prepared to consider how Cybele could be used for 'propaganda'.

The first example happens early, presumedly even before Cybele reached the Temple of Victory. Vermaseren states,

But the propaganda of prominent families, together with a desire immediately to ascribe miracles to the Goddess, had their influence. Thus gossip and jealously questioned Claudia's unblemished character. When Scipio accepted the statue from the hands of the priests who had escorted her from Pessinus, it was taken by ship from Ostia up river to the gates of Rome. But the statue was heavy and the water shallow: the ship ran aground, and could not be moved; but hardly had Claudia touched the rope than the vessel was refloated. Thus the Goddess herself supplied the evidence of Claudia's innocence.14

This miracle is recorded on a relief, while coins and terracottas show the Goddess aboard ship; "the gens Claudia, and in particularly the emperor Claudius, favored the Cybele cult."15 That they would favor the Cybele cult is not unusual, both as she had 'granted' a miracle to a earlier family member and later on as Cybele had been 'stressed' by Augustus. Augustus' use of Cybele can be divided into two groups; the reinforcement of the 'Trojan theme' and the allusion to divine sanction of the Principate. As Virgil was so much a part of Augustus' epic Rome campaign, it is only right to start with some words from him. Aeneas beseeching for assistance in gaining Italy.

Generous goddess of Ida, you, Mother
of Gods, who take delight in Dindyma
and towered towns and lions yoked in pairs,
now guide me in this coming battle; goddess,
make this sign favorable, stride beside
the Phrygian squadrons with your gracious step.

"Virgil weaves the Great Goddess regularly into the wanderings of Aeneas in order to emphasize her protection of his hero and the Roman people. Juno may be refractory, but Cybele aids and supports him right from the beginning."17 I have already mentioned one case of Ovid linking Cybele with Troy. Ovid also recounts a tale that functions as a 'prophecy' of Rome's greatness. "Attalus was reluctant to see the Goddess depart, until she herself, through a minor earthquake, announced her personal decision from her sanctuary. 'Let me go,' she exclaimed, 'Rome is a worthy residence for any deity!'18 The other form of propaganda Cybele was used for was to add prestige to the principate. Livia was the first to have herself portrayed as Cybele, on a cameo. She started a fashion, for Severus' second wife, Julia Domma was portrayed as Cybele on coinage.19 This functioned much like descent from the Divine Julius, which Augustus made so much of. It granted a deific aura to the Imperial institution.

By the time of Claudius, reforms had to made in Cybele's worship. Simply put it was too anomalous for the priesthoods of the national goddess not to be open for Roman citizens to hold. By the Flavian period we have evidence of Roman priests, who are still called Attis, but who are not castrated.20 It has been proposed that two colleges of Cybele priests operated at Pessinus, one Roman, one Phrygian. However, while Vermaseren brings it up he neither says he agrees or disagrees with the idea. It is certain that Domitian prohibited Roman citizens from castrating themselves.

Since a major feature of the cult of Cybele and a major problem the Romans had with the cult of Cybele was the practice of castration, it is only appropriate to devote a separate section to it.

"The galli, carried away by the music, imitated Attis, performing the emasculation -according to an old ceremonial- in a most primitive and highly dangerous fashion with the aid of such instruments as a sharp stone, a potsherd or a knife."21

Lucian relates some details about the rite of a similar cult.

"While the rest [of the Galli] are playing flutes and performing the rites, frenzy comes upon many, and many who have come simply to watch subsequently perform this act. I will describe what they do.The youth for whom these things lie in store throws off his clothes, rushes to the center with a great shout, and takes up a sword, which, I believe, has stood there for this purpose for many years. He grabs it and immediately castrates himself. Then he rushes through the city holding in his hands the parts he has cut of. He takes female clothing and women's adornment from whatever house he throws these parts into. This is what they do at the Castration."22

It seems that some bystanders got so swept up that they became participants without intending to. The poet Catullus, who described an emasculation in a poem, adds on the end a prayer for protection from such a fate.

Goddess, powerful Goddess Cybele,
Dindyme's sovereign,
Protect my home, oh mistress, from all this insanity,
Let others be enchanted, let others be entranced.

The 'standard' story about how self-castration became part of Cybele's worship can be distilled as: Attis pledged himself to the Goddess as a lover but proved unfaithful. In a fit of remorse and guilt, he striked out at the part that caused him to go astray, and then died from his wound. It was in honor of this the Galli castrate themselves. However, the stories differ as to how (with whom) Attis broke his oath. There are also some not so standard stories. I shall only present one of these.

Ther is also an other holy storie that I herde from a wys man, how that the goddesse is Cibella and the servys founded of Attis. Attis was a Lydien of kynde, that first leet teche the ceremonyes that longen to Cibella. And alle rytes that Phrygiens and Lydiens and Samothracyens perfourmen, tho rytes lerneden thei of Attis. For whan Cibella gelt him, he cessed to lede the lyf of a man, but chaunged to female shappe, and did on wommenes clothynge, and goynge to every londe perfourmed ceremonyes and reherced what betyd him and preysed Cibella in songes24

In conclusion, Cybele was an imported goddess/regained national goddess. In that she was an imported deity she followed the "...habit of borrowing the gods of other every time of popular distress or political distress... the national deities were repeatedly snubbed and some foreign god with a far-reaching reputation called upon for help."25 In so much she was part of Rome's past (through the 'Trojan connection') she was used as Rome always used the past, as a show of glory and as a rallying point for future greatness. As a national goddess, Cybele accrued a great deal of respect. However, her style of worship was very foreign, so much so during the earlier years her priests were nearly quarantined year round; with the exception of the Megalensia, her rites were confined to the Palatine.26 Thus in one goddess, we have the efficacious stranger, the honored deity of old, and the dangerous and subversive upstart foreigner.


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