Cybele, Mother Goddess of Rome

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A gilded silver plate with Cybele on a chariot dated 3rd century BC. Michel Porro / Getty Images

Early Worship of Cybele

Cybele, a mother goddess of Rome was at the center of a rather bloody Phrygian cult, and was sometimes known as Magna Mater, or "great goddess." As part of their worship, priests performed mysterious rites in her honor. Of particular note was the sacrifice of a bull performed as part of an initiation into Cybele's cult. This ritual was known as the , and during the rite a candidate for initiation stood in a pit under a floor with a wooden grate.

The bull was sacrificed above the grate, and the blood ran through holes in the wood, showering the initiate. This was a form of ritual purification and rebirth. For an idea of what this probably looked like, there's an amazing scene in the HBO series Rome in which the character Atia makes a sacrifice to Cybele to protect her son Octavian, who later becomes the emperor Augustus.

Cybele's lover was Attis, and her jealousy caused him to castrate and kill himself. His blood was the source of the first violets, and divine intervention allowed Attis to be resurrected by Cybele, with some help from Zeus. Thanks to this resurrection story, Cybele came to be associated with the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. In some areas, there is still an annual three-day celebration of Attis' rebirth and Cybele's power around the time of the spring equinox, called the Hilaria.

The Cult of Cybele in the Ancient World

Like Attis, it is said that Cybele's followers would work themselves into orgiastic frenzies and then ritually castrate themselves.

After this, these priests donned women's clothing, and assumed female identities. They became known as the Gallai. In some regions, female priestesses led Cybele's dedicants in rituals involving ecstatic music, drumming and dancing. Under the leadership of Augustus Caesar, Cybele became extremely popular.

Augustus erected a giant temple in her honor on the Palatine Hill, and the statue of Cybele that is in the temple bears the face of Augustus' wife, Livia.

During an excavation of a temple site at Çatalhöyük, in modern-day Turkey, a statue of a very pregnant Cybele was unearthed in what was once a granary, which indicates her importance as a deity of fertility and fecundity. As the Roman Empire spread, deities of other cultures found themselves absorbed into Roman religion. In the case of Cybele, she later took on many aspects of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Donald Wasson of Ancient History Encyclopedia says, "Due to its agricultural nature, her cult had tremendous appeal to the average Roman citizen, more so women than men. She was responsible for every aspect of an individual’s life. She was the mistress of wild nature, symbolized by her constant companion, the lion. Not only was she was a healer (she both cured and caused disease) but also the goddess of fertility and protectress in time of war (although, interestingly, not a favorite among soldiers), even offering immortality to her adherents. She is depicted in statues either on a chariot pulled by lions or enthroned carrying a bowl and drum, wearing a mural crown, flanked by lions.

Followers of her cult would work themselves into an emotional frenzy and self-mutilate, symbolic of her lover’s self-castration." 

Honoring Cybele Today

Today, Cybele has taken on a new role, and it's one that has nothing to do with sacrificial bulls. She has become the deity honored by a number of members of the transgender community, and an icon for many Pagan feminists. Perhaps the best known Cybeline group is the Maetreum of Cybele in upstate New York. 

Founder Cathryn Platine says on the group's website, "Our theology starts from the simplest basis:  That the Divine Feminine principle is the basis of the universe.  That all of us, all that we encounter is Her in the aggregate.  We are all the Great Mother learning about Herself.  From this simple beginning springs our organizational models, our rituals, the principles of what we call Wholistic Feminism, our mission of charitable outreach and indeed the way we, as Cybelines, live our lives.

 We are sometimes called the "scholarly Cybelines" because we have invested many years of strict historical research in order to embrace the essence of what proved to be literally the oldest surviving religion in the world.  We embraced the essence and then stepped away from "Pagan Reconstructionism" by bringing those essences into the modern world."