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The Cult of Cybele


The goddess Cybele
(Click to see a larger image)

The cult of Cybele is said to have originated in Asia Minor, near Pergamum. As a deity connected to the concerns of women, as a healer, and as a protector from enemies, Cybele was often associated with Rhea, mother of Zeus and Demeter. Cybele is known by serveral epithets, such as Magna Mater and Mater Deum (deum = deorum, a syncopated poetic form). Her home was said to be Mount Ida, near the city of Troy. Early depictions show her first as a lump of black stone, then as an earth mother. After the Greeks colonised Asia Minor, the cult spread -- but not without violence. A priest of Cybele is said to have been murdered while trying to introduce the cult into Athens. When the city was struck by a plague, Greeks consulted an oracle (probably the one at Delphi) and were told to build a temple to Cybele.

During the second Punic War, Hannibal was having much success subduing towns and villages in Italy and was approaching Rome. The Senate consulted the Sybilline Books and learned that, should a foreign enemy invade Italy, he could be deterred only if the worship of the "Mother of Mount Ida" were brought to Rome. Always ones to hedge their bets, the Romans sent a delegation to the oracle at Delphi. A treaty was made with Philip V of Macedon and he permitted the Romans to bring back to Rome both the statue and a black meteorite that personified the divine Cybele. In 194 BCE, a temple was built on the Palatine Hill to the new goddess, who was known as Magna Mater. New games were initiated to celebrate her (the normal procedure for introducing a new deity to Rome). Her popularity grew so fast that, by the end of the Roman Republic, the cult of Cybele had become one of the most important in the Roman world. She must have had a powerful reputation, since her temple was frequented by some of the powerful of Rome. She was considered responsible for good crops (in her Demeter connection) and military victories.

Dionysus of Halicarnassus records that specific laws were passed when some of the undesirable aspects of the cult became apparent. Cybele's religion was a bloody cult that required its priests and priestesses as well as followers to cut themselves during some rituals. The priests castrated themselves at their initiation; there was wild music, chanting, and frenzied dancing. During the Republic and early Empire, festival days were celebrated with eunuchs preceding the goddess through the streets, banging cymbals and drums, wearing bright attire and heavy jewelry, their hair long and 'greased'. Priests and priestesses were segregated, their activities confined to their temples, and Roman citizens were not allowed to walk in procession with them. Neither Roman citizens nor their slaves were allowed to become priests or priestess in the cult. No native-born Roman citizen was to be allowed to dress in bright colors, beg for alms, walk the streets with flute players or worship the goddess in 'wild Phrygian ceremonies'. Those Romans who wanted to continue to worship the goddess set up secret societies known as sodalitates so they could dine together in the goddess' honor.

Early Christians condemned the cult as demonic. By the 4th century Emperor Valentinian II officially banned her worship and allowed cruel persecutions of any who continued the practice. During the reign of Justinian, property was seized, any items of worship were burned, temples were destroyed, and those who still followed the cult were tortured, forced to commit suicide, or buried alive. By the 6th century AD the cult was extinct.

Cybele coin - The goddess Cybele is usually depicted in art with a crown and veil (300k - requires Quicktime to view content).


Sources:

-- J. Jahnige, November 2003 (revised 2006)

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