Cybele and her Festival: Origins, Practice and Ambivalent Status
From the sources, we can piece together the following information about the origins and practices of the festival of Cybele and about the ambivalent approach adopted by the Romans towards her cult.
Cybele/ the Magna Mater was a Phrygian deity who entered Rome in the latter part of the 3rd century B.C. In 205 B.C., during the second Punic War, the Sibylline Books prophesied a victory for the Romans against Hannibal if they transferred from Asia Minor to Rome ‘the Idaean mother’. Understanding this to be Cybele, the Romans duly brought to Rome the sacred stone that was the symbol of the goddess, and they established it on the Palatine hill in 204 B.C. A temple to Cybele was then completed in 191 B.C. and an annual festival took place in Rome from that point.
The festival took place on six consecutive days, from 4th – 10th (II Non. – IV Id. Apr), and we are aware of several activities that took place during this time. There are displays in the Circus and plays performed on the Palatine in front of temple of Magna Mater (especially on the third day, 6th April). The doors of the temple of Magna Mater are open to the public, who bring a gift of moretum (a type of herb cheese spread) to the goddess. The goddess’ eunuch priests, the galli, range the streets in bright regalia asking for alms. And the Roman elite hold banquets for each other.
As a foreign deity introduced to Rome to solve a major Roman military problem, the Roman attitude towards Cybele and her cult would have been mixed. On the positive side, as well as the aid she brought Rome, Cybele could boast Phrygian, and hence Trojan, ancestry; she had apparently saved a vestal virgin, Claudia Quinta, from a false charge of violating her chastity; and she was publicly endorsed by the Emperor Augustus, who brought her temple close to his own residence on the Palatine (her temple was restored in A.D. 3). But there was also a negative side which pertained to the goddess’ priests and their activities during the festival. Romans would have shown contempt for eunuch (‘half-man’) priests, as this would have be seen as a perversion of gender and sex. Their antics during the festival, which included self-flagellation/ castration, frenzied dance and music, all in brightly-coloured costume, would have sat uneasily with the traditional Roman sense of restraint and austerity. Hence the Roman requirement was to respect, but not participate directly in, the procession that occurred during the festival.
The Megalensia follows shortly after the Festival of Attis (22-25 March), during which a procession displays the statue of Cybele, accompanied by music; the statue of Cybele was later washed and brought back in procession.
Some Controversies and Opinions
Why exactly was Cybele brought to Rome? Assistance against Hannibal? Part of a climate of adopting Greek rituals/ oracles? A desire to ‘bring home’ a deity of Trojan ancestry?
How ‘foreign’ was the ritual in Augustus’ time? Were there two different and distinct rituals, a ‘Roman’ one and a ‘foreign’ one (with Romans unable to take part in the ‘foreign’ procession)? Did one ritual give way to the other through time?
What relation is Attis to Cybele’s cult? Was he introduced into Rome with/ at the same time as Cybele? Did he act as a model for the self-castration of Cybele’s priests?
Major Ancient Sources
CICERO, On the Response of the Haruspices, 22-28
LUCRETIUS, On the Nature of the Things, 2.600-43
LIVY, 29.10, 29.14
DIONYSIUS OF HALICARNASSUS, 2.19.4-5
OVID, Fasti, 4.179-372
M. Beard (1994), “The Roman and the Foreign: The Cult of the ‘Great Mother’ in Imperial Rome”, in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds), Shamanism, History, and the State, Michigan, 164-90
M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History, Cambridge, 96-8, 164-6
G. Dumézil (1970), Archaic Roman Religion, Chicago, 484-9
E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek and Roman Culture and Policy, Leiden, 5-33
R.J. Littlewood (1981), “Poetic Artistry and Dynastic Politics: Ovid and the Ludi Megalenses (Ovid Fasti 4.179-372), Classical Quarterly 31, 381-95
J.F. Miller (1991), Ovid’s Elegiac Festivals: Studies in the Fasti, Frankfurt, 82-90
H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 97-101
K. Summers (1996), “Lucretius’ Roman Cybele”, in E. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 337-66
M.J. Vermaseren (1977), Cybele and Attis: the Myth and the Cult, London
T.P. Wiseman (1984), “Cybele, Vergil and Augustus”, in T. Woodman and D. West (eds.), Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, Cambridge, 117-28
T.P. Wiseman (1985), Catullus and his World: A Reappraisal, Cambridge, 198-206