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Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, [1929], at



FROM the Oriental as well as from the Hellenic world there emanated mystery religions that made their appeal and offered their satisfactions to the individual man. Like the Greek cults just described, they operated as private religious brotherhoods, though in occasional instances they were brought under state patronage and supervision. They came to the Graeco-Roman world with all the authority of a venerable past, with a theology developed in mythological forms, with a ritual, very crude perhaps, yet capable of lofty spiritual interpretation. Their appeal was primarily an emotional one, and it was addressed specifically to the individual; for all classes and all races, Greeks as well as barbarians, slaves as well as free men, were welcomed to their membership.


Of these Oriental mystery religions the first to invade the west was the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, which came from central Asia Minor. The divine personage in whom this cult centered was the Magna Mater Deum who was conceived as the source of all life as well as the personification of all the powers of nature. This aspect of universal motherhood was the comprehensive feature of her character most frequently emphasized in the various cult titles applied to her. She was the "Great Mother" not only "of all the gods," but "of all men" as well. She was the "Mistress of All," the "All-Nourisher," and "All-Begetter," the "Mighty Mother," and the "Mother of Zeus Himself." "The winds, the sea, the earth, and the snowy seat of Olympus are hers, and when from her mountains she ascends into the great heavens, the son of Cronus himself gives way before her, and in like manner do also the other immortal blest honor the dread goddess." At Pessinus, the strongest center of her worship in Asia Minor, she was from primitive times represented by a sacred stone, said to have fallen from heaven. Indeed, the city itself, according to one legend, was named from this very circumstance (pesein, "to fall"). Here all the vital forces of mother earth were concentrated in "a stone not large, which could be carried in a man's hand without pressure--of a dusky and black color--not smooth, but having little corners standing out." This was the stone which was later carried to Rome when the worship of the Great Mother was officially introduced to the Occident. Ensconced in a silver statue where the face ought to be, it became the center of the Roman cult of the Great Mother--the whole life of nature embodied in a small, rough stone.

The Magna Mater of all living creatures was especially the goddess of the wilder aspects of nature. She was worshipped in the depths of virgin forests and on the tops of mounntains, and her cult titles named her the "Mountain Mother," and the "Divinity of the Mountains," not to mention such local appellations as "Dindymene," or the "Idaean Mother." Even Cybele, the familiar literary designation of the Great Mother, was, according to Strabo and Diodorus, derived from a mountain or range of mountains. "A grove I had upon the mountains' crest, whither men brought me offerings," said the goddess herself in describing one of her favorite haunts, "a pine forest beloved for many years, dim with dusky firs and trunks of maple." Anacharsis the Scythian was a typical devotee of the Magna Mater, for he worshiped her in a place "full of trees." She was also the "Mistress of Wild Beasts, and lions were her constant companions in literature and in art. The author of the fourteenth Homeric Hymn addressed the Mother of the Gods as one who "is glad in the cry of wolves and fiery-eyed lions, and in echoing hills, and woodland haunts." Thus she appeared as the goddess of all natural life, particularly in its wild and untamed aspects.

With her was associated a hero-divinity called Attis who personified the life of the vegetable world particularly. The pine tree was peculiarly his own and played a prominent part in his annual ritual. His priests were tattooed with an ivy-leaf pattern. Statues represented him crowned with fruits and holding ears of corn in his hand. He was himself addressed as the "reaped green (or yellow) ear of corn" in the hymn of Hippolytus, and the myth of his sufferings was interpreted now as the harvesting of ripened grain or again as the fading of spring flowers. His devotees in their feasts, while they might eat the stalks and upper parts of plants, were forbidden to eat seeds and the roots of vegetables for in these the divine life of their god was especially manifested. Above all, the great festival of Attis, held at the time of the vernal equinox, took the form of a mystery drama which obviously represented the reviving of the vegetable world at that season of the year.

Around these two divinities, the Great Mother and the god of vegetation, there grew up a confused tangle of myths in explanation of their cult rites. Various writers, pagan and Christian, gave different versions of the Cybele-Attis myth. Pausanias recounted two very different renderings of the legend. One of these was repeated by the Christian writer Arnobius, on the authority of a certain Timotheus. In detail the final edition was much more elaborate than the earlier rendition by Pausanias. Diodorus also recounted the Cybele-Attis myth with one or two singular omissions, while Firmicus Maternus gave a markedly euhemeristic interpretation of the legend. The accounts by Ovid, bv the philosopher Sallust, and by the Emperor Julian were similar to each other at points, yet differed in important respects from the other renderings of the legend.

The specific variations in all these diverse statements do not concern us, for certain significant elements were common to all the various versions. In each instance the relationship of Cybele and Attis was essentially the same, and their experiences were much the same throughout. According to the myth, the goddess-mother loved the youthful, virgin-born shepherd Attis with a pure love. But Attis died, either slain by another or by his own hand. In the latter instance, he was unfaithful to the Great Mother and in a frenzy of regret he emasculated himself and died. The goddess-mother mourned her dead lover and finally affected his restoration. Thus, in the end, the mortal Attis became deified and immortal. These were the main elements in the developed myth which bulked largest in the mind of the devotee as he participated in the rites of the cult.

The whole myth was palpably transparent. Attis, the god of vegetation grown to youthful beauty, is loved by Mother Earth. But the flowers of springtime faded and the fruits of summer are harvested. Nature is despoiled of her vegetation. Attis dies. Then the Mother mourns her dead plant life and remains in sorrow during autumn and winter. But with returning springtime vegetation revives and the youthful god Attis is restored to life. These familiar natural phenomena, dramatized in the ritual of the Cybele-Attis cult, became the basis on which the devotees of the Magna Mater developed their personal religious experiences.


The primitive locus of this nature worship was in the uplands of Anatolia. In a general way legends agree in locating the rise of the Cybele-Attis cult in the area covered by Galatia, Phrygia, and Lydia. As M. Cumont has properly emphasized, the development of a highly emotional cult was natural in this vicinity. Here the climate went to extremes, cold and bleak in winter, hot and even scorching in summer. These climatic contrasts made themselves felt on the character of the inhabitants. Men were responsive to the varying moods of nature with the changing seasons. During the winter months they shared the sorrow of nature at the loss of her vegetation; but with the returning verdure of springtime they hailed with joy the revival of nature. Thus there developed in the uplands north of Paul's birthplace a cult distinguished for its excessive emotionalism.

Just when this religion had its inception it is impossible to state with any exactness. It is clear, however, that from the sixth century B.C. onward the worship of the Great Mother was dominant in Asia Minor. The earliest monuments of the cult, the so-called Niobe of Mount Sipylus and two reliefs from the vicinity of Prymnessus, date from the middle of the sixth century at least. Herodotus was acquainted with certain external features of this worship, and he knew the Great Mother as belonging to Sardis and enthroned on Mount Dindymon. By the beginning of the fifth century Pessinus had become a center of her cult, and a hundred years later Asia Minor generally was familiar with it. Considerably before the period of Alexander, therefore, the worship of Cybele and Attis was well established and widely spread in Asia Minor--mountains like Dindymon, Ida, and Tmolus, and cities like Cyzicus, Sardis, and Pessinus being the importaint centers of the cult.

The Great Mother early emigrated from her Asian home and traveled to Europe, first by way of the Hellesspont and liter by the Aegean Islands. Pindar knew her worship at Thebes and Aristophanes ridiculed the goddess from Athens. The chorus of Euripides' Bacchae came from Mount Tmolus and sang the praises of the Great Mother as well as of Dionysus. By the end of the fourth century, the worship of the Mother existed privately in the seaport town of the Peiraeus, while the Emperor Julian had a story to tell concerning the introduction of the Great Mother's religion at Athens. Admittedly, however, the cult of the Magna Mater was not especially popular in Greece. The demand for a highly emotional type of religious experience was already well satisfied among the Hellenes. In the orgiastic rites of Dionysus, the Greeks had religious practices of strikingly similar character which gave them the desired emotional stimulation.

The coming of the Magna Mater to Rome and the west was under the most dramatic circumstances. It was in the year 204 B.C.; Hannibal was still in Italy and Rome was thoroughly exhausted. Moreover, the people had become frightened because of frequent showers of stones and other unusual phenomena. In desperation the Sibylline Books were consulted, and it was learned that the enemy could be conquered if the Idaean Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome. Accordingly, a delegation was sent to King Attalus of Pergamum, who conducted them to Pessinus and gave them the sacred stone which was the Mother of the Gods. On her arrival in Italy, the goddess was officially welcomed by the "best man" of the Republic and the leading matrons of Rome. Miracles attended the event, the citizens made holiday, and an annual festival was instituted in honor of the goddess. As a result--so it seemed--the crops of that year were successful and Hannibal was driven out of Italy and conquered. So the Magna Mater came in triumph to the west in 204 B.C.

Although the worship of the Great Mother was officially welcomed to Italy, it seems to have been regarded with suspicion, treated as foreign, and subjected to state regulation during the last two centuries of the Republic. Under the Empire, however, the cult came into its own. By the first century A.D. the legal restrictions of republican days were removed and the worship of the Magna Mater easily became one of the most popular and favored religions of the time. The Archigallus, or high priest of the cult, became the Attis populi Romani. During the reign of Claudius, the annual festival was elaborated with even more impressive rites than those of its native Phrygian home and it took on its final form as one of the great festivals of the Roman Empire. The literature of the first century shows the high degree of prominence attained by the cult during this period. Livy gave an account of the coming of the Great Mother to Rome. Ovid, in the Fasti, devoted much space to an explanation of the origin and significance of her rites. Vergil told how the Great Mother had protected Aeneas, the ancestral hero of the Roman race. Horace made several references to the Great Mother's rites, and Propertius recounted the story of Claudia, who led the Roman matrons in welcoming the goddess to Italy. Even Maecenas composed a poem in honor of Cybele. The satirists, on the other hand, were unsparing in making the Galli the butt of crude jokes. Thus, during the period when Pauline Christianity was barely beginning to make itself felt as a missionary movement in the Graeco-Roman world, the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods had already won a place of prominence for itself in the life of the Roman Empire. It is important, therefore, to consider the phenomena of this gentile religion in relation to the development of early Christianity itself.


Our clearest index to the personal religious experience of the devotees of the Great Mother is found in a study of cult ritual. Because of their public character we possess the most extensive information concerning the annual spring festival of Attis, and the Taurobolium of the Magna Mater--ceremonials that had the official sanction of the Roman state. In considering the spring festival which Claudius incorporated as a part of the established religion of the Empire, it is important to bear in mind that it most it was but in elaborition of rites that had long been practiced in Asia Minor. We are specifically informed that the Roman ritual was celebrated Phrygio more. It may reasonably be assumed, therefore, that the Roman ceremonies were not essentially different from their Asian originals.

The prelude to the annual festival began on the Ides of March. On the second festival day, which was designated Arbor intrat in the calendar of Philocalus, the guild of dendrophori, or tree bearers, were in charge of the ceremonial. It was the duty of the dendrophori to cut down a pine tree in the woods and bear it with due pomp to the temple of Cybele. The perennial pine was a natural embodiment of Attis, the spirit of vegetation. According to legend, it was under a pine tree that he had mutilated himself and died. He had himself been transmuted into a pine tree and carried in this form into the cave of Cybele where the goddess mothered her dead lover; hence the pine tree borne by the dendrophori into the temple of Cybele was regarded as the corpse of Attis dead and treated with divine honors. It was swathed with fillets of wool as the body of Attis had been. Its branches were hung with garlands of violets, the flowers that sprang from his blood. From the middle of the stem was suspended an image of young man, who was doubtless Attis himself.' The ritual fact was that the dead god was brought with funeral pomp to the temple of the Magna Mater.

The following day was one of fasting when the devotees of Attis mourned their god. It was a peculiar fast, however; Jerome called it "a gluttonous abstinence, when men ate pheasants in order not to contaminate cereals." Meats, in general, were allowed, but fruits and vegetables were forbidden. This prohibition extended to wine also. The vegetable abstinence was a natural one. As the cutting down of the pine tree symbolized that the god of vegetation was dead, so the vegetable world shared in the defunct condition of the god. To partake of vegetables and cereals at such a season would be to violate the bruised and broken body of a god. This fast probably began with the fifteenth of March, and it had its influence as a physical preparation for the excessive emotionalism of the rites which marked the climax of the festival.

These rites came on the twenty-fourth of March, a day that was called, significantly enough, the "Day of Blood." At this time the Great Mother of the Gods inspired her devotees with a frenzy surpassing that which the followers of Dionysus knew. It was a madness induced not by wine, but by the din of crashing music, the dizzy whirling of the dance, and the sight of blood. The music which accompanied these rites was wild and barbaric, made by clashing cymbals and blatant horns, shrilling flutes and rolling drums. It was maddening music, noisy and savage. Lucian vividly described the wild tumult made by the Galli on Mount Ida blowing their horns, pounding their drums, and clashing their cymbals. Music of this kind--the Anatolian prototype of modern jazz--was popularly known as Phrygian music.

To the accompaniment of these barbaric strains a dance was staged. With wagging heads and streaming hair, the devotees of the Great Mother whirled their bodies round and round in a dizzy dance, shouting and singing as they gyrated. Apuleius pictured such a dance performed in a Thessalian village by the mendicant priests of the Syrian goddess.

"They went forth with their arms naked to their shoulders, bearing with them great swords .... shouting and dancing like mad persons to the sound of the pipe ..... They began to howl all out of tune and hurl themselves hither and thither, as though they were mad. They made a thousand gests with their feet and their heads; theywould bend down their necks and spin round so that their hair flew out in a circle; they would bite their own flesh; finally every one took his two-edged weapon and wounded his arms in different places."

This cruel custom of lacerating one's own flesh during the frenzied ritual was a distinctive characteristic of the Great Mother's cult. Slashing their arms with knives, or gashing their bodies, the worshipers sprinkled with their own blood the sacred tree that was Attis. When Martial was casting about for a comparison to make vivid the dangerous habits of a certain barber he could think of nothing more to the point than these bloody rites of the Great Mother. "He who desires not yet to go down to Stygian shades, let him, if he be wise, avoid barber Antiochus. White arms are mangled with knives less cruel when the frenzied throng raves to Phrygian strains," he declared. To the modern mind this sanguine rite seems cruel in the extreme. It is probable, however, that the devotees, wrought up to a very high pitch of excitement by the din of the noisy music and the frenzy of the wild dance, were largely insensible to the pain. This ghastly ritual formed a part of the mourning for the dead Attis. When the Great Mother saw the freely flowing blood of her worshipers, she could not doubt that they shared with her in her sorrow. The blood may well have been intended, also, to appease the manes of the dead Attis or to strengthen him for his resurrection. To imitate Cybele in her grief and to call Attis back to life were the purposes of this bloody rite.

But the devotees of the Great Mother did not stop with the shedding of blood merely. Keyed up to the highest pitch of religious excitement, they followed the example of Attis and emasculated themselves. With this final act of self-sacrifice and consecration, the Dies sanguinis was crowned and the devotee became one of the Galli, a eunuch-priest of the Asian goddess. This was the regular practice in Phrygia, and in Rome, even, it is probable that the custom was followed. In his account of the Syrian goddess, whose cult was strikingly like that of Cybele, Lucian gave a description of this sacerdotal initiation. It is not only a vivid depiction of the bloody scene itself but also a good piece of psychological analysis, for it shows the strange fascination of these barbaric rites and reveals their mesmeric effect upon the spectators witnessing the supreme act of consecration. In abbreviated form Lucian's account is as follows:

"During these days they are made Galli. As the Galli sing and celebrate their orgies, frenzy falls on many of them, and many who had come as mere spectators afterwards are found to have committed the great act. Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd and picks up a sword. He takes it and emasculates himself and then runs wild through the city."

For one who had performed this irrevocable sacrifice in a moment of hot excitement a strong revulsion of feeling was later inevitable. This emotional reaction was powerfully depicted by Catullus in his famous poem bearing the name "Attis."

Undoubtedly for the devotee of Cybele the rite of self-mutilation had distinct religious values. By the very act the devotee himself became another Attis. He had done in the service of the goddess what Attis had already done. The Attis in the poem of Catullus was not the original lover of Cybele but rather one of her priests, who by the fact of priestly initiation had become identified with the god. "Methought in a dream that I had become Attis, and that the festival of the so-called Hilaria was fulfilled to me by the Great Mother," wrote Damaskios, the last of the Neoplatonists. The name Attis was actually used as a traditional title for the priesthood of the Great Mother. Just as Attis was believed to have attained the state of deity by the passion of emasculation so by the way of self-mutilation, the Gallus became a god instead of mortal.

The act that made an Attis of the votary placed him in peculiarly intimate relationship to the Mother Goddess herself. The broken instruments of his manhood were treated as an oblation to the goddess. Perhaps they were thrown into the lap of her statue, is the "Passion of St. Symphorian" suggests. In the case of a goddess of fertility, like the Magna Mater, this was a significant act. Thus the ministers of the Great Mother, who personated her divine lover, made it possible for her to exercise her beneficent function in renewing the life of nature. As a new Attis the votary assumed the role of a bridegroom to the goddess. There were "marriage chambers" in the sanctuary of the Great Mother at Lobrinon near Cyzicus. In such a chamber the newly consecrated priest, kept vigil during the night after his dedication, a bridegroom in the bridal chamber of his goddess. Indeed, a specific cult designation of the GalIus was "bridegroom." This indicates that the experiences of the Dies Sanguinus and the following night were interpreted as a process of mystical union with the Great Goddess herself, and by means of certain obscure ritual acts there was developed a sense of intimate divine communion on the part of the devotee. From another standpoint the newly consecrated priest was thought of as a male counterpart of the goddess. Hence, he was called Kubebos. By the fact of emasculation he had assimilated himself to the nature of the goddess. As an indication of this transformation he henceforth wore feminine dress and allowed his hair to grow long. At some point in the ceremony there was also a solemn enthronement and the consecrated mortal was crowned in token of his deification. Nothing less than this, in the experience of the Gallus, was the result of his act of devotion. It made him realistically and mysticilly one with his goddess.

The day following the "Day of Blood" brought a delirium of joy to replace the delirium of sorrow. Dead Attis had been buried and around his grave his devotees had mourned his death long into the night. Toward morning, however, a great light appeared in the darkness and the resurrection of the god was announced. Firmicus Maternus thus described the scene: "When they are satisfied with their fictitious grief a light is brought in, and the priest, having anointed their lips, whispers, 'Be of good cheer, you of the mystery. Your god is saved; for us also there shall be salvation from ills.'" Then joy took the place of sorrow, for the resurrection of the god brought with it the assurance of salvation for men, and this chiefly included the promise of a happy immortality. On the twenty-fifth of March, the first day when daylight exceeded darkness, the resurrection of the god was celebrated with universal license. The day's celebration was known as the Hilaria and was characterized by the general good cheer. Mourning was not permitted; but instead there were masquerades and banquets. Even the Galli were eased of their wounds in their joy because of the resurrection of Attis.

There followed a day of much needed rest, the Requiratio. Then the festival closed with the Lavatio, or washing of the goddess in the Almo, a rite that aroused the scorn and sarcasm of Arnobius. The silver statue of the goddess was placed in a wagon drawn by oxen and conducted in solemn procession to the Almo where it was washed in the water of the river. Amid rejoicing the statue was drawn back to its temple, showered with the flowers of springtime on its way. This was probably a rite of purification considered necessary because of the experience through which the goddess had passed on the Dies Sanguinis. After marriage, purification was deemed essential even for a goddess. Because the Magna Mater had been mystically united with her ministers, such postnuptial purification was necessary in her case.

In this, the annual spring festival of their god and goddess, the Galli found the beginning of a new life for themselves. It was a highly wrought emotional experience induced by fasting, wild music, frenzied dancing, and the sight of flowing blood. The sorrow thus aroused was interpreted as a sympathetic sharing with the Great Mother in her grief at the death of her lover. The orgiastic rite reached its climax in the irrevocable sacrifice of manhood, an act whereby the devotee physically assimilated himself to divinity. He himself became Attis, a god, mystically united,is a divine lover to the Great Goddess. In the resurrection of his god he felt himself personally participant and he found therein the assurance of a happy future life. The experience was a crudely physical one and realistic in the extreme. Yet it had a strange fascination because of its very realism, and it held out to the devotees who were willing to make the supreme sacrifice the promise of a divinization of human nature and an immediate communion with deity.

To this experience the figure of a new birth was not inappropriately applied. The pagan writer, Sallust the Philosopher, used this very terminology in describing the effect of the Attis festival on those who participated in it. He said that those who passed through this form of initiation were actually treated as new-born babes and dieted on milk for some time afterward. His exact expression was: hosper anagennomenon, "as of those who are being born again." Thus, at the annual spring festival the ministers of the Great Mother passed through a religious experience so fundamental that it seemed to them the beginning of a new life, essentially different from the life they had known before. It was a regeneration that transformed their beings, gave them a present communion with their god and goddess, and assured them of personal immortality.


Another bloody rite of great importance connected with the cult of the Great Mother was the taurobolium, or sacrifice of a bull, with its variant, the criobolium, or ram sacrifice. The origin of the taurobolium and its relationship to the cult of the Magna Mater is obscure. Almost certainly, however, it was of oriental origin localized in Anatolia, and it probably had its inception in the primitive practice of washing in the blood of an animal in order to secure its vital energy. In the cult of the Great Mother, however, the primitive notions attached to the practice became transformed and spiritualized. When the rite came to prominence in Italy early in the second century A.D. two distinct motives were apparent, one official, the other personal. The taurobolium was officially performed vicariously for the safety of the emperor, the empire, or a particular community--pro salute imperatoris, pro salute imperii, pro salute urbis, etc. This was a purely official and sacerdotal celebration, with the Archigallus presiding, and during the second and third centuries this usage was especially prominent in Roman practice.

But the taurobolium might be a private ceremony also, performed by an ordinary person who bore the expense of it himself--de suo, suo sumptu, or sua pecunia. In this case the purpose was a purely personal one and the motive which actuated the celebration was the purification and regeneration of the individual. This private rite was performed on laymen as well as priests and by persons of all classes and both sexes. It was strictly an individualistic ceremony. During the third and fourth centuries, probably because of Christian competition, the private celebration of the taurobolium came forward into particular prominence. Between these two types of ceremony, however, the official and the private, there can be no doubt as to which was prior to the other. The rite in itself was essentially of a private and personal nature and its public, vicarious usage was clearly a later adaptation. The devotees of the Mother and Attis certainly experienced it for their own benefit before ever the rite was enacted for the good of the community. Centuries before the taurobolium was performed in Italy for the safety of the state, it was enacted in Asia Minor for the benefit of the individual devotee.

The ceremony itself was picturesque. In the Peristephanon by the Christian poet Prudentius there is a description of the rite which purports to be by an eyewitness. A priest is the subject of the ceremony. With a golden crown on his head and adorned with fillets, he descends into a deep trench which is covered with a platform of perforated pIanks. A large bull, gleaming with gold and garlanded with flowers, is led on to the platform. Here he is stabbed to death by the consecrated spear, and his blood flows out over the covering of the trench and rains down on the expectant devotee below.

"Through the thousand crevices in the wood the bloody dews run down into the pit. The priest receives the falling drops on his head, clothes and body. He leans backward to have his cheeks, his ears, his lips, and his nostrils wetted. He pours the liquid over his eyes and does not even spare his palate, for he moistens his tongue with blood and drinks it eagerly."

When the life of the bull is extinct, its body is removed and the neophyte emerges from the trench, drenched and dripping with blood. He rresents himself to the expectant throng of worshipers who do obeisance to him as to a god, as to one who has been born again to a divine life.

For the one who experienced the blood bath of the taurobolium this was exactly the meaning of the rite. He came up out of the trench reborn to a new kind of existence. In effect the bath of blood was believed to purify him from the sins and evils of his old life and make him a new man, or rather a divinized human. In some cases the efficacy of the rite was supposed to last for a period of twenty years, and then the grace was renewed. In other instances, the conviction was that the effect of the rite was everlasting and that the devotee was in aeternum renatus, to quote the formula of the inscriptions. There is a strong temptation at this point to question if this startling phrase and the whole conception of the new birth experience in the cult of the Magna Mater may not be due to Christian influence. There is not, however, a shred of evidence to substantiate this contention. Against it is the purely pagan character of the rite itself, its undoubted antiquity, and the fact that it naturally lent itself to the new-birth interpretation. Held as it usually was, though not invariably, at the time of the vernal equinox on the Dies Saguinis, the resurrection of vegetation and of the god of vegetation naturally suggested the regeneration of the individual. Thus the whole ritual became a sort of passion drama in and of itself, involving three parties: the god, the neophyte, and nature in a single cycle of events. The neophyte descended into the pit; Attis died; vegetation withered. The neophyte came up out of the pit; Attis arose from the dead; vegetation revived. In this way, at the spring festival of Attis, the regeneration of the individual was made to coincide with the rebirth of nature.


The Cybele-Attis cult included certain strictly private rites that are quite as important for the student of personal religion as the public ceremonies we have just examined. Julian, the Emperor, in discussing the March festival, made careful distinction between two series of rites following the cutting down of the sacred pine, one secret and mysterious, the other open to the public. It is probable, therefore, that the secret rites of the cult were more or less co-ordinated with the public ceremonials. Augustine demanded to know of these esoteric rites, "What good is to be thought of their sacred rites which are concealed in darkness, when those which are brought forth into light are so detestable?" This interrogation conveniently emphasizes the differentiation between the public and private rites of the Attis cult.

In the nature of the case the public rites were open to a more or less limited number of participants. The sacerdota] consecration of the Dies Sanguinis was a restricted type of initiation available only for men and to those only who felt impelled to make the supreme sacrifice. It was a masculine and priestly initiation. But the cult of the Great Mother welcomed women as well as men and included laymen as well as priests. Even the grace of the taurobolium was obtainable only by those who could bear the expense of the ceremony. The private rites of the cult, however, were accessible to a far larger group. They represented the type of initiation as contrasted with the priestly. Hence they are of more than usual importance from the point of view of personal religious experience.

Unfortunately, we know even less of these private ceremonials than of the secret rites in other mystery cults, and for much the same reason. Their secret has been too well guarded. Only a single formula has come down to us, in slightly variant forms, from the esotoric liturgy of the Attis cult. According to the version given by Clement of Alexandria the confessional of the initiate was:

I have eaten out of the drum:
I have drunk out of the cymbal:
I have carried the Kernos:
I have entered the bridal chamber.

Firmicus Maternus repeated the formula in a more brief form:

I have eaten from the drum:
I have drunk out of the cymbal:
I have become a mystic votary of Attis.

In this formula two experiential elements stand out clearly. One is union with divinity by the semblance of a mystic marriage. "I have entered the bridal chamber." The votary entering the shrine of the goddess went there as a bridegroom. In the secret chamber divinity and humanity were united in marriage, and thus the devotee attained communion with his goddess. This was the lay equivalent for the priestly experience when the Gallus, as a new Attis, became the bridegroom of Cybele.

The second important element of mystical experience emphasized in this formula was communion with the deity by the act of eating and drinking.

I have eaten from the drum:
I have drunk from the cymbal.

The similarity of this confessional to the Eleusinian password is incontestable. Just as the initiate at Eleusis drank of the mixed barley potion and ate sacred food from the chest, so the devotee of the Great Mother drank from the cymbal and ate from the drum. The instruments mentioned, the drum and the cymbal, were the favorite musical instruments of the Great Mother. It was natural, therefore, that they should be used as cup and plate in this ceremony. Just what was the sacred food which the devotees shared we have scarcely a hint. We know only that it consisted of a beverage and of solid food.

Much more important than to know these external details is to understand the psychological effect of this communion meal on the participants. Was it merely a common meal that gave the votaries fellowship with one another, binding them together in a brotherhood like that of a great family? It may have had this meaning incidentally, but certainly this was not the inclusive significance of the rite for the votary. It was a communion with divinity rather than a communion with one's fellow devotees. Firmicus Maternus, in denouncing this rite, contrasted it specifically with the Christian sacrament of the eucharist. His words show clearly that there was a genuine parallelism between the Christian rite and the pagan. Both were believed to communicate divine life to the devotee and assure him of salvation. Maternus concluded his invective against the pagan rite with the appeal, "It is another food that gives salvation and life. Seek the bread of Christ and the cup of Christ!" Apparently, therefore, the sacred meal in the Semele-Attis cult was a genuine sacrament that enabled the devotee to absorb the divine life in a realistic manner. In the liturgy of the cult, Attis himself was addressed as a "reaped ear of corn." It is not unlikely that a corn product, or some other vegetable food in which Attis was believed especially to dwell, formed a part of the sacred repast. In partaking of this meal, the devotee was enabled to share in a materialistic manner the life of his god. The common meal of the Great Mother's cult therefore was a means of attaining to a realistic type of mystical communion with divinity.

All these various rites in the cult of the Great Mother were crude enough. They were characterized by realism and naturalism. There was eating and drinking. There was a bath in blood. There was an orgy of self-induced sorrow and joy that had its climax in self mutilation. Yet these very rites with all their primitive crudity and cruelty became transmuted into vehicles for really deep religious experience. The act of eating and drinking became a sacrament of communion wherein the devotee partook of a divine substance and thus attained actual union with his deity. The semblance of a mystic marriage whereby the initiate as a divine lover was united to the goddess was another means of attaining the same end. The blood bath of the taurobolium brought with it the washing away of the sins and evils of an old life. It was a regenerating experience by which the neophyte was reborn for eternity. The passion drama depicting the death of natural life and its renovation in the springtime was an allegory of personal resurrection to eternal life. Even the act of self-mutilation became the means whereby the devotee, like Attis himself, effected his own deification and assimilated himself to the nature of the Great Mother. In the cult of the Mater Deum the communion of eating and drinking, the semblance of mystic marriage, the purification in the bath of blood, and the mortification of the flesh, all functioned as sacraments of spiritual regeneration.


For the student of Christian origins a knowledge of the regenerative rites of the Great Mother is doubly important because her worship was remarkably like that in a whole group of cults with which Paul, the Christian apostle, had early familiarity and contacts that were intimate. These were the religions indigenous to the lands of Syria and Cilicia, where Paul was brought up and where he had his early missionary experience. Unfortunately, our knowledge of these gentile cults is fragmentary and chaotic. They had nothing like the solidarity of the Greek and major Oriental systems, and it would be utterly impossible to reconstruct their history or to outline their ritual in any detail. Still it is possible to distinguish among them certain common elements that show a general resemblance to the Phrygian worship of the Great Mother. Usually, the central place in the cultus was held by a mother-goddess who embodied the power of life, and a somewhat subordinate position was assigned to a youthful male deity who like Attis died and rose again.

The prototype for this diversified, yet measurably unified complex of religious systems seems to have been the Babylonian cult of Ishtar, the deified personification of motherhood. She was known to biblical writers as Ashtoreth, and to the Greeks as Astarte or Aphrodite. With her was associated a young and active deity called Tammuz, who was slain but afterward revived. As in the case of Attis, lamentations formed an important part of his worship. In Ezekiel's day this practice was adopted by Jews, even, and among the "abominations" which the prophet saw perpetrated at the very gate of the Jerusalem temple was the weeping of women for Tammuz! In Phoenicia the mother-goddess was worshiped under the name of Ashtart, and as early as the third century B.C. her cult was so pre-eminent that the kings of Sidon served her as priests. She, too, had her consort, Eshmun by name. Their houses were built together, and they were simultaneously glorified.

To the Greek world this immortal pair was familiar as Aphrodite and Adonis, the goddess of love and her impetuous young husband. "The Fourth Venus," said Cicero, "was a Syrian . . . . who is called Astarte and is said to have been married to Adonis." Greek and Latin writers delighted to retell the story of their love and of Aphrodite's loss. The tale was that of an ardent young hunter who, all too rash, was wounded to death by a boar. Thus young Adonis died; but the grief of his goddess-lover brought about his restoration to life. In the cult of these divinities, also, traditional lamentations were a conspicuous element of the ritual. Sappho more than once referred to this weeping for the god, while Bion wrote a lament for Adonis which, though a conventional literary product and not an actual cult hymn, yet gives a fairly accurate impression of the mourning songs sung at Adonis' festivals.

The annual celebrations in honor of the god were elaborated as a drama of marriage and passion. Around a ritual marriage bed the wedding of the divine pair was celebrated. There followed a lament for the dead Adonis ending in a forecast of the resurrection. Sometimes that joyous event was actually represented. At all the important centers of Adonis worship, not only in Syria and Cyprus but also in Athens and Alexandria, the festival of Adonis was one of the great events in the religious calendar. Theocritus, in one of his Idyls, described such a festival as it was conducted at the court of Ptolemy early in the Hellenistic period. The marriage song sung at this celebration began with a description of the wedding tableau and included an adequate account of the Adonis festival as a whole.

The bridal bed for Adonis spread of my own making is;
Cypris hath this for her wrapping, Adonis that for his.
Of eighteen years or nineteen, is turned the rose-limbed groom;
His pretty lip is smooth to sip, for it bears but flaxen bloom,
And now she's in her husband's arms, and so we'll say good-night;
But tomorrow we'll come with the dew, the dew, and take hands and bear him away
Where plashing wave the shore doth lave, and there with locks undight
And bosoms bare all shining fair will raise this shrilling lay:

"O sweet Adonis, none but thee of the children of gods and men
'Twixt overworld and underworld doth pass and pass again:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Adonis sweet, Adonis dear,
Be gracious for another year;
Thou'rt welcome to thine own alway,
And welcome we'll both cry today
And next Adonis-tide."

Another Syrian goddess who gained considerable prominence in the Roman world was Atargatis. Her consort was Hadad, with whom the belief in immortality was connected at an early period. In his ritual, as in that of Adonis, an elaborate show of grief was a characteristic factor, and the prophet Zechariah knew of the lamentations for Hadad. But it was the goddess who attracted the attention of the Roman world. In the eyes of the Greeks she was the "Syrian goddess," and among Latins this Dea Syria became popular as Iasura. During the latter days of the Republic her cult was notably propagated by the agency of slaves and under the Empire Syrian merchants became as her missionaries. She was especially popular with the lower classes, though some in high stations affected her cult. Marius was one of her devotees and Nero "held in contempt all religious rites except those of the Syrian Goddess"--though his esteem for her was not lasting one. The great slave uprising in Sicily in 134 was led by a slave who claimed to be inspired by the goddess herself--a revealing illustration of the loyalty she commanded for this class in society.

Her rites were such as would appeal to the proletariat and conserve religious values for them. They were realistic, picturesque, sensuous, and fascinating in their strangeness. Apulcius in an incidental account of the missionary operations of her traveling priests gave a memorable picture of their methods in actual practice among the rural population of Thessaly. The account was not a very complimentary one, and it was doubtless exaggerated. Certainly the itinerant priests of the Syrian goddess were generally actuated by more worthy motives than this particular group was represented to be. Still the description of their religious exercises was detailed by Apuleius with all the vividness of life itself, and it may be considered a true representation of the cult rites on festal occasions. Lucian, who was himself a Syrian and wrote as one wholly familiar with this religion, also described the rites in a way that parallels and confirms the account of Apuleius. The exercises were essentially the same as those that formed the climax of the Great Mother's festival and made eunuch priests of her male devotees. To the accompaniment of wild music men danced themselves into a frenzy and then lacerated and mutilated themselves unsparingly. Here again the central experience of the cult was ecstatic in character, with a cruel and crudely physical emotionalism. But it was not without its mystical content; for in this way the devotees sought to affiliate themselves with their pitiless goddess.

Altogether the cults of Cilicia and Syria may be grouped in the same class as the Anatolian worship of the Cybele. They were redemption religions, the deities of which were revered as the saviors of the individual man. In their propagandist efforts they aimed at universalism through individualism. They were still tainted with much of the grossness of primitive naturalism; yet this very fact was not a disadvantage with the humbler folk in society whom they captivated by the barbaric appeal of their ritual. They were religions of enthusiasm which aroused fear, pain, hope, joy, all culminating in ecstasy. By mortification, by stimulating music, by self-mutilation, and like means, these Syrian zealots strove to rise to a higher state than mere mortality and unite themselves with divinity. This was their rebirth to a new life and immortality.

Next: Chapter VI: Death and New Birth in Mithraism