Category Archives: Devotion
Etymology: “mother,” “woman,” “daring one”
Nanna Nepsdóttir is a Norse Goddess best known as the wife of Balder. There is also a Mesopotamian God of the Moon known by the same name, however the two are different deities.
What’s In A Name?
There’s a few different scholarly ideas and debates on what Nanna’s name may actually mean. The idea by some is that Nanna comes from a word that means “mother.” The scholar, Jan de Vries makes the connection of Nanna to the root word nanb- meaning: “the daring one.” Another scholar, John Lindow puts forward the theory that Nanna may come from a common word for “woman.” Then there is John McKinnell who notes that “mother” and variations of nanb- that are not always clear what’s meant. He does suggest that it might have meant: “she who empowers.”
Parentage and Family
Odin – If we follow Nep being a son of Odin.
Frigg – This goddess is mentioned as a mother-in-law to Nanna in the Prose Edda, Skáldskaparmál.
Nep – He is listed as Nanna’s father, as deduced by the surname of Nepsdóttir.
Balder – The Prose and Poetic Eddas both list him as Nanna’s husband.
Hodr – According to the Gesta Danorum, he is Nanna’s husband.
Foresti – The god of Justice, he is Nanna’s son with Balder.
This is Balder’s Mansion or abode in Asgard. Naturally being his wife, Nanna’s lives here with him. Considered the most beautiful of all the halls in Asgard, only the purest could enter it.
This is a comb dating from the either the 6th or 7th century. The comb has runic inscriptions on it that are thought to reference Nanna.
Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Nanna and the other Norse deities comes from the surviving Poetic Edda that was compiled in the 13th century C.E. It is a collection of various poems as follows: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð.
Hyndluljóð – In this poem, Nanna is mentioned as the daughter of Nökkvi and a relative of Ottar. This may or may not be the same Nanna who’s Balder’s wife.
The Prose Edda & Other Sagas
Not to be confused with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda consists of four books: Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal written by Snorri Sturluson.
Gylfaginning – In chapter 38, Nanna Nepsdóttir and Balder are mentioned having a son, the god Foresti. Later, when Balder dies at the hands of Höðr, the blind god, Balder’s body is taken down to the seaside and placed into his ship, Hringhorni. Nanna collapses and dies from grief, her body is also placed within Badler’s ship and the ship light on fire with Thor using his hammer, Mjölnir to hallow the funeral pyre.
A grieving Freya sends the god Hermóðr down to Hel, the Underworld to try and resurrect Balder. Hermóðr arrives in Hel to find both Balder and Nanna sitting in a hall in places of honor. Hermóðr then begins bargaining with Hel to resurrect Balder. After a length of time, the two come to an agreement and Hermóðr leaves Hel’s hall with both Balder and Nanna. Balder presents the ring Draupnir to Hermóðr to be returned to Odin. Nanna presents Hermóðr with a few different gifts: a linen robe for Frigg, a gold ring for Fulla and a numer of other unnamed items. Laden up, Hermóðr makes the return journey to Asgard.
Much as Freya wanted, it would only be after the events of Ragnarök that Balder and Nanna are resurrected and return to the land of the living.
Skáldskaparmál – In the first chapter of this book, Nanna is listed among eight goddesses who are attending a feast for Aegir. Chapter five of this book, Balder is referenced as the “husband of Nanna.” Chapter nineteen continues with another reference of Frigg as the “mother-in-law of Nanna.” Chapter seventy-five has Nanna included in a general list of goddesses. Lastly, chapter eighteen references the skald, Eilífr Goðrúnarson’s Þórsdrápa where a kenning references Nanna as “wake-hilt-Nanna” another name for “troll-wife.”
Written by Saxo Grammati in the 12th century, the third book of this series portrays Nanna a mortal and daughter of King Gevar. Nanna becomes the object of affection by the demigod Balder and the mortal Hodr.
As it goes, Nanna has feelings for her foster-brother, Hodr Hothbrodd. Things won’t go the way the two lovers plan though. Balder, a demigod son of Odin is out and about one day when he espies Nanna bathing. Infatuated with her, Balder learns that another already has Nanna’s heart and he conspires to kill the competition.
The next time Hodr is out hunting, he finds himself wandering through a patch a mist and forest maidens calling out to him by name. They explain that they are able to manipulate fate and appear out on battlefields (that sounds like Valkyries to me). The Valkyries tell Hodr that Balder is interested in Nanna and being a demigod, Hodr won’t stand a chance against him. The Valkyries depart, leaving Hodr standing in an open field.
Undaunted, Hodr returns home where he recounts his story to King Gevar about getting lost in the forest and the Valkyries appearing before him. Not wanting to delay any longer, Hodr then asks King Gevar for Nanna’s hand in marriage.
Much as King Gevar would like too, Balder has already beaten Hodr to it and asked for Nanna’s hand in marriage first. Plus, King Gevar feared Balder’s wrath if he refused, given the demigod nature of Balder. Not all is lost, for Gevar knows of a magical sword that hurt someone like Balder and tells him where and how to get the sword.
While Hodr is off getting an enchanted blade, Balder returns to Gevar’s kingdom, ready to claim Nanna for his wife. Stalling for time for Hodr, King Gevar tells Balder to go easy with Nanna and try reasoning with her. Nanna is having none of Balder’s advances. One of her arguments is to say that a mortal woman and a demigod couldn’t possibly marry her as they’re too different.
Hodr, now accompanied by Helgi return to do battle with Balder and various other gods. We know for sure that two of their number are Thor and Odin. Despite the overwhelming odds, Hodr is victorious.
Once again, Hodr asks King Gevar for Nanna’s hand in marriage. This time, Hodr’s request is granted and both Hodr and Nanna ride off into the sunset for Sweden where Hodr becomes king!
Not quite, Balder returns and attacks Hodr, forcing Hodr and Nanna to retreat to Denmark. Alas poor Balder is plagued with visions of Nanna in his sleep, so much so, that Balder took to riding in a chariot as he couldn’t walk on his own and finally, he just wastes away.
We’ll assume at this point that Hodr and Nanna finally do get their happily ever after.
The term Pangenic or Pangenesis comes from Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution with trying to explain the origins of life and species.
As it relates to the study of folklore and mythology, the term and idea of Pangenic or Pangenesis connections is problematic and still very pervasive as a lot of scholars and literature try to make connections with various stories and deities; often as there are very similar motifs, concepts and ideas that are very universal.
The Romans of course, are famously known for equating many of their gods with the gods of other cultures, especially those they conquered. Nearly everyone knows of the Greek-Roman counterparts and connections such as Zeus and Jupiter or Ares and Mars. To a lesser known extant, the Romans connected their deities with those of the Egyptian, Norse and even Celtic deities.
The idea of Pangenic deities and myths still continue even today and is something of a disservice and in terms of mythology. When one ethnic group or religion moves into another area, the exiting myths will get overlapped and mixed together. Sometimes it’s easy to see where and when this blending of ideas occurs. Other times, the differences should be acknowledged without trying to force a connection.
Some scholars have taken one look at Nanna in Norse mythology and then see a similar sounding and spelling in Mesopotamian mythology and want to start connecting dots. There is the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the Babylonian Ishtar and then the Phrygian goddess Nana, the mother of the god Attis. Then you add in the Mesopotamian moon god Nanna and people really go all out trying to make connections.
Just accept that there’s a lot of coincidental spellings and pronunciations.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear what Nanna is a goddess of, only that she’s Balder’s wife. As has been observed by other scholars, a lot of the old Norse stories have been lost, especially considering a newer, Christian religion moving into the regions and displacing the older local, pagan worship. Nanna is just one of the many goddesses whose story has been lost to the sands of time and we just don’t know.
Modern Paganism & Wicca
This is where modern paganism trying to reconstruct an older religion will try to extrapolate on the meaning found in Nanna’s name of “woman” or “mother” and “daring one” what she might have been a goddess of. They also look at the scant evident found in the surviving myths.
Being married to Balder, it would be easy to assume that the two held similar and likely complimentary roles.
Love – Given the scant evidence, where Nanna dies of grief for the loss of Balder, she will be identified as a goddess of Devotion and Undying Love, even beyond the grave or in the darkest depths of depression, pain and sorrow.
Mother Goddess – This seems a likely role if we go from the meaning of Nanna as “mother” and that when she dies, both her and Balder will be resurrected after the events of Ragnarök to restart the cosmos all over.
Syno-Deity – Some pagans will adopt Balder’s symbols for Nanna. As Balder is a god of the seasons Spring and Summer along with flowers, so is Nanna.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference to Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. The last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician, and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There are typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus, and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or a demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus are also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer nor Hesiod mentions him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue its true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to God and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Another gift that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, is often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. Calliope, Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophecy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This is the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus’ fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations of how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, and he looks back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would then later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld, and Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize, and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay, or other supernatural beings.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually, Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as to why would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death of Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophecies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come and tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures in Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their descent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Attis & Cybele
This story is one of the major myths involving Cybele and they often include her relationship with Attis, a youthful consort to the goddess. Attis is noted too as being the name of a Phrygian deity. Further, Attis doesn’t become a part of the myth with Cybele until the Roman poet Catullus references him with Cybele as Magna Mater and as the name of the head priest for the Galli. Additionally, pine cones are used as symbols of Attis’ death and rebirth.
Attis – As a Phrygian deity, Attis is the god of vegetation, his death and resurrection is symbolic of the death and rebirth of vegetation and the harvest with each winter and spring. The name Attis in Phyrgia was a common name and one used for priests. In the myths linking Attis with Cybele as her consort; wherever Cybele’s worship spread, Attis’ worship went as well.
Imagery portraying Attis has been found at a number of Greek sites. Whenever Attis is shown with Cybele, he is shown as a younger, lesser deity to her. He is possibly even one of her priestly attendants. During the mid-2nd century B.C.E., various letters from the king of Pergamum to Cybele’s shrine in Pessinos all address the chief priest as “Attis.” So deity or priest tends to be a matter of personal interpretation with the myths of Attis.
Attis was Cybele’s young lover who had devoted himself to the goddess. He had a made a promise that he would always be faithful. As fate would have it, Attis in time fell in love with a nymph by the name of Sagaritis (or Sagaris) and they decided to marry. When Cybele learned of this marriage, she burst in on the marriage ceremony, inflicting Attis with madness and sending the other guests into a panic.
In his maddened state, Attis fled for the mountains. There, he stopped under a pine tree and proceeded to mutilate himself to the point of castrating himself and bleeding to death there beneath the pine tree.
When Cybele found her lover, the young Attis dead, she mourned her actions and deeply regretted them. She pleaded with the god Jupiter to restore Attis to life. Jupiter vowed that that pine tree would remain sacred and like the tree, Attis would live again. The blood that Attis shed is said to have become the first violets.
In the versions of the myths where Maeon is Cybele’s father – Maeon kills Attis, the baby whom he sires after committing incest with his daughter. Cybele manages, in this myth to restore Attis back to life.
Pausanias’ Version – Another story of Attis, this time with Agdistis as another name for Cybele follows much of the same story as previously mentioned. Only now, when the baby, Attis is born, he is left exposed and a ram comes, standing guard over the child. As the baby grew, his beauty became ever more apparent as more than human. Agdistis saw Attis and fell in love with him.
When Attis finally came of age, he was sent to Pessinos, a city in Phrygia to wed the King’s daughter. After the marriage ceremony was completed, Agdistis appeared, causing Attis, driving him mad in her jealously to the point of cutting off his own genitals. The madness was such, it effected other nearby, that even the king cut off his own genitals.
Shocked, Agdistis sought amends for what she had done and begged Zeus to restore Attis to life so that he would be reborn.
Ovid’s Version – In this one, Attis had fallen in love with Cybele who wanted to keep the boy at her shrine as a guardian. She commanded Attis to always be a boy. Attis declared in kind that if he lied, let the lover he cheated be his last.
As happens with these kinds of stories, Attis does cheat with the Nymph Sagaritis (or Sagaris). Her tree is cut down by Cybele, killing her the Nymph. Attis in response goes mad and hallucinates that the roof to his bedroom is collapsing on him. Attis runs towards Mount Dindymus where he calls out for Cybele to save him.
Hacking away at his own body with a sharp stone, Attis continues to cry out to Cybele that she take his blood as punishment and cuts off his genitals as that is what has caused him to cheat on Cybele.
Ultimately, this story of Attis’ self-mutilation and castration is the basis for the Galli, Cybele’s priest to castrate themselves as a show of devotion to the goddess.
Cybele & Dionysus
Similar to the story of Attis & Cybele, is the story of Dionysus & Cybele. The earliest reference to this myth in Greek mythos is around the 1st century B.C.E. in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca.
Like Attis, Cybele also cures Dionysus of his madness. Considering she’s the one who caused Attis’ madness, I would hope she would cure it too.
Both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cult shared many similarities. As foreign deities worshiped among the Greeks, both gods would arrive in chariots drawn by large exotic cats. Dionysus would come in his chariot pulled by tigers whereas Cybele’s chariot was drawn by lions. Both deities would be accompanied to the fanfare of wild, raucous music and a parade of exotic foreigners and lower class citizens of Greek society.
For the Hellenic Greeks, these two gods held wild temperaments that didn’t sit well with many affluent Greeks and were thus, warily worshiped.
Due to the similarities of both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cults, in Athens, by the end of the 1st century B.C.E., the two cults were often combined.
Cybele & Sabazios
Sabazios is the Phrygian version to the Greek Dionysus. Under Greek influence, the name Sabazios is often used as an epithet for Dionysus and the two’s myths have become very intertwined.
Further Greek influences have Cybele equated with Rhea. By Phrygian traditions, Cybele is the mother of Sabazios. When Cybele is equated with Rhea, she is the nurse-maid and tutor to a young Dionysus after his mother Hera rejects him.
Orgia – It is thought that the Orgia, the Orgiastic cult of Dionysos-Sabazios may have originated with Cybele. When Sabazios had been wandering in his madness, he made his way to Cybele in Phrygia where she purified him and taught him the initiation rite for the Orgia. Sabazios is to have received his thyrsus and panther-drawn chariot while he went throughout all of Thrace to spread the Orgia. The Orgia certainly seems to have become associated with the celebrations of Cybele as the Great Mother or Mountain Mother in the writings of Strabo or as Euripides makes mention of in his play Bacchae.
As Nurse-Maid – In a story very similar to Dionysus’ being rejected by his mother Hera, it is Cybele, identified as Rhea and Grandmother to Dionysus who takes up the infant to care for him much like she did her own son Zeus. The god Hermes, tells Cybele how Dionysus will become a god later when he’s grown to manhood. Cybele’s priests the Korybantes use their loud drumming and chanting to drown out the cries of the infant in order to prevent Hera’s wrath from finding him to finish what she had started with trying to kill Dionysus when she cast him out. The story of Dionysus’ youth with Cybele continues with him grabbing lions for the Mother Goddess to hitch up to her chariots and later acquiring a lion-drawn chariot of his own.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
These two were turned into lions in myth by either Cybele or Zeus as punishment for having sex with one of their temples. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
Cybele was also especially noted for being a bee goddess.
Mother Of The Mountain – Goddess Of Mountains And Fortresses
As a goddess of mountains, cities and forts, Cybele’s crown was seen to take the form of a city wall, showing her role as a guardian and protector of Anatolian cities.
There is an inscription of “Matar Kubileya” found at a Phrygian rock shrine dating from the 6th century B.C.E. It is often translated to: “Mother of the Mountain.” It is a name that is consistent with Cybele and a number of other tutelary goddess who are all seen as “mother” and connected to a specific Anatolian mountain or other locations. In this sense, Cybele is seen as a goddess born from stone.
Cybele’s connection and association with hawks, lions and the mountainous regions of Anatolia show her role as a mother of the land in its wild, uninhabited state. She holds the power to rule, moderate or soften the unbridled power and ferocity of nature and to reign it in for the use of civilization.
Idaea – Mountain Goddess & Nymph
Cybele is often connected with Mount Ida in Anatolia where there is an ancient site of worship. Idaea is the name of the local mountain goddess or nymph who resided here. Where many goddess get absorbed into each, the name of one deity, Idaea in this case will become an epithet to the more well-known deity.
Goddess Of Nature And Fertility
As an ancient fertility goddess, Cybele’s worship is believed to have covered from Anatolia to Greece during the Archaic period, roughly 800 to 500 B.C.E and then into the Hellenistic era of 300 to 50 B.C.E.
Lions and sometimes leopards were shown to either side of Cybele to depict her strength.
Cybele is typically seen as a guardian and protector over all of a nature and a goddess of unbridled sex.
Along with Artemis, Cybele is seen as the “Great Huntress” and patron goddess and protector of the Amazons.
Magna Mātēr – The Great Mother
The Romans revered and knew Cyble as Magna Mātēr or the Great Mother, Rome’s protector. They also knew her as Magna Mātēr deorum Idaea, the great Idaean mother of the gods. It is a similar title to the Greek title for Cybele of Mētēr Theon Idaia, Mother of the Gods from Mount Ida. In the early 5th century B.C.E., she was known as Kubelē. In Pindar, she was known as “Mistress Cybele the Mother.” Cybele’s worship among the Greeks saw her easily identified and equated with the Minoan-Greek Goddess Rhea and the grain-goddess Demeter.
As Magna Mātēr, Cybele was symbolized by a throne and lions. She held a frame drum. A bowl used for scrying. A burning torch was also used to symbolize her bull-god husband Attis in his resurrection. For some like Lucretius, Magna Mater represented the world order. Her imagery hold overhead represented the Earth, thought to “hang in the air.” As the mother of all, the lions pulling her chariot represent the offspring’s duty of parental obedience. Magna Mater is seen as un-created and separate from and independent of all of her creations.
Under Imperial Rome, Magna Mater represented Imperial order and Rome’s religious authority throughout its empire. Emperor Augustus, like many of Rome’s leading families, claimed Trojan ancestry and a connection to Magna Mater. His spouse, empress Livia was seen as the earthly equivalent and representation of Magna Mater. Statuary of Magna Mater has Livia’s likeness.
While there are not a lot of documents or myths that survive regarding Cybele, it has been suggested that her Phrygian name of Mātēr indicated a role as a mediator between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, the civilized world and the untamed wilds, the living and the dead. The Imperial Magna Mater protected Rome’s cities and its agriculture. Ovid mentions how barren the earth was before Magna Mater’s arrival. The stories and legend of Magna Mater’s arrival to Rome are used to promote and exemplify its principles and Trojan ancestry.
Megalesia – Festival To Magna Mātēr
Also known as the Megalensia or Megalenses Ludi; under the Roman calendar, Cybele’s Spring festival of Megalesia was celebrated from April 4th to April 10th, a period of six days. This festival celebrated Cybele’s arrival in Rome along with the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. This festival and the whole month of April were celebrated with an air of rejoicing and lavish feasts.
Exactly how the festival was celebrated is uncertain. What is known is that there were many religiously themed plays, games and activities. There are descriptions of mummery, war dancers wielding shields and knives and a lot of drumming and flute playing. As to the games, slaves were not allowed to participate. On the first day of Megalesia, there would be a feast held. These feasts were known for being very lavish and the Roman Senate passed a law limiting the amount that could be spent on these feasts. On April 10th, Cybele’s image would be publicly paraded to the Circus Maximus, chariot races would be held in her honor. A statue dedicated to Magna Mater with her seat on a lion’s back stood at the side of the race track barrier line.
Hilaria – Holy Week
In addition to the Megalesia festival, there is also a week-long festival known as Holy Week that starts from March 15th, also known as the Ides of March. That really gives a new meaning to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he’s told to beware the Ides of March. The entire festival is meant to have an air of celebration for the arrival of Spring and the Vernal Equinox.
The festival itself seems to have been established by Claudius as a means of claiming and honoring Trojan ancestry. As a result, the festival very likely grew and expanded over time as a celebration for the death and resurrection of Attis.
The Reed Entered – Also known as Canna Intrat, from the 15th to the end of the month, there is festival for Cybele and Attis that starts on the 15th or Ides, with Attis’ birth and his being left along the reed bank of the Sangarius river in Phrygia before either shepherds or Cybele find him. People known as Cannophores will carry away the reeds. During this time, there is a nine-day period of abstinence from eating bread, fish, pomegranates, pork, quinces and likely wine. Only milk was allowed to be drunk during this period.
The Tree Enters – Also known as Arbor Intrat, March 22nd marks the date of Attis’ death under a pine tree. It is observed. People known as Dendrophores or “Tree Bearers,” after sacrificing a ram, will cut down a tree and carry it to Magna Mater’s temple for a mourning period of three days.
Tubilustrium – March 23rd, this is an old, archaic holiday for the Roman god Mars. The tree has now been laid to rest in Magna Mater’s temple. Mars’ priest, the Salii will do a traditional beating of their shields accompanied by trumpets and other loud music from the Corybantes. Overall, this is a day of mourning.
The Day of Blood – Also known as Sanguis, Sanguem or Dies Sanguinis March 24th. The rites can only be described as frenzied as mourners and devotees whip or scourge themselves in order to sprinkle the alters and Attis’ effigy with their blood. Some of the rites involve castration and the tree is buried, symbolizing Attis’ placing within his tomb. This day was also to honor Bellona, a war goddess. Her priests were known as the Bellonarii and practiced mutilation along with using hallucinogenic plants.
The Day of Joy – Also known as Hilaria, on the Roman Calendar this marks the Vernal Equinox. It takes place on March 25th and celebrates Attis’ resurrection. It must be noted that is a day of celebration and not the previous mournful tones and rites. I’m also not the only one to have noted a similarity to the Christian association of Jesus’ resurrection.
Day of Rest – Also known as Requietio, March 26th. What can we say? Partying is hard work.
The Washing – Also known as Lavatio, March 27th. This is when Cybele’s sacred stone, the Pessinos’ black meteor is taken from the Palatine temple to the Porta Capena along a stream called Almo. This stream is a tributary to the Tiber river. Here, the stone would be bathed by a priest. The return trip back to the temple would be conducted by torchlight. It’s noted by Ovid as being an innovation by Augustus.
Initium Caiani – March 28th. This particular part of the festival is found on the Calendar of Philocalus. It is likely an initiation ceremony that was held at the Vatican sanctuary for the mysteries of Magna Mater and Attis.
Pine cones are symbols of Cybele and the related myth of Attis. They are believed to have been worn by Cybele’s priests and followers as one of her symbols. As a protective symbol, a pine cone would be affixed to the top of a pole and placed out in vineyards to protect the crops. Pine cones would also be placed at the entrances to homes, gates and other entrances.
A type of hand drum or tambourine, the tympanon was used by the Greeks to denote worship in a foreign cult or religion. Of the foreign deities the Greek adopted, only Cybele is ever shown holding the tympanon. On the cuirass of Ceasar Augustus’ Prima Porta statue, Cybele’s tympanon is shown lying at the goddess Tellus’ feet.
The Trojan War
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas.
The Trojan War was a major and significant war among the Greeks. Many deities got themselves involved. Cybele was one of many such gods to do so. When Prince Aeneas was attacked by Turnus, leading the Rutulians, Cybele prevented Turnus from setting fire to the Trojan fleet by turning all of the ships into nymphs.
Virgil’s Aeneid – As Berecyntian Cybele, she is the mother of Jupiter and the protector of prince Aeneas. Cybele gave the Trojans her sacred tree to use for building their ships. Cybele then pleaded with Jupiter to make the resulting ships indestructible. Aeneas and his men are able to flee Troy, heading for Italy, where Rome would be founded. Once the they arrived in Italy, the ships all turned into sea nymphs or Oceanids.
Yes, you read that correctly. During the early Roman Imperial era, the poet Manilius introduces Cybele into classic Greco-Roman zodiac. It upsets the balance as there’s already twelve zodiac houses represented by a corresponding constellation. Each of which is ruled by a different deity, the Twelve Olympians in Greek and the Di Consentes in Rome. Manilius places Cybele as a co-ruler with Jupiter over Leo the Lion, which is noted for being in direct opposition to Juno who rules Aquarius.
Some modern scholars have taken note of how, as Leo rises over the horizon, that Taurus the Bull sets. Symbolically, this is seen as the lion dominating or defeating the bull. The idea then gets put forth that the celebrations of Megalensia includes this symbolism with lions attacking bulls. As a Spring festival, the date for the celebration of Megalensia is around April 12th when farmers would dig in their vineyards to break up the soil and sow their crops. This would also be when farmers would castrate their cattle and other livestock.
It has been suggested by some scholars that Cybele’s name can be traced to that of Kubaba, a deified queen who ruled during the Kish Dynasty of Sumer. Kubaba was worshipped at Carchemish and would later be Hellenized to the name of Kybebe. Kubaba was also known to the Hittites and Hurrians in the region. There isn’t enough etymological evidence to support this. However the names Kubaba and Matar do seem to have become closely associated. Such as the genital mutilations that are found both within Cybele’s and Kybebe’s cults. Much like many other localized mountain goddesses in Anatolia, who are called “mother” and among many who would become identified with Cybele.
Christianity And The Book Of Revelation
Of interest, is that the author of the Book of Revelations, identified by modern scholars as John of Patmos is likely to have been referring to Cybele when he mentions “the mother of harlots who rides the Beast.”
Christianity – Kept to a nutshell, the early Christians, once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, began to view and regard Cybele’s cult as evil, even demonic. Under Emperor Valentinian II in the 4th century C.E., he officially banned the worship of Cybele and the goddess followers and devotees fell under a lot of hate and persecution. Under the rule of Justinian, objects of worship for Cybele and her temples were destroyed and eventually by the 6th century C.E., Cybele’s cult seems to have vanished.
It has been noted by others how the Basilica of the Vatican is apparently the same exact spot for where Cybele’s Temple once stood and that Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same place where Attis was once worshiped. Some will even go so far as to suggest that revering the Virgin Mary is merely another aspect of worshiping Cybele and many other ancient Mother Goddesses.
Montanism – Christianity – Also known as New Prophecy – Now I do find it fascinating that around 100 C.E. a former Galli priest of Cybele by the name of Montanus formed a Christian sect that worked to oppose Pauline Christianity.
In Pauline Christianity, those who followed the teachings of the Apostle Paul, it held a major influence into the formation of Christianity in terms of scriptural interpretations, cannon and dogma.
Montanus’ sect was considered very heretical to the Catholic Church and would eventually see all of its followers excommunicated.
In brief, Montanus believed himself to be a prophet of god and that women could also be bishops and presbyters. Where much of early Christian theology diminished the power and presence of women within religion, Montanus’ sought to keep it.
It’s also interesting to note a rather prominent example of a Pagan religion that Christianity and former followers of other religions attempting to adopt and add in their beliefs. Like Montanus equating Jesus with Attis and the celebrating of Easter with the resurrection of Jesus during Holy Week, the days between Good Friday and Easter is also the same period that Hilaria, observing and celebrating Attis’ resurrection was held.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Just as Cybele is the Great Mother of the Roman Pantheon, Rhea, her Grecian counterpart is the Great Mother of the Greek Pantheon of Gods. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Cybele with Rhea.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Like Cybele, Rhea can help in easing the pain of childbirth and soothe the pain and difficulties that come with menstruation.
Demeter – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.