Category Archives: Easter
Alternate Spelling: Atys, Ἄττις or Ἄττης (Greek), Atus, Attus, Attês, Attis or Attin
Etymology: Handsome Boy
Attis is the Phrygian god of shepherds and vegetation. The myth for Attis’ death and resurrection is very symbolic for the death and rebirth cycle that crops and plants go through every spring and winter. Attis’ worship is generally thought to have started around 5000 B.C.E. in Phyrgia and lasted up through the Roman era around 400 C.E.
Images portraying Attis has been found at several Greek sites. A wooden throne displaying a relief of Attis gathering pine cones beneath a pine tree was found in 2007 in the ruins of the Herculaneum. Attis’ likeness has been found on Roman era coins and tombstones. A silvery brass Attis kept at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum of Trier shows Attis dressed in Anatolian costume with trousers fastened together down the front of the legs and with toggles along with the Phrygian cap and a shepherd’s staff.
In myth, 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.” The name Attis was very common in Phyrgia and often used for priests. It is likely that portraying Attis as a deity or priest is a matter of personal interpretation in mythology. The worship of Attis and Cybele are very closely linked and wherever Cybele’s worship spread, the worship of Attis wasn’t far behind.
Planet: Jupiter or Venus
Sphere of Influence: Romantic, Nurturing
Parentage and Family
This can get rather confusing as it varies and depends on the versions of the story given. In some versions, he is the son of Agdistis or Calaus.
Other accounts will place the goddess Cybele as his mother.
And yet further accounts will place the river nymph Nana as his mother by way of her becoming impregnated by an almond seed via Agdistis’ castrated genitalia.
According to Pausanias and Hermesianax, Attis is the son of Calaus, a Phrygian King and that Attis was a eunuch since birth.
Agdistis – This one can get messed up as Agdistis is either falling in love with their own son or falling in love with their now, separated male half.
Cybele – This one also gets messed up as it involves incest.
Baby – An unknown baby, Attis fathered them with Cybele, his mother. Later both Attis and the baby would be killed by Cybele’s father.
What’s In A Name?
It should be noted that the name Attis in Phrygia was both a common name as well was a name or title for a priest. The name has been found on a lot of graffiti, dedications of personal monuments and several shrines dedicated to Cybele.
Cult Of Attis
The worship of Attis pretty much goes hand in hand with the worship of Cybele. There were however still some differences between the two no matter how similar they appeared.
As his own separate cult, Attis’ worship started around 1250 B.C.E. in Dindymon, located where modern Murat Dagi of Gediz, Kütahya is at. As a local god, Attis was associated with the Phrygian trade city of Pessinos that was near Mount Agdistis. Foreigners to the area would associate the local god and daemon, Agdistis with that of the Cybele, the Great Mother.
According to Julian the Apostate’s Oratio 5, Cybele’s cult spread from Anatolia to Greece and then to Rome during its Republican era. The cult of Attis found itself reborn as a eunuch consort that accompanied Cybele wherever she went.
Herculaneum – Excavations at the ruins of this place have yielded a wooden throne relief depicting Attis. The excavations at the Herculaneum have suggested that Attis’ cult was popular during the time of the Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E.
Lydian Influences – According to Pausanias’ writings and the poet Hermesianax, Attis’ father is the Phrygian known as Galaus and was born a eunuch. When he was older, Attis moved to Lydia. There, Attis joined in celebrating Cybele with the Lydians in her orgies. After gaining a lot of esteem with Cybele, Zeus grew angry and jealous. As a result, he sent a boar to wreak havoc among the Lydians’ crops. During the boar’s rampage, many Lydians, including Attis were killed. It is thought that this confirmed why the Gauls living in Pessinus at the time refused to eat pork.
Galli – This is the name for Cybele’s priesthood during Imperial Rome. They were eunuch priests who practiced castration as a sign of their devotion to the goddess Cybele. The Galli castrated themselves in service to Cybele as they thought that doing so would give them the powers of prophecy. After castration, they would dress as women, keeping their hair long and adopting female mannerisms and appearances. The Galli also wore a tall cylindrical hat called a polos. It is known the Galli held orgiastic rituals accompanied by loud cries and the loud noise of flutes, drums and cymbals. While there are certainly the male priests who wore women’s clothing, in some regions there were also known to be female priestesses devoted to Cybele.
In Servius’ account, Attis is the founder of this priesthood with the highest ranking Gallus taking the name of Attis. The more junior Galli was known as Battakes. The Galli located at Pessinus were very politically influential among the Roman Senate.
In Rome, the Galli were forbidden citizenship and the rights of inheritance, as they were eunuchs and unable to have children. This was a very stark contrast to many other priests of other Roman gods who did have families and raise children, particularly of the more senior priests.
The Galli are thought to have castrated themselves in keeping with the myth of Attis where he castrates a king for their unwanted sexual advances and gets castrated in turn by the dying king. Cybele’s priest would have found Attis at the base of a pine tree where he dies and they proceed to bury him. In memory of Atti’s passing, the priests are believed to have emasculated themselves and added him to the celebrations and rites for the goddess Cybele. In Hellenistic Greek, a poet refers to Cybele’s priests as Gallai, a feminine form of the name. The Roman poet Catullus refers to Attis in the masculine form of his name until he is castrated. Catullus then refers to Attis in the feminine form of his name thereafter. Different Roman sources refer to the Galli by a third gender of medium genus or tertium sexus when mentioning them.
During the Megalesia festival, the Galli were permitted to leave their temple under Cybele’s law and go out into the streets begging for money. The standard of dress that the Galli wore, marked them as outsiders to the Roman people. Despite their effeminate dress and mannerisms, the Galli were considered sacred and inviolate as they were part of a state Cult. The Roman prohibitions of castration made the Galli a clear image of curiosity and scorn. The Galli were a constant presence within Roman cities even into Rome’s Christian era.
Attis & Agdistis
We should start a bit from the beginning to give some background to Attis’ relationship to Agdistis.
Agdistis was a hermaphrodite, whom the other deities of Mount Olympus couldn’t handle the huge sexual appetite that a being like Agdistis supposedly has.
Their solution? Make Agdistis single gender like the other gods.
Dionysus or Liber made a potion that they mixed in with Agdistis’ drink so that they would pass out, falling asleep. Dionysus then tied Agdistis’ genitals to a tree or sometimes their own foot. This way, when Agdistis jumped up from their sleep, they rip off their own genitals.
From Agdistis’ spilled blood that hit the earth, an almond tree is to have sprung up. The nymph Nana, the daughter of the river god Sangarius is said to have picked some of the almonds and she either eats them or when laying them on her lap, becomes pregnant and gives birth to the god Attis.
The story continues, that when Attis grew up, he was considered extremely handsome and Agdistis fell in love with him. Their own child and in many ways, just creepy. Attis’ adoptive relatives had plans for the youth to marry the daughter of the King of Pessinus. Other, slight variations to this story have the King punishing Attis with marriage to his daughter for the incestuous affair with his mother.
In either event, when the two are making their marriage vows and ceremony, Agdistis appears and causes all of the wedding guests to become made. Both Attis and the King wind up castrating themselves. The Princess cuts off her own breasts. As a result of the self-inflicted wounds, Attis dies and a suddenly grieving Agdistis pleads with Zeus to restore Attis to life. Zeus intercedes with the promise that Attis won’t die and will be reborn.
Incidentally, a hill or mountain by the same name of Agdistis in Phrygia is where Attis is believed to have been buried.
Other variations to this story have both Agdistis and the goddess Cybele falling in love with Attis.
The Roman Version – In one version of the myths, Cybele, known as Agdistis is thought to have been a hermaphrodite, having been born of the earth where Jupiter’s sperm fell. The gods castrated Agdistis who then becomes the goddess Cybele. Where the severed pieces of Agdistis’ manhood fell, an almond tree grew. The fruit of this tree impregnated the nymph Nana when she placed an almond on her womb. She later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby Attis was discovered and saved by shepherds. Attis would grow up to become Cybele’s lover.
Pausanias’ Version – Pausanias identifies the Phrygian Sky-God and Earth-Goddess as being Zeus and Gaia.
In Pausanias’ version of the story, while sleeping, Zeus had some of his sperm fall on the ground. This of course created a Daimon that was hermaphroditic having the sexual organs for both male and female. This Daimon would be called Agdistis, another name for Cybele. The other gods feared Agdistis and cut off the male organs. This proceeded to create an almond tree. The daughter of the river Saggarios then took the almond fruit and held it to her bosom where it vanished. The daughter would find later that she was pregnant and give birth to Attis.
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. 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, pinecones are used as symbols of Attis’ death and rebirth.
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.
Attis & Sagaritis
Following much of the virgin birth where the nymph Nana swallows an almond seed, shortly after Attis’ birth, she abandons him and he is reared by a goat. And like the other versions, when Attis grows up, either Agdistis or Cybele fall in love with their own son and missing half. This time, being the unfaithful youth that he is, Attis falls in love with the nymph Sagritis. The goddess (either Agdistis or Cybele) drives him mad so that he castrates himself and dies. Attis is subsequently restored to life and goes back to either Agdistis or Cybele.
Sometimes this version of the story, the goddess turns Attis into a pine tree. Other versions will hold that Attis fathered a child with his own mother Cybele and that her father kills both Attis and the baby. Then Cybele will go and restore Attis to life.
Yet again, another version has Agdistis breaking in on the wedding celebrations of Attis and Sagaritis with the result that Attis castrated himself and his bride died from self-inflicted wounds. Some say that the castration was not self-inflicted but resulted from an attack by a wild boar.
Suffice to say, there a number of variatons to Attis’ story with either Agdistis and Cybele and whom he ends up cheating on them with or planning to marry instead.
Poor guy can’t get a break not wanting to have incest with his own mother and marry someone else of his own choosing.
Attis & Adonis
Because of the similarities in their myths, both are youth deities of youth and fertility who die and are reborn every year, Attis is often equated as being the same deity as Adonis.
The myths for both are slightly different, though it could explain the Lydian connection of the boar. Adonis was a favorite of both Aphrodite and Persephone. The god Zeus decreed that Adonis would spend the winter months in the underworld with Persephone and the summer months with Aphrodite. One version of Adonis’ myth has him killed by a boar after he had ventured into Artemis’ domain.
Attis & Greek Influences
Because there’s so many variations to Attis’ story, I’ll note here that for the Greeks, they identified Attis with their Iasion as a consort of the Great Mother in their Samothracian Mysteries. Too, the story of Aphrodite’s love for Ankhises on Mount Ida appears to have influenced the story of Attis’ relationship with Cybele.
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.
Attis & Easter
While Hilaria is week-long celebration of Spring that honors the death and resurrection of Attis, many have noted the similarities between Attis and that of Easter that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus.
While Easter now days is a movable feast or holiday that tends to occur between March 22nd and April 25th depending on when the astronomical full moon is. By itself, Easter is a celebration that borrows from the Jewish Passover. Certainly the Christian Holy Week observed the week before Easter seems to line up with that of the ancient celebration of Hilaria.
There are a number of different resurrection deities such as Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus and Orpheus who can all claim influence on the celebration of Easter, especially with the timing of the Spring Equinox and many ancient religions influencing each other and adding on as the times change.
Miraculous Virgin Birth And Born On December 25th!
As previously mentioned before for the birth of Attis in a virgin birth to the nymph Nana or Sagaritis depending on the version of the myth being retold. Attis isn’t the first demigod or deity to born of a virgin birth.
Other gods who have also been the result of miraculous virgin births are: Horus, Osiris, and Attis (all before 1,000 B.C.E.) and Mithra, Heracles, Dionysus, Tammuz, Adonis along with a number of others (all before 200 B.C.E.)
It’s rather interesting to note the common motif this has in mythology and how eventually even in Christianity, there is the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25th, also born to a virgin. The dates of December 25th (the Winter Solstice, or close to it) and March 25th (the Spring Equinox, again close to it) make a lot of sense for the celebration of Life & Death, Vegetation, Sun and Resurrected Deities.
Regarding virgin births, I found an interesting article by D.M. Murdock in their “Attis: Born of a Virgin on December 25th, Crucified and Resurrected after Three Days” in which they note that the scholarly term to describe a virgin birth is the word: “parthenogenesis” and that many goddesses were referred to as “Parthenos,” the Greek word meaning “virgin.”
Quite the interesting point.
I can only point to my observations of many ancient religions that build and add upon each other as one religion becomes more prominent or one civilization and culture falls by the wayside to the sands of time and history.
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 crop. Pine cones would also be placed at the entrances to homes, gates and other entrances.
A wooden throne was found in the Herculaneum ruins in 2007 with a relief of Attis under a pine tree as he gathers pine cones.