Category Archives: Neolithic
Alternate Spelling: Kybele
Other names: Agdistis Cybele Magna Mater, Berecyntia, Brimo, Dindymene, Magna Mater, Mother of the Gods, Kubaba, Matar Kubelē, Kubileya or Kubeleya “Kubeleyan Mother” (Phrygian, translation: “Mountain Mother”), Lydian Kuvava (Turkish Kibele), Κυβέλη, Kybêlê, Kybele, Κυβήβη Kybebe, Κύβελις Kybelis (Greek), Meter Theon, Great Mother
Other Names and Epithets: Mātēr, Mētēr, Mistress Cybele the Mother, Mistress of Animals, Idaea, Isis, Rhea, Demeter, Ops, Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Animals), Mater Deum Magna Idaea, Meter Theon Idaia (“Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida”), Meter Oreie (Mountain Mother), “The Mother of the Gods, the Savior who Hears our Prayers”, “The Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One.” Megalenses ludi
Etymology: ” Mother of the Mountain,” “Cavern-Dweller”
An inscription found on one of Cybele’s Phrygian rock monuments has been translated as mater kubileya, “Mother of the Mountain.” The inscription for matar or “Mother” is found at many other Phrygian sites.
Animal: Bee, Hawks, Lions, essentially all wildlife.
Colors: Brown, Green, Blue
Day of the Week: Saturday
Patron of: Nature, Natural places, Mountains, Caverns, Walls, Fortresses
Plant: Almond, Pine
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Menstruation, Nature, Sex, War, Mother of Life
Symbols: lions, naiskos, tympanon (hand-drum or tambourine), pine cones
Early Greek depictions of Cybele are small votive representations of her rock-cut statues and images found in Phrygia. Cybele is shown standing alone inside a naiskos, which is basically a rock-hewn relief with walls and roof overhead to represent a temple or doorway. She is crowned with a type of tall cylindrical hat called a polos, a long flowing chiton that covers her shoulders and back. Cybele is sometimes shown with lion attendants to either side of her.
Approximately 5th century B.C.E., the Greek sculptor Agoracritos made the official Hellenized version of Cybele in the Athenian agora. This statue shows Cybele sitting on a throne with a lion at her side and holding a tympanon, a type of hand drum that the Greeks used in her cults and worship. In Greece, Cybele would be very closely identified with the Greek’s mother goddess figure of Rhea.
Anatolian & Phrygian Origins
While Cybele is known as the Great Mother in the Roman pantheon, she was originally a mother goddess from Anatolia. She is likely the precursor of a Neolithic goddess in Çatalhöyük (Konya), where a statue of a pregnant goddess that appears to be giving birth is seated on a lion throne was found within a granary.
For the Phrygians, Cybele is the only known goddess and is also likely the state deity. In addition, Cybele was a goddess of caverns, goddess of the Earth in its primitive form and was worshiped on mountain tops. Cybele’s domain was over all the wild creatures of the earth. Phrygian art dating to the 8th century B.C.E. shows Cybele attended by lions, a bird of prey and a small vase for libations or other offerings.
Greek colonists would later adopt Cybele in Asia Minor before bringing her back to the mainland where her worship would spread during the 6th century B.C.E.
In Çatal Hüyük, Turkey, there is a figurine that was found dating back to 8,000 B.C.E. that depicts a Mother Goddess squatting in the process of giving birth and is flanked to either side by two leopards. This figurine is thought to be Cybele in a very early form.
Cumae – The Sybils of this temple were Cybele’s priestess and oracles.
Ionia – In places such as Magnesia and Maeander, where Cybele is worshiped as Dindymene, she held temples.
Pessinus – Located near Mount Dindymus in Phrygia, a temple was built here dedicated to Cybele Dindymene. Legend holds that the Argonauts built this temple. Here, Cybele was represented by a black meteoric iron stone. This same meteorite may have also associated with another mountain deity of Pessinus as Agdistis.
Rome – A temple for Cybele as Magna Mater stood on the slopes of Palatine Hill it overlooked the Circus Maximus and facing another of Cybele’s temples on Aventine. The first temple here was destroyed by fire in 111 B.C.E. and later rebuilt. In Imperial Rome, the temple burned down again and was rebuilt by Augustus, only to get burned again.
During the ground breaking and preparation for Saint Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill, a shrine known as the Phrgianum and dedicated to Magna Mater was found. A motif of Saint Peter is found standing at the site of Cybele’s temple in Rome.
The Roman port of Ostia also boosted a sanctuary to Magna Mater and Attis, commemorating their arrival to Rome. The worship of Cybele brought on the anger of many Christians within the Roman Empire. Especially when Saint Theodre of Amasea, in recanting his beliefs, did so by burning down a temple of Cybele.
Mount Sipylus – A stone carving found here is believed to be the oldest image of Cybele. The carving itself is attributed to the legendary Greek hunter Broteas as having created it. The 2nd century C.E. geographer Rausanias mentions a Magnesian cult to “The Mother of the Gods” having been present.
Cults Of Cybele
The rites for Cybele were secretive and mysterious like many Earth Mother Goddesses such as Demeter and Isis. Cybele’ cult was directed by eunuch priests known as Corybantes or Galli. They were very faithful in conducting their orgiastic rites that were often wild and emotional with lots of ecstatic cries and frenzied, passionate music of flutes, drums and cymbals. In addition, sacrifices were made to Cybele, symbolizing the death and rebirth of her son and consort Attis. Self-castration is said to have taken place in Cybele’s rites. Other later rites were the taurobolium in which a bull was sacrificed and a priest bathing in its blood.
As a mystery cult, not much is known about Cybele’s initiates and worshipers. Stone reliefs show Cybele alongside both young male and female attendants carrying torches and vessels used for purification. Surviving literature describes a joyous sound of abandonment with loud percussions of tympanons, castanets, cymbals and flutes and a lot of frenzied dancing. It has been suggested that the dancing is likely to have been circle-dancing by women.
Worship Among The Greeks
Cybele’s cult was introduced to Greece by returning soldiers from the Trojan War and is noted for having caused a lot of conflicts. It would later be adopted by the Romans who held festivals in Cybele’s honor. The worship of Cybele among the Greeks held various mixed views. Here, her various different aspects were mixed with other goddesses. Notably the goddesses of Gaia, an Earth-goddess, Rhea, a Minoan goddess and the Harvest-Mother goddess of Demeter. The city-state of Athens invoked Cybele as a protector.
In 6th century B.C.E., Herodotus mentions that when Anacharsis returned to Scythia, that his brother the Scythian king had Anacharsis put to death for joining Cybele’s cult.
Athenian tradition holds that sometime around 500 B.C.E, a city metroon was created in order to placate Cybele after she visited a plague upon the city after one of her priests was killed for trying to introduce her cult. It’s thought that this story would explain why a public building would be dedicated to an imported goddess. The earliest source to this story is referenced in the “Hymn To The Mother Of The Gods,” circa 362 C.E. by the Roman emperor Julian. Given Cybele’s wild and forceful nature, her cults were often privately funded rather than publicly funded among the Greeks.
In Greek rites, Cybele was often seen as a foreign and exotic mystery-goddess who rode in a lion-drawn chariot accompanied with wild music, wine and a rather disorderly following; not unlike Dionysus or Bacchus’ Bacchanalias. As a foreign goddess, Cybele was seen as the great goddess of the Eastern World.
The transgender or eunuch priesthood was uniquely Greek. Many of Cybele’s Greek cults held a rite to a divine Phrygian Shepard-consort of Attis. This joint cult of Cybele and Attis was found throughout Magna Graecia, with evidence of this cult in Gaul, modern day Marseilles and Lokroi in southern Italy during the 6th and 7th centuries B.C.E. Following Alexander the Great’s conquests of the known world, wandering devotees to Cybele became common place in Greek literature and social life.
The Greeks associating Cybele with the Minoan goddess, Rhea has led to a number of different male demigods becoming tied into Cybele’s mythology as attendants or guardians for her infant son Zeus, in the cave of his birth.
Within the Grecian cults, these different male demigods acted as the intermediaries, go-between, even messengers for the goddess and her mortal followers through the use of dreams, trances and ecstatic dances and song.
Some of these demigod messengers are:
Korybantes – Or Kouretes, a group of nine armed dancers who are the offspring of the Muse Thalia and the god Apollo. They used drumming and dancing to drown out the cries of an infant Zeus to prevent him from being discovered.
Corybantes – Simply the same group, only this is the Phrygian name for this group of dancers.
Dactyls – A group of magician-smiths who are sometimes the offspring of Rhea or they worked for the god Hephaestus. They were ancient smiths and healers who sprang into being as Rhea went into labor with her son Zeus.
Telchines – An ancient primordial race with dog heads and flippers for hands. They were best known for their metal working. A group of nine Telchines were employed by Rhea to raise her infant son Zeus.
Worship Among The Romans
To the Romans, Cybele was known as Magna Mātēr or “Great Mother.” In the Roman State, Cybele’s cult and worship was adopted after the Sibylline oracle said it would be an important religious factor during Rome’s Second Punic War with Carthage.
The Romans had some dire omens in the way of a meteor shower, failed crops and an impending famine. It should be noted that a second consultation with the Greek oracle at Delphi confirmed to the Romans that adopting Cybele’s cult and worship would be the right way to go in assuring victory.
Cybele’s arrival into Rome is marked by the arrival of the Pessinos’ black meteor stone from the neighboring Roman ally and Kingdom of Pergamum. Further, Roman legend connects the voyage of the meteor stone with a Claudia Quinta who was accused of being unchaste. When the ship carrying Cybele’s sacred stone became stuck on a sand bar in the Tiber River, Claudia prayed to the goddess for help. Proving her innocence, Claudia was able to single-handedly pull and tow the ship free of the sandbar. Shortly after, Rome’s fortunes changed with a successful harvest and their being able to defeat Hannibal, the then leader of Carthage.
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas. Many of Rome’s leading families claimed Trojan ancestry and this made for Cybele’s integration into the Roman culture and pantheon a sort of reunion with a Mother Goddess’ exiled people. Further Romanization of Cybele sees her identified with the goddess Ops, wife of Saturn and the parents of Jupiter.
Rome’s dominance over the Mediterranean and Europe, saw many of Cybele’s cults get Romanized and spread throughout the Empire. Just what the exact nature of Cybele’s cults and worship among the Romans has meant were greatly discussed and disputed in both Greek and Roman literature and even among modern scholars.
It is generally agreed that the addition of Cybele’s consort Attis and her eunuch priests known as Galli or Gallai and all the wild, ecstatic features of her worship from her Greek and Phrygian cults have been largely Romanized. Something the Romans were very good at when adopting the gods of other cultures into their own. Under the rule of Caesar Augustus, he built a large temple to Cybele on the Palatine Hill. The statue of Cybele found within this temple has the likeness of Augustus’ wife, Livia.
Big Three – Cybele’s worship in Rome became so popular that it would become one of the three, major and important cults within Rome. The other cults are the Cult of Isis and Serapis (Osirus) and Mithraism. All three of these cults would persist and last until Rome’s conversion to Christianity as a state religion. Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century C.E., he outlawed all other cults and the church of Magna Mater, Cybele ceased to be and saw heavy persecution and the destruction of her temples.
Castissima Femina – “Purest or Most Virtuous Woman” Claudia Quinta’s connection and involvement with bringing the worship of Cybele to Rome would become more glorified and embellished over the centuries. To the point of forming a small cult. Claudia Quinta would be shown in the dress of a Vestal Virgin in art. Imperial Augustan ideology viewed Claudia as the very ideal of virtuous Roman womanhood.
Criobolium And Taurobolium – While the Greeks may have had no problems with castration for initiation into Cybele’s Cults, the Romans did hold prohibitions to this practice that greatly limited who could be initiated into the cult. Around 160 C.E., it is known that Roman citizen who sought initiation could offer up two forms of animal sacrifice as an alternative to self-castration.
The first, Taurobolium, sacrificed a bull, considered to a potent and expensive offering. The high cost for this sacrifice ensured that only Rome’s highest social class could be initiated. The second, Cribolium, sacrificed a ram, seen as a more inexpensive and thus less potent offering. This sacrifice is more typical of Rome’s poorer social classes.
The Christian apologist, Prudentius gives a description of these sacrifices where a priest stands in a pit under a slatted wooden floor. When the acolytes killed the bull with a sacred spear. The priest will come out from the pit, covered in the bull’s blood, much to the applause of spectators. This is atypical of Roman sacrifices as what is more likely to have happened with a sacrifice is that the blood is carefully collected and offered up to the deity along with the animal’s reproductive organs.
Both the Criobolium and Taurobolium are not linked to any specific religious celebration with Magna Mater, though they clearly have the same symbolism seen with the observance of Hilaria, March’s “Holy Week” that celebrates and honors the death and rebirth of Attis. Later, during Rome’s Imperial era, many of Attis’ initiates come from the deeply religious and wealthy citizens and not necessarily for the worship of Cybele.
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 allowed 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.
Parentage and Family
Dindymene – In Phrygian mythology, she with King Maeon, is the mother of Cybele. Otherwise, the name of Dindymene is sometimes seen as just an alternative name for Cybele.
Maeon – (Also spelt Meion). A King of Phrygia and Lydia, with his wife Dindymene, fathered Cybele.
In this version of the myths, Cybele was left out, exposed on Mount Cybelus to die. However, leopards came and suckled Cybele, allowing her to survive.
Zeus & Gaia – Pausanias identifies Cybele’s parents as being the Phrygian Sky-Gods and Earth-Goddess whom he names as having been Zeus and Gaia.
Attis – A vegetation bull-god. In the very conflicting and varying stories, Attis is both Cybele’s son and consort.
Midas – As in King Midas of the golden touch. He is sometimes shown to be a consort of Cybele. Though he is definitely regarded as a leader to Cybele’s cult.
Cybele is ultimately the mother and grandmother to a good many deities of the Roman Pantheon.
Cronos – When Cybele is identified with Rhea, she is the mother of Alce, Midas and Nicaea.
Gordius – With him, Cybele is the mother of Midas, when he’s not shown as her consort.
Iasion – With him, Cybele is the mother of Corybas (also spelt Korybas). Iasion is the Samothrakian for Cybele’s consort Attis. Corybas is the first of the Korybantes who will later stand guard over the infant Zeus.
Olympos – With him, Cybele is the mother of Alke-Kybele
Sabazios-Dionysos – Some versions of his birth place him as Cybele’s son instead of Hera/Juno’s child.
A Crisis Of Identity
While Cybele has her origins in Anatolian and Phrygian culture and mythology; her being imported and adopted by other cultures in the Mediterranean has led to a good many other goddess being identified with Cybele or seen as alternative names and epithet.
The most notable is that of the Greek Goddess Rhea, who is also a Mother Goddess. Many of her myths have become intertwined with those of Cybele’s over the years.
Other goddess who have been equated and identified with Cybele are the Roman Goddess Ops, the wife of Saturn, the Egyptian goddess Isis, a minor local goddess or nymph Idaea and the Greek goddess Demeter.
Cybele And The Sibyls
Due to the similarity in the how the names sound, there tends to be a lot of associating the Sibyls as potential female priests and oracles for Cybele. While female oracles, the Sibyls could claim patronage to any deity and not necessarily Cybele. Most seem to follow the Greek god Apollo as he is a god of Prophecy.
Many Sibyles would prophesy at holy sites and they were originally at Delphi and Pessinos, following chthonic deities. And yes, Pessinos is where Cybele originated from when the Romans brought her black stone and statue back home. So there just might be a real connection.
Agdistis – Hermaphrodite – The Birth Of Cybele
Anatolian Goddess – Before the drastic changes to her myth, Agdistis had been a benevolent goddess of healing. Accepted for as they are until later changes are made and forced to this goddess as she and many others are absorbed into the larger myth of Cybele and adopted by other cultures, namely Greece and Rome.
When taken as a separate deity from Cybele, Agdistis is of mixed Anatolian, Greek and Roman mythology. They are a hermaphrodite or androgynous being; having both the male and female sexual organs. This dual nature of Agdistis made them symbolic of the wild and uncontrollable nature. This is an aspect that was seen as so threatening to the other gods that they sought to destroy Agdistis. The one explanation found or given is that Agdistis, being a hermaphrodite, held a huge sexual appetite and the gods were unable to handle it. They felt that this being could and should only be one gender or the other and for the gods, it was easier to remove the male sexual organs.
There a lot of ancient inscriptions that plainly and clearly show Agdistis as being separate from Cybele. However, later, Agdistis’ name would become one of Cybele’s many epithets. A common occurrence for many localized gods and goddess of Phrygia as the gods were imported into Greece and then Rome and many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just known by another name.
There are multiple versions of the story for how Agdistis is attacked by the other gods and is castrated, how Attis is born and that Agdistis, now Cybele falls in love with the youth, promising to make him immortal.
How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with is mother, how instead of keeping his vow to Cybele to only follow her, that he falls in love with another and that a jealous, angry Cybele drives Attis and the other guests at a wedding mad. How after, regretting her actions that she pleads to Jupiter/Zeus to restore Attis. One version of the story has both Agdistis and Cybele as separate beings who both fall in love with Attis.
The Greek Version – In this version of the myths, Cybele was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Agdistis. It should be noted, that Attis is very strongly and likely an invention and addition to Cybele’s myth.
As a deity separate from Cybele, Agdistis was a mountain deity found on Mount Dindymus near the city of Pessinus.
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. Or more likely, that she ate an almond. Nana later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby 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.
A slight variation to this story is that while Gaia, as the Great Mother slept on a rock called “Agdo,” the god Zeus raped Gaia and brought about Agdistis birth.
Other variations yet have either Dionysus or Liber who make a potion to put Agdistis to sleep so they can castrate them by tying his genitals to his foot so they’re ripped off when Agdistis stands.
Depending on the version of the story read, there are different accounts to the sequences of events and who is involved, a river nymph or king’s daughter that Attis marries.
It certainly reads as a very conflicting story that will vary by which author relates it. There’s been a good many changes to the story, especially considering how much Attis is a later addition that is largely added-on by the Romans.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Etymology – Swan
Also known as: The Northern Cross, Ornis (Greek “bird”)
The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan is considered one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, particularly during the summer and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
To the Greeks, this constellation was known as Ornis, meaning “bird.” It was later named Cygnus by the Romans who proceeded to adapt several Greek myths to try and explain the name or connection.
While there are many people in Greek mythology who bear the name of Cycnus, the constellation of Cygnus is also associated with several stories. One of the more well known stories is that of the god Zeus and his transformation into a swan to try and seduce Leda or in some variations, Nemesis. Another well known story connected to this constellation is that of the story of Phaethon and his friend Cycnus.
The constellation known as Cygnus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 16th in size. Pseudo-Eratosthenes and Hyginus’ Poetical Astronomy are the earliest sources of Greek astronomy and constellations that make the connection of the story of Zeus and Leda with his transformation into a swan.
Constellations bordering with Cycgnus are: Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta, The best time to spot Cygnus is during the month of September in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many of the older, traditional names for the star in Cygnus such as Albireo, Deneb, Rukh and Sadr clearly point towards a Middle Eastern connection. In Arabia, the constellation was known as: Al Ta’ir al Arduf, “the Flying Eagle.” Other names include Al Ta’ir al Arduf, Al Radif and Al Dajajah “the Hen.”
They clearly saw a bird, sometimes said to be an Eagle or Pigeon, but frequently, as the traditional names point to, a Hen.
The Arabs also have an asterism called Al Fawaris or “the Riders” that’s found within Cygnus.
Chinese Astronomy & Mythology
The constellation of Cygnus lays in the area of the night sky symbolized by The Black Tortoise of the North or Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ. Modern Chinese has adopted the name of tiān é zuò, meaning “the swan constellation.”
The Chinese also know the constellation of Cygnus as Que Qiao, the “magpie bridge.” In the story associated with it, there was a pair of lovers, Niu Lang (a Shepherd) and Zhi Nu (a Weaver) who were separated by the Goddess of Heaven because Zhi Nu is a fairy and due to celestial decrees and mandates, wasn’t allowed to be with a mortal.
When the Goddess learned that the two were secretly married, she took Zhi Nu with her up into the heavens and created a river, represented by the Milky Way in the sky to keep the two separated.
Niu Lang was still determined and took his and Zhi Nu’s two children to Heaven so they could all be together. The Goddess however still forbade the two lovers to be together but on seeing their bitter tears, she relented and allowed that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month the two could be reunited. So once a year, all the magpies in the world come together to form a bridge over the river and help the two lovers unite and see each other. The star Deneb in the story either marks the start of the bridge or represents a fairy who chaperones the two lovers when they meet.
The Qixi Festival, also known as the Qiqiao Festival and Double Seventh Festival and even the Magpie Festival commemorates the joyful reunion of these two lovers. It is a variable holiday held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in China. It is celebrated and observed in a couple other countries like Japan as Tanabata in Korea as Chilseok. It is a festival and holiday comparable to the European celebration of Valentine’s Day.
The legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu is one of four folk legends regarding love and romance. Young girls pray to Zhi Nu for skillful hands for sewing and young newly weds will worship this celestial couple and bid them farewell before moving on in their own marriage and happiness. Now days though, young people tend to favor the Western celebration of Valentine’s Day more then the Qixi Festival though their story is still told and passed on.
In Tonga, Cygnus is known as Tuula-lupe. The Tuamotus called it Fanui-raro or Fanui-tai. The star Deneb is also given the name of Fanui-tai. The star Gamma Cygni is called Fanui-runga. In New Zealand, it is known as Mara-tea. The star Beta Cygni was likely called Whetu-kaupo. In the Society Islands, it is known as Pirae-tea or Taurua-i-te-haapa-raa-manu.
Zeus And Leda
One of the more well known stories connected to the Cygnus constellation is the story of Zeus disguising himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda. In this guise, Zeus behaved much like a swain, which means a lover or wooer.
Leda was the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She’s known for giving birth to two sets of twins; the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. When Leda laid with Zeus, their union produced an egg. Later that night, when she laid with her lawful husband Tyndareus, their union resulted in another egg. The immortal twins Pollux and Helen are said to have been fathered by Zeus while the mortal twins Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus.
Zeus And Nemesis
A variation to the above myth is that instead of Zeus seducing Leda, he seduces Nemesis, the goddess of divine justice and retribution. She was also the goddess of the Pelopennesian cult. Other sources are more clear that Nemesis lived in Rhamnus (located to the North-East of Athens) where this cult may have been. When Zeus went to seduce Nemesis, she changed herself into a variety of different animals before taking the form of a goose to escape him. Zeus continued to pursue Nemesis, each time taking the form of a larger, swifter animal until he turned into a swan before he was able to catch and rape her.
A variation of the story with Nemesis that’s told by Hyginus is that Zeus had turned himself into a swan and pretends to be escaping from an eagle. Nemesis protected the bird, offering sanctuary. It’s after words, when Nemesis has gone to sleep with the swan on her lap that she discovers the truth of who the bird really is.
In either version of the story told, Nemesis ends up laying an egg that she leaves in a swamp. This egg was found either by Hermes or a shepherd who brings it to Leda who keeps the egg in a chest until it hatches. It is from this egg that Helen of Troy is hatched. As a result of his success, Zeus placed an image of the swan up into the heavens.
The great musician Orpheus was said to have been turned into swan after being murdered by a group of Ciconian or Thracian Maenads. In this retelling of the story, Orpheus was placed up into the heavens as a swan next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Cycnus And Phyllius
Another myth connected to this constellation is that of Cycnus and Phyllius. This Cycnus committed suicide and was turned into a swan after he was shamed and refused a tame bull that he demanded from Phyllius.
King Of Kolonai
Among many ancient Greek figures to have the name Cygnus or Cycnus, is a son of Poseidon and as well a king who fought in the Trojan war. He was killed by the hero Achilles on the first day and turned into a swan at his death by his father to save him.
The Death Of Phaethon
This story is perhaps the best known and most associated story to the Cygnus constellation.
Phaethon was the son of Clymene, whose husband was the Egyptian King Merops. Eventually, Clymene told Phaethon that Merops wasn’t his father and that it was the Sun-god Helios (or Apollo). Afterwards, Phaethon would boast and brag to his friends how his real father was a powerful god. Phaethon’s friends teased him and said he was lying. Hurt by this, Phaethon went to his mother Clymene, who then told him to go to the Sun-god and ask him yourself of the truth.
Helios was greatly pleased on seeing his son Phaethon and promised him anything that he asked for in order to prove to his friend who his father is. To Helios’ horror or dismay, Phaethon demanded to drive the Sun-chariot across the sky. Helios tried to dissuade Phaethon, telling him that driving the chariot was too dangerous for mortals, even demigods to drive. Unable to deter Phaethon, Helios relented, granting Phaethon his request.
Phaethon soon found himself loosing control of the chariot as the horses realized that someone new and inexperienced was holding the reigns. Like any such spirited animals who push to see how far they can go and do what they please, the horses took their own lead, racing across the sky towards the eastern horizon and heavens.
The horses’ uncontrolled pathway across the heavens left a scorch mark across the sky that became the Milky Way. The Earth became cold as the Sun-chariot was too high. As the horses continued their uncontrolled trek, they raced down close to the Earth, scorching the land across Africa and creating a great desert.
Making it worse, a frightened Phaethon saw the chariot racing towards a giant scorpion, the Scorpius constellation as the horses continued their uncheck race across the heavens. Pulling wildly on the reigns, Phaethon realized his folly and foolishness to not listen to his father.
To keep the Earth and Heavens from seeing more destruction from the out-of-control chariot, Zeus, the King of the Gods hurled one of his thunderbolts, striking Phaethon in the process. Phaethon’s body fell into the river Eridanus while the horses returned to their stables and back to Helios.
Phaethon’s friend or lover, Cycnus was so distraught over his death, that he went down to the river where he wept bitterly until the god Apollo took pity and turned Cycnus into a swan and eventually the gods decided to place him up into the heavens as the Cygnus constellation.
Another version to this story is that Phaethon and Cycnus were racing their respective chariots across the sky when they got too close to the Sun. Their chariots burned up and they fell to the Earth with Phaethon falling into the river Eridanus. When Cycnus came to and found where his friend was at, he dove in after to try and retrieve his friend’s body for burial and it’s from that action, that the gods or Apollo (sometimes its listed as Zeus) turn Cycnus into a swan and place him up into the heavens due to the level of grief Cycnus held and the gods sympathy and pity for him.
In other slight versions to this story, Cycnus is not only mentioned as a musician, but a King of the Ligurians. When Phaethon fell into the river Eridanus, Cycnus dove into the water, swimming back and forth searching for his friend’s body so he could bury them. Regardless of which variations of the story are retold and mentioned, Cycnus is still turned into a swan by the god Apollo and placed up into the heavens to form the Cygnus or Swan Constellation.
The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both of whom are named Cycnus. They often get confused together, though they both have in common getting killed by the hero Hercules and being turned into swans at their death.
Sacred Bird Of Apollo
While many deities have animals associated with them, Apollo is best known and associated with the swan. It was believed that large flocks of these birds could be found living on the mythical northern river of Eridanos in Hyperborea. These flocks were said to circle Apollo’s holy shrine, singing hymns. Another belief was that the people of Hyperborea, on reaching old age, that instead of dying, would turn into swans after bathing in the bitumen swamp of the river.
This phrase refers to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement. Most often this is used for a person’s last piece of creative work, or performance, particularly in literature, music, or art.
One origin for this phrase is from the story of Cycnus, the friend or lover of Phaeton. The same Phaethon who begged his father Helios to be able to drive the sun chariot across the sky that ended in disaster and his death. While there are a few different versions of this story, it is generally agreed that Cycnus, being in such grief over the death and loss of his friend was changed into a swan by the god Apollo who took pity on him.
In addition, the Mute Swan was believed to sing a song at its death, a song considered to be the sweetest of all bird songs.
Queen Cassiopeia’s Pet
A rather minor note is that some think that Cygnus represents the swan that Queen Cassiopeia kept.
The constellation of Cygnus, along with 18 other constellations of: Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Cygnus, along with the other avian constellations of Aquila and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
The Northern Cross
Among Christians, the constellation of Cygnus is known as the Northern Cross. Many Christians have seen the Cross or Crux that Jesus hung on.
Five stars form this asterism. They are: Deneb (Alpha Cygni), Delta Cygni, Albireo (Beta Cygni), Gienah (Epsilon Cygni) and Sadr (Gamma Cygni) forming the center.
It has been noted by some archaeologists that there are megalithic sites such as those found in Ireland that appear to be aligned with the Cygnus constellation. The Avebury, Wayland Smithy long barrow and Callanish are two such places aligned with either the rising or setting stars within Cygnus.
The swan, like many other birds are seen as symbolic of carrying the souls of the deceased to the after life. Many Palaeolithic sites and cultures have used birds symbolically for death and rebirth. Even the Greeks saw birds as psychopomps or “soul-carriers” and it been a very common belief among several cultures of Europe.
With such a connection to death and rebirth and Cygnus’ shape in the heavens, it would be very easy for early Christians to adapt and adopt this belief to their faith as the Cross.
Stars Of Cygnus
The stars Delta and Epsilon Cygni are used to depicted Cgynus’ wings while the star Deneb depicts the tail and Albireo represents the tip of the swan’s beak.
Alpha Cygni – Also known as Deneb, it is one of the brightest stars seen in the night sky. It is a blue-white supergiant star and 19th in brightness. The name Deneb comes from the Arabic word dhaneb, meaning “tail.” It is from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means: “the tail of the hen.” Within the constellation of Cygnus, it is one corner of the Summer Triangle with the stars Altair found in the constellation Auila and Vega, found in the constellation Lyra.
Beta Cygni – Also known as Albireo, it is generally considered to be the head of the swan and sometimes called “the beak star.” The name Albireo is likely the result of a mistranslation from Arabic into Latin where ab ireo was thought to be the name of a particular herb. The original translated name in Arabic was from the Greek word for bird which is “ornis.” It is a binary star and the fifth brightest star in Cygnus. It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.
Gamma Cygni – Also known as Sadr which comes from the Arabic word for “the chest.” This star is also sometime known as Pectus Gallinae, which is Latin for “the hen’s chest.” It is the star found in the center of the Northern Cross asterism.
Delta Cygni – Also known as Rukh. The name Rukh is Persian in origin and is related to Urkhga in Akkadian. The star is named after the huge, mythical bird of prey known as a Roc that was capable of carrying off elephants. In the year 11,250 C.E. this star will take the position of the North Star for a period of about 400 years.
Epsilon Cygni – Also known as Gienah, this star shares the same traditional name with Gamma Corvi from the Corvus constellation. The name Gienah comes from the Arabic word janah meaning “the wing.”
Kappa Cygni – This star marks the tip of Cygnus’ left wing. Its most notable for a meteor shower, the Kappa Cygnids that take place in August.
North America Nebula
Or NGC 7000 is one of the most well-known nebulae found within the Cgynus constellation as it is visible within the night sky without the aid of any telescopes as a bright patch of the Milky Way. Due to its characteristic shape, which resembles the North American Continent, it is only visible in long-exposure photographs and for those using telescopes; it can be difficult to spot as the surface area for brightness is low. It was first discovered by William Herschel in 1786.
This is the largest star-forming region that has some of the brightest and most massive stars known such as Cygnus OB2-12 and Cygnus OB2.
Also known as NGC 6946; this galaxy is known for the number of supernovae that have been found there. It is a spiral galaxy that borders the edge of Cygnus with the constellation Cepheus. NGC 6946 was discovered on September 9, 1798 by the German-born British astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel. So far nine supernovae have been observed within this galaxy.
There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Cygnus. They are the October Cygnids and the Kappa Cygnids, a minor meteor shower that occurs in August.