Category Archives: Womanhood
Etymology: Kore – “The Maiden” or “The Girl”, Persephone – pherein phonon, “to bring (or cause) death”, Destroy-Slay
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Περσεφόνη, Kore, Core, Cora, Nestis, Persephonê, Persephneia (Homeric), Persephoneiê, Periphona, Persephassa, Persephatta, Phersephassa, Pherepaha, Phersephatta, Pherrephatta, Juno Inferna, Auerna, and Stygia
Epithets: Goddess of the Underworld, Queen of the Underworld
Persephone has a number of epithets that show her dual role as a chthonic and vegetation goddess. In other words, a life and death goddess. The poetic names for Persephone display her role as a Queen of the Underworld with the power to bring forth life and to take it away back to the earth. Persephone’s name of Kore, shows her role as a vegetation goddess in Arcadia where she was worshiped as Despoinia, an ancient chthonic goddess.
As an Underworld goddess, Persephone is given euphemistic, friendly names as some people were afraid to draw her attention to them. It’s possible that names are also the names of an original, local goddess. Some of these names are: Despoina (Dems-potnia), “the Mistress” in Arcadia. This name means: “Mistress of the House.”
Other names are: Aristi Cthnia, “the Best Chthonic,” Hagne, “Pure,” this is the original name of a goddess of springs in Messenia. Melinda or Melinoia (from meli “Honey”) in her role as the wife of Hades in Hermione, the names: Melivial and Melitodes. “the Pure One”, “the Maiden,” and “the Venerable One” to give a few others.
The Orphic Hymn to Persephone identifies her as Praxidike, the Subterranean Queen, the Eumenides’ source or mother, fair-haired, whose frame proceeds from Zeus’ ineffable and secret seeds.”
In her role as a vegetation goddess, she was called: Kore, “the Maiden,” Kore Soteira, “the Savior Maiden” in Megalopolis, Neotera, “the Younger” in Eleusis, Kore of Demeter Hagne in Homeric Hymns and Kore Memagmeni, “the Mixed Daughter” or bread.
With her mother Demeter, they were called: The Goddesses, often as “the older” and “the younger” in Eleusis. Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, The Thesmophoroi or “the legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses, The two Demeters, The two Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia and Karpophoroi or “the bringers of fruit” in Tegea, Arcadia.
Persephone is known as the Queen of the Underworld and wife to Hades. She is best known for the story of her abduction by Hades from her mother Demeter and being brought down to the Underworld to marry him for the Greek explanation and story for the origin of the seasons.
Month: January, May
Patron of: the Underworld, Spring, Flowers, Vegetation
Plant: Flowers, Pomegranate, Seeds of Grain
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, New Growth
Symbols: Cornucopia, Torch
Early Greek Depictions
The earliest depictions of a goddess that can be identified with Persephone show her growing up out of the ground. This image is found on a plate from the Old-Palace period in Phaistos. This goddess is plant-like in appearance and she is surrounded by dancing girls and blossoming flowers. In Minoan ring of Isopata, there is a similar image of this plant-like goddess.
In Classical Greek art, Persephone is typically shown wearing a robe and carrying a sheaf of grain. Sometimes she is shown carrying a scepter and a small box. More often though, Persephone is shown being carried off to the Underworld by Hades. When Persephone is shown with her mother, it is Demeter who often carries the scepter and sheaf of grain. Persephone is then shown holding a four-tipped torch, the kind often used for the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Sometimes, Persephone is shown holding a pomegranate or even just a pomegranate seed, thus linking her to her marriage with Hades and the Underworld. Another symbol that Persephone could be shown with is a cornucopia or horn of plenty to represent her role as a fertility deity.
Grecian poet Homer describes Persephone as being a formidable, venerable and majestic princess of the underworld. Persephone would put into effect the curses of men onto the souls of the dead.
What’s In A Name
There are serveral different names that have been given for Persephone. In a Mycenean Greek or Linear B inscription tablet dating from 1400 to 1200 B.C.E., the name Preswa has been identified a Persa, the daughter of Oceanus with speculation that this could be Persephone.
In the Ionic (think Epic) Greek literature, Persephone is the name used to identify her. The Homeric poems uses the spelling of Persephneia. In Plato’s Cratylus, she is known as Pherepaha as “she is wise and touches that which is in motion.” With other Grecian dialects, the names of Periphona, Persephassa, Persephatta, Phersephassa and Kore have been used. All of these variations to spelling and even pronunciation, have suggested the idea that Persephone may originated before Greek culture did.
The name Persephatta has been thoughted to translate to: “female thresher of grain.” With “perso-“ being connected to the Sanskrit word “parsa” meaning: “sheaf of grain.” The second part of the name comes from a Proto-Indo European word meaning: “to strike.”
Nestis – There is a Classical period text attributed to Empedocles, who lived from 490 to 430 B.C.E. In this text, Empedocles is describing the correspondence between four gods and the classical elements of earth, wind, fire and water. The name Nestis, for water, is used as a euphemism as Persephone’s name is taboo.
She who must not be named. That makes sense as Persephone is a Queen of the Dead and you didn’t want to unnecessarily attract her attention. Given the taboo to Persephone’s name, she would also be called Kore or “the maiden.”
Though, given the text: “Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.” I see that Hades gets mentioned by name. Given Persephone’s much older lineage, she must not have been a goddess whose name was taken lightly.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all of ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
According to Homer, Groves sacred to Persephone were found on the far western edges of the earth, leading to the lower or Underworld. These Groves were known as the House of Persephone.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Elesusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted and Dememter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Parentage and Family
It is generally given and accepted that the parents of Persephone are Zeus and Demeter.
Zeus and Styx – Apollodorus is who lists these two deities as being Persephone’s parents. In the rest of Apollodorus’ accounts, he gives story of Demeter being Persephone’s mother.
In the Arcadian mysteries and worship, Persephone-Kore, known there as Despoina, is the daughter of Poseidon Hippios and Demeter. She is then believed to have been raised by the Titan Anytus.
I would also note that at this time, despite her parentage, Persephone is not considered one of the twelve Olympian gods.
Hades, god of the Underworld, also her Uncle.
Zeus, In the Orphic tradition, there is a story of Zeus seducing his daughter.
The direct siblings of Persephone are: Aeacus, Amphitheus I, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Arion, Artemis, Athena, Chrysothemis, Despoina, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Eubuleus, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Philomelus, Plutus, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses and the Moirai
In the Orphic tradition, Persephone with Zeus is the mother of Dionysus, Iacchus, Melinoe and Zagreus.
By Hades, Persephone is also the mother of the Furies or Erinyes.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone.
It seems prudent that this story gets mentioned first. When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be a something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Stockholm Syndrome – This is when a prisoner or someone being abused comes to identify with their captor, to the point of identifying with them and possibly helping them.
After my research into Persephone, the views of Persephone coming to just accept her fate or where Hades tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed, so she’s forced to come down to the Underworld part of the year don’t sit well with me.
It’s abusive and greatly diminishes Persephone’s agency to have versions of the stories where Zeus and Hades (or just Hades) conspire to have her abducted. That’s forced marriage, no one likes it. Plus, when you compare Persephone’s story to Hebe’s story with coming of age and marrying, they’re inconsistent.
Once Kore has married Hades, she changes her name to Persephone. This is used to signify Kore transitioning to being an adult. If this happened with other gods and goddesses, I’d say this is cultural. Just Kore to Persephone, no one else that I have researched so far in Greek Mythology.
The only other example I have is that of Hebe when she marries Hercules once she’s considered old enough. Unlike Kore/Persephone, Hebe never changes her name. The Eleusinian Mysteries do predate Grecian Culture. So maybe the name change is a remnant of that. Or trying to combine different local deities under one name.
The change of names definitely notes a change to Kore’s function with the Greek interpretation of the myths. She is no longer strictly a fertility goddess, she is now also Queen of the Underworld, ruling alongside Hades. That Kore/Persephone returns part of the year, makes her a goddess of life and death, resurrection deity like other deities such as Attis, Jesus, Osiris, Minoan Crete among others.
Knowing now that Persephone is an ancient chthonic goddess whose worship predates the Greeks, it shows strongly the influence of the Greeks and a more patriarchal religion imposing their views and versions on these stories.
After all, we have how many male dominated stories among the Grecian stories? How many people perceive the Greek pantheon being male dominated? No wonder Demeter is angry and no wonder we have so many stories where Hera takes out her frustrations on Zeus’ children.
You said earlier that Persephone is a chthonic goddess? Yes, I did, I was getting a bit ahead of myself there.
Now that we got the main story for Persephone out of the way, it’s easier to get into the rest of Persephone’s aspects as an ancient goddess who predates the Greeks and not just merely the daughter of Demeter, who gets married off to Hades against her will.
As said, an ancient chthonic deity worshiped by many agriculture cultures in ancient Greece. In this role, Persephone would receive the souls of the dead down into the earth. In return, Persephone would cause the fertility of the earth for there to be new growth.
Queen Of The Underworld – She Who Must Not Be Named
There is a tradition in Greek beliefs not to speak Persephone’s name. This dates to the Arcadian beliefs where Persephone is equated with another deity, Despoina who’s name could not be spoken except to those who had been initiated. As a goddess of death, Persephone is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Styx. Homer gave description of Persephone as capable of carrying out the curses of men upon the souls of the dead. In the Orphic traditions, Dionysus and Melinoe are said to be the children of Zeus and Persephone.
Goddess Of Fertility & Springtime
One of Persephone’s important roles is that of a fertility goddess. The very myth and story of Persephone’s abduction is the basis for the explanation of the annual growth of vegetation in spring and its subsequent dying in the fall. Her myth is comparable to other, often male gods of life and rebirth myths such as Attis, Adonis and Osiris.
Agriculture is an important aspect of life, for without a bountiful harvest, it can spell disaster come winter time. The Eleusinian mysteries emphasized this importance with Persephone’s return every year, that there would be the promise of new life and growth. A sort of immortality.
It’s unfortunate that this important aspect of Persephone seems to have been forgotten and overlooked, oftentimes simply relegating her to the of Hade’s wife and Queen of the Underworld.
Though perhaps it makes sense that in her dual role of Fertility goddess and Queen of the Underworld, where she is responsible for putting forth new life and growth everything spring and then come fall, it is destroyed with her departure back to the Underworld.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
The more simplified Greek influences on Persephone’s story greatly diminish her role, reducing her to an almost non-person status who gets no say in what happens to her. She just goes with the flow, unable to change her fate. Ultimately, what we get, a watered-down version that is used by the Greeks to explain the changes of the seasons from Spring to Winter and back.
When you understand Persephone’s role as a fertility goddess, this isn’t Demeter in a mood, sad or angry that her daughter isn’t there and refuses to allow anything to grow. Doing it out of spite because her daughter married Hades and she’s mad with Zeus. As a fertility goddess, nothing can grow on the earth if Persephone isn’t there. Demeter knew this, the other gods, especially Zeus and Hades didn’t listen.
By assigning Persephone’s role as a fertility goddess to her mother Demeter, the story that is then told and passed on, makes it seem as if Demeter is the one acting out of spite and grief towards Zeus to neglect her duties or outright as a means of blackmail, to allow anything to grow on the earth until she gets her way. That is, the return of her daughter Persephone.
With that understanding, Zeus than, by allowing Hades to marry Kore, created the problem of winter. Not because Demeter is depressed and vengeful, refusing to allow anything to grow, but because without Kore, nothing can grow. Sure, Demeter is depressed. Sure, all children grow up and leave home. It would explain Hecate getting involved. The world above needs you as much as the underworld
Remembering Persephone’s dual role as a fertility goddess and a chthonic goddess, now her descent to the underworld and the subsequent winter makes sense. Winter becomes a fallow period in which the earth is asleep and plant life is dormant. It won’t be forever, for come Spring again, when Persephone returns, a new season of growth begins again.
Nearly all versions of Kore/Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld and her return have being tricked into or choosing to some pomegranate seeds.
Sometimes the number of seeds eaten seems to matter as that represents the number of months in the year that Persephone must return and stay in the Underworld. So, mentioning three to four seeds tend to represent the winter months in which she is with Hades.
In ancient mythology, to eat the food of one’s captor meant that one would have to return to that captor or country, especially anything from the Otherworld, Faerie or the Underworld. Persephone is doomed to return to the Underworld for a part of the year. The other part, she is allowed to remain with her mother, Demeter.
Remember, the seeds themselves are merely symbolic. Persephone in her original role is a chthonic deity and would have returned to the living world and back to the Underworld as part of her seasonal traveling in her role as a fertility goddess.
As a symbol, the pomegranate seeds, under the Greek versions of the myth are looking to explain the seasonal cycle of the year and why it is that Persephone must return for a part of the year to her husband Hades.
Touching back on what I commented earlier about Altered States of Minds and Stockholm Syndrome, continuing a narrative of Persephone being tricked into or choosing to eat the seeds seems to perpetuate an abusive ideal of taking away her agency.
Either an abusive husband who forced himself on her, rape. Or an overbearing mother who doesn’t want to let her little girl go and will throw a tantrum refusing to allow anything to grow if Persephone isn’t with her. Then Persephone, even if she’s but I want to stay with Hades, mom’s willing to starve the entire world for her pettiness. This interpretation just doesn’t work for me.
I have to look at ancient chthonic goddess who’s going to travel back and forth anyways. As she’s a goddess of the Underworld and Hades is also a god of the Underworld, they are a perfect match in heaven…. Well the Underworld and the pomegranates were the food of choice to join in holy matrimony. No forced coercion.
Renewal Of The Earth & Soul – Another bit of commentary I came across is that by Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds, a flowering plant, it symbolizes that she would return in Spring just as all flowers bloom at this time. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, this speaks for the renewal of the soul.
Persephone & Minthe
For being a rather important deity, Persephone doesn’t have too many stories regarding her as she seems to be relegated to being little more than Hades wife. So where Hera often took complaint to Zeus’ many lovers and affairs, Persephone only has one such story.
That would be with the nymph, Minthe who may have been a mistress or lover of Hades before he abducted Persephone. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone took exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turned the nymph into a plant of the same name.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
A slight variation to this story has Demeter being the one to avenge her daughter’s honor and be the one to change Minthe into the plant of the same name.
If we go by the Greek legends and stories, Persephone wasn’t always so loyal with Hades. She did take Adonis and Hermes as lovers at different points. Granted nothing came of these affairs.
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Persephone & Zeus
Sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G…. this is a story from the Orphic tradition. Zeus (yes, her father) comes and seduces Persephone in the guise of a serpent. From this union, she bares a son, Zagreus. Zeus put his son up on the throne of heaven only to have him attacked and torn apart by the Titans.
Zagreus’ heart is recovered, and the young god is reborn through Semele to become the god Dionysus or Sabazius. This is to be a second Dionysus and not to be confused with each other.
Another goddess, Melinoe is also reputed to have been born from the union of Persephone and Zeus.
Persephone & Adonis
In this story, both Aphrodite and Persephone fell in love with the same mortal named Adonis. Naturally he is a handsome youth and neither goddess could agree as to who deserved him more. Zeus took the matter into his own hands and divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend on third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis came to love Aphrodite more. When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was transformed into the anemone flower.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the story the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice from the dead. Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allows him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Persephone & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him. Before dying, Sisyphus had told his wife to just throw his body to be thrown out into a public square where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Persephone into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Persephone & Alcestis
Which takes us to Alcestis, married to King Admetos. He didn’t want to die either.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Alcestis can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
I always thought it was Prometheus who did this. There’s a rather obscure myth in which Persephone is credited with the creation of man or humankind using clay. There was then a dispute among the gods over who should get to claim humans. An agreement came with the god Cronus presiding as judge, that while living, humans would be subjects of Zeus (who initially gave the clay figures life and controls their fate) and Gaia (who provided the clay in the first place) and when they died, they would go to the Underworld to be with Persephone as she came up with the idea to begin with.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus. In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules freed both Theseus and Pirithous.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens Coronides, the daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
In New Age and Wiccan practices, Persephone is often seen as the Maiden aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Demeter representing the Mother and Hecate the Crone.
Proserpina – Roman Goddess
Among the ancient Romans, Persephone is known as Proserpina. Her mother is said to be the goddess Ceres. The Romans first heard of Persephone from the Aeolian and Dorian cities in Magna Graecia. It’s an error on the part of the Roman’s, believing the name Proserpine to be derived from the Latin word proserpere, meaning: “to shoot or creep forth” and is a verb related to the germination of plants.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.
Protector Of Marriage
In Locri, Proserpina is the protector of marriage. This role is usually Hera’s domain. There are votive plaques in Locri that show Persephone’s abduction and her marriage to Hades, serving as a symbol of the marital state. The children of Locri were dedicated to Proserpina and maidens would bring their peplos to be blessed before getting married.
Proserpina And Psyche
This story is from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a second century Roman novel. In it, Venus (Aphrodite) forces Psyche to perform a task for her. Psyche is instructed to deliver a box from Venus down to the Underworld, to Proserpina. It seems simple enough that Venus wants some beauty cream from Proserpina, enough for one day so she can dress up for the Deities’ Theatre later that evening. Except this task is just one of many harsh tasks that Venus has Psyche perform.
Off to the Underworld she goes, a talking tower informs Psyche how to gain entrance. First, she has to offer a cake to Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the gates of the Underworld. That done, she will be welcomed readily enough by Proserpina who will invite her to sit on a soft cushion and enjoy a feast. This she, Psyche must not do, she must instead sit on the ground and ask for some course bread. If she does that, Psyche can then tell Proserpina what she is there for. Once she has what she seeks, Psyche is to come straight back, giving the last cake to Cerberus so she can leave the Underworld. The final instructions are, that Psyche is not to look within the box. She must retrace her steps back to Venus straight away.
Following the instructions, Psyche is able to get the box filled with beauty cream to bring back to Venus. The return trip back up to the Living World goes smoothly enough. Only now, past the seeming difficult parts of the journey, curiosity gets the better of Psyche and she decides to open the box, reasoning that she can take a drop for herself to look even more beautiful for her lover, Eros.
When you get instructions from the Otherworldly Guides and Deities, it’s best to heed them. As soon as Psyche opened the box, to her surprise it’s filled with the stygian sleep of Pluto. The sleep of death and it at once envelops her. Psyche’s limbs go rigid and she falls to the earth, stiff as a corpse laying there. Luckily for her, Eros finds Psyche and wipes the sleep off her and restores it to the box.
Proserpina And Euphemea
When the nymph Euphemea stopped worshiping Diana, the goddess struck the nymph full of arrows. At the very last, Proserpina snatched her up, still alive to take down to the Underworld.
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: Antaea, 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, Pessinuntica (Phrygian – “Mother of the Gods.”)
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.
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.