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Tales beyond belief

Discover the legends, myths and religious beliefs surrounding Cybele, the exotic Roman fertility goddess who personified Mother Earth. The worship of Cybele was renown for its bloody and orgiastic ceremonies performed by her transgender, eunuch priests called the Galli. Cybele was introduced into Greece by its first colonists from Phrygia, in Asia Minor and was worshipped in Greece under the name of Rhea who was identified with Ops, the goddess of plenty.

Cybele was also worshipped by the Romans as Magna-Mater or Mater-Deorum. Cybele was represented as a matron crowned with a high, cylindrical hat, seated in a chariot drawn by lions. Additional information about ancient gods is also available via:

Cybele, the Roman goddess of fertility
In Rome, Cybele was known as Magna Mater ("Great Mother"). In the Punic Wars, the Roman commander Scipio Africanus, on the advice from the Sibylline Books (Libri Sibyllini), introduced the goddess Cybele from Pessinos and estalished her worship to Rome. As a  goddess of fertility she personified the earth and its abundant benefits, and was regarded as the Great Mother and unceasing producer of all plant life. She was also believed to exercise unbounded sway over the animal world including wild animals, especially the lion. Her exotic cult also introduced the masochistic and orgiastic rites (similar to those of Bellona, the goddess of war) performed by priests. Cybele is usually represented in art wearing a polos (a high, cylindrical hat) and seated on a throne, with lions crouching at her feet. Cybele is sometimes depicted sitting in a chariot, drawn by lions. The symbol of Cybele was the Pine Cone.

Ancient Mythology - Cybele and Attis
Some of the rituals performed by the priests of Cybele related to the ancient myths about the goddess, in particular the Myth of Cybele and Attis. According to ancient mythology, Cybele discovered that her handsome and youthful lover called Attis had been unfaithful to her and planned to marry a nymph called Sagaris. In an uncontrollable fit of anger, jealousy, rage and frenzy Cybele burst into the wedding feast. A panic seized the guests, and a terrified Attis, became afflicted with a wild, temporary madness and fled to the mountains. Attis fell under a pine tree and inflicted terrible mutilations by slashing himself in his madness. He bled to death under the pine tree. Cybele had made him go mad and mutilate himself and bitterly regretted her actions. Cybele mourned her loss and Jupiter promised her that the pine tree would remain sacred forever. The practise of self-mutilations was adopted by the priests of Cybele, the notorious Galli.

The Priests of Cybele - The Gallus (plural Galli) aka the Corybantes
The eunuch priests of Cybele were called the Gallus (pl. Galli) who practised a variety of masochistic rituals and ceremonies. In 205 BCE the goddess Cybele was adopted by the Romans, imported to Rome from Phrygia (part of Asia Minor, now called Turkey). Her priests, the Galli, and their practises were imported with her. In Greece the Galli of Cybele were also known as Corybantes.

The cult of Cybele also introduced the masochistic and orgiastic rites that were performed by her priests. The notorious transgender Galli were known for their self inflicted castrations, loud music, use of hallucinogenic plants and frenetic dancing. Roman citizens were forbidden to become Galli priests, join in the frenzied celebrations or undergo ritual castration.

The Galli priests of Cybele practised transgenderism and made every effort to appear and behave as women. Their linen and silk clothes were a combination of fashionable feminine and priestly dress. They wore their hair long which was arranged in elaborate hairstyles that were complimented by various wreaths, ribbons and other adornments. They also wore the high, cylindrical hat called the polos. The Galli adopted female mannerisms and speech patterns and applied an extensive range of cosmetics to enhance their feminine appearance. The Galli participated in orgiastic rituals and ceremonies accompanied by loud, ecstatic cries and the frenzied music of flutes, drums, and cymbals.

Re-enactment of the Myth of Cybele and Attis
During the festival in honor of Cybele elements of the Cybele and Attis myth were re-enacted. Ceremonies and rituals involved cutting down a pine tree that represented the dead Attis. The tree was honored, wrapped in bandages and taken to the temple of Cybele. The pine tree was decorated it with violets, which were believed to be the flowers that had sprung from  the blood of Attis. As part of this religious ceremony, the Galli priests of Cybele cut their arms so that their blood fell on Cybele's altar and on the sacred pine tree. They also danced to the music of cymbals, drums, and flutes. During these wild rites, some followers of Cybele even mutilated themselves, as Attis had in ancient mythology. 

The Festivals of Cybele - The Megalesia
The Megalesia was the festival of the Magna Mater, or Cybele, and celebrated between April 4 - 10 by games and theatrical performances. Sumptuous feasts were held on the first day of the Megalesia and ended with chariot races at the Circus Maximus. The festival and ceremonies were opened by the sacrifice of the moretum (a dish of herbs). The Galii, the eunuch priests of Cybele, carried her image (bearing a polos crown) through the city of Rome to the sound of tambourines, horns, flutes and cymbals. As they danced through the streets of Rome, they beat themselves bloody in an ecstatic ritual. Another festival called dies sanguinis, the "day of blood" took place on the 24 March  in honor of Bellona the goddess of war.  Her priests, called the Bellonarii, also practised mutilation and the use of hallucinogenic plants leading to incorrect historical connections between the worship of two goddesses and their festivals. The cult of the Cybele was a foreign cult and as such the citizens of Rome were forbidden to become Galli priests or walk in the procession. However, some Romans became archigalii, who sacrificed a bull's genitals to the goddess Cybele instead of their own. This led to the rite of the taurobolium.

The Taurobolium
The taurobolium involved the blood sacrifice of a bull to the goddess Cybele and also to the goddess Venus. Following a rowdy, ecstatic procession emphasized by violent gesticulations, shouting, dancing the procession would reach the Temple of Cybele (Magna Mater) on the Palatine Hill in Rome. A platform was constructed over a trench, pierced with holes that would have been erected outside the temple of Cybele in preparation for the taurobolium. White animals were sacrificed to the goddesses of the upper world and the sex of a sacrificial animal had to correspond to the sex of the goddess to whom it was offered. A white sacrificial cow, complete with a garland of flowers, a crown of leaves taken from pine tree was therefore prepared for the sacrifice to Cybele. The word "Sacrificium" was generally referred to the "victim" of the more important public ceremonies. The animal was sprinkled with salt and incense. A priest dressed in fine, pure white linen, wearing a wreath on his head, would conduct the sacrifice. He would offer prayers to Cybele and sip wine in her honor. The ceremonial killing of the beast, or Immolatio, would follow. Music was played in order to drown out any unwanted, negative noises from the animal. The blood of the sacrificial animal poured through the platform onto the Galli priest or archigalii below, who received it on his face and body, he literally bathed in the blood. After the bloody baptism he would present himself before his fellow worshippers of Cybele, purified and regenerated, and received their salutations.

Symbol of Cybele - the Pine Cone
The Pine Cone was the symbol of Cybele and related to the myth of Attis. Pine cones were worn by her priests and worshippers as a symbol of the goddess.  The priests of Cybele were famous for their strange, unfathomable behaviour,  and like their goddess, and were treated with the utmost caution. People believed they had supernatural powers and practised a form of witchcraft. Followers of Cybele, called metragytes, were roaming Galli who would wander the countryside, begging for alms and telling fortunes. As a protective and cautionary measure it became customary to the symbol of Cybele, the Pine Cone, on a pole in the vineyards, to protect them from blight and witchcraft. The pine cone was also mounted as an ornament on the gateways and rails of the entrances of some houses in the countryside - a tradition that still exists in Italy modern times and a reminder of the ancient goddess Cybele.

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