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Attis Overview, History & Facts | Who was Attis in Greek Mythology?

Instructor: Ann Santori

Ann is an experienced librarian, early literacy specialist, and educator with a master's degree in library sciences and bachelor's degree in English Literature and Political Science. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the graduate school level and tutors with remote learning companies as well as doing freelance tutoring and literacy consulting.

Review the god Attis from Greek mythology. Learn about Cybele and Attis, discover his symbols, and explore his worship and representation in Greek culture. Updated: 05/25/2023

Who was God Attis?

Attis, also known as "Atys," is a mythological figure within ancient Phrygian and Greek mythology. The ancient Phrygians inhabited the area of ancient Anatolia, which is also called "Asia Minor" and today is comprised of part of the modern-day country of Turkey. The worship of Attis spread from its origins in Anatolia throughout the Roman Empire and ancient Greece (through the establishment of Greek colonies in Anatolia).

In general, Attis is referenced most in his relationship with the "Great Mother" goddess known as Cybele. Attis and Cybele were co-worshiped in temples dedicated to the goddess and during occasions such as harvest-time rituals.

Attis in Greek Mythology

According to Phrygian and Greek mythology, Attis was the child of an androgynous god by the name of Agdistis. This god and their gender non-conformity were considered a threat to the Greek gods of Olympia, who castrated Agdistis and threw their genitals onto the ground, from which an almond tree grew. When Nana, the daughter of the river Saggarios, picked an almond from the tree and held it to her chest, the almond disappeared, and Nana was miraculously pregnant.

Some versions of the legends of Cybele and Agdistis, Attis' father, frame them as one being. In these stories, once Agdistis was castrated, they took on a fully female persona as the mother goddess Cybele. This perspective suggests that Attis was both the child and the lover of Cybele.

The mother goddess Cybele and Attis are intimately linked in Phrygian, Greek, and Roman mythology.

A color photograph of a bronze statuette of Cybele in a chariot being pulled by lions.

Cybele and Attis

The story of Attis' relationship with the goddess Cybele originated with the Phrygians before being incorporated into Greek mythology. In the Phrygian and Greek legends, Attis was the romantic consort of Cybele. There are several versions of the story, but each of them includes the element of Attis' self-castration.

In one version of the story, Attis was betrothed to the princess of Pessinos, a city in ancient Phrygia, but Cybele desired Attis for herself. At the wedding ceremony, Cybele appeared, and Attis was driven mad upon viewing her divine and powerful presence, castrating himself and subsequently dying from the wounds he suffered. Cybele felt so badly that she resurrected Attis.

In another version of the story, related by Roman author Ovid, Cybele so loved Attis that she extracted a promise from him that he would remain celibate as her personal priest. However, Attis was tempted by a river nymph, and Cybele's anger caused her to strike Attis with madness. In this madness, again, Attis performs self-castration and attempts suicide. Cybele does not wish to lose Attis completely, so she transforms him into a fir tree (the explanation for why this symbol is sacred to the goddess). Ovid describes the event in his work Metamorphoses:

  • "Pines, high-girdled, in a leafy crest, the favourite of the Gods' Great Mother (Grata Deum Matri), since in this tree Attis Cybeleius (of Cybele) doffed his human shape and stiffened in its trunk." (Ovid's Metamorphoses)

Symbols of Attis

Apart from the pine tree mentioned, symbols associated with the god Attis include those related to agriculture. Many believe Attis' act of self-castration and Cybele's resurrection of his dying body are metaphors for the life cycle of vegetation. Attis himself, therefore, is typically classified as a vegetation or agricultural god. Symbols commonly depicted in visual representations of Attis include the following:

  • The ivy leaf: This symbol was said to be tattooed on the priests of the cult of Cybele and Attis (the "Galli").
  • Corn: This symbol is seen, for example, in the statue of Attis at the Lateran Museum in Rome, where Attis is holding ears of corn and has ears of corn sprouting from the top of his hat.

Worship of God Attis

Because of his status as a vegetation god, Attis was likely worshiped as a way to secure his favor for a village's crop yield each year. The Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer describes harvest-time rituals revolving around the creation of an effigy of the god Attis:

This circa 2nd-century CE bust of Attis depicts him as a child, wearing a traditional Phrygian-style cap.

A color photograph of a white marble bust of Attis.

  • "the effigy which was attached to the pine-tree was only a duplicate representative of the tree-spirit Attis. After being fastened to the tree, the effigy was kept for a year and then burned . . . the original intention of such customs was no doubt to maintain the spirit of vegetation in life throughout the year." (The Golden Bough)

According to legend, Attis himself introduced the worship of the goddess Cybele to Lydia, an ancient empire that was located in the southwestern part of Asia (called "Asia Minor").

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is Attis the god of?

Attis is thought of primarily as a vegetation god. His self-castration, described in the many different versions of his origin story, is believed by many to be a symbolic description of the cycle of the seasons.

Who were the priests of Attis?

The priests of the cult of Cybele, which included worship of Attis, were called the Galli. These priests castrated themselves upon joining the cult in emulation of Attis' story.

What are the symbols of Attis?

The god Attis is associated with symbols of agricultural fertility. These symbols include the ivy leaf and ears of corn. Attis is also often associated with the pine tree due to his transformation into said tree in one of the legends associated with the god.

What is the story of Cybele and Attis?

There are a variety of versions of the story of the goddess Cybele's relationship with Attis. In some versions, Cybele is both the lover and the mother of Attis, whereas others depict her only as Attis' lover. Each of their stories, however, features the memorable element of Attis' self-castration.

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