The Goddess Cybele in Mythology

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

The Greco-Roman goddess Cybele was considered the Great Mother of the Gods. In this lesson, you'll learn more about Cybele, her role in ancient mythology and how she was worshiped.

Who Was Cybele?

There were many goddesses of fertility in mythology, but there could only be one Great Mother of the Gods. To the Greeks, it's the goddess Rhea, the wife of Cronus and the mother of Zeus. In Roman mythology, however, she's called Cybele, the universal mother of not only the gods but also of all humans, animals and plant life. Referred to as the Magna Mater, or Great Mother, she was the personification of Mother Earth. In art, she's usually depicted on a throne or in a chariot wearing a tall cylindrical crown and in the constant presence of a lion.

Cybele was often depicted in art on a chariot or throne and in the presence of a lion.
Drawing of Cybele.

The Myth

According to myth, Cybele was born to the sky god and the earth goddess in Phrygia, an old country in Asia Minor. The goddess was born a hermaphrodite, meaning she was both male and female. This scared the gods, so they castrated her and tossed the male organ to the ground. From it, grew an almond tree. One day, a daughter of the River Saggarios came upon the tree and plucked its fruit. Holding it to her chest, it disappeared, and suddenly she was pregnant. The child she bore was named Attis.

A bust of Attis, the love interest of Cybele.
Bust of Attis.

Cybele eventually fell in love with the beautiful Attis and had the boy promise to always belong to her. Instead of remaining loyal, however, he asked a king for his daughter's hand in marriage. Enraged and in a jealous frenzy, Cybele appeared at the wedding and drove everyone mad, including Attis who ran off into the hills. Screaming and thrashing about, he cursed himself for forsaking the goddess. Then, he castrated himself. Cybele came upon his bloodied body at the foot of a pine tree. Feeling so guilty for what she had done, she repented her actions to Zeus. Empathetic to the goddess, Zeus decreed that Attis' body would never decay and that the pine tree would forever be considered sacred.

The Worship of Cybele

There was not a large cult following of the goddess among the Greeks, but she was quite popular in Roman society even though cults were banned. Roman leaders felt they threatened their power. But still, her following grew. Eventually, the Roman Senate sanctioned the religion. Cybele even became known as the protector of soldiers during war.

The cult's priests were called Galli, and because of the castration of Cybele and Attis in the myth, they were also said to castrate themselves. The priests were transgender and would try to behave and appear as womanly as possible. And, in many of their religious practices, cult followers were known to adorn themselves with pine cones and use loud music, hallucinogenic plants and zealous dance moves.

A statue of a Gallus priest.
A statue of a Gallus priest.

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