Tag Archive: Attis


Like Chaz in The Five-Day-Dig, I like to leave little offerings at ancient temples to show the old deities they’re not forgotten. On our recent visit to Ostia outside of Rome, Hubby and I left a few coins at the temple of Cybele (one of the goddesses known as Magna Mater or the “Great Mother”), as well as a little somethin’-somethin’ for her consort, Attis.

Back in the town’s heydey, both of these temples stood near the ancient shoreline, but centuries of silting of the Tiber River have moved the sea miles away, and they’re now a little off the beaten trail. While trekking from one lonely ancient holy place to the next, my husband began to notice a pattern: pinecones sitting upright on the altars. Someone had visited not long before us and made a little offering of their own.

To the Romans, the pinecone was a symbol of rebirth. It was sacred to Dionysus, and also to Attis. The pinecone-topped thingy seen in the photo to the right is an elaborate example of a scepter called a thyrsus, most commonly carried by Dionysus and his followers. This one was found in the temple of Attis at Ostia and is now displayed in the on-site museum.

Attis is a resurrection deity, whose death was mourned around the spring equinox each year, followed by a celebration of his rebirth. Myth has it that he went mad and killed himself (by castration!) out of guilt over breaking a promise of faithfulness to Cybele. The goddess took pity on him, though — or maybe felt he was too pretty to lose — because she fixed it so his beautiful body would never decay. He was associated with the pine tree, with its evergreen quality; thus the pinecone connection.

You will make your own judgment about how much of Easter (or Christmas) has passed down to us through rites dedicated to Attis. It’s a good thing, in my opinion, that castrating oneself in a religious frenzy has gone out of style, but we still have people whipping themselves and nailing themselves to crosses. :/ Standing in front of Attis’ sanctuary in Ostia, though, I did feel a little tug of magnetism from him. So he lives on.

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When the archaeology team in The Five-Day Dig finds inscriptions dedicated to “The Great Mother,” it kicks off a controversy over exactly who she is. While it’s true that multiple goddesses in the Greco-Roman religion were referred to by that title, the most common one was probably Cybele, a deity originally adopted from the east (Phrygia).

According to the final pagan Roman emperor Julian, worship of the Great Mother entailed certain diet restrictions. Eating vetables was fine, as long as they grew above ground — so turnips were out, he notes. Fish were forbidden, as was meat of the pig. Julian speculates these restrictions stemmed from the idea of avoiding the unclean: Turnips grow in the dirt, pigs wallow in it, and fish, though not dirt-ridden, dwell below ground level.

According to myth, Cybele’s lover Attis was once unfaithful to her. Overcome by guilt afterwards, he castrated himself. As a result, her fervent priests, the Galli, followed suit, and on festival days, they paraded through the streets dressed as women.

Sounds crazy, but I have to wonder if this is the origin of the cross-dressing custom in Mummers’ parades and pre-Lenten carnivals — and maybe the origin of celibacy for priests, too.

Is the temple in The Five-Day Dig dedicated to Cybele or to some other mother goddess? No spoilers here!

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