Due to my work on a research paper in bioinformatics, participation in outreach to my trans-sisters, among other things, I’ve been on a hiatus in my blog postings. During my involvement in these other activities, my faith in the Great Mother has increased rather than faded. This past Tuesday, during my morning prayers, I felt the need to dance and stomp as I thumped out rhythms on my frame drums. Using my feet as a percussive instrument, I went onto the back porch to smack the wooden planks in time with my drumming. The drumming and dance woke me up better than coffee alone. This week, I’ve also been stitching a long, white, soft-cotton, ceremonial dress to wear when I get the chance to share the presence of the Goddess with others. Unlike Christianity, which can be shared by words, I sense that my new faith in the Great Mother can only be acted out.
Amid my evolving spirituality, today I present the eighth and ninth reason out of the ten reasons why I’m drawn to Great Mother Cybele. Previously, I’ve shown how Her mythology speaks to my transgender state and provides a physical, iconic form for my personal faith in the Unnamed Divine Feminine. Today, I move away from mythology to discuss how the Great Mother influenced the history and civic life of the Roman Empire.
VIII. In the Roman Republic, officials and common people alike adopted the religion of the Great Mother Cybele during a terrifying national emergency. In 218 BCE, during the Second Punic War, Hannibal led the Carthaginian army in his famous march across the Alps to invade Italy. He defeated Roman armies in battles on the Italian peninsula in 218, 217, and 216 BCE, forcing Rome to resort to guerrilla tactics against the Carthaginian invaders. The possibility that Hannibal would be able to take Rome at any time combined with an unusually high incidence of meteors in the sky produced an extreme, morale-sapping fear among Romans. To reinvigorate the people for continued struggle against Hannibal, government and religious leaders consulted both the Sibylline oracle in Rome and the Delphi oracle in Greece. The oracles advised them to bring images of the Great Mother Cybele to Rome from Her ancestral temple city, Pessinuis, in Asia Minor. Hence, in 204 BCE, after more than a decade of fighting to expel the Carthaginians from Italy, Roman ladies and government officials brought Cybele’s sacred stone (a meteorite) and image up the Tiber River and into Rome. The following year, Hannibal left his army to return to Carthage, in North Africa. Finally, in 202 BCE, Hannibal was defeated in battle and Carthage was forced by the Romans to accept strict conditions for peace. In this manner, Roman victory over a feared and powerful enemy (think Osama Bin Laden and Napoleon rolled into one) was gained by more than just soldiers. Roman civilians, especially women, played a key role instituting faith in the Great Mother while they were undoubtedly busy maintaining households and farms. By easing fear and promoting unity, Cybele earned Her place as Defender of Cities among Romans and throughout the ancient western world.
IX. Romans observed two major festivals dedicated to Mistress Cybele, both in the spring. The more traditional, “pre-Roman” celebration, Holy Week, commemorated the resurrection of Cybele’s lover, Attis, and coincided with the vernal equinox. Such Middle-Eastern-style dancing, drumming, and religious euphoria characterized this Holy Week that many “proper” Romans were put off by the worship of Cybele. In any case, Cybele’s Holy Week bore a considerable resemblance to the Christian Holy Week and Easter liturgical practices developed later in the Roman Empire. The other festival honoring Cybele, Megalesia, in April, was a more civil holiday which I will discuss in the final section.
The pre-Christian Holy Week celebrated the springtime rebirth of vegetation. The end of winter was personified in the death and “resurrection” of Cybele’s lover, Attis, and re-enacted by some individuals through ritual sex-change. There were differing accounts of Attis’ death; In some accounts he died from an attack by a wild boar, in others he bled to death after castration. Likewise, there were varying stories of how Attis was not utterly lost to death. In some retellings, Cybele gives Attis new life as a great fir tree of the mountains. In another account, the Father Deity, Zeus, grants that the body of Attis would never decay. In Rome, devotees of Cybele seem to have believed that Attis came completely back to life each spring to drive Cybele’s chariot. In any case, Romans preceded Holy Week by the gathering of reeds on March 15, commemorating Attis’ abandonment by his birth mother. Seven days later, Holy Week began with a dedicated procession cutting and carrying a pine tree and a statue of Attis into the city and up the Palatine Hill to Cybele’s temple. As the pine tree symbolized Attis’ death, three days of mourning followed the procession to the temple. The ritualized mourning would reach a fervid intensity on March 24, the “Day of Blood”, in which devotees of Cybele and Attis would drum and dance wildly and sometimes flog themselves. Also on the Day of Blood, a few of the male devotees would fall into a euphoric trance and castrate themselves with a blade kept before the image of Cybele for that very purpose. The evening of the Day of Blood was the sacred night when the image of Attis was placed in a tomb. Finally, on the morning of March 25, the vernal equinox on the Roman calender, the Day of Rejoicing began and Attis was “reborn” to a new life as a eunuch. Any devotee of Cybele who had survived castration was likewise reborn to new life. She would begin wearing the stola-dress and palla-scarf of Roman free women, never again to don men’s clothes. Unless she had already been presenting as female prior to castration, the eunuch devotee in time would grow her hair long, learn to use make-up, and adjust her voice to a more feminine timbre (or so I surmise). The Day of Rejoicing was also a holiday for the entire populace of Rome, with rich and poor alike participating in sports, masquerades, and other recreations. Holy Week would wind down on March 27, with a procession of Cybele’s sacred stone from Her temple to the river for ritual washing. The religious significance of gender-change during the Roman Holy Week is fascinating in light of the primitive, pre-Christian notions of resurrection. In my own life, I consider my own gender transformation as a “little resurrection” which points my hopes towards the Great Resurrection taught by Judaism and Christianity.