The Goddess Cybele – Matron of the Transgender and Intersexed in the Greco-Roman World (part V of V)

From a place of immense gratitude, I resume my exploration of the history and lore surrounding Mistress Cybele, my Divine Mother and my Sovereign.  I have long felt starved of the Divine Feminine. The modern world enforces either patriarchal montheism or sterile secularism, both systems built by male thoughts and masculine expericences.  Yet, the story of Mother Cybele has assumed new life through my prayers, hymns, and heartfelt longings.  This past April 17, I experienced the power of Mother Cybele as I began my new full-time job at the Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta.  On the mornings and evenings of the days preceeding, I had composed myself to prayer and drumming with Cybele’s name on my breath.  True to Her title of Divine Mother, She removed the bureaucratic barriers which had held up my employment.  As Cybele is the Defender of Cities and Matron of Public Servants, She blessed me with this opportunity to serve my country and humanity as a whole through computational and microbial science.

With the perspective of my experiences with the Goddess working within my life, today I recount the impact She likely had upon ancient Roman society.  I also recount the tragic desctruction of Her priesthood and temples in the 4th and 5th centuries C.E.  Due to the loss of Cybele’s ancient faith, along with other Goddess-faiths, open worship of the Divine Feminine was expunged from western civilization — leaving the West impoverish and brutalized.  Transfeminine individuals suffered much from the loss of their Goddess, for She was (and can still be) the builder of home and family for those of us who are incapable of producing children.

Common violets at the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area (April 3).  In the ancient world, violets symbolized modesty and were sacred to Great Mother Cybele.

Common violets at the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area (April 3). In the ancient world, violets symbolized modesty and were sacred to Great Mother Cybele.

X. The eunuch priestesses devoted to the Great Mother posed many challenges to the machismo and military spirit valued by the menfolk of Roman society. Nonetheless, devotion to Cybele and her consort, Attis, gradually became integrated into Roman society and diffused throughout the Empire. Contrary to modern conceptions of the pre-Christian Romans as being hedonistic pleasure-seekers, Romans valued faith and family above almost everything else. Aside from the great gods and goddesses of the Greek and Egyptian pantheon, whom they worshiped in temples or at open-air gatherings, Romans also had family and personal deities as protectors. As She was the Mistress Protector of Rome itself, statuettes and figurines of Cybele were common in Roman households. The eunuch Attis, a more controversial figure, was also deified and represented in household statuary. In this manner, the Great Mother Cybele came to represent unity and cohesion within families as well as a sense of belonging to Roman society.

Following the intense religious devotion of Holy Week, Mistress Cybele’s second festival followed in April. In contrast with Holy Week, Megalesia was more subdued, some could say, more family-friendly. Megalesia was held from April 4 through April 10 and commemorated the arrival of the Goddess’ image into Rome during the Carthaginian Wars. Megalesia was more of a civic religious holiday established for Rome rather than the traditional ecstatic celebrations of the Great Mother’s Near Eastern lands of origin. Accordingly, it was celebrated with plays and chariot races. Wealthy Roman families would host banquets while the populace participated in games and watching plays.

Conclusion. The repression instituted by the Christian emperors of Rome against the traditional Greco-Roman faiths marked the end of the ancient world and its tolerance for gender-variant individuals. Although Constantine II, son of Constantine the Great, instituted the first laws against worship of “idols”, the most severe repression of traditional religion began with the reign of Theodosius I. Theodosius began his reign of the Eastern Roman Empire in 379 CE and eventually gained control of the Western Roman Empire in 392. Between 389 and 391 CE, Theodosius issued his “Theodosian Decrees”, forbidding visits to temples, forbidding sacrifices to “idols”, and disbanding various priesthoods, particularly women’s priesthoods such as the Vestal Virgins. Also in 391 CE, 99% of all stored knowledge from the ancient world was lost during the vandalism and burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. In 394 CE, Theodosius ordered the temple of Cybele on Palatine Hill in Rome to be destroyed. When Theodosius died in 395, his sons, Arcadius and Honorius, assumed the thrones of the Eastern and Western Empires, respectively. The late 4th and early 5th centuries saw a brief revival in traditional Greco-Roman religion. Consequently, the Emperors, Arcadius and Honorius, re-instituted their father’s intolerant decrees. In 405 CE, the last priestesses of Cybele in Rome, being held under house arrest, were executed ( Nonetheless, nearly half of the population of the Roman Empire continued to embrace the gods and goddesses of the traditional faiths; However, they were compelled to engage in their prayers, feasts, games, and festivals outside the cities. Thenceforth, believers in the traditional religions were called “pagan”, from the Latin word for villager, country-dweller, or non-combatant. Theodosius II, grandson of Theodosius I, further enforced the repression, forbidding “pagans” from serving in the military, government, or courts, and even instituting a death penalty for Christians who converted to “paganism.” Consequently, Theodosius I and his sons are credited by historians with plunging Europe into the abyss of feudalism.

Ruins of the Temple of Great Mother in Rome.  Etched by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in 1756 C.E. Source:

Ruins of the Temple of Great Mother in Rome. Etched by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in 1756 C.E. Source:

It is tempting for persons sympathetic towards the “pagan” faiths to view the early Christian Church as the villain in these historical accounts. Conversely, some may view the later Roman Emperor’s repression of traditional Greco-Roman religion as vindication for persecution of Christians prior to Constantine the Great. I see both the persecutions against Christians and the persecutions perpetrated by Christians against non-Christians as part of a series of religious civil wars that ultimately tore the Roman Empire apart. The closest modern equivalent would be the divisions between Muslims and Hindus which fractured the Indian subcontinent into three nations, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  For the Roman Empire, the destructive conflict between the Christians and adherents to traditional religions had far worse implications. Everyone, both Christian and non-Christian, suffered greatly from the ensuing loss of water and sanitary infrastructure, the loss of written records, and the barbarian invasions.

Today, with the exception of a few Protestant denominations in the U.S. and Europe, no extant western faith is proactive in acceptance of transgenderism.  Meanwhile, the wealthiest and most powerful churches exert undue influence on society in opposing the rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, and gender-nonconforming individuals. Among transgender women, I’m fortunate to live in a house with a loving partner and a supportive family. I consider myself particularly blessed that my biological mother and father accept me. In this manner, my parents reflect Mother Cybele’s acceptance of Her intersexed child, Agdistis. This also demonstrates how tolerance and acceptance are the foundation of family stability. I lack only my spiritual home at the side of a Restored Goddess. Too many of my gender-nonconforming sisters and brothers suffer full, physical homelessness, their hopes and stories becoming lost to the human experience, just like the manuscripts of the Library of Alexandria. Thus I yearn, hope, and pray for the well-being of those the Great Mother Cybele would recognize as her own.


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