(Essay 3) The Animal Mother Goddess by Hearth Moon Rising

Excerpt from Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess

Animal deities were once worshiped in caves, and the Anatolian goddess whose cult eventually dominated Rome has a name that translates as “cave.” We know her as Cybele. The Greeks put her birthplace on Mount Ida east of Troy, but she is associated with other mountains as well, including another Mount Ida on Crete. Her titles are Mother of the Mountain, Great Mother of the Gods, Nourishing Lady, Most Holy Lady and Queen of the Wild Beasts.

Cybele flanked by lions, first century BCE
Cybele flanked by lions, first century BCE

Cybele is usually portrayed with a pair of lions seated beside her or pulling her chariot. She is associated with bees, and the Greeks referred to her priestesses as Melissae, or bee nymphs. The bees link Cybele with a special pine tree that bees love to swarm. This pine thrives in the low to mid elevations in Asia Minor and produces a sticky sap that aphids feed on. The aphids in turn sweat sweet nectar that attracts the bees. The honey produced from the pine nectar is still prized for its flavor, but in ancient times it was valued for its medicinal qualities. The love of the bee for this pine is the source of the myth of Cybele and her honey-man, Attis.

Attis is the grandson of Cybele, who conceived his father when the god Zeus tried unsuccessfully to rape her. He ejaculated on the ground when he could not enter the goddess’vagina, but since she is also the stony soil of the mountain, she conceived anyway. The son of Cybele became an almond tree, and a river nymph conceived Attis when she ate an almond from that tree. Attis was abandoned by his mother and raised by a billy goat. Cybele fell in love with Attis when he matured, and at first he returned her love. Eventually, however, his eye wandered to another, and Cybele attacked him in fury, until he tore off his genitals in despair, bleeding to death under a pine. With much sorrow, Cybele wrapped the body of Attis in wool and took his body and the pine tree to the mouth of her cave, where she planted both.

Cybele’s maddening attack on Attis is obviously bee-like, but his self-castration has other parallels in the life of the bee, as the sexual organs of the drone are torn when he completes his copulation with the queen. Attis the drone dies and is reborn as an evergreen tree, which the bees dote upon.

The cult of Cybele is most remembered for the self-castration of her cross-dressing priests. On the final day of her festival, new male initiates would dance themselves into a frenzy and cut off their testicles, throwing them as an offering to the base of her statue. The hyper-masculine Romans, who had concerns about maintaining population growth, were horrified by the practice. It is possible that the convention originated as a means of maintaining social equality. Castration of priests, like celibacy of priestesses and sacrifice of kings, has the function of discouraging accumulation of power along parental lines. In the political context of Rome, the tradition of eunuch priests met heavy opposition and was eventually discontinued.

Cybele got to Rome not through dispersion of her cult, but through an amazing set of circumstances. The Empire was facing a series of military setbacks, and in the face of this uncertainty the land was plagued by “showers of stones.” The Sibylline Books were consulted, and they recommended that Cybele’s image be brought from Asia Minor and installed in Rome. Cybele’s image was a meteorite, no longer extant, the very stone Zeus attempted to rape. The stone arrived in April 204 BCE. Annual week-long spring rites to Cybele commemorated the arrival of the stone and the death and rebirth of Attis. Men wishing to be reborn during the ceremony who wanted to keep their balls could stand underneath a sacrificed bull or ram to be bathed in the symbolic blood of Attis.

Some say the famous shrine of Artemis at Ephesus was once dedicated to Cybele. More about Artemis in the next installment.

Read part 1 and part 2.

Read more of Hearth Moon Rising’s posts.

Hearth Moon Rising is a Dianic priestess and a priestess in the Fellowship of Isis. She has taught magic for over twenty years. Hearth is a licensed outdoor guide and lives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Invoking Animal Magic can be found in bookstores or ordered online. See http://invokinganimalmagic.com for more details.

2 thoughts on “(Essay 3) The Animal Mother Goddess by Hearth Moon Rising”

  1. An interesting article. As a man who has been castrated – although by accident and not by choice – I have become fascinated by the role eunuchs played in history and mythology. I think the priests who castrated themselves did it to get closer to the Godess’ plain of existence – to get to the female energy. I feel something of that myself – a positive to losing my balls.

  2. I learned a lot about Cybele in the essay that I had not known before. It seems the deeper we delve into these mythological stories the more complex they become. Thank you

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