The Cult of Cybele

Article ID: DB109 | By: Ronald Nash

The following is an excerpt from article DB109 from the Christian Research Journal. The full PDF can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.


The Cult of Cybele- Background

Cybele, also known as the Great Mother, was worshiped through much of the Hellenistic world. She undoubtedly began as a goddess of nature. Her early worship included orgiastic ceremonies in which her frenzied male worshipers were led to castrate themselves, following which they became “Galli” or eunuch-priests of the goddess. Cybele eventually came to be viewed as the Mother of all gods and the mistress of all life.

Most of our information about the cult describes its practices during its later Roman period. But the details are slim and almost all the source material is relatively late, certainly datable long after the close of the New Testament canon.

The Cult of Cybele- The Myth

According to myth, Cybele loved a shepherd named Attis. Because Attis was unfaithful, she drove him insane. Overcome by madness, Attis castrated himself and died. This drove Cybele into great mourning, and it introduced death into the natural world. But then Cybele restored Attis to life, an event that also brought the world of nature back to life.

The Cult of Cybele- Influence on the New Testament?

The presuppositions of the interpreter tend to determine the language used to describe what followed Attis’s death. Many writers refer carelessly to the “resurrection of Attis.” But surely this is an exaggeration. There is no mention of anything resembling a resurrection in the myth, which suggests that Cybele could only preserve Attis’s dead body. Beyond this, there is mention of the body’s hair continuing to grow, along with some movement of his little finger. In some versions of the myth, Attis’s return to life took the form of his being changed into an evergreen tree. Since the basic idea underlying the myth was the annual vegetation cycle, any resemblance to the bodily resurrection of Christ is greatly exaggerated.

Eventually a public rehearsal of the Attis myth became an annual event in which worshipers shared in Attis’s “immortality.” Each spring the followers of Cybele would mourn for the dead Attis in acts of fasting and flagellation.

It was only during the later Roman celebrations (after A.D. 300) of the spring festival that anything remotely connected with a “resurrection” appears. The pine tree symbolizing Attis was cut down and then carried corpse-like into the sanctuary. Later in the prolonged festival, the tree was buried while the initiates worked themselves into a frenzy that included gashing themselves with knives. The next night, the “grave” of the tree was opened and the “resurrection of Attis” was celebrated. But the language of these late sources is highly ambiguous. In truth, no clear-cut, unambiguous reference to the supposed “resurrection” of Attis appears, even in the very late literature from the fourth century after Christ.