Originally a Hittite and Phrygian goddess, Cybele (Κυβέλη), was a deification of the Earth Mother and was worshipped in Anatolia from Neolithic times. As with Gaia (the "Earth"), or her Minoan equivalent Rhea, Cybele embodies the fertile Earth, a goddess of caverns and mountains, walls and fortresses, nature, wild animals (especially lions and bees).
The goddess was known among the Greeks as Meter or Meter oreie ("Mountain-Mother"), or, with a particular Anatolian sacred mountain in mind, Idaea, inasmuch as she was supposed to have been born on Mount Ida in Anatolia, or equally Dindymene or Sipylene, with her sacred mountains Mount Dindymon (in Mysia and variously located) or Mount Sipylus in mind. In Roman mythology, her equivalent was Magna Mater or "Great Mother".
Her Ancient Greek title, Potnia Theron, also associated with the Minoan Great Mother, alludes to her Neolithic roots as the "Mistress of the Animals". She becomes a life-death-rebirth deity in connection with her resurrection of her son and consort, Attis. She is associated with her lion throne and her chariot drawn by lions.
Walter Burkert, who treats Cybele among "foreign gods" in Greek Religion notes that "The cult of the Great Mother, Meter, presents a complex picture insofar as indigenous, Minoan-Mycenean tradition is here intertwined with a cult taken over directly from the Phrygian kingdom of Asia Minor The inscription matar occurs frequently in her Phrygian sites (Burkert). Kubileya is usually read as a Phrygian adjective "of the mountain", so that the inscription may be read Mother of the Mountain, and this is supported by Classical sources (Roller 1999, pp. 67–68). Another theory is that her name can be traced to the Luwian Kubaba, the deified queen of the Third Dynasty of Kish worshiped at Carchemish and Hellenized to Kybebe (Munn 2004, Motz 1997, pp. 105-106). With or without the etymological connection, Kubaba and Matar certainly merged in at least some aspects, as the genital mutilation later connected with Cybele's cult is associated with Kybebe in earlier texts, but in general she seems to have been more a collection of similar tutelary goddesses associated with specific Anatolian mountains or other localities, and called simply "mother" (Motz).
Later, Cybele's most ecstatic followers were males who ritually castrated themselves, after which they were given women's clothing and assumed "female" identities, who were referred to by one third-century commentator, Callimachus, in the feminine as Gallai, but to whom other contemporary commentators in ancient Greece and Rome referred to as Gallos or Galli.
There is no mention of these followers in Classical references although they related that her priestesses led the people in orgiastic ceremonies with wild music, drumming, dancing, and drinking. She was associated with the mystery religion concerning her son, Attis, who was castrated, died of his wounds, and resurrected by his mother. The dactyls were part of her retinue.
Other followers of Cybele, the Phrygian kurbantes or Corybantes, expressed her ecstatic and orgiastic cult in music, especially drumming, clashing of shields and spears, dancing, singing, and shouting—all at night.
Greek mythographers recalled that Broteas, the son of Tantalus, was the first to carve the Great Mother's image into a rock-face. At the time of Pausanias (2nd century CE), a sculpture carved into the rock-face of a spur of Spil Mount was still held sacred by the Magnesians.
Her cult had already been adopted in 5th century BCE Greece, where she is often referred to euphemistically as Meter Theon Idaia ("Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida") rather than by name. Mentions of Cybele's worship are found in Pindar and Euripides, among other locations. Classical Greek writers, however, either did not know of or did not mention the castrated galli, although they did mention the castration of Attis.
Cybele's cult in Greece was closely associated with, and apparently resembled, the later cult of Dionysus, whom Cybele is said to have initiated and cured of Hera's madness. They also identified Cybele with the Mother of the Gods Rhea.
A figurine found at Çatalhöyük, (Archaeological Museum, Ankara), dating about 6000 BCE, depicts a corpulent and fertile Mother Goddess in the process of giving birth while seated on her throne, which has two hand rests in the form of lion's heads. No direct connection with the later matar goddesses is documented, but the similarity to some of the later iconography is striking.
By the 2nd millennium BCE the Kubaba of Bronze Age Carchemish was known to the Hittites and Hurrians: "[O]n the basis of inscriptional and iconographical evidence it is possible to trace the diffusion of her cult in the early Iron Age; the cult reached the Phrygians in inner Anatolia, where it took on special significance" (Burkert, III.3.4, p. 177). If the theory on the Luwian origin of Cybele's name is correct, Kubaba must have merged with the various matar goddesses well before time the Phrygian matar kubileya inscription was made around the first half of the 6th century BCE (Vassileva 2001).
In Phrygia Rhea-Cybele was venerated as Agdistis, with a temple at the great trading city Pessinos, mentioned by the geographer Strabo. It was at Pessinos that her lover Attis (son of Nana) was about to wed the daughter of the king, when Agdistis-Cybele appeared in her awesome glory, and he castrated himself.
In Archaic Phrygian images of Cybele of the sixth century, already betraying the influence of Greek style (Burkert), her typical representation is in the figuration of a building’s façade, standing in the doorway. The façade itself can be related to the rock-cut monuments of the highlands of Phrygia. She is wearing a belted long dress, a polos (high cylindrical hat), and a veil covering the whole body. In Phrygia, her usual attributes are the bird of prey and a small vase. Sometimes lions are related to her in an aggressive, but tamed, manner. Often the lions are shown drawing her chariot, which may be related as the sun traversing the sky daily.
Later, under Hellenic influence along the coastal lands of Asia Minor, the sculptor Agoracritos, a pupil of Pheidias, produced a version of Cybele that became the standard one. It showed her still seated on a throne but now more decorous and matronly, her hand resting on the neck of a perfectly still lion and the other hand holding the circular frame drum, similar to a tambourine, (tymbalon or tympanon), which evokes the full moon in its shape and is covered with the hide of the sacred lunar bull.
Some ecstatic followers of Cybele, known in Rome as galli, willingly castrated themselves in imitation of Attis. For Roman devotees of Cybele Mater Magna who were not prepared to go so far, the testicles of a bull, one of the Great Mother's sacred animals, were an acceptable substitute, as many inscriptions show. An inscription of 160 CE records that a certain Carpus had transported a bull's testes from Rome to Cybele's shrine at Lyon, France.
In Ancient Egypt at Alexandria, Cybele was worshiped by the Greek population as "The Mother of the Gods, the Savior who Hears our Prayers" and as "The Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One". Ephesus, one of the major trading centers of the area, was devoted to Cybele as early the 10th century BCE, and the city's ecstatic celebration, the Ephesia, honored her.
The goddess was not welcome among the Scythians north of Thrace. From Herodotus (4.76-7) we learn that the Scythian Anacharsis (6th century BCE), after traveling among the Greeks and acquiring vast knowledge, was put to death by his fellow Scythians for attempting to introduce the foreign cult of Magna Mater.
Atalanta and Hippomenes were turned into lions by Cybele or Zeus as punishment for having sex in one of her or his temples because the Greeks believed that lions could not mate with other lions. Another account says that Aphrodite turned them into lions for forgetting to do her tribute. As lions they then drew Cybele's chariot, which sometimes numbered to seven.
According to Livy in 10 CE, an archaic version of Cybele, from Pessinos in Phrygia, as mentioned above, that embodied the Great Mother was ceremoniously and reverently moved to Rome, marking the official beginning of her cult there. Rome was embroiled in the Second Punic War at the time (218 to 201 BCE). An inspection had been made of the Sibylline Books and some oracular verses had been discovered that announced that if a foreign foe should carry war into Italy, that foe could be driven out and conquered if the Mater Magna were brought from Pessinos to Rome. The Romans also consulted the Greek oracle at Delphi, which also recommended bringing the Magna Mater "from her sanctuary in Asia Minor to Rome. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica was ordered to go to the port of Ostia, accompanied by all the matrons, to meet the goddess. He was to receive her image as she left the vessel, and when brought to land he was to place her in the hands of the matrons who were to bear her to her destination, the Temple of Victory on the Palatine Hill. The day on which this event took place, 12 April, was observed afterwards as a festival, the Megalesian.
Plutarch relates that in 103 BCE, Battakes, a high priest of Cybele, journeyed to Rome to announce a prediction of Gaius Marius's victory over the Cimbri and Teutoni. A. Pompeius, plebeian tribune, together with a band of ruffians, chased Battakes off of the Rostra. Pompeius supposedly died of a fever a few days later.
Under the emperor Augustus, Cybele enjoyed great prominence thanks to her inclusion in Augustan ideology. Augustus restored Cybele's temple, which was located next to his own palace on the Palatine Hill. On the cuirass of the Prima Porta of Augustus, the tympanon of Cybele lies at the feet of the goddess Tellus. Livia, the wife of Augustus, ordered cameo-cutters to portray Cybele with her likeness. The Malibu statue of Cybele bears the visage of Livia.. The cult seems to have been fully accepted under Claudius as the festival of Magna Mater and Attis are included within the stes religious calendar. At the same time the chief priest of the cult (the archigallus) was permitted to be a Roman citizen, so long as he was not a eunuch.
Under the Roman Empire the most important festival of Cybele was the Hilaria, taking place between March 15 and March 28. It symbolicaly commemorated the death of Attis and his resurrection by Cybele, involving days of mourning followed by rejoicing. Celebrations also took place on 4 April with the Megalensia festival, the anniversary of the arrival of the goddess (i.e the Black Stone) in Rome. On the 10th April, the anniversary of the consecration of her temple on the Palatine, a procession of her image was carried to the Circus Maximus where races were held. These two dates seem to be incorporated within the same festival, though the evidence for what took place in between is lacking.
The most famous rite of Magna Mater introduced by the Romans was the taurobolium, the initiation ceremony in which a candidate took their place in a pit beneath a wooden floor. A bull was sacrificed on the wooden floor so that the blood would run through gaps in the slats and drench the initiate in a symbolic shower of blood. This act was thought to cleanse an initiate of sin as well as signify a 'rebirth' and re-energisation. A cheaper version, known as a criobolium, involved the sacrifice of a ram. The first recorded taurobolium took place at Puteoli in AD 134 in honour of Venus Caelestia.
Roman devotion to Cybele ran deeply. Not coincidentally, when a Christian basilica was built over the site of a temple to Cybele to occupy the site, the sanctuary was rededicated to the Mother of God, as the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. However, later, Roman citizens were forbidden to become priests of Cybele, who were eunuchs like those of their Asiatic Goddess.
The worship of Cybele was exported to the empire, even as far away as Mauretania, where, just outside Setif, the ceremonial "tree-bearers" and the faithful (religiosi) restored the temple of Cybele and Attis after a disastrous fire in 288 CE. Lavish new fittings paid for by the private group included the silver statue of Cybele and the chariot that carried her in procession received a new canopy with tassels in the form of fir cones. (Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p 581.) The popularity of the Cybele cult in the city of Rome and throughout the empire is thought to have inspired the author of Book of Revelation to allude to her in his portrayal of the mother of harlots who rides the Beast. Cybele drew ire from Christians throughout the Empire; famously, St. Theodore of Amasea is said to have spent the time granted to him to recant his beliefs, burning a temple of Cybele instead.
In the second book of his De rerum natura, Lucretius appropriately uses the image of Cybele, the Great Mother, as a metaphor for the Earth. His description of the followers of the goddess is thought to be based on autopsy of the celebration of her cult in Rome.
In his late version of the legendary story, the Trojans are in Italy and have kept themselves safe in a walled city, following Aeneas's orders. The leader of the Rutuli, Turnus, then ordered his men to burn the ships of the Trojans. At this point in the new legend, there is a flashback to Mount Olympus years before the Trojan War: after Cybele had given her sacred trees to the Trojans so that they could build their ships, she went to Zeus and begged him to make the ships indestructible; Zeus granted her request by saying that when the ships had finally fulfilled their purpose (bringing Aeneas and his army to Italy) they would be turned into sea nymphs rather than be destroyed; so, as Turnus approached with fire, the ships came to life, dove beneath the sea, and emerged as nymphs.
Of course, Cybele was a powerful goddess who had existed long before the "birth" of Zeus, and she would have been worshipped in that area from antiquity, so this new legend may contain elements of much older myths that have been lost—such as the trees that turned into sea nymphs.