PESSINUS: THE ORIGIN OF CYBELE’S ABDUCTION AND THE ATTIS MYTH
By ANDREW GOUGH
The ruins of Pessinus lie under the auspicious silhouette of Mount Agdistis, not far from Ankara. Nobody goes there. The ancient city is neither signposted nor thought to be important, and yet this abandoned site has spawned not one, but two of the most remarkable legends from antiquity: the Attis myth and the abduction of Cybele, Mother of the Gods.
There were many representations of Cybele in the ancient world, but there was one that was more revered than the rest and, astonishingly, it was a meteorite. The celebrated stone-goddess resided at Pessinus, a city whose ancient place name means ‘falling down’, a reference to the extraterrestrial origins of its goddess. I journeyed there, not knowing what to expect. What I found amazed me.
Goddess of the Goddesses
I featured Rome’s abduction of Cybele, in 205 BCE, in Volume 2 of the Heretic Magazine. It is a remarkable story. Then again, Cybele is a remarkable goddess, one that first-century Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE), said was revered, ‘by all the kings who have ever held rule in Europe and in Asia.’
The fact that the most sacred manifestation of Cybele was a meteorite is interesting on many levels, including the fact that the Grail was said to have been a stone from heaven. Rome determined that it must possess this particular manifestation of the Goddess, a meteorite, after consulting the oracle utterances known as the Sibylline Books, or Libri Sibillini, a collection of oracular utterances acquired by Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome. The sacred texts were acquired from a sibyl, a Pagan priestess who prophesied at sacred sites while under the influence of drugs and the divine influence of a deity, often a woman of established social order, known reverently as a ‘bee-goddess’. The prophetic books were consulted while Italy was under siege from meteorites. Rome was losing the war against Hannibal, and the fear was that the meteorites were an omen and foreshadowing of their fate.
To secure its destiny Rome sought an antidote. The sacred texts were unambiguous. The solution, according to Roman historian, Titus Livius Patavinus, consisted of obtaining a large, black stone, which had fallen from the sky and was later engraved with an image of the most revered goddess in the ancient world. The only problem was that the meteorite goddess resided in Turkey.
Questing in Phrygia
I departed Ankara and drove southwest towards Pessinus, with a stop at Gordium, the legendary city of King Midas (738-696 BCE). This was where the Cybele cult first emerged, and where her first lavish temple was built in the early Phrygian period, around the eighth century BCE. I toured the ruins before visiting the museum and there, in the corner, I discovered an unlabelled artifact known as an irminsul (an Old Saxon word meaning ‘mighty pillar’).
Most believe that irminsuls represent the world tree. Others suggest they were the true Pillars of Hercules. However, my research reveals that the earliest reference to an irminsul identified them as tree trunks ‘erected’ in the open air, leading me to suppose that they might have served as ready-made hives for bees that had swarmed and whose valuable by-products, such as honey, made them a lucrative commodity in the ancient world. The irminsul appears to have served another purpose, for its design echoes the shape of a vice, once used to support the bull’s head before it was ritualistically slaughtered for sacrifice. Serendipitously, or perhaps by design, in mythology bees are said to have been born from the carcass of a dead bull. Bees and bulls were becoming an emerging theme, and one that would reappear as I continued my journey.
I departed Gordium and drove to Pessinus, a site which Cicero claimed was important to the Seleucid Kings, due to it having been the primary cult seat of Cybele. I was anxious to see what remained. To my surprise, the ruins were deserted and I was alone at the temple. The heat, coupled with a windstorm, made it difficult to breathe. I was excited, and why not? I was about to pay homage to the throne of the most acclaimed goddess in history. I suspected that this was the real reason I was struggling to find my breath.
I explored the perimeter of the site before proceeding to the centre of the temple complex, a hive-like, labyrinthine structure befitting a shrine to the Mother of the Gods. It was difficult to navigate, as if entry to its sacred epicentre had somehow been protected. As I would soon discover, this is because it once was.
I inspected the ruins, but remained unsure as to which of the two inner enclosures, if either, was Cybele’s sanctuary, and so I consulted the curator at the nearby open-air museum. Happy to discuss his passion, the curator confirmed which enclosure belonged to Cybele, and more. He shared how powerful priests, known as eunuchs, had castrated themselves in honour of the Goddess, and how they presided over Cybele’s inner sanctum. Here, pilgrims were required to undergo a purification ritual, which included being immersed in a deep, water-enclosed passageway, before entering the temple.
Reflectively, he added that there was evidence for the existence of two subterranean Cybele temples, lost in the vicinity of the main complex. I wondered if the chambers were used for taurobolium, the Latin name given to the ritual sacrifice of bulls for the Goddess (a tradition which, I have previously argued, may have been the precursor to Mithraism, the mystery school revered by the Romans involving the ritualistic sacrifice of bulls).
Cybele’s shrine would have been a sight to behold. Sadly, all that remains is a diagonal-shaped enclosure beyond the watery passageway, where visiting pilgrims would have, in effect, been baptised before entering. At the far end of the enclosure a single lintel served as an altar; a sort of holy of holies. Cybele’s devotees would have entered the temple and turned to their right to address the Goddess, who resided upon the sacred platform.
Undoubtedly, privileged visitors would have been accompanied by eunuchs, who dressed in colourful robes and wore conical, hive-shaped headwear. Bizarrely, the relationship between the castrated priest and Cybele has certain parallels with the stingless drone bee that dies after impregnating the Queen Bee. Cybele was known as a bee-goddess and is associated with death and resurrection. Many artifacts from prehistory portray the Mother Goddess in yellow and orange, laden with honey, suggesting that the Mother of the Gods morphed into the Queen Bee at some point in pre-history.
Another sacred site in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) where priests castrated themselves in honour of the Goddess was the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Intriguingly, the temple was constructed to appease the gods due to anxiety created over falling meteorites. Not only did the Bronze Age name of Ephesus translate as ‘bee’, the insect was chosen as its emblem and featured on coins and on statues of Artemis. Was there a connection between meteorites, bees and the ritual act of castration by priests who lived in service to their queen? I wondered.
As I approached the altar a peculiar sound seemed to permeate from within the temple. I could have sworn I heard flutes and drums, even tambourines; instruments used by the eunuchs in their frenzied rituals to the Goddess. Perplexed, I inspected the altar for images and as I removed the moss from its surface I noticed the stone began to glisten. I exposed the crystal-like surface further, but, for reasons unknown, I stopped, having uncovered but a 6- or 7-inch section. Might the crystal have been added to the lintel, or could it have been the reason the lintel was chosen as the cult-seat of the Goddess in the first place? All I knew for certain was that Cybele, the meteorite, had once lain on top of it.
The only remaining account of the meteorite’s physical appearance is one written over 500 years after it had been rehomed to Rome. Arnobius of Sicca (who died in around 330), an early Christian writer who spoke out against Pagans, records the following account in his work, Against the Pagans (Adversus Nationes):
But the Great Mother, also, says my opponent, being summoned from Phrygian Pessinus in precisely the same way by command of the seers, was a cause of safety and great joy to the people. For, on the one hand, a long-powerful enemy was thrust out from the position he had gained in Italy; and, on the other, its ancient glory was restored to the city by glorious and illustrious victories, and the boundaries of the empire were extended far and wide, and their rights as freemen were torn from races, states, peoples without number, and the yoke of slavery imposed on them, and many other things accomplished at home and abroad established the renown and dignity of the race with irresistible power. If the histories tell the truth, and do not insert what is false in their accounts of events, nothing else truly is said to have been brought from Phrygia, sent by King Attalus, than a stone, not large, which could be carried in a man’s hand without any pressure – of a dusky and black colour – not smooth, but having little corners standing out, and which today we all see put in that image instead of a face, rough and unhewn, giving to the figure a countenance by no means lifelike.
So, Arnobius tells us that the meteorite was: ‘a stone, not large, which could be carried in a man’s hand without any pressure – a dusky and black colour – not smooth, but having little corners standing out.’ In addition to highlighting the stone’s modest size, we are told that its presence in Rome reversed the nation’s ill fortune and brought justice and liberty to its people. As a result, its ‘rough and unhewn’ surface was featured as the face of an idol in the Temple of the Magna Mater on the Palatine Hill until, apparently, a short time after Arnobius’s death, when it disappeared from history. (In Volume 2 of the Heretic I suggest where it may be today.)
My senses were vivid and somewhat lucid, and as I stood at the foot of the shrine I could still make out the faint melody of the Goddess. I examined the crystal with marvel and, as I did, suspected that a long period of time had unfolded. I was no longer in an ordinary state of consciousness and, as I stood transfixed over Cybele’s altar, I tried to envisage how, on this spot, the most powerful nation in the world travelled over 1,000 miles to abduct the Meteorite-Goddess. However, as I would later learn, no forceful ‘abduction’ had been necessary.
Pessinus’s Powerful Priests
Pessinus was governed by a powerful temple state ruled by Galloi. Surprisingly, it enjoyed a strong relationship with Rome due to the fact that the power brokers of Pessinus were also Galloi and thus enjoyed a favourable status from King Attalus I (269–197 BCE), ruler of Pergamon, a southern city cited in the Book of Revelation as one of the seven churches of Asia. It was King Attalus’s loyalty to Rome that enabled the Goddess to be abducted without a fight. In fact, the meteorite’s removal from Pessinus would have been accompanied by rituals and celebrations of unprecedented pomp and circumstance.
By consulting the Libri Sibillini, Rome had done its homework. It had performed due diligence and identified the necessary action plan to combat the falling stones from heaven. Its very future was at stake and, to be absolutely sure, the Roman delegation undertook a detour on their way to Pessinus. They stopped in Delphi, a sacred and politically-correct Greek centre at harmony with both Rome and Pergamon. Delphi, of course, was the site of the most famous oracle of the ancient world, an omphalos, unambiguously shaped like a beehive and covered with crisscrossing rows of stylised bees, which was worshipped by priestess seers, each known as the Delphic Bee.
While the Delphic oracle ratified the Libri Sibillini, it added its own mandate to the mix. It requested that the Mother of the Gods be welcomed in Rome by the most virtuous man in the city. The stage was set. Every detail of Cybele’s rehoming had been diligently and respectfully calculated. With their plan in place the Roman delegation departed Delphi for Pessinus, with a stopover in Pergamon to thank King Attalus I for his gift.
The story of Attis is ancient and complex. Not surprisingly, it originates in Pessinus. The conventional story attests that Attis, a young man born from an immaculate conception, raised by a goat, and who captured the eye of Cybele with his beauty, was sent to Pessinus to wed the King’s daughter (King Midas, according to some versions), only to have Agdistis/Cybele (the vegetation-goddess of the neighbouring mountain) intervene during the ceremony’s opening song. This provoked Attis to go mad and castrate himself, which in turn prompted his father-in-law-to-be (the king whose daughter was to wed) to do the same, thus giving rise to the self-castrating Cybele worshippers known as Galloi, enuchs, corybantes, and, tellingly, Attises. And you thought your wedding day was eventful.
The Greek Historian, Herodotus (484–425 BCE), referred to Attis as ‘Atys the sun god, slain by the boar’s tusk of winter’, which sounds a lot like the vegetation-goddess, Agdistis, whom Strabo said was, in Pessinus at least, interchangeable with Cybele. In earlier versions of the story Attis dies by a wild boar during a hunt (or accidently, at the hand of another hunter). The Greek traveller, Pausanias (circa AD 110 –180), corroborates the story, adding that the Gauls who inhabited Pessinus abstained from eating pork.
Like the legend of Arthur and the Grail, the original accounts of the Attis myth reveal something far less complex than what we understand today. In fact, the origins of the Attis story come from an account of a priest, a gallus (eunuch) named Atys, who travelled from Pessinus to Sardis, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia in the western portion of modern-day Turkey, at the foot of mount Tmolos, where the ancient goddess, Kubaba, from Mesopotamia and the Phrygian goddess first appear to have merged. Contrary to its modern mythology, Attis/Atys does not refer to an individual, but rather is the title of a priest who lived in the service of Cybele.
Over time the Attis legend became indistinguishable from the life of Jesus Christ, with elements of the Moses archetype thrown in for good measure. It is here that the dying and resurrecting god archetype manifests; Attis becomes the embodiment of the god of vegetation, whose death and rebirth represent the born-again cycles of the agricultural year.
In reality, preservation, not resurrection, is the theme of the earliest accounts that recall how Attis’s body could never rot, as if preserved in honey, and how his hair continued to grow and his little finger sustained signs of life. The description is reminiscent of Arthurian mythology, where the once and future king lies in wait, ready to serve, should his services be required.
It is interesting to note that ancient Babylonians and Egyptians deployed a technique for mummification that involved honey, and Alexander the Great is said to have been buried in honey. Did the Attis priests of Cybele, the Bee-Goddess, administer honey in rituals in death, and in life? In any case, Pausanias recounts that Attis was buried beneath Mount Agdistis, confirming the belief in Pessinus of a sun-god, or green man.
And so the delegation transported the Mother of the Gods from her home in Pessinus to Rome, but not before a stop in Troy to visit the shrine of the Goddess ‘near the ramparts’. Cybele’s stopover in Troy (Ilion (Ἴλιον) or, Latinised, Ilium) explains why the Mountain-Goddess is cited by some to have come from Troy, and to have been as one with the Trojan Ida, a mountain about 20 miles southeast.
Like Pergamon, the temple at Troy was dedicated to the goddess, Athena, who Robert Graves, Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus and Plato identified with Neith. Curiously, Neith, whose title included the ‘Mother of the Gods’, lived in the House of the Bee (Hoot-Bit in Egyptian) in Sais, Egypt, close to where Osiris was buried, in the Mansion of the Bee. Sais was said to have been the only city to have survived the deluge that destroyed Atlantis (and Athens, according to Diodorus). It also gave us the Rosetta Stone, as well as the only source of the legend of Atlantis, courtesy of the Greek lawgiver, Solon, who visited Sais and conversed with its priests in antiquity. Upon returning to Greece, Solon instituted laws about bee keeping, including the distance that each hive must stand from another. Interestingly, it is Solon who spoke of the Mother of the Gods: ‘She can, better than any other, give witness in the court of time, the very great Mother of the Olympian gods, black earth.’ The thinly veiled presence of bee-goddess mythology in the story of Cybele and Attis was becoming more and more demonstrable.
In the centuries that followed Cybele’s relocation to Rome, Pessinus began its descent into historical oblivion. Greek influence continued for a while, and by the first century BCE the region was governed by a variety of rulers. According to Strabo, the priests in Pessinus lost their power and the city became a mere trading centre. Additionally, war and troubled economic times saw Pessinus lose its status as an independent principality, and in 36 BCE the region came under the rule of King Amyntas.
Christianity arrived in Pessinus in around the third century, and about this time a curious event occurred. The Emperor Julian the Apostate, the Roman Emperor from 361 to 363, made a pilgrimage to Pessinus, only to discover that the sanctuary of Cybele had fallen into a disrespectful state, prompting him to write an angry letter about the poor condition of the shrine. And so the legend of Cybele at Pessinus continued for roughly 500 years after her departure, mirroring the time she had spent in Rome, before disappearing from history.
Tragically, Pessinus was later destroyed during an Arab raid in AD 715 and remained under Byzantine rule until the eleventh century, when it was lost to the Seljuk Turks. For all practical purposes it fell off the historical radar around this time until it was rediscovered by the French historian and archaeologist, Félix Marie Charles Texier (1802 – 1871), who stumbled upon the site in 1833 while on an exploratory mission to Asia Minor. The accomplished explorer discovered the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa the following year.
Texier’s discoveries at Pessinus are not without controversy. Excavations between 2006 and 2012 by Ghent University and Dr Angelo Verlinde suggest a date no later than 200 BCE for the temple, and Verlinde argues in his 2014 article, ‘The Pessinuntine Sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods in light of the excavated Roman temple: fact, fiction and feasibility’ (LATOMUS, Ghent University) that the temple is not even Cybele’s, citing the topography of Pessinus as being inconsistent with the ‘tenets of the cult’, as well as a series of numismatic and archaeological observations that alter the conventional chronology of the site. Conversely, Philippe Borgeaud explores similar anomalies in his book, Mother of the Gods (1996), but confidently concludes: ‘It is therefore clear that if Pessinus was so unanimously cited by the ancients, it was because the idol of the Mother really came from there in 204 BCE.’ Weighing up the evidence, I tend to agree.
A visit to Pessinus is a remarkable experience. The evocative and almost hypnotic quality of the arid landscape remains the perfect setting to contemplate the Goddess and some of history’s most remarkable legends. And, if truth be known, the sound of tambourines, drums and flutes haunts me to this day.