Friday, February 25, 2011

Attis, Agdistis, and Kybele

As I've mentioned before, I love mythology.  These stories which have endured for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so old in most cases that their authors are no longer known . . . stripped down to their most basic elements, like stones polished by the ocean.  All that's left is meaning; some deep significance that speaks to us, even if we don't know why.

They have endured and they have also changed.  When you think of fairy tales, do you think of Walt Disney?  Or have you sought out the older versions, full of sex, violence, proactive heroines, and various other things of which the censors don't approve?

The purpose of mythology is not to teach conformity:  this I believe.  It is to open up to us another world - call it the collective unconscious, sacred space, the Dreaming, the shamanistic world of magic, what you will.  The purpose of mythology is to say there is another world.  And the fact that we feel drawn to it - those of us who feel drawn to it - proves that there is something there of value.  It is not "real" but it is real.

Recently I discovered the myth of Attis and Agdistis and it has stayed with me.  Here is the oldest version that we have (from
"The local [Phrygian] legend about him [Attis] being this. Zeus [equated here with the Phrygian sky-god], it is said, let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a Daimon, with two sexual organs, male and female. They call the daimon Agdistis. But the gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Sangarios, they say, took the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child. A boy was born, and exposed, but was tended by a he-goat. As he grew up his beauty was more than human, and Agdistis fell in love with him. When he had grown up, Attis was sent by his relatives to Pessinos, that he might wed the king’s daughter. The marriage-song was being sung, when Agdistis appeared, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals, as also did he who was giving him his daughter in marriage. But Agdistis repented of what she had done to Attis, and persuaded Zeus to grant the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay. These are the most popular forms of the legend of Attis." - Pausanias, Guide to Greece 7.17.8
So.  What is it, you ask, that I like about this myth?  First of all, I like it because it's transgendered.  The birth of an hermaphrodite sends the gods into a tizzy.  Why do they care?  I don't know.  Second, I like it because Agdistis suffers, but endures.  And third, I like it because it is the basis of a major religious movement.

Agdistis was associated with the goddess Kybele (also spelled Cybele.)  Some say that after Agdistis was castrated "she" became Kybele.  But Kybele was widely known as a mother goddess; the Greeks identified her with Rhea.  Does that mean that Rhea was once androgynous?  One source says that Cybele was the mother of Agdistis, which makes sense insofar as she is the Great Mother, but I'm not sure if they got that right.  Worship of Kybele and Attis spread from Turkey (Phrygia was in what is now Turkey) to Greece and then to Rome.

There are a couple different versions of the myth of Kybele (as opposed to Agdistis) and Attis.  One says that Attis was born a "eunuch" (which probably means in modern terms that he had some kind of intersex condition) and became a priest of Kybele.  He was killed by a wild boar and Kybele mourned for him.  This motif is widespread throughout mythology.  In any case, eunuchs - persons of unconventional gender - have always served as priests of Kybele.  They were considered to be men who dressed in women's clothing and behaved in an "effeminate" way.

In 204 BCE the Sibylline oracle announced that Rome would be victorious against Hannibal if the statue of Kybele was brought from Phrygia to Rome.  So they did that, and some of Kybele's eunuch priests came with her.  Rome had very strict gender roles, and many people were uncomfortable with the whole idea of eunuchs and castration and all the rest of it.  But they instituted the worship of Kybele and Attis nonetheless, and kept it up for at least 400 years.  What did it mean to them?  Why was it so popular?

Last of all, I like this story because it is only one version of the story.  It is a Greek interpretation of a Turkish myth. Maybe it leaves some stuff out.  Maybe it got some stuff wrong.  It's not the one and only version of The Truth.  It's just a story - one that resonates across time.  It doesn't explain everything.  It stands on its own terms.

Image source:  Wikimedia Commons.  This statue is from the mid 6th c. BCE and is currently located in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey.

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