The History and Significance of the god Attis

Attis was a Mesopotamian god, the consort of the great mother goddess of Phrygia and as a vegetation deity, he was sometimes known simply as Papas or ‘Father’. However, his importance has often been overlooked and dominated by the worship of his consort, Cybele.

There are different accounts of his birth; in some stories he was the son of Cybele, in others, he was the son of the Sumerian goddess Nana. The most famous of his myths regarding his birth involves the hermaphrodite, Agdistis. Agdistis had fallen asleep under a tree and the other gods had tied his/her male genitals to a tree. Agdistis woke up with a start and his/her male genitals were severed. Where the genitals fell upon the ground, an almond tree sprung up in its place.

The goddess Nana picked the fruit and dropped it onto her lap; subsequently she became pregnant with Attis but she abandoned the infant who was then raised by a goat.

Attis’ most famous legend centres round his love for the goddess Cybele. The intensity of his love for Cybele drove him insane, which led to him castrating himself under a pine tree and eventually. From his blood, flowers and trees grew. Although Attis died, he was reborn and reunited with Cybele.

There is another version of the myth where Attis deserted Cybele for the nymph Sagaritis, and in a fit of rage, the goddess cursed him with madness. In this madness, Attis castrated himself and died. Cybele eventually restored him and they were reunited. In other accounts, the goddess turned Attis into a pine tree.

Another version states that Attis fathered a child on Cybele and her father killed both Attis and the baby but Cybele was able to restore Attis. Another less known version states that on the day Attis and Sagaritis were celebrating their marriage, Agdistis crashed the celebrations. This resulted in Attis castrating himself and Sagaritis dying from self-inflicted wounds. The Greek version of his myth states that he was gored to death by a boar sent by Zeus.

Looking at the history of Attis, he became important in his role within the mystery cult of Cybele, which reached great heights during the Roman Empire. We know from reliable sources that the first Roman emperor, Augustus, celebrated the festival of this goddess and her consort for the protection of the city, emphasising their significance.

This mystery cult was one of the most important cults to come from Asia Minor and both men and women could become priests. The male priests were called galli and their emblem was the cock, a common sacrificial animal. “The male priest of Cybele, the gallus, dressed as a woman, carried a stick or a shepherd’s crook, and in dedication to the goddess and in replication of the goddess’s lover Attis, was expected to emasculate himself with a sickle-shaped blade and offer up his ‘vires’ to the goddess”.

This practice horrified the Roman authorities and it was made illegal. However, the Romans saw the emasculation of Attis in a pitiful way. One scholar states that “Many representations also stress the hermaphrodite character of Attis…. The writers [in Rome]have never failed to deride his female characteristics, as the artists often depicted them. By having his clothes blown upwards as by a gust of wind these sculptors and painters very demonstratively and boldly revealed the nature of Attis’ sex. Again and again they repeat this sad theme, which never failed to move the people of antiquity with a profound sense of pity and, at the same time, of awe at the dramatic love that could induce him to such a desperate act”.