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History verifies the importance of religion not only on a society's development but also on its survival; in this respect the Romans were no different than other ancient civilizations. During the formative years of the Roman Republic, especially after its territorial acquisitions following the Four Macedonian Wars, contact with the Greek culture — especially their religion — left a lasting imprint on the Roman way of life. Along with other aspects of the Hellenic civilization, the Romans adopted the pantheon of Greek gods, although they changed many of their names. However, besides this array of deities, they also acquired several of their cults, and cults were not always welcomed by those in authority, a concept that would carry through into the Empire. While Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks) was the most notable of these cults and to those in authority, and considered the most threatening to social order, this contact also brought a less menacing sect: the Cult of Cybele.

Greek Gods in Rome

The Hellenic culture had arrived, and to ward off this influx and its impact on society, Roman authorities felt the need to reaffirm their moral superiority over the Greeks; after all, they had been victorious in battle against Greece. The appearance of Greek culture had been, for the most part, positive. Under this Greek influence, the Roman gods became more human, exhibiting such diverse characteristics as jealousy, love, and hate. However, unlike in Greece, in Rome an individual's self-expression of belief was not considered as important as adherence to ritual. In an effort to avoid religious zeal, the state demanded a strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals. While this integration of the Greeks gods was never seen as a viable threat — they easily fit into the existing array of gods — some cults proved to be something completely different: a genuine danger to the prevailing state religion.

Cybele was the mistress of wild nature (symbolized by her constant companion, the lion), a healer, the goddess of fertility & protectress in time of war.

In 186 BCE the Roman Senate, recognizing a potential menace, suppressed the worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, known to the Romans as Bacchus. His worship is best remembered for its intoxicating festival held on March 17, a day when a Roman male youth would supposedly become a man. The cult was viewed as being excessively brutal, supposedly involving ritual murder and sexual excess. As a result, many of its adherents were either imprisoned or executed. It should be noted, however, that the authority's fear of this cult was largely generated, not from first-hand experience (the cult's rituals were always conducted in secret) but from the writings of the historian Livy (c. 64 BCE-17 CE) who consistently portrayed the cult as a dangerous menace to social stability and characterized adherents as little more than drunken beasts.

While the government, influenced by Livy, viewed this cult as a threat, overall, Roman citizens questioned this harsh view of the Cult of Bacchus. They considered it no different or less immoral than the worship of the Asia Minor goddess Cybele. Actually, the major difference between the two was that the Cult of Bacchus was never sanctioned by the Roman Senate while Cybele's was. Known as the Great Mother or Magna Mater, Cybele, whose chief sanctuary was at Pessinus, was one of the early female deities, first appearing in the province of Lydia as a goddess of the mountains. Arriving from Phrygia, she made her initial appearance in Greece in the 5th century BCE with a temple in Athens (the Metroum); the Greeks identified her with the goddess Rhea (mother of the Olympians) and Demeter (goddess of the harvest). While never achieving great popularity in Greece, the cult reached Rome around the end of the 3rd century BCE.

The Cult of Cybele in Rome

Originally, the Cybelean cult was brought to Rome during the time of the Second Punic War (218 -201 BCE). At that time the Carthaginian general Hannibal was wreaking havoc in Italy, posing a serious threat to the city of Rome. The Sibylline Books, books of prophecy consulted by the Roman Senate in times of emergencies, predicted that Italy would be freed by an Idaean mother of Pessinus; to many, this meant Cybele. A black meteorite, representing the goddess, was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in 204 BCE. Miraculously, Hannibal and his army left shortly afterwards to defend Carthage against the invading Romans; a temple honoring Cybele would be built on Palatine Hill in 191 BCE. The cult eventually achieved official recognition during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41 - 44 CE). Ultimately, her appeal as an agrarian goddess would enable her to find adherents in northern Africa as well as Transalpine Gaul.

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Due to its agricultural nature, her cult had tremendous appeal to the average Roman citizen, more so women than men. She was responsible for every aspect of an individual's life. She was the mistress of wild nature, symbolized by her constant companion, the lion. Not only was she was a healer (she both cured and caused disease) but also the goddess of fertility and protectress in time of war (although, interestingly, not a favorite among soldiers), even offering immortality to her adherents. She is depicted in statues either on a chariot pulled by lions or enthroned carrying a bowl and drum, wearing a mural crown, flanked by lions. Followers of her cult would work themselves into an emotional frenzy and self-mutilate, symbolic of her lover's self-castration.

Cybele & Attis

Important to the worship of Cybele was Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation, also considered a resurrection god (similar to the Greek Adonis). Supposedly, Attis was Cybele's lover, although some sources claim him to be her son. Unfortunately, he fell in love with a mortal and chose to marry. According to one story, on the day of their wedding banquet, the irate and jealous goddess apparently struck panic into those who attended the wedding. Afraid for his own safety (no mention is made of his bride), the frightened groom fled to the nearby mountains where he gradually became insane, eventually committing suicide but not before castrating himself. Regaining her own sanity, the remorseful Cybele appealed to Zeus to never allow Attis's corpse to decay. Myth claims that he would return to life during the yearly rebirth of vegetation; thus identifying Attis as an early dying-and-reviving god figure.

Cybelean Festival

In Rome, Cybele's popularity continued to flourish, partially due to her spring festival held in March (some sources say April) called the Megalensia. The festival included public games as well as a theatrical performance at Circus Maximus. It began on March 15 with a procession of reed-bearers (cannophori) and a ritual sacrifice; the latter was for the successful planting of spring crops. On March 22, after a week of fasting and purification, a pine tree (the symbol for Attis) was brought to Palatine Hill temple. Later, there was a banquet — a day of joy or Hilaria. Next came the Day of Blood, March 24, representing the castration and death of Attis. The celebration closed on the March 25 with a ritual bath or lavation of Cybele's image. All of the cult's priests or Galli were eunuchs, something that initially prevented Roman citizens from joining. Until the reign of Claudius, Roman law stated that no one could maintain his citizenship if he became a eunuch.

Cybele was one of many cults that appeared in Rome. Some were considered harmless, the Cult of Isis for example, and allowed to survive while others, like Bacchus, were seen as a serious threat to the Roman citizens and was persecuted. Of course, almost all of these cults disappeared with the arrival of Christianity when Rome became the center of this new religion. The Cult of Cybele lasted until the 4th century CE, at which time Christianity dominated the religious landscape and pagan beliefs and rituals gradually became transformed or discarded to suit the new faith.

Cybele Palace

Cibeles Palace (Spanish: Palacio de Cibeles), formally known as Palacio de Comunicaciones (Palace of Communications) and Palacio de Telecomunicaciones (Palace of Telecommunications) until 2011, is a complex composed of two buildings with white facades and is located in one of the historical centres of Madrid, Spain. Formerly the city's main post office and telegraph and telephone headquarters, it is now occupied by Madrid City Council, serving as the city hall, and the public cultural centre CentroCentro.

The origins of Cybelianism are rooted in the story of Cybele, who was an earth goddess worshipped in Asia Minor, primarily at Çatal Hüyük. She was known as Kubaba and was earliest depicted as an earth mother - in plump and heavy forms. The name may be derivative of the local word for cube and may refer to a black meteorite that was associated with Her. Gallae were transgendered priestesses of the Cult of Great Mother. Much of what we know about them, and the cult itself, has been pieced together from fragments of contemporary accounts. The cult was a mystery religion, which meant that it's inner secrets and practices were revealed to initiates only.

The Greeks colonised Asia Minor after the Trojan War and found worship of Cybele everywhere. She was absorbed into their mythology about the 8th century BCE. About 213 BCE the Romans were fighting a war with Carthage. It was not going well

and some thought that Rome's fate might be dependent upon Cybele. Accordingly, a statue of her was taken to Rome, and the cult of Cybele in Rome was started.

At its peak, the Cult of Cybele was rivalled only by that of Isis, and there were temples in all provinces of the Empire. While Cybele was accepted, attitudes towards the Gallae changed over a period of time. Romans were horrified at the frenzy in which the gallae behaved, and by their self-emasculations. Initially the Gallae were confined to temple grounds, though later they were allowed to roam city streets with other followers. In the 4th century AD Valentinian II officially banned the cult of Cybele, and many of her followers perished at the hands of zealous Christians. Justinian continued the persecution of the cult and the Gallae. Under his reign, transgendered persons, and those indulging in same sex eroticism were dispossed, tortured, forced to commit suicide, or burned alive. By the start of the 6th century AD, the Cult and the ancient Gallae were extinct. Elements of the cult were transferred into Christianity in a manner similar to that of Isis.

The Cybelian Movement was founded in August 2004. The first institution of its kind anywhere in the World, it is a fast-growing movement with members in 98 different countries. In the U.S.A. there are members in all 50 of the 50 States. We have a hierarchy of marriage officiants - female, male and transgendered. The Cybelian Movement is not a cult it is an organisation working to usher in a world in which women are assertive and men are compliant.

The purpose of the Cybelian Order is to empower women to become assertive in their marriages. Although there have been many Womens' movements over the years, they simply have not done enough for women. Many Women around the globe are still held in oppression by males and treated as second-class citizens. Even in supposedly first-world countries such as the United States and Britain, this oppression is still happening. We hope that by the actions of the Cybelians throughout the World we can help women to realise that they can take control of their own lives and of the lives of their menfolk.

The Cult of Cybele in the Ancient World

Like Attis, it is said that Cybele's followers would work themselves into orgiastic frenzies and then ritually castrate themselves. After this, these priests donned women's clothing, and assumed female identities. They became known as the Gallai. In some regions, female priestesses led Cybele's dedicants in rituals involving ecstatic music, drumming and dancing. Under the leadership of Augustus Caesar, Cybele became extremely popular. Augustus erected a giant temple in her honor on the Palatine Hill, and the statue of Cybele that is in the temple bears the face of Augustus' wife, Livia.

During an excavation of a temple site at Çatalhöyük, in modern-day Turkey, a statue of a very pregnant Cybele was unearthed in what was once a granary, which indicates her importance as a deity of fertility and fecundity. As the Roman Empire spread, deities of other cultures found themselves absorbed into Roman religion. In the case of Cybele, she later took on many aspects of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Donald Wasson of Ancient History Encyclopedia says that the cult of Cybele was much more appealing to average Roman women than men, partly due to its agricultural nature. Cybele was responsible for every aspect of life, from pregnancy to birth to death. In addition to being a healer, she was a goddess of both fertility and protection, particularly in times of war. Wasson says,

Trans and Non-binary Identities from Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome: Inanna, Cybele, and the Gallai

How many times have you heard that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing? With more people becoming aware of differing gender identities and many feeling empowered to share their own, the subject has become a staple of lazy comedy at best and an excuse for horrific violence and harmful legislation at worst. While arguments for the repression of these identities vary, one theme seems to repeat—the idea that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing that manifested spontaneously in the modern world.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To talk about trans and non-binary identities in history, I’m not going to start with Dr. James Barry. I’m not going to talk about William Dorsey Swann, the Chevalier d’Eon, or even the Molly houses of Georgian London. We’ll get there—don’t worry—but today, we’re taking it all the way back to the beginning.


For those of you just joining us, Mesopotamia was home to the first known civilization in human history. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq is now, the area was populated by the Sumerians and Akkadians from the earliest days of recorded history, around 3100 BCE.

Mesopotamia was polytheistic, and one of the many gods worshiped was Inanna. Also known as the Queen of Heaven, Inanna was the goddess of love, beauty, sex, violence, and justice. Although she was the goddess of sex, it’s interesting to note that she was not a goddess of procreation or indeed a mother herself. She was usually portrayed as promiscuous, but this wasn’t a negative thing—as far as Inanna was concerned, sex was a sacred rite to be enjoyed as an expression of love and not exclusively for the purpose of procreation. Sex wasn’t something shameful yet. An all-powerful goddess with a devoted cult, she is often portrayed with lions. Surviving artifacts from later periods, when she evolved into or was combined with Ishtar, even show her riding a chariot being pulled by lions.

If love, beauty, war, and justice aren’t enough for one goddess to handle, Inanna also had another very important ability.

She could change men into women and women into men.

That’s not just awkward phrasing there—that’s a quote. Around 2280 BCE, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), the Akkadian High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur, wrote a number of poems and hymns for Inanna, including “The Great-Hearted Mistress,” “The Exaltation of Inanna,” an “Goddess of the Fearsome Power.” She describes some of this power here:

Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.

This isn’t a metaphor, and it isn’t the only source that mentions this.

In the Epic of Erra, a Babylonian poem, there are references to kurgarra and assinnu, classes of servants of the goddess, “whose maleness Ishtar turned to female, for the awe of the people.” The British Museum has a fragment of a five-thousand-year-old statue with a still clear inscription that translates to: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”

But these are only references to the goddess’s ability to transform gender. The most compelling evidence for trans and non-binary identities among her worshipers is the existence of her priests, known as the Gala.

The Gala were a class of priests sacred to Inanna. It was said they were initially created by the god Enki to sing “heart-soothing laments,” for the goddess, and they certainly did that. To begin with, one of their primary roles was to sing hymns and laments to the goddess in eme-sal, a Sumerian dialect spoken primarily by women that was used to render the speech of female gods. They presided over religious rites, healed the sick, predicted the future, made music, raised money for the poor, and “dissolved evil” during lunar eclipses. Akkadian omen texts said that having sex with them was lucky. They were well-known and respected members of their communities, and many of them were what we would think of now as transgender.

While it can be problematic to apply modern terminology to five-thousand-year-old gender identities, I’ll tell you what we know of them. Whether called in a dream, given a vision of the goddess, or driven by devotion, biological males entered into the service of the goddess and became female for all intents and purposes, taking on feminine pronouns and dressing and living as women. While various sources argue that ritual castration was involved, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that this early, and in any case, surgery is still not necessary to validate gender identity today. As they saw it, Inanna had made them women, and though they didn’t have the same verbiage for it, their society accepted that identity.* After all, this change was a gift of the goddess.

Swapping genders and pronouns wasn’t a comment on their sexuality, as it could be in later years. I shouldn’t have to tell you that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things: gender identity is who you are, and sexual orientation is who you love. We cannot make blanket assumptions about the sexual orientation of the Gala, but we do know that they had relationships as diverse as people do today—many served as sacred sex workers within Inanna’s temples, but others did not. Some were married (to men or women) and had families, often adopting children together. Queer families certainly existed, and homosexuality was not a crime. It wasn’t shameful or a hot-button issue—it was a normal aspect of everyday life, not even mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which provided the basis for law in the region for more than a thousand years.

Looking at the Gala in isolation, you might think their existence was an anomaly of the ancient world. Those cults got up to some strange things that could hardly be common!

Inanna was a very popular goddess, and her worship spread and evolved throughout the ancient world. While her name changed to Ishtar, Rhea, Cybele, Bahucharā Mātā, and Astarte, one thing remained the same: her priests.

Cybele on a cart drawn by lions. Bronze, 2nd century AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art

All Roads Lead to Rome

When Phrygian goddess Cybele became a part of the official state religion of Rome in 204 BCE, her Gallai came with her. At this point, genderqueer priests had served Cybele, Inanna, and other interpretations of the goddess for nearly three thousand years. They were a common sight in the ancient world, but Rome wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

Concerned with inheritance and property law, Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Gallai because of the ban on castration. Whether or not they actually practiced this is debatable, but as far as Rome was concerned, anyone who could not procreate for any reason—including disinterest, infertility, homosexuality, celibacy, or impotence—was neither truly male nor female. Castrated or not, the Gallai’s non-binary status meant they could not inherit property.

To the Romans, gender not only depended more on one’s ability to procreate than anything else, but it was subject to change. Greek and Roman medical texts from the time describe gender not as fixed, but fluid depending on humors like heat and moisture in the body. According to them, these factors could determine an infant’s sex during pregnancy, and they could also change one’s gender after birth. While the terminology was not there in the same way it is today, all of this points to the existence and tacit acceptance of a third gender in Ancient Rome, even if they did not have the same citizenship or property rights as their cisgender (and procreating) neighbors.

In spite of this, some Romans gave up their citizenship to become Gallai. Others had been slaves or had come from other parts of Asia. While it’s unclear how many Gallai were castrated or at what point in their service this happened, there is more documentation to support this happening at this point. Pliny does not go into detail but describes the process as relatively safe, and it was said to take place on Dies Sanguinis, “the Day of Blood,” on March 24th.

Still, castration alone does not change gender. Castrated or not, Gallai throughout the Roman Empire dressed, worshiped, and lived as women. They were noted for their saffron gowns, long hair, heavy makeup, and extravagant jewelry. They existed in every part of the Greco-Roman world at every level of society and were mentioned by Ovid, Seneca, Persius, Martial, and Statius as a common sight in the first century. Apuleius even described them in The Golden Ass:

“The following day they went out, wearing various colored undergarments with turbans and saffron robes and linen garments thrown over them, and every one hideously made up, their faces crazy with muddy paints and their eyes artfully lined.”

Statue of a priest of Cybele

If nothing else, the Gallai knew how to make an entrance. One of the ways in which they practiced healing was through a sort of music therapy that involved parading through town while singing and playing chaotic music to induce a sort of transcendental, joyful mania in the crowd. Others told fortunes—along with service to the goddess, castration was believed to give one the ability to see the future—or begged or danced for money on behalf of the poor. They were hard to miss, wonders in their own time. Diodorus called them terata—“marvels, monsters, prodigies, signs.” As historian Will Roscoe so beautifully put it, they were “the sacred breaking through to the level of the mundane.”

Early Christians weren’t as fond of the Gallai. They preached spiritual androgyny, but physical androgyny was complicated although trans and non-binary identities had existed throughout the ancient world for more than three thousand years, they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. At this point, they may have been such a common part of society that they would have been more or less taken for granted.

Still, early Christian apologists describe the Gallai in less flattering but suspiciously familiar-sounding terms:

“They wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?” – Fermicus Maternus

“Even till yesterday, with dripping hair and painted faces, with flowing limbs and feminine walk, they passed through the streets and alleys of Carthage, exacting from merchants that by which they might shamefully live.” – St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 7.26

Ugh! Buying groceries. How dare she?

It wasn’t only toxic masculinity and transphobia that fueled this distaste the cult of Cybele was hugely influential throughout the ancient world and was one of early Christianity’s biggest rivals. In some places, Christians and followers of Cybele had street fights when their religious festivals overlapped in the spring, and the Gallai came to represent to some what they didn’t like about pagan culture.**

Nevertheless, Cybele continued to be worshiped until the fall of Rome, with the religion’s last known rites being celebrated in 394 CE.

So far, so Mediterranean. What about the rest of the world?

But Wait, There’s More

In India, the Hijra are intersex and transgender people with history dating back to antiquity. Like Cybele’s devotees, they are connected to music. They are considered the third gender there, and they were even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Beyond India, trans and non-binary priests have been documented throughout southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Like the Gala and Gallai, all of these roles involved the worship of a goddess, gender transgression, elements of healing, and actual or symbolic castration. In their capacity as religious figures focused on sacred rites and community care, they were all important and respected members of their various communities.

In the Americas, the term “two-spirit” was coined in 1990 to describe the non-binary people who had existed within Indigenous communities since time immemorial. Although written historical records on this are limited, historical references can still be found.

When Don Pedro Fages wrote his account of the 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition of what is now California, he reported meeting two-spirit people within the local tribes:

“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession. (…) They are called joyas (jewels) and are held in great esteem.”

Earlier, Bacqueville de la Potherie described a third, non-binary gender identity among the Iroquois in his Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale (1722).

Trans and non-binary gender identities have existed in many cultures since antiquity, and the fact that they developed independently of each other strongly suggests that they are natural rather than learned. Not only are these identities older than 1960, but they predate Christianity by some three thousand years. So the next time someone tells you they want to “return to traditional values,” you be sure to ask them, “How far back do you want to go?”

Jessica Cale

*Note: worth mentioning that this presumably also happened for trans men, although there is unfortunately less documentation of them from this period.
**Like music, makeup, and having fun.

Berkowitz, Eric. Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

Fages, P. Priestley, H. I. Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). A historical, political, and natural description of California. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33.

Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between myth and history: king, priest, and God Volume 149 of Religions in the Graeco-Roman world. BRILL. pp. 96–97.


The honey bee was held sacred in antiquity, and civilisations that embraced its life-affirming gifts flourished those who did not perished. Foremost among its many by-products was honey, whose varied applications included ritualistic and medicinal use, as well as trade. But there were others, such as beeswax, acupuncture and pollination. These benefits, and more, led to the diminutive creature’s exalted status as a goddess. Yet, there was another reason why the honey bee was revered, and it concerns the most sacred stone in history.

Egypt was known as the land of the bee, its kings were called ‘beekeepers’ and the founders of the Nile Valley appear to have travelled from Mesopotamia with bees in their boats after the flood, circa 3,000 BCE. Exactly what caused the flood or, more precisely, the global legends of localised floods, remains a mystery. However, one possibility is the memory of life devastated by a heavenly shower of meteorites. Curiously, this tradition appears to be commemorated in the worship of the greatest goddess of all, the mother goddess from Anatolia, known as Cybele.

Cybele an image inspired by a statue of the goddess in Madrid, Spain

A Heavenly Shower of Stones

Ancient Rome was a Pagan nation that venerated many arcane gods. Incredibly, one of the most noteworthy was a stone from heaven, which was venerated as the Mother Goddess and, quite literally, became the Queen Bee of all deities: a Bee Goddess.

Italy, 345 BCE: A ‘shower of stones rained down and darkness filled the sky during daylight’ (Livy 7, 28) and Rome contemplated the omen with considerable apprehension. In crucial matters of state such as this there was only one thing to do. They consulted 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’.

Pollination by a honey bee

The books were written in Greek hexameter, which echoed the shape of a beehive’s honeycomb cells and provided an appropriate literary measure for the shamanic-inspired oracular utterances, which had been written by a bee priestess. They date to the time of the Greek law-giver, Solon (638 – 558 BCE), one of the seven great sages of the ancient world. Solon is best known as the poet who travelled to Sais in Egypt to visit the domain of the bee goddess, Neith, who lived in the Temple of the Bee, near the grave of Osiris, who was buried in the Mansion of the Bee. In the process Solon preserved the legend of the lost civilisation of Atlantis, which had been recorded on the pillars of the ancient sanctuary and recounted to him by the priests of the temple. Upon his return to Greece Solon administered laws on the rules of beekeeping and, ultimately, passed the memory of Atlantis on to Plato, who commemorated it for future posterity.

The Sibylline Texts were consulted in moments of national crisis and an ominous shower of stones from heaven was deemed worthy of their review. Nobody knows exactly what the Sibylline Books suggested, but we are told that a public holiday was established for religious observance (Livy 7, 28). Although no further remedial action was taken, the reference to a meteorite shower was indeed prophetic, for arguably the most significant consultation of the Sibylline Books was to come nearly one hundred and fifty years later and it would involve what is perhaps the most infamous meteorite in history: the Mother Goddess, Cybele, goddess of bees, lions and caves.

The Sibylline Books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill until destroyed by fire in 83 BC. This is the only known picture of the Temple

Half a century later, in 295 BCE, reports surfaced of an outbreak of pestilence, together with rumours that large numbers of the Roman army had been struck by lightning. The Books were again consulted and this time the prescribed remedy was the construction of a Temple to Venus near the ancient Roman chariot-racing stadium, known as the Circus Maximus (Livy 10, 31). Only two years later, in 293 BCE, another plague engulfed the land and the sacred Books were consulted once more. This time the prescription was that Aesculapius, the ancient Greek god of healing and medicine, be brought to Rome from Epidaurus, a city in Greece’s Saronic Gulf. In this instance, however, the Senate was preoccupied with other matters of state and ignored the Books’ seemingly audacious suggestion, opting instead for the less radical remedy of a day of public prayers dedicated to Aesculapius (Livy 10, 47).

The Sibylline Books had been placated, if not ignored, and their guardians worried that further consultations may also be disrespected. Half a century passed and in 238 BCE a severe drought decimated crops, prompting the Books to be consulted once more. This time the sacred texts recommended a more tempered course of action and the Ludi Florales, or ‘Flower Games’, were established. The Ludi Florales appear to have been a precursor to the May Day celebration and consisted of rituals in honour of the Flower Goddess, Flora. The goal was to appease the gods, in the hope of returning vitality to crops and foliage. Like our present May Day festival, the celebrations featured wreaths worn in the hair and included theatrical performances in the Circus Maximus, where animals were set free and fertility rituals, such as the scattering of beans, were practised. The performances also featured naked actresses and prostitutes, prompting Renaissance writers to identify Flora as a human prostitute, who later became revered as a goddess. As popular as the festival became, its popularity waned until wind and hail damaged Rome’s flowers again in 173 BCE and the festival was revived. Nevertheless, the prophecies of the Sibylline Books were not always as prosaic as the Ludi Florales and in 216 BCE, after Hannibal had annihilated the Roman legions at Cannae, the sacred Books ordered that four men (two Greeks and two Gauls) be buried alive in the city market place.

Modern statue of Cybele in Madrid, Spain

The Goddess is Summoned

Nearly one hundred and fifty years had passed since the last ‘shower of stones rained down’ on Rome, but return they did. The year was 205 BCE and the Second Punic War, known as the War Against Hannibal, was coming to a close. Reports were widespread of ‘frequently falling rocks’ in the region and the phenomenon was creating religious fervour throughout the land. The meteorites had returned. Rome consulted the Sibylline Books once more, in this instance for the eighth time in recorded history, and a general by the name of Scipio the Elder concluded that the Anatolian goddess, Cybele, known in the ancient world as the Mother Goddess and mother of all gods, was to be summoned from her sanctuary in Anatolia and brought to Rome. And so the wishes of the oracular utterances were set in motion and the Great Idaean Mother, as she was known, a meteorite ‘born of stone’ (Johnston in Cybele, Attis and Related Cults edited by Eugene Lane 1996, p. 109) would soon arrive in Rome.

Cybele was ceremonially towed up the River Tiber in a carefully selected ship. Scipio the Elder, as instructed by the Sibylline Texts, gathered all the married women of Rome for her heralded arrival in the port at Ostia. However, her entrance in the capital did not go as planned. The ship carrying the statue became lodged on a sandbar at the mouth of the river and the young men of Rome were called upon to help free the vessel and secure Cybele’s entry into the city. They failed, only to be shown up by the enigmatic Claudia Quinta, a Roman woman of considerable notoriety.

Quinta was a social outcast, who was viewed as a woman of ill-repute. However, the arrival of the Mother Goddess soon changed that. Quinta was not like the other women in Rome. She had a reputation for excess and was frequently bold in her speech and lavishly dressed for all occasions. This led the Romans to cast her as unchaste and dishonourable. And yet her boldness was rewarded, for the young men who had gathered in the port to help dislodge the ship called upon her to try her best at freeing the ship that carried the Anatolian Mother Goddess, for they had failed. There can be little doubt that their suggestion that Quinta should attempt to dislodge the ship was made in jest. Nevertheless, as Quinta had accompanied Scipio the Elder to the port, this suggestion was not without protocol. Quinta did not hesitate to seize the moment. She prayed before the Mother Goddess, then confidently instructed the men to tie the ropes of the ship to her girdle. She pulled on the long rope and soon, to the amazement of the crowd, the frozen ship promptly dislodged from the sandbar and the Mother Goddess was set free to come ashore to her new home.

An early woodcut showing Claudia Quinta pulling Cybele into Rome

Quinta was not only vindicated by her actions, she had become a heroine. And, what is more, she became an archetype for the divine feminine and proudly cast herself in the tradition of the Amazonian women, who had embodied the essence of the bee-goddess deity through history.

Thanks to Quinta’s heroics, Cybele was presented to the Senate, who embedded the meteorite in the face of a cult statue in the Victory Sanctuary on the Palatine Hill. Here she was worshiped as the Magna Mater, or ‘Great Mother’, for the next thirteen years, until construction of her own temple was completed in 191 BCE. Conspicuously, Cybele was accompanied by an exotic priesthood of eunuchs, called Galli, who dressed in yellow-coloured regalia, redolent of the bee, complete with a beehive-inspired headdress. The Galli practised a peculiar tradition. They castrated themselves during an ecstatic celebration, called the dies sanguinis or ‘Day of Blood’, which took place on 24 March in honour of the Goddess, in what amounted to a gruesome and bloody spectacle. The ritual horrified the Romans, who, although Pagan, were not prepared for the frenzied reception that Cybele would inspire. The act of self-mutilation, known as castration, was soon rendered a punishable crime of the state.

Rock-statue of Cybele at Mount Sipylus, late second millennium BCE

The ritual of castration is likely to be an ode to Attis, Cybele’s consort in Phrygian and Greek mythology, whose priests were eunuchs, meaning they had voluntarily submitted to the act of self-mutiliation. Attis castrated himself moments before his marriage to the King of Pessinus’s daughter was to be consummated, due to the spontaneous arrival at the wedding ceremony of Cybele, who had been in love with him for some time. The two acts of castration spawned the creation of a group of armed and crested castrated dancers, known as the Corybantes, who worshipped Cybele with drumming and dancing.

An ancient relief showing Corybantian dance

Attis was a Phrygian god of vegetation and in his self-mutilation, death, and resurrection he represents the fruits of the earth, which die in winter, only to rise again in the spring. It is said that Attis’s body was preserved after his death, so that it would not decay (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 7, 19). In those days the only way that this would have been possible was to bury the body in honey, as Alexander the Great is said to have been buried, and as Herodotus noted the Babylonians buried their dead. This further solidifies the emerging image of a cult existing and acting in reverence to a deity viewed as the supreme female goddess, a bee goddess.

The seemingly bizarre behaviour of Cybele’s priesthood is better understood when we learn that this Mother Goddess was twinned with the Mother Goddess, Rhea, from Crete. Each was afforded the attribute ‘she of the axe’, and each was from Mount Ida, the ‘Mountain of the Goddess’ – Rhea’s in Crete and Cybele’s in Turkey. Additionally, both were deemed ‘Mother of the Gods’ and were worshipped as bee goddesses. Together they formed the basis for the legendary ‘double axe’, a misunderstood symbol that actually represents a bee, not merely an axe used in rituals to kill bulls, as commonly believed (Haralampos V. Harissis & Anastasios V. Harissis, Apiculture in the Prehistoric Aegean, 2009, p. 68). This realisation is vital and was commemorated at one of the most cultured centres of the ancient world, the Minoan ‘Palace of the Double Axe’, known as Knossos, in Crete. Thus, the real name of the sacred complex is nothing less than the Palace of the Bee.

Hypothetical origin and evolution of the schematic meaning of the double axe. First shown in Apiculture in the Prehistoric Aegean by Haralampos V. Harissis & Anastasios V. Harissis

Just what became of the meteorite known as Cybele is uncertain, but an intriguing possibility is that the ‘black stone’ re-emerged in the holy Arabian city of Mecca, the iconic centre of pilgrimage for all Muslims, where it became the most revered relic in history. Interestingly, Mecca is home to a tradition of eunuchs, much like Cybele’s priesthood. Here, holy men voluntarily eradicated their manhood in service to the mosques that protected the black stone (Brunschvig, ‘Abd’ in Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 16), despite the practice being deemed as mutilation and being objectionable according to the Qur’an and under Islamic law. In fact, legislation was created to prevent it, as it had been in Rome. Nevertheless, its practice in Mecca, in service to the ‘black stone’ was rampant (Reuben Levy, The Social Structure of Islam (1957) p. 77). This tradition, I feel, inspired the enigmatic Black Madonnas of Europe, which remember the ‘Great Mother’, the Queen Bee from ancient times and the meteorite stone that turned black and became known as the bee goddess, named Cybele.

A typical Black Madonna (London). Are these black goddesses inspired by the black stones / meteorites?

The origins of the Black Madonna may be lost from history, but what is certain is that the stone of Mecca, known as Ka’bah, was once worshipped as a goddess. As has so often occurred, the matriarch was suppressed and replaced by the patriarch, rendering our only linguistic memory of the stone: Ka’bah, meaning ‘cube’, which when pronounced sounds similar to ‘Cy-be-le’. The truth is that Mecca was once a shrine to the Goddess, Al-Lat, which stems from Allah and which had three meanings, all related to the goddess, with themes reminiscent of the Grail: (1) Q’re – the Maiden, (2) Al’Uzza – the Mother and (3) Al’Menat – Goddess of Fate. And what better title for a goddess – a meteorite – that transformed humanity than the ‘Goddess of Fate’. Is it any wonder that in ancient times seven priestesses circled the sacred goddess stone seven times, naked, and their priests were known as the ‘Sons of the Old Woman’?

An illustration of the ‘black stone’ at Ka’bah

Bees and the Grail

The meteorite known as Cybele highlights the curious relationship between bees and sacred stones. For instance, the word ‘bee’ in ancient Egyptian is ‘bit’, which is a derivative of the word Bethel (House of God) / Bitel / Byt / Bit. In the esoteric framework of Gematria (the system of assigning numerical values to letters of a word or phrase in the belief that identical sums bear some relation to each other) ‘bee’ carries the same numeric value (443) as ‘meteorite’. This fact is interesting, for Wolfram von Eschenbach, the German knight and writer of Parzival, the first complete grail romance, states that the grail is a stone from heaven. Specifically, he calls it lapsit exillîs, which hasmystified scholars no end, for lapsit is not Latin, but lapsavit is, meaning ‘it fell’ (Richard Barber, The Holy Grail, 2004, p181). Yet most scholars agree that Eschenbach, a writer who enjoyed his historical puns, actually meant lapis ex celis (Stone from Heaven) or lapis elixir (Elixir Stone) or even lapis exilii (Stone of Exile). Strangely, each definition seems appropriate, especially since Eschenbach only penned historical accounts – he never wrote fiction – and a stone from heaven is nothing if not a meteorite. Could the grail have been inspired by Cybele, the meteorite that was worshipped as a bee goddess? Might the grail be the black stone at Mecca? Could the Black Stone of Mecca, the mother / bee-goddess, Cybele, be the ‘Stone in Exile’?

Another example of a bee’s unusual relationship with stones is Rhea’s husband (and brother), Cronus, who ate each of their children in succession (Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera), except the last, Zeus, whom Rhea saved by feeding her husband a stone wrapped in cloth, disguised as a child. Zeus would be raised by two nymphs, or bee goddesses, named Adrasteia and Idê, who fed him honey in a cave on Crete. The Greek ‘King of the Gods’ would assume the title Melissaios, meaning ‘bee-man’. Had Zeus also usurped the matriarch? Or did he honour it by assuming that title?

Whatever the case, stones, bees and goddesses appear to be intertwined, yet this should not be surprising. The great goddess who fell from the sky wreaked havoc on the world below and those who survived its aftermath would have remembered this fact and revered it as the mother goddess of our earth and the Queen Bee of our hive.

Medieval Scientists Thought It Marked The Start Of "Spontaneous Generation"

The life cycles of many animals, birds, and insects remained obscure to European scientists until well into the modern period. But they had to come from somewhere so, from the ancient Greeks onwards, people decided that they just appeared out of nowhere. Well, that's not strictly accurate. The idea of spontaneous generation, as it was called, was the concept that things with no obvious life cycle sprang up out of rotting or decaying flesh or matter. Mice, for instance, were suggested to be created when sweaty underwear was placed near husks of wheat in dark places, transforming them into rodents.

The vernal equinox was, for medieval thinkers, the point of the year at which this practice started in earnest. A 12th century philosopher called Petrus Alfonsi wrote:

He was, of course, partly right: spring was the part of the year when things began to breed and new growth appeared. The bit about things randomly appearing in rotten flesh, though, not so much.

Earliest History of Mothers Day

The earliest history of Mothers Day dates back to the ancient annual spring festival the Greeks dedicated to maternal goddesses. The Greeks used the occasion to honor Rhea, wife of Cronus and the mother of many deities of Greek mythology.

Ancient Romans, too, celebrated a spring festival, called Hilaria dedicated to Cybele, a mother goddess. It may be noted that ceremonies in honour of Cybele began some 250 years before Christ was born. The celebration made on the Ides of March by making offerings in the temple of Cybele lasted for three days and included parades, games and masquerades. The celebrations were notorious enough that followers of Cybele were banished from Rome.

Early Christians celebrated a Mother's Day of sorts during the festival on the fourth Sunday of Lent in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ. In England the holiday was expanded to include all mothers. It was then called Mothering Sunday.

Mother's Day History: Mothering Sunday

The more recent history of Mothers Day dates back to 1600s in England. Here a Mothering Sunday was celebrated annually on the fourth Sunday of Lent (the 40 day period leading up to Easter) to honor mothers. After a prayer service in church to honor Virgin Mary, children brought gifts and flowers to pay tribute to their own mothers.

On the occasion, servants, apprentices and other employees staying away from their homes were encouraged by their employers to visit their mothers and honor them. Traditionally children brought with them gifts and a special fruit cake or fruit-filled pastry called a simnel. Yugoslavs and people in other nations have observed similar days.

Custom of celebrating Mothering Sunday died out almost completely by the 19th century. However, the day came to be celebrated again after World War II, when American servicemen brought the custom and commercial enterprises used it as an occasion for sales.

History of Mother's Day: Julia Ward Howe

The idea of official celebration of Mothers day in US was first suggested by Julia Ward Howe in 1872. An activist, writer and poet Julia shot to fame with her famous Civil War song, "Battle Hymn of the Republic". Julia Ward Howe suggested that June 2 be annually celebrated as Mothers Day and should be dedicated to peace. She wrote a passionate appeal to women and urged them to rise against war in her famous Mothers Day Proclamation, written in Boston in 1870. She also initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June in Boston and held the meeting for a number of years. Julia tirelessly championed the cause of official celebration of Mothers Day and declaration of official holiday on the day. Her idea spread but was later replaced by the Mother's Day holiday now celebrated in May.

History of Mother's Day: Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis is recognised as the Founder of Mothers Day in US. Though Anna Jarvis never married and never had kids, she is also known as the Mother of Mothers Day, an apt title for the lady who worked hard to bestow honor on all mothers.

Anna Jarvis got the inspiration of celebrating Mothers Day from her own mother Mrs Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis in her childhood. An activist and social worker, Mrs Jarvis used to express her desire that someday someone must honor all mothers, living and dead, and pay tribute to the contributions made by them.

A loving daughter, Anna never forgot her mothers word and when her mother died in 1905, she resolved to fulfill her mothers desire of having a mothers day. Growing negligent attitude of adult Americans towards their mothers and a desire to honor her mothers soared her ambitions.

To begin with Anna, send Carnations in the church service in Grafton, West Virginia to honor her mother. Carnations were her mothers favorite flower and Anna felt that they symbolised a mothers pure love. Later Anna along with her supporters wrote letters to people in positions of power lobbying for the official declaration of Mothers Day holiday. The hard work paid off. By 1911, Mother's Day was celebrated in almost every state in the Union and on May 8, 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a Joint Resolution designating the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.

History of Mother's Day: Present Day Celebrations

Today Mothers Day is celebrated in several countries including US, UK, India, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Mexico, Canada, China, Japan and Belgium. People take the day as an opportunity to pay tribute to their mothers and thank them for all their love and support. The day has become hugely popular and in several countries phone lines witness maximum traffic. There is also a tradition of gifting flowers, cards and others gift to mothers on the Mothers Day. The festival has become commercialised to a great extent. Florists, card manufacturers and gift sellers see huge business potential in the day and make good money through a rigorous advertising campaign.

It is unfortunate to note that Ms Anna Jarvis, who devoted her life for the declaration of Mothers Day holiday was deeply hurt to note the huge commercialisation of the day.

Ann Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe

The origins of Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States date back to the 19th century. In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children.

These clubs later became a unifying force in a region of the country still divided over the Civil War. In 1868 Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation.

Another precursor to Mother’s Day came from the abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe. In 1870 Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. In 1873 Howe campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2.

Other early Mother’s Day pioneers include Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist who inspired a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Michigan, in the 1870s. The duo of Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering, meanwhile, both worked to organize a Mothers’ Day in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some have even called Hering “the father of Mothers’ Day.”

See Also

Borgeaud, Philippe. La M è re des dieux: De Cyb è le à la vierge Marie. Paris, 1996.

Cerri, Giovanni. "La madre degli dei nell'Elena di Euripide: Tragedia e rituale." Quaderni di storia 18 (1983): 155 – 195.

Graillot, Henri. Le culte de Cyb è le, M è re des dieux, à Rome et dans l'empire romain. Paris, 1912. Old, but still has important data on Cybele in Rome.

Gruen, Erich S. "The Advent of the Magna Mater." In Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, pp. 5 – 33. New York and Leiden, 1990.

Haspels, C. H. E. The Highlands of Phrygia: Sites and Monuments. Princeton, 1971.

Hepding, Hugo. Attis, seine Mythen und sein Kult. Giessen, Germany, 1903. Reprint, 1967.

Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between Myth and History: King, Priest, and God. Leiden, 2002.

Lane, Eugene N., ed. Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1996.

Mellink, Matcheld J. "Comments on a Cult Relief of Kybele from Gordion." In Beitr ä ge zur Altertumskunde Kleinasiens: Festschrift f ü r Kurt Bittel, edited by R. M. Boehmer and H. Hauptmann, pp. 349 – 360. Mainz am Rhein, 1983.

Nauman, Friederike. Die Ikonographie der Kybele in der phrygischen und der griechischen Kunst. T ü bingen, 1983.

Pensabene, Patrizio. "Nuovi indagini nell'area del tempio di Cibele sul Palatino." In La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'Impero Romano, edited by Ugo Bianchi and Maarten J. Vermaseren, pp. 68 – 98. Leiden, 1982.

Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1999. A comprehensive treatment of the cult of Cybele in Anatolia, Greece, and the Roman Republic and early empire.

Rutter, Jeremy B. "The Three Phases of the Taurobolium." Phoenix 22 (1968): 226 – 249.

Sfameni Gasparro, Giulia. Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis. Leiden, 1985.

Vermaseren, Maarten J. Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult. Translated by A. M. H. Lemmers. London, 1977.

Vermaseren, Maarten J. Corpus cultus Cybelae Attisdisque. 7 vols. Leiden, 1977 – 1989. The most comprehensive collection of epigraphical and artistic sources for the Cybele cult interpretations should be used with caution.

Wiseman, T. P. "Cybele: Virgil and Augustus." In Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, edited by Tony Woodman and David West, pp. 117 – 128. Cambridge, UK, 1984.


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