Go to the Phrygian shrine of Cybele, to her groves
Where the voice of cymbals sounds, the tambourines rattle,
Where the Phrygian piper sings with the deep curved pipe,
Where Maenads wearing ivy throw back their heads,
Where they practice the sacred rites with sharp yells.
Where they flutter around the goddess’s cohort:
It is there we must go with our rapid dances.
–Catullus, Poem 63 (circa 60 BCE)
When we think of the Ides of March, naturally, our minds as postmodern Westerners turn to thoughts of the assassination of Julius Caesar in the year 44 BCE (Before Common Era). But the ancient Romans left us a far greater legacy than the anniversary of a sordid murder. This time of year was a very holy one in the Classical Mediterranean world. Aside from celebrating the Feast of Anna Perenna, the Goddess of Timekeeping, on the banks of the Tiber River and in a sacred grove between the Flaminian and Salarian Roads, the ancient Romans kicked off a multi-week Festival in honor of the Great Goddess Kybele (Cybele), a Phrygian Mother and Mountain Goddess/Lady of the Beasts as well as order-upholding Goddess of the Polis, She Who was known for Her ecstatic Mystery cult (featuring Her slain and reborn consort, Attis) and for granting the Romans victory in their demoralizing and horrendously protracted Punic Wars (264 – 146 BCE) against the Carthaginians.
Rome Welcomes Kybele
As the Roman writer Livy explains in Book 29 of his History of Rome, in the year 204 (BCE), the worship of the Great Mother Kybele came to Rome. The Second Punic War was raging, Roman troops were suffering, and the populace grew more fearful. The Oracle at Delphi and the Sibylline Books were consulted, and the prophetic message was consistently clear: the fortunes of Rome would improve if the Magna Deum Mater (the Mother of the Gods) was formally welcomed into the city with a permanent temple established on Palatine Hill and Her Mysteries annually celebrated.
The fantastical statue of the Goddess, which came from Pessinus, Phrygia (modern western Turkey), and was freely given by the Phrygian King Attalus to the envoys of the young Roman general Scipio Africanus for transport to Rome, was made of a sacred meteor overlaid with silver. Attalus insisted, so Livy tells us, that the Goddess must be hospitably welcomed by the best man in the city (the honor fell to Scipio) accompanied by Rome’s leading women of noble families. “This young Scipio, then,” Livy continues, “was ordered to meet the Goddess at Ostia, accompanied by the married women of Rome; he was to receive her out of the ship, carry her ashore, and deliver her into the matrons’ hands” (qtd. in Meyer 125). Imagine how stupendously electrifying the scene must have been! Livy also tells us:
The women then passed the Goddess from hand to hand, one to another in succession, while all the population came thronging to meet her; censers were placed before the doorways on her route with burning incense, and many prayers were offered that she might enter the city of Rome with kindly purpose and benignant thoughts. So the procession moved on till they brought her to the Temple of Victory on the Palatine. People crowded the Palatine with gifts to the Goddess, and there was a strewing of couches and games, called the Megalesia (qtd. in Meyer 125).
In his perpetual calendar Juno Covella, Fellowship of Isis co-founder Lord Lawrence Durdin-Robertson notes that Kybele’s annual Festival in Rome began with a week of fasting and purification that commenced on March 15, starting with the procession of reed-bearers (cannophori) through the city streets, and on March 22 the Megalesia proper got underway.
Mystery Cults of the Ancient World All Taught That Love Is Stronger Than Death
As with the other Mystery Religions of the ancient world, initiates in the Mysteries of Kybele and Attis underwent a profound religious experience that removed their fear of death and assured them of immortality. As in all myths that relate the concept of Eternal Life, Love proves to be the cosmic force that awakens the dead to new life, in this case the love of Kybele for Her slain consort, Attis. Not unlike the Good Friday “Passion” and Easter Sunday liturgical ceremonies found in today’s Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, celebrants in the Mysteries of Kybele and Attis were plunged into highly ritualized collective mourning of the death of Attis (March 22) and communal celebration at His Ascent from the Underworld three days later (March 25). (Does this motif sound familiar to anyone? Hmmm?) The celebrations on the last day of the Megalesia ceremony was known as the Hilaria: The Festival of Laughter! The Dying and Resurrecting God was literally welcomed back to the world of the living with a comedy festival! (I have a hard time imagining Christians today celebrating the Resurrection of their Jesus in such a way, though it would be far more historically accurate than exchanging chocolate candies shaped like rabbits!)
With cultic symbols featuring pine trees, almonds (a fertility symbol that survives to this day in Italian wedding pastries), wild/”exotic” big cats like lions, and the sacred meteor stone from Phrygia (interestingly, there may be an etymological link between Kybele and the sacred meteor known in Islam as the Ka’aba, the holy stone to which all Muslims in good health must pledge at least one sacred pilgrimage [hadjj] in Saudi Arabia during their lifetime) and with rituals that incorporated ecstatic drumming and dancing–even ritual castration as personal sacrifice and blood-letting–the Rites of Kybele were certainly an experience in sensory stimulation, visual spectacle, and auditory overload.
Initially, Romans of noble families were appalled by this “Asian import” of a Mystery cult, but as with the cults of Isis and Mithras, also from the eastern Mediterranean, Kybele’s Mysteries swiftly spread throughout the Republic and the Roman Empire. Perhaps the most famous initiate in Kybele’s Mysteries was Julian the so-called “Apostate” (330-363 Common Era), nephew of the Emperor Constantine. Kybele was clearly his Patron Goddess (he sought Her counsel in oracles but also claimed to receive them spontaneously, what we now refer to as UPG) and he became initiated into Her Mysteries in the year 360, pledging celibacy to Her as an act of devotion.
My Devotional Relationship with Kybele
It’s amusing to me how the older you get, time feels less like a linear development and more like the turning of a spiral. And with each turning bringing you to a point / someplace you’d previously been, it’s not a deja-vu moment of exact repetition per se but a re-experiencing of something poignant with a newfound, more “elevated” perspective you’ve gleaned since that last spiral turn. That kind of an Aha! moment is the best way I can describe how Kybele has come roaring back into my life, lions and all, full circle.
Long-time readers of this blog will know how I came out of the proverbial broom closet to my family in the year 1993, when I was eighteen years old. Ever the book-hoarding scholar of both the Classical world and contemporary Witchcraft traditions, I did Solitary magical workings and religious rituals out of necessity for a few years but always set the intention that I would draw like-minded people to me when the Fates deemed best. In September of 1997, I answered an ad I’d seen placed in a Chicago-area metaphysical publication called The Monthly Aspectarian: A Wiccan coven (I won’t name it even though it no longer exists) was welcoming newcomers to a New Moon Esbat gathering, which was being held at a Unitarian Universalist Church in the near-north suburb of Evanston. Anyone with questions was asked to call the coven’s founder, a woman named Karen. I was very nervous as I called Karen and asked what kind of attire would be appropriate, how long the Esbat was slated to last, and if she had any suggestions for what I should bring for the potluck feast afterwards. My gut instinct kicked in, and I somehow didn’t like Karen without fully knowing why. Maybe it was her tone of voice. I went against my better judgment and attended the Esbat gathering that mid-September evening.
My experiences were disillusioning. No one came to welcome me; I felt so out of place. A cliquish vibe definitely put me off and sent me into fight-or-flight mode. Yet I persisted. At least the ceremony itself was pleasant: after the space was purified, the circle was cast, and a series of evocations were voiced, we went around clockwise and set our intentions for the upcoming lunation by lighting individual candles in a massive iron cauldron, perhaps the largest I’ve ever seen in my life to this day. We were asked to name ourselves before the Powers called upon and it was the first time I’d ever declared what I devised to be my Craft name, which was exciting but scary for me as well. But afterwards, alas, no welcoming efforts, no greetings, no notice of my potluck contribution. Backs were literally turned to me. And despite my efforts at introducing myself to others, including Karen the leader, to whom I’d spoken so nervously on the phone, nothing registered beyond a “Oh, that’s nice” and then cliquish conversation ensued. I went home angry and dismayed that all of the Chicago Pagan community would behave in this way, so I resumed Solitary mode for a good two years more.
And then in the summer of 1999, something started shifting. It started with my decision to answer yet another ad placed by a different Pagan group in the same publication. This was for a Summer Solstice ritual led indoors by a group called MoonBeats; the location was in my neighborhood at the Irish-American Heritage Center on Chicago’s northwest side. How bad could it be? Still, I was nervous and slightly stinging from my bad public ritual experience nearly two years prior. But my unease dissipated as soon as I entered the rented classroom door: people my own age, laughing and having fun singing and hand-drumming, rehearsing a chant that would be sung at that evening’s ritual. I was warmly greeted and introduced to everyone right away, including the lovely and theatrical High Priest and Priestess, Matthew and Teresa. Everyone then started talking about organizing a field trip to the Bristol Renaissance Faire, which I had been going to with my family since 1988. It was (and is) one of my favorite places on the planet. I loved these MoonBeats people and knew that I’d finally found a great group of co-ritualists and wonderful friends.
In August of 1999, at a MoonBeats ritual held at a metaphysical bookstore and ritual space called Sanctuary Crystals in the southwest suburb of Alsip, I not only met the person who would become my best friend (he still is): I met the Goddess Kybele. Her statue, which I wound up purchasing, captivated me immediately as soon as I saw it sitting on one of the store’s immense shelves. There was a massive selection of CDs as well as books and I wound up buying both the music and the writings of Layne Redmond, a pioneer in women’s spirituality as well as the art of hand percussion, and several CDs by Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors, especially their album, Luna.
I researched everything I could about the Goddess Kybele (mind you, this was all very pre-Internet, if you can imagine such a thing, ha ha), reacquainting myself with the writings of the ancient Romans as well as secondary works in the fields of Classical studies, archaeology, and philosophy of religion. I truly fell in love with Her so deeply. I happened to be taking West African drumming classes at the time via the Chicago Park District and I wondered if this was yet another sign of the Goddess manifesting Her energies in my life. Surely, I knew that I would be incorporating hand-drumming into my personal devotional rituals to Her.
I was living alone in the second floor of a large flat at the time and my living room doubled as my ritual space. The windows faced west and I often had wonderful late-night solitary ritual experiences honoring Kybele, watching the full moon set behind the canopy of stately sycamore trees in front of my building. I offered garlands of woven flowers as well as wine, milk, and honey to the Goddess as well as my body in sacred dance to my own drumming, my undulating movements and simple chants driving me straight into the arms of deep trance. The statue of Kybele on my altar positively glowed with energy; She was absolutely present, alive, and enjoying every minute of my devotional ritual to Her.
In addition to gathering with MoonBeats for public Sabbat celebrations I was introduced by a MoonBeats friend to her friends in a Gardnerian coven for Samhain of 1999. I learned that they were Chicago’s oldest, most successfully run coven–The Temple of the Sacred Stones–and I felt I’d found serious magical workers who would both understand and appreciate my keen devotional sensibilities and my already-developed gifts in ritual leadership, divination, and trance work. I was right, and by 2001 I received my First Degree Initiation as a Gardnerian Witch.
But all the while, at home and alone, I lovingly continued to dance for Kybele.
The “Dark Moon, Dark Goddess” Series of Public Rituals I Co-Facilitated
My solitary love for this goddess found group expression in 2013 when my friend and fellow Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis, Szmeralda, approached me with the novel idea of co-facilitating a 13-month, womyn’s-only (please note that self-identification as a woman, not biology, was our criterion for acceptance) group ritual experience that would convene at the Dark of the Moon, honoring a different goddess at each Dark Moon.
I loved the idea and we had our first ritual in April of that year (April 6), and we dedicated it to Kybele. The night before we held the ritual, I communed with Kybele and I went into a trance state so deep I knew little other than that I was “coming to” with a big “Cosmic Download” from the goddess. I set to writing, and this channeled piece of poetry flowed through my pen and onto the legal pad I wrote for three uninterrupted hours.
What an auspicious beginning to this series of rituals, I thought. I was right.
If you think the idea of an individual leading an ecstatic personal devotional ritual to Kybele, complete with singing, hand drumming, and dancing, is awesome, imagine a group of a dozen women lending their voices, their bodies, and their powerful Mountain Mother drumming presences in service to the Mother of the Gods!
Ecstasy, in my lived experience, has absolutely nothing to do with consuming intoxicating substances. It has everything to do with naturally harmonizing one’s life force energy with All That Is, and the swiftest, surest way for me to do so is through emBODIED worship, of offering my pure (in the sense of ritual purity) and energetically heightened body in a series of movements and songs of praise to the Deity (almost always a goddess) I am honoring. As a Priestess of Bast, sacred dance as a concept comes naturally to me; I realize it may not for everyone. But it’s worth exploring and incorporating into devotional rituals.
Yesterday, while driving home after visiting my parents, I fumbled for a CD to play on the car stereo. I just randomly plucked one out from my mobile collection (a Hello Kitty CD storage booklet, if you want to know) and placed it into the CD slot. A timpanum drum began to thud rhythmically, like an elevated heartbeat. I’d apparently selected the only Layne Redmond album I have in my car: her 2004 Invoking the Muse. I put two and two together and realized it was the eve of the Megalesia.
Our Holy Powers do indeed engage with us on a daily basis, and They do work in mysterious ways.
I hope this post inspires many of you to consider reaching out to the Great Goddess Kybele, that Holy Being Who bridges our gaps between wilderness and civilization, life and death, war and peace, the passionate lover and the bereaved mother, muse and finished piece of creative inspiration. As the Romans observed this day with purification rituals and fasting, I’ll follow suit and clean house externally and internally.
Ave, Magna Deum Mater! Hail, the Mother of the Gods!
Works Cited and Suggested Reading
Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre. Priestesses. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.
Kerényi, Carl. The Religion of the Greeks and Romans. Trans. Christopher Holme. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1962.
Meyer, Marvin W., ed. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1987.
Ovid. Fasti, Book 4: 247-348.
Redmond, Layne. When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.
Wilshire, Donna. Virgin, Mother, Crone: Myths and Mysteries of the Triple Goddess. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1994.