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The Golden Bough

Chapter 34. The Myth and Ritual of Attis
ANOTHER of those gods whose supposed death and resurrection struck such deep roots
into the faith and ritual of Western Asia is Attis. He was to Phrygia what Adonis was to
Syria. Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation, and his death and
resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring. The legends
and rites of the two gods were so much alike that the ancients themselves sometimes
identified them. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved
by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, who had her chief
home in Phrygia. Some held that Attis was her son. His birth, like that of many other
heroes, is said to have been miraculous. His mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived
by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom. Indeed in the Phrygian
cosmogony an almond figured as the father of all things, perhaps because its delicate lilac
blossom is one of the first heralds of the spring, appearing on the bare boughs before the
leaves have opened. Such tales of virgin mothers are relics of an age of childish
ignorance when men had not yet recognized the intercourse of the sexes as the true cause
of offspring. Two different accounts of the death of Attis were current. According to the
one he was killed by a boar, like Adonis. According to the other he unmanned himself
under a pine-tree, and bled to death on the spot. The latter is said to have been the local
story told by the people of Pessinus, a great seat of the worship of Cybele, and the whole
legend of which the story forms a part is stamped with a character of rudeness and
savagery that speaks strongly for its antiquity. Both tales might claim the support of
custom, or rather both were probably invented to explain certain customs observed by the
worshippers. The story of the self-mutilation of Attis is clearly an attempt to account for
the self-mutilation of his priests, who regularly castrated themselves on entering the
service of the goddess. The story of his death by the boar may have been told to explain
why his worshippers, especially the people of Pessinus, abstained from eating swine. In
like manner the worshippers of Adonis abstained from pork, because a boar had killed
their god. After his death Attis is said to have been changed into a pine-tree.
The worship of the Phrygian Mother of the Gods was adopted by the Romans in 204 B.C.
towards the close of their long struggle with Hannibal. For their drooping spirits had been
opportunely cheered by a prophecy, alleged to be drawn from that convenient farrago of
nonsense, the Sibylline Books, that the foreign invader would be driven from Italy if the
great Oriental goddess were brought to Rome. Accordingly ambassadors were despatched
to her sacred city Pessinus in Phrygia. The small black stone which embodied the mighty
divinity was entrusted to them and conveyed to Rome, where it was received with great
respect and installed in the temple of Victory on the Palatine Hill. It was the middle of
April when the goddess arrived, and she went to work at once. For the harvest that year
was such as had not been seen for many a long day, and in the very next year Hannibal
and his veterans embarked for Africa. As he looked his last on the coast of Italy, fading
behind him in the distance, he could not foresee that Europe, which had repelled the
arms, would yet yield to the gods, of the Orient. The vanguard of the conquerors had
already encamped in the heart of Italy before the rearguard of the beaten army fell
sullenly back from its shores.