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Chapter 36. Human Representatives of Attis
FROM INSCRIPTIONS it appears that both at Pessinus and Rome the high-priest of
Cybele regularly bore the name of Attis. It is therefore a reasonable conjecture that he
played the part of his namesake, the legendary Attis, at the annual festival. We have seen
that on the Day of Blood he drew blood from his arms, and this may have been an
imitation of the self-inflicted death of Attis under the pine-tree. It is not inconsistent with
this supposition that Attis was also represented at these ceremonies by an effigy; for
instances can be shown in which the divine being is first represented by a living person
and afterwards by an effigy, which is then burned or otherwise destroyed. Perhaps we
may go a step farther and conjecture that this mimic killing of the priest, accompanied by
a real effusion of his blood, was in Phrygia, as it has been elsewhere, a substitute for a
human sacrifice which in earlier times was actually offered.
A reminiscence of the manner in which these old representatives of the deity were put to
death is perhaps preserved in the famous story of Marsyas. He was said to be a Phrygian
satyr or Silenus, according to others a shepherd or herdsman, who played sweetly on the
flute. A friend of Cybele, he roamed the country with the disconsolate goddess to soothe
her grief for the death of Attis. The composition of the Mother's Air, a tune played on the
flute in honour of the Great Mother Goddess, was attributed to him by the people of
Celaenae in Phrygia. Vain of his skill, he challenged Apollo to a musical contest, he to
play on the flute and Apollo on the lyre. Being vanquished, Marsyas was tied up to a
pine-tree and flayed or cut limb from limb either by the victorious Apollo or by a
Scythian slave. His skin was shown at Celaenae in historical times. It hung at the foot of
the citadel in a cave from which the river Marsyas rushed with an impetuous and noisy
tide to join the Maeander. So the Adonis bursts full-born from the precipices of the
Lebanon; so the blue river of Ibreez leaps in a crystal jet from the red rocks of the Taurus;
so the stream, which now rumbles deep underground, used to gleam for a moment on its
passage from darkness to darkness in the dim light of the Corycian cave. In all these
copious fountains, with their glad promise of fertility and life, men of old saw the hand of
God and worshipped him beside the rushing river with the music of its tumbling waters in
their ears. At Celaenae, if we can trust tradition, the piper Marsyas, hanging in his cave,
had a soul for harmony even in death; for it is said that at the sound of his native
Phrygian melodies the skin of the dead satyr used to thrill, but that if the musician struck
up an air in praise of Apollo it remained deaf and motionless.
In this Phrygian satyr, shepherd, or herdsman who enjoyed the friendship of Cybele,
practised the music so characteristic of her rites, and died a violent death on her sacred
tree, the pine, may we not detect a close resemblance to Attis, the favourite shepherd or
herdsman of the goddess, who is himself described as a piper, is said to have perished
under a pine-tree, and was annually represented by an effigy hung, like Marsyas, upon a
pine? We may conjecture that in old days the priest who bore the name and played the
part of Attis at the spring festival of Cybele was regularly hanged or otherwise slain upon
the sacred tree, and that this barbarous custom was afterwards mitigated into the form in
which it is known to us in later times, when the priest merely drew blood from his body