The Megalesia…(in conjunction with another Spring Equinox festival called Hilaria) was the name the Romans gave to a week-long festival celebrating the Phrygian Goddess, Cybele and her eunuch Son/Lover Attis, a vegetation God that died at Winter and was resurrected at Spring.
Romans brought the festival from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). We have some reasonably complete records of the Roman Megalesia. However, time left us few records from the thousands of years She was worshiped in various forms in Anatolia.
The Megalesia kicked off every year on April 4th and concluded April 10th.*
To begin with, bright and early on the first morning of the Megalesia, the temple Priest/esses brought out a sacred silver image of Kybele riding in a chariot drawn by lions and paraded it through the city. The Corybantes, fully armed Priestess who danced wildly and clashed their swords and shields together, escorted the procession. They played drums, flutes, cymbals, and tambourines, making a great cacophony as they made their way through the city. The Greeks looked at these priestesses as half divine, half demonic entities who used sound like a psychic attack.
Then, the attendees chopped down an evergreen like a pine or a fir, wrapped it in wool bands, hung it with an effigy of Attis, and carried through the city to the door of Cybele’s temple. There, petitioners stood, lamenting and mourning the death of the God Attis. The Galli, eunuch Priests of Attis, moved through the crowds wearing headdresses of woven pomegranate boughs or carrying the fruit in their hands. For the next three days and nights, the people mourned. They fasted, abstaining in particular from anything made of wheat like bread, and possibly wine as well, subsisting only on fresh milk and honey, like newborns.
Males in attendance cut themselves in ritual sorrow, and some were castrated outright.
They joined the ranks of the Galli Priests, giving over a symbol of their male-ness to the Goddess as religious fervor gripped them, overseen and cared for by the Galli. Some would burst forth from the temple, stumbling into the homes closest to the temple, where the women of the house would grab the nearest piece of their own clothing and dress the Galli as women, and send them out again.
Afterwards, on the eve of the third night of the Megalesia, a brilliant light burst forth from deep in the heart of the temple, and the God Attis arose from the dead to greet the weary parishioners. The Goddess Kybele cried out, “Be of good cheer, neophytes, for Attis has been saved and so shall we, in turn, be saved!!”
And then it was party time. The Mellissae, Priestesses of the Goddess, came forth with food, wine, fresh water, and sacred honey to dress the wounds of those who had made sacrificial cuttings. The revelry and recovery period lasted another few days, with folks continuing to make offers on the altar of Kybele in food, honey, flowers, wheat, and blood. Folks played ludi, or religious games, on the temple steps.
Finally, on the last day of the Megalesia, the image of Cybele in her chariot, as well as the cart that carried it, was once again taken from her temple and brought to the River Tiber and washed. The priest/esses adorned image and cart with violets and brought back to the temple to await the festivities next Spring.
That’s a pretty intense way to bring in Spring!
In this record from the Romans, we see a group of folks attempting to connect to Gods and Goddesses deemed “ancient” with an assorted collection of symbols, myths, and ritual practices. We look back approximately 2000 years to this Roman ritual. Some elements the Romans included came 7,000-9,000 years before them! To understand the importance of this Goddess and this celebration, we need to look far back into the ancient past and explore the Great Mother of Anatolia.
To understand the intensity behind the Megalesia, we have to understand Cybele, The Great Mother.
Anatolian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Levantine peoples all knew Her by many names, but they all meant “Great Mother.” Cybebe, Kubele, Kubebe, Gebaliah, Agdistis, Berecyntia, Lato, Arinna, Atalanta, Curetes, Hepat, Lat/Elath/Al’Lat.
Civilizations like Catul Huyuk, Gobekli Tepe, and Nevali Cori trace Her worship back to 10,000 BCE and possibly earlier. What’s more, She may be, or be related to, Goddesses like Ishtar, Inanna, Dindymene, Dindymus, Ma. Once brought to the Greco-Roman world, Romans blended Her with the symbols, duties, and myths of Goddesses like Ops, Demeter, Bona Dea, Astronoe, Rhea, and Athena. She may have even inspired them. Archaeologically, there is very little to connect these Goddesses and ritual forms we see in Anatolia, Assyria, and other Tigris/Euphrates civilizations with the Amazons of Libya, but there are plenty of similarities with their Goddesses and ritual forms.
She was the Earth itself.
Folks worshiped Her on mountaintops and in caves, and depicted Her as a sacred stone or a mountain. We can see similarities with other Stone Goddess like Ba’Alat in Byblos, Al Uzza in Mecca, and the sacred stones of Amazons at Colchis. Like many Star Goddesses, people saw Her in meteorites. In this form, She was known as Agdo, Agdos. The name means “deified object,” a rock, the Great Mother, from which the world sprang.
The Mellissae were Her priestesses, and they called Her Queen Bee. Honey was so sacred to Her and Her rites that honey, bees, and apiaries were protected by law in Anatolia. Flanked by lions, She carries a sacred cymbal, a whip, branches, and grains. (Think about this description of the Goddess, and then consider another Springtime archetype, The Empress Card from Tarot.) Armed dancers named Corybantes, or Kurbantes attend Her, and her symbols included a turret crown, robes, columns, mountains, and caves.
Information about this vast, ancient deity swirls around itself in spirals and waves.
Kybele or Cybele is the Roman equivalent of this Earth Goddess. The Romans also called Her Magna Mater, Mater Turrita and depicted Her with a turret on Her head. They also called Her Mater Magna Idaea, connecting Her to Mount Ida. She deals in protection, fertility, war, health, immortality, and in particular, the founding of cities. (Consider this architect concept alongside yet another Spring time archetype, compliment to the Empress, The Emperor Card from Tarot. If we take gender out of the equation, these two cards combine to show a wise leader with a cool skill set…)
In true patriarchal Greco-Roman fashion, those cultures describe how Cybele came into being thus; Zeus came upon the ancient Goddess Agdos, sleeping in the form of a mountain. Try as he might, he just could not find a way to violate the Goddess as She slept. The challenge was still enough to get Zeus off however, and he ejaculated on the ground. But the ground too was The Goddess, and She conceived a child. The child’s name was Agdistis.
Attis was her consort.
In some tales, a River Goddess named Nana ate a pomegranate, or placed a pomegranate in Her bosom, and gave birth to Attis. In other tales, Nana “sat on” an almond on the ground, and became pregnant with Attis. The almond was no ordinary nut, however. It was the severed genitals of a poly-gendered deity named Agdistis (or Agdistus). Agdistis castrated themselves, but bled to death and became a pine tree (and sometimes this emasculated character is referred to as Cybele Herself.) Agdistis is another name for The Great Mother. In other tales, Kybele gave birth to Attis. Still other versions insist Kybele found Attis on the banks of the Euphrates. In all tales, Attis is also The Great Mother’s Lover.
Attis is a forever youthful shepherd and vegetation deity, playing his flute among the sheep on the golden hillsides, rising and dying with the crops of Einhorn wheat Anatolia was known for. He is not immortal, but never ages. His central locations of worship may have been near Gallipoli, on the Gallipoli peninsula. Some Gods that are similar to Attis are Anchises, Dumuzi, Krishna, Aengus, Hephaestus, Uranus.
How Attis is castrated and dies also varies from myth to myth.
In one tale, Attis and Kybele make a pact of chastity or celibacy, but Attis marries the daughter of river god Sangarius. Kybele drives him insane. In his madness, or possibly to try to remove the source of his suffering, or to atone for breaking the law of the Goddess, he castrates himself and dies. Attis bleeds to death under a pine tree, and violets spring up from his blood. In yet another tale, he fears being unfaithful to Kybele and removes the tempting member before he can make a mistake.
Other myths depict Attis attacked and run through by wild boars sent by a jealous Zeus. Still another shows him assaulted by the deity Agdistis, who forces themselves on him. In horror, Attis tears off his own genitals and again bleeds to death.
In nearly all these tales, some type of castration is critical. (Why? It may seem like a stretch, but Turkey is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. Perhaps the theme of castration was partially a way to explain the Gallipoli Peninsula breaking away from the country after an earthquake.) Attis bleeds to death under an evergreen (pine, fir, cypress, etc.). Violets spring up from his blood. And Kybele mourns.
From tale to tale, Kybele’s mourning process is relatively consistent.
Kybele wrapped Attis’ body in wool mourning bands. She took his body and the tree he died under to her cave, planting the tree at the mouth of the cave, and burying his body beneath it. Then She retreated to the cave, and as She mourned, all life on Earth stopped growing. Kybele decreed the evergreen would stay ever-green as a symbol of Her love for Attis. In some tales, She resurrects him as a fir or other conifer.
In all of this ancient symbolism, we can see the traces of these myths that made it into the Megalesia; the evergreens, violets, castration, resurrection, the wool bands, the pomegranates. Consider these sacred symbols, and where else we find them.
Anatolians venerated Kybele for centuries (or millennia) in the form of a great black stone held in a temple in what is now central Turkey.
The stone may have landed at Aegospotami, but was kept in the sacred city of Pessinus. When the Kybele stone was brought to Rome, it was at the demands of the oracular Sibyls, who spoke of a great black rock that had fallen to earth, mentioned in the Sibylline books. It was brought by ship to the mouth of the River Tiber where the ship ran aground and could be moved by no man.
A woman, Claudia Quinta, gave one of the ship’s ropes a tug and boat easily moved. She tied the rope around her waist and pulled the boat along, passing the cable to teams of women who brought the ship to the center of Rome, ultimately to the foot of Palatine Hill. The stone was kept for 13 years in the Temple of Victory, as another temple fit for such a great Goddess was built. A magnificent statue of Cybele bore this massive black rock as the face of the goddess.
Her temple stood, and her bloody festivals were held, from 204 BCE until 394 CE, when it was destroyed by the Roman-Catholic church. The Basilica of St. Peter (whose name means “rock”) stands on the grounds where Kybele’s temple once stood. Vatican City or Vatican Hill, overlooking the River Tiber, is also home to The Phrygianum, the home of the Mellissea, the priestesses of Cybele. The Vatican sits on the site of a temple dedicated to an Earth Goddess and her transgendered priestess. This is considered one of Christianity’s holiest sites. The site of Mecca, which also holds a meteorite, was also dedicated to Kybele in the ancient past.
How can we modern Pagans work with Megalesia?
Well, if you’re really hardcore, just replicate the rituals! Just kidding (Or am I?) First and foremost, adding images or symbols of Mother, Builder, and Earth Goddesses is very powerful right now, especially those who create in concept, or who oversee creating buildings, cities, worlds. Depictions of the Goddess as Matter, Goddess as the Material Plane.
Other symbols and elements that are energetically aligned could be blueprints or other architectural tools, a trowel, depictions of skylines, maps of cities, pictures of mountains. Adding elements like granite or marble, or for a modern twist, some concrete. Evergreens, pomegranates, and violets are all plant helps that may want to hang out now.
The Megalesia really emphasizes creating, founding, starting or otherwise willing your vision of reality, your empire, into being, and seeing yourself as having the capacity to create and sustain whole worlds. We can use it as a great time to look at the various projects or challenges we would like to take on this year and start to make some first explorations into those arenas.
The other energy that is heavily emphasized during the Megalesia is transformation. If you aligning more with Attis’ energy, you could include images of transformation and evolution like butterflies, or snakes shedding skin. All androgynous, poly gendered, and transgendered deities are appropriate to work with. Honoring and caring for our trans family, friends, and community members is a holy act now. This holiday also emphasizes sacrifices and other transformations we may make to accomplish these goals. The things we can change and transform in ourselves to become the embodiment of our power.
Allow yourself to have an in-depth conversation around what it means to birth or will something into being, and how we change in that process.
This year (2020) the Megalesia happens around the Full Moon in Libra, the compliment to the New Moon in Aries on March 24th. Time to start building those communities. Found your civilization. To what world does your citizenship belong?
Here’s some journaling prompts for you to work with during Megalesia. Write or speak to any of these that resonate with you. Leave what doesn’t.
If I were to found a city, what would it look like?
What have I birthed into being in my life?
What would I like to birth or found or start this year?
Is there something I would sacrifice or give up to see this goal accomplished?
What (if anything) would I gladly give up to see this goal accomplished?
In what ways do I change shape regularly?
What elements of me are “ever-green,” or ever youthful?
What parts of me are immortal like a mountain?
In what ways, or what parts of me are immortal like the first shoots of Spring?
How do I interact with my gender?
What is the effect of assigning particular responsibilities to defined genders?
How are my gender and power intertwined in my current body?
* (The dates of Megalesia may have been fixed calendar days, or they may have been aligned with the days of the moon. The months of the ancient calendars were often dictated by the moon (and many modern religions and civilizations use this still.) The 1st day of the month was marked by the first sighting of the New Moon.)
I kinda (read: really) nerded out on the Megalesia and I made a map of sacred sites that may have been related to Kybele or Great Mother worship in Anatolia/Turkey.
There’s several place markers and info for most of them. Enjoy the rabbit hole…