Who Was Attis in Greek Mythology?
The legend of Attis was not originally Greek, but some people in the Greco-Roman world adopted it as part of their own beliefs. Read on to learn about the origins and meaning of this unusual foreign god.
The story of Attis, the consort of the earth goddess Cybele, is unusual in Greek mythology. This is largely because it wasn’t a Greek story at all.
Cybele and the stories connected to her originated with the Phrygians, a group of people living in Anatolia. While some Greeks adopted her myths into their own beliefs, she was always recognized as a distinctly foreign goddess.
This can be seen with the story of her love for Attis. From his unusual birth to his odd relationship with Cybele, the story’s non-Greek elements make it stand out from more well-known myths of the ancient world.
Attis and Cybele
The story of Attis and Cybele did not originate in Greece, but in the Anatolian region of Phrygia. There, Cybele was revered as the mother goddess and Attis was her beloved consort.
According to Phrygian-Greek legends, Attis was the offspring of an androgynous deity called Agdistis. Their dual male and female nature represented the wild, unpredictable forces of nature.
The Olympian gods, however, valued order and law. They saw Agdistis as a threat.
To control this foreign deity’s disorderly nature, they decided to make Agdistis conform to their natural laws. They cut off their male organ and cast it away. From it, an almond tree grew.
One day when the tree was mature Nana, the daughter of a river goddess, picked the beautiful fruit that grew from it and held it against her breast. The almond disappeared and Nana became pregnant.
When the baby, Attis, was born his mother abandoned him. He was rescued by a goat and eventually taken in by human foster parents.
Attis grew to be as beautiful as Agdistis but containing all of that deity’s masculine attributes. This attracted the attention of Cybele, who fell deeply in love with him.
Attis’s foster parents, however, had already arranged for him to be married to the daughter of a local king. They sent him to Pessinos to marry the princess in spite of the goddess’s wishes.
As the ceremony was taking place, Cybele appeared in all her glory. Attis was driven mad at the sight of such divine power.
In his madness, Attis castrated himself and died of his wounds. The king followed suit, setting the precedent for eunuchs serving as the goddess’s priests.
Cybele, however, repented her actions. She ensured that Attis’s body would never decay, with most sources implying that she resurrected him.
The Romans told a somewhat different version of the story that was more in line with their own mythology.
They said that Attis had been the first person to introduce Cybele’s cult to Lydia. This incurred the jealousy of Zeus/Jupiter, who did not want the mother goddess to take followers and offerings from him.
To punish Attis, Zeus sent a boar to destroy the crops of anyone who worshipped Cybele. Attis and many of his followers died fighting the animal.
According to Pausanias, the Gauls who lived in the region refused to eat pork from that day on. The myth was so well-known in Rome that followers of Cybele were known as Galli.
My Modern Interpretation
Although Attis came to be known in parts of Greece, he originated in the mythology of Anatolia.
The region that is now the country of Turkey played a large role in the Greek world. Several Greek colonial cities were established in Asia Minor to control trade routes with the east.
Greek presence in the area had begun with the Minoan culture of ancient Crete and continued throughout history. Ethnic Greeks retained a strong presence in the country until the early 20th century.
Because of this long history, Greek culture and those of native Anatolians often blended with one another. One well-known example is the ancient goddess Cybele.
Cybele was the mother goddess, and possibly the chief deity, of the Phrygian people. Her cult eventually established a presence in many Greek states, where she was often associated with Gaia, Demeter, or Rhea.
According to many versions of the story, Cybele and Agdistis were one and the same. After they were castrated, Agdistis became fully female and took the name Cybele as a goddess.
In this case, the love between Cybele and Attis was more than just a romantic attraction. It was literally a matter of Cybele seeking a part of herself that had been taken away.
Attis was revered as a god although he died in his legend. He represented new vegetation and the promise of renewal in spring.
As both the consort of the mother goddess and the masculine part of her nature, Attis made the growth of new life possible.
The story’s function can be compared to the more familiar Greek legend of Persephone’s abduction. The goddess of vegetation was taken into the Underworld each winter and only upon her return in the spring could new life bloom again.
As in that story, the people of Phrygia saw winter as a time when the goddess of the earth was separated from her child. In addition to her child, however, Attis was also a part of Cybele herself.
New life could not come from a mother alone. The male aspect of nature was also necessary for creation.
The surviving stories do not explain, however, how such rebirth could be possible when Attis himself was castrated as well.
Some historians believe that this part of the story was embellished or changed in Greek retellings but may have been different in its original version.
The most common versions of the story add the Olympian gods, or Zeus in particular. This shows that at least some of the story was changed from its Phrygian origins.
There are many reasons the Greeks may have changed the story. A desire to minimize the importance of a foreign god or even a misunderstanding could have influenced how the story was seen in Greece and Rome.
Attis is the consort of Cybele in Phyrigian myths. Introduced into the Greco-Roman pantheon by Lydian settlers, Cybele was a powerful mother goddess.
According to surviving stories, Cybele was originally an androgynous deity known as Agdistis. The Olympians castrated them, creating a female goddess, because her unruly nature was contrary to their values.
On the site of Agdistis’s castration, an almond tree grew. A river nymph called Nana was magically impregnated by its fruits and gave birth to Attis.
Attis was beautiful and strong, attracting the love of Cybele. He was both her lover and her offspring, representing the masculine aspect of her that had been taken away.
According to one legend, Attis was betrothed to a human princess. During the ceremony Cybele appeared in all her divine glory and Attis, driven mad at the sight, castrated himself.
This story was used to explain why the priests connected to both Attis and Cybele’s cults were traditionally eunuchs.
Another legend said that Zeus sent a boar to punish Cybele’s followers which killed Attis. This story explained why followers of the mother goddess refused to eat pork.
While Attis’ story was used to explain specific aspects of Cybele’s worship in Anatolia, Greece, and Rome, he also had a broader meaning.
As the god of rebirth and vegetation, the revived Attis represented the renewal of new life in the spring. He was the masculine aspect of the mother goddess, without which the creation of new life would not be possible.