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The ruins of the temple of Cybele at the imperial Roman palace complex Felix Romuliana in what is now Serbia

Vibrations and sounds may have enhanced worship of Great Goddess Cybele

In a mountain valley in Serbia around 300 AD, Romans built a palace complex to honor the Emperor Gaius Valerius Galerius Maximianus, who was born in the area. In this palace, called Felix Romuliana, was a temple to the great nature goddess Cybele that was oriented differently than other Roman palaces. Researchers testing acoustics think the designers arranged Cybele’s temple, where bloody animal sacrifices were performed, to take advantage of the mesmerizing sound and vibrations of water rushing underground nearby.

Cybele, earth goddess, surrounded by lions, fruit and general abundance, a flying putto carries a model of a building on his head. Engraving by M. Küssel after S. Vouet.

Cybele, earth goddess, surrounded by lions, fruit and general abundance, a flying putto carries a model of a building on his head. Engraving by M. Küssel after S. Vouet. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Using what they call archaeoacoustics and electromagnetic sensors, researchers from the SB Research Group determined Cybele’s temple was oriented to follow the direction of vibrations and very low-frequency sound emanating, they think, from the water flow. In a paper titled ‘Archaeoacoustic analysis of Cybele’s temple, Imperial Roman Palace of Felix Romuliana, Serbia’, the researchers report that the designers of the temple took advantage of the sounds and vibrations to influence human brain waves and enhance the psyche.

A detail of the 1505 AD statue by Andrea Mantegna depicting the introduction of the worship of Cybele to the Romans in 204 AD.

A detail of the 1505 AD statue by Andrea Mantegna depicting the introduction of the worship of Cybele to the Romans in 204 AD. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The sounds are below the range of human hearing, in the 18 to 20 Hertz range. The researchers think Galerius’ mother, Romula, who lived at the palace until her death, used seers called augurs to dowse the location of the water, then built the temple near the source. The sounds could be felt on organs on the skin, the researchers said.

They wrote that sounds can have an awe- or fear-inspiring effect and these frequencies could have affected the psyche of worshipers, “like standing in the belly of Mother Earth. Creating  an atmosphere of excitement, while immersed in the darkness of the womb of the Great Mother, or rather inside the fossa sanguinis. ” The fossa sanguinis was the pit where the blood of sacrificed animals was poured on worshipers.

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The researchers, Paolo Debertolis of the University of Trieste; and Maja Zivić, curator of the Roman Palace Felix Romuliana, write:

“This temple and its fixtures are the only place within the palace that is not oriented along the east-west axis of the complex as was the Roman tradition (Decumanus). Historians also made reference to mysterious rituals, so we used archaeoacoustical methods to better understand why this might be. These frequencies would have increased the effect of rituals by enhancing the psyche of the participants due to the influence of these low vibrations on human brain waves. This suggests the builders of this temple had some sort of knowledge of this effect.

... Our archaeoacoustic experience has shown that natural phenomena (ultrasound, infrasound, low-frequency sounds) can create a direct effect on the human mind without people necessarily understanding the reasons why they experience a particular emotional state in that place.

Galerius and Romula are buried near the palace on a sacred hill that had been a burial ground from about 1,500 BC. The rites of apotheosis by which the Romans believed the two ascended to godhood were performed at Magura Hill, the site of a Bronze Age people’s necropolis (city of the dead).

Galerius was declared God on Magura after his death. He was honoured in a temple in one part of Romuliana as a god and his mother as a goddess in a temple in another part of Romuliana.

The two rounded burial mounds of Roman Emperor Gaius Galerius and his mother, Romula, on top of Magura Hill in what is now Serbia. There is a burial ground of Bronze Age people dating back to 3500 BC at the hill.

The two rounded burial mounds of Roman Emperor Gaius Galerius and his mother, Romula, on top of Magura Hill in what is now Serbia. There is a burial ground of Bronze Age people dating back to 3500 BC at the hill. ( SB Research Group photo )

Galerius, the authors say, was rarely at the palace, but Romula was there a lot. Felix Romuliana was named after her. She worshipped non-Roman Gods of the Mountain and performed sacrifices and rites at the temple of Cybele.

“But who were these ancient Gods?” the authors ask. “Lucius Cæcilius Firmianus Lactantius, Roman historian of the time, only speaks about mysterious and harmful rituals by Romula and her acolytes.”

Cybele was a nature goddess and the great Phrygian Mother of the Gods. Her adherents worshiped her with orgiastic rites. The Greeks, who influenced the Romans, identified her with their own Mother Goddess, Rhea. Her cult was introduced to Rome in the third century AD.

The east gate of the Felix Romuliana palace complex

The east gate of the Felix Romuliana palace complex ( SB Research Group photo )

Romula, a priestess of Cybele, and her acolytes sacrificed bulls outside the temple and other animals in the temple and bathed worshipers in the blood of the slain creatures. Sacrificing inside the temple was not ordinary in Roman worship.

“It was believed that this was a rite of extraordinary power conducted in connection with the imperial cult. But here in Cybele’s temple maybe there is a distortion, because the fossa sanguinis is too small to accommodate a bull, which would have been sacrificed outside. Probably in these rites something else was sacrificed, not in the Roman tradition,” they wrote.

The pit of blood in Cybele’s temple where worshipers were lathered in animal blood.

The pit of blood in Cybele’s temple where worshipers were lathered in animal blood. ( SB Research Group photo )

The authors said there must be a logical explanation for the designers orienting the temples to follow the direction of the vibrations, especially because Cybele’s temple does not follow the traditional east-west orientation of the rest of the buildings at Felix Romuliana and at other Roman complexes.

Cybele’s temple, circled in red, is not oriented east to west as other important Roman landmarks are.

Cybele’s temple, circled in red, is not oriented east to west as other important Roman landmarks are. ( SB Research Group )

It is reasonable to suppose that the Roman culture had knowledge of the effect of these vibrations on human brain activity and it is a pity that only nowadays medical research begins again to recognize the relationship between sound and emotionality,
they concluded.

SB Research Group, with which the authors are associated, has done acoustical analysis of other ancient structures. An article about their research can be found at the SB Research website .

One of the papers referenced in their as-yet unpublished article is “Acoustical Resonances of Assorted Ancient Structures” in the February 1996 Journal of Acoustics. Another article they reference is “Preliminary investigations and cognitive considerations of the acoustical resonances of selected archaeological sites” in the journal Antiquity, September 1996. These seem to be the earliest references they cite to archaeoacoustics. So the field of archaeoacoustics is not brand new but is still rather recent in scholarly history.

Featured Image: The ruins of the temple of Cybele at the imperial Roman palace complex Felix Romuliana in what is now Serbia ( SB Research Group photo )

By Mark Miller

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