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1st century BC marble statue of Cybele from Formia, Lazio

Mothers, Madness and Music: A Study of the Parallels of Cybele and Dionysus

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Though she was one of the most renowned goddesses in her day, the motherly, wise Cybele has long been over-shadowed in the mythology of ancient Greece by the later pre-Olympian goddesses, Rhea, Gaia, and even Hecate. In contrast, the mad, flamboyant Dionysus has been mistaken as a young Greek god for equally as long. The archaeological and literary evidence suggests that these two gods played much more significant roles in various cultures, both before the ancient Greek gods came to the forefront of Mediterranean religion and after their Roman counterparts faded into Christianity. It is not unlikely that this is why Cybele and Dionysus share so many characteristics in their worship and legends.

Cybele

The goddess Cybele is most commonly associated with the natural world, specifically exemplified in mountains, fertile wildlife, and wild animals. Further, she is often depicted as the Great Mother—creator or life-giver of all things—or as the three aspects of the Divine Feminine: Mother, Maiden, and Crone. As the Divine Feminine, Cybele represents the various aspects of female power, most specifically that of nurture, fertility, and wisdom. (A similar trinity is seen in many other religions, such as the Triple Goddess in the religions of the Celts and Britons.)

Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia, and mural crown.

Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia, and mural crown. ( Public Domain )

Dionysus

Dionysus, similarly, basks in the power of the natural world, portrayed most often through processions of inebriated dancing. His role in ancient religion has much to do with the transcendence from the natural to the spiritual realms, though this attribute was highly "dumbed down", portraying him instead as a very drunk and feminine male deity. While wine and music were indeed common in rituals of Dionysus (and his later Roman counterpart, Bacchus), most "Greek Mythology 101" courses portray these aspects of the god as silly and frivolous rather than pertinent to his existential persona.

Dionysus extending a drinking cup (kantharos), late 6th century BC.

Dionysus extending a drinking cup (kantharos), late 6th century BC. ( Public Domain )

Similarities Between the Two

On the surface, Cybele and Dionysus share many affiliations—again, not uncommon in ancient religions. These include a preference for the wilds of nature and ferocious animals. In art, Cybele is rarely depicted without her lionesses while Dionysus' processions are always led by either leopards or panthers, often carrying the deity from one place to another. Similarly, the processions of both Cybele and Dionysus are accompanied by wild music, potent wine, and dancing so ecstatic, revelers in both text and art are often portrayed as close to madness.

Marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons.

Marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons. ( Public Domain )

These two gods also both share an attribute called a tympanum, a hand drum that always indicates she is of a foreign cult. Likely because of these similarities, well-known scholar Walter Burkert considers Cybele and Dionysus among the foreign gods imported from the east. One of the few surviving mythological instances of Cybele and Dionysus' connection comes from the 1st century AD by Apollodorus. In Apollodorus' Bibliotheca, Cybele cures Dionysus of his madness, taught him her religious secrets and then set him free to teach the people of Asia Minor (and later Greece) how to cultivate grapes to wine.

The triumph of Dionysus, with a maenad playing a tympanum, on a Roman mosaic from Tunisia (3rd century AD).

The triumph of Dionysus, with a maenad playing a tympanum, on a Roman mosaic from Tunisia (3rd century AD). ( Public Domain )

Cybele’s cult was among the mystery cults of ancient Greece and Rome just as Dionysus’ was, however the rites of the Bacchanalia are a bit more widely discussed than those of the Great Mother. (This may be in part due to the fact that the spot of prominent goddess worship was taken by the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone.) However, pertinent to this discussion is not the nature of the rituals themselves, but rather that Cybele and Dionysus' official worshippers appear to have shared many characteristics historically.

Cybele's followers were referred to as Galli, male eunuch priests incorporated into her religion in ancient Rome after she was officially adopted circa 204 BC. These priests castrated themselves on March 24, the Day of Blood or Dies sanguinis. This ecstatic celebration of music and self-flogging included the priests dressing in female clothes and turbans, with an assortment of jewels and long hair. Interestingly, this tradition is somewhat similar to the Bacchant traditions of Dionysus when he was worshipped in ancient Rome (as well as in Greece). The Bacchant rites included women dancing ecstatically while drinking and playing music outdoors. These effeminate Galli are in numerous ways akin to the mortal Maenads.

Cybele holding a tympanum in her left hand.

Cybele holding a tympanum in her left hand. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is also interesting to note that Dionysus was considered a foreign god who arrived in Greece and later left to learn the various secrets of the eastern world. Cybele, in contrast, definitively came to Greece from the eastern world. The tale from Apollodorus can possibly be interpreted as Dionysus gaining the secrets of Cybele's own worship to incorporate it into the Greek world for her (as males were much more highly respected in all aspects of ancient Greek life). While this consideration is only a theory, it does propose further investigation into the religions of both Cybele and Dionysus.

Tympanum player from a mosaic depicting a musical group.

Tympanum player from a mosaic depicting a musical group. ( Public Domain )

Top image: [right] 1st century BC marble statue of Cybele from Formia, Lazio ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) [left] Dionysus Louvre Ma87 n2 ( CC BY 2.5 )

By Ryan Stone

Please Note: The contents of this article are based on a cursory examination of the mythological, historical and literary evidence. The article itself is intended to be a broad overview of certain similarities (with certain considerations from the author), rather than an in-depth discussion.

References

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.)

Euripides. The Bacchae (Focus Publishing, Massachusetts, 1998.)

Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (Harmony Books, New York, 2001.)

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology (Warner Books: New York, 1969.)

Henig, Martin. A Handbook of Roman Art: A comprehensive survey of all the arts of the Roman world (Cornell University Press: New York, 1983.)

Jensen, Robert M. Understanding Early Christian Art (Routledge, Kentucky, 2000.)

Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.)

Rodgers, Nigel. Life in Ancient Rome People and Places (Hermes House: London, 2006.)

Roller, Lynn. In Search of God the Mother: the Cult of Anatolian Cybele. University of California Press: California, 1999.

Roscoe, Will. "Priests of the Goddess: Transgression in Ancient Religion", History of Religions. 35.3. University of Chicago Press, 1996. p. 195-230

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