A silver “votive plaque” of the 2-3rd century AD, attributed to “Mithras”

A twitter post drew my attention to an interesting item held in the British Museum since 1899.  Their catalogue page is here.  It is described as a “silver votive plaque with a figure of the god Mithras”.  Here are the pictures:

British Museum 1899,1201.3

And a zoomed in version:

Viewed up close, this is not Mithras.  Nothing about him reflects Mithraic iconography.  He is not even wearing a phrygian cap.  To me the figure looks like Attis; but I am unclear what the items that he is holding are – a dish and some sort of ball or fruit?  There seems to be an altar by his right foot, with a bird of some sort moving in front of it.  His stomach appears to be bare, which is definitely part of the iconography of Attis.

The plaque was bequeathed to the museum by Sir Arthur Wollaston Franks  in 1899.

The item is apparently catalogued in “Walters, H B, Catalogue of the Silver Plate (Greek, Etruscan And Roman) in the British Museum, London, BMP, 1921”, according to the excellent British Museum site – easily the best website of its kind known to me – and this turns out to be online at Archive.org here.  The catalogue entry is on p.59, where we read:

229. Tablet, similar. Form as the preceding. On the broad end of the leaf is a figure in relief of Mithras to the front, holding a patera in r. hand and a pine-cone in l. ; he has thick straight hair falling each side of the face, sleeved chiton and another garment over it, chlamys falling over the chest in front and caught up on the l. arm, and high boots. At his r. side is a cock to l., and behind it a small altar on which a fire burns. On the leaf are rows of raised dots.

Ht. 26 cm. Similarly acquired. Brit. Mus. Guide to Exhibition of Greek and Roman Life, p. 54, fig. 45.

The preceding two items clarify this description somewhat; they are from the same source, and are also silver votive tablets, showing Sol – definitely -, and what we are told is Luna, although why is not clear.  Both plaques have raised dots along the edge.

But the note to the “Sol” plaque adds the words: “With this were found other votive discs, now melted down.”  Of course these items come from Ottoman Turkey.  One is reminded of the way in which some of the gold found at Troy by Schliemann was stolen, and sold to a goldsmith, who melted them down and made some random Turkish-style jewellery from the metal.  So it looks as if Sir A. W. Franks purchased the items from local peasants who had uncovered them.  Whether they belong together we cannot tell.

I don’t know much about the collector, so I do not know if some travelogue exists somewhere, that explains how he acquired them.  We must just be grateful that he rescued them from the inevitable fate of precious metal in barbarous countries, and that we can look at them today.



Trying to find a picture of the “Cista mystica” of M. Modius Maxximus from Ostia

In my previous post, I put up a picture of a vessel, a cista or modius, surmounted by a cock, which belonged to the High Eunuch (archigallus) of Cybele at Ostia, M. Modius Maxximus.  In fact there is a pun here; the Latin for a cock is a gallus, which is depicted on top of a large modius (modius maximus).

Here is the image from yesterday again.

In fact the image is also available on Wikimedia Commons here, where the source is given as Rieger, Heiligtümer in Ostia, 1994.  The image is no clearer, tho.

Looking at this intently, some things are visible.

The syrinx or pan-pipes are in the middle.  To the left seems to be an animal with a tail, and above that a head wearing a phrygian cap.  Is there something above that also?

The picture leaves much unclear; and I have been attempting to track down more images.  This is not simple.  The item was held in the Lateran museum; but this has long since been moved to the Vatican.  But surely there is a published drawing?

One annoyance in 19th century scholarship is the use of abbreviations for references.  In case my struggles may help others – or at least turn up in Google, let me outline how I went about this.

Thus Decharme tells us in his article (p.288 n.7 and 8) that Visconti’s publication of the cista may be found in “Annal. Inst. Arch., 1868, p.390 et suiv; Ibid., 1869, p.242″.  Graillot says the item is studied on p.240 ff.  That’s helpful; if you don’t already know what that might be, you aren’t going to find out from here.

Luckily we have the internet.  After some difficulty I found this:

Annali dell’Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica = Annales de l’Institut de Correspondance Archéologique

And found it at Arachne, here, attached to the 1877 volume.  It required a bit of fiddling to find the list of volumes, which led me to volume 41 (1869), which – again with some fiddling – can be downloaded.  Volume 40 (1868) does not appear to be there.  The resulting PDF is enormous.  p.240-5 seem to deal with the cista.  But no image.  On p.240 tho is a reference – infuriatingly abbreviated also – to “la nostra tav. VIIIa n. 1”.  On p.245 I find references to “Mon. dell’Inst. Vol. VIIII tavv.” and Showerman refers to “Mon. dell’ Ist. IX, tav. 8 a. 1”; not helped by a misspelling.

Guessing, therefore, I substitute “monumenti” for “annales” and  get “monumenti dell’instituto di corrispondenza archeologica”.  And … this does exist!  (as does “bulletini dell’instituto di corrispondenza archeologica” – what a system).  This likewise points me to Arachne, and, searching in Arachne, clicking on “books”, then “list” leads me to volume 9, 1869.  There it is!  And the drawing is as follows (click to enlarge):

The “statua di Atti” I have cropped.  The “utensile sacro” is our cista.  Both found in the excavations of Ostia.

Zooming on the left-hand side, we get this:

The three figures that Visconti thought he saw are certainly present.  The top one is supposed to be Attis, the middle one Zeus Idaios or possibly a river, the bottom one a lion (sacred to Cybele), while the vertical elements are reeds.

In the absence of a better image, it’s hard to see more.


Canna intrat: “Finding the infant Attis among the reeds”?

An interesting claim on twitter a few days ago began:

On this date in ancient Rome, the annual Festival of Attis and Cybele began with a procession of reed-bearers to commemorate the finding of the infant Attis among the reeds.

This instantly suggested a parallel with the baby Moses to me; and hence, the fear that this might be one of the “Jesus is really Attis” headbangers.  In fact there is more to this; and it is quite interesting to which bits of this are actually attested.

It isn’t hard to find the claim elsewhere, in respectable sources.  For instance Antonia Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, Eerdmans (2002) p.34 discusses a series of events celebrating Cybele in March and states:[1]

The festival began on the Ides of March, March 15. On this day, a six-year-old bull was sacrificed by the cult’s high priest, priestess, and cannophori, or reed-bearers, for the purpose of promoting the fertility of the mountain fields. The cannophori then carried reeds to the temple of the goddess. This is believed to be a commemoration of the early days of Attis based on an early version of the legend. According to the legend, Attis as a child was abandoned among the reeds by the banks of the Gallus River and was rescued by shepherds who raised him.[2]

Likewise Maria Grazia Lancellotti, Attis: Between Myth and History: King, Priest and God, Brill (2002), p.81 states (with references this time):

The calendar of these ceremonies, which we know from a late source (354 CE), is as follows [101]:

Id. Mart.    Canna intrat
XI K. Apr.  Arbor intrat

The day of the Canna intrat marked the beginning of the ceremonies. The college of the cannophori – evidence for which at Ostia oscillates between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd centuries [102] – was connected specifically with this feast day in which, probably, were remembered the birth, the exposure and finally the rescue of little Attis on the banks of the river Sangarius [103].

102.  Cf. Vermaseren 1977-1989, III, nos. 398, 399, 401, 402, 403, 404, 405, 416, 417.
103.  Jul., Or. V 165b, and Sall., De diis et mundo IV. Two representations of Attis in connection with reeds are quoted by Graillot 1912, p. 117 n. 2.  [3]

There is actually a minor mistake here: the river is Gallos, not Sangarius, the name of Attis’ grandfather.

On the other hand Grant Showerman, “Canna Intrat and the Cannophori”, Classical Journal 2 (1906) 28-31 (JSTOR) makes plain that much of this is speculation.

The theory that the infant Attis was found among the reeds seems to be that of Decharme, in Rev. archeol. 1886, I, p.288 f.  Not everyone agrees.

So let’s proceed to the sources.  These are largely very late, and we know that the ceremonies of Cybele developed during the first few centuries AD.  So how much of this is representative of anything but 4th century paganism may be questioned.

The Chronography of 354, section 6, also known as the Philocalian calendar, simply states “Canna Intrat” – “the reed enters” against the 15th, the ides of March.  There is nothing associating this with Cybele here.  It’s just a list of events.

John the Lydian, De mensibus book 4, states:

49. On the Ides of March,[45] there is a festival of Zeus, on account of the mid-month, and public prayers that the year will be healthful.  And they would also sacrifice a 6-year-old bull on behalf of the mountain country, under the leadership of the high priest and the “reed-bearers”[46] of the Mother.  And [106] a man clothed with a goat-skin would be led in, and they would strike him with long, slender rods, calling him “Mamurius.”  …

This does associate “reeds” and “reed-bearers” (cannophori) with both the ides of March, and with Cybele, the Great Mother.  It is, therefore, reasonable to associate “canna intrat” with the rites of Cybele.

Julian the Apostate, in his Hymn to the Great Mother (Oration 5) states:

… we regard this Attis as the generative Power and the Gallos at one and the same time—-him who, as Fable tells, was exposed by the side of the streams of the river Gallos, and there grew up, and afterwards, when he had got tall and handsome, became the favourite of the Mother of the Gods, and she committed to his care all other things, and placed upon his head the star-bespangled cap.

Sallustius, On the gods and the world:

To take another myth, they say that the Mother of the Gods seeing Attis lying by the river Gallus fell in love with him, took him, crowned him with her cap of stars, and thereafter kept him with her. He fell in love with a nymph and left the Mother to live with her. For this the Mother of the Gods made Attis go mad and cut off his genital organs and leave them with the nymph, and then return and dwell with her.

Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother. Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die; that is why he is said to have been found by the river Gallus.

Both Julian and Sallustius are aware of a legend connecting the origins of Attis to the river Gallos, and even that he was exposed there.

A cista from Ostia, dedicated by the Archigallus M. Modius Maxximus is our next piece of data:

I copied the image from here.[4].  The inscription tells us that he was Archigallus of the colony of Ostia (CIL XIX, 385).  Although the image above does not show it, supposedly the head of Attis appears in the reeds alongside the head of a lion, and the head of Zeus, or possibly a river.  That said, Hepding says that while Decharme could see the head of Zeus Idaios; Visconti saw the head of a lion, and he could only see a plain head.[5]  According to Clement of Alexandria, Protrepicus 2.19 and scholium,[6] these items contained the severed genitals of the castrated Attis.[7]  Obviously if this does show the child Attis, reeds, and the river, then this is very interesting; but there seems more than a little doubt!  I shall look further into this.

A further item is “a bronze statuette at Toulouse, showing Attis holding in one hand the syrinx and in the other a sheaf of reeds.”[8].  This item is listed by Vermaseren in the Corpus cultus Cybelae attidisque (CCCA) 3, p.146:

It is noteworthy that Vermaseren thinks it is corn, not reed that is held here.  Here’s the item (click for a larger image) from here. Toulouse, Musée Saint-Raymond, inv. 25560:

Duncan Fishwick’s 1966 article[9] states:

What exactly was the significance of this parade is still very uncertain. Nothing final can be inferred from the Ostian cista of M. Modius Maximus, the archigallus or high priest of the Cybele cult, representing the head of Attis flanked by reeds (CIL XIV 385); nor from a bronze statuette at Toulouse showing Attis holding in one hand the syrinx and in the other a sheaf of reeds.10 The most likely interpretation is that the festival recalled the finding of the infant Attis by Cybele on the banks of the river Gallos, where he had been exposed at birth by order of his grandfather Sangarios.11

The finding of Attis by the river is attested.  The reed-bearers are attested as associated somehow with Attis and Cybele.  That reed is associated in the myth with the birth of Attis seems plausible, although nothing actually says so; only that he was found by the river.  Reeds are associated with him on the two monuments.

So we have to say that we simply do not know what the canna intrat actually signified.  The reed-bearers get up to something on that date.  What did they do?

Was it “the finding of the infant Attis among the reeds”?  Maybe.  But the sources do not say so.

Let’s be careful here, people.

  1. [1]During the reign of Claudius, the cult gained new vigor and was one of the most popular and most favored of the foreign cults. By the end of the 1st century C.E., its popularity had spread throughout the Western world and in Asia Minor. The restrictions on Roman participation were removed. Roman citizens, both men and women, took part in the processions and Roman men were permitted into the ranks of the galli. In addition, although the Megalensia continued to be celebrated in April, a new annual cycle of events was established by Claudius. The new festival, which was held March 15-27, introduced Cybele’s consort Attis into the Roman cult. It is thought that this festival was the original Phrygian cycle initially ignored by the Romans.66 From that time on Attis was honored as a divinity together with Cybele. The significance of the rituals performed during the festival is not certain, and many hypotheses exist. The interpretations presented here are those most widely accepted and found in early literary works, artifacts, and inscriptions.67.  The main sources for the claims that follows is given as Grant Showerman, The Great Mother of the Gods (Chicago: Argonaut, 1969), chapter 4, and Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: the Myth and the Cult (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), chapter 5.  Unfortunately neither is accessible to me.
  2. [2]No specific reference is given.  The account continues, “A nine-day period of fasting and abstinence began on March 16. On March 22, a pine tree was cut, decorated, and carried to the temple, where it lay in state. This represents the pine tree next to which Attis is often depicted and under which it is believed he bled to death following his self-mutilation in service to the goddess. … (etc)”
  3. [3]Graillot = H. Graillot, Le culte de Cybele, Mère des dieux à Rome et dans l’Empire romain, Paris, 1912, online here.
  4. [4]This states that it is taken from Rieger 1994, Abb. 119a-b.  This would appear to be Anna-Katharina Rieger, “Der Isistempel von Pompeji”, MA Thesis, Munich, 1994, to which I do not have access
  5. [5]Hepding, Attis seine Mythen und sein Kult, p.148-9.  Online here.  See also Squarciapino, I Culto Orientali Ad Ostia, p.12.  Decharme, “Note sur les Cannophores”, Revue archeologique, 1886, vol. 1, online here, 288-9.
  6. [6]Hepding p.32. See also here.
  7. [7]Jurgen Blanssdorf, “The defixiones from the sanctuary of Isis”, in: R.L.Gordon &c, Magical Practice in the Latin West, p.168.
  8. [8]Fishwick, p.195
  9. [9]D, Fishwick, “The Cannophori and the March Festival of Magna Mater”, TAPA 97 (1966), 193-202. JSTOR.  P.195.

Cybele’s castration clamps – medical apparatus of the Magna Mater

A couple of years ago I mentioned the eunuch priests of Cybele here, together with a couple of illustrations of a set of ornate castration clamps, found in the River Thames in the 1840’s, and now, supposedly, in the British Museum.

This week I came across a 1926 article discussing how the items were used.[1]  The details are somewhat eye-watering, but the key point is that the clamps were used to prevent blood loss, and the actual cutting was done by a knife.

The item is rather ornate.  The heads protruding are those of the deities presiding over the eight days of the Roman week, four on either side, followed by the head of a bull, and ending in a lion head; the heads at the top are perhaps Cybele and Attis, each on the head of a horse.

The item is perhaps 2-3rd century, and probably made in Rome or Italy.  One of the arms was broken and mended in antiquity, indicating hard usage.  Here are a number of images from the internet, none especially good.

Roman castration clamps
Roman castration clamps
Roman castration clamps. Cult of Cybele / Attis.
Roman castration clamps. Cult of Cybele / Attis.

Roman castration clamps - detail

Francis prints a restoration of the clamp, with hinge and screw:


And, interestingly, he is aware of another example, of a rather cruder kind, preserved in Switzerland, and gives this illustration:


The items were originally identified as “forceps”.  It would be interesting to know whether other examples, perhaps mislabelled, are preserved in the museums of the West?

It is a commonplace of our day that “all religions are the same”, an opinion more frequently met with than examined.  We may be grateful that this particular ancient practice is no longer present in the modern world.

  1. [1]Alred G. Francis, “On a Romano-British Castration Clamp used in the Rites of Cybele”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 19 (Sect Hist Med),  1926: 95–110.  Online here.

Sudden ordination: the Great Mother wants you!

In ancient Rome, unless you were a senator, almost anyone could “get religion” really rather suddenly.  Martial[1] records one such instance:

When a dismissed veteran, a native of Ravenna, was returning home, he joined on the way a troop of the emasculated priests of Cybele.

There was in close attendance upon him a runaway slave named Achillas, a youth remarkable far his handsome looks and saucy manner. This was noticed by the effete troop; and they inquired what part of the couch he occupied. The youth understood their secret intentions, and gave them false information; they believed him.

After drinking sufficiently, each retired to his couch; when forthwith the malicious crew seized their knives, and mutilated the old man, as he lay on one side of the couch; while the youth was safe in the protection of the inner recess.

It is said that a staff was once substituted for a virgin; but in this case something of a different nature was substituted for a stag [=runaway slave].

An item found in the River Thames near London Bridge has been identified as a “castration clamp”.[2]  It is decorated with images of Attis, and also animals.  It may have been used to geld horses and bullocks; or for “religious purposes”, such as helping attractive young men find a religious vocation as Galli, priests of Cybele and/or Attis.

Cybele castration clamp

Makes your eyes water, doesn’t it?

Apparently this implement was vandalised before being thrown in the river.  The author whom I read[3] stated that the Christians — the fiends! — destroyed it.

I imagine it will be a while before the pseudo-pagans of our day reimplement this particular feature of ancient paganism.

  1. [1]Book 3, No. 91.
  2. [2]Image from Wikimedia Commons, but I’ve seen an “open” version of the same in a book recently so it is genuine.
  3. [3]Lesley Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, p.289, I think, although I cannot access the page at the moment.

Arrian “Ars Tactica” on Cybele and Attis at Rome

N. S. Gill writes the following here:

A pine tree was made to represent the dead Attis for the day of the entrance of the tree.

The reference given is “The Cannophori and the March Festival of Magna Mater,” by Duncan Fishwick. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 97. (1966), pp. 193-202.  This states:

Certainly the entry of the pine tree decked out to represent the dead Attis and the startling rites that followed two days later are ceremonies of a funerary festival that ended with the washing of Cybele’s image in the Almo; cf. Arrian, Tactica 33.4 (ed. A. G. Roos): ἡ Φρυγία τιμᾶται ἐκ Πεσσινοῦντος ἐλθοῦσα, καὶ τὸ πένθος τὸ ἀμφὶ τῷ Ἄττῃ Φρύγιον ὄν ἐν Ῥώμῃ πενθεῖται, καὶ τὸ λουτρὸν δ’ ἡ Ῥέα, ἐφ̕ οὗ τοῦ πένθους λήγει, τῶν Φρυγῶν νόμῳ λοῦται.

I admit that I had not heard of this work of Arrian, which never seems to have been translated.  It was edited by Roos as part of a 2 volume collected works.  The Greek seems to say:

“The Phrygian [goddess] from Pessinus is honoured, and the mourning for the sake of Attis the Phrygian is bewailed in Rome, and” … something about washing?  What I don’t see is anything about how the pine tree represents Attis.


The Hilaria and the resurrection of Attis

I read somewhere that the festival of the Hilaria in Rome on March 25th marked the celebration in the cult of Cybele of the resurrection of Attis. This evening I consulted a PDF of the relevant volume of the old Realencyclopadie, which stated the following:

Hilaria. Ἱλάρια war der Name verschiedener in der griechischen Welt (z. B. in Kreta) gefeierten Feste, welche auch bei glücklichen Ereignissen, wie der Thronbesteigung eines Prinzen, offiziell befohlen wurden: Niemand durfte an diesen Tagen Trauerkleider tragen und nach verschiedenen Dankopfern gaben sich alle der Freude hin (Dionys. Areop. Epist. 8 § 6, P. G. III 604, mit Maximi scholia, P. G. IV 420). Auch in dem Isiskult gab es einen Hilarientag am 3. November (Philocalus, CIL I2 p. 334). Aber in Rom wurden besonders mit diesem Namen die H. der Magna mater bezeichnet, die am 25. März begangen wurden (CIL 12 p. 313). In Kleinasien (z. B. in Hierapolis, Damascius Vit. Isid. bei Phot. bibl. 345 a Bekker) wie in Rom waren sie eines der Hauptfeste des Jahres (Hist. aug. Alex. Sever. 37, 6; Aurel. 1). Mit Kränzen geschmückt (Sallust. phil. de diis 4) versammelten sich Gäste zu fröhlichen Mahlen, und es fand eine große Prozession statt, wo neben feierlichen Speerträgern (αἰχμοφόροι, hastiferi, vgl. Hepding a. a. O.) auch lustige Masken erschienen, die allerlei Spässe spielten (Herodian. 110, 5). Der religiöse Hintergrund dieses antiken Karnevals war nicht nur ein altes Frühlingsfest, das nach der Nachtgleiche, quo primum tempore Sol diem longiorem nocte protendit, die Wiederbelebung der Natur ankündigte oder hervorrief (Macrob. Sat. I 21, 11. Iulian. or. V 168 D. 169D. 175 A: vgl. Frazer Adonis, Attis, Osiris 1907), sondern die H. standen auch in der engsten Verbindung mit dem Attismythos. Der Gott, dessen Tod man beweint hatte (s. Attis o. Bd. II S. 2250), war an diesem Tage auferstanden, was als ein Versprechen einer glücklichen Unsterblichkeit für seine Mysten betrachtet wurde (Damascius a. a. O.: Ὅπερ ἐδήλου τὴν Ἅιδου γε-γονυῖαν ἡμῖν σωτηρίαν). Marquardt-Wissowa St.-V. III2 872. Hepding Attis 1908, 167ff. 197. 215. [Cumont.]

Hilariana basilica der dendrophori matris deum magnae Ideae et Attis, benannt nach ihrem Gründer M’. Publicius Hilarus (Inschrift des 2. Jhdts. n. Chr.; CIL VI 30973. Vgl. Gatti Not. degli scavi 1889, 398 und Hülsen Röm. Mitt. VI 1891, 109f), lag im Bereiche der ehemaligen Villa Casali (jetzt Militärhospital) am Caelius nördlich von S. Stefano Rotondo. Die Reste einer Treppenanlage und des Vorraumes mit Mosaik und Inschrift intrantibus hic deos propitios et basilicae Hilarianae (vgl. C. L. Visconti Bull. com. 1890 Tav. I. II) fanden sich 1889. Vgl. auch Not. degli scavi 1890, 79. 113 und Bull. com. 1889, 483. 1890, 18ff. 78. [Gall ]

I have translated this as follows, although a couple of words don’t make sense:

Hilaria. Ἱλάρια was the name of different festivals celebrated in the Greek world (e.g. in Crete), which were officially ordered also at happy events such as the accession of a prince: No one was allowed to wear mourning clothes on these days and after various peace offerings, all gave themselves up to rejoicing (Dionys. Areop. Epist. 8 § 6, P. G. III 604, with the scholia of Maximus, P. G. IV 420). Also in the cult of Isis, there was a Hilaria day on 3 November (Philocalus, CIL I2 p. 334).

But in Rome this name was used mainly for the H. of the Magna Mater, which took place on 25 March (CIL 12 p. 313). In Asia Minor (e.g. in Hierapolis, Damascius Vit. Isid. in Phot. bibl. 345 a Bekker), as in Rome, they were one of the principal feasts of the year (Hist. aug. Alex. Sever. 37, 6; Aurel. 1). Wearing wreaths (Sallust. phil. de diis 4), guests gathered for happy grinding [Mahlen?], and there was a large procession, where in addition to ceremonial spear carriers (αἰχμοφόροι, hastiferi, see Hepding above) also comedy masks appeared, playing all kinds of jokes (Herodian. 110, 5).

The religious background of this ancient carnival was not only an ancient spring festival, which after the equinoxes, quo primum tempore Sol diem longiorem nocte protendit, announced the revival of nature or caused (Macrob. Sat. I 21, 11. Iulian. or. V 168 D. 169D. 175 A: see Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 1907), but the H. were also in the closest connection with the Attis-mythos.

The god, whose death had been mourned (see Attis above, II p. 2250), was resurrected on that day, which was regarded as a promise of a happy immortality for his mystic [ Mysten?] (Damascius above): Ὅπερ ἐδήλου τὴν Ἅιδου γεγονυῖαν ἡμῖν σωτηρίαν). Marquardt-Wissowa St.-V. III2 872. Hepding Attis 1908, 167ff. 197. 215. [Cumont.]

This is an interesting article. However I have become wary of comments of this sort by Cumont. Too often his remarks are an extravagant extrapolation from some tiny piece of data.

So… it’s time to verify the references. This I will start to do. At least there are references!

UPDATE: I’ve also been looking at the Attis article in the RE, also by Cumont. This discusses the very divergent forms of the Attis myth, and then adds:

Eine stark abweichende euhemeristische Umbildung der Legende findet man bei Diodor (III 58. 59) und ausserdem bei Firmicus Maternus (de err. pr. relig. 3), der ausdrücklich sagt, dass A. nach seinem Tode auferstanden sei — ein Zug, der nirgends so klar ausgesprochen wird (vgl. doch Plut. de Is. et Osir. 69), obwohl das Frühlingsfest des Gottes ihn voraussetzt.

A highly divergent euhemeteristic transformation of the legend is found in Diodorus (III 58. 59.) and also at Firmicus Maternus (de err. pr. relig. 3), which expressly says that A. was resurrected after his death – an idea that is nowhere expressed so clearly (but see Plut. de Osir. et Is. 69), although the spring festival of the god presupposes it.

A further note reads:

Ganz bekleidet, trauernd, das Kinn auf die Hand gestützt, gewöhnlich auf Grabdenkmälern (die Auferstehung des A. wurde wohl als eine Versprechung der Unsterblichkeit angesehen, vgl. CIL III 6384).

In clothed, mourning, his chin resting on his hand, usually on grave monuments (the resurrection of A. have been regarded as a promise of immortality, see CIL III 6384).

And that, it seems, is all that Cumont has on the resurrection of Attis. We have just a single reference, in Firmicus Maternus. There is a reference to a monument which I will investigate.

Can it be, is it possible that the idea that the Roman celebration of the Hilaria celebrates the resurrection of Attis is just speculation?

Certainly it was associated with the Magna Mater. But… where in the ancient texts is the connection to Attis? Where is the detail that he is resurrected on that day?


Festival of Cybele today?

My attention was drawn to a post at about.com by a certain N. S. Gill here:

On This Day in Ancient History: Entrance of the Tree
Monday March 22, 2010

The ancient Roman festival of the Magna Mater (Great Mother Cybele) included the Arbor intrat (entrance of the tree) on March 22. An imported goddess from Phrygia, Magna Mater was installed in Rome in 204 (at the time of Hannibal) where she grew in importance. A pine tree was made to represent the dead Attis for the day of the entrance of the tree. The Dies sanguinis “Day of Blood” followed on the 24th of March and the “Cleansing” on the 27th. See

“The Cannophori and the March Festival of Magna Mater,” by Duncan Fishwick. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 97. (1966), pp. 193-202.

Now I am a sceptical soul.  I do wonder, therefore, what ancient evidence stands behind all these statements.  Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the Fishwick article, although it is in JSTOR here — anyone care to send me a copy? — but I have a feeling that the answer is “very little”.  Indeed some of this may be inferred from rather than stated by ancient sources.

I looked into Attis and the sources some time ago, although I never compiled a final version.  My working notes are here.  These tell me that a statement in John the Lydian, De Mensibus IV. 41 reads:

On day 11, the kalends of April, a pine tree is carried into the Palatine by the tree-bearers. But the emperor Claudius instituted these these ferias, a man of such justice in judgement that…

John the Lydian’s work needs translation.  It always has interesting things to tell us about Roman religion and festivals.  But moving on, Arnobius, Adversus Paganos book V tells us:

… how can you assert the falsehood of this story, when the very rites which you celebrate throughout the year testify that you believe these things to be true, and consider them perfectly trustworthy?

For what is the meaning of that pine which on fixed days you always bring into the sanctuary of the mother of the gods? Is it not in imitation of that tree, beneath which the raging and ill-fated youth laid hands upon himself, and which the parent of the gods consecrated to relieve her sorrow?

What mean the fleeces of wool with which you bind and surround the trunk of the tree? Is it not to recall the wools with which Ia covered the dying youth, and thought that she could procure some warmth for his limbs fast stiffening with cold? What mean the branches of the tree girt round and decked with wreaths of violets? Do they not mark this, how the Mother adorned with early flowers the pine which indicates and bears witness to the sad mishap?

What mean the Galli with dishevelled hair beating their breasts with their palms? Do they not recall to memory those lamentations with which the tower-bearing Mother, along with the weeping Acdestis, wailing aloud, followed the boy? What means the abstinence from eating bread which you have named castus? Is it not in imitation of the time when the goddess abstained from Ceres’ fruit in her vehement sorrow?

17. Or if the things which we say are not so declare, say yourselves-those effeminate and delicate men whom we see among you in the sacred rites of this deity-what business, what care, what concern have they there; and why do they like mourners wound their arms and breasts, and act as those dolefully circumstanced?

What mean the wreaths, what the violets, what the swathings, the coverings of soft wools? Why, finally, is the very pine, but a little before swaying to and fro among the shrubs, an utterly inert log, set up in the temple of the Mother of the gods next, like some propitious and very venerable deity?

That pine which is regularly born into the sanctuary of the Great Mother, is it not in imitation of that tree beneath which Attis mutilated and unmanned himself, which also, they relate, the goddess consecrated to relieve her grief?

I don’t see a reference here to the tree representing Attis; rather it represents the tree under which that luckless boyfriend of Cybele castrated himself.

Arnobius is clearly well informed.  But these are the two references to pine trees in the sources I could find.

What about calendrical material?  I always look at the calendar in the Chronography of 354.  And sure enough, on the 11th day before the Kalends of April we find ARBOR INTRAT.  A couple of days later, SANGUEM.  And the day after, HILARIA.

When Mommsen edited the calendar, in Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae, Berlin (1893) pp.256-278, he added learned notes.  I wish I had a copy of these!

A google search on “arbor intrat” reveals a miserable collection of sites repeating hearsay, often referencing the Fishwick article.

Update (10th Feb. 2022): The link to my Attis notes is to a long deleted Wikipedia page.  I’ve updated it to point to my own wiki which I must really write up one day!


Digest of Roman Law online in English; and Hadrian on castrating your slaves

I’d like to highlight that an out-of-copyright translation of the Pandects, otherwise known as the Digest of Roman Law by Justinian, is actually online here as part of the Corpus Juris Civilis, under the  misleading title of “The Civil Law”.  Few people seem to know about this.

I thought that I would look at the comments on the Lex Cornelia, in 48.8, which I was discussing earlier in connection with legislation against magic.  The law is mainly concerned with assassination and poisonings, and so are the comments.  But there were clearly further provisions:

4. Ulpianus, On the Duties of Proconsul, Book VII. …

(2) The Divine Hadrian also stated the following in a Rescript: “It is forbidden by the Imperial Constitutions that eunuchs should be made, and they provide that persons who are convicted of this crime are liable to the penalty of the Cornelian Law, and that their property shall with good reason be confiscated by the Treasury.

“But with reference to slaves who have made eunuchs, they should be punished capitally, and those who are liable to this public crime and do not appear, shall, even when absent, be sentenced under the Cornelian Law. It is clear that if persons who have suffered this injury demand justice, the Governor of the province should hear those who have lost their virility; for no one has a right to castrate a freeman or a slave, either against his consent or with it, and no one can voluntarily offer himself to be castrated. If anyone should violate my Edict, the physician who performed the operation shall be punished with death, as well as anyone who willingly offered himself for emasculation.”

All this is interesting, considering that the priests of the state cult of Magna Mater (Cybele) were eunuchs!

A further interesting provision appears further down:

11. Modestinus, Rules, Book VI.

By a Rescript of the Divine Pius, Jews are permitted to circumcise only their own children, and anyone who performs this operation upon persons of a different religion will incur the penalty for castration.

This rescript of Antoninus Pius is second century, so cannot relate to Paul and Christianity; but if a similar attitude was around, it may explain why circumcision was not favoured by gentile converts.

Finally we get to something related to magic:

By a decree of the Senate it is ordered that anyone who offers sacrifices for the purpose of causing misfortune shall be subjected to the penalty of this law.

But the whole discussion relates to murder, rather than magic; clearly the latter was a minority concern.

Searching further for comments by Ulpian, I find this: 2. Ulpianus, On the Duties of Proconsul, Book VII.  This is in 48.22, concerning associations, but again may relate to Christians.

Anyone who becomes a member of an unlawful association is liable to the same penalty to which those are subject who have been convicted of having seized public places or temples by means of armed men.


Damascius in Photius

Volume 6 of Rene Henry’s edition of the Bibliotheca of Photius arrived this morning.  The first codex in it is a review and summary of Damascius, Life of Isidore.  This now lost work was written by the 6th century Neo-Platonist philosopher, about his predecessor as head of the school at Athens.  I obtained it, as it is said to contain details about the cult of Attis.

The text is a rambling one, full of interesting historical and mythological details.   Here is one, from p.34:

131.  At Hierapolis in Phrygia there is a temple of Apollo and under the temple a subterranean fissue descends, which exhales lethal vapours.  It is  impossible to pass this gulf without danger, even for birds, and everyone who enters it dies.  But the author says that it is possible for initiates to descend into the crevasse itself and stay there without injury.  The author says that he himself and the philosopher Dorus, led by curiosity, descended into it and returned unharmed.  The author says, “I then slept at Hierapolis and in a dream it seemed to me that I was Attis and that, by the order of the Great Mother of the gods, I was celebrating what is called the festival of the Hilaria; this dream signified our liberation from Hades.  On returning to Aphrodisias, I recounted to Asclepiodotus the vision that I had in the dream.  And he, full of admiration for what had happened to me, recounted to me, not “a dream for a dream”, but a great marvel in exchange for a little one.

He said in fact that in his youth he had gone to that place to study the nature of it.  He had rolled his mantle two and three times around his nostrils so that in the event of frequent fumes, he could breathe not the poisoned and deleterious air but pure and safe air which he had brought with him captured in his mantle.  Proceeding thus, he entered on the descent, following a current of hot water which came out from there, and ran the length of the inaccessible crevasse.  All the same he didn’t get to the bottom of the descent, because the access to it was cut off by the abundance of water and the passage was impossible to an ordinary man, but the one descending, possessed by the divinity, was carried to the bottom.  Asclepiodotus then climbed back up from that place without injury thanks to his ingenuity.  Later he even tried to recreate the lethal air using various ingredients.

It would be interesting to know if any such crevasse is found today at Pessinus.   No doubt the fissure was volcanic, the fumes were likely to cause asphyxiation, and those overcome no doubt did dream, influenced by their surroundings.  Did the Attis myth owe its being to the actions of some early priest of Cybele accidentally mutilating himself while imagining himself with the Great Mother?