Cybele, also called Magna Mater ("Great Mother"), was an eastern goddess of nature and fertility. Associated with the cult of Cybele was the cult of Attis, a shepherd. In frenzy he castrated himself, after breaking a promise to Cybele. He then died under a pine-tree, near the river Gallos, but was resuscitated. Cybele came to Rome in 204 BC. A black stone (a meteor?) representing the goddess was taken to Rome via Ostia. The events in Ostia are described by Ovidius (Fasti IV, 291-328). There was an aristocratic reception committee. One of the members was a girl named Claudia Quinta, whose reputation was doubted. The ship with the stone ran aground near a bank of the Tiber. The girl then asked the goddess for a sign, to prove her innocence. And a miracle occurred: she was able to set the ship afloat with her own hands.
Terracotta antefixes from Ostia with depictions of the Magna Mater on the ship.
Left: from the Piazzale delle Corporazioni. Right: from the Campus of the Magna Mater.
From Rieger 2004, Abb. 211.
A temple was built for her on the Palatine. Each year from 4-9 April the arrival of Cybele in Rome was celebrated through the Megalensia, including games and banquets. The story of Attis and Cybele was remembered each year from 15-25 March. The feast included fasting and processions of two religious guilds, the cannophori (reed-bearers, a reference to the river Gallos) and the dendrophori (tree-bearers, of the pine-tree that was sacred to Attis). The death of Attis was remembered on the Dies Sanguinis. The last day was called Hilaria. On that day the resurrection of Attis and the arrival of Spring were celebrated. Orgiastic rites took place, with torches, cymbals and double flutes. The celebration included self-flagellation and self-injury. Some adherents emasculated themselves and thus became priests of the goddess, called galli. Roman citizens were not allowed to do this. Therefore this act could also be performed in a symbolical way, by a cut in the arm. The symbol of the priests was the cock, gallus, but the word is also a reference to the river Gallos. At the head of the Ostian cult was the archigallus coloniae Ostiensis.
The taurobolium was the sacrifice of a bull, for the preservation of the Emperor, of the Imperial family, and of the Imperial government. In Ostia it is documented for the first time during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Some of the faithful were baptized with blood: they stood in a pit, under a thick slab with holes, on top of which the bull was killed. It led to a rebirth lasting twenty years. In Ostia this sacrifice is documented as late as 365-366 AD, when it was organized by Volusianus, praefectus Urbi. In late antiquity the cult had many supporters amongst the aristocracy. The criobolium, the sacrifice of a ram, is also documented in Ostia.
In Ostia a temple complex was built in the Hadrianic period in the south part of town, to the west of the Porta Laurentina. It was set against the republican city wall. It consists of several buildings on the sides of a large triangular area (campus), measuring 84 x 106 x 130 meters. It is at a lower level than the street to the east. The open area was covered with sea-sand. The triangle may have had a symbolical meaning in relation to Venus, who was closely associated with the cult of Cybele.
The Campus of the Magna Mater. After Meiggs 1973, fig. 26.
1. Temple of Cybele. 2. Porticus. 3. Shrine of Attis. 4. Temple of Bellona. 5. Guild house of the hastiferi.
6. Fossa sanguinis. 7. Shrine. 8. Shrine. 9. Shops. 10. Rooms.
The western part of the complex was excavated by Carlo Ludovico Visconti (1867-1869), the eastern part by Guido Calza (1938-1940). In 1987 the Tempio di Bellona was further investigated by Angelo Pellegrino. In the 1990's a few trenches were investigated by Ricardo Mar.
Evidence from the Isola Sacra-necropolis indicates, that Cybele also had a temple in Portus.
C(aius) IVNIVS PAL(atina) EVHODVS MAGISTER Q(uin)Q(uennalis)
COLLEGI FABR(um) TIGN(uariorum) OSTIS LVSTRI XXI
FECIT SIBI ET METILIAE ACTE SACERDO
TI M(agnae D(eum) M(atris) COLON(iae) OST(iensis) CO(n)IVG(i) SANCTISSIM(ae)
Inscription on the lid of a sarcophagus from Ostia, now in the Vatican.
"To the Di Manes.
Caius Iunius Euhodus, of the tribe Palatina, quinquennalis
of the guild of the Ostian builders, of the twenty-first lustrum,
ordered (this monument) for himself and for Metilia Acte, priestess
of the Great Mother of the gods of the colony of Ostia, his most holy wife."
CIL XIV, 371. 161-170 AD. Photograph: Eric Taylor.
On the lid of the sarcophagus musical instruments used in the cult of the Magna Mater are depicted.
On the corners are two heads of Attis. Flying victories hold the inscription.
On the sarcophagus itself the myth of Alcestis and Admetus is depicted. Alcestis gave her own life,
to save her husband Admetus. Later Hercules rescued her from Hades.
Husband and wife were buried in the same sarcophagus.
Photograph: Eric Taylor.