ATTIS was the ancient Phrygian god of vegetation and consort of the great Mother of the Gods Kybele (Cybele). As punishment for his infidelity, the goddess drove him into a mad frenzy which caused him to castrate himself. Initiates into the eunuch-priesthood of Kybele, known as Gallai (Galli), re-enacted this myth with an act of self-castration.
Attis was identified by the Greeks with Iasion, consort of the Great Mother in the Samothracian Mysteries. The Greek tale of Aphrodite's love for the youth Ankhises on Mount Ida in the Troad was probably also loosely derived from his myth.
FAMILY OF ATTIS
ATYS, ATTYS, ATTES, ATTIS, or ATTIN (Atus, Attus, Attês, Attis or Attin). A son of Nana, and a beautiful shepherd of the Phrygian town, Celaenae. (Theocr. xx. 40; Philostr. Epist. 39; Tertul. de Nat. 1.) His story is related in different ways. According to Ovid (Fast. iv. 221), Cybele loved the beautiful shepherd, and made him her own priest on condition that he should preserve his chastity inviolate. Atys broke the covenant with a nymph, the daughter of the river-god Sangarius, and was thrown by the goddess into a state of madness, in which he unmanned himself. When in consequence he wanted to put an end to his life, Cybele changed him into a firtree, which henceforth became sacred to her, and she commanded that, in future, her priests should be eunuchs. (Compare Arnob. adv. Gent. v. 4, and AGDISTIS.) Another story relates, that Atys, the priest of Cybele, fled into a forest to escape the voluptuous embraces of a Phrygian king, but that he was overtaken, and in the ensuing struggle unmanned his pursuer. The dying king avenged himself by inflicting the same calamity upon Atys. Atys was found by the priests of Cybele under a fir-tree, at the moment he was expiring. They carried him into the temple of the goddess, and endeavoured to restore him to life, but in vain. Cybele ordained that the death of Atys should be bewailed every year in solemn lamentations, and that henceforth her priests should be eunuchs. (Galloi, Galli, Serv. ad Aen. ix. 116; comp. Lobeck, ad Phrynich. p. 273.) A third account says, that Cybele, when exposed by her father, the Phrygian king Maeon, was fed by panthers and brought up by shepherdesses, and that she afterwards secretly married Atys, who was subsequently called Papas. At this moment, Cybele was recognised and kindly received by her parents; but when her connexion with Atys became known to them, Maeon ordered Attis, and the shepherdesses among whom she had lived, to be put to death. Cybele, maddened with grief at this act of her father, traversed the country amid loud lamentations and the sound of cymbals. Phrygia was now visited by an epidemic and scarcity. The oracle commanded that Attis should be buried, and divine honours paid to Cybele; but as the body of the youth was already in a state of decomposition, the funeral honours were paid to an image of him, which was made as a substitute. (Diod. iii. 58, &c.) According to a fourth story related by Pausanias (vii. 17. § 5), Atys was a son of the Phrygian king Calaus, and by nature incapable of propagating his race. When he had grown up, he went to Lydia, where he introduced the worship of Cybele. The grateful goddess conceived such an attachment for him, that Zeus in his anger at it, sent a wild boar into Lydia, which killed many of the inhabitants, and among them Atys also. Atys was believed to be buried in Pessinus under mount Agdistis. (Paus. i. 4. § 5.) He was worshipped in the temples of Cybele in common with this goddess. (vii. 20. § 2; AGDISTIS; Hesych. s. v. Attês.) In works of art he is represented as a shepherd with flute and staff. His worship appears to have been introduced into Greece at a comparatively late period. It is an ingenious opinion of Böttiger (Amalthea, i. p. 353, &c.), that the mythus of Atys represents the twofold character of nature, the male and female, concentrated in one.
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 19. 9-12 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The people of Dyme [in Akhaia (Achaea)] . . . have as well a sanctuary built for the Dindymenian mother [Kybele (Cybele)] and Attis. As to Attis, I could learn no secret about him, but Hermesianax, the elegiac poet, says in a poem that he was the son of Galaos (Galaus) the Phrygian, and that he was a eunuch from birth. The account of Hermesianax goes on to say that, on growing up, Attis migrated to Lydia and celebrated for the Lydians the orgies of the Mother; that he rose to such honor with her that Zeus, being wroth at it, sent a boar to destroy the tillage of the Lydians. Then certain Lydians, with Attis himself, were killed by the boar, and it is consistent with this that the Gauls who inhabit Pessinos (Pessinus) abstain from pork.
But the current view about Attis is different, the local legend about him being this. Zeus [i.e. the Phrygian sky-god identified with Zeus], it is said, let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a Daimon, with two sexual organs, male and female. They call the Daimon Agdistis. But the gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Saggarios (Sangarius), they say, took of the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child. A boy was born, and exposed, but was tended by a he-goat. As he grew up his beauty was more than human, and Agdistis [now the goddess Kybele] fell in love with him. When he had grown up, Attis was sent by his relatives to Pessinos, that he might wed the king's daughter. The marriage-song was being sung, when Agdistis appeared, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals, as also did he who was giving him his daughter in marriage. But Agdistis repented of what he had done to Attis, and persuaded Zeus to grant that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay. These are the most popular forms of the legend of Attis."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 4. 5 :
"The Pergameni took Ankyra (Ankara) and Pessinos (Pessinus) which lies under Mount Agdistis, where they say that Attis lies buried."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 20. 3 :
"On the way to the lower city [of Patrai (Patrae) in Akhaia (Achaea)] there is a sanctuary of the Mother Dindymene [Kybele (Cybele)], and in it Attis too is worshipped. Of him they have no image to show; that of the Mother is of stone."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 10. 103 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Pines, high-girdled, in a leafy crest, the favourite of the Gods' Great Mother (Grata Deum Matri), since in this tree Attis Cybeleius (of Cybele) doffed his human shape and stiffened in its trunk."
Ovid, Fasti 4. 222 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"‘What causes the impulse [of the devotees of Cybele] to self-castrate?’ I was silent. The Pierid [Mousa (Muse)] began : ‘A woodland Phrygian boy, the gorgeous Attis, conquered the towered goddess with pure love. She wanted to keep him as her shrine's guardian, and said, "Desire to be a boy always." He promised what was asked and declared, "If I lie, let the Venus [Aphrodite] I cheat with be my last." He cheats, and in the Nympha Sagaritis stops being what he was: the goddess' wrath punished him. She slashes the tree and cuts the Naiad down. The Naiad dies: her fate was the tree's. He goes mad, and imagines that the bedroom roof is falling and bolts to Dindymus' heights. He cries, "Away torches!", "Away whips!", and often swears the Palestine goddesses have him. He even hacked his body with a jagged stone, and dragged his long hair in squalid dirt, shouting, "I deserved it; my blood is the penalty. Ah, death to the parts which have ruined me!" "Ah, death to them!" he said, and cropped his groin's weight. Suddenly no signs of manhood remained. His madness became a model: soft-skinned acolytes toss their hair and cut their worthless organs.’"
Statius, Silvae 1. 5. 37 (trans. Mozley) (Roman poetry C1st A.D.) :
"The hollow caves of Phrygian Synnas Attis bedewed with the bright drops of his own blood." [N.B. Red-coloured stone was quarried in this region--stone reputably stained with the blood Attis.]
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20. 35 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"A dream came to Bakkhos (Bacchus)--Eris (Discord) the nurse of war, in the shape of Rheia [Kybele (Cybele)] the loverattle goddess, seated in what seemed to be her lionchariot. Phobos (Rout) drove the team of this dreamchariot, in the counterfeit shape of Attis with limbs like his; he formed the image of Kybele's charioteer, a softskinned man in looks with shrill tones like the voice of a woman."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25. 310 ff :
"[Dionysos spent five years laying siege to an Indian city :] While Bakkhos (Bacchus) was thus despondent, came a messenger in hast through the Skythian mountains from divine Rheia [Kybele (Cybele)], sterile Attis in his trailing robe, whipping up the travelling team of lions. He once had stained with a knife the creative stalk of marriage-consecrating youth, and threw away the burden of the plowshare without love or wedlock, the man's harvest-offering; so he showered upon his two thighs the bloody generative drops, and made womanish his warm body with the shearing steel. This was the messenger who came driving the car of goddess Kybele, to comfort discouraged Lyaios (Lyaeus) [Dionysos]. Seeing him Dionysos sprang up, thinking perchance he might have brought the allconquering Rheia to the Indian War. Attis checked the wild team, and hung the reins on the handrail, and disclosing the smooth surface of his rosy cheeks, called out a flood of loud words to Bakkhos--‘Dionysos of the vine, son of Zeus, offspring of Rheia! Answer me: when will you destroy the woollyheaded nation of Indians and come back to the Lydian land? Not yet has Rheia seen your blackskin captives; not yet has she wiped off the sweat from your Mygdonian lions after the war, beside the highland manger, where the rich river of Paktolos (Pactolus) runs; but without a sound you roll out the conflict through circuits of everlasting years! Not yet have you brought a herd of eastern lions from India as a token of victory for the breeder of beasts, the mother of the gods! Very well, accept from Hephaistos (Hephaestus) and your immortal Rheia this armour which the Lemnian anvil made; you will see upon it earth and sea, the sky and the company of stars!’
Before he had finished, Bakkhos called out angrily--‘Hard are the gods and jealous . . . Hera keeps me back from victory . . .’
Lydian Attis answered these words of Dionysos : ‘If you carry this starry shield of the sky inviolate, my friend, you need not tremble before the wrath of Ares, or the jealousy of Hera, or all the company of the Blessed, while Allmother Rheia [Kybele] is with you; you need fear no army with bended bows, lest they cast their spears and strike Helios (the Sun) or wound Selene (the Moon)! Who could blunt the sword of Orion with a knife, or shoot the Waggoner with earthly arrows? Perhaps you will name the nor strong father of [the Indian] Deriades: but what could Hydaspes do to you, when you can bring in Okeanos (Oceanus)? Be of good courage : to the battle again! For my Rheia has prophesied victory for you at last. The war shall not end until the four Seasons complete he sixth year. So much the eye of Zeus and the threads of the unturning Mora have granted to the will of Hera; in the seventh lichtgang which follows, you shall destroy the Indian city.’
With these words he handed the shield to Bromios; then he tasted the feast, and cheered his heart with umixed cups of nomorepain wine. When he had satisfied his appetite at table, once more he touched up the flanks of his lions with the whip, and guided the hillranging car on the road back to Phrygia. He drove along the heights above the Kaukasian (Caucasian) valleys, the Assyrian peaks and the dangerous Baktrian (Bactrian) mountains, the summits of Libanos (Lebanon) and the crests of Tauros, until he passed into the Maionian (Maeonian) land. There he entered the divine precinct selfbuilt of Rheia, mother of mighty sons. He freed his ravening lions from the yokestraps, and haltered them at the manger which he filled with ambrosial fodder."
Suidas s.v. Attis (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Attis : is the recipient of special honor amongst Phrygians, for being minister of the Mother of the Gods [Rhea]."
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Ovid, Fasti - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Statius, Silvae - Latin Poetry C1st A.D.
- Suidas, The Suda - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.
Other references not currently quoted here: Catullus 63, Diodorus Siculus 3.58.4 & 3.59.7.