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Statue of a reclining Attis at the Shrine of Attis

Attis (/ˈætɪs/; Greek: Ἄττις, also Ἄτυς, Ἄττυς, Ἄττης)[1] was the consort of his mother, Cybele, in Phrygian and Greek mythology.[2] His priests were eunuchs, the Galli, as explained by origin myths pertaining to Attis and castration. Attis was also a Phrygian god of vegetation. In his self-mutilation, death and resurrection he represents the fruits of the earth which die in winter only to rise again in the spring.[3] According to Ovids’s “Metamorphoses”, Attis transformed himself into a pine tree.[4]

The 19th-century identification with the name Atys encountered in Herodotus (i.34–45) as the historical name of the son of Croesus ("Atys the sun god, slain by the boar's tusk of winter")[5] is mistaken.[6]


An Attis cult began around 1250 BC in Dindymon (today's Murat Dağı of Gediz, Kütahya, Turkey). He was originally a local semi-deity of Phrygia, associated with the great Phrygian trading city of Pessinos, which lay under the lee of Mount Agdistis. The mountain was personified as a daemon, whom foreigners associated with the Great Mother Cybele.

In the late 4th century BC, a cult of Attis became a feature of the Greek world. The story of his origins at Agdistis, recorded by the traveler Pausanias, have some distinctly non-Greek elements: Pausanias was told that the daemon Agdistis initially bore both male and female attributes. But the Olympian gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ and cast it away. There grew up from it an almond-tree, and when its fruit was ripe, Nana, who was a daughter of the river-god Sangarius, picked an almond and laid it in her bosom. The almond disappeared, and she became pregnant. Nana abandoned the baby (Attis). The infant was tended by a he-goat. As Attis grew, his long-haired beauty was godlike, and his mother, Agdistis as Cybele, then fell in love with him. But the foster parents of Attis sent him to Pessinos, where he was to wed the king's daughter. According to some versions the King of Pessinos was Midas. Just as the marriage-song was being sung, Agdistis/Cybele appeared in her transcendent power, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals. Attis' father-in-law-to-be, the king who was giving his daughter in marriage, followed suit, prefiguring the self-castrating corybantes who devoted themselves to Cybele. But Agdistis repented and saw to it that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay.[7]

At the temple of Cybele in Pessinus, the mother of the gods was still called Agdistis, the geographer Strabo recounted.[8]

As neighboring Lydia came to control Phrygia, the cult of Attis was given a Lydian context too. Attis is said to have introduced to Lydia the cult of the Mother Goddess Cybele, incurring the jealousy of Zeus, who sent a boar to destroy the Lydian crops. Then certain Lydians, with Attis himself, were killed by the boar. Pausanias adds, to corroborate this story, that the Gauls who inhabited Pessinos abstained from pork. This myth element may have been invented solely to explain the unusual dietary laws of the Lydian Gauls. In Rome, the eunuch followers of Cybele were known as Galli.

Julian the Apostate gives an account of the spread of the orgiastic cult of Cybele in his Oratio 5. It spread from Anatolia to Greece and eventually to Rome in Republican times, and the cult of Attis, her reborn eunuch consort, accompanied her.

The first literary reference to Attis is the subject of one of the most famous poems by Catullus[9] but it appears that Attis was not worshipped at Rome until the early Empire.[10] Oscar Wilde mentions Attis' self-mutilation in his poem "The Sphinx": "And Atys with his blood-stained knife were better than the thing I am."[11]

Archaeological finds[edit]

The most important representation of Attis is the lifesize statue discovered at Ostia near the mouth of Rome's river. The statue is of a reclining Attis, after the emasculation. In his left hand is a shepherd's crook, in his right hand a pomegranate. His head is crowned with a pine garland with fruits, bronze rays of the sun, and on his Phrygian cap is a crescent moon. It was discovered in 1867 at the Campus of the Magna Mater together with other statues. The objects seem to have been hidden there in late antiquity. A plaster cast is in the apse of the Sanctuary of Attis at the Campus of the Magna Mater, the original is in the Vatican Museums.[12]

A marble bas-relief depicting Cybele in her chariot and Attis, from Magna Graecia, is in the archaeological museum in Venice. The pair also feature prominently on the silver Parabiago plate.

A finely executed silvery brass Attis that had been ritually consigned to the Mosel was recovered during construction in 1963 and is kept at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum of Trier. It shows the typically Anatolian costume of the god: trousers fastened together down the front of the legs with toggles and the Phrygian cap.[13]

In 2007, in the ruins of Herculaneum a wooden throne was discovered adorned with a relief of Attis beneath a sacred pine tree, gathering cones. Various finds suggest that the cult of Attis was popular in Herculaneum at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.[14]

Photo gallery[edit]


  1. ^ William Smith. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology.
  2. ^ A supposed Lydian connection, based by late 19th-century scholars on a connection with the Atys of Herodotus, and repeated by most modern sources with the exception of Walter Burkert, was examined and dismissed by Jan N. Bremmer, "Attis: A Greek God in Anatolian Pessinous and Catullan Rome" Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, 57.5, (2004:534–573).
  3. ^ "Attis (Phrygian deity)," Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  4. ^ Roman, Luke; Roman, Monica (2010). Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology. Infobase Publishing. p. 94. ISBN 978-1-4381-2639-5.
  5. ^ A.H. Sayce, The Ancient Empires of the East: Herodotos I-III 1883:21f, noted in Bremmer 2004:536 and note
  6. ^ The often-repeated connection with Atys is disentangled and dismissed by Bremmer 2004, esp. pp. 536–39.
  7. ^ Pausanias, Greece 7, 19.
  8. ^ Strabo, Geography, 12, 5, 3.
  9. ^ Poem 63. Grant Showerman, "Was Attis at Rome under the Republic?" Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 31 (1900), pp. 46–59.
  10. ^ Lambrechts 1962.
  11. ^ "The Sphinx", Oscar Wilde, Poems, Project Gutenberg, Ebook 1057, 1997..
  12. ^ "Regio IV – Regio I – Santuario di Attis (IV, I, 3)". 13 May 2006.
  13. ^ Image is here. See also here
  14. ^ Mark Merrony, "An Ivory Throne for Herculaneum Archived 2008-03-31 at the Wayback Machine," Minerva, March–April 2008. A picture accompanies the article.
  15. ^ Exploratorium: Figurine of Attis


Further reading[edit]

  • M. J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, Thames & Hudson, London, 1977.
  • P. Lambrechts, Attis: Van Herdersknaap tot God (Brussels:Vlaamse Akademie) 1962. (French summary)
    • Reviewed by J.A. North in The Journal of Roman Studies 55.1/2 (1965), p. 278–279.
  • H. Hepding, Attis seine Mythen und sein Kult (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten I), Giessen, 1903.
  • E. N. Lane (ed.), Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren. (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 131), Leiden-Köln, 1996.

External links[edit]