Cybele was the great mother-goddess of Anatolia, or Asia Minor. Her main sanctuary was located in Phrygia (now central Turkey), and she is generally shown wearing a crown of towers or carrying a bowl and drum, and accompanied by two lions. She was worshiped primarily as the goddess of fertility, but was also associated with curing diseases and protecting her people.
By the 400s B.C., the cult of Cybele had spread to Greece. She was believed to be the parent not only of the gods, but also the great parent of human beings and animals. In Greece, she was known as Meter Oreia (Mother of the Mountains), and special emphasis on her connection to wild nature was symbolized by her attendant lions. As a fertility goddess she was associated with the worship of Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and fertility.
During the 200s B.C., the worship of Cybele came to Rome. Romans included her in their spring festival called the Megalesia, which began on March 15 with a procession and sacrifice to ensure the health and abundance of the spring crops. A week of fasting and purification was followed by several days of festivities. On the day of Cybele’s festival, a pine tree was cut and carried to the temple. The tree was the symbol of Cybele’s youthful lover Attis, who had castrated himself under such a tree and bled to death. At the temple, the tree was honored as the god and covered with violets, which were believed to have sprung from Attis’s blood.
From Rome, the rites of Cybele spread to Gaul and Africa. The worship of Cybele was very popular among farmers and women. Scholars think that followers of the cult of Cybele may have believed that in the afterlife they would be reunited with the mother-goddess. (See also Divinities; Religion, Greek; Sacrifice.)