Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.05

Maria Grazia Lancellotti, Attis between Myth and History: King, Priest and God. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 149.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. xiii, 207.  ISBN 90-04-12851-4.  $94.00.  

Reviewed by Lynn E. Roller, University of California, Davis (
Word count: 2433 words

These are rewarding times for those interested in the myth and cult of Cybele (the Phrygian Mother goddess, the Roman Magna Mater) and her companion Attis. While Cybele and Attis have never lacked for attention, in recent years scholarship on the pair has blossomed with the publication of several monographs that offer a fresh view of the goddess and her castrated lover.1 Attis, the beautiful boy who dies young, has been a particular source of interest for Classicists and non-Classicists alike, in part because of the inherent contradictions of his mythical tradition and in part because of the potentially titillating elements of his unusual sexual identity. Previous approaches to the study of Attis have diverged considerably. One of the earliest monographs, Hepding, Attis, seine Mythen und sein Kult (published in 1903 and still of great value), stresses a careful reading and analysis of the extant literary sources on the myth of Attis. In contrast, the work of James Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris: studies in the history of oriental religion (first published in 1906) views Attis as one of a series of dying and rising gods whom many have seen as precursors of Christianity. This interpretation set the tone for much of the subsequent critical response to Attis, particularly that of Maarten Vermaseren.2

Maria Lancelotti's book attempts a more balanced approach, placing the mythical tradition of Attis within the context of his Anatolian heritage and the subsequent transmission of that heritage to Greece and Rome. Her stated goal is to examine all the mythical traditions pertaining to Attis from the earliest written sources until late antiquity. Despite the chronological breadth of her work, her methodology is fairly limited in its parameters. The approach is entirely literary: there are no illustrations and only minimal discussion of the visual representations of Attis. Thus Lancellotti (hereafter L.) sidesteps completely the thorny problem of the origin and meaning of the iconography of Attis. Moreover, the book touches only briefly on many of the problems connected with the cult of Attis, such as the meaning of his cult attributes, the nature of sanctuaries dedicated to him, and the reasons for his appeal as a cult figure. Instead, the book focuses on the changing treatment of the legends of Attis in order to analyze the differing ways in which Attis was conceptualized, whether as a human or a divine figure, in different locations and time periods. Since the mythical tradition of Attis encompasses a broad geographic and chronological sweep, there is a generous amount of material under review.

The first major topic to be addressed is the complex web of mythical "biographies" of Attis. This section is in many ways the most interesting and valuable part of the book. A large number of sources, almost all from the late Hellenistic and Roman periods, give information, often with conflicting details, about Attis's birth, relationship with Cybele, emasculation and death. Several scholars have recognized that at least some of the Greek and Latin sources are reporting information from a much earlier period that originated outside of the Greek and Roman world, but there is no general agreement on what these sources mean or which are the most accurate. L. gives a detailed reading of all the references to Attis (Atys) in Anatolia and notes his connection with the ruling dynasty of Lydia, not only the well known passage by Herodotos, where he appears as the son of Croesus who was killed in a hunting accident, but also as the founder of the Lydian royal house, from whose son Lydos the Lydians took their name. She deduces that Atys was originally a royal name, one that appears in the ruling Phrygian dynasty (as attested by its presence on the large rock façade at Midas City), and also attributed to the founding ruler of Lydia as a means of legitimizing Lydian rule. She connects the Atys-Croesus story with the myth-type of the king as a hunter, supported by the Mother goddess, who appears both as a patron of royalty and as the goddess of the hunt, accompanied by the bird of prey. A key function of the myth was to provide legitimacy for the ruling dynasty of Phrygia and Lydia. L. sees this complex mythical system as one derived from the religious traditions of the Hittites; just as the death of the Hittite king required special ceremonies to ensure the protection of the people and a smooth transition to a new ruler, so the mythical tradition of ritual mourning at Attis's death records the ceremonies performed at the death of Phrygian kings. L. argues that the key to this complex tissue of myth lies at Pessinous. She sees the Hellenistic epigrams of Dioscorides on the Gallus and the lion as echoes of the foundation myth of Pessinous and suggests that the so-called "Phrygian" version of the myth (following the topographical designation of Hepding) records the foundation of the Pessinontine priesthood, with a high priest named Attis who controlled the temple state of Pessinous in the period after the dissolution of the Phrygian monarchy.

L.'s reading of the evidence has a number of interesting features, although some of them, such as the connection of Attis with Anatolian royalty and the funerary rites celebrated for them, are not particularly new.3 Her emphasis on tracing the Attis myth back to the Bronze Age and yet also connecting it with the political changes in the Hellenistic period seem to pull the story in two different directions, which her discussion does not entirely resolve. In particular, her analysis does not take full account of the political complexities of Anatolia during the first half of the first millennium BCE. She discusses Phrygian and Lydian kingship traditions as if they were equivalent, both descended from the earlier Hittite Empire: she fails to take into account the fact that the Phrygians were new immigrants into Anatolia during the early Iron Age and would not have necessarily felt any connection to the traditions of the Hittites. Her interpretation of the myth as a means of providing legitimacy for the Mermnad dynasty (p. 61) might apply to Lydia, but not to Phrygia. Also, her insistence of the central role of Pessinous in the formation of the "Phrygian" mythical tradition relies heavily on later literary sources that reflect the prominence of the sanctuary during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and does not take into account the lack of evidence to support a leading role for Pessinous before that time. These are all problems that other scholars writing on Attis have noted and not fully resolved, and it is hardly surprising that L.'s interpretive system is not completely satisfying either.

The next chapter deals with Attis in the Greek and Roman world. Since the place of Attis in Greek and Roman cult has been extensively discussed in earlier works, L. intentionally does not revisit all of the relevant issues or present the full spectrum of evidence on several key questions, e.g. the cult of Attis in the Piraeus, the arrival of Cybele and Attis in Rome, the origin of the taurobolium, but limits herself to stating her own perspective, particularly when she disagrees with other scholars. This can make several of her arguments hard to follow, particularly for someone not conversant with the contradictory evidence on these questions. In discussing the Greek material, L.'s main goal is to reinforce her thesis of the previous chapter, about the importance of Pessinous in shaping the Attis cult. She denies that there was any Greek cult of Attis before the third century (she feels that the well attested rites of the Attidea in the Piraeus were limited to foreigners) and proposes that the Roman cult is an adaptation of the priesthood of Pessinous. A major weakness of this section is the heavy emphasis on literary texts at the expense of material related to cult practice; as a result, L. ignores the ample evidence that contradicts her hypotheses, such as epigraphical data for participation by Greeks in the cult of Attis in the Piraeus, and the fourth-century votive figurines of Attis from the Athenian Agora, Amphipolis, and Olynthos.4 Much of L.'s reading of the Roman evidence is also unpersuasive. I find it very hard to accept her interpretation of the Attis figurines from the Republican levels of the Palatine Magna Mater temple as symbols of little boys dedicated to the Great Mother; the style, dress, and attributes of these figurines are extremely similar to Greek examples of Attis figurines and are much more likely to indicate a cult of Attis in Rome during the Republican period. L.'s discussion of the Roman cult focuses on how Roman rituals gradually superseded those of Pessinous. Her reconstruction of the Attis cult in Rome relies heavily on the sequence of ritual described in the calendar of 354 CE, although it is not clear how accurately the fourth-century text reflects cult activities of several centuries earlier. Like many earlier scholars, L. seeks to explain the anomaly of the prominent role played by castrated priests: why was the practice of voluntary self-castration, so clearly repugnant to the Roman public, the basis for such a prominent cult? Her suggestion that the taurobolium could have served as a substitution for castration in Roman ritual is a sensible one,5 yet several key problems, e.g. the growing importance of Attis as an independent cult figure, as witnessed by major shrines to him in Ostia, are noted but not fully examined or explained.

In the fourth chapter L. wrestles with the tricky problem of the role of the Attis myth in Gnostic sects and in the philosophy of Julian. Here L. seems to be on surer ground, since this topic is closer to the subject of her earlier research.6 Her aim here is not to recapitulate the complex tissue of ideas that underlie the Gnostic sect of the Naassenes or the Neo-Platonism of Julian but rather to examine how the myth of Attis, particularly the emphasis on his emasculation, played a symbolic role in the Naassenes' and in Julian's view of the cosmos. As L. notes, these are only two of a great many examples of writers from the later Roman Empire, both pagan and Christian, who use the Attis myth as a metaphor to present their view of human-divine relations and the cycle of life and death. The last chapter deals with a related topic, namely the relationship of Attis and death, subtitled "How to die and become a god". This section recapitulates earlier arguments on the Anatolian, Greek, and Roman mythical traditions of Attis and his place in funerary cult, and speculates on the role of the Attis myth in eschatological soteriology and its relationship to Christianity. Both of these chapters, relying exclusively on close readings of complex texts, amply document how extensively the Attis myth served as a metaphor in late antique philosophical and religious discussions. L. does not answer the more difficult question, though, of why the Attis myth was chosen as the vehicle for such discussions.

This provides a general summary of L.'s approach to the Attis myth complex. In several cases her analyses offer interesting new readings and provide useful insight into much disputed problems, such as the role of Atys in Lydia and the connection with Bronze Age myth and cult. The book as a whole has a number of shortcomings, however, that undercut its value. I have already noted a principal one, namely the author's heavy reliance on textual information to the exclusion of visual and material evidence. When the evidence from written sources and that from visual representations or cult objects points in different directions, the author almost always favors the text uncritically and ignores other data that might contradict an interpretation of the text. The author speaks of her "methodological conservatism" (p. 169), but she would have been better served by grounding her ideas in a more thorough analysis of the full scope of primary data from Mediterranean antiquity, not only literary sources. Another major shortcoming lies in the author's method of approaching her subject. In many cases, the starting point for L.'s argument is not the ancient texts, but modern explications of those texts, with a heavy nod to Italian scholars. The book includes many long quotes from modern scholars, but very few from the Greek and Latin authors on which the argument is based. An excellent example of this is found in the fourth chapter, discussing Attis between Christianity and philosophy, where fully one fourth of the chapter is a recapitulation of the scholarly approach of Ugo Bianchi and his students on mystery rites; this may be of value for one interested in the history of scholarship, but does little to help us understand the reasons for the importance of Attis in late antique thought. Although this book did not originate as L.'s doctoral thesis,7 such excessive reliance on modern bibliography gives the work very much the feel of a dissertation.

A further problem, which may in part be laid at the door of the press, is the author's overly wordy and dense style of writing. The English language of the text is often obscure and unnecessarily convoluted, making L.'s arguments very hard to follow, even for a native speaker of English. I noted an unusual number of misspellings and several examples of incorrect word usage, e.g. protological, cosmosophical, accreditated, specular. A firmer editorial hand would have produced a leaner but much clearer book. A further issue is the author's extensive use of quotes in Italian, French, and German. Since this book is designed for a scholarly audience who can be presumed to have command of these languages, this should not pose a major problem for its readers, but the effect of the frequent shift of languages, often in mid-sentence, is often distracting and confusing.

Despite my reservations, L.'s study is worth reading for anyone with an interest in the myth and cult of Cybele and Attis. The book offers several valuable observations on the use and meaning of the Attis myth in its many and often enigmatic variations. The very process of examining the complete chronological spectrum of the myth forcefully emphasizes what an important contribution the legends of Attis make to our understanding of ancient Mediterranean civilization. Far from being the by-product of an aberrant sexual mentality, the mythical tradition of Attis both shapes and reflects ancient points of view on topics as diverse as the formation of the complex state in Anatolia and the nature of the soul in late antiquity. It is to be hoped that this book will encourage further examination of this fascinating figure.


1.   See esp. P. Borgeaud, La Mère des dieux. De Cybèle à la Vierge Marie (Paris 1996); E. Lane, ed., Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults. Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren (Leiden 1996); L. E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: the Cult of Anatolian Cybele (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London 1999).
2.   M. J. Vermaseren, The Legend of Attis in Greek and Roman Art (1966); Cybele and Attis (1977).
3.   Both these points are discussed by Borgeaud and myself, in the works given in note 1.
4.   Roller 1999 (supra n. 1) 181 n. 155; 219-224.
5.   Here again, her ideas are not entirely new; much the same was proposed by J. Rutter, "The Three Phases of the Taurobolium," Phoenix 22 (1968) 226-49, and Borgeaud (supra n. 1, p. 164).
6.   M. G. Lancellotti, The Naassenes, A Gnostic Identity among Judaism, Christianity, Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Traditions (Munster 2000).
7.   The publication of her dissertation, on the Naassenes, is cited above, n. 6.

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