Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pagan Festival Shout Out: Megalesia

The Megalesia was the festival of the Magna Mater, or Cybele, and celebrated between April 4 - 10 by games and theatrical performances. Sumptuous feasts were held on the first day of the Megalesia and ended with chariot races at the Circus Maximus. The festival and ceremonies were opened by the sacrifice of the moretum (a dish of herbs). The Galii, the eunuch priests of Cybele, carried her image (bearing a polos crown) through the city of Rome to the sound of tambourines, horns, flutes and cymbals. As they danced through the streets of Rome, they beat themselves bloody in an ecstatic ritual.

Cybele was known as Magna Mater ("Great Mother"). In the Punic Wars, the Roman commander Scipio Africanus, on the advice from the Sibylline Books (Libri Sibyllini), introduced the goddess Cybele from Pessinos and estalished her worship to Rome. As a goddess of fertility she personified the earth and its abundant benefits, and was regarded as the Great Mother and unceasing producer of all plant life. She was also believed to exercise unbounded sway over the animal world including wild animals, especially the lion. Her exotic cult also introduced the masochistic and orgiastic rites (similar to those of Bellona, the goddess of war) performed by priests. Cybele is usually represented in art wearing a polos (a high, cylindrical hat) and seated on a throne, with lions crouching at her feet. Cybele is sometimes depicted sitting in a chariot, drawn by lions. The symbol of Cybele was the Pine Cone.

Some of the rituals performed by the priests of Cybele related to the ancient myths about the goddess, in particular the Myth of Cybele and Attis. According to ancient mythology, Cybele discovered that her handsome and youthful lover called Attis had been unfaithful to her and planned to marry a nymph called Sagaris. In an uncontrollable fit of anger, jealousy, rage and frenzy Cybele burst into the wedding feast. A panic seized the guests, and a terrified Attis, became afflicted with a wild, temporary madness and fled to the mountains. Attis fell under a pine tree and inflicted terrible mutilations by slashing himself in his madness. He bled to death under the pine tree. Cybele had made him go mad and mutilate himself and bitterly regretted her actions. Cybele mourned her loss and Jupiter promised her that the pine tree would remain sacred forever. The practise of self-mutilations was adopted by the priests of Cybele, the notorious Galli.

The Pine Cone was the symbol of Cybele and related to the myth of Attis. Pine cones were worn by her priests and worshippers as a symbol of the goddess. The priests of Cybele were famous for their strange, unfathomable behaviour, and like their goddess, and were treated with the utmost caution. People believed they had supernatural powers and practised a form of witchcraft. Followers of Cybele, called metragytes, were roaming Galli who would wander the countryside, begging for alms and telling fortunes. As a protective and cautionary measure it became customary to the symbol of Cybele, the Pine Cone, on a pole in the vineyards, to protect them from blight and witchcraft. The pine cone was also mounted as an ornament on the gateways and rails of the entrances of some houses in the countryside - a tradition that still exists in Italy modern times and a reminder of the ancient goddess Cybele.

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