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In the last several centuries before the fall of the Roman Empire (476 A.D.), Roman devotees of the goddess Cybele celebrated a festival of laughter and rejoicing on March 25. Known as Hilaria, the day commemorated the salvation of Attis, a young man devoted to the great goddess Cybele.


Scholars believe that worship of Cybele began in an ancient kingdom known as Phrygia, located in what is now west-central Turkey. Phrygian civilization flourished between the twelfth and seventh centuries B.C. The great mother goddess Cybele dominated Phrygian religious life. The ancient Greeks borrowed the cult of Cybele from the Phrygians. They perceived a great similarity between Cybele and the Greek goddess Rhea, whom the Greeks called the mother of the gods, and eventually decided that the two were one. When the Romans began to worship Cybele, they also recognized her similarity to goddesses already known to them, but still tended to classify her as a foreign goddess. Wherever the cult of the Cybele spread, however, her role remained the same; she was recognized as the great mother goddess, the mother of gods, beasts, and human beings. Many also viewed her as the mother of the natural world. Some scholars interpret the wild, frenzied celebrations of followers as evidence of her close association with untamed nature.

Strategic concerns rather than purely devotional sentiments motivated the Romans to adopt the goddess Cybele. In 204 B.C. Carthaginian armies invaded what is now Italy. Although they had not yet reached Rome, inhabitants of that great city began to fear they soon would. Roman officials responded to the crisis in the following way. First they consulted certain religious texts known as the Sibylline books about how to stop the Carthaginians. The texts delivered the prophecy, "The mother is absent: seek the mother. When she comes she must be received with chaste hands." Seeking to clarify this cryptic message, Roman religious leaders sought further counsel with the Greek oracle at Delphi. It advised them to bring the Mother of the Gods, located on Mount Ida, home with them to Rome. Realizing that the oracle had referred them to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, Roman messengers traveled to Asia Minor and convinced Phrygian cult leaders on Mount Ida to let them bring a black rock sacred to Cybele home with them to Rome.

According to one ancient writer, when they arrived at Ostia, Rome's seaport city, the boat carrying the sacred rock ran aground. Try as they might, the men could not shift the boat out of the mud. The Romans began to despair when Claudia Quinta, a noblewoman accused of adultery, stepped forward. She declared, "If I am innocent of all charges, yield, goddess, to my chaste hands." The crowd watched in amazement as she drew the boat forward almost without effort. The Romans placed Cybele's sacred stone in the temple of Victory. Bumper crops and the retreat of the Carthaginians soon followed, and the Romans credited their new relationship with Cybele for these blessings. They called her Mater Deum Magna Idaea, Latin for "Great Idaean Mother of the Gods."

The Romans not only built a temple for Cybele but also established a festival for her. They held it on April 4, the day of her arrival in Rome. Called Megalesia, this festival grew to include a procession through the streets accompanied by wild strains of music and the frenzied dancing and startling cries of the goddess' eunuch priests, who beat themselves until they bled. Special sports matches, banquets, and plays also took place on that day.


One of the most important myths concerning Cybele told of her great fondness for a youth called Attis, who became her devotee. Numerous versions of the tale circulated throughout the ancient world. Many of them revolve around the revenge taken by the goddess when the young man's attention turns briefly to a human woman. In one telling of the tale, Attis' single-minded devotion to the goddess wavered long enough for him to become engaged to a princess. Enraged, Cybele caused him to go mad, and in his madness he castrated himself and died. Flowers sprang from his blood and his body turned into a pine tree. In other versions of the tale Attis is killed by a spear thrust, or by a wild boar. The story of Cybele and Attis changed as the centuries passed and as the myth migrated from one culture to another. In yet another version of the tale Cybele, remorseful over Attis' bloody death, succeeds in preserving him from decay by keeping him in a sort of semi-living state. In other tellings of the myth Attis is seen as a deity rather than a human being, and in still others Attis achieves immortality after his death.

March Celebrations in Honor of Attis and Cybele

In the first centuries of the current era Roman devotees of Cybele added another festival to their cult, this one honoring the life and death of Attis. This festival developed and expanded over time until it encompassed several distinct days of devotion and celebration. By the year 354 A.D., the festival had evolved into a two-week affair, which retold the story of Attis' life, death, and resurrection. It began on March 15, with a ceremony celebrating Attis' infancy. On March 22 festivities centered on the bearing of a freshly cut pine tree to the temple of Cybele. The pine tree figured in Attis' story in several ways. In some versions of his legend, he castrated himself and died under a pine tree. In others, he turned into a pine tree. Devotees began to mourn for the death of Attis on this day, and continued their mourning on March 23. On March 24, known as "the day of blood," temple priests whipped themselves until they bled and sprinkled the blood on Cybele's altar. The day's ceremonies also included the ritual burial of Attis. Devotees fasted on this day and continued to grieve for Attis.

On March 25 the whole tone of the festival suddenly switched from grief to gaiety, as followers of the god celebrated his revivification. They called this feast Hilaria, from the Latin word hilaris, meaning "cheerful." Feasts, masquerades, and all manner of merriment characterized the Hilaria festival.

On March 26 festival-goers enjoyed a quiet day of rest. Ceremonies resumed on March 27, when the black stone sacred to Cybele was taken from her temple and brought to the river to be cleansed. Dancing and singing crowds accompanied this joyous, flower-decked procession.

The Spring Equinox and Other Ancient Holidays

Roman astronomers recognized March 25 as the day of the spring equinox. This fact may have influenced followers of Cybele and Attis to schedule Hilaria on that day. Other ancient holidays celebrated on or around March 25 include Passover, Pascha or Easter, and the Mesopotamian New Year festival (see also Easter, Date of; for a con- temporary festival related to the Mesopotamian New Year festival, see No Ruz). These, too, may have influenced the celebration of Hilaria in some way.

Further Reading

Grimal, Pierre. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop, translator. Oxford, England: Blackwell Reference, 1985. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1993. Lyttelton, Margaret, and Werner Forman. The Romans, Their Gods and Their Beliefs. London, England: Orbis, 1984. Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Cybele." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. New York: Bedrick Books, 1969. Vermaseren, Maarten J. Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1977. Willis, Roy, ed. "The Great Mother." In his World Mythology. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002


March 25
The ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Hilaria for Cybele, the "mother of the gods," and Attis each year on March 25. According to one legend, Cybele fell in love with a human man named Attis. When Attis's attention later strayed to a woman, Cybele made him go insane. He killed himself, after which flowers grew from his blood and his body became a tree. The day of Hilaria, observing this resurrection of sorts, was celebrated with much merry-making and feasting.
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 89
DictRomRel-1996, p. 101
EncyEaster-2002, p. 267
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 50
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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