* Reflections on the Megalensia *
Summary of a presentation by Julia Cybele Lansberry
before the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Yuma, on
April 11, 2004 = III.ID.APR.A.V.C.MMDCCLVII
Reflections on the Megalensia
In a quest to understand the origins of Christianity, its teaching and meaning, one has to seek out the virtually erased historical context in which it was born. The conventional view is that Judaism is the root and antecedent of Christian civilization, but Joseph Campbell was among those who made the remarkable observation that its sources lie at least equally in the so-called pagan religions of the Mediterranean world: of Greece, Egypt, and Rome. It is particularly in the ancient mystery religions that one finds highly developed imagery of the sacrificed savior-God, of the cleansing power of blood, of resurrection and the promise of a blissful eternity for the initiate of the Mysteries.
Intriguingly, this past week, April 4 through April 10, is the Roman observance of the Megalensia in honor of Cybele, known as Magna Mater (the Great Mother) in Latin. This is a festive week of banquets, theater, music and dancing, for Magna Mater is credited with the physical salvation of Rome from Hannibal's forces during the Second Punic War. Her cult image was summoned from Asia Minor in 205 bce by oracular command, and she was enthroned as the divine protector of the Eternal City, even in our lifetimes depicted on coins and stamps of Italy as a symbol of that land. The Romans believed themselves to be descended through legendary Aeneas of Troy and intermixed with the Gods themselves, particularly Venus and Mars (as Quirinus, sometimes considered as Romulus in apotheosis). With some ambivalence toward Oriental, i.e. Near Eastern, spiritual practices, there was nevertheless a bond of connection sensed to a lost homeland in Troy, coupled with an ever-growing admiration for the culture of the Greeks, who represented the Gods not in shadowy forms, but as idealized human heroes, depicted in fine sculpture and painting, and celebrated in theater, poetry, and dance.
Now Magna Mater had a son, Attis, honored also as consort, in the traditions of the Ancient Near East. Perhaps a dozen variants of the story were current, some having him fathered by King Midas; some identifying him as a shepherd, often playing the flute and dancing, not unlike Shiva Nataraj. Attis was clearly linked to the seasonal cycle, dying, castrated, hung on a tree, to be resurrected into a new life, restored to the Goddess' favor. Violets bloomed where droplets of his blood had fallen. Devotees mourned his death and rejoiced on March 25, the Hilaria, day of his resurrection. They chanted this liturgy: "Rejoice ye novices, for the God is saved; redemption will come for us as well."
The story of Attis is co-mingled with that of Adonis, whose cultic center was in Lebanon. The name Adonis is a Hellenized form of the Semitic "Adon", meaning "Lord". Even today in Jewish practice, the unspoken Divine Name is represented by the letters yod-yod in writing and pronounced as "Adonoi". In Lebanon, there was mourning by the River Adonis when it would seasonally turn red, thought to be colored by the blood of the slain Adonis. Potted herbs, grown as special "Gardens of Adonis" symbolized resurrection of the God, known as a consort of Astarte or Aphrodite.
For the Egyptians, Osiris is the God whose dismembered pieces are eventually gathered and restored by Isis in the culmination of a long journey, also connected with the Cedar of Lebanon in some traditions. The ancient religions have not scriptures, really, but commemorative rites, and mythic stories which illustrated principles of nature and effectively became the basis of theatre. One chronicler has documented no less than eighteen "Savior Gods" known in the ancient world, differing in name but basically similar in theogony. Not always is the sacrificial victim a male deity. The Greek mythic tradition gives us Persephone as well as Dionysos. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, is kidnapped by Hades and taken to his dark underworld realm of Tartarus. The earth above becomes desolate, as Demeter mourns for her, but Zeus works a compromise and Persephone returns to flowering fields for half of each year.
Yahweh may be pictured as a Jealous God, but Hera, Queen of the Olympians, is reputed to excel Him in that quality! Semele is a mortal priestess, who has attracted the adoration of the great Zeus and has attained the promise of anything in her heart's desire. Hera advises her to ask Zeus to set aside his human appearance to reveal His true glorious presence, implying that this will confer immortality. Semele thus makes her demand to a horrified Zeus, and is immolated in His radiance. However, from her ashes is born Dionysos, God of wine, who comes, in some traditions, to take a seat among the twelve Olympians.
Mention of Zeus, cognate with Deus, Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, brings us full circle back to His Mother, Cybele, Rhea, Magna Mater, the Mother of the Gods of Olympus, Herself properly one of the Titans in the genealogy of the Gods catalogued by Homer and Hesiod. She is called "Urbium Conditrix", Founder of Cities, and is often depicted wearing the murate crown suggestive of city fortifications. Her companion lions, Ferox and Atrox have intriguing myths of their own, represented also among the starry constellations. Excavations in the 1950s of the neolithic Anatolian city at the site of Çatal Höyük found a primitive image of this same Great Mother, flanked by leopards this image fashioned nearly eight thousand years ago, and much of Her iconography carried over to Santa Barbara and the Mary who his called Mother of God. Her persistent presence we celebrate this week!
In loving tribute to the Mother of the Gods,
this page is given as offering by:
Enduring Beauty and Majesty
Polytheism vs. Monotheism
The Philosopher's Stone:
A Paramythic Legacy