Mithra and Attis Syncretism: Death and Resurrection Classic Rituals of the Adonis Cult

by Esteban

” … Fortunately, however, so far as our present research is concerned, we have more than probability to rely upon; not only did these Nature Cults with which we are dealing express themselves in Mystery terms, but as regards these special Mysteries we possess clear and definite information, and we know, moreover, that in the Western world they were, of all the Mystery faiths, the most widely spread, and the most influential.

As Sir J. G. Frazer has before now pointed out, there are parallel and over-lapping forms of this cult, the name of the god, and certain details of the ritual, may differ in different countries, but whether he hails from Babylon, Phrygia, or Phoenicia, whether he be called Tammuz, Attis, or Adonis, the main lines of the story are fixed, and invariable.

Always he is young and beautiful, always the beloved of a great goddess; always he is the victim of a tragic and untimely death, a death which entails bitter loss and misfortune upon a mourning world, and which, for the salvation of that world, is followed by a resurrection.

Death and Resurrection, mourning and rejoicing, present themselves in sharp antithesis in each and all of the forms.

We know the god best as Adonis, for it was under that name that, though not originally Greek, he became known to the Greek world, was adopted by them with ardour, carried by them to Alexandria, where his feast assumed the character of a State solemnity; under that name his story has been enshrined in Art, and as Adonis he is loved and lamented to this day. The Adonis ritual may be held to be the classic form of the cult.

But in Rome, the centre of Western civilization, it was otherwise: there it was the Phrygian god who was in possession; the dominating position held by the cult of Attis and the Magna Mater, and the profound influence exercised by that cult over better known, but subsequently introduced, forms of worship, have not, so far, been sufficiently realized.

The first of the Oriental cults to gain a footing in the Imperial city, the worship of the Magna Mater of Pessinonte was, for a time, rigidly confined within the limits of her sanctuary.

The orgiastic ritual of the priests of Kybele made at first little appeal to the more disciplined temperament of the Roman population. By degrees, however, it won its way, and by the reign of Claudius had become so popular that the emperor instituted public feasts in honour of Kybele and Attis, feasts which were celebrated at the Spring solstice, March 15th-27th. 1

As the public feast increased in popularity, so did the Mystery feast, of which the initiated alone were privileged to partake, acquire a symbolic significance: the foods partaken of became “un aliment de vie spirituelle, et doivent soutenir dans les épreuves de la vie l’initié.”

Philosophers boldly utilized the framework of the Attis cult as the vehicle for imparting their own doctrines, “Lorsque le Nèoplatonisme triomphera la fable Phrygienne deviendra le moule traditionnel dans lequel des exégètes subtils verseront hardiment leurs spéculations philosophiques sur les forces créatrices fécondantes, principes de toutes les formes matérielles, et sur la délivrance de l’âme divine plongée dans la corruption de ce monde terrestre.” 2

Certain of the Gnostic sects, both pre- and post-Christian, appear to have been enthusiastic participants in the Attis mysteries; 3 Hepding, in his Attis study, goes so far as to refer to Bishop Aberkios, to whose enigmatic epitaph our attention was directed in the last chapter, as “der Attis-Preister.” 4

Another element aided in the diffusion of the ritual. Of all the Oriental cults which journeyed Westward under the aegis of Rome none was so deeply rooted or so widely spread as the originally Persian cult of Mithra–the popular religion of the Roman legionary.

But between the cults of Mithra and of Attis there was a close and intimate alliance. In parts of Asia Minor the Persian god had early taken over features of the Phrygian deity. “Aussitôt que nous pouvons constater la présence du culte Persique en Italie nous le trouvons étroitement uni à celui de la Grande Mére de Pessinonte.” 1

The union between Mithra and the goddess Anâhita was held to be the equivalent of that subsisting between the two great Phrygian deities Attis-Kybele.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 136-8.