The Honey Tree

Cybele, Rome 50 b.c.e.
photo Marshall Astor


This week’s goddess is Cybele (pronounced kye-bell), whose sacred tree is the pine. Cybele is the earth mother goddess of what is now western Turkey, who had a popular and longstanding cult that eventually spread to Rome. She had a lover named Attis, who was also her grandson, whom she loved very much, and she showered him with gifts and attention. Despite the pampered treatment he enjoyed, Attis eventually became enamored of a nymph, and he could not keep the liaison a secret from Cybele. She was furious, and she tormented him until in madness he tore his genitals from his body. Attis died from his wound under a pine tree.

The Turkish Pine is renowned for its role in production of a type of honey. Aphids feed on the sap of the tree and sweat a sweet substance that attracts swarms of bees. The love of bees for this tree can be compared to the love of Cybele for Attis. Attis’ self-castration is evocative of the bee’s reproduction. When the bee drone has finished copulating with the queen, his organ is torn from his body as he pulls away. The drone then dies of his wounds. The furious torment of Attis by Cybele may have been like the swarming buzz of bees.

At the opening of Cybele’s spring ceremony in Rome, a pine branch was carried into the city to represent Attis. During the week-long ceremony, male initiates to one of her cults would castrate themselves during frenzied dancing (think of bees) and throw their testicles as an offering at the foot of her statue. The worship of Cybele and Attis had a death-and-resurrection theme, with rituals of mourning preceding ecstatic rites celebrating Attis’ rebirth.

From Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Amid tumultuous music, and rites of wildest sorrow, they sought and mourned for Attis in the mountains. On the third day he was found again, the image of the goddess was purified from the contagion of death, and a feast was celebrated as wild as had been the days of sorrow.

From Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

The Goddess is herself a queen bee about whom male drones swarm in midsummer, and as Cybele is often so pictured; the ecstatic self-castration of her priests was a type of the emasculation of the drone by the queen bee in the nuptial act.

Stand of Turkish Pine
photo Sten

I recently ran across a blog entry (which I can’t find again; you’ll have to take my word) maintaining that the worship of Cybele belongs to transwomen and that any others who follow Cybele are wrongfully appropriating her. I have wanted to address this issue of ownership and appropriation in a general way for some time.

Regarding the rites of Cybele: since she had a cult of castrated priests, transwomen have a traditional justification for establishing exclusionary religious practices to this goddess. However, the worship of Cybele, which dates to pre-history, was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Greco-Roman times and included different priesthoods of women, men, and mixed-sex groups, as well as castrated males. There is justification, historically, for persons of any sex or gender to establish a cult of Cybele.

I’ve heard this same sentiment of proprietary worship expressed by women, particularly lesbians, regarding the goddess Diana and the supposed inappropriateness of her worship by men. Diana is well known for her preference for women over men, but she has had celebrated male followers throughout history, among them the Roman king Servius Tullius, who established a famous temple to Diana outside Rome in the sixth century b.c.e.

The objection has been raised by certain Western critics of paganism regarding the affinity of witches for the Hindu goddess Kali-Ma. The argument (which I actually have never heard from any Hindus) is that Kali is a Hindu goddess and therefore should only be worshiped by Hindus.

The hard fact of the matter, however, is that we none of us own our gods. They are promiscuous, meaning they love who they choose to love and extend favors of their own volition to those who please them. You can establish a cult, a circle, a religion or a ceremonial system and include or initiate whoever you want, but worship is ultimately an agreement between the deity and devotee. Nobody can change that. Violating the boundaries of a religious cult is wrong, and willful violations were sometimes punished with death in ancient Greece, but there is a difference between placing boundaries around a practice and placing boundaries around a deity. The goddesses do what they want. Go ask Attis.


Sources

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calendar of Festivals.Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1990.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Trans. by John Nettleship and J.E. Sandeys. 1882. http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028214652/cu31924028214652_djvu.txt

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3 Responses to The Honey Tree

  1. Jeanocainfoster says:

    This myth maybe applied today as some men sacrifice their virility to become men-lovers or homosexuals…the choice is to integrate spiritually the love of your peers balanced with the love of our opposite genders. love of women..