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Hilaria: the roman festival that commemorated the worship of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her devotee Attis

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Originally written on March 25, 2021 – updated 2023

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 this day, March 25. Known as Hilaria, it was considered the day of the resurrection of the god Attis, who had died three days earlier.
As the god of vegetation and beloved son and lover of the goddess Cybele, he represented the god-sacrifice who, after dying, rises again (by the hand of the Goddess) as the spirit of spring.
Scholars believe that worship of Cybele began in an ancient kingdom known as Phrygia, located in what is now west-central Turkey, that flourished between the twelfth and seventh centuries B.C.
The great mother goddess Cybele dominated Phrygian religious life. When the Romans began to worship Cybele, 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.

One of the most important myths concerning Cybele told of her great fondness for a youth called Attis, her son and devotee. Countless versions of the tale circulated throughout the ancient world, and 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 version 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 story Attis is killed by a spear thrust, or by a wild boar, and in yet another version 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.

Roman devotees of Cybele added another festival to their cult, this one honoring the life and death of Attis.
After a night of orgies, in the morning the faithful told everyone that the god’s tomb had opened and that he had risen and rejoined the Great Mother.
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.
The full festival can be roughly reconstructed in this way:

| 15 March. “The Reed Entered”. Attis finding by Cybele among the reeds on the bank of the River Gallus, but Its exact significance is uncertain (the reeds may also refer to the river bank where Attis was exposed as a child and rescued by Cybele). A nine-day period of abstinence from bread, pomegranates, quinces, pork, fish, and probably wine began. Only milk was permitted as a drink.

| 22 March. “The Tree Entered” (Arbor intrat). A pine tree is felled. The tree is set up at the Temple of Cybele, its trunk wrapped in wool, and its branches decked with wreathes of violets. 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.

| 24 March. “The Day of Blood” (Sanguis), a day of frenzied rites including scourging and whipping. Castration rituals would take place on this day. 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.

| 25 March. “The Day of Joy” (Hilaria) celebrating the resurrection of Attis. This was the hilaria proper (as opposed to the mournful tone of the previous days), 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.

| 26 March. A 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.

We know that Attis is just one of the many pre-Christian gods who died and rose again during the spring equinox and the similarities (if we want to call them in this way) with the Gospel texts describing the resurrection of Christ are quite evident.
In any case, some of the activities on the Hilaria resembled those associated with April Fools’ Day, but this is another story!

Images from web – Google Research

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