Ancient mysteries, text: In Greek literature from the first century BCE onwards there are several stories about Attis, who is presented as a devotee of the Mother. The best known of these stories, which exists in several versions, details Attis’s self-castration after he failed in remaining faithful to the Mother. The story probably developed in the Hellenistic period, as an explanation for self-castration in the cult of the Mother. The earliest representations of Attis accompanying the Mother are likewise found in Greece from the fourth century BCE.
The earliest surviving account of the story of Attis is found in the Fasti, a poem written by Ovid at the very start of the first century CE. As Ovid tells the story, the Mother fell in love with Attis and he swore fidelity to her, but he then broke his oath by sleeping with a nymph. When she discovered this, the Mother killed the nymph and Attis, in a fit of madness, castrated himself, claiming that his genitals were responsible for his breaking of the oath, and bleeds to death. Attis is presented as being driven by sexual desire, but desire for the Mother alone. Following Attis’s example, or rather his motivation (since Attis’s self-castration leads to his death), the self-castrating devotees of the Mother demonstrate their commitment to her alone.
This terracotta figurine from Roman Egypt is likely a representation of Attis. He is depicted in his fused form Attis-Eros, sporting the Phrygian cap along with wings, a fusion which is attested from the Hellenistic period onwards and likely stems from the connection of Cybele with Aphrodite (thus also connecting their two male companions). In his hands he is holding a torch, with a curious hole on top, possibly used for illumination. On his back is a small hole, enabling the figurine to be hung from a string. The figurine was acquired from artist Margareta Adelborg in 1985.
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