The myth of Attis and his motherly companion Cybele reminds us---probably more than any other myth---of a case study by Sigmund Freud. It would seem to explore the kind of neurosis that especially interested Freud. Attis is a priest at the temple of Cybele and as such has taken a vow of celibacy. But as we might expect in a “Freudian” myth, he falls in love with a young woman in the city and decides to marry her. At this point Cybele seems to be very possessive. She appears to Attis at the marriage in a fearful vision, and he is driven mad by the sight. He leaves the wedding party, enters a dark forest, and kills himself by castrating himself and bleeding to death.
Before we conclude that the two protagonists of this myth are simply neurotic we should remember that Freud conducted his studies and wrote about them in the modern era, even though he liked to name his theories after ancient persons. If we take the time to carefully examine the art works that this myth has inspired, we would notice something for which there is no apparent explanation. Some of the statues of Attis depict him as an infantile man, almost a child---while others depict him as a man with noble qualities, even after the castration, when he enjoys eternal life with his goddess. Perhaps, it occurred to me, the myth of Attis can be interpreted in two different ways, and these two ways lead to two different views of the man and his personal qualities.
The issue is why Attis castrated himself. In the “Freudian” version of the myth, he rejects his adult sexuality because he is clinging to Cybele as a mother. There is another possibility, more in keeping with the image of Cybele as a Mother of Rome, the Rome that was heroic and not childish. Cybele does not appear to Attis in anger, but as a spiritual teacher might, to “see through him” with eyes that ask, “Is this what you have become?” At this point Attis, suddenly recollecting himself and repentant, decides to kill himself, because he despairs of attaining once again the pure state of devotion that he enjoyed before he saw the young woman. He decides to kill himself, and then chooses the method of death that is symbolic of the reason he must kill himself.
At Attis sits beneath a pine tree slowly bleeding to death he loses consciousness of the physical world. Cybele is standing beside him and chastises him gently and lovingly, “If only you had turned to me instead of losing hope, I could have helped you.” Of course she is right, for as his spiritual preceptor she had the power to help him, and loved him as a good mother loves a son. If you think that I am being sentimental, recall that the black meteorite that represented Cybele’s presence was brought to Rome to enable its legions to conquer Carthage. Those soldiers were not infantile.
Below: The Infantile Attis.
Below: The Noble Attis.