Item Details

The Rites of the Day of Blood (dies sanguinis) in the Graeco-Roman Cult of Cybele and Attis: A Cognitive Historiographical Approach

Issue: Vol 5 No. 1-2 (2018)

Journal: Journal of Cognitive Historiography

Subject Areas: Ancient History Cognitive Studies Archaeology

DOI: 10.1558/jch.39915


The cult of Cybele and Attis was an ancient cult disseminated throughout the entire Roman Empire. Among the rites held by its followers, there were the so-called Day of Blood (dies sanguinis) which, according to the Calendar (or Chronography) of Philocalus (354 CE), was celebrated on 24 March. On this day the worshipers and priests (galli) of Cybele/Attis flagellated themselves until they bled profusely, and with their blood they sprinkled Cybele’s effigy as well as the altars of the temple, while the initiates castrated themselves and offered their testes to the goddess as a real-life imitation of what happened mythologically to the goddess’ consort Attis. The present contribution offers a preliminary systemization of this glaringly maladaptive and quite puzzling belief-behaviour complex in the anthropological and neurocognitive frame of the so-called extreme rituals, highlighting the specific in-group benefit reaped by worshipers and initiates (e.g., community cohesion through costly signalling and credibilityenhancing displays).

Author: Panayotis Pachis

View Full Text

References :

Alcorta, C. S., and R. Sosis. 2006. “Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex.” Human Nature 16(4): 333–6.

Alvar, J. 2008. Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation and Ethics in the Cult of Cybele, Isis and Mithras. Translated by R. Gordon. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Ambasciano, L. 2016. “Achilles’ Historiographical Heel, or the Infelicitous Predominance of Experimental Presentism in Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods.”  Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 82(2):1045–68.

Ambasciano, L. 2019. An Unnatural History of Religions: Academia, Post-truth and the Quest for Scientific Knowledge. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Berezin, M. 2005. “Emotions and the Economy.” In Handbook of Economic Sociology, eds. N. J. Smeiler and R. Swedberg, 109–27. Princeton: Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.

Besnier, N. 1994. “Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space.” In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. G. Herdt, 285–328. New York: Zone Books.

Borgeaud, P. 1996. La mère des dieux. De Cybèle à la vierge Marie. Paris: Seuil.

Boyer, P. 2001. Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits, and Ancestors. London: Vintage.

Bricault, L. 2018. “Les prêtres isiaques du monde romain.” In Individuals and Materials in the Greco-Roman Cults of Isis: Agents, Images and Practices, eds. V. Gasparini and R. Veymiers, vol. I, 154–97. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Bulbulia, J. 2004. “Religious Costs as Adaptations that Signal Altruistic Intention.” Evolution and Cognition 10(1): 19–38.

Burkert, W. 1996. Creation of the Sacred: Track of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Carcopino, J. 1942. Aspects mystiques de la Rome païenne. 6th Ed. Paris: L’Artisan du Livre.

Casadio, G. 2003. “The Failing Male God: Emasculation, Death and Other Accidents in the Ancient Mediterranean World.” Numen 50(3): 231-68.

Chirassi-Colombo, I. 1982. “II sacrificio dell’essere divino e l’ideologia dellasalvezza nei tre più noti sistemi misterici dei primi secoli dell’impero.” In La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’impero Romano, ed. M. J. Vermaseren and U. Bianchi, 308–30. Leiden: Brill.

Colpe, C. 1969. “Zur mythologischen Struktur der Adonis-, Attis- und Osiris-Oberlieferungen.” In lišan mithurti. Festschrisft für W.F. von Soden, ed. W. Röllig, 23–44. Neukirchen and Vluyn: Verlag Butzon and Bercker Kevelaer.

Crook, Z. 2004. Reconceptualizing Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.

Damasio, A. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books. 

Damasio, A. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York and London: Harcourt Brace.

Duthoy, R. 1969. The Taurobolium: Its Evolution and Terminology. Leiden: Brill.

Emmons, R. A., and M. McCullough (eds.) 2004. The Psychology of Gratitude. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmons, R. A., and M. McCullough. 2003. “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: Experimental Studies of Gratitude and Subjective Well-being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(2): 377–89.

Emmons, R. A., and P. McNamara. 2006. “Sacred Emotions and Affective Neuroscience: Gratitude, Costly Signaling, and the Brain.” In Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter our Understanding of Religion, ed. P. McNamara, vol. I, 11–30. Westport and London: Praeger.

Endres, N. 2015 Galli: Ancient Roman Priests.” In Encyclopedia glbtq. (last accessed 1 August 2019).

Fasce, S. 1978. Attis e il culto metroaco. Genova: Tilgher.

Fear, A. T. 2015. “Cybele and Christ.” In Cybele, Attis and Related Cults Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren, ed. E. N. Lane, 37-50. Leiden, New York and Köln: Brill.

Fischer, R., et al. 2014. “The Fire-Walker’s High: Affect and Physiological Responses in the Extreme Collective Ritual.” PLoS ONE 9(2): e88355.

Fischer, R., and D. Xygalatas. 2014. “Extreme Rituals as Social Technologies.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 14(5): 345–55.


Foucart, P. 1975. Des associations religieuses chez les Grecs: Thiases, Eranes, Orgeons. New York: Arno Press.

Garnsey, P., R. Saller, J. Elsner, M. Goodman, and R. Gordon. 2015. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Geertz, A. 2010. “Brain, Body and Culture: A Biocultural Theory of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22: 304–21.

Graillot, H. 1912. Le culte de Cybèle, mère des dieux, à Rome et dans l’empire romaine. Paris: Fontemoing.

Haeperen Van, F. 2011. “Les acteurs du Culte de Magna Mater à Rome et dans les provinces occidentales de l’Empire.” In Figures d’empire, fragments de mémoire: pouvoirs et identités dans le monde romain imperial (IIe s. av. n. è. – VI s. de n. è.), eds S. Benoist, A. Daguet-Gagey, and C. Hoët-van Cauwenberghe, 467-77. Villeneuve d’Arc: Septentrion.

Haeperen Van, F. 2012. “Les prêtresses de Magna Mater dans le monde Romain Ocidental.” In SACERDOS. Figure del sacro nella società Romana. Atti del convegno Internazionale Cividale del Friuli, 26-28 settembre 2012, eds. G. Urso, 299-321. Pisa: Edizioni ETS.

Haeperen Van, F. 2018. “Su alcuni fedeli della Magna Mater.” In Roma, la città degli dèi. La capitale dell’Impero come laboratorio religioso, eds. C. Bonnet and E. Sanzi, 29-38. Roma: Carocci.

Hallett, J. P., and M. B. Skinner (eds.) 1997. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Henrich, J. 2009. “The Evolution of Costly Displays, Cooperation and Religion: Credibility Enhancing Displays and Their Implications for Cultural Evolution.” Evolution and Human Behavior 30(4): 244–60.

Hepding, H. 1903. Attis seine Mythen und sein Kult. Giessen: J. Ricker’sche Verlagsbuchandlung.

Iles Johnston, S. 2004. “Mysteries.” In Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, ed. S. Iles Johnston, 98-111. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Irons, W. 2001. “Religion as a Hard-to-fake Sign of Commitment.” In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, ed. R. Nesse, 292–309. New York: Russell Sage Press.

Kappas, Ar. 2009. “Mysterious Tears: The Phenomenon of Crying from the Perspective of Social Neuroscience.” In Tears in the Graeco-Roman World, ed. T. Fögen, 419–38. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.

Klöckner, A. 2017. “Tertium genus? Representations of Religious Practitioners in the Cult of Magna Mater: Religious Entrepreneurs and Innovators in the Roman Empire.” In Beyond Priesthood: Religious Entrepreneurs and Innovators in the Roman Empire, eds. R. L. Gordon, G. Petridou, and J. Rüpke, 343-84. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

Lambrects, P. 1952. “Les fetes ‘phrygienes’.” Bulletin de l’Institut Belge de Rome XXVII: 141–70.

Lancellotti, M. G. 2002. Attis. Between Myth and History: King, Priest and God. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Lane, E. 1996. “The Name of Cybele’s Priests the ‘Galloi’.” In Cybele, Attis and Related Cults. Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren, ed. E. Lane, 117–33. Leiden: Brill.

Larson, J. 2016. Understanding Greek Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Latham, J. 2012. “Fabulous Clap-Trap: Roman Masculinity, the Cult of Magna Mater, and Literary Construction of the Galli at Rome from Late Republic to Late Antiquity.” The Journal of Religion 92(1): 84–122.

Lisdorf, A. 2009. “The Cybele and Attis Religion and the Theory of Modes of Religiosity.” In Imagistic Traditions in the Graeco-Roman World: A Cognitive Modelling of History of Religious Research, ed. L. H. Martin and P. Pachis, 179–202. Thessaloniki: Vanias.

Martin, L. H. 1987. Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, L. H. 2005. “Aspects of Religious Experience Among the Hellenistic Mystery Religions.” Religion and Theology 12(3-4): 349–69.

Martin, L. H. and E. Eidinow 2014. “Editors’ Introduction.” Journal of Cognitive Historiography 1(1): 5–9.

McCauley, R. N., and E. T. Lawson. 2002. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nanda, S. 1999. Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Nanda, S. 1994. “Hijras: An Alternative Sex and Gender Role in India.” In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. G. Herdt, 373–417. New York: Zone Books.

Nauta, R. R. 2004. Catullus 63 in a Roman Context.” Mnemosyne 57(5): 596-628.

Nilsson, M. P. 1974. Geschichte der Griechischen Religion. 3rd Ed., vol. II. München: C. H. Beck.

Nock A. D. 1972. “Eunuchs in Ancient Religion.” In Essays on Religion and Ancient World, ed. Z. Stewart, vol. I, 7–15. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperaton and Conflict. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Pachis, P. 1988. Το νερό και το αίμα στις μυστηριακές λατρείες της ελληνορωμαϊκής εποχής. Diss., Aristotle University, Thessaloniki.

Pachis, P. 1996. “Γαλλαῖον Κυβέλης ὀλόλυγμα (Anthol. Palat. VI, 173). L’élément orgiastique dans le culte de Cybèle.” In Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren, ed. E. N. Lane, 193-22. Leiden, New York and Köln: Brill.   

Pachis, P. 2009. “Imagistic modes of religiosity in the cult of Isis/Sarapis during the Graeco-Roman Age.” In Imagistic Traditions in the Graeco-Roman World: A Cognitive Modelling of History of Religious Research, eds. L. H. Martin and P.  Pachis, 203-36. Thessaloniki: Vanias Editions. 

Pachis, P. 2018. “Introduction: General Characteristics of the Hellenistic Era.” In Studies in Hellenisitic Religions by Luther H. Martin, ed. P. Pachis, 1-32. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Pensabene, P. 1982. “Nuove indagini nell’area del tempio di Cibele sul Palatino.” In La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’impero Romano, eds. M. J. Vermaseren and U. Bianchi, 68-108. Leiden: Brill.

Pepin, J. 1982. “Réactions du christianisme latin à la sotériologie métroaque. Firmicus Maternus, Ambrsiaster, Saint Augustin.” In La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’impero Romano, eds. M. J. Vermaseren and U. Bianchi, 256-72. Leiden: Brill.

Pyysiäinen, I. 2003. How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Roller, L. E. 1999. In Search of God of The Mother. The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Roller, L. E. 1994. “Attis on Greek Votive Monuments: Greek God or Phrygian?” Hesperia 63: 245-62. Stable URL:

Roscoe, Will 1996. “Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion.” History of Religions 35(3): 195–230.

Sanders, G. 1972. “Gallos”. Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum VIII (63): 984-1034.

Scheid, J. 2001 [1983]. La religione a Roma. Roma and Bari: Laterza.

Schelling, R., and J. Rüpke, 2005 (1987). s.v. “Roman Religion: The Early Period”. In Encyclopaedia of Religion. Second Edition. Vol. 12, ed. L. Jones, 7892–911. Detroit, MI: MacMillan Reference USA-Thomson Gale.

Sfameni Gasparro, G. 1971. Religioni orientali nel mondo ellenistico-romano. In Storia delle religioni, ed. G. Castellani, 6th Ed., vol. 3, 423-564. Turin: UTET.

Sfameni Gasparro, G. 1983. “Significato e ruolo del sangue nel culto di Cibele e Attis.” In Atti della settimana di studi Sangue e Antropologia nella letteratura cristiana, ed. F. Vattioni, vol. I, 199-32. Roma: Edizioni Pia Unione Preziosissimo Sangue.

Sfameni Gasparro, G. 1985. Soteriology in the Cult of Cybele and Attis. Leiden: Brill.

Slingerland, E. 2008. What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture: Beyond Dualism. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

 Slone, D. J. 2006. “Religion and Cognition: An introduction.” In Religion and Cognition: A Reader:1-10. London and Oakville: Equinox.

Slone, D. J. and J. A. Van Slyke (eds.) 2015. The Attraction of Religion: A New Evolutionary Psychology of Religion. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Smail, D. L. 2008. On Deep History and the Brain. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Sosis, R. 2003. “Why Aren’t We All Hutterites? Costly Signaling Theory and Religious Behavior.” Human Nature 14(2): 91-127.

Taylor, R. 1997. “Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7(3): 319–71. Stable URL:

Tooby, J. and L. Cosmides. 1992. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds. J. Barkow, J. Tooby, and L. Cosmides, 19-136. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ustinova, Y. 2018. Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece. London and New York: Routledge.

Vermaseren, M. J. 1966. The Legend of Attis in Greek and Roman Art. Leiden: Brill.

Vermaseren, M. J. 1977a. Cybele and Attis. The Myth and the Cult. London: Thames and Hudson.

Vermaseren, M. J. 1977b. Corpus Cultus Cybelae Attidisque (CCCA) III: Italia, Latium. Leiden: Brill.

Wagner, G. 1962. Das religionsgeschitliche Problem von Römer 6,1-11. Zürich: Zwingli Verlag.

Whitehouse, H. 1996. “Rites of Terror: Emotion, Metaphor and Memory in Melanesian Initiation Cults.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2(4): 703-51.

Whitehouse, H. 2000. Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Whitehouse, H. and J. A. Lanman. 2014. “The Ties That Bind Us: Ritual, Fusion and Identification.” Current Anthropology 55(6): 674-95.

Williams, C. A. 2010. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Second Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Xygalatas, D. 2008. “Firewalking and the Brain: The Physiology of High-arousal Rituals.” In The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories and Critiques, eds. J. Bulbulia, R. Sossis, E. Harris, R. Genet, Ch. Genet, and K. Wyman, 189-95. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.

Xygalatas, D. 2012a. The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria. London: Acumen.

Xygalatas, D. 2012b. “Firewalking in the Balkans: High-arousal Rituals and Memory.” In Changing Memory: Religion and Cognition Through the Ages, ed. I. Czachesz, 193-09. Leuven: Peeters.

Xygalatas, D. 2014. “Cognitive Science of Religion.” In Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, ed. D. A. Leeming, 2nd Ed., 343-47. London: Springer Verlag.

Xygalatas, D., et al. 2011. “Quantifying Collective Effervescence Heart-rate Dynamics at a Fire-walking Ritual.” Communicative & Integrative Biology 4(6): 735-738.

Xygalatas, D., et al. 2013a. “Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 13(1-2): 1–16.

Xygalatas, D. et al. 2013b. “Extreme Rituals Promote Prosociality.” Psychological Science 24(8): 1602-5.