The quintessential ancient celebration of the Ides of March (Mars) to the vernal equinox was the Roman festival of Cybele and Attis.
March was the traditional start of the Roman campaign season, and the Tubilustrium (tubus “pipe” and illustrium “clear, “bright”) which was a ceremony to make the army fit for war. The festival was held on March 23, the last day of the Quinquatria festival held in tribute to the god Mars. The Quinquatria was a festival sacred to the Etruscan Minerva, (the Greek Athena) and celebrated on the 19 March, the fifth (quin) day after the Ides.
During the Tubilustrium, sacred trumpets were blown and the leaping Salii priests who wore the peculiar domed headdress topped with a point could be seen dancing through the streets of the city.
This occurred during the festival of Cybele and Attis
The Romans adopted the worship of the Phrygian Mother of the Gods in 204 B.C. towards the close of their long struggle with Hannibal. A prophecy from the Sibylline Books, that a foreign invader would be driven from their land if the great Anatolian goddess was taken to Rome had encouraged them. Accordingly, ambassadors were dispatched to her sacred city, Pessinus in Phrygia. The small black stone meteorite, which embodied the mighty divinity, was entrusted to them and conveyed to Rome, where it was received with great respect and installed in the temple of Victory on Palatine Hill. Soon after Cybele’s installation, the harvest was such as had not been seen for many years, and soon Hannibal’s occupying army left in defeat.
The ceremony of the feast of Cybele proceeded in this fashion:
March 15th Canna intrat (The Reed enters)
The ides of March was the first full moon of the roman calendar year. It was the day when Attis was born, exposed as an infant among the reeds of a Phrygian river
March 22nd Arbor Intrat. (The Tree Entered)
A pine tree sacred to Cybele was felled and carried in funeral procession through Rome to the Temple of Cybele on Palatine Hill where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a special guild of tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woolen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, since violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, just as roses and anemones had sprung from the blood of Adonis. An effigy of a young Attis was tied to the middle of the stem since it was believed that after his death, Zeus had changed Attis into a pine-tree.
March 23rd . The day of mourning, also the day of the Tubilustrium, accompanied by the blowing of trumpets. The Greeks called the day, Descensus. (“the descent”)
March 24th. Sanguis (“The Day of Blood”)
Sir James George Fraser describes the Sanguis in The Golden Bough:
“Stirred by the wild barbaric music of clashing cymbals, rumbling drums, droning horns, and screaming flutes, the inferior clergy whirled about in the dance with waggling heads and streaming hair, until, rapt into a frenzy of excitement and insensible to pain, they gashed their bodies with potsherds or slashed them with knives in order to bespatter the altar and the sacred tree with their flowing blood. The ghastly rite probably formed part of the mourning for Attis and may have been intended to strengthen him for the resurrection…. Further, we may conjecture, though we are not expressly told, that it was on the same Day of Blood and for the same purpose that the novices sacrificed their virility. Wrought up to the highest pitch of religious excitement they dashed the severed portions of themselves against the image of the cruel goddess. These broken instruments of fertility were afterwards reverently wrapt up and buried in the earth or in subterranean chambers sacred to Cybele, where, like the offering of blood, they may have been deemed instrumental in recalling Attis to life and hastening the general resurrection of nature, which was then bursting into leaf and blossom in the vernal sunshine. Some confirmation of this conjecture is furnished by the savage story that the mother of Attis conceived by putting in her bosom a pomegranate sprung from the severed genitals of a man-monster named Agdestis, a sort of double of Attis.”
“While the flutes played, the drums beat, and the eunuch priests slashed themselves with knives, the religious excitement gradually spread like a wave among the crowd of onlookers, and many a one did that which he little thought to do when he came as a holiday spectator to the festival. For man after man, his veins throbbing with the music, his eyes fascinated by the sight of the streaming blood, flung his garments from him, leaped forth with a shout, and seizing one of the swords which stood ready for the purpose, castrated himself on the spot. Then he ran through the city, holding the bloody pieces in his hand, till he threw them into one of the houses which he passed in his mad career. The household thus honored had to furnish him with a suit of female attire and female ornaments, which he wore for the rest of his life…. Indeed the story that Attis unmanned himself under a pine-tree was clearly devised to explain why his priests did the same beside the sacred violet-wreathed tree at his festival. At all events, we can hardly doubt that the Day of Blood witnessed the mourning for Attis over an effigy of him which was afterwards buried.”
March 25th. Hilaria (“The Day of Joy”) or Hilaria Matris Deûm. (“Joy of the divine mother”) The Greek called the Ascensus. (“the ascent”)
Fraser describes the Hilaria:
“But when night had fallen, the sorrow of the worshippers was turned to joy. For suddenly a light shone in the darkness: the tomb was opened: the god had risen from the dead; and as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation. The resurrection of the god was hailed by his disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the corruption of the grave. On the morrow, the twenty-fifth day of March, which was reckoned the vernal equinox, the divine resurrection was celebrated with a wild outburst of glee. At Rome, and probably elsewhere, the celebration took the form of a carnival. It was the Festival of Joy (Hilaria). A universal license prevailed. Every man might say and do what he pleased. People went about the streets in disguise. No dignity was too high or too sacred for the humblest citizen to assume with impunity. All kinds of games and amusements were allowed on this day; masquerades were the most prominent among them, and everyone might, in his disguise, imitate whomsoever he liked, and even magistrates. The day of its celebration was the first after the vernal equinox, or the first day of the year which was longer than the night.”
During this time initiates partook in a peculiar ritual of bull blood baptism.
Described by Fraser:
“In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull. For some time afterwards the fiction of a new birth was kept up by dieting him on milk like a new-born babe. The regeneration of the worshipper took place at the same time as the regeneration of his god, namely at the vernal equinox. At Rome the new birth and the remission of sins by the shedding of bull’s blood appear to have been carried out above all at the sanctuary of the Phrygian goddess on the Vatican Hill, at or near the spot where the great basilica of St. Peter’s now stands; for many inscriptions relating to the rites were found when the church was being enlarged in 1608 or 1609.”
The Solarium Augusti
Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, became the first Emperor of Rome, Augustus (majestic, venerable, worthy of honor) and constructed the Solarium Augusti. Augustus had an interest in the Spring Equinox (his birthday) and this is important in light of the festival of Cybele.
The Solarium Augusti or Horologium Augusti was a monument in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) that functioned as a gnomon (remember the name of the center column of the Georgia Guidestones) for his giant sundial. Augustus took the 98 foot Egyptian red granite obelisk of Psammetichus II (595-589 BC) from Heliopolis (City of the sun or Helios) also known as Awanu (the place of the pillars) in ancient Egypt. Today the gnomon stands in front of the Italian Chamber of Deputies building and is known as the Obelisk of Montecitorio.
The mathematician Facondius Novus worked out the meridian pavement in front of the gnomon. It was inlaid with a gilded bronze network of lines, by which it was possible to read the time of day according to the season of the year that were to be marked by the obelisk’s shadow. The pavement was constructed from slabs of travertine, on which a quadrant was marked out with bronze letters, with indications of the hours, months, seasons and signs of the zodiac. Besides its function as a solar clock, the obelisk was oriented in such manner so as to cast its shadow on the nearby marble Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) on 23rd of September, Augustus’s birthday, which coincided with the autumnal equinox.
Ara Pacis Augustae, the “Altar of Augustan Peace”
The Solarium was dedicated to the Sun (Helios, Sol-Invictus, Mithra, Apollo) in 10 BC, shortly after Julius Caesar’s calendar reform and was the first solar dedication in Rome.
Layout of the Solarium Augusti. Notice the straight line in the center of the meridian pavement indicating the solar equinoxes. The picture indicates an evening during the vernal or autumnal equinox. At sunset on either of these days the point of the shadow enters the Altar of Peace.
The Solarium’s obelisk was topped with a curious pointed ball marking its apex.
The original Obelisk ball tip mimics the headdress worn by the Salii priests. This “obelisk” tipped ball also imitates the image of the Flamsteed ball.
The Egyptian hieroglyph representing Sirius contains three elements: a phallic obelisk (representing Osiris) and womb-like dome, (representing Isis) and a star (representing Horus).
Remember that the spring equinox, March 23rd) is also the day of mourning for Attis, as well as the Tubilustrium. At this time star Sirius is at its highest point at sunset. Literally then according to the layout of the Solarium, the gnomon with its peculiar pointed ball marking its apex symbolizes the highest aspect of Sirius while the sun rests in the place of Augustian peace.
Conversely during the Fall Equinox, Sirius is at its highest point at sunrise and as the gnomon obelisk marks noon, Sirius rests in the Ara Pacis Augustae.
One hundred and seventy years later, the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus erected a column to honor the previous emperor, Antoninus Pius on the same Field of Mars. At the column’s base was and elaborate scene carved in red granite known as the Apotheosis of Antonius.
The carving is described as a winged genius carrying Antoninus and his wife Faustina to Heaven. The male figure reclining on the left the holds the obelisk of the Solarium Augusti and the armored female figure in the right saluting the emperor and empress represents Roma, her shield depicts the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, suckled by Lupa.
This description does not truly convey the meaning of the carving however.
Compare the image of the Apotheosis of Antonius to the image of the Tauroctony scene of Mithra slaying the bull.
The winged man is not the “emperor becoming a god” but an image of the expected coming god who rises as the sun. Just as Attis “dies” on the day of mourning, he rises at the Hilaria. The woman in full armor is Athena, or Cybele. Just as in the Tauroctony, Cybele emerges from the rock on the upper right. Mars reclining at the base of the Apotheosis carving is mirrored by Sol-Invictus at the top left of the Tauroctony.
The great tomb of Augustus (completed in 28 B.C ) on the Field of Mars further illustrated the idea that the emperor likened himself to the sun god Sol-Invictus or Attis as divine Caesar. As the sun god he would rise again. This belief was perhaps wishful hope on the part of Augustus and perhaps more of an honorific foreshadowing or type that demonstrated the hoped for sun-savior of the world, the coming god that the Romans were well familiar, and who the Greeks called, Apollyon.
The outward form of the tomb is the same as a circumpunct -the symbol of the sun.
The lofty foundation of white marble was thickly covered with pine trees (the symbol of Attis) to the very summit. The interior of the tomb was constructed with concentric walls and the top had a bronze image of Augustus.
Notice the similarity to the image below:
Although Halloween falls just after the Fall Equinox it has parallels to the antics of the participants of the quintessential masquerade festival of the ancient world where, as Fraser writes:
“A universal license prevailed where everyone might say and do as they pleased. People went about the streets in disguise. No dignity was too high or too sacred for the humblest citizen to assume with impunity. All kinds of games and amusements were allowed on this day; masquerades were the most prominent among them, and everyone might, in his disguise, imitate whomsoever he liked, and even magistrates.”
The parallels to Halloween are interesting – as are the reasons for the antics of the people of Rome who celebrated the Hilaria.
Why celebrate with a masquerade? Why the freedom to do or say as one pleased when the god Attis has risen? It is because the festival portends a coming time when he (Attis, Sol Invictus) has “defeated” the “oppressor” god of the Garden. At this “sun-god’s” coming, his worshipers believe that they will no longer be under the oppression of the same God who “cursed” Attis.
The timeline of the modern tradition of bringing a (Christmas) tree into the home starts with the Roman holiday for Cyble and Attis during the spring festivals around the Ides of March and Vernal Equinox and is retained as the cult progresses over 700 years to the Winter solstice festival for Sol Invictus.