Roman Mythology

The Emperor-God and Foreign Borrowings

How were the myths of Cybele and Attis, Mithras, and Isis and Osiris used in Imperial Rome?

Cybele had long been exalted in Rome, and Sir James Frazer describes the Roman spring festival of Cybele’s son Attis during the Imperial period. During the festival a pine tree trunk was brought into the sanctuary of Cybele and wrapped in cloth as if it were a corpse. It was then decorated with flowers and an effigy of the dying god Attis was placed on it. Priests of Attis then danced in a frenzy around the tree, splattering the effigy with blood. The effigy was placed in a tomb. In the night, however, the tomb was revealed to be empty.

The mythology of Mithras became particularly important in Roman military circles. Mithrian rituals included communal gatherings, ritual sacrifice, and a shared ritual meal. The Roman emperor Gaius had a temple built to the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was associated with the revival of the dead god Osiris.

All these rituals and imported traditions helped to make Rome fertile ground for the development of the stories and rituals of Christianity.

A floor mosaic of the Persian creation god Mithras being born. Mithraism was a popular religion in ancient Rome.


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