All about Corybantes: Fierce Dancers Protecting Zeus

Greek mythology is a complex blend of stories and beliefs, most homegrown within the Greek lands but many others imported from neighboring regions, especially Asia Minor.

Most of the time, the end result is a chaotic mishmash that historians struggle to make sense of.

The Corybantes are a perfect illustration of this cultural puzzle. The most common translation of their name is “whirlers,” though even that is up for debate.

Typically, they are depicted in art as supernatural beings devoted to raucous, ecstatic dancing.

Both ancient Greek authors and modern scholars disagree on who was the master of the Corybantes’ and the motivations behind their raucous dancing.

In Greek literature, the Corybantes are often confused with another group of rowdy dancers, the Curetes (youths) of Crete.

The mixing of Greek and Asian myths is to blame for this unclear purpose and parentage.

Corybantes and Curetes are depicted as stewards of the Great Mother of the Gods, either Rhea in Greek mythology or Cybele in the myths coming from Asia Minor.

As people from the Greek lands and Asia Minor mixed and became one culture, Rhea and Cybele became linked, as did their servants, the Corybantes and Curetes, respectively.

In an effort to clear things up, some historians claim that the Corybantes were not Greek at all but rather of pure Asian descent.

They play the piercing instruments of the highlands and are ecstatic dancers in the procession of Cybele, the “mountain mother.” Their musical instruments included cymbals, rattles, and “bull-roarers,” which were merely stones with a hole in the middle that, when whirled on a string, made a sound similar to that of rushing wind and were thought to summon rain.

Besides their talents as dancers, the Corybantes are also known for their ability to heal mental illness through the use of magic. They remind us of the still-living historical concept of the medicine man, who leads his congregation in a ritual dance meant to drive out evil and give him power over the elements.

Even if this explanation were true, it doesn’t change the fact that the Greeks themselves mixed up the Corybantes and the Curetes. When discussing the Cretan Curetes, they often called them Corybantes.

Another piece of the puzzle is revealed by the hypothesis that the Corybantes, or Curetes, were linked to the Dactyls, who also served Rhea, the Great Mother.

Cronus, Rhea’s husband, was the ruler of the universe in Greek mythology and would swallow his children to prevent them from taking his place upon growing up.

Rhea learned she was pregnant once more, after already giving birth to three daughters (Hera, Demeter, and Hestia). In an attempt to deceive Cronus, Rhea hid in a mountain cave on the Greek island of Crete and gave birth in secrecy.

Again, opinions vary as to which mountain the cave was located in; some say Aegeon, others say Dicte, and yet others say Ida. Cybele’s association with another Mount Ida, in Phrygian Asia Minor, is an interesting side note.

When Rhea’s labor started, she pushed her giant hands down onto the ground. Spirits, divinities, and other supernatural beings then manifested themselves from each of her fingerprints to assist with the birth and guard the newborn Zeus.

The popular term for these beings is “Idaean Dactyls,” after the Greek word for “finger,” dactyl.

The nature and characteristics of the Idaean Dactyls are described in a variety of ways, but they are all, in some sense, the offspring of the Great Mother.

The Corybantes (also spelled “Curetes”) are sometimes considered to be members of these Idaean Dactyls or even their offspring.

Whatever their origins, the Corybantes danced around Zeus’s cradle while clashing swords and shields in an effort to cover up the baby’s screams and prevent them from reaching his father.

(No academic has yet proposed that the great god’s eventual preference for thunder resulted from his early auditory experiences.)

Although there seems to be some debate as to how many Corybantes or Curetes there actually are, in most artistic depictions they appear as a group of three.

In other tales of Zeus’ birth, Hera convinced her mother Rhea to let her take the infant Zeus to a hidden Cretan stronghold, where she cared for him until he was of age to marry Hera.

Hera then gathered a group of young men from the area, called Curetes, to dance and crash their weapons whenever the baby wailed. 

An ancient hymn found in Crete tells us the Curetes were worshiped as the attendants of “Zeus Curos,” the young Zeus. The hymn is from the Hellenistic period, but it is possible that the worship of the Curetes is much older, possibly starting with a real Curetes that lived in the past.

In Minoan times, the adolescent Cretans revered Zeus as a god who was of similar age to them.

The same repeating elements can be found in all of these tales, whether they originated in Greece or Asia.

Each of these stories has ferocious dancing, links to the Mother of Gods, as well as protection from harm through the clanging of metal against metal. The implications of that last element are very revealing.

According to numerous legends, the Dactyls were the first people to work with metal, but they were also magicians who cast both good and evil spells. These artisan beings appear to be frequently conceived of as dwarfs, mirroring foreign mythologies such as the Niebelungen, the Teutonic smith-dwarfs who lived in caves beneath the ground.

Similar characteristics are ascribed to other Dactyl-related beings, such as the Corybantes, the Telchines (semi-divine beings of Rhodes), and the Cabiri (Phrygian deities originally from Samothrace and also associated with Asia Minor).

In several versions, there are dark legends of male fertility and mutilation involving three brothers, one of whom is slain or horrifyingly mutilated by the other two.This theme of fratricidal conflict runs throughout all of the stories of the Great Mother’s offspring.

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