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On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener.
A few days prior to Rhodes' death at his beachside cottage
in Cape Town on March 26, 1902, a local Cape Coloured artisan was called in to enlarge the window of his bedroom
so as to facilitate a through-draft of cool, sea air to help relieve his congested lungs. In gratitude, Rhodes presented him with his Roman dagger letter opener. It is believed to be the last gift he ever made and it now resides in a private collection of Rhodes' memorabilia.

The imagery on this bronze artefact has some fascinating symbolic resonance’s with Rhodes' life and death, and offers an amazing key to the spiritual roots of his personality. The following short exposition on the dagger's Roman symbolism is a necessary prelude, so bear with me:

At the top of the dagger is a bust of Cybele, the Great Mother Goddess who became the official protector of Rome from the beginning of the Imperial Period (205 BC). She was adopted as the Magna Mater of Rome at the instruction of the Cumean sybil who prophesied that it was only the power of this particular goddess - the Great Mother Goddess of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) - who could save Rome from Hannibal's invading army.

Cecil Rhodes, Cecil John Rhodes, cecil rhodes, death, deathbed, Cape Town, gift, gifts, museum, museums, Cape Town museums, museums in Cape Town, Muizenberg

On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener.
On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener. On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener.
On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener.
On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener.
On his deathbed, Rhodes gave away his Roman dagger letter-opener.

After her formal adoption as the Goddess of the Eternal City, Hannibal was defeated three years later on the plains of Zama. The fortunes of Rome were transformed for the better and she continued to spread her influence across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world, Europe and Asia.

Cybele is inseparable from Attis, her handsome, young son-lover whose face can be seen looking out from the interlacing vegetative pattern in the centre of the hilt. The slightly effeminate pose of the figure on the upper part of the hilt echoes Attis, who is always portrayed in Roman art as a somewhat feminine, androgynous figure.

While the top of the dagger represents Cybele in her gentle, civic aspect, the double-serpent female form at the base of the hilt represents her darker, chthonic nature - the serpent being the symbol of virtually all the great mother goddesses of the ancient world. Pronounced 'Sibili', Cybele's name is related to the Latin word 'sibilare' meaning 'to hiss'.

Attis, leaning against a tree, watches his mother Cybele approach in her lion-drawn chariot.

Wheat, the sacred symbol of Attis' resurrection.
  As well as being a nurturing, maternal figure, Cybele was also a goddess of war and conquest and was the divine inspiration for the Legions of Rome in the creation and protection of the Roman Empire.

All of Rome would take part in the spring festival honouring Cybele and Attis. Initiates into the Higher Mysteries of this religion underwent the taurobolium (a baptism in bull's blood) after which they described themselves as 'reborn for eternity'. In many respects Attism was the foundation stone of Christianity that became the official religion of Rome in 312 AD.

Both religions shared a death and resurrection story, both represented their saviours as being shepherds (Attis was known as 'the good shepherd'), both used wheat (an ear of wheat for Attis, bread for Christ) as a central symbol of their saviour, and the practise of celibacy was common to both their priesthoods.

Considering the close parallels between these two religions, the ease with which Christianity became Rome's official religion is hardly surprising. The big difference between the two was that the early Christians reviled and rejected the Great Mother Goddess, and - in keeping with Old Testament tradition - replaced her with God the
Father instead.

So what has all this got to do with Rhodes?

The central element in the Cybele and Attis myth is that the goddess' son is forbidden to love anyone but her. Rhodes in turn had a very close emotional relationship with his mother. In a family of nine children, Rhodes was 'his mother's boy, her favourite' according to a family servant. Alone of all the boys, she always called him 'my darling'.

Rhodes in turn adored her and wrote constant affectionate letters to her after he left England for South Africa when he was 17. Three years later she was dead and for the rest of his life he never had another close relationship with a woman. Although he had close emotional bonds with various male friends, there is no evidence of any physical relationships.

But back to Attis. Although forbidden by his mother to love anyone but her, he is led astray by a river nymph causing an enraged Cybele to drive him insane. Filled with mad remorse at his unfaithfulness, he castrates himself and bleeds to death under a pine tree.

In the death celebrations of Attis, a pine trunk was used to symbolise his body - an enduring religious tradition that resurrected itself many centuries later in the form of the Christmas fir tree.

Dying Attis clutches his self-inflicted wound.

Shorn of his manhood, a soft, feminised Attis reclines languidly on a couch following his rebirth
as an androgynous being who has transcended all sexual craving. In his right hand he holds
a cluster of button mushrooms, while around his head he wears a mushroom-studded crown. Some authorities believe that hallucinogenic mushrooms played an important sacramental role
in this religion.

Attis' death and subsequent rebirth into his mother's celestial kingdom as an 'Eternal Boy' was celebrated annually in Rome during the three day period of: March 24 (Dies Sanguinis - 'The Bloody Day'), March 25 (Hilaria - 'The Day of Joy'), and March 26 (Requietio - 'The Day of Rest'). These dates correspond with the spring equinox and represent the exact period of Rhodes' own physical decline and eventual death on March 26. And it was quite possibly on Dies Sanguinis itself that he passed on his symbol-laden dagger to the Cape Coloured artisan - Attis doubtlessly used a similar instrument for his self-castration.

(This three day festival was eventually taken over by Christianity, which turned `The Bloody Day' into Good Friday, and the 'Day of Rest' into Easter Sunday. It also laid claim to the date on which Attis' birth was traditionally celebrated - December 25 - turning it into Christmas day.)

Cybele - the 'Mountain Mother' - seated on her lion-guarded throne.
In terms of the 'Eternal Boy' archetype embodied in the reborn Attis, the IMPRESSIONS page is of particular interest. In a conversation with his portrait painter, the middle-aged Rhodes passionately exclaims: `I am a boy! I am a boy! Of course I shall never get old!'

In Roman art, Cybele is always associated with a pair of lions which guard her throne and draw her chariot. Rhodes kept a pair of lions at his Groote Schuur home (affectionately called Alice and Jumbo), and four pairs of large, bronze lions adorn his temple memorial on the slopes of Devil's Peak. The Rhodesian silver crown commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth features two lions, and many people would comment on Rhodes' leonine appearance.

One of Rhodes greatest and most enduring passions was Table Mountain and he would go wild with rage at any marring of the beauty of its gentle, wooded slopes. The goddess Cybele was called the 'Mountain Mother' by her worshippers, who offered sacrifices to her on mountain peaks. In fact her name derived from a particular mountain in Asia Minor called Cybela. Fittingly, the popular name for Cape Town where Rhodes lived for most of his life is the 'Mother City', a town embraced by a crescent of mountain peaks, one of which is appropriately called Lion's Head.

Some of Rhodes' biographers believe his surname reflects a centuries-old, ancestral connection with the eastern Aegean island of Rhodes, which - though now a Greek possession - is part of the geographical coastline of Asia Minor (Turkey) where the goddess Cybele originated and once reigned supreme. (Rhodes was once famous for its 'Colossus', a 32m high statue of the sun god that stood astride the harbour. One of the ancient 'Seven Wonders of the World', it collapsed in an earthquake just two decades before the Romans adopted Cybele as their ruling goddess.)

Embraced by Mountains - the 'Mother City'.

Although the parallels between Rhodes' life and aspects of the Cybele/Attis myth border on the extraordinary, it's unlikely that he was directly aware of them. Rhodes' main spiritual interest was not Roman religion, but rather that of ancient Egypt, with the falcon god Heru (Horus) being of particular interest to him.

In Egyptian mythology, Heru - in his human-child form - is conceived by the goddess Isis from the briefly res-erected phallus of her dead husband, Asari (Osiris), the Egyptian god of death and resurrection. As with the dying and resurrecting Attis, the mystic symbol of Asari is also an ear of wheat - this cereal being the staple crop of ancient Egypt and believed to have been Asari's divine gift to its people. So, one way or the other, the archetype that resonated at the core of Rhodes' being was essentially the same, be it clothed in Roman or Egyptian myth.

Rising sun, rising son. A rocky outcrop near Rhodes' grave in Zimbabwe's Matopo Hills. The name Zimbabwe is said to derive from the Shona phrase - dzimba dza mabwe - meaning 'houses of stone'. It is also linked to the Ndebele word zimba - which means both a body and an ear of maize. Just four months before his death, Rhodes visited Egypt for the last time and returned with kernels of a special drought-resistant maize. It was introduced to Rhodesia after he died and became one of the country's most widely-cultivated varieties - a curious echo of the Asarian 'gift-of-wheat' myth.

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