I. “Numinous sites of the preorganic life, which were experienced in participation mystique with the Great Mother, are mountain, cave, stone, pillar, and rock – including the childbearing rock – as throne, seat, dwelling place, and incarnation of the Great Mother. … It is no accident that stones are among the oldest symbol of the Great Mother Goddess, from Cybele and the Stone of Pessinus (moved to Rome) to the Islamic Kaaba and the stone of the temple in Jerusalem, not to mention the omphaloi, the navel stones, which we find in so many parts of the world. “
Erich Neumann, “The Great Mother”
II. “Yoke your swift chariot drawn by bull-slaying lions
Of you were born gods and men, you hold sway over the rivers and over all the sea.
queen whom the drum delights, all-taming savior of Phrygia, consort of Kronos, honored child of Sky, frenzy-loving nurturer of life…”
Orphic Hymn 27 – To the Mother of the Gods
The mother, mātár in Sanskrit, like the great primordial sea, takes us back to the source and origin (fons et origo) of all that exists. One of the oldest images of the Mother Goddess, which we know of, stem from Çatalhöyük – a settlement, which flourished in Anatolia (today’s Turkey) around 7000 BC. The Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük is depicted while giving birth with a head emerging between her legs. She is flanked by two mountain lions. The image is distinctly royal; she appears to be enthroned. Subsequently and most probably Anatolians inherited the same Mother Goddess, followed by Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, Greeks and then by the Romans. Not all scholars, however, see a clear line of succession here. Not all accept the single archetypal source of the image of the Great Mother portrayed with beasts by her side.
But all researchers seem to agree on “the evanescence of her place of origin.” (1) There can be no clear-cut beginning of a figure so primordial. In Anatolia she bore a simple name – Matar – with an occasional epithet Kubileya – of the mountains. Her role was both to protect the wild, rocky landscapes and the city. With a hawk by her side and two lions as her companions, she was the guardian of the cycles of death and life. She was the original Potnia Theron, which was an Ancient Greek word for “Lady of the Animals.”
Phrygians, who came after Anatolians to the area now known as Turkey, portrayed her in the form of a naiskos (plural naiskoi), which looked like a representative doorway cut in mountain rock. This was “an entrance to the mountain dwelling of the goddess,” (3) whose shrine was hidden in the recesses of untamed nature. Usually there was a mountain spring integrated within the shrine. Matar was a mature woman, stately, heavily draped with a high headdress, known in Greek as polos.(4) At the Phrygian sanctuary of Pessinus she was worshipped as a simple black stone – probably a meteorite. It was from here that her cult was transferred to Rome in 205 BC, but not before she was embraced by Ancient Greece, where she was renamed Kybele or simply called Meter.
In Greece, where the Minoan great goddess of caves and mountains was not forgotten, she fell on fertile ground. In Homeric Hymn 14 the formerly Anatolian, now Greek, the goddess is hailed as “the Mother of all gods and all humanity too, who rejoices in the racket of castanets and drums, in the bleating of flutes, in the cries of wolves and gleam-eyed lions, in echoing mountains and thick-wooded dens.”
Her cult in Ancient Greece was a double-track one. On the one hand, the Greeks assimilated the Great Anatolian Goddess into their own mystery cults. They made Hermes her companion, for he conducted the mortal souls into mystery rites. Hekate and Dionysos, who shared with her the propensity for pulsating, trance-inducing music and dance, were also associated with her. The initiated apparently carried snakes over their heads, but that is the extent of our knowledge about her mystery rites (5). Also the tympanum (hand drum) was included in her attributes by the Greeks. Lynn E. Roller quotes an extant fragment of a testimony of one of the initiates:
“I have eaten from the tympanum, I have drunk from the cymbal, I have carried the ritual vessel, I got under the veil.”
In an altered mental state, the mystai (initiates) got into direct contact with the goddess. Naiskoi were popular in private cult of the goddess – they were the miniature versions of the monumental rock carvings of Anatolia and functioned as votive offerings.
Moreover, the cult of Kybele had a public expression in Greece. Her ecstatic rites were scorned by some of the Greeks, though. They could not stand her uncivilized wildness or her foreign origin. When she was adopted by the Greeks and later by the Romans, she became a mysterious goddess in exile:
“In the heart of the classical Greek polity, the Mountain Mother evokes a mute landscape of ancient liminality that is at once foundational and disquieting.” (6)
Yet even the Greeks had to acknowledge her power, uncomfortable as it seemed. They erected a temple for her in the very centre of the Athenian Agora. This was the famous Metroon. Here her shrine and city archives formed a unity. She was referred to as “the privileged guardian of written justice.” (7) With utmost respect Solon, the Athenian statesman, addressed Kybele as “Black Earth, the Great Mother of the Olympians.” It is important to stress that she was the only foreign goddess embraced by the Greeks. It is most probable that the figure of Attis, her tragic lover, who committed self-castration, was introduced into her cult in Greece, yet he became much more prominent in Rome. It would seem that in Anatolia the goddess had been without a consort.
The Roman part of her story is full of pomp and spectacle. In 205 BC the Romans consult Sibylline books. These were books of prophecy stored at the Temple of Jupiter and consulted in times of grave need. The Sibyl responds that Magna Mater must be brought to Rome from her sanctuary near Mount Ida (Pessinus) or the foreign enemy will destroy the empire. The Romans bring the black meteor to Rome and place the statue of Magna Mater in the representative Temple of Victory on the Palatine. It is said that after her arrival in Rome, crops were bountiful and the enemy withdrew. (8) The black stone was positioned where the goddess would have her face. She became the ultimate icon of mute mystery.
The Magna Mater did not come to Rome alone. She was transferred with an entourage of exotic, effeminate priests known as the Galli. Her cult was very much public. Everybody was able to see the wild rites performed in the goddess’s honour. The Romans were especially mistrustful towards the foreign priests, who castrated themselves in wild frenzy in the most climactic moment of the celebrations. Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher, described Cybele’s parade in detail. She was placed in the lion-drawn chariot, which was carried by the Galli. Lynn E. Roller emphasizes the Roman contempt for the eunuch priests with their “feminine dress and manners, high-pitched voices, long wild hair, garish costume.” Yet the Galli were an object of desire of both men and women and their erotic liaisons were numerous. This official scorn and secret desire was part and parcel of the ambivalent Roman Magna Mater cult.
Fascinatingly, the territory of Pessinus was located close to ancient Troy, which was the mythical birthplace of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the Romans. These two seemingly independent facts coalesced in the Roman mind. Cybele’s cult was now related to Roman ancient ancestry. According to Ovid, the ship that carried Magna Mater to Rome was built from the sacred pine trees of Mount Ida. Aeneas had used the same pine wood to build the ships, in which he escaped from the conquered Troy. Thus, the pine became one of the key symbols of Magna Mater. What is more, Attis was believed to have drawn his last breath under a pine tree, too. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis he even transformed himself into a pine tree. Similarly, the self-castrated priests of the Magna Mater sought the ultimate merging with their goddess. They wanted to become her.
By no other group was Cybele more vilified than by the emerging new Christian religion. It has been even suggested that she may have been an inspiration for the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17. Nevertheless, some researchers have suggested that at the dawn of Christianity Mother Mary took on a lot of the attributes of The Great Mother of the Gods. In particular, Philippe Borgeaud wrote:
“This fusion showed itself to be possible nowhere better than in Constantinople itself.
The historian Zosimus specifies that Constantine ordered that an image of the Mother be brought into his new capital… He had the statue brought from Kyzikos…, the very same place where the Argonauts had long ago founded the most ancient cult of the Mother of the gods. … So, instead of the Trojan goddess, he brought in an even more ancient one…
Nonetheless, the new capital aimed at being, above all, a Christian city. Zosimus, with thinly veiled bitterness against the Christians, … reported that Constantine had caused the statue from Kyzikos to be ‘mutilated.’ He had had ‘the lions taken off that flanked her sides and modified the position of the hands: whereas before, she had seemed to hold back the lions, she had now been transformed into a kind of pious figure, her eyes looking toward the city and protecting it…
… the Mother of the gods had lost her ancient attributes and assumed the loving, protective stance of … the Mother of God … But she did not forget her origins.”
(1) Philippe Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary, trans. Lysa Hochroth (The John Hopkins University Press, 2004)
(3) Eugene N. Lane, ed., Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren (E.J. Brill, 1996)
(4) Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1999)
(6) Philippe Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary, trans. Lysa Hochroth (The John Hopkins University Press, 2004)
(8) Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1999)
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