Getty Villa [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5DThis Roman statue is a beautiful example of the surviving representations of Cybele. Her crown is shaped after the walls of Rome, the city she came to be known as protector of. At her feet stands a lion, dwarfed in relation to her – perhaps this was meant to remind us that as an originally Phrygian goddess of mountains and the earth, even the fiercest of beasts is tamed by her?
Cybele is a goddess venerated in ancient Phrygia, ancient Greece, and later notably in the Roman republic. She is often compared to the goddess Rhea, and is sometimes called by other names such as Cybebe, Agdistis, the Idaean Mother, or Magna Mater (meaning Great Mother). The origins of Cybele can be traced back into the ancient religions of Asia Minor, and the Phrygian region in Anatolia in particular. She and the cults that worshipped her are very interesting for the study of women (and society more generally) in the ancient Mediterranean for a number of reasons and not simply because she is a female deity associated with traditionally female-coded elements like the earth and rebirth. Despite being a female deity the mysteries of her cult were protected by a priesthood of male eunuchs known as the Galli, whose castration connected them to the myth of Cybele’s companion Attis. Cybele’s progression from an Anatolian mountain goddess to protector of the Roman state shows how she and the symbolism of feminine power surrounding her was adaptable to multiple societies across time in the ancient world. Inextricably linked to her, the priesthood of eunuch Galli challenged contemporary expectations of gender by transgressing its boundaries in their rites to the Mother Goddess.
This statuette, in the collection of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, is thought to be roughly 7000 years old. it was recovered from Turkey’s archaeologically rich site of Çatalhöyük. The seated posture and flanking animals are reminiscent of the way Cybele is usually depicted. It is commonly thought of as a long-forgotten precursor to Cybele, but it so old and so little is known about it that it is difficult to say for sure who it represents.
User:Roweromaniak [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Ruether (2005) explains that Cybele emerged out of Anatolia “where she had the character of a mistress of wild nature in the mountains, symbolized by carrying or being carried by lions” (p. 100). In this way the mother goddess is portrayed as master and protector of nature, presiding over the processes of birth and life with control over fierce predatory animals that surely carried with them connotations of death and destruction. Keeping with the strong association with nature, a seated female figure carved into a cliff face at the Tas Suret site in Turkey “is strongly reminiscent of Cybele” and seemingly corroborates a claim from an ancient account by Pausanias that the “earliest representation of the Mother of the Gods” is carved into rock in the vicinity (Vermaseren, 1977, p. 19). See opposite the carving from an unattributed antique postcard, with a man for scale.
Anonymous, unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sometime around the sixth century B.C.E. the cult of Cybele was able to spread from Anatolia to Greece where the traditional rituals took on new forms as they adapted to the new culture, and where new practices emerged including “nocturnal gatherings of women beating the tympanum and experiencing ecstatic possession” (Ruether, 2005, p. 100). Note that tympanums are common in depictions of Cybele, who often is holding one as she reclines on her trademark lion-flanked throne. The ancient Greeks saw Cybele as being connected to Dionysus, which is why musical instruments, including flutes, often appear alongside her and Attis.
Photius, a bishop from Byzantium during the ninth century C.E. relates the establishment of the cult of Cybele in Athens as follows:
“A certain man came to Attica and initiated the women in the mysteries of the Mother of the Gods, according to the story told by the Athenians. The Athenians killed him by throwing him headlong into a pit. A plague followed and they received an oracle bidding them appease the murdered man. Therefore they built a Bouleuterion in which they placed the Metregyrtes, and fencing him around they consecrated it to the Mother of the Gods, and also set up a statue of the Metragyrtes. They used the Metroon [temple of the Mother] as record office and repository of laws, and they filled up the pit.” (as cited in Vermaseren, 1977, p. 32)
Metragyrtes was the Greek word for a worshipper of Cybele, who like the man in the story sometimes wandered about begging alms on her behalf. Thus the cult of Cybele found its way from ancient Phrygia to Greece. Bowden (2010) points out that Cybele’s “role as guardian of the city’s public records indicates that she was recognized as an ancestral figure, which, as mother of all gods, she was” (p. 88).
According to Bowden (2010) the Romans believed that their founder Romulus had been a Trojan exiled to Italy following the destruction of Troy in Anatolia (p. 83). Close by the site of Troy stands Mount Ida. Because of the strong association between the Trojan descent of their legendary founder and Mount Ida, and of this location with the Mother Goddess, Bowden (2010) further posits that “for the Romans the Great Mother of the Gods, Magna Mater in Latin, was their own mother” and linked inextricably to Rome via this connection with Romulus (p. 83). The connection between the goddess and Mount Ida is emphasized by one of the titles the Romans gave her, “Magna Mater Deorum Idaea, or Mater Deum Magna Idaea, that is, the Great Mother of the Gods of Mount Ida” (Bowden, 2010, p. 94). In this way the Romans appropriated what was an essentially foreign Eastern deity associated with the earth and nature, and transformed her into a female symbol of their own city. The Sibylline prophecies characterized Cybele as a special kind of protector of the city, based on the idea that only with her protection could Rome’s enemies be kept away. The continued existence of Rome itself depended on the ongoing propagation of its population in addition to its physical security. A life-giving earth goddess would be the perfect candidate to fulfill both functions. Cybele’s proximity to Rome’s Trojan roots may have rendered the metaphor even more poignant. Vermaseren (1977) recounts that “the Delphic oracle had given explicit orders that [Cybele] was to be welcomed in Rome by the best man in the state” as well as “the noblest woman of the country” (p. 40-1). Claudia Quinta was the woman deemed worthy of the role, although some doubted her purity. As the sacred stone representing Cybele was being brought upriver to Rome it “ran aground and could not be moved until it was pulled free by the Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta, who proved by doing this that she was a virtuous woman” (Bowden, 2010, p. 94). In this story Cybele literally approves through a miracle of Claudia Quinta, identifying her as the virtuous, virginal archetype of the ideal Roman woman. Cybele therefore is aligned in the Roman context with the most highly esteemed of female qualities, safeguarding the city and its future (which was seen as dependant on the virtue of citizen women like Quinta).
Despite her connection to feminine ideals, parts of Cybele’s mythology raise questions about gender roles within her cult. In order to better understand the significance of some of her adherents’ more shocking forms of worship it is useful to understand the mythological origin of Attis, Cybele’s companion who like her tame lions is very often depicted alongside her. The most common version of Attis’ origin story is recounted in Ovid’s Fasti. The story goes that:
“Cybele is in love with the handsome shepherd boy who has to pledge eternal fidelity. But when he falls under the irresistible spell of a nymph, the avenging hand of the Goddess strikes: the nymph Sangaritis (daughter of the river Sangarios) is killed and Attis becomes insane. He is obsessed with delusions and thinks himself persecuted by the Erinyes. With the aid of a sharp stone he deprives himself of those parts of his body which were the cause of his infidelity. Flowers spring from his blood, and he himself is changed into a pine-tree”(Vermaseren, 1977, p. 91-2)
The motif of castration and of gender change in Cybele’s early mythology gives some valuable insight into the unusual practices of the priests of her cult, the Galli, who were infamous for the practice of self-castration. Bowden (2010) demonstrates that self-castration “was clearly not expected of the crowds who took part in [Cybele’s] festivals whether in Greek cities or even at Rome” (p. 104). Regardless, “it is generally stated that Magna Mater at Rome was served by eunuch priests” and “there is no doubt that castration – in particular self-castration – was a feature of the worship of the Mother of the Gods” (Bowden, 2010, p. 96).
Attis, the handsome shepherd boy
Uomodis08 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Attis, the handsome-er shepherd boy
Vatican Museums [Public domain]
Attis, the handsomest shepherd boy
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vermaseren (1977) details another variation on this story in which Cybele (here referred to by her alternate Anatolian name, Agdistis) causes chaos at the wedding celebrations for Attis and his new bride but becomes remorseful after the bride kills herself and Attis castrates himself in a bout of insanity (p. 91). This version ends with Attis dying under a pine tree and Zeus only partially granting the regretful Cybele/Agdistis’ wish to have him brought back to life by perfectly preserving Attis’ corpse. Yet another version of the story, from Pessinus, involves the origin of Agdistis herself as a “terribly wild and androgynous” hermaphroditic being born when Mount Agdus “conceives from the divine semen” of Jupiter following his failed attempt to rape Rhea (Vermaseren, 1977, 90). Threatened by Agdistis’ ability to reproduce asexually, the gods enlist Bacchus/Dionysus to put it to sleep and castrate the male organs with the help of some wine. From here onward in the myth Agdistis is identified as a female goddess. Similar to what happens in Ovid’s retelling, a fruit bearing tree grows from where Agdistis’ blood falls, but in a unique twist
“The ‘king’s daughter’ Nana comes walking past, and astonished by the lovely fruits she picks some and gathers them in her lap. Suddenly one of the fruits appears to have vanished, Nana finds herself pregnant and her father Sangarios […] wants to kill his daughter to save his family from the disgrace. But now the Goddess intervenes and arranges the premature birth of Attis [who] is kept alive by a goat and later raised by shepherds. He grows up into a handsome and highly attractive shepherd, whom even the mighty Mother of Gods finds herself unable to resist”(Vermaseren, 1977, p. 91).
Cybele/Agdistis’ initial androgyny posed a problem for Zeus and the other gods not because of some inherent unnaturalness (Agdistis, like Bacchus, is strongly identified with wild nature) but because it resulted in the special power to reproduce independently. In these different iterations of the myth Cybele and Attis both undergo castration.
Bowden (2010) argues that the Galli who chose castration “were demonstrating their commitment to the Mother alone, in an excessive form of devotion” possibly “stimulated by the experience of taking part in ecstatic rites in honour of the Mother” (p. 104). However, this symbolic action surely extends beyond a simple declaration of devotion, because the gender transgression of the Galli went beyond the practice of self-castration alone. During the fourth century the Christian writer Firmicus Maternus says of the Galli that “they wear effeminately nursed hair […] and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks […] having made themselves alien to masculinity” (as cited in Roscoe, 1996, p. 196). Townsley (2011) explains that in Rome “the galli would wander the streets in full cross-dress regalia: amulets, flowing robes, makeup, depilated bodies, and long hair dyed blond” (p.721). The Naassene sect from around the first century C.E. equated the reincarnation of Jesus with that of Attis, and even viewed homosexuality and other challenges to gender norms as “a blessing, as it helped them to transcend the profanity of gender and thus become closer to God (Townsley, 2011, p. 723). Cybele’s galli remind us that constructions of gender in religion can reflect what was accepted in ancient society. Although Firmicus Maternus speaks disdainfully about them (the cult of Cybele would have been ‘pagan’ competition to the early Christian sects) the galli were tolerated and could perform their rites openly. The self-castration was probably done behind closed doors, though.
Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Cybele was a multifaceted and symbolically rich goddess with a long history of worship attached to her. A goddess of the earth and reproduction in her earliest iterations, for the Romans she represented the continued vitality of the city and the virtuous qualities of women that helped to sustain it. At the same time certain elements of her mythology presents themes that challenge binary distinctions of gender, and the practices of her Galli combined femininity and masculinity into an androgyny that invites questioning of the male and female roles within the ancient Greek and Roman societies.
Bowden, H. (2010). Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Fee, C., Leeming, D. (2016). The Goddess: Myths of the Great Mother. London, England: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Roscoe, W. (1996). Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion. History of Religions, 35(3),195-230. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.mta.ca/stable/1062813
Ruether, R. R. (2005). Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Townsley, J. (2011). Paul, the Goddess Religions, and Queer Sects: Romans 1:23—28. Journal of Biblical Literature, 130(4), 707-728. doi:10.2307/23488275
Vermaseren, M. J. (1977). Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult (A. M. H. Lemmers, Trans.). London, England: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
For more information, see also these non-scholarly sources (but don’t believe everything you read online):
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