Sunday, May 10, 2015

Cybele, the Mother of the Gods

Goddess Figurine, Catalhoyuk, 5750 B.C.E.
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

Since it's mother'day today I thought it would be a great opportunity to take a look at the ancestors of what we have defined as the image of motherhood for centuries. Cybele, Magna Mater, Meter, the Mother of the Gods was an Anatolian deity with many attributes and symbolism we are still trying to figure out to this day. As Bettany Hues reveals quite dramatically in her BBC documentary Divine Women there was a time "When God was a Girl," and some of her ancestors lived in Anatolia...
There is a figurine from the sixth millenium B.C.E. excavated in Catalhoyuk at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara of the first archaeological evidence of what has been identified as a Mother Goddess. She sits enthroned between two feline figures giving birth.

Orthostat of a Mother Nursing her Child, Karatepe, 8th century B.C.E.

Another example of a Mother Goddess figure from Anatolia is Mother Nursing her Child, an orthostat from Karatepe, a late-Hittite settlement. This figure is an earlier example of the more familiar figure of Isis Nursing Horus, 664-332 B.C.E.,which is often quoted as being the ancestor of the Mother goddess figurines. Although contemporary feminists have owned these Mother Goddess images as "the force and awesome power of the virginal mother goddess, the bearer and nurturer of gods and kings, sustainer of all life," not all scholars concur with the maternal interpretation. 1 According to Brigitte Bogh, and Lynn Roller, whose research focuses on the Phrygian Mother Goddess, Meter was more a figure of power and protector than nurterer. The archaeological evidence of the Phrygian Great Mother from Gordion appear from the 8th -6th century B.C.E. She is a standing female figure, wearing a heavily draped gown and a tall headdress, holding a shallow bowl in her right hand and birds of prey in her left hand and rarely accompanied by lions.

Head of Cybele, Salmankoy, 6th century B.C.E.
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

The Lydian influenced images of the Great Mother are standing figures flanked by lions; the raptor birds and the lions, which have been associated with wild nature, are actually being read as symbols of power according to contemporary scholarship. 2 Bogh, who has researched the cult of Meter in the Western Black Sea Region, colonized by the Greeks from Asia Minor in the 7th century B.C.E,  argues that they brought the Mother with them in her role as city protector and goddess of power.3 She was also worshipped in a temple, its portico functioning as the city archive, similar to the temple of the Mother in Athens, which was also located in the city archives. 3

Mater (Cybele), Bogazkale, Middle 6th century B.C.E., Phyrigian
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)
By the 3rd century, the image of the Phrygian Mother Goddess had been thoroughly Hellenized, she had garnered a new torchbearing companion, conjoined other Greek deities with similar iconograhies such as Demeter, Artemis as well as the Muses.4  She was represented sitting enthroned or on the back of a lion with her attributes of a tympanum, tapera and lions. The Berlin Cybele, from the first half of the 4th century B.C.E. is one example of the new iconography of the Mother of the Gods, who is wearing a mural crown similar to Tyche's crown of city embattlements, holding a key in her right hand, which has been identified as the key to the earth.

Cybele Enthroned, 1st half of the 4th century B.C.E., Anatolia
(Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin) 

This was the iconography of Cybele that was translated into the coins of Roman empresses like Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus. In the Denarius struck for Julia Domna during her husband's reign, Cybele is seen with a mural crown, sitting on a throne with a lion by her side with the legend MATER DEVM, the Latin translation of Rhea, the daughter of earth goddess Gaia, wife and sister to Cronus and mother of the gods including Zeus.

Julia Domna, AR Denarius, 196-211, Rome, Septimius Severus
Another attribute to the image of Cybele is seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art stauette from the 2nd century A.D. In Greek mythology, Atalanta the beautiful, virgin daughter of Schoeneus who could run faster than any man, and Hippomenes who managed to win her hand in marriage after defeating her by distracting Atalanta with the three golden apples Venus had given him, were overcome with desire and had sex in Cybele's temple. The Greeks thought lions could not mate so Atalanta and Hippomenes were turned into lions and had to live side by side drawing Cybele's chariots for all eternity.

Statuette of Cybele on a chariot drawn by lions, 2nd half of 2nd century A.D.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Whether it be the image of the fertile mother or the powerful, protector of cities, the Mother Goddess lived on in Anatolia, metamorphosing into new types according to the needs of contemporary society for centuries.  Byzantine empresses, especially Constantinian empresses, used the image of the nursing female on their coins to emphasize, fertility, security and dynastic stability.  Constantine's second wife Fausta was depicted standing nursing twins on her Solidus from 325 which was the personification of spes reipublicae (hope of the republic) and Theodora, Constantine's step-mother was shown as pietas romana (Roman piety) with an infant at her breast.5 Theodora's coin was struck during the struggle for succession after Constantine's death in which Constantine's sons were being promoted against Theodora's sons, Constantine's half-brothers.6

Solidus of Fausta, minted Thessalonica 324
(Dumbarton Oaks)

Nummus of Theodora, 337

The most lasting image of the mother and child that came out of Anatolia has to be the Virgin and Child. Mary, regarded as Theotokos, the container of the uncontainable,  has been the the icon of motherhood and feminine sanctity for the past 2000 years.

"Mother of God, dwelling place of the uncontainable." 14th century
(Chora Museum, Istanbul)
It is believed that the last great siege of antiquity, the siege of Constantinople in 626 by the Avars and the Persians was only deflected by Marian intervention. When the patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius had a procession carrying the icon of the Blachernitissa, kept at the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, along the ramparts, the enemy, upon seeing a beautiful woman adorened with jewels scouring the walls was frightened and defeated. The Virgin was pronounced as the protector of the city from that day forward.

Blachernitissa, icon of the Theotokos
(Dormition Cathedral, Moscow)
Anatolia, which translates as Anadolu, is the land of Mother Goddesses. The tradition of the feminine as a powerful and protecting force continued  during the Ottoman Empire, an autocratic and patriarchal society, with the Valide Sultans (the queen mothers) who were the second most powerful people in the empire.  The cult of the Magna Mater was transported to Greece as well as Rome, the Mother being venerated in different ways. Over time, the iconography and the rituals differed from one society to another, the power of the Mother of the Gods always stayed constant throughout the pan-Mediterranean culture.  Happy Mother's Day.


York, Hildreth and Schlossman, Betty L."She Shall Be Called Woman": Ancient near Eastern Sources of Imagery”. Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1981 - Winter, 1982), pp. 38-9

2 Bogh, Birgitte. "Mother of the Gods: Goddess of Power and Protector of Cities." NVMEN 59, no. 32-6 (2012): 34-67
Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkley, CA: U of          California, 1999 
Roller, Lynn E. "The Great Mother at Gordion: The Hellenization of an Anatolian Cult." The     Journal of Hellenic     Studies111 (1991): 128-43

3 Bogh, 2012

4 Roller, 1991

5 J. Kent (ed.), Roman Imperial Coinage VIII, The Family of Constantine I AD 337-364, Spink and Son, London, 1981

Leslie Brubaker and Helen Tobler, “The Gender of Money: Byzantine Empresses on Coins (324-802)” Gender and History, Vol. 12 No. 3 November 2000

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