We are now in the fourth day of the Megalensia. Thus far we’ve gone over some general aspects of this festival, the role of Agdistis, and the importance of Attis. Today, I’d like to focus on the goddess Cybele herself. I have to admit, looking back on my Goddesses and Antinous series post on Cybele, it’s pretty pathetic (and a particularly noteworthy and lamentable lapse in Disciplina on my part!), and so I think she deserves a bit more attention at this mid-point of the festival–and again certainly on the 10th, when it will be her dies natalis. My deepest and most sincere apologies to the goddess for this–may I do better this time!
The image here shows Cybele as she is often portrayed, enthroned and with lions, an animal which is particularly important in the context of Antinous and Hadrian. Atalanta and her husband Hippomenes were transformed into lions by Cybele, which would be one possible account of why she is shown with lions, according to Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In various versions of the story, a variety of deities are said to have been the agents of transformation for different reasons, but in Ovid’s, it is Cybele who did the transformation because Hippomenes couldn’t wait to have Atalanta sexually as his prize for winning the footrace against her, and he did so in a temple of Cybele, which angered the goddess.
However, the iconography of a goddess flanked by lions goes back a very long time in various parts of Anatolia, and it has even been suggested that Cybele, the Magna Mater, is in fact the later name for the goddess who was worshipped at Çatal Hüyük, a Neolithic city that thrived from 7500 to 5700 BCE! It doesn’t seem, in some ways, that this is impossible. However, does the possible identity arise from legitimate and continuous contact that can be demonstrated (outside of vague geographical coincidences, which can be deceptive and highly subjective), or is it simply because both are “mother” figures and both are flanked by lions? Difficult to say…But nonetheless, it should be mentioned here, because it plays into our modern understanding of this particular goddess a great deal.
A later civilization, the Hittites, also seem to have had a similar goddess, who was called Hebat, and it is possible that this influenced the Anatolian alternate name of Cybele, Kubaba. The origin of the name Cybele is Phrygian, and it might mean “mountain mother.” She was sometimes also syncretized to Rhea, or to Gaia herself, as the supreme earth mother in later Greek and Roman reckonings. In Alexandria, inscriptions record her as a Soteira as well.
While I’ve covered her main myth and its cultic implications in my entry on Attis, there are other myths which feature her that are of interest to us here. Virgil’s Aeneid suggests that the invincible ships of the Trojans were made from trees given by Cybele to the city, and her plea to Zeus to make her sacred trees indestructible is what made the ships of the Trojans so powerful. However, in return for this boon, once the ships would end up carrying Aeneas and his band to Italy to found Rome, the ships would be transformed into sea nymphs. As Virgil was writing under Octavian/Augustus, and Augustus favored Cybele greatly and restored her temple in Rome, this further connection to the legendary history of Rome seems eminently contemporary and political; and yet, it may in fact be a retelling of a myth otherwise lost or unknown. As there is the character called Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh who is associated with the strong and prized cedars of Lebanon, and there is likewise a character probably based upon him to some degree in Lukian of Samosata’s On the Syrian Goddess called Kumbabos, and Cybele and Attis play an important role in that text (which will be dealt with more on Saturday), and further there is the Anatolian version of Cybele’s name noted above that was Kumbaba, perhaps there is some sort of connection across these times and places and texts…but I do not offer that as a scholarly theory, but only as an observation that may be of significance to some.
Cybele was also celebrated in Ephesus on the Ephesia festival, and was to some extent syncretized with Artemis of Ephesus as well. As both Artemis of Ephesus and Cybele were “great mothers,” and Artemis/Diana is one of the great (and indeed eponymous) goddesses of the Dianic tradition, I would like to take this opportunity to again address the recent matters of gender (and specifically transgender) exclusion at PantheaCon to make the point that, if there is a “great mother goddess” of any sort, and whether there is only one such goddess or several of them, most modern forms of paganism acknowledge that such a goddess is at least possible, if not constantly present. And, as all children of the Great Mother Goddess are equal and deserving of acknowledgement as the goddess’ children, I cannot see in any way how any group that claims to acknowledge, represent, or even worship the Great Mother–as Magna Mater, as Cybele, as Ephesian Artemis, as Diana, or as any other form such a goddess may take across times and cultures–could think of excluding any of the goddess’ children. And that’s all I shall say on that matter for the moment.
So, there we are for the moment on Cybele, the Magna Mater–and I hope I’ve done a much better job of covering her history and some aspects of her mythology this time than I did many months back!
Ave Mater Magna!
Ave Mater Magna!
Khaire Soteira Cybele!
Ave Mater Magna!
Khaire Antinoe! Ave Ave Antinoe!