Felix Megalensia Omnibus!
Last year, I spent each day of the Megalensia focusing upon one aspect of the (Romanized) cultus of Magna Mater/Cybele. One the first day, for example, I focused on some aspects of the general history of the festival, and some of its modern implications and usages.
This year, however, I’d like to kick off by drawing your attention to something else. The background of the cultus as it was transmitted to Rome was Phrygian. However, the culture of Phrygia–as well as a great deal of the other parts of Asia Minor, including Bithynia–was Thracian in origin, or at least was connected to it. Scholars, in fact, speak of Thraco-Phrygian matters in relation to the cultus of Cybele on many occasions. The cultus of Sabazios also gets compared to the rites of Magna Mater in a variety of Greek and Roman contexts, and both Zeus and Dionysos are connected into the extant mythology–with Zeus being in a certain sense the “progenitor” of much of what occurred in the later myth through his lusting after Cybele and spilling his seed on the ground; and Dionysos being driven mad, but seeking his eventual cure for his madness from Cybele.
While I have written recently on the virtues of syncretism, sometimes syncretism can lead into difficulties of interpretation that are hard to make sense out of, especially when syncretism has become so de rigeur that it is no longer marked, and what had started as a translational reality becomes an equational understanding, as occurred with the thoroughly absorbed and re-interpreted myths of Thrace, Phrygia, and other places through the Greek (fairly) systematic mythological complex.
I suspect that many of the “Great Mother” goddesses were largely localized, and perhaps even tribal, whereas Sabazios (or figures very much like him) were a little more trans-tribal. This is why a lot of strong Great Mother traditions seem to come from Asia Minor: Magna Mater/Cybele herself, as well as Artemis of Ephesus, and Bendis of Thrace, for example. In the Greek system, especially in later centures, Gaia, Rhea, and Demeter began to be more and more strongly connected with one another; and in Rome, Tellus Mater, Ops, and Ceres played similar roles to the three Greek earth-and-motherhood-related goddesses/titans/protogenoi. As a result, Rhea and Cybele/Magna Mater get routinely connected with one another in the Greek system, which then makes of Zeus’ advances toward her what would be considered an incestuous union; however, in the Thraco-Phrygian system, it is very likely that the relationship between Sabazios and the local Great Mother was much different than this: Sabazios and the local Magna Mater (whether Bendis, Cybele, or someone else) were more like protogenoi in their first cyclical roles, then mother-and-son, then initiating goddess and divine youth…and then it begins again. Transferring this system to the Greek multi-generational divine theogony was difficult to do, and so there is the syncretism of Cybele with Rhea, and the various Orphic variations on these myths, and any number of further adaptations to translate the Thracian system into the Greek or Roman context.
But, it is my view that with diligence and a bit of common sense, as well as creativity and no small bit of direct inspiration from the deities themselves, some sense of the Thracian system can come through on its own terms through a re-interpretation of the highly (but often invisibly) syncretized system that has survived in the extant sources.
So, as this year’s Megalensia festival proceeds, I’ll be thinking about the system from this viewpoint, and seeing what new interpretations might arise out of it. And, I’ll be celebrating the Magna Mater as Cybele very specifically throughout, as well as the other players in her peculiar divine drama, over the next week! I hope you’ll join me in this, and in sharing what your own thoughts, results, and activities have been in the process!
Ave Mater Magna! Khaire Khaire Khaire Megale Cybele!