All About Cybele – Great Mother Goddess of the ancient world

Cybele – Great Mother Goddess

Cybele, a Phrygian-inspired mother goddess, was the “Great Mother” revered by many ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean region, particularly in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. She had numerous functions in those pantheons; specifically, she was largely responsible for the protection of the city. Owing to that and many more, Cybele was extremely important in the political and cultural fabrics of those societies. For example, ancient Rome credited her with not only helping them secure victory over Carthage but also ending a severe famine during the Second Punic War.

In the article below World History Edu looks at the origin story, myths, powers and symbols of Cybele, the Great Mother Goddess of the ancient world.

Origin story of Cybele

It’s been said that Cybele began as an important Anatolian mother goddess whose earliest worship dates back to the Neolithic era in Çatalhöyük (present-day Turkey). Depicted as a plump woman often sitting down, Cybele was a revered deity in west central part of Anatolia for centuries, most likely as far back as 7100 BC in the Kingdom of Phrygia, where she was known as “Mountain Mother” (Matar Kubileya). That particular epithet was found on a rock-cut shrine in the region.

Due to the absence of any surviving myth or oral tradition of the formative nature of Cybele in Phrygian mythology, scholars are left wondering Cybele’s original form. She is also the only known goddess of ancient Phrygia.

Cybele was known as the “Mother of the mountain”. To this day, she remains the only known goddess of ancient Phrygia. | Image: Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük c. 6,000 BC

Cybele in Greek mythology

As the centuries rolled by, Greek colonies in Asia Minor took to worshiping Cybele. By the 6th century BC, her worship had made its way into mainland Greek city-states and towns.

With a number of mother goddesses or female deities playing similar roles in the Greek pantheon, it came as no surprise that Greek deities like Gaia and Rhea became associated with Cybele. She was also sometimes seen in similar regard as Demeter, the goddess of the grain and agriculture.

In the Greek city-state of Athens, Cybele was revered as the protector of Athenians. Ancient Greek depictions of her did not shy away from celebrating her foreign roots. It was believed that Cybele rode into Athens in a powerful chariot driven by a lion. Upon arrival, she was welcomed with fanfare, merrymaking and a lot of ecstasy from her worshipers.

In both Phrygian and Greek mythologies, the divine castrated shepherd Attis is commonly believed to be the consort of Cybele.  On other occasions, Attis is seen as the chief priest of Cybele.

Similar to early worshipers of Cybele in Phrygia, the Greeks associated the goddess with nature, wild animals, fertility, mountains and city walls.

Cybele’s worship was prevalent in Greek cities like Athens and Olympia.

Cybele in Roman mythology and religion

To the ancient Romans, who assimilated much of Greek and Anatolian culture, Cybele was the “Great Mother” (i.e. Magna Mater). In some periods, she was seen as a Trojan goddess. Such association with the city of Troy reinforced the narrative of the legendary Trojan prince Aeneas who fled the burning city Troy (following its capitulation to the Greeks) to establish Rome.

Cybele’s cult was officially adopted by Rome in the early 3rd century BC, during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC). It was adopted as a way to ask for her assistance in Rome’s war against Carthage. Further support for her adoption was given by the oracle at Delphi.

Symbolized as a black meteoric stone from Pessinos, Cybele was welcomed to Rome by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica. She was then placed in the temple of Victoria by Rome’s religious matron Claudia Quinta.

Later, the Romans credited its good fortune (i.e. the end of the famine and the defeat Carthage) to Cybele. As such, the Romans considered her the protector goddess of the city.

Roman poets and writers like Ovid and Virgil were of huge praise of Cybele, citing her as the protector of the empire and agriculture. Virgil described Cybele as the mother of the Roman god Jupiter. She was also known as the protector of Aeneas, the legendary Trojan prince who established Rome.

Owing to how vast Rome’s influence was over the Mediterranean, Romanized stories and depictions of Cybele became widespread.

Cybele and her consort/chief priest Attis (seated right, with Phrygian cap and shepherd’s crook) in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by her attendants Corybantes

Cybele’s Role

Images of Cybele also found their way on a number of funerary artifacts. This means that she was considered an important deity that helped people transition into the afterlife. In that same vein, Cybele could be seen as the deity who stands in between the land of the dead and the land of the living. In some cases, she was believed to take the role as the mediator between the cities and the wild regions. She was therefore the mother of all land.

As the deity of nature, wild animals and regions, Cybele was revered for having the ability to moderate nature’s power, including deciding which places become civilized and which places get consumed by wildlife.

Consort of mortal rulers of Phrygia

Most likely the highest deity in Phrygia, Cybele was revered as the divine consort of mortal rulers of Phrygia. Her name often gets mentioned as the divine consort of Phrygian king Midas. This association can be seen in the Midas Monument, a rock-cut facade on a cliff found in present day Eskisehir Province, Turkey. The monument was erected in honor of King Midas.

Protector of cities

Cybele’s status as a mother goddess in the ancient world meant that she was sometimes seen as protector deity of city states and towns. In some of her depictions, she can be seen donning mural crown, a symbol of city walls in many ancient civilizations. Her protection also extended to all individuals, regardless of economic or political status.

Mother of the gods

In the Iron Age kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor, Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias made mention of a Lydian cult that was fascinated with a deity known as “the mother of the gods”. Images of the goddess were placed on Mount Sipylus. It was believed that the Greek mythical hunter Broteas was the one who carved the image into the mountain.

Most likely the highest deity in the pantheon of Phrygia, Cybele was revered as the divine consort of mortal rulers of Phrygia. | Image: – Bronze fountain statuette of Cybele on a cart drawn by lions 2nd century CE. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Worship of Cybele

The first cults and iconography of Cybele began in Phrygia. Worshipers often used libations of alcohol or blood to honor her. With the progression of time, her worship and cult practices changed as Greeks and Romans started worshiping her.

It’s been noted that many of her cults in ancient Greece were sustained through the generous contributions of individuals and not the city (i.e. polis). The Greeks built metroons, a temple dedicated to mother goddesses, for the worship of Cybele and other mother goddesses like Rhea and Demeter.

As far back as the 5th century BC, the city of Athens had a Metroon devoted to Cybele. They built the temple to pacify Cybele after one of her priests was killed while spreading her worship among the people. It was believed that Cybele then visited a devastating plague (the Athenian plague) upon the people. Therefore putting up the metroon was a way to ask for her forgiveness.

Ruins of the Metroon in Athens.

Epithets

Here are some major epithets the ancient world gave to Cybele:

  • The goddess Cybele was known as Mātēror Mētēr, which translates into ‘mother’. Ancient Greek poet from the Greek city of Thebes described Cybele as “Mistress Cybele the Mother”.
  • Her dominion over wildlife and the natural world resulted in her being called “Mistress of animals”.
  • The 14th Homeric Hymn describes her as “the Mother of all gods and all human beings”.
  • Following her assimilation with Greek goddesses like Rhea and Gaia, her worshipers took to calling her “Mother of the gods”.
  • Her association with nature and wildlife inspired her epithet “Mother of the Mountains” (Mētēr oreia).

Symbols and depictions

Some of the commonest symbols of the goddess Cybele include, wild animals like lions and hawks as well as mountains and trees. She is noted in many ancient myths for riding an imposing lion-drawn chariot. Other times she is depicted with lions serving as her attendants.

The 5th-century BC Greek sculptor showed Cybele sitting on a throne holding a hand drum (tympanon) and a gourd-like container for libation. The drum is perhaps symbolic of the ecstasy, dancing and music that accompanies her when she makes an entrance into a city.

It was common for the Greeks to depict the foreign deities that they worshiped riding a chariot drawn by powerful and fierce wild animals, mostly big cats.

Some other depictions of Cybele show her flanked by young male and female attendants with fire torches.

Association

In ancient Greece, Cybele was associated with goddesses like Rhea and Demeter. Rhea, a Greek titan goddess and wife of Cronus, is the mother of Zeus and his siblings – Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia, and Hades. Demeter is the revered Greek goddess of the grains and agriculture.

Cybele was often associated with some Greek demigods that served as attendants to the goddess Rhea. Some of her attendants were believed to have kept the infant Zeus safe from the evil gaze of the Titan Cronus. Some examples of those attendants are the Corybantes and the dactyls. The former danced and sang to keep the infant Zeus entertained.

In one myth, Cybele is believed to have healed the Greek god Dionysus of his mental illness.

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More Cybele facts

Great Mother Goddess Cybele

  • Beginning from the era of Phrygia Kingdom, she was associated with mountains, making her the “Mountain Mother”.
  • In Lydia, Cybele was called Kuvava.
  • Cybele is considered as one of the earliest Neolithic goddesses as her worship dominated southern Anatolia starting from the 8th century B.C.
  • Perhaps a national deity in the Kingdom of Phrygia (in west central part of Anatolia), Cybele is the only known goddess of that era.
  • The common depictions of her from the Neolithic era see her as a plump woman sitting down.
  • In spite of her assimilation with Greek and Roman deities, both civilizations still took cognizance of the fact that she was a foreign deity.
  • Empress Livia – wife of Emperor Augustus – was seen as Cybele’s earthly representative.

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