Cybele, the Mother Goddess

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In the early Neolithic at atalhöyük, where sculptures of chubby women, often sitting, have been discovered in excavations, Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess, may have served as a precursor.

She was possibly the only goddess of Phrygia that was known to exist. Around the sixth century BC, Greek colonists in Asia Minor embraced and modified her Phrygian worship and brought it to mainland Greece and the farther-flung western Greek colonies.

Cybele acquired the moniker Magna Mater in Rome (“Great Mother”). After the Sibylline oracle in 205 BC suggested her recruitment as a significant religious ally in Rome’s second battle against Carthage, the Roman state embraced and established a particular form of her cult (218 to 201 BC). She was reimagined by Roman mythologists as a Trojan goddess, making her an ancestor goddess of the Roman people through the Trojan prince Aeneas. Rome soon gained dominance over the Mediterranean region, and Cybele’s rituals began to take on Romanized forms as they expanded over Rome’s dominion. Her cults and priesthoods’ morality and purpose were hotly contested topics in Greek and Roman literature even in current academia.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

Romans called Cybele Magna Mater, which is the same as the Greek name Meter Theon Idaia and means “great Idaean mother of the gods” (“Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida”). A meteor shower, a bad crop, and starvation all seemed to portend Rome’s impending loss during the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), prompting Rome to formally accept her worship. The Sibylline oracle was consulted by the Roman Senate and its religious advisors, who concluded that bringing the Magna Mater of Phrygian Pessinos into Rome may help Rome beat Carthage.

This cult item belonged to the Kingdom of Pergamum, a Roman ally, therefore the Roman Senate dispatched messengers to ask the king’s permission. While on the way, a discussion with the Delphic oracle in Greece affirmed that the goddess should be transported to Rome. The goddess appeared in Rome as the black meteorite stone of Pessinos. Roman mythology associates this journey—or its conclusion—with the matron Claudia Quinta, who was accused of immoral behavior but proved her innocence by doing a supernatural deed on the goddess’s behalf.

Featured image: 1st century BC marble statue of Cybele from Formia, Lazio


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