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To some, she was known as Magna Mater; to many others, she was known as Cybele. She is, of course, the ...
2021-01-02 09:00:00

The Lady of Life and Death
The Ancient Mother Goddess

“Venus and Anchises”, William Blake Richmond, 1889-1890
The Lady of Life and Death
The Lady of Life and Death

Benevolent and cruel, pure and lustful. She was venerated in all corners of the ancient world, often during secret, orgiastic rituals. Her legend still inspires writers and artists. It’s the Mother Goddess.

Read in 10 minutes

When I saw Venus of Willendorf for the first time in a display cabinet of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, I was surprised that she was so small. This figurine, 11.5-centimetres tall, opens many a textbook of art history. However, in close-up she seems almost monumental: a woman made of buttocks, breasts and belly. But then her silhouette, reduced to the symbols of fertility, is not a male fetish, caricature or pornography. The figurine from over 30,000 years ago could be one of the first representations of divinity created by humankind.

Many names

Images of the Mother Goddess are often found during archaeological excavations in all corners of the ancient world: in Egypt, in the Indus Valley, in Crete and in the Russian steppe. With the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, she started appearing more and more often with her son – together they were patrons of the cyclical changes of seasons, harvest and sowing. The Romans gathered the ancient myths together and created a syncretic Magna Mater (the ‘Great Mother’). Despite appearances, Christianity has not parted with this legacy, only adding a theological dimension to it. An abstract concept of the Great Mother reappeared anew as Mater Ecclesiae – the ‘Mother of the Church’, taking care of the faithful.

Venus is just an agreed name for the fat lady from Willendorf. Palaeolithic sculptures have nothing to do with the Roman goddess of beauty. Undoubtedly, scholars projected their own concepts and moral rules onto mysterious Palaeolithic artefacts. In 1864, Marquis Paul Hurault dug up the oldest known representation of a woman. Because of its pose, he called the statue Venus Impudica – ‘immodest Venus’. One thing is certain: under different names, with various, sometimes contradictory functions and symbolism, reverence for the Great Mother was one of the first in the ancient world and remained cultivated for the longest time.

When her cult was taking shape in the Middle East, she was unmarried and independent, even single. The fertility of the earth was associated with femininity a long time before the hierarchy of male gods was formed. Only with the development of agriculture and civilization did humans begin to understand the role of men in procreation. That was when the Mother Goddess, usually associated with the earth, was given a partner. But even here his role was ambiguous. He often remained just a servant, or even a son of the goddess.

“Autonomous, imperious, rebellious deity who didn’t have a mother or a father, was in essence not just a nursing mother, but also a universal giver of life,” wrote Umberto Pestalozza, an expert in pre-Hellenistic religions. “A goddess who is at the same time a mountain, earth heavy with human toil, a tree, an animal, a woman. Here is a goddess who easily passes from one natural kingdom to another, clothed in all their shapes. The mistress of life and death, war and peace. She is at the same time kind and malicious, pure and lustful. She comes to the rescue of women in labour and newborns. This eternal femininity only just emerges from the dark undergrowth and wild, primal debauchery, but not to free itself of it, but to bring them all together in its human nature and finally become a living manifestation of a feminine deity.”

From myth to meteorite

The feminine deity and divine femininity – Mother Goddess was full of contradictions. In ancient India and Palestine, in Egypt and ancient Iraq – everywhere a local version of a mother was worshipped, gracious or demonic. Ancient Greeks borrowed their Mother Goddess, Cybele, from Asia Minor. The attributes ascribed to her were sometimes contradictory (like a snake and a dove) or surprising (like phalluses and horns). Mountains, poles and trees were dedicated to her. This primal goddess of nature, worshipped by shepherds, was slowly civilized by the Greeks and accepted into their pantheon. She was often identified with Gaia – the first goddess, the Foremother Earth – or with Rhea, Gaia’s and Uranus’s daughter, mother of the Olympian gods. At other times she was identified with Demeter, the patron of farmers, but also the loving mother of Persephone.

The Mother Goddess, the patron of fertility, is also a chthonic deity [related to the earth and underworld, born of the earth – ed. note], a hellish mistress. There are surviving bottomless chalices into which blood was poured for her. Cybele was worshipped in secret, orgiastic rituals. In mythology, the beautiful Attis was sometimes the goddess’s son, and at other times her lover. In a poem by Catullus, the 1st-century BCE Roman poet, Attis was not a god, but a follower of the goddess, who, during an orgy, performed the act of self-harm, just like in the myth. By letting the savageness lure him, the wretched boy betrayed the Hellenic world: “Unhappy, all unhappy heart, again, again must thou complain / For what form of human figure is there which I had not? / I, to be a woman – who was a stripling, I a youth, I a boy.”

Venus of Willendorf, an Upper Paleolithic, 11.1cm female figurine found in 1908 at Willendorf.
Venus of Willendorf, an Upper Paleolithic, 11.1cm female figurine found in 1908 at Willendorf.

Cybele remained an arrival from the east – her homeland was mountainous Phrygia and her main sanctuary was in Pessinus, at the foot of the Didymus mountain. She was shown half-naked, with snakes and vipers. But sometimes a primitive or symbolic image is enough – long after her anthropomorphic likenesses spread, holy poles, cypress, pine and fig trees were still worshipped. In Pessinus, a small black meteorite was identified with Cybele. In the year 204 BCE, the Romans summoned the Great Mother to help them in the Second Punic War. After a streak of bad omens – a rain of meteorites, a bad harvest – the custodians of the Sibylline Books advised that this holy fetish be brought over from Pessinus. Set in gold, it replaced the face of Cybele’s statue. As a result, the statue didn’t look human anymore; the power of the deity was present in the raw rock itself.

The Romans adopted foreign gods when it was useful in their current political situation. Ceremonial welcoming of the goddess in Rome was chronicled by Livy and captured in poetry by Ovid. Upon going ashore, the Great Mother passed from hand to hand between women lined along the Tiber. She took lodgings in the Temple of Victoria, and soon after moved into her own temple in a prestigious location, in the Palatine. Despite all that, the black rock instead of a marble statue must have proven a bit controversial. “And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine,” Mary Beard writes in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

Nurturer and guide

Brought over from afar, Cybele provoked the Romans to think about their own identity. The famine had finally passed, Hannibal was defeated, and the goddess remained. Her cult endured until the beginnings of Christianity. The Romans pictured her in a similar manner to the Greeks, but added a crown with turrets, as a symbol of her being the defender of the country. In early April, during holidays (Megalesia) devoted to Cybele, games were organized, offerings made, and her likeness was carried around the streets in a grand procession. This must have been the type of celebrations that Lucretius took part in. The impression left by these celebrations might be one of the reasons why in the second book of On the Nature of Things, in the middle of reflections on atoms, he suddenly digresses and talks about the Mother: “[…] parent of man hath she alone been named.” Lucretius reminds the reader about the fertility of the earth-nurturer, but at the same time criticizes the noisy cult and mythological associations linked to her:

“A tale, however beautifully wrought,
That’s wide of reason by a long remove.”

As Lucretius says, comparing the earth to the mother is a beautiful metaphor stemming from the basic observation of nature and admiration for its richness.

In Fasti: On the Roman Calendar, Ovid described the arrival of the Great Mother in Rome. He focused his attention on the role of Claudia Quinta. When the envoy got stuck in the shallows near Ostia, the woman, thanks to the goddess’s benevolence, performed a miracle and the ship moved. In this way, Quinta, accused of disrespecting tradition, confirmed her respectful position as a Roman matron. On the other hand – according to Virgil – Cybele was Aeneas’s guard and without her he would have died during his journey. Known as Berecynthia (from the mountain top or the place in Phrygia where she was particularly venerated), in the Aeneid she is the mother of Jupiter himself. It was her who gave the Trojans holy trees to build ships and persuaded her almighty son to make the fleet indestructible.

“'T is said that, when the chief prepar’d his flight,
And fell’d his timber from Mount Ida’s height,
The grandam goddess then approach’d her son,
And with a mother’s majesty begun:
‘Grant me,’ she said, ‘the sole request I bring,
Since conquer'd heav’n has own’d you for its king.’”

Virgil eventually ‘certified’ Cybele as an imported Roman goddess. Several temples were built for her, including the most important one, Metroon in the Palatine. But the rituals in those temples were still carried out by incomers from Asia, not by Roman citizens. As liberal as the Romans were in their approach to religion, the question of Cybele was delicate. This impetuous deity, in collusion with the powers of the underworld, was also the patron of the founder of Rome, Aeneas. Many aristocratic families proudly stated that they were the descendants of immigrants who arrived in Italia after the Trojan War. Caesar Augustus claimed to have these origins and held Cybele in special reverence: he gave the statues of the goddess the face of his wife, Livia Drusilla.

But the goddess, with her self-flagellating and self-castrating followers, had not an ounce of classical temperance. In the end, it was Virgil himself who proposed how to temper her: Cybele, Mother Earth, was associated with Venus, Aeneas’s Olympian mother. From then on, Venus and Cybele become one Indo-European ‘Mother Earth Goddess’. In such form, the myth lasted until late antiquity.

Forgotten and resurrected

Saint Augustine recalled the cult of the Mother Goddess numerous times as a key example of pagan barbarity and savagery. In The City of God, the bishop of Hippo described ecstatic rituals – cruel and disgusting – as well as their damaging consequences for the morality and spirit. Interestingly, Augustine never called the goddess ‘Cybele’, but the Great Mother. Not very far from Mary, of immaculate conception, a Virgin Mother who acquires her attributes and tasks from the ‘Mother of the Earth, Mother of Gods’ – she is a protector of cities, harvests, women expecting children.

Christianity didn’t mean that the Mother Goddess was forgotten. Her myth was recalled by Petrarch, complaining about his secular times that ignored poetry and myths. Boccaccio lamented the fact that Cybele’s throne was empty. Renaissance humanists made attempts at reviving pagan mythology, not to replace Christianity, but to complement it. At first glance the bloody, primal myth and ritual of Cybele didn’t fit Renaissance ideals. But as an important Roman goddess, the Great Mother survived. In the Middle Ages, it was thought that the pantheon was devoted to her. She also found a place for herself in Renaissance astrology. This ‘science’ showed connections between the terrestrial and the celestial. It was believed that the fate of the universe and of particular people was decided up in the stars. Celestial bodies were linked to mythological characters. But the Twelve Olympians were not enough for 365 days in a year. In erudite frescoes in Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Jupiter and Cybele are patrons of July. “The artist’s keen pursuit of mythological authenticity becomes more apparent in the figures on the right. In the background – as required by the barbarian myth of Cybele – is the recumbent figure of Attis,” Aby Warburg, a German art historian, explains. “What is more, the priests in Christian vestments, who play on cymbals, timbrels, and drums, are intended to be seen as the Galli, and the armored youths in the background as sword-swinging Crybants. All this is proved by the three vacant seats in the foreground.”

Clearly, the orgiastic ritual didn’t bother the astrology experts. On the contrary, they liked the mystical symbolism of Cybele. Neoplatonic scholars thought that Plato, Aristotle and their students were not the only ones who investigated the truth. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola spoke of a poetic theology that could be achieved through allegorical interpretation of pagan mythology and poetry. The brutal myth of Cybele was retold by the Neoplatonics with the aura of subtle spirituality. The castration of Attis became an allegory of purity and virginity. Cybele’s companion, who ‘resurrected’ each spring, was a symbol of hope for life after death, which is very close to mainstream Christian thought. Humanists entrenched in antiquity explained their convoluted ideas to artists. No wonder that the ceremony of bringing Cybele to Rome was painted by an erudite who was crazy about the ancient era, Andrea Mantegna. It is not out of the question that the Mother Goddess was even encoded into Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

History comes full circle. The Mother Goddess is benevolent and cruel, pure and lustful, she looks after birth and death. Savage rituals of castration could appear in a nightmare. The myth of Attis and Cybele was recalled by H.P. Lovecraft in his short story The Rats in the Walls. In a run-down English castle, “indescribable rites had been celebrated there, few doubted; and there were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites into the Cybele-worship which the Romans had introduced.”

Lovecraft could not have read about the castration of Attis in Catullus – there is only one sentence in the Roman’s poem relating to this episode, there is also nothing about any cruel rituals. The writer must have read about it elsewhere. Flaubert, too, was inspired by the bloody Cybele, when he came up with the exhausting visions for Saint Anthony. He shows Cybele’s fury, when she reproaches her unfaithful lover. Attis, “with a sharp stone he dismembers himself, and runs furiously from her… The priests imitate the god; the faithful do even as the priests. Men and women exchange garments, embrace; – and the tumult of bleeding flesh passes away.”

The myth remains alive. It provokes and encourages new readings. It is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the makers of horror films.


Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak

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