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Great Mother of the Gods
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
The ancient Oriental-GreekRoman deity commonly known as Cybele in Greek and Latin literature from the time of Pindar. She was also known under many other names, some of which were derived from famous places of worship: as Dindymene from Mt. Dindymon, Mater Idaea from Mt. Ida, Sipylene from Mt. Sipylus, Agdistis from Mt. Agdistis or Agdus, Mater Phrygia from the greatest stronghold of her cult; while others were reflections of her character as a great nature goddess: e.g. Mountain Mother, Great Mother of the Gods, Mother of all Gods and all Men. As the great Mother deity whose worship extended throughout Asia Minor she was known as Ma or Ammas. Cybele is her favourite name in ancient and modern literature, while Great Mother of the Gods, or Great Idaean Mother of the Gods ( Mater Deum Magna, Mater Deum Magna Idaea ), the most frequently recurring epigraphical title, was her ordinary official designation. The legends agree in locating the rise of the worship of the Great Mother in Asia Minor, in the region of loosely defined geographical limits which comprised the Phrygian empire of prehistoric times, and was more extensive than the Roman province of Phrygia (Diod. Sic. iii. 58; Paus. vii. 17; Arnob. v. 5; Firm. Mat. De error., 3; Ovid, Fasti, iv. 223 ff.; Sallust. Phil. De diis et mundo, 4; Jul. Or. v. 165 ff.). Her best-known early seats of worship were Mt. Ida, Mt. Sipylus, Cyzicus, Sardis and Pessinus, the last-named city, in Galatia near the borders of Roman Phrygia, finally becoming the strongest centre of the cult. She was known to the Romans and Greeks as essentially Phrygian, and all Phrygia was spoken of as sacred to her (Schol. Apollon. Rhod. Argonautica, i. 1126). It is probable, however, that the Phrygian race, which invaded Asia Minor from the north in the 9th century B.C., found a great nature goddess already universally worshipped there, and blended her with a deity of their own. The Asiatic-Phrygian worship thus evolved was further modified by contact with the Syrians and Phoenicians, so that it acquired strong Semitic characteristics. The Great Mother known to the Greeks and Romans was thus merely the Phrygian form of the nature deity of all Asia Minor. From Asia Minor the cult of the Great Mother spread first to Greek territory. It found its way into Thrace at an early date, was known in Boeotia by Pindar in the 6th century, and entered Attica near the beginning of the 4th century (Grant Showerman, The Great Mother of the Gods, Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, No. 43, Madison, 1901). At Peiraeus, where it probably arrived by way of the Aegean islands, it existed privately in a fully developed state, that is, accompanied by the worship of Attis, at the beginning of the 4th century, and publicly two centuries later (D. Comparetti, Annales, 1862, pp. 23 ff.). The Greeks from the first saw in the Great Mother a resemblance to their own Rhea, and finally identified the two completely, though the Asiatic peculiarities of the cult were never universally popular with them (Showerman, p. 2 9 4). In her less Asiatic aspect, i.e. without Attis, she was sometimes identified with Gaia and Demeter. It was in this phase that she was worshipped in the MetroOn at Athens. In reality, the Mother Goddess appears under three aspects: Rhea, the Homeric and Hesiodic goddess of Cretan origin; the Phrygian Mother, with Attis; and the Greek Great Mother, a modified form of the Phrygian Mother, to be explained as the original goddess of the Phrygians of Europe, communicated to the Greek stock before the Phrygian invasion of Asia Minor and consequent mingling with Asiatic stocks (cf. Showerman, p. 252).
In 204 B.C., in obedience to the Sibylline prophecy which said that whenever an enemy from abroad should make war on Italy he could be expelled and conquered if the Idaean Mother were brought to Rome from Pessinus, the cult of the Great Mother, together with her sacred symbol, a small meteoric stone reputed to have fallen from the heavens, was transferred to Rome and established in a temple on the Palatine (Livy xxix. 10-14). Her identification by the Romans with Maia, Ops, Rhea, Tellus and Ceres contributed to the establishment of her worship on a firm footing. By the end of the Republic it had attained prominence, and under the Empire it became one of the three most important cults in the Roman world, the other two being those of Mithras and Isis. Epigraphic and numismatic evidence prove it to have penetrated from Rome as a centre to the remotest provinces (Showerman, pp. 291-293). During the brief revival of paganism under Eugenius in A.D. 394, occurred the last appearance of the cult in history. Besides the temple on the Palatine, there existed minor shrines of the Great Mother near the present church of St Peter, on the Sacra Via on the north slope of the Palatine, near the junction of the Almo and the Tiber, south of the city (ibid. 311-314).
In all her aspects, Roman, Greek and Oriental, the Great Mother was characterized by essentially the same qualities. Most prominent among them was her universal motherhood. She was the great parent of gods and men, as well as of the lower orders of creation. "The winds, the sea, the earth and the snowy seat of Olympus are hers, and when from her mountains she ascends into the great heavens, the son of Cronus himself gives way before her" (Apollon. Rhod. Argonautica, i. 1098). She was known as the All-begetter, the All-nourisher, the Mother of all the Blest. She was the great, fruitful, kindly earth itself. Especial emphasis was placed upon her maternity over wild nature. She was called the Mountain Mother; her sanctuaries were almost invariably upon mountains, and frequently in caves, the name Cybele itself being by some derived from the latter; lions were her faithful companions. Her universal power over the natural world finds beautiful expression in Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, i. 1140 ff. She was also a chaste and beautiful deity. Her especial affinity with wild nature was manifested by the orgiastic character of her worship. Her attendants, the Corybantes, were wild, half demonic beings. Her priests, the Galli, were eunuchs attired in female garb, with long hair fragrant with ointment. Together with priestesses, they celebrated her rites with flutes, horns, castanets, cymbals and tambourines, madly yelling and dancing until their frenzied excitement found its culmination in self-scourging, self-laceration or exhaustion. Self-emasculation sometimes accompanied this delirium of worship on the part of candidates for the priesthood (Showerman, pp. 234-239). The Attis of Catullus (lxiii.) is a brilliant treatment of such an episode.
Though her cult sometimes existed by itself, in its fully developed state the worship of the Great Mother was accompanied by that of Attis (q.v.). The cult of Attis never existed independently. Like Adonis and Aphrodite, Baal and Astarte, &c., the two formed a duality representing the relations of Mother Nature to the fruits of the earth. There is no positive evidence to prove the existence of the cult publicly in this phase in Greece before the 2nd century B.C., nor in Rome before the Empire, though it may have existed in private (Showerman, "Was Attis at Rome under the Republic ?" in Transactions of the American Philological Association, vol. 31, 1900, pp. 46-59; Cumont, s.v. " Attis," De Ruggiero's Dizionario epigrafico and
PaulyWissowa's Realencyclopeidie, Supplement; Hepding, Attis, seine Mythen and seine Kull, Giessen, 1903, p. 142).
The philosophers of the late Roman Empire interpreted the Attis legend as symbolizing the relations of Mother Earth to her children the fruits. Porphyrius says that Attis signified the flowers of spring time, and was cut off in youth because the flower falls before the fruit (Augustine, De civ. Dei, vii. 25). Maternus ( De error. 3 ) interprets the love of the Great Mother for Attis as the love of the earth for her fruits; his emasculation as the cutting of the fruits; his death as their preservation; and his resurrection as the sowing of the seed again.
At Rome the immediate direction of the cult of the Great Mother devolved upon the high priest, Archigallus, called Attis, a high priestess, Sacerdos Maxima, and its support was derived, at least in part, from a popular contribution, the sties. Besides other priests, priestesses and minor officials, such as musicians, curator, &c., there were certain colleges connected with the administration of the cult, called cannophori (reed-bearers) and dendrophori (branch-bearers). The Quindecimvirs exercised a general supervision over this cult, as over all other authorized cults, and it was, at least originally, under the special patronage of a club or sodality (Showerman, pp. 269-276). Roman citizens were at first forbidden to take part in its ceremonies, and the ban was not removed until the time of the Empire.
The main public event in the worship of the Great Mother was the annual festival, which took place originally on the 4th of April, and was followed on the 5th by the Megalesia, games instituted in her honour on the introduction of the cult. Under the Empire, from Claudius on, the Megalesia lasted six days, April 4-10, and the original one day of the religious festival became an annual cycle of festivals extending from the 15th to the 27th of March, in the following order. (1) The r5th of March, Canna intrat - the sacrifice of a six-year-old bull in behalf of the mountain fields, the high priest, a priestess and the cannophori officiating, the last named carrying reeds in procession in commemoration of the exposure of the infant Attis on the reedy banks of the stream Gallus in Phrygia. (This may have been originally a phallic procession. Cf. Showerman, American Journal of Philol. xxvii. 1; Classical Journal i. 4.) (2) The 22nd of March, Arbor intrat - the bearing in procession of the sacred pine, emblem of Attis' self-mutilation, death and immortality, to the temple on the Palatine, the symbol of the Mother's cave, by the dendrophori, a gild of workmen who made the Mother, among other deities, a patron. (3) The 24th of March, Dies sanguinis - a day of mourning, fasting and abstinence, especially sexual, commemorating the sorrow of the Mother for Attis, her abstinence from food and her chastity. The frenzied dance and self-laceration of the priests in commemoration of Attis' deed, and the submission to the act of consecration by candidates for the priesthood, was a special feature of the day. The taurobolium (q.v. ) was often performed on this day, on which probably took place the initiation of mystics. (4) The 25th of March, Hilaria - one of the great festal days of Rome, celebrated by all the people. All mourning was put off, and good cheer reigned in token of the return of the sun and spring, which was symbolized by the renewal of Attis' life. (5) The 26th of March, Requietio - a day of rest and quiet. (6) The 27th of March, Lavatio - the crowning ceremony of the cycle. The silver statue of the goddess, with the sacred meteoric stone, the Acus, set in its head, was borne in gorgeous procession and bathed in the Almo, the remainder of the day being given up to rejoicing and entertainment, especially dramatic representation of the legend of the deities of the day. Other ceremonies, not necessarily connected with the annual festival, were the taurobolium (q.v.), the sacrifice of a bull, and the criobolium, the sacrifice of a ram, the latter being the analogue of the former, instituted for the purpose of giving Attis special recognition. The baptism of blood, which was the feature of these ceremonies, was regarded as purifying and regenerating (Showerman, Great Mother, pp. 277-284).
The Great Mother figures in the art of all periods both in Asia and Europe, but is especially prominent in the art of the Empire. No work of the first class, however, was inspired by her. She appears on coins, in painting and in all forms of sculpture, usually with mural crown and veil, well draped, seated on a throne, and accompanied by two lions. Other attributes which often appear are the patera, tympanum, cymbals, sceptre, garlands and fruits. Attis and his attributes, the pine, Phrygian cap, pedum, syrinx and torch, also appear. The Cybele of Formia, now at Copenhagen, is one of the most famous representations of the goddess. The Niobe of Mt. Sipylus is really the Mother. In literature she is the subject of frequent mention, but no work of importance, with the exception of Catullus lxiii., is due to her inspiration. Her importance in the history of religion is very great. Together with Isis and Mithras, she was a great enemy, and yet a great aid to Christianity. The gorgeous rites of her worship, its mystic doctrine of communion with the divine through enthusiasm, its promise of regeneration through baptism of blood in the taurobolium, were features which attracted the masses of the people and made it a strong rival of Christianity; and its resemblance to the new religion, however superficial, made it, in spite of the scandalous practices which grew up around it, a stepping-stone to Christianity when the tide set in against paganism.
Grant Showerman, "The Great Mother of the Gods," Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, No. 43; Philology and Literature Series, vol. i. No. 3 (Madison, 1901); Hugo Hepding, Attis, seine Illythen and seine Kull (Giessen, 1903); Rapp, Roscher's Ausfiihrliches Lexicon der griechischen and romischen Mythologic s.v. " Kybele"; Drexler, ibid. s.v. " Meter." See ROMAN RELIGION, GREEK RELIGION, ATTIS, CORYBANTES; for the great "Hittite" portrayal of the Nature Goddess at Pteria, see PTERIA. (G. SN.)
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Great Mother of the Gods'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​g/great-mother-of-the-gods.html. 1910.