Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The mixed reception of Cybele in Greece

Posted by Fredsvenn on May 30, 2016

Cybele (“Kubeleyan Mother”, perhaps “Mountain Mother”) is an Anatolian mother goddess; she has a possible precursor in the earliest neolithic at Çatalhöyük, where the statue of a pregnant, seated goddess was found in a granary dated to the 6th millennium BCE. This corpulent, fertile Mother Goddess appears to be giving birth on her throne, which has two feline-headed hand rests.

The inscription Matar Kubileya at a Phrygian rock-cut shrine, dated to the first half of the 6th century BCE, is usually read as “Mother of the mountain”, a reading supported by ancient Classical sources, and consistent with Cybele as any of several similar tutelary goddesses, each known as “mother” and associated with specific Anatolian mountains or other localities: a goddess thus “born from stone”.

She is Phrygia’s only known goddess, and was probably its state deity. Her Phrygian cult was adopted and adapted by Greek colonists of Asia Minor and spread to mainland Greece and its more distant western colonies around the 6th century BCE.

In Greece, Cybele met with a mixed reception. She was partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, her Minoan equivalent Rhea, and the Harvest-Mother goddess Demeter.

Many of her Greek cults included rites to a divine Phrygian castrate shepherd-consort Attis. She is associated with mountains, town and city walls, fertile nature, and wild animals, especially lions. Uniquely in Greek religion, she had a transgender or eunuch mendicant priesthood.

Roman mythographers reinvented her as a Trojan goddess, and thus an ancestral goddess of the Roman people by way of the Trojan prince Aeneas. With Rome’s eventual hegemony over the Mediterranean world, Romanised forms of Cybele’s cults spread throughout the Roman Empire. The meaning and morality of her cults and priesthoods were topics of debate and dispute in Greek and Roman literature, and remain so in modern scholarship.

In Greek mythology, Gaia (“land” or “earth”) also spelled Gaea, was the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities. Gaia was the great mother of all: the primal Greek Mother Goddess; creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the Universe; the heavenly gods, the Titans, and the Giants were born to her. The gods reigning over their classical pantheon were born from her union with Uranus (the sky), while the sea-gods were born from her union with Pontus (the sea). Her equivalent in the Roman pantheon was Terra.

Rhea is the Titaness daughter of the earth goddess Gaia and the sky god Uranus, in Greek mythology and sister and wife to Cronus. In early traditions, she is known as “the mother of gods” and therefore is strongly associated with Gaia and Cybele, who have similar functions. The classical Greeks saw her as the mother of the Olympian goddesses and gods, but not as an Olympian goddess in her own right. The Romans identified her with Magna Mater (their form of Cybele), and the Goddess Ops.

Cronus sired six children by Rhea: Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus in that order. He swallowed them all except Zeus as soon as they were born, because he had learned from Gaia and Uranus that, as he had overthrown his own father, he was destined to be overcome by his own child.

When Zeus was about to be born, however, Rhea sought Uranus and Gaia to devise a plan to save him, so that Cronus would get his retribution for his acts against Uranus and his own children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in Crete, handing Cronus a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he promptly swallowed. Then she hid Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida in Crete.

Zeus forced Cronus to disgorge the other children in the reverse order in which they had been swallowed, the oldest becoming the last, and youngest: first the stone, which was set down at Pytho under the glens of Parnassus to be a sign to mortal men, then the rest. In some versions, Metis gave Cronus an emetic to force him to disgorge the babies, or Zeus cut Cronus’ stomach open.

Then Zeus released the brothers of Cronus, the Gigantes, the Hecatonkheires, and the Cyclopes, who gave him thunder and lightning, which had previously been hidden by Gaia. Zeus and his siblings, together with the Gigantes, Hecatonkheires, and Cyclopes, overthrew Cronus and the other Titans.

Similarly, in later myths, Zeus would swallow Metis when she was pregnant with Athena, because of a prophecy that said she would later give birth to one who would be more glorious than the father. Athena was born unharmed, bursting out of his head in full armor.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Demeter is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. At the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, Demeter lured Iasion away from the other revelers. They had intercourse in a ploughed furrow in Crete, and she gave birth to a son, Ploutos. Her daughter by Zeus was Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.

Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. Her cult titles include Sito, “she of the Grain”, as the giver of food or grain and Thesmophoros (thesmos: divine order, unwritten law; phoros: bringer, bearer), “Law-Bringer,” as a mark of the civilized existence of agricultural society.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon.

In the Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets of circa 1400–1200 BC found at Pylos, the “two mistresses and the king” may be related with Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon. Her Roman equivalent is Ceres.

It is possible that Demeter appears in Linear A as da-ma-te. It is unlikely that Demeter appears as da-ma-te in a Linear B (Mycenean Greek) inscription; the word da-ma-te, probably refers to “households”. On the other hand, si-to-po-ti-ni-ja (“Potnia of the Grain”) is regarded as referring to her Bronze Age predecessor or to one of herepithets.

Demeter’s character as mother-goddess is identified in the second element of her name meter derived from Proto-Indo-European *méhtēr(mother). It is possible that Da, a word which became Ge in Attic, is the Doric form of De, “earth”, the old name of the chthonic earth-goddess, and that Demeter is “Mother-Earth”. This root also appears in the Linear B inscription E-ne-si-da-o-ne, “earth-shaker”, as an aspect of the god Poseidon.

The element De- may be connected with Deo, a surname of Demeter probably derived from the Cretan word dea, Ionic zeia – variously identified with emmer, spelt, rye, or other grains by modern scholars – so that she is the Mother and the giver of food generally.

The Arcadian cult to Demeter links her to a male deity (Paredros), who accompanied the Great Goddess and has been interpreted as a possible substitution for Poseidon; Demeter may therefore be related to a Minoan Great Goddess (Cybele).

An alternative Proto-Indo-European etymology comes through Potnia and Despoina, where Des- represents a derivative of PIE *dem (house, dome), and Demeter is “mother of the house” (from PIE *dems-méhtēr).

Demeter is assigned the zodiac constellation Virgo the Virgin by Marcus Manilius in his 1st century Roman work Astronomicon. In art, constellation Virgo holds Spica, a sheaf of wheat in her hand and sits beside constellation Leo the Lion.

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