Mother Goddess Cult in Anatolia


Cybele, Phrygian Matar Kubileya or “Mountain Mother”, Lydian Kuvava, Greek Meter Theon or “Mother of Gods”, Roman Mater Magna is an Anatolian mother goddess. There are about 60 different epithets for her in Central Anatolia during the Roman Imperial period. She may have a possible forerunner in the earliest neolithic at Çatalhöyük, where statues of plump women, sometimes sitting, have been found in excavations. Phrygia’s only known goddess, she was probably its national deity. Greek colonists in Asia Minor adopted and adapted her Phrygian cult and spread it to mainland Greece and to the more distant western Greek colonies around the 6th century BC.

No contemporary text or myth survives to attest the original character and nature of Cybele’s Phrygian cult. She may have evolved from a statuary type found at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, dated to the 6th millennium BC. In Phrygian art of the 8th century BC, the cult attributes of the Phrygian mother-goddess include attendant lions, a bird of prey, and a small vase for her libations or other offerings.

It is commonly assumed that a number of Hittie cults and myths were adopted and adapted by the Phrygians. The name of the Phrygian Matar Kubileya, the Mother of the Mountains, is generally thought to go back to the goddess Kubaba of Karkemish, who was the main goddess of Anatolia in the 1st millennium. The extension of her cult to Central Anatolia caused some features of the Phrygian Mother to be influenced by the goddess. For example, both Kubaba and Matar were protectors of states of Karkemish and Phrygia respectively, and had lions associated with them. Strabo mentions that Phrygians worshipped their mother goddess Matar under a number of names, calling her Agdistis, the name probably derived from the mountain Agdos near the quarries of Dokimeion.

Without modern technology and science, ancient people were particularly vulnerable to disease and natural disasters. For their livelihood, they were dependent on agriculture and hunting, which were affected by regional climate, environment and sometimes sheer luck. Consequently, in looking for protection and support, making up deities and spirits, each of which represented a particular aspect of life. The gods were believed to inhabit the physical space. Worshippers recognised this presence of divine power by allocating a sacred space for communication between human and divine. To avoid inadvertent pollution, such a sacred area needed to be identified. Therefore, such locations were often monumentalised, built us as “theatres” for religious rites and practices.

The place and architectural form the cult took in urban and rural settings were different. There were large, well-established sanctuaries like Pessinos in Phrygia. At the latest in the 3rd century BC Pessinos was the centre of her cult. The texts describe a splendid temple in which a black meteorite was kept that symbolized the goddess. “The image of the Mother in Pessinous was said to be so ancient that it was not made by human hands, but had fallen from the sky. This later gave rise to a suggested etymology for the site, that the name Pessinous derived from the circumstance of the image’s falling, pesein meaning ‘to fall’.”

Many sacred sites, however, were not so obviously marked. In the countryside any rock-face or cave with a spring inside could be dedicated to the goddess mother. She was worshipped in the caves of Mount Lobrinos, or in the grotto of Steunos. She was the mistress of the healing waters in Hierapolis.

An unusual combination of the sacred sites can be found in Aezani in Phrygia, where there was a temple dedicated to Zeus but the subterranean structure served for the worship of Meter. The two deities are mentioned together in the inscriptions and terracotta figures of Cybele were found there. The grotto was entered from opisthdomos, above which a female protome emerged from acanthus leaves, whereas the gable above the entrance to the cella was decorated with a male figure. The artificial grotto in the temple seems to imitate a natural cave near the city, known as Steunos. This cave was believed to be the birthplace of Zeus and was sacred to Meter.

The most prominent aspect of the Phrygian mother goddess is her association with mountains, hollows and wild spaces. Something that is underlined by her typical Phrygian adjective “kubileya” meaning “of the mountain”. The Greek colonists in the western Anatolia translated her name as Meter Oraia and she was worshipped in the caves near Ariassos and Sia. And this link with the mountains influenced later cults of mother goddesses in other regions of Asia Minor, such as Meter Kadmene near Laodikeia or Meter Metaurene in Pisidia.

The rock-shrine of Meter Kademene dating to 2-3 century AD, includes a niche, the pediment of which is decorated with a head of a bull. The goddess is shown sitting on a throne, wearing a chiton and a polos crown on her head.  To her right, there is a lion, and farther to the right a male figure with a spear raised towards the lion. So, we see the same attributes as the Phrygian mother, so Meter Kadmene was probably associated with protection.

Another interesting example is Mount Sipylos in Lydia. Here the goddess mother was known as Matar Sipylene. Pausanias reported it to be the most ancient of the images of the Mother of gods, describing a seated figure carved out of the natural rock on the north slope of the mountain. The sculpture, which can still be seen, depicts a seated figure in a long robe, although it is a Hittite image, not Phrygian, a Hittite hieroglyph to the right of the figure identifies it as a work of the late Bronze age. Another interesting detail is that Mount Sipylos later became associated with a different mother. Niobe, who lost all of her children to the wrath of Artemis and Apollo after challenging their mother Leto, was said to turn into a rock because of her immeasurable grief. Nowadays Mount Spil, that looks like a woman in profile, is known as the Weeping Mountain in memory of Niobe crying for her children.

Goddess’s epitheton was not always derived from the name of the mountain. Sometimes it was simply derived from the name of a local area, like Meter Malene in the territory of Malos, where a shepherd made a dedication to Meter Malene for the protection of his herd and his dogs.

It’s interesting that in some agricultural communities, the mother goddess became associated with the harvest and fertility of the soil, which is evident, for example, in her Imperial period altar from Sagalassos decorated with corn, wheat and grapes.  It was never the case in Phrygia, where she was the deity of mountains and wilderness, and was never linked with fertility or portrayed with children. Therefore, we see not a direct adoption of the Phrygian mother cult but a synthesis of Neolithic fertility goddess and the Phrygian mountain mother.

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