The Cult of Magna Mater

By Anders Sandberg

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The Cult of Magna Mater, the Great Mother, is probably the oldest religion of all. The earliest stone-age sculptures depict the mother- goddess, and an idol found in Catal Hüyük, 6000 years old, depict her in the form she later became worshipped as Cybele in Phrygia, as a seated woman flanked by two leopards. The worship evolved through the millennia, but the goddess remained a symbol of the powerful female forces in the universe. Many different interpretations appeared, and various cults have interacted and mixed ideas. Not much is known about her worship in ancient times, but in her incarnation as Cybele in ancient Phrygia she started the cult which would later evolve into the cult of Magna Mater in Rome. As a small child she was put out into the wilderness to die, but instead of killing her the panthers and lions nurtured her, and she grew up into an intelligent, beautiful and headstrong woman. It is not impossible that she was a child mage who was later deified. She invented pipes and drums, and also magickal medicines which she used to heal sick children and creatures on the Phrygian countryside. She became friend of not only the animals and people, but also the satyrs and other supernatural beings. She fell in love with prince Attis, but their love-story was tragic; The intense love of the divine Cybele was too much for the mortal prince, and he went mad, castrated himself and died. Cybele, driven mad by grief, roamed around to sound of pipes and drums seeking her lost love. The links between this story and the cult of Inanna/Ishtar/Asherah are quite obvious, and both cults influenced each other heavily. Attis was identified with Dumuzi and Tammuz, other dead and resurrected gods.

The cults were widespread, and Ezekiel mentions the female worship of Tammuz in his lamentation over the spread of paganism in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:14). Around 200 BC the holy black rock of the goddess was moved from the Phrygian city of Pessinos, which had been the previous centre of her worship. Rome became the new centre, and her cult grew. The romans identified Cybele with the Greek Rhea, and called her Magna Mater, the Great Mother. The priests of the cult were men who had castrated themselves in front of her image, but most of the followers were women. The cult was a tumultuous, noisy and ecstatic affair which attracted many people. Only women (and castrated men) were allowed to attend the main celebrations of the goddess, which quickly got the reputation of being less religious ritual and more wild orgies. Much gossip went around about the indecencies and depravities of the cult, but due to the protection of influential people it avoided persecution. The cult was led by the female priestesses and the Archigalli, the high priest of the subordinate Galli; castrated male priests who were responsible for most of the dance, divination and healing of the cult. Many of the worshipers were organised into fraternities, most notably the Dendrophori ("Tree-bearers") and Cannophori ("Reed-bearers"). Members of these fraternities enjoyed a bit of social status and influence, and many important people flocked to them. The liturgy of the cult was in Greek. Many of the ceremonies commemorated the deeds of Magna Mater and her love to Attis, who represented the fertility and plants of the land. By his castration and death the land was given new life. Many festivals were held, called ludi ("plays") which were enthusiastic carnivals with banquets and comedic performances.

One of the major festivals was Megalesia the 4-10 April. At the height of the celebrations the taurobolium was performed, as a bull was castrated and sacrificed, and new initiates were baptised in its blood. Another major festival was celebrated the 25th March to commemorate the castration and death of Attis. The Cannophori carried reeds and stalks to the temple together with the idol of Attis. The taurobolium was performed, and the genitals of the bull was thrown into a cave or well consecrated to Magna Mater. After three days of sorrow and grief for Attis, the carnival returned with Hilaria, the Day of Joy as Attis was resurrected and fertility yet again reigned thanks to the power of Magna Mater. Mountains and caves were sacred to Magna Mater, and her temples were often built near them. By sleeping in a temple many women hoped to get help from the goddess, who was said to help mothers and children. Midwifes were tied to the cult, and many priests were healers. The priestesses were more involved with her ecstatic side, celebrating her secret mysteries behind locked doors. Practically nothing is known about them, except that they were exclusively women only. In the end, the cult vanished together with most other mystery cults of the antique era.


New Book on Magna Mater


Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (Berkeley-Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1999)

This book examines one of the most intriguing figures in the religious life of the ancient Mediterranean world, the Phrygian Mother Goddess, known to the Greeks and Romans as Cybele or Magna Mater, the Great Mother. Her cult was particularly prominent in central Anatolia (modern Turkey), and spread from there through the Greek and Roman world. She was an enormously popular figure, attracting devotion from common people and potentates alike. This book is the first comprehensive assembly and discussion of the entire extant evidence concerning the worship of the Phrygian Mother Goddess, from her earliest appearance in the prehistoric record to the early centuries of the Roman Empire.

Lynn E. Roller presents and analyzes literary, historiographic, and archaeological data with equal acuity and flair. While previous studies have tended to emphasize the more outrageous aspects of the Mother Goddess's cult, such as her orgiastic rituals and the eunuch priests who attended her, this book places a special focus on Cybele's position in Anatolia and the ways in which the identity of the goddess changed as her cult was transmitted to Greece and Rome. Roller gives a detailed account of the growth, spread, and evolution of her cult, her ceremonies, and her meaning for her adherents. This book will introduce students of Classical antiquity to many aspects of the Great Mother which have been previously unexamined, and will interest anyone who has ever been piqued by curiosity about the Mother Goddess of the ancient Western world.

Lynn E. Roller is Professor of Classics at the University of California, Davis. She is author of The Nonverbal Graffiti, Dipinti, and Stamps, Gordion Special Studies 1 (1987). | Published: Spring 1999 | 431 7 x 10 78 b/w illustrations, 2 maps.
ISBN (Cloth): 0-520-21024-7


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