Kybele : The Magna Mater; The Mountain Mother
Earth’s oldest surviving goddess was once a forest witch. Kybele’s cult is considered Earth’s most ancient religion. A clay statue, excavated at Catal Hayuk, now in modern Turkey, dated from between six to eight thousand years old, depicts a woman flanked by leopards. Although no name plate was attached, it is recognizably an image of Kybele.
Ancient Anatolians called her the Mountain Mother; the Romans called her Magna Mater or Great Mother. She seems to have originated in what is now Turkey and then travelled to the Middle East. The Hittites called her Kubaba, which evolved into the Phrygian Kybele and eventually the Roman Cybele. Some associate Siduri, the sacred harlot who tends the bar located at the world’s end with Kybele.
Kybele is usually translated as Cave, Place of Caves, or Cave Dweller. Kybele and the Sibyls are both associated with caves and prophesy and it’s believed that the original sibyls were Kybele’s priestesses although at least some eventually became independent practitioners.
Legend has it that Kybele was an unwanted child, left exposed in the wilderness. Instead of consuming her, the leopards and lions who discovered her raised and nurtured her, a leopard serving as her wet-nurse. Living alone with animals in the woods, Kubaba became a witch so powerful she evolved into an immortal goddess.
In her oldest manifestations, Kybele is a deity of healing, witchcraft, fertility, women and children. Rites were held in forests and caves and included ritual possession, ecstatic dancing, intoxication, music and sacred sex. She is closely identified with Dionysus and with Hekate who hails from her neck of the woods. Before her arrival in Rome, Kybele was associated with women, slaves and the poor, not with the elite and already bore a somewhat dangerous reputation.
In 204 BCE, the Romans fetched Kybele in the form of a meteor from her shrine at Pessinus in central Turkey. The Oracle of Delphi had forecast that Rome would never defeat Hannibal unless Kybele was brought to Rome. (The Romans traced their descent from refugees from Troy in Anatolia, now modern Turkey, and so basically the Oracle was instructing them to go fetch Mom to get them out of trouble.) Kybele was brought to Rome in triumphant procession and in 202 BCE, as the Oracle predicted, Rome defeated Hannibal. The black fist-sized meteorite became the face of a silver statue and must have resembled some Black Madonna statues. The Romans combined Kybele’s mythology with that of the Greek Earth goddess Rhea so that now it can be sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two spirits.
In Rome, Kybele’s rites evolved. Secret rituals once performed in hidden caves and forests now occurred in public streets during processionals attended by thousands. By Roman law, women could not be chief officiators of official state cults and so men assumed positions of authority in Kybele’s Roman cult that had been previously assumed by women.
Kybele was served by priestesses and by transgendered clergy known in Rome as galli. (Singular: galla or gallus, literally “hen” or “rooster”.) To join the galli, self-castration was required. The galli dressed and lived as women. Kybele’s clergy were also skilled medical practitioners: through surgery, replica vaginas (caves) were crafted through which the galli could engage in sacred sexual rituals.
Kybele’s festivals became notorious: men would suddenly be seized by the spirit and feel compelled to castrate themselves on the spot using potsherds (terra cotta, Earth, so that Kybele who may be understood as Earth personified, is the knife herself). The detached organ was flung aside; the house that it hit was considered blessed. Its owner was expected to purchase the ritual wardrobe for the new galla. Kybele’s primary myths (or at least those that survive) also involve castration, death and resurrection. It became a scandalous faith and was periodically suppressed.
With the advent of Christianity, serious efforts were made to eradicate her religion. Among other reasons, the early Church despised Kybele for the prominence of women, homosexuals, lesbians and the transgendered in positions of authority. In urban areas, her devotees included a high percentage of men, intellectuals and the elite but she was also extremely popular among the poorer classes and so was perceived as strong competition for Christianity.
Her religion was brutally suppressed. In 397 CE, Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347–September 14, 407) led what would today be described as a “death squad” through Phrygia (located in the mountains of what is now Western Turkey) targeting devotees of Kybele. Emperor Justinian (c. 483–565) despised Kybele and ordered her remaining temples torn down and her priestesses and galli murdered. Her sacred texts were burned. Although her veneration was widespread, none of Kybele’s temples remain. Various ruins may be visited in Turkey. Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was built directly over her temple; parts may survive under the foundation. Some believe that her sacred meteorite is buried there, too.
Kybele was clearly more than just a scandalous, bloodthirsty goddess. She was beloved for millennia and continues to be. In one form or another, her veneration may have lasted longer than any other deity on Earth. She remains a favourite of independent practitioners and serves as a protective guardian spirit. Kybele is revered for her power to provide miraculous healing and fertility. She provides spiritual and mystical enlightenment. Her temples served as hospitals: Women came to sleep in her Roman temple to beg favour. Her priestesses and priests underwent intensive training in herbal medicines. Many priestesses were skilled midwives.
ALSO KNOWN AS:
Cybele, Cuba, Kubaba
Midwives, healers, diviners, fortune tellers, crystal gazers, those who work with or on behalf of big cats; she is especially devoted to women and children. Historically, the bulk of her devotees were women and her most exclusive mysteries were reserved for women only.
Kybele manifests in various ways:
• Her typical human manifestation is as a crowned mature beautiful woman
• She also frequently manifests in the form of rocks and as Earth herself
• To enter a cave is to enter Kybele
• Her most sacred manifestation was as a meteorite
Ancient Hittite and Anatol ian images depict her with lion cubs. Some times she hugs them in her arms. Roman Kybele is depicted seated on her throne surrounded by lions, sometimes with a lion cub in her lap. Kybele wears a crown in the form of crenellated towers or a city gate. She holds a pan of water intended as a divination device representing her prophetic ability and her willingness to bestow this skill to others.
Keys; cymbals; frame drum; Kybele is credited with inventing drums, flutes and percussion instruments
Bees, bulls, big cats especially leopards and lions; her chariot is pulled by lions
The Vernal Equinox; Kybele’s Roman festival, the Megalensia, was held from April 4th through April 10th, her birthday; another festival, beginning March 25th, honored Kybele’s lover Attis: The first day commemorated Attis’ self-castration and death, followed by three days of public mourning. The last day of the festival was the Hilaria, the Day of Joy, as devotees celebrated Attis’ resurrection from the dead and the return of fertility to the Earth, all courtesy of Kybele. This last day is considered especially auspicious for requesting Kybele’s assistance with fertility.
Caves and mountains are sacred to Kybele and were the site of her earliest ceremonies. It is the easiest place to contact her. As she is the deified Earth, she may be contacted directly through Earth. Many of her myths emphasize that Kybele is ever-present. The city of Lyon, now in France, was once dedicated to her and an important centre of her veneration.
Kybele enjoys a celebratory atmosphere. She feeds on energy generated by the human response to incense and ecstatic dance and music. Call her with loud, percussive, rhythmic music. She loves cymbals and drums. Kybele most frequently responds through dreams and visions.
Honey, fruit and flowers are traditional. The Romans decorated her statues with roses. She drinks water, wine and arak and enjoy feta cheese dressed with garlic, oil, vinegar and fresh herbs. Kybele likes devotees to share meals in her honour. She is an unpretentious, earthy spirit who is not easily bribed: gourmet dishes and expensive offerings do not sway her. She prefers things that are closest to their earthly source. Kybele likes offerings made from clay, particularly if you have fashioned them with your own hands.
- Artemis of Ephesus
- Ba Den
- Black Madonna
- Lady of the Beasts
- Maries de la Mer
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.