Matar Kubileya: the Mountain Mother

Ancient Phrygian relief of the Mother Goddess, from Ankara, ca. 700 B.C

Ancient Phrygian relief of the Mother Goddess, from Ankara, ca. 700 B.C

Matar Kubileya was the Mother Goddess extensively worshipped and adored in ancient Phrygia, in west-central Anatolia. The location of Phrygia was in modern-day Turkey around the Sakarya River. The word Matar means ‘mother’ in the ancient Phrygian language. And Kubileya is an epithet (descriptive term) which means ‘of the mountain.’  She was most often referred to as simply Matar. She was the most important divinity in the ancient Phrygian religion. She represented hunting, war and prosperity and was symbolised by the lion and hawk that accompanied her. She might have also been the state deity of Phrygia, as her lion was also a symbol of the Phrygian royalty. She was associated with mountains and her altars and temples have been mostly found either just outside the city walls or far away from human habitation, in mountains and forested places.

Sometimes Matar Kubileya were confused by later historians with another goddess very prominently worshipped in the early-Hittite city of Karkemish or Karkamis on the river Euphrates. Her name was Kubaba. In spite of similar names, they are separate goddesses with different set of attributes. Though they might have been also considered as two aspects of the same divinity.

Remains of an ancient monument of the Matar in Yazilikaya, Turkey

Remains of an ancient monument of the Matar in Yazilikaya, Turkey

The Phrygian Matar was also associated with hunting. She was commonly accompanied by a bird of prey, a raptor. The lion too was possibly associated with the hunt. And these two animals also symbolised her ferocity and power.

The worship of Matar Kubileya spread to Greece around 800 B.C. In Greece, she became known as Meter Kybele (pronounced as mitir kibele). The religion of the Meter spread quickly and in time she was absorbed in the pre-existing Greek pantheon. She was often considered another form of the Greek mother goddesses Rhea and Demeter, and called Mother of the Gods. The fourteenth Homeric Hymn reads –

‘Sing to me, clear-toned Muse, daughter of great Zeus, of the Mother of all gods and of all human beings; she takes pleasure in the resounding of castanets and tympana and the roar of flutes, the cry of wolves and bright-eyed lions, the echoing mountains and the wooded glens. And hail to you too, and all the goddesses who join in song.’[1]

Kybele.1But in spite of this conflation, in her Kybele form, she retained unique characteristics that distinguished her from other Greek goddesses. Her worship often involved rituals and rites that were very different from the worship rites of the pre-existing Greek goddesses. Most prominent among them were the loud music and unrestrained dancing that accompanied her worship. The collective dancing and raucous music was said to help the devotees to reach the highest peak of spiritual experience and connect to the Mother in their ecstasy. Much of the Greek Meter’s religion was also a mystery cult as it was only revealed to the initiated ones and were not openly discussed or recorded. At this time the tambourine became an important symbol of the Mother. In Greece, she became revered and worshipped ‘as the omnipotent goddess, progenitor of all divine and human life.’[2] The lion also became a more prolific presence in her iconography possibly symbolising both her general power and her untamed nature.[3] Her image gradually became more Greek from Phrygian. In the following centuries, Meter Kybele became one of the most widely worshipped divinities in Greece though ambivalence remained within the population about this goddess whose ways often seemed alien and strange, yet who connected powerfully with her followers through personal spiritual experiences. The worship of the Meter brought a very new dimension into the Greek religious experience.

In 204 B.C. Matar Kubileya was brought to Rome from Anatolia and established there as a state deity. In spite of her apparent alien characteristics from that of her Roman counterparts, her worship and reverence spread among the Romans extensively. In time she was considered the goddess who protected and saved Rome from alien invasion. Her temple was built in the most prominent place in the city and she was transformed to city goddess from the original Phrygian Mother, whose monuments were chiefly found in mountains and wildernesses. In Rome, the Matar came to be known as Cybele or simply the Magna Mater (Great Mother). Her worship and religion enjoyed considerable prominence but yet again evoked fear, awe and even revulsion among the Roman populace. Literature and history of the time shows this ambivalence in interesting ways. The most moving among them is this excerpt from a hymn by the Roman poet Catallus –

Dea magna, dea Cybebe, dea domina Dindymi

procul a mea tuus sit furor omnis, era, domo:

alios age insitatos, alios age rabidos.

‘Great Goddess, goddess Cybele, goddess and mistress of Dindymus, may all your insanity, Lady, be far from my home. Drive others to frenzy, drive others mad.’ – Catallus 63: 91-93

Roman Magna Mater Cybele from 50 AD

Roman Magna Mater Cybele from 50 AD

I will write more about the Greek and Roman forms of the Matar in later posts. Here I end by noting that the Matar was one of the most important goddesses of ancient Near East and by far the only one who maintained her influence for so long and spread into Europe while still maintaining much her Anatolian characteristics in addition to the one acquired in the new lands. She was powerful. She was intensely feared and loved at the same time. She inspired awe, fear and often ambivalence in the hearts of her devotees. But she was still loved and considered the Mother of all, including gods and humans.

[1] Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1st edition, 1999) 122

[2] Same as above

[3] Same as above.