This lucidly-written book replaces Maarten J. Vermaseren’s overview work ( Cybele and Attis: the Myth and the Cult) as the basic starting point for study of the cult of Cybele and Attis. Roller offers a new reading of the evidence with more careful attention to geography, chronology, and the sociology of knowledge than is found in previous summaries. Many summary treatments of the cult start with the introduction of the cult at Rome and move eastward to the cult’s homeland in Anatolia. Roller does well to begin in the Anatolian homeland and move the other direction and to read the evidence without filling in gaps by reference to the cult at Rome or with the bias of the Roman literary sources. Overall, the production of the book is beautiful and easy to use, with 78 well-chosen and clearly printed black and white figures.
While the title of the work may hold promise for feminists in search of a usable past, what Roller’s search turns up is the result more of solid clear-eyed scholarship than of wishful perception. Her incisive prolegomena treat these issues, and the work bears out her intention to offer a careful scholarly treatment, with a critical eye for the fallacious assumptions of several generations of scholarship infused with Bachofen’s notion of ‘universal primitive matriarchy’ under the mother goddess, whether viewed negatively or positively. She also treats the problem of the ‘orientalist’ bias in studies of the cult, and her own work maintains a high awareness of this bias in the ancient literary sources and iconography. The initial chapter, “Prologomenon to a Study of the Phrygian Mother Goddess,” provides a concise and insightful survey of these biases in a century of scholarship descended from Bachofen.
The chapters in Part 1, “The Mother Goddess in Anatolia,” offer an especially cautious and critical treatment of the prehistorical and archaeological evidence. Her treatment of the material from Atalhuyuk, for example, is especially thorough and balanced. While previous scholars have assumed that the rotund female figurines demonstrate the worship of a mother goddess, she allows for other possible interpretations and points to the prominent presence of animal imagery. Her fourth chapter on the Phrygian goddess, “The Cult of the Mother Goddess in Phrygia,” is the most thorough and lucid treatment on the topic available.
Those who have read Roller’s earlier articles will hardly be surprised that the chapters on the goddess in Greece (“Part 2. The Mother Goddess in Greece”) offer a careful analysis of the tension between the “outsider” status of the cult in Greece and its thorough integration as part of Greek life, as well as her critical treatment of the emergence of Attis as a divine figure. She also demonstrates the Greek origin of the familiar portrayals of Cybele and Attis: the Mother of the Gods seated between two lions and Attis with his Phrygian cap and characteristic trousers.
She brings the same careful analysis to her treatment of the myth and provides a thoroughgoing analysis of the layers and origins of the narratives in the literary sources. For many readers, an appendix or excursus with the full text of the sources would have been helpful.
Roller concludes with a fine treatment of the cult at Rome (“Part 4. The Roman Magna Mater”) in which she examines why the cult was paradoxically central to Roman life even though it was viewed as “foreign.” She also examines the influence of the Greek and Roman versions of the cult on its later forms in Anatolia.
The major weakness of this work is Roller’s inattention to goddesses similar to Cybele. In particular, her analysis of the galli would be have been helped by attention to evidence of them in the cult of Atargatis who was sometimes identified with Cybele in the Roman era. Roller would have done well to treat this evidence even if she rejects its relevance.
Roller’s focus goes a long way to clear away debris to allow us to perceive the cult in its Anatolian homeland and its development in interaction with Greece and then Rome. Her focus remains western, however. It remains for subsequent work to chart connections and influences from the perspective of the east. For example, her study of the iconography of Attis is a fine treatment from the Greek point of view. She shows how the portrayal fits the Greek stereotypeof the “effeminate easterner.” Viewed from the east, however, the Phrygian cap would appear not effeminate but as the tiara of a king.
To point to these limitations, however, in no way denies the monumental contribution Roller’s work makes. What she accomplishes is a critical view of a cult over the course of milennia in a treatment that is at once complex and readable. This is no small feat. Anyone venturing into the study of the cult of the Mother of the Gods in particular or the general study of the cults of the Greco-Roman world will do well to start with this work on the core reading list.