BMCR 2005.05.48

Mother of the Gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary

, Mother of the Gods: from Cybele to the Virgin Mary. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xix, 186 pages. ISBN 9780801879852 $49.95.

This book, by a distinguished Swiss scholar of Greek and Roman religion, adds an additional voice to the growing chorus of interest in the Phrygian Mother goddess Cybele in the Greek and Roman world. The book is a translation by Lysa Hochroth of a work first published in French in 1996. Apart from a translator’s preface and a short preface written for this edition by the author, the English text is completely unaltered from the original French edition.

Despite the inclusive nature of the title, the book is not a comprehensive study of the cult of Cybele. Cybele was a protean figure, known variously as the Great Mother, the Mother goddess, the Mother of the gods, and addressed by a whole host of titles and epithets. She was originally at home in Phrygia, in pre-Hellenic Asia Minor, but is best known from her presence in Greek, and even more especially Roman society. Not surprisingly, such a wide ranging and influential cult has generated an enormous bibliography. Within this discourse, Borgeaud stakes out a rather idiosyncratic territory from the beginning. He omits all discussion of the deity’s Phrygian background and evidence for her cult in Phrygia. Also excluded are a general review of the shrines and sanctuaries of the goddess, discussion of epigraphical data related to her cult, and analysis of her visual images, iconography, and attributes. The author himself states quite forthrightly that he is “a historian of the imaginary” (p. xiii), whose goal is to deconstruct two pervasive and tenacious modern myths of the ancient Mother, namely that she is a latter day representative of the cult of a Great Goddess, believed by some to be the original deity of all mankind, and that the worship of the Christian Virgin Mary is a direct descendant of the Graeco-Roman Mother goddess cult. Borgeaud, correctly in my opinion, rejects both of these claims. Instead, he offers a free ranging discussion of selected episodes in the goddess’s “career” in Greek and Roman society, including the role of Meter in the Athenian Agora; the advent of the Magna Mater into Rome; the origin of Attis and the relationship of his cult to early Christianity. These events are known to us from highly variant, often conflicting narrative traditions, many of which lie at the intersection of history and myth. B’s goal is to unpack the inconsistencies of the literary sources that record these traditions and to offer his own readings.

A principal subject is the arrival of the cult of the Mother in the Greek world and the place of her cult in the Athenian Agora. Borgeaud reviews the evidence for the Metroon in Athens and the treatment of the Mother in Attic literature, especially the third chorus of Euripides’ Helen, in which the Mother is conflated with Demeter. The variable image of the Mother in Greek cult is a perplexing one: she was both local and foreign, well established and held at arm’s length, kindly and frightening. Borgeaud states these inconsistencies openly but does not really document them; the reader who wishes to follow the question in detail will have to turn elsewhere for a full review of the evidence, to Naumann’s 1983 study or to my own study, published in 1999.1 Borgeaud’s response to the inconsistencies of the Greek Meter is to postulate a dual identity for the goddess, both Greek and foreign, one that may not reflect historical reality but rather the desire, in Borgeaud’s words, to “play both sides of the field … escape the restrictions of … the Olympian family.” (p. 29). Although the deity had been at home in the Greek world since the seventh c. BCE, she later “reworks herself as a foreign deity”, one whose legend, according to Borgeaud, was developed in the Hellenistic period. In so doing, Borgeaud gives a rather human and self-conscious quality to the evidence, as if the goddess herself were deliberately orchestrating her image.

Borgeaud moves on to what is probably the best known and most controversial feature of the Cybele cult, the legend of Attis, the youthful eunuch and divine companion of the goddess, and the role of the self-castrating priests in her cult. Borgeaud’s point of departure is the development of the Attis legend and its relationship to the figure of the Gallos, the eunuch priest. He accepts the historical reality of the eunuch priest of the Mother in Anatolian cult and proposes Lydia, specifically Sardis, as the meeting point for the Anatolian and Greek tradition. He follows earlier scholars in interpreting Herodotus’s story of Croesus and Atys as a precursor of the Attis cult, using this interpretation to support the antiquity of Attis. Borgeaud then summarizes the literary traditions that describe the Galli, noting that the variant traditions of the god Attis and the circumstances of his castration develop as an explanation for the deviant behavior of the Galli. Borgeaud proposes that the story was informed by a long tradition of unusual, indeed scandalous behavior by the eunuch priesthood and its challenges to order and reproduction of the dominant political body.

Borgeaud turns next to the complex issue of the status of Cybele in Rome. The arrival of the goddess in Rome is a notoriously vexed question. The written sources, while numerous, were written many centuries after the actual event in 204 BCE and offer often conflicting testimonia; many sources were clearly influenced by a later political or social agenda. Borgeaud’s treatment simplifies these problems in a somewhat misleading way. He adopts one explanation, that the goddess was brought to Rome from Pessinous and that her Phrygian rites were transferred directly to Rome. The ancient sources, however, offer several alternative explanations of the event and Borgeaud does not really present a reasoned argument for preferring his interpretation. Here again the reader would do well to consult more detailed discussions of these events published elsewhere.2 Borgeaud also relates the cult of Cybele in Rome to the legends surrounding the goddess in Asia Minor and he connects the presence of her eunuch priests to the advent of the Galatians into Asia Minor in the third century BCE; he draws several parallels between the Galli, the goddess’s eunuch priests, and Celtic legend and religious practice. Moving from the discussion of the traditions of Cybele in Rome to the advent of the goddess into Athens, Borgeaud draws parallels between the resistance myths found in both traditions. He pulls this wide ranging discussion together with the observation that the legends of Cybele are “an indissoluble mixture of Roman, Greek, and Anatolian traditions.” (p. 89)

The last two chapters are directed towards the increasing extent to which the cults of both Attis and Cybele became entwined with Christianity and the development of early Christian thought. In his analysis of the Attis cult during the Empire, Borgeaud reviews the evidence for the cult of Attis from the second century CE and later, as it grew in importance and became increasingly separate from the cult of the Magna Mater. Not only did the Attis cult with its attendant eunuch priests provide a source of unease to Roman authorities, but it formed an increasing challenge to Christian discourse with its emphasis on sexual chastity. Borgeaud reviews some of the major elements of this discourse, including the heresy of Montanism, the writings of Tertullian and Minucius Felix, and the hymn of the Naassenes, recorded by Hippolytus. He also reviews the controversy surrounding the ritual of the taurobolium — did the blood bath in a pit as described by Prudentius, Peristephanon 10.1006-1050, really take place? — and concludes that the desire of Christian writers to co-opt a popular cult led to an exaggerated version of sacrifice, one that provided the opportunity to emphasize the more uplifting version of Christian martyr sacrifice. Similarly, the processions of the Mother of the gods and the miraculous conception of Attis, from the fruit of an almond tree, as recounted by Arnobius, Adversus Nationes 5.5-7, provide a foil to contrast a pagan cult to the miraculous conception of Christ.

This brief summary hints at the extent of B’s discussion, yet does not really convey the richness of his analysis. At every stage Borgeaud is alert to the inconsistencies in the varying transmissions of the major Cybele myths and their potential as a metaphor for talking about the inconsistencies in Greek and Roman life: the tensions inherent in dangerous sexuality or the tensions between urban and rural environments, the conflict within a community between indigenous religious practice and the threat posed by the arrival of a new deity. Borgeaud’s smooth and highly readable prose, evident in both the French original and in this excellent English translation, however, masks several difficulties. I have alluded to a principal one above, namely that he frequently adopts the reading of one ancient source to the exclusion of other, equally valid accounts without explaining why. For example, Borgeaud supports his choice of Pessinous as the original home of the Roman Magna Mater by citing Appian, who derives the name Pessinous from the Greek pesein, to fall, with reference to the tradition that the Romans were alerted to the Magna Mater cult by a shower of stones that fell from the sky. Yet this derivation occurs only in a handful of ancient sources, not necessarily the most reliable ones. Borgeaud also adopts one explanation for the Attis myth, that of Arnobius, who states that Attis’ finger survived his death and became an object of veneration; this too strikes me as a somewhat arbitrary choice, since Arnobius’ account too is only one explanation among many and not necessarily the most convincing one.

In other cases, Borgeaud’s arguments have a surprisingly archaic ring to them. For example, Borgeaud frequently alludes to the arrival of Cybele in both Greece and Rome as something foreign, intrusive into Greek and Roman life. Yet he ignores the evidence from archaeological data that the cult of the deity in both areas was not markedly different from normal Greek and Roman cult practice, and he writes as if unaware that the concept of “foreignness” is more likely to reflect internal disputes over self-definition rather than actual activities by foreigners. The work of scholars like Franois Hartog and Edith Hall on the Greek construction of a barbarian “Other” has left little mark here.3 He frequently uses the term “scandalous” to describe the voluntary self-castration of the Galli, without making it clear from whose perspective such actions were considered scandalous, the ancient Roman or the modern reader. Similarly, the concept of “Phrygian” is often used ambiguously. The word is a highly problematic one; in both Greek and more especially Roman society “Phrygian” designated both a region in Asia Minor and “Trojan.” Borgeaud is well aware of this, yet his frequent assertion that the foreign nature of the Cybele cult in Rome derives from its Phrygian origins obscures this inconsistency. For example, it is far from certain whether Martial’s use of the term “Phrygian” to describe the lavatio, the ritual during which the statue of the goddess was washed in the Almo River in Rome, refers to a rite imported literally from the interior of Asia Minor or to a traditional Roman rite ascribed to the Romans’ Trojan ancestry. Moreover, Borgeaud chooses to leave actual Phrygian material out of the discussion altogether, an approach which ignores the fact that the evidence from Asia Minor itself furnishes little support for the claim that the Phrygians actually practiced many of the rites ascribed to them by the Greeks and Romans. I found myself puzzled also by Borgeaud’s concluding chapter: he states in his preface that he wishes to disprove the assertion that the Phrygian Mother was the predecessor of the Christian Mary, yet he ends his work by asserting exactly that, recounting an anecdote of Zosimus that tells how Constantine imported a statue of the Mother of the gods from Kyzikos, one of her major cult centers, and had it adapted to a statue of the Virgin Mary.

In sum, the reader who is looking for a clear and thorough review of the evidence for the cult of Cybele the Great Mother in the Greek and Roman world will not find it here. On the other hand, the reader who wants a stimulating if subjective reading of the many myths about the Great Mother will find this book a provocative and enjoyable study.


1. F. Naumann, Die Ikonographie der Kybele in der phrygischen und der griechischen Kunst. Istanbuler Mitteilungen, Suppl. 28 (Tübingen 1983). L. E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: the Cult of Anatolian Cybele (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1999). I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Borgeaud for his appreciative comments on my own work.

2. E. S. Gruen, “The Advent of the Magna Mater,” Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy (Leiden and New York 1990) 5-33. Roller 1999 (supra n. 1) 263-285.

3. F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotos: the Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1988); E. Hall, Inventing the barbarian: Greek self-definition through tragedy (Oxford 1989).