BMCR 2020.08.03

Étrangère et ancestrale: la mère des dieux dans le monde romain

, Étrangère et ancestrale: la mère des dieux dans le monde romain. Les conférences de l'École pratique des hautes études, 12. Paris: Les Éditions de Cerf, 2019. 213 p.. ISBN 9782204135726 €16,00 (pb).

The Mother of the Gods was brought from Pessinous to Rome in 204 BCE, at the end of the Second Punic war, as a result of many signs and prophecies and after consultation of the Sibylline books. Welcomed through Ostia, the sacred stone representing the deity was first sheltered in the Temple of Victory before the goddess received her own sanctuary on the Palatine hill.  Even though, normally, the foreign deities integrated into the Roman pantheon received a place of worship outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city, Mater Magna was given a temple at the heart of the city. The goddess’s role in the Trojan legend helps to explain this choice, since she assists Aeneas, the forefather of Romulus, in his flight from Troy and therefore was welcomed as an ancestral deity. On the other hand, the literary sources from the republican and, in particular, the imperial period depict her rituals and her servants, the Galli, as rather strange, even repulsive, and un-Roman figures. Adopting in its title the expression coined by Philippe Borgeaud “étrangère et ancestrale”,[1] the book is built on this tension between the native and the foreign traits in Mater Magna’s worship in Rome and the cities in the western provinces of the empire. This book is part of the series “Les Conférences de l’École pratique des hautes études” which aims to reach a large audience of experts and non-experts alike. Since the major studies of Philippe Borgeaud and Lynn Roller[2] on the Mother of the Gods have been published, the book proposes to contribute new evidence and new theoretical tools in the area of Metroac studies.

Chapter 1 (‘Les Galles, “ni hommes, ni femmes”, “troisième genre” au service de la Mère des dieux’) examines the figure of the Gallus, who in the throes of religious mania performs the violent act of self-castration and becomes “neither man, nor woman” (Ovid, Ibis, 455), a “third gender” in the service of the goddess. Since antiquity, the fascination with the eunuch servants of Mater Magna has been accompanied by prejudice and repulsion. The name itself is an object of numerous interpretations. Van Haeperen undertakes an overview of the sources and a systematization of the methodological approaches in the research on the Galli. The author notes that none of the available literary and epigraphic sources originate from the Galli themselves and, therefore, they all convey biased viewpoints. Remarkably, the only incontestable epigraphic mentions of the Galli in connection with the cult of Mater Magna come from the excavations of the temple of the goddess and Isis in Mainz and, more precisely, the curse tablets found there, dated at end of first or beginning of second century, in which the goddess is invoked so that the cursed person is afflicted like the Galli. Van Haeperen cautions that many modern studies do not accord sufficient attention to a diachronic treatment of the sources, which span a thousand years. One of the most interesting parts of the chapter, and, in my view, of the book, is the discussion of the status and functions of the Galli and the question whether or not we can qualify them as priests of Mater Magna. Through a nuanced and meticulous analysis of the literary, epigraphic, and iconographic evidence, Van Haeperen concludes that the social position of the Galli varies in different contexts, and she argues convincingly against the qualification of the Galli by many modern authors as priests of the Mother goddess. Van Haeperen defines them as religious agents with a specific, technical role in the framework of the worship of the Mother. In Rome the Galli, even though tolerated, do not seem to be part of the official cult organization, which is in striking contrast with their official status in certain cities in Asia Minor, an important point that permits the detachment of the priesthood of Mater Magna from the ritual of self-castration. The only function the Galli have in public cult in Rome is that of “carriers” of the statue of the goddess during the ritual lavatio, on March 27, and during the Megalesia, on April 4. The public cult of Mater Magna, contends Van Haeperen, is not in the hands of eunuchs but in the hands of a Phrygian priest and a Phrygian priestess, joined, from the time of the emperor Claudius, by an Archigallus who was not a eunuch and who was not “the leader of the Galli”, as other erroneous shortcut interpretations have suggested. The problems, explored in the chapter, include the practice of self-castration, the myth of Attis, possession by divine madness, the types of Galli, their social and legal status within the Roman society, and their paradoxical role of reinforcing, through contrast, the Roman ideal of masculine identity.

Chapter 2 (‘Exotisme phrygien et tradition romaine: identitiés, fonctions et culte de Mater Magna’) deals with identities and roles of Mater Magna and revolves around the question in what way the goddess was perceived simultaneously as a stranger and as ancestral by the Romans. Van Haeperen opens the discussion with an analysis of Ovid’s passage in the Fasti (4, 181-372) dedicated to the Mother of the Gods, her names and epithets, aspects of her rituals, her insignia, servants, the route of her arrival to Ostia, and the miracle of the matron Claudia Quinta. Ovid points to Mount Ida in the Troad as the place of the goddess’s origin, but other Roman authors locate her in Pessinous and the Phrygian highlands. Is Mater Magna the deity of the Trojan Ida, who presented the pine trees for Aeneas’s ships and is therefore received as an ancestral deity? Is she originally the Greek Rhea, associated with the Cretan Mount Ida? Is she a foreign deity, the Phrygian Mother, brought from Pessinous through the intermediary of king Attalus I? Van Haeperen notes that the title Mater deum Idaea “se prête à des jeux d’équivalences” because it can refer to Rhea and the Cretan Ida as well as to the Phrygian Mother goddess and implies ambivalence of the origins attributed to the goddess by the Romans (p. 66-68). I would propose to go a step further and suggest that the Romans, rather effortlessly, conceptualized the goddess as having simultaneously multiple origins and manifestations. Another very interesting discussion in this chapter concerns the supposedly Phrygian character of the celebrations of the goddess in March and the supposedly Roman character of the April festival (the Megalesia), an interpretation largely based on the testimony of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2, 19, 3-5). Van Haeperen persuasively challenges and deconstructs this imprecise and overly neat division.

Chapter 3 (‘Mystères et tauroboles de la Mère des dieux: mythes modernes et représentations antiques’) proceeds to examine the “mystery rites” associated with the worship of the goddess. Van Haeperen is characteristically restrained and careful in analyzing the evidence, highlighting for example the unreliability of the polemical Christian sources and the notion of a presumed “blood baptism” as part of Metroac rituals. The earliest reference to mystery rites in the worship of the Mother in the Roman world appears in Atys of Catullus (Catullus 63) who associates the tympanum with Cybele’s initia. Van Haeperen analyzes terms appearing in literary and epigraphic sources as well as iconographical elements, such as the so-called cista mystica, possibly referring to initiation rites. The entire chapter is built on suggestive questions, conveying the paucity and obscurity of the available evidence. Van Haeperen rejects interpretations of the self-castration of the Galli as part of initiation rituals. She cautiously proposes the possibility that a part of the taurobolium, a sacrificial ceremony of peculiar character, which is assumed to have been added to the cult of Mater Magna in the second century, was perhaps connected with the myth of Attis and might have included secret initiation rites.

Chapter 4 (‘Honorer Mater Magna dans le port de Rome: lieux de cultes, pratiques et agents’), the final chapter, is a case study of the worship of Mater Magna in Ostia, the harbor city of Rome, anchoring the narrative in rich epigraphic and archaeological evidence. In Ostia, the Mother Goddess had several temples, the most famous of which was situated in a large triangular area called Campus of Mater Magna, which included also a small shrine to Attis, a temple of Bellona, and the seat of the association of the hastiferi. The Attideum might have been the location of secret initiation rites. Van Haeperen remarks that the architecture of the sanctuary is clearly Roman, even if some of the decoration has exotic flair, hinting at “une altérité construite”, an intentional otherness. The epigraphic evidence provides valuable insights into the structure and sociology of the associations connected with the cult of Mater Magna, most notably the dendrophori and cannophori, as well as regarding the taurobolia and criobolia performed in the sanctuary.

The study ends with ‘Conclusions’ and ‘Bibliography’.

This book does not intimidate the reader with too many details, but at the same time reveals an extraordinary erudition and expertise, draws on broad and varied documentary material, challenges long-standing interpretations, models innovative methodological approaches, outlines the current state of the Metroac studies in the Roman world, and represents an indispensable text for future scholarship in this domain.


[1] Borgeaud, Philippe, La Mère des dieux. De Cybèle à la Vierge Marie, Paris, Seuil, 1996, p. 91.

[2] Roller, Lynn, In Search of God the Mother. The Cult of Anatolian Cybele, Berkeley; Los Angeles; London, University of California Press, 1999.