BMCR 2022.02.08

Der Kult der Meter/Kybele in Westanatolien und in der Ägäis

, Der Kult der Meter/Kybele in Westanatolien und in der Ägäis: Akten des internationalen Symposions an der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 24. Oktober 2017. Sonderschriften des Österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes in Wien, 60. Wien: Holzhausen Verlag, 2020. Pp. 223. ISBN 9783903207516 €90,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume publishes a series of papers delivered at a one-day symposium, held at the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Vienna in 2017. They present recent research on the Phrygian Mother goddess, known in the Greek and Roman worlds as Kybele. The essays cover a long span of time, from the Neolithic to the Roman era, and include a broad spectrum of issues connected with the cult of one of the most widely disseminated deities in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world.

Jan Bremmer leads off with an investigation of Kubaba and Kybele. The much disputed question of their relationship – were they the same figure, or different?—has engaged scholars of ancient Anatolia for decades. Bremmer reviews the evidence for Kubaba, tracing her path from eastern Anatolia in the Bronze and early Iron Ages to Lydian Sardis in the early fifth century BCE. Recently discovered votive offerings from the Greek city Amisos (Samsun) dedicated to Kybebos indicate that the Greeks also knew of her cult. The word Kybele, in contrast, was originally an epithet of the Phrygian deity Matar and was absorbed into Greek cult as a poetic name for Meter, a separate deity. The two names, Kybebe and Mother Kybele, were used interchangeably for the first time during the Hellenistic period, and the overlap continued into the Roman era. Bremmer supports the interpretation that the two were independent deities and concludes that both Greek Meter and Roman Magna Mater traced their origins to Phrygian Matar, not Kybebe.

Despite its title, the essay by Susanne Berndt-Ersöz is primarily concerned with evidence for the cult of Matar in Phrygia. Berndt-Ersöz attempts to make a case for the worship of Matar in Gordion during the Early Phrygian Period, i.e. before 800 BCE, but her argument is unconvincing. Since there are no images of the deity from this time nor any epigraphical testimonia for her name, Berndt-Ersöz connects other Early Phrygian material from Gordion with the Matar cult, in particular an unfinished orthostate relief found in a later context, the decorative elements in Megaron 2 (one of the buildings of the Early Phrygian Destruction level), and the occurrence of the name Nana on one of the wooden beams forming part of the roof of Tumulus MM (dated ca. 740 BCE). None of these arguments is sound: the orthostate relief is too incomplete to determine its subject, Megaron 2 is almost certainly not a temple, but a hall for banqueting,[1] and the name Nana from Tumulus MM is a personal name, similar to the other names incised onto the beam.[2] Berndt-Ersöz’s assertion that the cult of Kybele was present in sixth century BCE Lydia is also questionable: her discussion conflates Lydian Kybebe with the Phrygian deity when in fact they were separate figures (as the previous essay by Jan Bremmer makes clear), and the sixth century BCE Lydian altar with lions is now known to be unconnected with the cult of Kubaba/Kybebe.[3] So we are left with very little certainty about the early cult of Matar/Kybele in Phrygia since, as Berndt-Ersöz acknowledges, it is likely that the deity’s image changed throughout time and space.

Fahri Işik’s essay, the longest in the volume, emphasizes the Anatolian character of the deity. He argues that Phrygian Matar was a manifestation of a very old and long-lived cult of a Mother goddess, at home in mountains and rocks throughout Anatolia. He sees evidence for the cult of this deity in a wide range of settings, from Neolithic sites such as Gobekli Tepe and Çatal Höyük, through the Bronze Age and Hittite and Minoan imagery, the Iron Age and Archaic periods in Anatolia, and in Classical and Hellenistic material in western Anatolia. Işik makes connections between a figurine depicting an enthroned female flanked by lions from Çatal Höyük and the Phrygian rock relief Arslankaya, the cult niches of Meter in Ephesos, and a wide array of female deities from Lycia, Karia, and other regions of Anatolia. In doing so, Işik minimizes any distinctive Phrygian characteristics of the deity, claiming instead a general cult identity for the deity acknowledged by all Anatolian peoples. Much of Işik’s argument relies on outmoded scholarship: for example, he cites Mellaart’s work on Çatal Höyük extensively but makes little use of the more recent excavations by Ian Hodder that have largely disproven the universal Mother Goddess theory. I find most of his parallels too general to be convincing and his assertions of universal Anatolian cult mask real cultural differences within the region. As a result, the paper adds little to our understanding of Meter Kybele.

Frances Gallart Marqués discusses what is known about the cult of Meter at Sardis. Evidence from Sardis for the cult of Kybebe, including a Lydian sherd and the reference of Herodotos to a sanctuary of Kybebe at Sardis (Hdt.5.102), have long been known and often discussed, although it is unclear whether this material can be connected with Phrygian Matar. More secure evidence for the worship of Meter is found in a deposit of terracotta figurines from the Hellenistic period, likely to be votives from a private cult.[4] Along with a small number of stone objects, these objects tell us that Meter was present in the Classical and Hellenistic city, although when her cult became established in Lydia remains uncertain.

Tanja Scheer’s essay focuses on the literary evidence for a cult image of Meter. The earliest Greek reference to her cult image, that of Herodotos in his account of Anacharsis of Kyzikos emphasizes the deity’s Anatolian homeland. The image took a decidedly Greek cast with the creation of the cult statue of Meter in Athens, attributed to Phidias or his pupil Agorakritos. Scheer sees the Athenian Meter as a syncretistic figure, perhaps acting as a counterbalance to Athenian cults with paternal elements such as Apollo Patroos. During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, information from literary sources about cult images for Meter become more frequent. Apollonios of Rhodes gives a vivid picture of a cult image of Meter supposedly created by the Argonauts, and Pausanias furnishes information about a number of Meter images in Greek mainland shrines; both authors place the origins of the deity’s cult images in the imagined past of the heroic age. The comparatively late dates of most literary sources for Meter’s images suggest that the cult of Meter had become more prominent in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The emphasis on the antiquity of the Meter images may reflect the desire of the local people to enhance the prestige of an image by insisting on its great age.

Aygün Meriç contributes an informative essay on the results of the excavations at the sanctuary of Meter Gallesia near Metropolis, in Ionia. Cult artifacts have been uncovered primarily in two caves on the slope of the Uyuzdere mountain range, near ancient Gallesion. The larger cave was most frequently visited during the Hellenistic period, as attested by numerous terracotta figurines depicting the enthroned goddess with her lion and tympanum, the standard Greek iconography. A smaller cave nearby yielded evidence for activity during the first and second centuries CE. There were no figurines of the goddess, but abundant finds of lamps and dishes for food and drink suggest that ritual meals took place in the small cave. The author connects these rituals with the cult of Attis, despite the lack of evidence for the worship of Meter’s eunuch companion, apart from one figurine whose identification as Attis is doubtful. Apart from this questionable assertion, the essay is a clear and thorough summary of the evidence for the cult of Meter Gallesia, helping to illuminate the distinctive features of the Meter cult in western Anatolia.

Evgenia Vikela addresses the complex topic of the spread of the cult of Phrygian Matar, here called Kybele, to the Greek world, especially the eastern Aegean islands and Athens and Sparta. Vikela places the origins of the deity directly in Phrygia, rejecting any connection with a hypothetical prehistoric Mother goddess or the Hittite deity Kubaba. She recognizes the syncretism with Rhea and Demeter, yet affirms the independent character of Kybele. Several of the earliest Greek sanctuaries took the form of rock-cut niches, many with relief images of the deity, step monuments (on Samos) and a rock-cut throne (Chios), cult fixtures that replicate the cult settings found in the deity’s Phrygian homeland. Also during the sixth century the earliest statuettes and naiskoi of the enthroned goddess holding a lion and/or tympanum appear, attested in Greek cities of Ionia and on Thasos, Chios, and the Athenian Acropolis; these are the forerunners of the influential image by Agorakritos. In contrast to the interpretations of Laura Rohaut (see below), Vikela interprets naiskoi containing a female figure as Meter votives, even when are dedicated to divinities other than Meter. Much of Vikela’s essay reviews material that has been discussed elsewhere, but her clear synthesis highlights the key stages of the process of the deity’s reception in Greece, showing well what aspects of the Mother’s Phrygian character were retained by her Greek adherents and how the deity was reshaped to form a distinctively Greek identity.

Antoine Hermary’s essay broadens the focus from Meter to Artemis in an essay on the iconography of Artemis in the Greek world during the Archaic and Classical periods. As he notes, much of the imagery traditionally associated with Meter was also closely associated with Artemis, especially the lion. Artemis is frequently shown holding a lion or with two lions on either side, emphasizing her role as Potnia Theron, the Mistress of Wild Animals. He draws attention to the fact that the schema of a seated goddess with a lion on her lap was also used to depict Aphrodite at Miletos. The presence of wild animals emphasizes a deity’s position of power and control, a role often assumed by Artemis in East Greece and on the Greek mainland. The essay offers a valuable assessment of the fluidity of divine imagery, as well as a timely reminder that not all images of goddesses with wild animals need represent Meter Kybele.

Laura Rohaut pursues this topic in her essay on Archaic naiskoi, small stone votives depicting a female figure, sometimes standing and sometimes seated, as if in the doorway beneath the pediment of an architectural structure. These votive images are usually identified as depictions of Meter/Kybele within a temple, on analogy with Phrygian images depicting the deity within the doorway of a Phrygian building. Rohaut examines several naiskoi from Miletos, Phokaia, and Massalia, a Phokaian colony, and shows convincingly that many of these naiskoi can be connected with the cult of Artemis and/or the Nymphs, through their find spot in a sanctuary of Artemis or through a dedicatory inscription. This essay too urges caution about interpreting every image of a female deity in a naiskos as Kybele.

Michèle Meijer’s essay draws us eastward from Greece and Anatolia to Mesopotamia. Meijer explores the parallels between a class of ambiguously gendered priests of the Mesopotamian deity Iştar known as gala and the Galloi, the eunuch attendants of Meter or the Roman Magna Mater, who attracted such notorious attention for their non-binary gender status. While some have tried to see a direct line of transmission from Sumerian and Akkadian myth and symbol to the Mother’s eunuch priests, Meijer argues instead that the connection lies in ritual transmitted from Mesopotamian cult practice to the Greek world during the Hellenistic period. Despite the challenging and even threatening nature of the Mother’s eunuch priests, their presence helped mediate human communication with a female deity who could be both benevolent and destructive.

It is difficult to summarize the contents of this volume, since the territory covered is so broad and the approaches of the individual contributors are often contradictory. Some see Hittite Kubaba as the direct ancestor of Phrygian Matar, while others deny a strong connection between the two. Işik sees a continuous line of development from the Neolithic period, while others stress the regional particularisms that gave the deity distinctive characteristics in different settings and different time periods. If anything, the lack of a common voice shows how limited our understanding of this protean deity is, and how much we have yet to learn.

Authors and titles

Michael Kerschner, “Editor’s Introduction”.
Jan N. Bremmer,” Kubaba, Kybele and Mater Magna: The Long March of Two Anatolian Goddesses to Rome”.
Susanne Berndt, “Phrygian Matar and Greek Kybele. Encounters and Transmissions”.
Fahri Işık, “Der Fels als gemeinsames Haus der altanatolischen Muttergottheiten: die Bergmutter”.
Frances Gallart Marqués, “From Kuvava to Meter: Material Evidence of Religious Practice at Sardis”.
Tanja S. Scheer, “Kultbilder für Meter im literarischen Diskurs der Griechen”.
Aygün Ekin Meriç, “The Cult Cave of the Mother Goddess near Metropolis in Ionia”.
Evgenia Vikela, “Die Ausbreitung des Kults der phrygischen Göttin im archaischen und klassischen Griechenland. Synkretismus und Selbstständigkeit”.
Antoine Hermary, “Les lions, entre Artémis et Cybèle”.
Laura Rohaut, Les naïskoi archaïques avec femme assise: de Cybèle à Artémis?”.
Michèle L. Meijer, “From k u r ĝ a r r a to Kouretes, from gala to gallos. Cultic Transmissions from Mesopotamia to Greece?”.


[1] Roller, L. E. The Incised Drawings from Early Phrygian Gordion. Gordion Special Studies IV, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2009, 5-6.

[2] Liebhart, R, and C. Brixhe, “The recently discovered Inscriptions from Tumulus MM at Gordion: a preliminary report,” Kadmos 48 (2009) 146-7.

[3] Cahill, N. D., J. Harl, B. Önay, and E. Dokumacι. “Depletion Gilding of Lydian Electrum Coins and the Sources of Lydian Gold”. In White Gold. Studies in Early Electrum Coinage, edited by P. Van Alfen and U. Wartenberg, 291-336. New York: The American Numismatic Society, and Jerusalem and The Israel Museum 2020.

[4] Gallart Marqués discusses the Sardis Meter figurines in greater detail in F. Gallart Marqués, “A Clay Kybele in the City Center”. In Spear-won Land. Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea, edited by A. M. Berlin and P. J. Kosmin, 120-31. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press 2019.