History, without a relationship to our own lives, or a lesson to teach us about our own society and ourselves as human beings, would be worthless... nothing more than an idle amusement at best. The true value of history, therefore, lies in its relevance to our own situation, in our current time and place.
Unfortunately, history is all too often used as a mere propaganda device, and altered to serve the agenda of those who are writing it. In the case of pre-Christian religion, public understanding of our history has been severely compromised by hostile scholarship and misleading information. If we are ever to put an end to this dilemma, we must begin by obtaining an accurate and impartial account of our past.
Many of us have come to rely on the authors of various books or articles to do the necessary research, and when we find several references cited, we tend to accept the author's statements without question. Unfortunately, this can be a serious mistake. Although it may take a little extra time, it would be wise to investigate the reliability of the sources before we endorse an author's work.
Let's briefly examine the use of references by a contemporary author. On page 97 of her 2002 book "Attis, Between Myth and History", Maria Grazia Lancellotti cites the accounts of Polybius (XXI 6,7) and Livy (XXXVII 9,9) concerning the physical appearance of two Priests of Cybele, in the year 190 BCE.
This encounter occurred during a war between Rome and the Seleucid king Antiocus III (the Great). As a Roman force of about 6000 men, under the command of fleet admiral Gaius Livius Salinator began to lay seige to the city of Sestos, (in northwest Turkey)... and here I quote Polybius... "Two Galli, or Priests of Cybele, with images and pectorals" (jewelry depicting religious icons) "came out of the town, and besought them not to resort to extreme measures against the city."
That sounds fine, doesn't it ? The Priests were carrying some sort of images, and wearing distinctive jewelry. However, if anyone would care to check on Polybius, one of the first things we learn is that he was born in 203 BCE, in Greece. That would have made him 13 years old at the time of the incident he described. Clearly, he is not a primary source... indeed, where he may have obtained his information is completely unknown.
And what of the reference to Livy ? Allow me to quote... "As the troops were advancing up to the walls, first of all inspired Priests of Cybele, in their solemn dress, met them before the gate. These said that, by order of the mother of the gods, they, the immediate servants of the goddess, were come to pray the Roman commander to spare the walls and the city. None of them was injured; and, presently, the whole senate and the magistrates came out to surrender the place."
Well, that's certainly a much more detailed account of things... but again, if we check on Livy, we find that he was born in 59 BCE, fully 131 years after the incident was said to have occurred. His source, by his own admission, was Polybius... yet if we compare his account to that of Polybius, it is much more elaborate, even including the exact words spoken by the Priests. We can only guess how he managed to come by this far greater knowledge of events.
The incident in question is of no great historical significance. My point in presenting it is only to show that although modern historians often cite impressive-sounding sources, with just a little detective work you may find that they aren't nearly as impressive as they sound.
Another critical fact that may turn up when investigating sources is that many of them are not historians at all... for example Lucian (Greek; 125-180 CE) is frequently quoted as a serious reference, yet he was in fact a satirist. Catullus (Roman; 84-54 BCE) is also frequently cited, although he was a poet. An even less credible source is Juvenal (Roman; circa 100 BCE), who was both a satirist and a poet, with an extreme contempt for pagan religions... which of course virtually guaranteed that his work would be preserved by Christian scholars, when they deliberately destroyed the work of so many others.
Biases and ulterior motives may cause ancient sources to present information in a distorted and misleading way... and this can also be true of modern authors, who take statements out of context and quote only selected references which happen to support their own personal viewpoints. Therefore, some awareness of an authors political position and agenda is always advisable.
Frequently, bias may be detected not by what is said, but by what seems to be rather obviously omitted. For example, in Polybius's account of the Galli Priests, he makes no mention of the courage it must have taken to confront a massive enemy force as they were advancing... nor does he give them any credit for the fact that they probably saved the lives of thousands of innocent people.
When it seems that something is missing, it's a good indication that furthur research may be needed. In this case, by searching Polybius's histories, and examining all references to Cybele, we discover that he generally held a low opinion of the religion. Because of some isolated incidents he observed, he came to associate it with orgies and drunken revelry, and apparently believed that it was responsible for immoral behavior. This perhaps explains why his portrayal of the Priests is so brief and unsympathetic.
Another significant thing that we discover when doing a little research into the Histories of Polybius is that they were preserved exclusively in the libraries of Byzantium , and only became available to the public around 1400 CE. Naturally, since the libraries of Byzantium were controlled and operated by Christians, they had centuries to modify the documents in any way they may have wished. We can only speculate on what influence that may have had on any references to Cybele, as it's quite well-known that our religion was especially hated and persecuted by them.
I do not mean to disparage Polybius unfairly... he is generally regarded as a fairly objective and decent historian, where Roman history in a broad sense is involved... however, where the religion of Cybele is concerned, his use as a reference is clearly more problematic. As you become more familiar with those ancient historians whose works are frequently cited... Herodotus , Xenophon , Plutarch , and so forth... you will come to know their strengths and weaknesses, with respect to the particular topic being discussed.
In addition to checking references and investigating the credibility of various ancient authors, sometimes we can spot errors in a book or article simply by having a bit of experience with the subject and using a little common sense. Some of the typical problems that we may encounter include fundamental errors in a basic premise, or an inapproprate conclusion drawn from a faulty analysis of data.
The work of Lynn Roller is an excellent example. Her 1999 book "In Search of God the Mother" is based on the completely incorrect premise that Cybele is a Phrygian deity. Since that assertion plays such a key role in her portrayal of the history of Cybele, let's take a few minutes to discuss it.
Roller states (page 2) that the goddess who later became Cybele first appeared around 700 BCE in Phrygian texts, as "Matar" (Mother) or "Matar Kubileya" (Mother of the mountain). From there, she states that the religion spread to the west coast of Turkey, where the Greeks adopted it, and translated Kubileya to Kybebe. In addition, Roller claims (page 46) that an older goddess known as Kubaba is in fact completely unrelated to the Phrygian Matar/Greek Kybebe.
First, we should consider how these assertions fit in with the general history of the region. During the Hittite empire (circa 1800-1200 BCE) a Mother Goddess known as Hebat was quite popular. She had been adopted from the Hurrians , an older group who controlled southeastern Turkey and northern Syria... and Hebat in turn is believed to be descended from an even older Turkish deity known as Kubaba , who is traceble to 2500 BCE.
Clearly, Mother Goddess archetypes were present in the region long before the arrival of the Phrygians. Most experts argee that they have roots in Neolithic cultures, circa 7000 BCE. The question therefore is whether Cybele is directly descended from these ancient and indigenous Mother Goddess archetypes, or was merely some sort of later Phrygian creation. Once again, a little more general history may prove useful.
The Phrygians were a patriarchal warrior society, who worshipped a violent sky-god known as Sabazios. They entered central Turkey from the area of the Balkans, following the collapse of the Hittite empire around 1200 BCE. Accounts from Phrygian mythology of that period state that there was an intital conflict between the followers of Sabazios and an indigenous Mother Goddess. Some surviving period artwork actually depicts Sabazios on horseback, trampling a bull... an animal which was a common symbol of the Mother Goddess. Therefore, it seems obvious that the Phrygians were not followers of the Mother Goddess at the time they entered Turkey.
How then did the Phrygians come to adopt the Mother Goddess ? Once again, all we need to do is consult a history book. It is clearly no coincidence that Phrygian references to 'Matar' first appear around 700 BCE, for that was precisely the point in time when their empire was invaded and conquered by the powerful western Turkish state of Lydia , within whose pantheon the Mother Goddess played a very important role.
Obviously, none of the historical facts provide any support for the assertion that Cybele was a Phrygian creation. Indeed, Roller's only basis for her claim is her presumption that the Greek name 'Kybebe' derives from the word 'Kubileya', as found in the Phrygian reference 'Matar Kubileya'. Furthurmore, she foolishly assumes that if we find no Greek references to Kybebe prior to 700 BCE, then the deity must not have existed before that time.
Let's take the issue of Greek references first. As we know, the Trojan War (circa 1200 BCE) devastated the ancient world. Countless great cities were destroyed, along with their libraries. Very few scholars or literate people survived.
The next 4 centuries were known as the Greek Dark Ages. During this time, there was a complete cessation of Greek writing... and indeed, it marks their last use of the Mycenaean Linear B script. It would not be until about 800 BCE that the Greeks began to write again, using an entirely new system called the Greek alphabet.
Virtually every Greek record that we posses today was written after that point in time, using the new alphabet... and this clearly accounts for the lack of any earlier references to 'Kybebe' (or anything else).
Finally, there is the issue of whether the Greek name 'Kybebe' is a translation of 'Kubaba', or derives from the Phrygian word 'Kubileya'.
Noted scholar Mark Munn, on page 77 of his 2006 book "The Mother Of The Gods" , points out that the majority of references in the Phrygian language are only to 'Matar', with just two known usages of the additional term 'Kubileya'. Indeed, the term 'Kubileya' is merely an adjective, meaning 'of the mountain', which modifies the word 'Matar'... it is not a proper name at all. On the other hand, both 'Kubaba' and 'Kybebe' truly are proper names, and the similarity of their sound and spelling is really quite evident.
When all this is considered, it's hard to understand how Roller's contention, that Cybele is a Phrygian deity dating to 700 BCE, could possibly receive any academic acceptance... yet scholars and historians have quoted her, and many educational websites now cite it as fact. Indeed, Roller's faulty scholarship has so badly polluted the online academic resources that I was unable to find even one that did not define Cybele as a Phrygian deity.
As we have seen, the written word can certainly be problematic in many ways, however physical evidence is usually far less ambiguous. Although some sort of interpretation generally acompanies it, the reader may still view the evidence directly, and decide for themselves what it might mean. In the case of something like the Paleolithic Venus figurines, there is a great deal of latitude for interpretation... however, most of the artifacts from more recent times are much easier to understand.
Some of the more common types of physical evidence that we may encounter in investigations of early religion are tombs, grave goods, frescoes, figurines, temple ruins, and votive offerings. Naturally, each will require a certain amount of study and expertise to properly evaluate. For now, let's just select one particular type of physical evidence, and try to see how it can help us to attain a more accurate picture of spirituality in the ancient world.
When we examine biased accounts of pre-Christian Roman religion , they often tell us that the goddess Cybele was just one of many foreign imports, and of no great significance. It is frequently said that the rites of the religion were noisy, primative, unappealing, and not very popular. Sometimes the religion isn't even mentioned at all. Of course, considering that the Christians spent centuries doing their best to erase all favorable records of our existence, this portrayal of the situation should come as no surprise... yet one form of physical evidence tells a very different story.
Numismatics is a fascinating hobby. There, preserved on their coinage, we can still behold the faces of kings and emperors long gone, and other images of exotic places and things that stimulate our curiosity and make us yearn to know more. Pre-Christian coins often contained an image of a deity, and Roman coins were no exception. They were made in such large quantity that specimens of virtually every type can still be easily found.
Even a cursory study of Roman coins quickly reveals a large number of images of Cybele, which clearly demonstrate that she was a deity of some importance and popularity. She appears on official coinage of Emperors such as Nero, Hadrian, Autoninus Pius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Geta, and Caracalla, as well as on coins of Empresses such as Sabina, Faustina, Lucilla, and Julia Domna. In addition, she is found on coins of many lesser officals, special commemoratives of various Roman games and military victories, and on the coinage of almost every Roman province in the Near and Middle East.
Typical Roman coins with images of Cybele
An earlier Turkish coin which probably served as a model...
From Lydia, circa 150 BCE
Clearly, the topic of religion in the ancient world has been very poorly portrayed by most scholars. Even the secular contributions of the Priests and Priestesses have been consistently overlooked. For example, they were often the most literate members of a community. They maintained records not only of spiritual matters, but also of history, science, commerce, and law. They were the teachers of local children, the doctors who tended the sick and pioneered medical technology, and the astronomers who charted the movement of the planets and maintained the calendars. No community decision could be made without consulting them, and theirs was the last word in any social dispute... yet, that sort of thing is seldom mentioned in popular accounts of ancient religion.
Today, a new generation of scholars and historians are beginning to come forward... men and women who will not be influenced by the agenda of powerful religious authorities, nor be content to perpetuate their self-serving versions of events. Though it may take time, the impact of their work will be profound and far-reaching. Our task is to encourage this renaissance, and help to open the door to an ancient form of spirituality that offers mankind a path of true dignity and peace.