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Ma: Mother Goddess of the Wilds

Gods come and go in Anatolia, brought by wars, trade and migration. But the Great Mother may have been there before any of the others, and she has outlasted most as well.

It’s counter-intuitive to say this about a part of the world so full of male gods and male leaders, but there’s a good argument that the Mother Goddess has been Anatolia’s most powerful deity all the way through. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that the status of women in Ancient Anatolia was more complicated and significant than we moderns might expect.

She went by many names, as all the best gods do. The oldest statues with her attributes – a plump woman enthroned with lions or birds – come from the ancient city site of Çatalhöyük, the famous (and occasionally controversial) “Mother Goddess”. They date from an incredible 7,000 years ago.

Seated woman of Catalhoyuk. By Nevit Dilmen (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

We have no way of knowing what her Neolithic worshippers might have called her, but by the time her cult reached Phrygia in the 8th Century BCE she was known as Matar Kubileya: the mother of the mountain. She was still depicted as a mature, well-upholstered mature woman with lions and birds. She may well have been the chief deity in the Phrygian pantheon, and could have been nearly as significant in Lydia.

She was associated by the indigenous Anatolian peoples with mountains, wilderness, wild beasts and the elemental power of nature. Greek settlers to the area found her status as both mother and warrior-queen uncomfortable (Athena was a warrior, for example, but not a mother). To me this makes perfect sense. She ruled over all the things outside of civilisation, and she dated from a time when there was far more wilderness than settled land. She ruled over the wild beyond that could destroy your crops or town. The birds and beasts of the wild were her children, and the locals knew how fiercely a lioness would protect her cubs.

There are several cult images of Kybele (as the Greeks came to call her) carved into mountains and rocks across modern Turkey. The largest of all is hewn into a gorge along the Scylax River (the modern Yeşilırmak), which flowed through the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Pontos. This canyon is home to one my main characters, Datames, who grew up in a fortress nearby - perhaps even the one that faces the goddess - and who has intense respect for the Great Mother despite his notional Zoroastrianism.

The enormous Ma cult statue at Incesu Canyon, Turkey (on the Scylax River). Hellenistic Period (perhaps 2nd C BCE)

In part that can be explained by the way the local Mother Goddess cult got tangled up in Persian belief. In Pontos Cybele went by the name Ma – which simply means “The Mother” – and had her roots in local Hittite beliefs. Long before the Persian Empire conquered what was to become Kappadokia Pontika, a cult centre was established at a place called Comana (also on the Scylax). I wrote about Comana a while back, and its organisation, political significance and interesting tradition of sacred prostitution. To the Persians who settled in Anatolia, Ma blended easily with Mah, the Zoroastrian divinity. Like Kybele, Mah is associated with animals and fertility, as well as the moon. According to Herodotus, the Persians beyond the Zagros mountains adopted Mah as their protector deity.

Under the Mithradatids Comana became the most important place in Pontos, outside of the royal capital at Amasya and later Sinope. If wealth, power and political clout are anything to go by, no other god truly replaced the grip Ma had on the local population beyond the Greek metropolises, despite the dedication of significant shrines to Anahita, Ahura Mazda and other Persian divinities.

I said at the start of this blog post that Ma is still with us. Over time the cult of Kybele syncretised with that of the Greek goddess Rhea, the wife of Kronos and “mother of the gods”. When the Romans eventually took over Asia Minor (I hope that isn’t a spoiler) this cult was exported West where she was known as Magna Mater. She was still depicted enthroned, often holding a lion cub.

In this case, Kybele's throne is being used as a chariot, drawn by two lions. 2nd CE, Roman, now in the Met Museum.

Early Christianity borrowed a lot of its imagery from Eastern Mystery religions. I didn’t have space to go into the well-known similarities between Mithra (as reinterpreted by Roman soldiers) and Christ. Early images of Mother Mary (as opposed to her virginal aspects) borrowed heavily from the iconography of Kybele, except the Mother of God had, well, God on her lap instead of a lion cub. It’s an image that persists to this day in Christian art.

Every time you see a Catholic or Orthodox image of Mary enthroned, you are looking at an image of maternal divinity that is thousands of years old. The Great Mother.

Rucellai Madonna, Duccio, commissioned 1285, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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