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Men Pharnakou, moon god fit for a king

Updated: May 10, 2019

The origins of a forgotten god and very not-forgotten flag.

We’re starting our series on the weird and wonderful world of Anatolian religion with Men Pharnakou, moon god and wearer of fancy hats, because his origins are also the origins of the Pontian royal standard, the Sun-and-Moon.

Men Pharnakou from Amisos, possibly a portrait of a Mithridatid king.

This is a cult statue of Men Pharnakou with the standard above his head. If it looks a bit like the modern Turkish flag turned on its end, that’s because it is. Or rather the Ottoman star and crescent is in fact the Sun-and-Moon turned on its side.

The star/ sun part of the standard is the oldest bit. It appears on its own in relation to the royal house of Pontos several times, maybe most famously on a beautifully preserved shield of King Pharnakes I, now in the Getty collection.

It’s unsurprising that a Persian dynasty who called most of their sons Mithradates (“Gift of Mithra” in Old Persian, rendered into Greek) would take as their personal sigil the traditional emblem of Mithra, the aspect of Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda that oversaw oaths, order and the light. Pretty much every king in that part of the world alluded to Mithra. What’s innovative is the use of the moon as well, and the man responsible for that seems to be Pharnakes I himself.

Coin of Pharnakes I of Pontos, Numismatic Group, Inc.

Pharnakes may not have been conventionally handsome, but he was a shrewd, ambitious and above all successful military campaigner. In his reign, Pontos finally conquered the city ports that gave the region its full name – Kappadokia Pontika, “Cappadocia on the Sea” – and became a major sea power.

Although today Pontos goes hand in hand with Greek identity and the ancient Hellenic cities of the Black Sea, its origins are a bit more complicated. Pontos started as a landlocked breakaway during the chaos of the Wars of the Successors. It always had a strong Greek element, especially in the few urban centres, but mostly it was inhabited by indigenous Anatolians such as the Paphlagonians and Cappadocians, and a long-established Persian aristocracy who’d survived the end of the Achaemenid Empire. Pharnakes’ own name is in fact Farnakah originally, derived from the Old Persian word for divine splendour, farnah. It was the name of Darius I’s uncle.

All of this is to say that Pharnakes may have ruled over more territory than any of his ancestors, but it was a bit of a hodge podge. He needed something that he could use to focus people’s attention, a shared feel-good project that everyone could relate to but which also projected his own farr-bespangled grandeur.

Enter Men Pharnakou, “Men of King Pharnakes”.

Men Pharnakou, Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara (QuartierLatin1968 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (])

Men was an extremely ancient Anatolian deity, so the King’s decision to adopt him would have been popular with his Cappadocian and Paphlagonian subjects. Strabo associated him with the Phrygians, a people just to the West of Cappadocia, but we know his cult travelled widely and was popular, with several cult centres throughout Anatolia. Men was an unusually male god of the moon who typically wore a Phrygian cap and tended to be accompanied by bulls or lions. He was often represented with the tips of a crescent moon on either shoulder, and as beardless youth with flowing hair.

If he seems a touch feminine, that may be because he had by Pharnakes’ time become entwined with two female divinities, Mah and Selene, one Persian and the other Greek. Gender was often an intriguingly fluid affair in the religious landscape of ancient Anatolia. Selene is often depicted with a crescent moon, while Mah was associated with bulls and other animals. Men was also associated with the extremely gender-busting Attis, consort-cum-son-cum-aspect of Kybele, Great Mother and Goddess of the Wilds and Beasts, more of whom in later posts.

Men, in other words, had something to offer everyone in Pharnakes’ expanding empire. He could found a major cult centre at Kabeira (probably modern Niksar, Tokat Province, Turkey), lavish it with fabulous art, architecture and gifts, throw annual festivals and sponsor competitions and prizegiving in the God’s name. The fact that that God’s name happened to include his own wouldn’t hurt. It was the glittering moon-themed cult centre Pontos’ people would have been crying out for, had they not already had one 30 miles up the road.

Yes, just over the hills near modern Tokat itself was Komana Pontika, cult centre of Ma, the local version of the almighty Mother Goddess of Anatolia, closely connected with Persian moon divinity Mah and general spiritual juggernaut. Komana’s origins were extremely ancient, dating to at least the Hittite period, long before even the Persian Empire rolled up. It was arguably Pontos’ chief religious centre, with well attended festivals and plenty of lavish donations. A long tradition of sacred prostitution didn’t hurt either.

Why would King Pharnakes decide that what his corner of the world needed was *another* moon deity? Especially when Mah/ Ma/ Selene were already so deeply entrenched in the various communities of Pontos?

The answer lies in precisely that entrenched, established presence. Pontos had an unusual constitutional structure, blending traditional Persian aristocratic estates, Greek quasi-autonomous cities and a few highly independent temple cities. The most powerful of these temples by far was Komana Pontika. The high priest of Komana was subordinate only to the King himself, and commanded a huge army of labourers, a garrison and a formidable tax base. The Persian Anatolians readily saw Mah, their tutelary divinity, as synonymous with the Komana cult.

Pharnakes was a conquering King who needed to consolidate his grip over coastal Greek cities like Sinope. Like his successors, he was a centraliser by necessity. Komana was of deep spiritual significance to the various peoples he ruled, but it was also a potential threat. The easiest way to minimise that threat was to ensure that he was the ultimate source of not just temporal but spiritual power in Pontos. He was already technically the chief priest of the state, probably in a continuation of similar Zoroastrian Achaemenid roles. Like so many of his fellow Eastern Anatolian monarchs he also decided to found his own cult.

Men Pharnakou was Pharnakes’ stab at creating a deity that was both recognisable to his subjects and entirely his own, with its own cult centre, priesthood and Crown-sponsored festivals. It was no accident that Men was a moon god, and a little gender ambiguous.

It’s impossible to tell how successful Pharnakes’ attempt to remake a god in his image really was. Certainly the cult never eclipsed Komana, or any of the other major religious sites in Pontos. But Kabeira itself continued to be honoured by the Mithradatids: we know the greatest of them, Mithradates VI, built a palace there. And Pharnakes I introduced the crescent moon to the sun of Mithra, creating a royal emblem for Pontos that endured for centuries, which travelled around the Black Sea with his descendants’ conquests and was adopted by the city of Byzantium. The Ottoman Empire in turn would revive it as a naval flag, and the modern Turkish Republic would keep it flying high into the 21st Century.

Not bad for a plucky little mountain kingdom. Not bad, Farnakah.

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1 Comment

Bonita Puercita
Bonita Puercita
Mar 30, 2023

This may be the best writing about ancient religion I've read, because it gets the bounce and fun of really old time religion. At some point people started taking religion dead seriously (I'm looking at you great monotheistic religions) , I think, which was the point it began to die.

In any case, thanks very much for the article. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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