Kybele - The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

Also known as Kubaba, Kuba, Cybele.

Ancient Anatolians called Kybele the Mountain Mother; the Romans called her Magna Mater or Great Mother. She seems to have originated in what is now Turkey and then traveled to the Middle East. The Hittites called her Kubaba, which evolved into the Phrygian Kybele and eventually the Roman Cybele. Some associate Siduri, the sacred harlot-barmaid at the world’s end in the story of Gilgamesh, with Kybele. “Baba,” as in Baba Yaga or babushka, may also derive from Kubaba.

Kybele is usually translated as “Place of Caves” or “Cave Dweller.” Kybele and the Sibyls are both associated with caves and prophesy, and it’s believed that the original Sibyls were Kybele’s priestesses although eventually at least some became independent practitioners.

Legend has it that Kybele was an unwanted child, left exposed to die in the wilderness. Instead of consuming her, the leopards and lions who discovered her raised and nurtured her, a leopard serving as her wet-nurse. Living alone with animals in the woods, Kybele became a witch so powerful she evolved into an immortal goddess.

In her oldest manifestations, Kybele is a deity of healing, witchcraft, fertility, women, and children. Rites were held in forests and caves and included ritual possession, ecstatic dancing, intoxication, music, and sacred sex. She is closely identified with Dionysus and Hecate.

Before her arrival in Rome, Kybele was associated with women, slaves, and the poor, not with the elite, and already bore a somewhat dangerous reputation.

In Christa Wolf ’s novel Cassandra (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), when the Olympian gods fail them, royal Trojan women turn to the forbidden goddess, Kybele.

Kybele manifests in various ways: her typical human manifestation is as a mature, beautiful woman wearing a crown and carrying keys. She also frequently manifests in the form of rocks and as Earth herself. To enter a cave is to enter Kybele. Her most sacred manifestation, however, was as a meteorite.

In 204 BCE, on the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, the Romans fetched Kybele in the form of a meteor from her shrine at Pessinus, near modern Sivrihisar in central Turkey. Delphi had predicted that Rome would never defeat Hannibal of Carthage unless Kybele was brought to Rome. The Romans traced their descent from Trojan refugees and so basically the Oracle was instructing them to go fetch Mom to get them out of trouble. The prophecy proved correct: Kybele was brought to Rome in a triumphant procession and, in 202 BCE, Rome defeated Hannibal’s forces.

The black, fist-sized meteorite had been set on the face of a silver statue. The Romans built her a temple where St Peter’s Basilica now stands. It was the center of her veneration until the fourth century CE when the site was taken over by Christians.

In Rome, Kybele’s rites evolved: she became a feared, scandalous, notorious goddess. Secret rituals that had once occurred in hidden caves and forests now occurred in public streets during processionals attended by thousands.

Under Roman law, women could not be chief officiators of official state cults and so men assumed positions of authority in Kybele’s Roman cult. Kybele’s response to this led to further notoriety, scandal, and controversy.

Still strongly associated with illiterate women, in Rome Kybele was served by priestesses and transgendered clergy known as galli (literally “hens” or “roosters”). In order to become galli, self-castration was required; the galli dressed and lived as women. Many were not mere eunuchs. Kybele’s clergy were also skilled medical practitioners: through surgery, replica vaginas (caves) were crafted through which the galli could engage in sacred sex rituals.

Sacred Creatures: Bees, bulls, big cats especially leopards and lions, vultures

Attributes: Cymbals, a frame drum painted red or decorated with a rosette

Trees: Pine, Pomegranate

Flower: Rose

Element: Earth

Day: The Vernal Equinox

Kybele’s festivals became notorious: men suddenly seized by the spirit of the goddess would feel compelled to castrate themselves on the spot using potsherds (terracotta, Earth, so Kybele is the knife herself, metaphorically or literally depending how you understand the goddess). The detached organ was flung aside; the house that it hit was considered blessed—its owner was expected to purchase the ritual wardrobe for the new galla.

Kybele’s primary myths (or at least those that survive) also involve castration, death, and resurrection. It became a scandalous faith and was periodically suppressed for fear that it was damaging Rome’s “moral fiber.”

Kybele’s shrines were temples of healing; her priestesses were skilled healers and midwives. In her role as Rome’s Great Mother, Kybele is depicted seated upon her throne surrounded by lions. She sometimes holds a lion cub in her lap. She wears a crown in the form of crenellated towers or a city gate.

Her chariot is pulled by lions. She holds a pan of water in which to scry, representing her prophetic ability and her willingness to bestow this skill upon others. Kybele is credited with inventing drums, pipes, and percussion instruments. Her sacred animal, the leopard or panther, was closely identified with the Maenads, as were cymbals and tambourines.

Among other reasons, the early Church despised Kybele for the prominence of women and the presence of homosexuals, lesbians, and the transgendered in prominent cult positions. In Rome her cult had a higher percentage of men, intellectuals, and the elite as followers, but still remained extremely popular among the poorer classes and so was perceived as strong competition for Christianity and was thus particularly brutally suppressed.

St John Chrysostom (c.347—September 14, 407) led what would today be described as a “death squad” through Phrygia (located in the mountains of what is now Western Turkey) in 397 CE, targeting devotees of Kybele.

In 405, Serena, wife of the Christian general and acting regent Flavius Stilicho, personally entered the Roman shrine of Kybele, removed the precious necklace that hung around the neck of the votive image, and left wearing it around her own. The Emperor Justinian (c.483—565) particularly despised Kybele. He ordered her remaining temples torn down and the murder of her priestesses and galli. Her sacred texts were burned.

Although her veneration was widespread, none of Kybele’s temples remain. Various ruins may be visited in Turkey, in Sardis and Prienne. St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was built directly over her temple—parts are believed to survive under the foundations. Some believe that her meteorite is buried there as well.

Kybele retreated to her strongholds: devotion survived in mountain caves. Surviving galli are believed to have taken refuge in the Anatolian mountains. Kybele allegedly still haunts the mountains and forests of Anatolia accompanied by trains of wild torch-bearing attendants banging percussion instruments, blowing on flutes, and dancing.

See also Artemis, Dionysus, Hecate, Kamrusepas; BOOKS: Library of the Lost: Sibylline Books; DICTIONARY: Sibyl; HORNED ONE: Attis; PLACES: Forest.