Another great ‘oriental’ influence upon the development of Roman state religion (apart from the Etruscan contribution) during the 1st millennium BCE was the ‘importation’ of the cultic oracular ‘Sybilline Books’ which were consulted in order to assist the state with important decisions. The acquisition of these works was originally ascribed to the legendary (Etruscan) last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, some time in the 6thC BCE, and after the development of the Republic they were kept in the possession of the Senate, and were used to assist decisions and determine possible outcomes. The collection was undoubtedly curated, researched and added to with reference to the various important Apollonian oracles across the eastern mediterranean region, including those at Cumae, Dodona, Delphi, and the Anatolian sites near to the supposed site of Troy* on the Hellespont, from which the original books were supposed to have originated. Although now lost (and at various times in their history, destroyed and recovered) we know that these books contained details of prophetic visions and utterances originating in the cultic goddess-oracles of the archaic world whose female seers were known as the Sybils.
The originating Sybil was supposed, as mentioned, to have been the Hellespontine Sybil who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Gergis in the NW Anatolian *Troad region, and were supposedly received upon Mount Ida nearby. From here, the works were copied and passed to other sibylline oracles, first Erythraea and then eventually to the Greek colony at Cumae, near Naples and from here, apparently to Rome at the advent of the founding of the Republic. The Cumaean Sibyl was an important character in Virgil’s Aeneiad, establishing an oriental Trojan provenance for the Romans’ ancestors, allowing them to incorporate the trappings of Greek civilisation and religion. In the story, she guides the Trojan Aeneas to Hades to meet with his father who blesses his future endeavours as founder of the Roman peoples. The Sibylline Books were therefore possibly a bolster to Roman pseudo-history, providing a religio-political bridge to the intellectual power and influence of the Greek near east. The Etruscan religious books were probably of a more nativist slant, and therefore less capable of such a trans-national religious vision fitting Rome’s future ambitions…
The books were consulted in times of great need, and from deductions made from these ritual interpretative readings, further developments to Rome’s increasingly complicated religious scene often resulted. Of particular interest was the suggestion during the Second Punic wars (205-204BCE) that the Roman state adopt the worship of the Greco-Phrygian goddess Cybele (Kubilya) from the ancient mid-Anatolian highland town of Pessinus (an area settled by Gaulish tribes in the 3rdC BCE) where she had a principle cult-centre, possibly since the 2nd millenium BCE. A small black stone idol (possibly the remains of a meteorite) was removed and taken to Rome where it was introduced as the goddess with much ceremony, and – bizarrely – it appears that the stone was displayed in a cavity in her new statue where the face should have been!… Cybele was linked to the Troad ‘Mount Ida’ by the Roman epithet Magna Mater Idaea, linking to the old Greek myths of the hiding of infant Zeus from Cronus in a mountain cave, either by Gaia or Rhea (both aspects of the ancient European female divine force), although the ‘mute-faced’ Roman depiction evokes an apparent reference to the mute Mater Larum. The names ‘Sybil’ and ‘Cybele’ also share a distinct similarity, and were used interchangeably, identifying chthonic priestesses with the great goddess…
The 1stC BCE Roman Epicurean poet-philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus described a procession of the goddess and her priesthood in book 2 of his De rerum natura in which he refers to the ‘silent blessing’ of the goddess as well as certain ceremonials related to it and the Greek myth of the hiding of the god-child Zeus. In this he makes a profound statement regarding the place of Magna Mater in pagan religion (translation John Selby Watson, 1890):
The old and learned poets of the Greeks sung that she, in
her seat on her chariot, drives two lions yoked together ; sig-
nifying that the vast earth hangs in the open space of the air,
and that one earth cannot stand upon another earth. They
added the lions, because any offspring, however wild, ought to
be softened, when influenced by the good offices of parents.
And they surrounded the top of her head with a mural crown,
because the earth, fortified in lofty places, sustains cities ; dis-
tinguished with which decoration the image of the divine
mother is borne, spreading terror, through the wide world.
Her various nations, according to the ancient practice of their
worship, call the Idaean mother, and assign her bands of
Phrygians as attendants, because they say that from those
parts corn first began to be produced, and thence was diffused
over the globe of the earth. They assign to her also the
Galli ; because they wish to intimate that those, who have
violated the sacred-respect due to their mother, and have been
found ungrateful to their fathers, are to be thought unworthy
to bring living offspring into the realms of light. Distended
drums, and hollow cymbals, resound in their hands around the
goddess ; and their horns threaten with a hoarse noise, while
the hollow pipe excites their minds with Phrygian notes.
And they carry weapons outstretched before them, as signs
of violent rage, which may alarm with terror the undutiful
minds and impious hearts of the crowd, struck with the power
of the goddess.
As soon, therefore, as, riding through great cities, she,
being dumb, bestows a silent blessing on mortals, they strew
the whole course of the road with brass and silver, enriching
her with munificent contributions ; while they diffuse a shower
of roses, overshadowing the mother and her troop of attend-
ants. Here the armed band, whom the Greeks call by the
name of Phrygian Curetes, dance round vigorously with ropes,
and leap about to their tune, streaming with blood. Shaking
the terrible crests on their heads as they nod, they represent
the Dictaean Curetes, who are formerly said, in Crete, to have
concealed that famous infant-cry of Jupiter, when the armed
youths, in a swift dance around the child, struck, in tune,
their brazen shields with their brazen spears, lest Saturn,
having got possession of him, should devour him, and cause
an eternal wound in the heart of his mother. Either for this
reason, therefore, armed men accompany the great mother ;
or else because the priests thus signify that the goddess ad-
monishes men to be willing to defend the land of their country
with arms and valour, and to prepare themselves to be a pro-
tection and honour to their parents.
These parents, though celebrated as being fitly and excel-
lently contrived, are yet far removed from sound reason. For
the whole race of the gods must necessarily, of itself, enjoy
its immortal existence in the most profound tranquillity, far
removed and separated from our affairs; since, being free from
all pain, exempt from all dangers, powerful itself in its own
resources, and wanting nothing of us, it is neither propitiated
by services from the good, nor affected with anger against
The earth, indeed, is at all times void of sense, but, because
it contains the primary elements of many things, it brings
forth many productions, in many ways, into the light of the
sun. If any one, then, shall resolve to call the sea Neptune,
and corn Ceres, and chooses rather to abuse the name of Bac-
chus, than to utter the proper appellation of wine ; let us
concede that such a one may pronounce the orb of the earth
to be the mother of the gods, provided that it still be allowed
to remain its real self…
The ‘silent’ aspect of Cybele’s public face may well have been because the sibylline priestesses ‘spoke’ with the voice of Apollo. The divine music of the Kuretes was supposed to be an ‘analogy’ to the voice of the crying god Zeus/Jupiter, masking its sound from Cronus/Saturn in the ancient creation myths. Ovid’s description of Jupiter cutting out the tongue of the Mater Larum evokes this too… a curious syncresis of ideas and traditions.
The introduction of the cult of Magna Mater was hardly a novelty to the wider Roman and Greek world, the Greeks having celebrated Phrygian Cybele for a number of centuries before her official adoption in Rome. In fact, the Phrygians were not even the originators of this particular Aegaean goddess-hypostasis, as the cult of Rhea at Mount Ida on Crete undoubtedly had origins back in the Minoan era. Furthermore, the important temple complex and mystery cult on the Thracian island of Samothrace in the northern Aegaean carried on its own veneration of a similar goddess with similar iconography and mythology, but known originally as Axiérosand apparently associated with a male consort and a pair of divine sons. It absorbed aspects of the worship of Demeter and Dionysus and the chthonic mysteries of the Greeks. The Roman cult acted to reinforce an older indigenous mythical religious tradition as well as establish a ‘spiritual corridor’ to the supposed ancestral Trojan homelands of the Greeks and Romans in the Hellespont.
So, what of the Cailleach?
Surviving thousands of miles away and thousands of years in time from the homelands and heartlands of the Anatolian mother-goddess, the tradition of the prophetic ‘Great Mother’ appears to have continued in the ‘Gaelic fringe’ of northwest Britain and Ireland – an area never conquered or settled by the pagan Roman empire. She does this in the form of an aged female character known as the ‘Cailleach’, ‘Calliagh’ or ‘Caillagh’, who is associated from the southwest tip of Ireland up into the far highlands of Scotland with mountains, nature, the weather and the power of prophecy. There are so many fragmentary myths and landscape features associated with her in these regions that it is apparent that she held a supra-regional importance from ancient times, well before the coming of christianity. These legends often associate her with the seasonal cycles, and the creation of features of the landscape, as well as guardianship over the flocks of beasts, natural springs and rivers. She is sometimes described as the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, sometimes portrayed as an ultimate ancestress, ruling the world since the ‘time before memory’. Like the black rock representing the face of the statue of Magna Mater in Rome, she is even occasionally described as having a black or blue face (even the ‘Black Annis’ legend from Leicestershire in England has this feature). One of her names in the Isle of Man – ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ – even implies a state of mute silence, ‘Groamagh translating as the English word ‘sullen’, which itself is related to ‘silent’ (Kelly’s Manx Dictionary). The Manx ‘Caillagh’ was a traditional utterer of prophecies, the substance of which were kept as oral traditions, as they were in the Ireland and Scotland. Further connection to the ancient Cybele cult of Rome and the Aegean might also be found in the curious Manx folksong which talked about a bull-stealing witch who is sought among the mountains, where she hides behind stone doors, As y lhiack er e kione – ‘with a stone on her head’… (if you follow the link, you will note I have corrected WW Gill’s translation.)
It is not my intention to digress on the totality of Cailleach legends in order to prove a link, but needless to say, the evidence of an ancient Earth-Goddess in the British and Irish Isles is compelling, and shows more than a few similarities with Lucretius’ fearsome mute Earth divinity…