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Rhea-Kybele and Lions

October 10, 2009

Classical writings and art portray Rhea (identified with the Anatolian Kybele, thus forming Rhea-Kybele) as accompanied by, or as riding, lions. To understand exactly why this is—why Rhea-Kybele is so intimately connected with lions—one must look first to the Classical mythologies, and then to the symbolism of the lion.

Rhea-Kybele, as the mother of the gods Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus, carries titles such as Mêtêr Theôn (mother of the gods), Mêtêr Megalê (great mother) and Mêtêr Isodromê (fast-paced mother). In myth, she is the wife (or ex-wife) of Kronos, the Titane god of destructive time; according to writers such as Hesiod, Pindar and Apollodorus, Kronos took to devouring each of their children, due to a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his children. Naturally, Rhea hated this and so when Zeus was born, she hid him away in the mountains, and appointed warrior daimones (spirits) to guard him. These daimones are known by multiple names—they are named the Kouretes of Krete, the Korybantes of Phrygia, the Gigantes of Arkadia, the Daktyloi of Troad or the Kabeiroi of Samothrake—but are, according to Strabo (in Geography, 10.3.7), the same group of spirits. These warrior daimones (which I will, for the sake of ease, name as the Kouretes) guarded the infant Zeus as he aged. According to Oppian, Kronos discovered Zeus when he was a child, and turned Zeus’ guards into lions: ‘And when the son of Ouranos beheld the lusty young child he transformed the first glorious guardians of Zeus and in vengeance made the Kouretes wild beasts. And since by the devising of the god Kronos exchanged their human shape and put upon them the form of Lions, thenceforth by the boon of Zeus they greatly lord it over the wild beasts which dwell upon the hills.’ (Oppian, Cynegetica 3.7.)

The second account of how Rhea-Kybele became so linked with lions is in the myth of Hippomenes, as described by Ovid. According to this, Aphrodite aided the hero Hippomenes in his race for the hand of Atalantê; however when Hippomenes won, he failed to give Aphrodite her dues, and she, incensed, drove Hippomenes and Atalantê to the temple of the Mater Deum (the Mêtêr Theôn; Rhea-Kybele). When they arrived, Aphrodite roused desire within them, and, they ‘entered here and with forbidden sin defiled the sanctuary’ of the Mater Deum. As punishment, Rhea-Kybele changed them into lions: ‘Therefore their necks, so smooth before, she clothed with tawny manes, their fingers curved to claws; their arms were changed to legs; their chests swelled with new weight; with tails they swept the sandy ground; and in their eyes cruel anger blazed and growls they gave for speech. Their marriage-bed is now a woodland lair, and feared by men, but by the goddess tamed, they champ – two lions – the bits of Cybele.’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.681.)

These accounts, though, are somewhat contradictory. In the first, the metamorphosised Kouretes are placed at Rhea-Kybele’s side as a blessing and honour; in the second, lions are her attendants as a warning and a curse. In order to decide which account best fits, one must look to Rhea-Kybele’s relationship to the lion, and, also, to the way that the Ancient Greeks viewed the lion – the symbolism of the lion.

Firstly, The Homeric Hymn 14 to the Mother of the Gods describes how the Mêtêr Theôn is ‘well-pleased with the sound of rattles and of timbrels, with the voice of flutes and the outcry of wolves and bright-eyes lions.’ Secondly, according to Valerius Flaccus, Rhea-Kybele was furious when Cyzicus killed one of her lions and hung its head to shame her: ‘Cyzicus upon his swift horse . . . with his javelin he slew a lion that was wont to bear its mistress through the cities of Phrygia and was now returning to the bridle. And now (Madman!) hath he hung from his doorposts the mane and the head of his victim, a spoil to bring sorrow to himself and shame upon the goddess. But she, nursing her great rage, beholds from the cymbal-clashing mountain the ship with its border of kingly shields,  and devises against the hero deaths and horrors unheard of.’ (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 3.20.) Thirdly, Nonnus describes how Rhea-Kybele’s home contains her lions, and how they are fed ambrosia – the food of the gods – by her castrated son and lover, Attis: ‘he entered the divine precinct selfbuilt of Rheia, mother of mighty sons. He freed his ravening lions from the yokestraps, and haltered them at the manger which he filled with ambrosial fodder.’ (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25.310.)

The above sources do not indicate a hatred of Rhea-Kybele for lions; they, in fact, indicate quite the opposite. She is ‘well-pleased’ with her lions; the slaughter of them causes her ‘great rage’; and her own lover cares for them and feeds them ‘ambrosial fodder’, thus granting them immortality. This all suggests that Rhea-Kybele’s lions are not kept around her as a warning or curse; but as a blessing, as an honour to those who so protected her son, Zeus. In order to confirm—or deny—this suggestion, one should look to how, exactly, the people of the ancient cultures of the time viewed the lion.

Ancient Egyptians sometimes portrayed their pharaohs as sphinxes, thus identifying them with lions. Therefore sphinxes (and lions) were identified with power, rule and protection – interestingly, this is echoed in Rhea-Kybele’s turret crown (as identified by both Ovid and Propertius), which emphasises her nature as a warrior goddess concerned with protection of the city. The Egyptians associated two of their goddesses, Bast and Sekhmet (both originally identified as having the head of a lioness), and the god Maahes, son of either Bast or Sekhmet, with lions. Bast is the Egyptian god of pleasure, festivity, cats, ferocity, perfumes, vermin and the destruction thereof, women, mothers and motherhood and protection; Sekhmet of warriors, hunters, protection, women, motherhood, bloodlust, menstruation, death, disease and deserts; and Maahes of war, weather, knives, hunting, strength, power and protection of matrilineality. It can therefore be assumed that the Egyptians identified lions with such things as power, war, hunting, protection, women, disease and death.

Ancient Greeks “borrowed” the sphinx from the Egyptians in their own Sphinx, one of the Theres, who presided over matters such as destruction, bad luck, riddles, strangulation and the death of young men. The Sphinx is often said to have been sent by one of the gods—usually Hera (as identified by Apollodorus, The Library 3.5.8)—as a punishment to the people of Thebes, and as thus would have connection to Hera’s domain: women, marriage, weather, the heavens, motherhood, etc. This forms an interesting parallel to the Nemean Lion (said by some, such as Hesiod, to be the brother of the Sphinx), whom Hera ‘trained up and settled among the hills of Nemeia, to be a plague to mankind’ (Hesiod, Theogony 327ff). Bacchylides (Fragment 9), Callimachus (Aetia Fragments 55 and 108) and Aelian (On Animals 12.7) also describe Hera as having nurtured or sent the Nemean Lion. Due to their links to Hera (and, sometimes, to each-other), both the Sphinx and the Nemean Lion can be said to be associated with women, wrath, war, death, destruction, revenge, mothers, motherhood, marriage, the (night) sky, and so on. One must also consider Rhea-Kybele’s nature and influence; she is considered a goddess of women, marriage, childbirth (and mothers and motherhood), fertility, sexuality, madness, destruction, protection, and so on.

Linking together the views of the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, one can presume that these ancient cultures viewed lions as being connected to women, disease, death, hunting, war, power, destruction, mothers, motherhood, childbirth, fertility, protection of cities, madness and protection of women. Because of this, and the manner in which the above-mentioned sources (concerning Rhea-Kybele’s relationship to the lion) portray Rhea-Kybele’s apparent affection for lions, the suggestion that lions are at her side as an honour, rather than a warning, seems more concrete.

Because of all this, one can further understand the nature of Rhea-Kybele. Her links to motherhood, women, fertility, protection, war, death and destruction become even more pronounced; and as such, the links between lions and these matters becomes more solid. In conclusion, then, Rhea-Kybele, when accompanied by her mountain-roaming lions, gains further prestige and connections as an incredibly powerful goddess. Her lions remind onlookers of the benefits of her favour, and of her love for warriors, women and the fertile wilderness – even with their humanity destroyed, her Kouretes linger at her sides, loving and protecting her with everything they have.

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