Posts Tagged ‘Mother of the Gods’

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Gender-Changing in Gods and Daimones

November 21, 2009

The theme of gender-changing, whether by one’s own hand or choice or by another’s, occurs frequently in Hellenic mythologies. It is accompanied, often, by gender-reversal; by gods and daimones acting as the opposite gender, rather than actually becoming the opposite gender. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the gender fluidity of the gods (and certain gods in particular), and part to the necessity of their act for their own gain, or for the gain of the entire kosmos. In this essay, I will be discussing, in-depth, the three most notable occurrences of gender-changing – Hermaphroditos’, Agdistis-Rhea-Kybele’s, and Attis’.

The most memorable case of gender-changing is that of Hermaphroditos, the god of hermaphrodites, effeminate men, masculine women, transsexuals, transgenders, etc. Hermaphroditos’ gender-change (or, more correctly, gender-merge) is also his primary mythology. He is rarely named in the literature that points to the Erotes, although he is numbered among them, both by his parentage and divine function; and even the mythology of his birth is short and barely-considered. His pre- and post-merge mythology is barely touched upon; despite his Olympic parentage, he seems to have been all but forgotten by the Classical writers, in all respects other than detailing his merge with the nympha Salmakis.
Hermaphroditos (or Atlantius, as he was once/otherwise known, according to Hyginus, Fabulae, 271), ‘whom in Mount Ida’s caves the Naiades nurtured’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.28ff), was a youth comparable in beauty only to Adonis, Ganymedes, Endymion, Hyakinthos, Narkissos, Hylas and Khrysippos. It is interesting to note, here, that several of these most beautiful youths–Adonis, Hyakinthos and Ganymedes and, to a lesser extent, Hylas–all experienced a gender reversal, which will be discussed in Gender-Reversal in Gods and Daimones.
When he was fifteen–‘when thrice five years had passed’ (Met, 4.28ff)–Hermaphroditos ventured from Mount Ida, ‘eager to roam strange lands afar’ (Met, 4.28ff), and eventually came upon Salmakis’ ‘limpid shining pool’ (Met, 4.28ff). Salmakis, upon seeing the beautiful youth, declared her love for him. He, who ‘knew not what love was’ (Met, 4.28ff), rejected her as she ‘besought at least a sister’s kiss’ (Met, 4.28ff). Pretending to accept his rejection, the nympha Salmakis withdrew from sight; and Hermaphroditos, thinking himself alone, stepped into her pool and ‘stripped his light garments from his slender limbs’ (Met, 4.28ff). Salmakis watched him until he dived into the pool; and that–in succumbing to the pull of her water–made him hers, seemingly, for she ‘flung aside her clothes and plunged far out into the pool and grappled him’ (Met, 4.28ff). Hermaphroditos struggled to free himself and, at last, she managed to gain such a hold on him that ‘her clinging body seemed fixed fast to his’ (Met, 4.28ff), and she beseeched the gods to never let their bodies part. The gods (though it is unknown which gods) accepted the prayer and ‘both bodies merged in one, both blended in one form and face . . . they two were two no more, nor man, nor woman–one body then that neither seemed and both.’ (Met, 4.28ff) Hermaphroditos, now merged with Salmakis, emerged from the pool, saw that ‘the waters of the pool, where he had dived a man, had rendered him half woman’ (Met, 4.28ff) and beseeched his divine parents, Hermes and Aphrodite, that ‘whoso in these waters bathes a man emerge half woman, weakened instantly’ (Met, 4.28ff). His parents agreed; and ‘drugged the bright water with that power impure’ (Met, 4.28ff).
Diodorus Siculus described Hermaphroditos, after the merging with the nympha: ‘Some say that this Hermaphroditos is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man.’ (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 4.6.5.) Diodorus Siculus then continued to note that ‘there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do they have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good.’ (Library of History, 4.6.5.)

The above quote of Diodorus Siculus can be applied, in turn, to the monster-god Agdistis, born of the Phrygian Sky God and Earth Goddess–Ouranos and Gaia–who would later become Kybele, equated with Rhea as Rhea-Kybele, mother of the gods.
Agdistis was, according to Pausanias, born when Ouranos (or, rather, the Phrygian sky god – who Pausanias equates with Zeus, strangely), ‘let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a Daimon, with two sexual organs, male and female.’ (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, 7.17.8.) Fearing Agdistis–the bi-sexed, and therefore aggressively, and by some accounts, literally insanely, sexual god–the other gods ‘cut off the male organ’ (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8), thus effectively changing Agdistis, a bi-sexed god, to Rhea-Kybele, a solely female god. An almond tree grew from Agdistis-Kybele’s castrated organ, and a nympha daughter of the river-god Sangarios ‘took the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child.’ (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8.)
The child born was the youth Attis; and as he grew, his beauty, which was ‘more than human’ (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8) drew Agdistis-Kybele’s eye. She fell in love with him; and he ‘conquered the towered goddess with pure love’ (Ovid, Fasti, 4.222). Attis swore to her that he would ‘desire to be a boy always’ and that if he ever cheated, the one ‘I cheat with [will] be my last’ (Fasti, 4.222). He cheated, either by having an affair with the nympha Sagaritis (Fasti, 4.222) or by an attempt at marrying a king’s daughter (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8).
Agdistis-Rhea-Kybele, in divine wrath and madness, either then killed Sagaritis–by cutting down the nympha’s tree; ‘her fate was the tree’s’ (Fasti, 4.222)–or showed up at the wedding of Attis and the king’s daughter, whilst ‘the marriage-song was being song’ (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8); either version, though, caused Attis to descend into instant madness. Attis ‘bolts to Dindymus’ heights’ (Fasti, 4.222) and ‘went mad and cut off his genitals’ (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8), until ‘no signs of manhood remained.’ (Fasti, 4.222.) According to Pausanias, she then ‘repented of what she had done to Attis, and persuaded Zeus to grant the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay’ (Guide to Greece, 7.17.8); effectively, then, immortalising him.
This myth–beginning with Agdistis’ conception and ending with Attis’ immortal rebirth–has several common themes. The first, of course, is gender-changing; Agdistis, the bi-sexed, became Rhea-Kybele, a mother goddess, and simultaneously impregnated Sangarios’ nympha daughter, and thus became a father goddess, too. Attis, the boy born of the nympha and Agdistis’ castrated genitals, castrated himself, in turn, and ‘became a model: soft-skinned acolytes toss their hair and cut their worthless organs’ (Fasti, 4.222), thus effectively changing his own gender – and although his gender was changed by his own hands, it was caused by Agdistis-Rhea-Kybele. The second important theme is accidental pregnancy: the Phrygian Sky God’s/Ouranos’ impregnation of Gaia, the Earth, creating the bi-sexed Agdistis; and then Agdistis’ castrated genitals’ impregnation of Sangarios’ daughter, creating the lovely Attis. The entire myth continues the theme of ‘creatures of two sexes are monstrosities’, as suggested by Diodorus Siculus; and is a reoccuring theme within Hellenic mythology. Perhaps the other gods are wary the raw, fertile, mad power of bi-sexed gods; or, perhaps it was simply the prejudices of Classical society, made into divine acceptance through the mythos.

In Gender-Reversal in Gods and Daimones, I will be further exploring the gender switches in the Greek mythos; including Zeus’ gender-switch into Artemis, Adonis’ androgynous nature, Ganymedes’ and Hyakinthos’ apparent femininity and feminine values; and others.

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Short – Rhea-Kybele

November 13, 2009

Wild lions play at the feet of the queen
They willingly choose to serve. Their fierce
Music sweeps from their deep, rich throats and falls
Like silk on Rhea’s gleaming, divine skin.

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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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Read Write Prompt #16

October 10, 2009

Read Write Prompt #16: It’s Like Deja Vu All Over Again!

Rhea-Kybele – motherhood.

The eyes of a woman, burning with pain
Not yet–or ever–known to human men.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
As she waits for her children to be born.

She supports herself when her old man flees.
Two children, now fatherless; they have her.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love;
She will do all she can to keep them safe.

Her children grow, blossoming like flowers,
And soon they are heartbreakers, heartbroken.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
And when they need her, she is there for them.

The time comes for them to leave their nest-home;
The mother blinks back tears and kisses them.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love.
They need to do this; and she must let them.

They return, years later, with grandchildren;
Noise once more fills the mother’s lonely house.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
And when they leave, the mother turns away.

She grows old, trapped away in her world; she
Is kept away from the children she loves.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
And she knows that she has done all she can.

Winter begins to make her thin bones ache;
She moves slowly, lest the pain destroy her.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love;
Her children return, old themselves; she smiles.

In her final days, it is not only
Her lovely children watching over her.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
As day turns to night; and she slips away.

The mother of all, Rhea-Kybele,
Meets her in the twilight between the worlds.
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
As the Mighty Mother kisses her brow.

The mother asks her, “What should I do now?”
Rhea-Kybele smiles. “Be who you are.”
The pain, though, is blurred with the edge of love,
And the mother’s soul can finally rest.