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6.7.4b Statue of a Seated Cybele with the Portrait Head of her Priestess

Found in Rome in the 1500s, this large statue of a seated woman portrays Cybele, the mother goddess, with many of her attributes, each signifying a different role. She wears a crown in the form of a towered wall, a symbol of her role as protectress of cities. Her right hand holds a bunch of wheat and poppy heads, a symbol of her role as a goddess of agriculture. Her most famous attribute, the lion, sits at her feet, symbolizing her power over wild animals. Under her left arm she holds additional symbols: the rudder and the cornucopia.
circa 50 AD
Sculpture
J. Paul Getty Museum
Statue of a Seated Cybele with the Portrait Head of her Priestess. Sculpture. Circa A.D. 50. J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.
People in Anatolia worshipped a mother goddess figure called Cybele or the Great Mother. They believed that a black stone from a meteor was the goddess, but she could also be anywhere in her invisible form. The meteoric stone image of Cybele was in a temple in the Kingdom of Pergamum, but Cybele was also worshipped throughout the Hellenistic world. During the Second Punic War against Carthage (218 – 201 BCE), the Romans consulted the Sibylline Books of Prophecies and decided that Carthage could be defeated if Rome brought Great Mother, or Cybele, to the city. The Romans believed in omens and respected the Greek oracles called Sibyl, meaning “prophetess.” The Sibyls made predictions about the future and could also give advice on how to avoid a bad event (think of Professor Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter!). Using the threat of their great military power, the Romans forced the king of Pergamum to “give” the meteoric stone image of Cybele to Rome. What do you think the people of Pergamum, worshippers of Cybele, thought about this transfer? Vocabulary Scipio: a great Roman general Ostia: the seaport of Rome matrons: married women from the upper classes receive her: that is, the priestesses would hand the statue of the goddess to Scipio put out to sea: got in his boat and sailed out to meet the other ship foremost: most important sacred image: a piece of a black meteor that people believed was the goddess. That’s why Livy wrote “as she left the ship” as if the image were the actual goddess. the Palatine: one of the hills of Rome, the location of the most important temples censer: incense burner; people burned incense to honor the goddess deity: a god or goddess Games: athletic competitions were often held in honor of gods and goddesses Visual caption for object: This large statue of a seated woman portrays Cybele, whom the Romans also called the Great Mother. She was first worshipped in Anatolia, east of the Greek city-states. She wears a crown shaped like a wall with towers, representing a city. Her right hand holds a bunch of wheat and poppy heads, a symbol of her role as a goddess of fertile earth. The lion sits at her feet, symbolizing her power over wild animals.
The goddess Cybele was worshipped in Anatolia (modern Turkey) as a Mother Goddess. From Anatolia her cult spread first to the Greeks, who saw a resemblance between the Great Mother and their own goddess Rhea, and they eventually started identifying the two as the same goddess. Rome officially imported her cult during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BCE) after observing a few bad signs, including a meteor fall that was seen as a warning of Rome's defeat in the war. The Romans consulted the Sibylline Books of Prophecies and interpreted that Carthage could be defeated if Rome brought the Magna Mater ("Great Mother") to the city. The image of the goddess in the form of a black meteor belonged to a Roman ally, the Kingdom of Pergamum, who agreed to give it to Rome. However, since Rome was so much more powerful than Pergamum, the king of Pergamum could not refuse. The text by the Roman historian Livy describes how the famous general and politician Scipio and Roman matrons brought the goddess into Rome.