The Great Goddess of Phrygia, also known as “Great Mother” (Magna Mater), or Mother of the Gods, nicknamed, depending on the localities: goddess of Dindyme, Ida, Bercynthes, etc.., and identified by the Greeks with Rhea, mother of Zeus, then assimilated to Cybel and to Ops, the goddess of abundance, by the Romans.
What Rhea was the titanide of?
Personification of the natural forces, goddess of the earth and animals, she was represented living at the bottom of the woods, on the mountains, escorted by Corybantes (or Curets), lions and other ferocious beasts; her wild and bloody loves were told with Attis, the male god of Phrygie.
Facts and Myths about Rhea
Rhea giving the stone to Cronos
Rhea married her brother Cronos. But Mother Earth and her dying father Ouranos had predicted that one of her own sons would dethrone Cronos. That is why he devoured the children that Rhea brought into the world: it was first Hestia, then Demeter and Hera, then Hades and Poseidon.
Rhea was furious. She gave birth to Zeus, her third son, in the middle of the night on Mount Lykaios in Arcadia, where the creatures have no shade and after bathing him in the Neda River, she gave him to Mother Earth; she transported him to Lyctos in Crete where she hid him in the Dictation Den on Mount Aegeon.
There, Mother Earth entrusted him to the care of the nymph Adrastia and his sister Io, both daughters of Melissee, and to the goat nymph Amalthea.
He ate honey and shared Amalthea’s milk with Pan, his brother in milk.
Cult of Rhea
It had a large number of shrines throughout western Asia Minor, including on Mount Ida, and in Pessinonte, where a famous oracle was located. His cult spread widely in continental Greece, where his shrines were given the name of metroon (Olympia, Athens, Piraeus, etc.), and where religious associations were formed on all sides in his honor.
Among the Romans, Rhea was assimilated to Cybele.
In Rome, this cult was introduced in 204 B.C., after consulting the Sibylline books. They went to Asia to look for it and solemnly brought back the idol of Pessinonte, a simple black stone, a betyle.
To receive it, a temple was built on the Palatine and this event was commemorated each year with the feast of the megalalesia, accompanied by megalomaniac games (4-10 April). The Phrygian rites were preserved there, to which were added, under the empire, the bullfights.
The great annual celebration of Cybele included symbolic ceremonies featuring the whole history of the goddess’ loves, the pain, mutilation, death and resurrection of Atys; processions of Corybantes, who walked through the woods with the statue of Cybele; orgiac races, ecstatic dances, etc., all of which evoked the agonies of the death of the vegetation, then its magical return. Many groups of priests or priestesses were dedicated to the cult of Cybele.
In some countries, for example in Pessinonte, they formed powerful priestly corporations. Cybele also had her popular priests: the Welsh or eunuch priests who multiplied especially in Roman times, and the metragyrtes or itinerant priests who walked statues of the goddess saying fortune-telling. The instruments of worship were the sacred knife, the horn, the Phrygian flute, the cymbals, the castanets, the tympanum.
At the time of the struggle against Christianity, in the first and fourth centuries, Neoplatonists devised a symbolic interpretation of the myths and worship of Cybele.
Rhea in arts
There are many figurative representations of Rhea, mainly on Asian Minor coins. Originally, a simple betyle symbolized the goddess: this was the black stone of Pessinonte.
Gradually, under the influence of Greek anthropomorphism, Rhea was depicted as a woman sitting with a lion on her lap, or placed between two lions.