This Is #GangSteppe – and also, fine Devi-otional (A)Art(I) for Friday !
Depicted is Goddess Cybele on an offering-plate, from 3rd century B.C. Ai-Khanoum, amidst the ruins of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
Now, I find this artefact fascinating for quite a number of reasons. Not simply because of the various iconographic features upon it which come from pretty much right the way across the central and eastern Indo-European-isphere [all the way from Greece, to Anatolia and the Steppes, and thence through to India], but because they’re all *combined* into one radiant whole.
Not in a manner that is, as we would say utilizing our particular meaning of the word, “syncretic” [that is to say, putting together unlike things in the manner of the politically-convenient efforts of the Greeks in Egypt, for instance] – but rather, in the appropriate putting *back* together of elements that *do* and always have had, a fundamental underlying unity to them.
This is, as I have said before, part of the reason I find the general ‘convection zone’ of Indo-European cultures extant in Afghanistan from Gandhara down to the Ghaznavids [and sadly being suppressed from then] to be such a great sphere to delve into for our purposes. Because that underlying sacred thread of Unity is so seriously present, and impressively, immanently, integrally preserved for and thence presented to us. But I have let my enthusiasm run away with me – back to what is immediately in front of us here!
The first element we must consider is this Goddess, Cybele. I have detailed in greater length in my BHARAT MATA AND THE INDO-EUROPEAN DEIFIC OF NATIONAL IDENTITY, the broader complex into which Cybele very much fits.
We might refer to this in short hand, perhaps, as “Mountain Mother”, which links back to both the much more immediately familiar “Earth Mother” concept, and also *forward* to the “Divine Queen” and “Patron Goddess of a People” developments – indeed, the “Mother of the Nation”, with the “Nation” in question being fixed and focal around a strong-point, a defensible position, a high-place of both piety and Pur [settlement], an Axis Mundi perhaps at its very core [c.f the perhaps surprisingly strong linguistic and figurative coterminities of terms for “Tree” and “Mountain”, and thence “World Tree” and “World Mountain” in especially ‘Eddic’ and ‘Vedic’ thought – Fir, Fjall; Parnin, Parvat, respectively, to name but a small number of examples, and note the P=F sound-equivalency, as also seen in, for instance, “Father” and “Pitar”].
And, flowing from this close identification with the Indo-European Nation or Nationalit(ies) in question, the strong attribution to this maternal-regal figure of the characteristics associated with the Warrior Elite – being a competent combatant, often mounted either upon a steed or in a chariot (which, in either case, is only rarely correlate with horses (Although Hittite Pirwa [closely related, again, to terms for a rock/mountain/outcropping, and identified as a Queen] is somewhat an exception to this rule) – much more often being a ‘big cat’ such as a tiger or lion [Dawon, Vahana of Durga] or lynx in the case of the former, or drawn by one or more thereof in the case of the latter [consider Freyja’s chariot]; more rarely, although turning up frequently in Hindu and potentially also in Phrygian/Anatolian sources, a white (lunar) bull), equipped with a spear and/or bow and/or sword (in both the case of the spear and the sword it can be interesting to observe the overlapping terms for each with the local words for “mountain”), and generally regarded as being capable of ascending into a divine fury against whom none can stand … possibly while having imbibed an intoxicating brew.
In this, She – in whichever form, Freyja, Parvati, Cybele, and others besides – is the counterpart, often overtly the equal or even sometimes the *superior* of Her Husband, Who is the Wind-Lord, the Roaring of the Storm Wind, a Steppe-Warrior inherited archetype of the wild and boundless form of Dyaus Pitar.
[Some scholars in the audience may question this direct element of the typology as applies Cybele in particular, on the basis of the more usual Classical Greek/Roman linkage of Cybele to a figure known as Attis – a Phrygian shepherd whose most notable feature appears to have been castration … but I am not so sure that this is the best way to approach the situation; on grounds that not only do we have castration elements present in several other Indo-European representations of the Sky Father complex – including, most prominently, Ouranos/Uranus – but we also have occasional mentions that seem to link Cybele closely to the Thracian, Phrygian, and occasionally Scythian complex around Sabazios; and, of course, that *other* mutilated figure, Dionysus]
This ‘superiority’ element comes not simply from Her regent status as the Queen of a People, Mighty though They and Her may be upon the field of war. But also from Her position both within and apparently *beyond* Creation Itself – hence the identification I have endeavoured to elucidate in both Nordic & Hindu mythoreligious corpuses of the Goddess in question *with* the Axis Mundi, and also with the ability to impart *into* this world from *beyond* it. In line with this, She is regarded as correlate not simply with Sovereignty … but with Cosmic Order [and thence, flowing from it as a reflexial, Divine Sovereignty, of which the Sovereignty of mortal Kings here upon this Earth is, at best, an Eternal Return-resonance-echo-echolation’d thereof] Itself.
This may be taken as my strong preference for Shakta theology; however it finds additional expression, according to some interpretations, in the work of the Roman philosopher Lucretius. I shall not here include the lengthy excerpt from Book II of his De Rerum Natura which illustrates this, but we may post it at some subsequent point as its own piece, as it’s rather excellent and also includes direct mention of many of the features of the Goddess [here, identified as Magna Mater – Great Mother] I have earlier alluded to.
Now, as for why *that* matters, it helps us to elucidate some of the iconographic features on clear showing in this excellent piece of votive artistry. We shall start at the left and work our way through.
The first feature we can make out, carefully picked out in Gold, is a Parasol. An Umbrella. What this likely represents, is the very same principle as that bound up in the Imperial TItle of ShivaJi – Chhatrapati, which would literally be rendered something like “Umbrella-Lord” [Pati, like “Patriarch(y)”, meaning Lord or Master or Father – like “Sire”, as in a King, potentially; while Chhatra means an Umbrella, a Parasol], but more figuratively translated as “Over-King”, as other rulers are under the ‘umbrella’ of the the greater Sovereignty represented by it; with the shaft of the umbrella potentially also correlating with the Axis Mundi, the support of the superstructure of the world and its unfurled order that is the shelter against the chaos and iniquity, evil and strife, which exist in the absence of the Gods’ Divine Rule. It is also, of course, in more euhemeric terms, a symbol of being powerful and important, to have a chap with an umbrella following you around keeping you shaded. And it is a symbol of my sleep-deprived, somewhat manic state, that this paragraph nearly contained a several-line discursion on the exact and resonant saliency of all of this in Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella”. Especially the quite literally tempestuous meteorlogical [that’s not a typo, that’s a portmanteau in three languages] phenomena which accompanied it.
The Goddess Herself is depicted in a Chariot, the taller figure of the two standing therein (the other is Nike – Victory, and also, via etymology, war and assault; it is perhaps not coincidental, either, that She is so very often depicted as Winged – “Feather”, and these terms for Tree aforementioned share common roots], and with a headdress that perhaps recalls the “Battlemented Crown” ascribed to Her by Lucretius [recall the Fortress, Defensive Strong Point, City (these strongly overlap with a rocky outcropping, a hill, for reasons that ought be obvious) symbolism of the overall Mountain Mother/Queen deific complex], and/or the frequent references to ‘Mountain’-style headgear found in other Indo-European mythoreligious complexes’ talk about both the Goddess, and the customary apparel for a wife as a resultant echoing thereof [to quote myself upon the subject: “One of these is the epithet “Haglfaldini” cited in the Sexstefja of Thjodolfr Arnorsson, meaning “hail-hooded” [comparable to the modern English idiom “snow-capped”], with the ‘hood’ in question, the Faldr, being a word for a woman’s head-covering.”]. Her hand is clasped over Her Heart, and She is also turned directly to face the supplicant presumably making overt use of the offering-plate.
The Chariot is itself a furtherance of the Sovereignty/Order visual mytho-metaphor, as well – as in addition to its obvious saliency as a war-vehicle, it rests upon an axle [correlate, one again, with the Axis Mundi and with Order – we have Vedic hymnals commenting quite directly upon this concept, and regarding the Wheels thus affixed, with their spokes, to be as the Worlds; see also my previous work around the concept of ChakraVartin – One Whose Wheels Are In Motion, as *another* way of suggesting a Paramount or Universal Sovereign; and, of course, the KalaChakra cycle of Time’s unfolding], and symbolizes *movement*, as a furtherance of the ‘fixed’ and ‘immutable’ principle of Her as Mountain – although the rocky terrain underneath the wheels thereof, which has also been deliberately picked out in gold itself, perhaps symbolizes that anywhere and everywhere is upon the slopes of the World-Mountain, something that must have seemed almost self-evident amidst the topography of Afghanistan at the time, adjacent to the Hindu Kush and with the Himalayas and Mt Meru not too far distant. (with the zig-zag pattern of embossing upon the Chariot itself beneath the railing, perhaps *also* recalling the mountain-ranges … and, in inversion of a certain Abrahamic maxim, mayhap representing that the Mountain may come to *you* ! ]
The long projection held by Nike, as Her Charioteer, is likely a rod utilized to direct and control the Lions Who are pulling the vehicle; it is probably not coincidental that the arcening of its length points upwards to the Solar and Lunar pairing behind Helios in the upper right of the plate [the Solar emblem, interestingly, is the Vergina Sun so beloved of the royal house of Macedon that gave rise to Alexander, which, especially in the context of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, would further strengthen the Sovereignty, and Divine Order connotations of the piece]. The Rod, therefore, especially picked out in gold as it is, is a ray of Solar and Lawful Rule; its unembossed but rather delicately brush-stroked nature enabling a feeling of suppleness, of flexibility, yet still radiantly catching the eye and dominating the field it runs through (in just the manner of ‘enlightened [pun not initially intended] rule’] – although given that it is emanating out *from* the Chariot of the Goddess and up *to* the Sun and Moon [themselves also operating on regular cycles of time and forming a baseline ‘regulus’ for mortal society and the natural world, both in terms of months (necessary for ritualine calendars) and something as simple and vitally important as day-and-night], this perhaps recalls something akin to the Shakta Hindu understanding of Ma [Mother Goddess] as Kushmanda [‘Power of the Sun’, as I have figuratively translated it , [Providing] Incepting Warmth/Energy/Radiance to the Cosmic Egg [here also understood as the Sun, as well as the seed of creation in another context], would be a little more direct] – wherein the Energy which fuels all of creation is transmitted out from Her, to and through the Sun, reflecting/emanating also off the Moon, and thence down here to us on Earth [an ‘echo’ of the potentially *female* Solar Deity in Proto-Indo-European cosmology survives also in Nordic mythology with Sol being, well, female – while the Moon is Male, as is Lord Chandra [often closely identified with Shiva, Sky Father]]. The Rod, therefore, both points out this arcening trajectory, and symbolizes that even these most prominent of caelestial orbs are under Her Divine Command. Helios looking on approvingly, even Jovially, from On High [consider/compare “Dyaus Pitar” in its oldest PIE sense having specific correlation also with the *Shining* Daylight Sky as Father].
The Lions represent a number of concepts. In the Roman reckoning, they were often spoken of as the ferocity and untamed wildness of the natural world – yet here, under Her power [note the reins – the reigns, and harnesses, also picked out in gold; as are the quite fantastic manes and hair of the legs, as well as the claws, although not as much of the adornment has survived upon those) and expressions of Her ferocity, regality, vigour, and valour. It is potential that the raised forelegs may not only signify *motion*, but impending martial force and combative power, and perhaps are also coterminous with the raised-foreleg gesture of guardian animal statuary in further-Eastern cult sites, or the bestowment of prosperity and Abhaya from outstretched forepaw.
The more modern-familiar connotations of the Lion as a symbol of Kingship, of the Roar as a rallying-cry [and inspiring terror in those who are *not* upon its side], of bravery, and of victory, are similarly directly relevant – particularly given Cybele’s strong role in the provision of the dual powers of physical force and psychological courage to Her men, nation(s) [and it is interesting how it is the *plural* which turns up in the Roman formulations], and other such combatants.
The direction of the image’s features also tells something of a story – the trajectory of the flow from the Parasol, the Axis Mundi, radiating out perhaps like the unfurled spokes and awning of the umbrella, across the plate, towards the far right of the votive offering; and thence signifying, also, Her coming to the pious priest who is sacrificing in Her Name – in the same matter that Rta, Cosmic Order, Orlog, is *upheld* and becomes more permeating, through the acts of piety of the Indo-European peoples [‘Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam’, as the RigVedic Mantra-Maxim refrain most frequently of the flowing Soma-Rites goes!]; and also, more overtly, in the manner that She responds to the prayers of Her Faithful.
What can stop the progress of this most Mighty Goddess out to even the farthest corners of Her Divine Realm.
The construction of the rite on the furthest extreme of the plate is interesting, as it is a stepped altar of the type we should often expect to see amongst the Eastern Indo-European Peoples. And while an in-depth discussion of the construction of (fire) altars is rather beyond the scope of this already significantly lengthy piece (!), it is worth noting that the steeply stepped shaping of the Altar in effect mirrors that of a Mountain [steep steps, often leading up to a sacral situation such as a throne, appear to be a frequent furnishing of Cybelian devotional architecture] – which, to my mind at least, represents an underlying ‘symmetry’ to the image. The Axis Mundi recalled by the Parasol on the left, which is often represented as the World-Mountain, and is where She is to be found, radiating out and down across the slopes to us here on Earth [Which She also Is, if we are resonant with Bhumi-Mata, Prithvi-Mata, in this accounting], is recalled and mirrored by the ‘miniature-mountain’ of the Altar structure [its six or seven subdivisions are also likely uncoincidental, as both numbers are frequent factors in a number of Eastern Indo-European cosmological setups when it comes to numbers of lokas, and such]; with the gold object at the top that may form another implicit layer, being where the active element of the Rite is housed.
This, too, is #GangSteppe – as it recalls the Tabiti Goddess Who was the Scythian Divine Queen, and Whose Name and role is also *directly* that of Fire-Rites, Who is thusly absolutely integral to the Order and Prosperity of both Household and Kingdom (but, then, I repeat myself – albeit at a larger scale); Whose Radiant, Fiery Beauty is to be found extolled also in the Hindu figure of Tapati, a name of similar meaning. Appropriate that the vessel is picked out in Gold, then, although whether it is a brazier, or a dish, or a goblet/cup is somewhat indistinct. So, too, regrettably, is whatever is going on above and immediately behind the priest-figure – there is fragmentary trace of a faint line of gold extending out from his mid-back behind him, but I refer instead to the upraised section of plate that is seemingly attached to his headgear – and which *may* recall the (Western, and subsequent by perhaps four hundred years) Classical accountings of Cybele’s priest as wearing a prominently plumed war-helmet.
This is an absolutely fabulous, excellently fascinating element of both artifice and art – indeed, Artha (अर्थ ) – from ancient Afghanistan, and yet, entirely unsurprisingly, except given the modern state of its former situation, drawing in elements from across the Indo-European World. We have, in no particular order, a Goddess allegedly brought with the Phrygians when they migrated to Anatolia from the lands proximate to the Steppes, Who resonates strongly with Indo-European deific-complex expressions already found there prior, and Who then overrules the Greek-Athenian would-be prohibitionism upon the following of ‘foreign’ Gods within the City to become one of their worshiped figures (also turning up in Rome and becoming quite prominently central *there* as well, with intriguing almost direct resonances to elements in Hindu Shakta theology from a thousand years and more beforehand, and a thousand miles and more further East, attendant), and then both ‘going along with’ the Yavanas as they marched to the Sunrise through Persia [perhaps this, too, is what is reflected in the ‘directional’ flow of the illustration, the Sun and Moon symbolizing an end to the eclipse of the power of the Sovereign Sun], as well as *already being there waiting* for them when they arrived there in the East.
The iconographic elements on show here are drawn from a similarly broad [‘Jord’, you might say – an Old Norse term for, well, the Earth Mother, of Thor, the Thunderer/Striker … that also links to “Broad” more directly] array of Indo-European cultures; and, as I have earlier stated, in a way that brings them all together to illuminate the shared heritage [“Mother of Nation(s)”], the Goddess adored in whichever form by Indo-Europeans all.
One final note, concerns the earlier piece I prepared on the Indo-European Deific of National Identity – Bharat Mata. Now, I mention this not simply to remind the reader that many of these (my)themes are further explored in much greater detail as applies other Indo-European pantheons and mythoreligious complexes therein … but because when we look at much of the (a)art(i) around Bharat Mata – Mother India – what we in fact see, is many of the *very same* elements that are on display *right here* in this nearly two and a half millennia old Greco-Bactrian artefact.
This, some would perhaps find somewhat surprising, given that Bharat Mata *in theory* is a relatively recently promulgated Aspect of MataJi (leaving aside for the moment, that She is Durga, and so therefore the coterminities of symbolism in terms of iconography should be somewhat expected], Who has been prominent for arguably only a few decades, perhaps not much longer than a century [if we are running from the BangaMata national personification of Bengal Who popularized about the time the British sought to partition [no, not that Partition, an earlier one] the formerly unified state into East and West in 1905].
Yet in reality, the undeniably strong *visual* and *metaphorical* – indeed, mythic – resonances between this ancient depiction of a (Western) Indo-European Goddess from a long-dead people found in a long-dead ruin of a long-dead kingdom, and the *very much Alive* [indeed, Life Itself] National Goddess of a present-day country at somewhere close to the other end of the Indo-European-isphere from Cybele’s much earlier situation amidst the Balkans … well … what does one expect. Why should one be surprised, when it turns out that two observers, when asked to draw an image or recall the appearance of a Being they have each beheld, should produce representations and remembrances that are so strikingly similar, even despite a gap of multiple millennia and a multitude of miles in either direction [Proto-Indo-European shared origins, for this part, notwithstanding] that one would perhaps otherwise presume should lead to *insurmountable* ‘cultural drift’.
Gosh, it’s almost like they are both talking about a Real Being or something 😛
[Indeed, no “almost” about it – and dependent upon how one runs one’s Shakta theology, *only* She is real … we’re all less so. But that is another metaphysical tangent for another time!]
JAI MATA DI !