It is Friday – Therefore, Devi Durga Devotional (A)Art(I); and, as has become my custom, a perhaps unexpected representation which helps us to illustrate something a little less well known about the Goddess.
Now, something I genuinely love about our work is the manner in which the same Gods appear across the Indo-European-isphere – in subtly different manners, accordant to Their local worshippers’ iconographic and mythographic custom, yet with consistent elements that act as insightful ‘keys’ to Their true Identities, if you know where and how to look.
In this particular case, clearly linking this Roman depiction and understanding of Cybele – Magna Mater, also known as Mother Mountain – with the deific-expression best known from India: Parvati, Devi Durga.
But before we get into that, there’s one point I feel I need to address – and that’s the face and other elements of the composition. Whereas we’re used to representations of the Warrior Queen of the Gods as being radiantly beautiful, there was something about this sculpture that didn’t quite measure up in that regard. I’d initially thought that it might merely have been different cultural values as applies what construes beauty – and this coupled with a more staid Roman desire to depict Cybele as an older and more stern Roman matriarch, perhaps.
As it turns out, that appears to be almost exactly what’s occurred here. Except instead of it being a case of rendering Cybele in such a manner – it’s the other way around. That is to say, a Roman matron has had a sculpture commissioned of herself as Cybele, hence the face and figure. The practice of having yourself rendered in emulation of a deific was not entirely uncommon amidst Rome’s upper class in the mid-1st century A.D. when this was carved, although was relatively rare as applies Cybele in particular. Thus leading to some speculation that the human woman in question had some special degree of official connection with the Goddess, perhaps in a sacral role.
In any case, the fact that this is a mortal woman portrayed as the Goddess, is actually rather helpful for our purposes – as it means that the iconographic elements present upon her are those which are intended to clearly and obviously communicate the Goddess association.
And while I can – and have – written quite extensively about the meaning of various of these in several other articles upon Cybele (as well as how these fit into the broader deific complex of which Cybele is one expression), there are two in particular which stand out for our purposes here tonight.
The first of these is the Lion that can be seen to Her right. There are a number of reasons why we often find lions, tigers, or lynxes (the Nordic forest-cats of Freyja are rather closer in spirit to these than a modern-day domestic house-cat, after all) in association with the Goddess – one important one as applies the Lion specifically, being the almighty and thunderous Roar (which has important theological implications that I’ve discussed elsewhere – Vacam Garjit Lakshanam); as well as the more general connotations of regality, bravery (and its inspiration), and lethality, and presumably some coterminity of habitat with the Mountains as well.
As applies Cybele, She is depicted either accompanied by one or more lions, or riding in a chariot pulled by same. As applies Parvati / Durga, Her Vahana (‘steed’) is a Lion or Tiger (or sometimes both in one) called Dawon (‘Bravery’); and Freyja’s Cat-pulled Chariot, I have already but briefly mentioned.
Yet the second is the headdress – something that we would today term a Mural Crown, after the Roman iconographic and honorific term. If you look closely, you can quite clearly see it – it’s the small castle upon Her Head attached to the veil.
Now, this is quite important, not only due to the fact that it’s still in-use today in modern European heraldry, nor even because of its strong associations with martial valour (the mortal equivalent was customarily awarded to the first soldier to successfully make it onto the walls of a besieged fortification and raise his army’s banner thereupon – think the Soviet soldier on top of the Reichstag with the hammer and sickle ensign) … but because of what it actually symbolizes.
In application to Cybele, as well as several other Goddess deific-complex expressions found amidst the Romans, the connotation was that this Bastion Crown signified a special relationship as the Protector and Champion of the City.
Why does this matter? Well, look at the names of the Hindu Goddess – Parvati (‘Mountain’), and Durga (‘Inaccessible’, ‘Indomitable’, ‘Difficult to Approach’). It is not at all hard to see how a Hill or a Mountain makes for a strong defensive position upon which to construct a Citadel. And if we consider the overt similarities between “Berg” and “Burg”, or “Giri” and “Nagara”, or the PIE ‘Per-‘ terms (whence ‘Parvat(i)’) and ‘Pur’ , all of which are terms for raised rock and fortification/settlement respectively … it is evident that the linguistic linkage is quite deliberate rather than merely inferential.
As applies the Nordic/Germanic Freyja/Frigg, one of my earlier articles (the excellent “BHARAT MATA AND THE INDO-EUROPEAN DEIFIC OF NATIONAL IDENTITY” published for Indian Independence Day 2018) provides an array of close alignments:
“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. Another, “Hlin”, referring to “ground” – but also relating to ‘refuge’ and ‘protection’ particularly via the related form “Hleina”, and with the three sides of this ‘triangulation’ (also the shape of the archetypal ‘mountain’ 😛 ) being buttressed/completed with the addition of “Hlein” , which means a rock projection, and in particular one out into the sea in the manner of a pier (you know, the sort of structure one might use to disembark when coming home ).”
Or, phrased another way – with each of these Indo-European mytho-religious complexes’ expression of the relevant Goddess, we find these consistent features, pertaining to Mountain and Strongpoint/Fortification/Settlement : and thence – Nation, as the Mother and Guardian-Protector thereof.
There is much more I can and have said upon this particular set of associations and expressions – including the Hittite ‘Pirwa’, and ‘Pallas’ Athena of Athens; as well as the linguistics around ‘palisade’ and ‘palace’ and other such terms; and, for that matter, a far greater explication upon the mythology, theology, and ‘sociology’ around Cybele (especially in Rome) … but for that, you shall have to consult my previous works upon these matters.
For now, I think it is enough to simply marvel at that most impressively constructed hat. And more importantly, the constellation of heavily-resonant associations for which it stands.
Jai Mata Di !