AMAZONS at the Moonspeaker
|rear of the cavern||Gaea||Earth||North|
|foremost tripod leg||Ino||Water||South|
|right rear tripod leg||Hera||Air||West|
|left rear tripod leg||Pasiphae||Fire||East|
As if the journey and then the climb up Mount Parnassus weren't enough (and sadly, later events would show they weren't), to obtain a reading from the Delphic oracle the querent had to undergo a purification ritual that finished on the seventh day of the current Moon cycle, possibly with a ritual bath in the Kastalia. Then they still may not have been guaranteed a consultation. 'Mantis' means 'one who measures (the time)' and the time in question may have been before and during menstruation. Therefore the pythia probably did not take her place on the tripod unless she was close to or already menstruating, and indeed, ancient sources record that the pythia answered queries only one day of each month. In a real sense, any other means of reaching a properly ecstatic state were almost secondary, since unless the correct initial conditions were met, they would not be used.
These elaborate preparations and timing issues helped increase the pressure on the pythia to hear more querents on the days when she repeated the words of the Goddess. Finally the sheer volume of visitors to the oracle lead to the number of pythias on duty being expanded from one to three, all of whom could be married but did not live with their husbands if they were. Instead, they lived on their own, running independent households and were chosen by lot from the general female population of Delphi.
But to return to the vexed question of just how the pythia went into her prophetic state: unfortunately how this was done can be only partially reconstructed at best. The reasons for this include the level of secrecy around the rituals, the violent change of hands the shrine experienced early in its history, later repeated raids to plunder the shrine's accumulation of offerings, and the desire of later commentators to discredit its prophecies. Claims made in order to discredit the Delphic oracle are among the best known non-facts about it: the gibbering priestess and attendant need for a translator, and the idea that if the priestess wasn't intoxicated she was certainly demon possessed. In fact, she sat on a tripod and spoke normally and directly to the querent, as noted by Plutarch himself, who was a priest at Delphi in its later history. The exception he describes is given specifically to illustrate how things can go wrong if a priestess if forced to prophesy when the appropriate ritual conditions are not met. According to Fontenrose, the manic priestess image derives from a mistranslation.
Today there are two main hypotheses concerning the creation of prophetic states at Delphi: the priestess inhaled fumes emitted by the Earth, or she used a suitably narcotic plant. The fumes have been expected to come from a substantial chasm in the back of the Delphic cave, a chasm which no one has ever found. Individuals have chewed the leaves of various species of laurel (especially cherry) in attempts to recreate the priestess' experience. They were disappointed.
The disappointment is not so much the fault of the plant as confusion over what plant the ancient Greeks meant when they spoke of 'daphne.' Several plants in the genus named Daphne are indeed psychoactive in small amounts and poisonous in larger ones, but this reflects modern classifications, not ancient ones. At best, the laurel referred to is described as dark green and glossy, which may apply to a considerable number of toxic and non-toxic plants. Psychoactive plants were no doubt used by ancient priestesses and priests, but in this case it is simply not possible to be sure which one with such dangerous properties in small doses may or may not have been used.
A rather cynical explanation of the pythia's trances, based on the evidence of burned offerings of hemp, laurel (admittedly, whichever plant that was), and barley was that the priestess had simply used marijuana. Yet ancient authors were positive that the pythia inhaled fumes from the Earth, and most depictions of the oracle at work showed a woman holding a bowl of (possibly Kastalian) water in her left hand and a sprig of laurel in her right, looking not ecstatic or intoxicated so much as serious. It has taken recent geological and chemical studies to better answer the question of just what fumes, if any, the pythia was inhaling.
The rock beneath the temple at Delphi is far from homogeneous and unbroken. Cut by two crossing faults, the rock itself is a type of limestone containing hydrocarbons. The area is riddled with active and formerly active springs, indicating an active subsurface pore water system. All together, this translates into a system of cracks through which pore water or petrochemical gases could travel into the cave of the Delphic oracle. Examination of the chemical deposits at nearby dry springs revealed that the gas the pythia probably inhaled was ethylene. The gas can indeed produce an altered, ecstatic state, in the sense of pleasantly happy rather than the violent raving implied by some reconstructions. Unfortunately Greece is tectonically quite active, and eventually Earth movements if not outright quakes 'shut the valve' stopping up the source of inspiration.
Until then, the priestess whose job it was to prophesy that day would bathe in the Kastalian spring herself, drink water from the Kassotis, then enter the sacred precinct to breathe the fumes before hearing and answering questions.
Yet another and little known competing hypothesis begins from the tradition that a swarm of bees lead people to the Delphic oracle. Assuming that the oracle's experience was hallucinatory and based on the actions of some psychoactive chemical, Jonathan Ott suggests that by observation of the nectar and pollen gathering habits of bees together with the effects of their honeys at different times of the year, ancient peoples identified psychoactive plants. A Homeric hymn speaks of 'green honey' as a food that the Delphic priestess needed to consume in order to prophesy. Better yet, Hera and Aphrodite were both associated with ambrosia and nectar keeping, and ambrosia has been connected to the Indo-European concept of a substance made from a psychoactive plant, soma/haoma. Aphrodite has important connections to honey via Kyprus. Then being 'lead to the oracle' would not mean being shown to a particular place, but being taught how to prophesy accurately.
Ingenious as it is, this explanation cannot deal with several points. The magical nature of Delphi is strongly connected to the cave shrine as a liminal place of communication with the divine. The term 'green honey' used for the first spring product of the hives comes from a later period than the establishment of the oracle at Delphi. The general use of the term 'bee' for priestess is also a later development. Finally, the Delphic shrine is strongly symbolic of the female genitals, and women's sexual fluids were often figuratively referred to as 'honey,' tying in neatly with scurrilous stories of the pythia prophesying via ecstatic orgasm.
Themis, ruler of the 'abyssal sea' and sometimes incarnate as a fish, whale, or dolphin probably leant the oracle it's later name, and bull sacrifices continued to the trinity of Earth-Moon-Sea long after Apollo was installed in the shrine. At least four other Goddesses besides Gaea-Themis-Artemis were worshipped at Delphi. There was Phemenoe 'nimble speaker' inventor of the hexameter verse every Delphic prophecy was cast in, Kassotis of the spring, and two Moirae, one of Birth and one of Death. Or, a querent could visit the independent oracle of Korykia in a different cave above Delphi. This oracle was presided over by a triple Goddess, most often identified as the Thriae: Korykia 'follower of the maiden,' Daphnis 'laurel,' and Thuia 'mortar or cup.' Sometimes the oracle was tended by three Muses instead: Kephisso 'sparrow,' Apollonis 'destroyer, she who reckons, she who counts the time,' and Borysthenis 'Northern Goddess.'
Yet another method of predicting the future was used there. Pebbles were placed in bowls of water, and either the pebbles were marked, they were chosen for shape or colour, or the water was used for scrying after certain pebbles were thrown in. The Thriae were also connected to bees and honey, and so may have been funerary or chthonic in nature.
Athena was also associated with Delphi, due to an unusual round tholos temple maintained in various forms since Neolithic times, almost a kilometre away from Delphi in a gateway-like position. The earliest versions of the temple certainly had nothing to do with Athena, and the 4th century BCE tholos is the first structure on the site that could have had such a connection. No inscriptions clearly designating the temple's deity have been found, although a pottery shard has been found with what may be one of Athena's titles scratched on it. A stronger argument for the round tholos belonging to Athena is an even earlier temple behind it, which is indeed dedicated to her.
Before the greed for power and treasure drove an army of Apollo's worshippers to attack it, Delphi was a training centre for female prophets. The title phoebad or phoebas gradually ceased to refer specifically to the seers of Mount Parnassus and began to refer to seers in general. The Delphic prophet was set apart by the title Pythia or Promantissa 'first prophet.' Students and pilgrims carried the six 'Pythian Maxims' all over the ancient world, and they provide metaphors to various western languages. The Maxims are:
The high priestess of Delphi held the power of life and death even over the half-divine children of Zeus in Greek mythology. Xenoklea 'famed guest' ordered both the labours and the execution of Herakles.
Long after the climactic events three hundred years before the fall of Troy that drove the original priestesses from Delphi, it remained a source of calendars, dances, music, and festivals. The Pythian games were nearly a rival to the Olympics, though Strabo wrote the original contests were in poetry, not sports. They were continued even after the patriarchal takeover at first for fear of the Goddess, then for fear of the pious populace. One of the last people to order the stripping of the Delphic treasuries was the Roman dictator Sulla who paid his soldiers from the proceeds. Years afterward, commentators attributed his unpleasant demise to this act. The oracle only faded from influence after the introduction of monotheistic, completely god-centred religions.
The Mortal Delphic Prophets:
Theoklea 'divinely famous' also called Themistoklea 'famous oracle'
Aristonike 'highest justice'
Phemonoe 'nimble speaker'
Psyche 'soul or butterfly'
Herophile 'beloved of Hera,' first Delphic Prophet known to the Romans as a Sibyl
Sabbe of Palestine
The priestesses of Cybele shared a long heritage stretching back to Neolithic times, when their contemporaries were sometimes trepanned for spiritual purposes. Their work comes down to us as the foundation of astronomy, astrology, mathematics, measurement, and literature. The word 'mathematic' itself has Greek roots, 'math-' for 'learned' and 'mat-/met-' for mother or measurer.
The original Chaldean astrologers were these self-same mothers, priestesses renowned for their ability to predict eclipses. They studied the movements of the Moon against the stars, defining the original zodiac as the Moon Goddess' twenty-eight houses. Their Goddess was Al-Uzza, the deity first represented by the yoni-marked Kaaba in Mecca. Prior to the Islamic takeover of the shrine, it had been cared for exclusively by menopausal priestesses who danced seven times naked around the stone on each sabbath. The later Greek and Roman priestesses of Cybele were usually titled Delphis, Pythia, or Sibyl. 'Pythia' was a more restricted title, borne only by priestesses who were fifty years old or more.
There were ten particularly famous Sibyls, of: Persia, Libya, Delphi, Samos, Kimmeria, Erythraea, the Tiber, Marpessus, Phrygia, and Kumae. The Sibyl of Kumae was best known for the way she treated her prophecies, which she wrote on leaves and left outside of her cave to blow away if uncollected. She was the original high priestess of the Etruscans, and Rome made great efforts to claim her as their own so they could claim divine justification for the subjugation of Tuscany. Later the city of Mantua (Mantova) would be named after the prophet Manto (who was also called Tisiphone).
The Kumaean Sibyl inhabited a cave twenty five metres up the side of Mount Kumae, found again nearly seventy years ago. The narrow passage from its entrance is over 130 metres long and trapezoidal, an ingenious design that is earthquake resistant. It was lit, not by torches but by a series of windows cut through the rock on either side. The main cave itself has an 18 metre high ceiling, and after archaeologists had cleared away the debris inside, they discovered six galleries had been cut out of the rock. These galleries opened onto the sea, contributing to the cave's ventilation. Passages lead to the Sibyl's audience chamber, Mount Avernus with its ancient volcanic crater, and a set of cisterns. Like the area around the Delphic oracle, Mount Kumae is in a geologically active area pocked with active volcanoes and hotsprings. It is not yet clear whether the Kumaean sibyl also used gases emitted by the Earth in the same way as the Delphic priestesses. However, with so many heat sources conveniently near, she may have used fasting and sweating to alter her consciousness instead.
Still other Sibyls were famous for their travels. Herophile, born in Marpessus, travelled to Claros, Samos, Delos, and Delphi, a trip strongly suggestive of a pilgrimage. She later founded a temple on the Troad. Six Sibyls had their names or at least an unusual aspect recorded:
Lamia 'female serpent,' daughter of Neso 'youth,' from Libya.
Herophile 'beloved of Hera,' the second Sibyl biorn in Marpessus who sat on a stone to prophesy. Apollonian priests attempted to take over her shrine only to be driven out by the furious populace.
The Sibyl of Erythrae, born in a cave on Mount Koryon, said to have lived one thousand years.
Demophile of Kumae, nicknamed Melankraena 'the blackheaded.'
Deiphobe 'one who drives away fear,' another Kumaean Sibyl.
Albunea/Albuna, who lived in a sacred grove near the Tiber. Her name may be related to an older name for the Tiber, Albula, which was eventually applied exclusively to sulphurous springs nearby.
Phyto of Samos.
Lybica of Rome.
In turn, each place with ann associated prophetic priestess, some of Cybele, some not, had its own sigil, used when their prophecies were sent out. The sigils listed here date from christian efforts to make the Sibyls more palatable to the church, and are probably not the originals.
Kumae - stone manger
Delphi - crown of laurel
Erythreia - white rose, sword
Europa - sword
Hellespontia - flowering branch
Karia - reed, candle
Kimmeria - cross
Libya - lighted torch
Persica - lantern, woman with serpent under her feet
Phrygia - woman carrying banner predicting the resurrection
Tibertine - woman wearing animal skins, carrying a bag of rocks
Agdestis - rocky one
Alma - nourishing one
Antaea - approachable by prayer; light
Arinna - queen of the Hatti
Augusta - great one
Berekynthia/Berekunthia - Running Goddess, bringer of wisdom; once a separate Goddess
Brimo - furious one
Dindymene - strength of the whirlpool (tentative) from shrine on Phrygian Mount Dindymia, itself named for a Goddess often considered her mother
Genetrix - she that has borne
Louaios - loosener, deliverer
Misa - a mysterious divinity who may have been an alternate form of Cybele
Pessinuntia - of the Phrygian city of Pessinus, may mean 'virgin'
Sagaritis - double edged sword; originally Phrygian tree Goddess
Sanctissima - most holy one
Turrigera - tower bearing, she of the towers
Anatolian in origin, her name means 'she of the ax,' specifically the labrys. One of the most ancient double ax shrines is in Labranda, a place named the Anatolian language equivalent of 'labyrinth.' Oracles were taken from the behaviour of the fish in Cybele's sacred pool, which were never eaten or captured, and the penalty for doing either was severe. She was Great Mother of All and Lady of Wild Things to many Anatolian Amazons and allied gylanic tribes, the first teacher of the sacred dances. Rhea on Krete is one of her descendants, who also carried the labrys and inherited Cybele's lawgiving aspect and physical strength. Of the many Goddesses worshipped in Anatolia, Cybele travelled the farthest, carried everywhere her Amazons travelled, and was so awe-inspiring she became part of the religious framework of every group who invaded Asia Minor.
The Hittites began to worship her after taking over the land of the Hatti, a mysterious non-Indo-European group who have all but vanished from the archaeological and written record. They considered their king Midas, his rank symbolized by his ass ears, her son. He died by drinking bull's blood, a substance so taboo it was believed only Earth and Moon priestesses of Cybele could drink it and live. Modern suggestions that the bull's blood may have been left to sit and become a vehicle for botulism poisoning are as disingenuous as suggestions that the Hebrews refused to eat pork because of the risk of trichinosis. No one in the ancient world understood the actual causes of disease. They believed that all illnesses were caused by some sort of spirit or divine being. A substance was poisonous or otherwise forbidden because it was set aside as sacred.
The next prominent invaders who took up Cybele's worship were the patriarchal Phrygians, who called her Mater Kubileya, a name that seems to mean 'Mountain Mother.' The Lydians, a people indigenous to Anatolia called her Kyvava, while the Ionian Greeks called her Kybebe, their rendition of Kubaba, a name of the protector of Karkamish. It is worth taking a moment here to examine the Phrygian story of Cybele's birth, repeated by Diodorus Siculus in his twelve book History.
According to Diodorus, the Goddess started out as a mortal whose misfortune was to have the ancient king Meon as a father. Uninterested in raising a daughter, immediately after her birth he had her exposed on Mount Sipylus, which is near Smyrna. But then, by 'some foresight of the Goddess' wild animals including leopards and lions came to protect and feed her until she was found by shepherdesses. Astonished, the women picked up the mysterious baby, and naming her 'Cybele' for the mountain, and raised her to adulthood. Cybele rapidly became famous for her wisdom, beauty, inventiveness, and skill at healing illnesses through ritual and cleansing. Diodorus stated that the Phrygians referred to her as 'Mother of Mountains' because she was especially energetic and kindly towards animals and small children. However, it seems clear that the Goddess Cybele was, like the Goddess Medusa, considered a mountain creator. After the tragic loss of her nurse-shepherdesses and her lover due to the continuing cruelty of Meon, Cybele went travelling over the Earth. A famine and plague fell on Meon's people, which was finally ended by Cybele's apotheosis, the establishment of temples and rites in her honour, and the annual festival in memory of her lover. Ultimately Cybele was said to have died at the same place she was 'reborn,' Mount Sipylus.
Considering that the various skills and interests of Cybele correspond so well with the activities of priestesses, the story can be seen as a rationalization of them as well as one of many on the theme of an unwanted child saved by divine will.
Cybele was strongly associated with caves and aniconic, preferably meteoric stones. The Latinized form of her name, Sibyl, meant 'cavern dweller' because the Goddess was believed to live within caves in the Earth. Anatolia's karst topography, a rugged, pitted structure produced by years of water dissolving and redepositing limestone, is a veritable warren of caves. Until approximately 5 000 years ago, the ground above was covered in groves of oak, streams, and rolling pastures. Cybele's priestesses established shrines at many thermal springs, caves, and mysterious flames emerging from rocky clefts. One such flame, the famous Chimera 'she goat,' Yanartash in Turkish, still burns in the mountains of Turkey, defying any scientific attempts to explain its composition or how it continues to burn. Set between its upper and lower flames is a church, built over the ruins of Cybele's original temple. The Sibyls healed and taught just as other priestesses did, but became most famous for prophesying from the depths of caves like followers of Themis.
Aniconic stones were part of many Amazon temples, from the one in the shrine of Artemis-Cybele on the Black Sea island of Aretias to the Mount Idas of Krete and the Troad. These weren't just suitably sized stones but meteoric stones, considered especially holy because they had fallen from the sky, changing colour from white to black as they oxidized. Typically the stones were engraved with her sacred law, a yoni, or the Goddess' name. One such stone was brought to Rome by order of the Kumaean Sibyl from its Phrygian cave... or so the Romans, whose magpie's nest of stolen religious icons now lies hidden in the Vatican, would have us believe. In any case, the event birthed a huge procession and numerous myths and miracle tales. These were the seeds of later saintly acts typically performed by their bones, a gruesome alteration of the concept of rocks and mountains as the bones of the Earth Goddess.
Unlike later worshippers, Cybele's earlier Anatolian followers and Amazons didn't spend time and effort building her edifices of stone. Instead, they climbed her mountains and carved giant images of her into them, like at Mount Sipylus, also called Cybelus. Carved into the side of the mountain, larger than life was the Goddess herself, perched just above a spring. Later the Greeks explained this statue as the tragic Goddess Niobe. Other times, doors and mock building fronts were cut into sheer cliff faces in her honour to symbolize her ability to pass freely to and from the underworld. Two such mysterious façades are cut into the cliffs on either side of the Thermodon river.
The major centres of Cybele's worship were Mount Ida, Mount Sipylus (in Greek Cybelus or Cybelon), Sardis, Kyzikus, Pessinus in Galatia, Ephesus, and Athens. Hierapolis began its existence under her protection, represented by the priestesses who first guarded the cave to the south of her temple there. This cave was called the Plutonium, and even now it fills periodically with poisonous gases to which only the priestesses were considered immune. Cybele was worshipped all over Asia Minor, Italy, Greece (where she had three temples in Athens alone), Arkadia, the Balkans, North Africa (where she was called Sipylene), and territory around the Danube and the Rhine, an area neatly encompassing all Amazon territory. Athouda, a city near the Karian border was dedicated to her, and her Amazon daughter Nikaea 'victorious' founded a city named for herself, a later unofficial centre of Cybele's worship. The Hebrews knew her and called her Maerah 'cave.'
The rites of Cybele were hugely popular, her festivals (ludi, 'games') faithfully attended, full of singing and playing of the double flute and kythara, along with Cybele's musical inventions: the pan pipes, cymbals, and tympanum. These last three were always used for sacred music. Her great Solstice festival contributed the 'christmas' tree. One of Cybele's greatest festivals was the Megalesia, which usually fell around April 4th, and took over the cities it was celebrated in, first Athens, later Rome. The shifts in religious sensibility developed by new ascetic sects helped encourage dangerously extreme behaviour, and Cybele's worshippers sometimes became so frenzied they may have inspired later Greek tales of the Maenads. This misdirected fervour reappears frequently in strongly patriarchal societies, in phenomena such as pillar sitting and self-flagellation.
The ritual of baptism with bull's blood was also popular, analogous to the worship of Artemis Tauropolos and Mithras. In Cybele's case, the bull was supposed to represent Atthis, her lover who embodied each dying year. Augustus himself along with Claudius and many other prominent Romans considered Cybele the supreme deity of the empire, synonymous with Juno. The site of her temple was so holy that when the political arm of the christian church completed its bloody takeover of Rome, the vatican was built on it.
Cybele's child was the hermaphrodite Agdestis, an altered symbol of her sometimes co-ed colleges. The Daktyls were occasionally considered her attendants rather than the offspring of Rhea's strength. Amazons carried her all the way to Scandinavia, where her name shifted from Phrygia to Frigga and Freya. As Frigga she was the Queen of Heaven, forever spinning life, sunlight, and clouds. The star pocked sky was her jeweled distaff, the Sun sometimes her breast, sometimes her spindle whorl. As Sun Goddess, she guided Scandinavian sailors, who found her even on a cloudy day with quartz polarizing lenses. Finally, as Freya, Cybele was Queen of Cats and Chief of the Valkyries, the great tribe of Northern European Amazons, who often called her Syrith.
How Freya and Frigga were portrayed is continuous with the original costume of Cybele herself. Naked or clothed, she always wore a high turret crown or headdress symbolizing her dominion over cities and mountains. This image of Cybele flanked by lions is extremely ancient. Clay and stone figures of her have been found dating as far back as the Neolithic. Her worship continues mainly in secret on Anatolian mountains up to the present day.
Laphria - a somewhat mysterious Delphic festival of Cybele, possibly related to the Festival of the Wild Woman held in honour of Semele in some areas of Greece
Megalesia - a Roman festival held each April 14th at the start of the year, including the Megalerias, games in honour of Cybele.