One and Many: Mother Goddesses at the Ancient Black Sea

Dobrinka Chiekova

The names of the Mother(s)

Meter, Meter Theōn, Meter Kybeleia, Pontia, Zerynthia, Reskynthis, Kotyto, Ganea, Tereia, Aksiokersa, Bendis, Basileia: these are all names and epithets of a prominent female deity worshipped in ancient Thrace and the western Black Sea region, as attested by ancient authors, dedicatory inscriptions, images on coins and reliefs, and numerous statuettes.[1]

Inevitably, a question arises: are these the names and epithets of a single Mother Goddess, or do they designate distinct goddesses? What unites and what differentiates them? Was the Mother of Gods that the Greeks worshipped in the western Black Sea colonies the same deity as the Mother Goddess that was worshipped by the Thracians in the region under different names? If so, how were the two related? And a particularly interesting question – what does our evidence reveal about the interactions between communities with different religious and cultural traditions, since the Black Sea lies at the outskirts of the Greek and Roman worlds and was a well-known area of cultural interaction?

These are all absorbing, if also complex and tangled, questions raised by a larger ongoing project I’m involved in. Here however, I will focus on a narrower aspect of the worship of Meter (“The Mother”) on the western – or as the ancient Greeks called it the “left” – coast of the ancient Black Sea.

Settlements around the ancient Black Sea.


Representations of Cybele found in the western Black Sea correspond closely with her well-established features in the Greek world: the goddess is often depicted seated on a throne in a small temple, dressed in a long chiton (an Ancient Greek garment made from wool or linen) and a himation (mantle or wrap), holding a libation cup in her right hand and a tambourine in her left hand; her face is framed by two braids falling on her shoulders; there is a kalathos (a ritual basket in the form of top hat) on her head, and sometimes a corona muralis (a crown in the shape of city wall). The lion, a characteristic element within Cybele’s iconography, appears resting in her lap or as a bigger figure next to the throne. There are traces of red and pink paint on some statuettes.

A small temple (naiskos) with Cybele of the 4th century BC (National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece).

A Chance Discovery

In 2004, during construction works in the coastal town of Balchik on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, a small Hellenistic-era temple was discovered. The modern town was built in the sixteenth century on the site of ancient Dionysopolis – which was named, according to local legend, the ‘’city of Dionysus’’ after a statue of the god washed up on shore. In fact, settlers from Miletus, an important city in Asia Minor, founded Dionysopolis in the sixth century BC. Chance finds like this are not at all unusual for Bulgaria along its Black Sea coast, which has been inhabited by successive groups of people since prehistoric times.[2]

Modern Balchik, ancient Dionysopolis.

Inside the small rectangular building (8.5 x 11m) in Balchik, archaeologists unearthed statues, reliefs and more than 30 inscriptions on stone slabs. The dedications reveal that the tutelary deity of the temple was the Pontic Mother of Gods (Μήτηρ Θεῶν Ποντία, Mētēr Theōn Pontia). The temple is referred to as Metrōon (Μητρῷον, or “Temple of the Mother”), and had played an important role in the civic life of Dionysopolis, serving as a repository for many of the city’s honorific decrees.[3]

Marble aedicule, of the 1st to 3rd century AD, with depiction of the Pontic Mother of Gods from her temple in Dionysopolis (reproduced from Lazarenko et al. (2013), 37, fig. 32: see Further Reading).

Several votive inscriptions survive. Two of them, dating from the first or second century AD, mention two priestesses of the goddess, one named Mamasisis and the other with the Thracian name Zouke, and go on to describe rituals reserved for the female citizens of Dionysopolis. There is a kind of magic in these ancient documents carved on stone that preserve the memory of the festivities, colors, aromas, tastes, and sheer joyfulness of the occasion: flowers needed to be collected, sacrifices to be performed, processions to be organized and feasts prepared, where all female citizens of Dionysopolis were treated to food and sweet wine.[4] It is important to mention that the goddess had male worshipers and priests in her service as well, whose names the dedications memorialize.

The appellation of the goddess as Pontic (Pontiā) is in itself fascinating, since it is not previously attested in the Greek world specifically for Meter (“the Mother”). However, Pontia, as well as Euploia (‘Of good sailing’) and Nauarchis (‘Ruler/Leader of Ships’), are used for Aphrodite in other parts of the Greek world including other Black Sea colonies such as Istros, Olbia, Pantikapaion, and Apollonia Pontike. Such terms manifest her important patronage of sea travel and sailors.

An 18th-century print of Anacharsis, based on an ancient engraved gem.

This designation of the Mother Goddess as protector of seafarers resonates with stories in literary texts, such as the one told by Herodotus about the visit of the Scythian sage Anacharsis in Kyzikos on the coast of Sea of Marmara (ancient Propontis). Anacharsis, Herodotus tells us, joined in the celebrations of the Mother Goddess and offered a sacrifice to her for a safe return to his homeland on the northern coast of Pontos (or Pontos Euxeinos, “the Hospitable Sea,” as the Greeks called the Black Sea).

For when Anacharsis was coming back to the Scythian country after having seen much of the world in his travels and given many examples of his wisdom, he sailed through the Hellespont and put in at Cyzicus; where, finding the Cyzicenes celebrating the feast of the Mother of the Gods with great ceremony, he vowed to this same Mother that if he returned to his own country safe and sound he would sacrifice to her as he saw the Cyzicenes doing, and establish a nightly rite of worship.” (trans. A.D. Godley)[5]

Herodotus’ tale links the patronage of sea travel with the geographic, Black Sea aspect of the appellation Pontia, and the evidence suggests that both were present in the goddess’ worship in Dionysopolis. Such polysemy, or multiple simultaneous meanings, is not an uncommon trait of divine names and epithets.

Ancient bust of Herodotus (Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy).

The Phrygian Cybele

Cybele, the Mountain Mother, is a renowned goddess in the ancient Mediterranean world.  She was the main deity in the pantheon of the Phrygians, a people who according to ancient literary sources migrated into Asia Minor from Thrace in the early first millennium BC.[6] She was later adopted and worshiped by the Greeks and then by the Romans, albeit with different names. In dedications or other types of documents inscribed on stone, she is usually  invoked simply as Mother or the Great Mother — Meter (in Greek), Magna Mater (in Latin) or Mater Deum Idaea (“The Mother of Gods from Ida”),[7] while in the literary sources she is more often named Cybele, the Greek theonym (divine name) derived from the Phrygian epithet Kubeleia/Cybeleia (“Of the Mountain”).

Her worship was accepted in the Greek cities in Ionia (on the western coast of Asia Minor) probably from the seventh century BC and in mainland Greece from the sixth century. She was later identified with the Titaness Rhea, mother of Zeus and other Olympian gods in Greek mythology, and worshipped as Meter Theōn (“Mother of (the) Gods”). In Phrygia, her name was simply Matar (“the Mother”). However, her functions don’t seem to have been motherly, i.e. as some kind of protector of children; instead they seem to have been primarily political. Cybele’s patronage guaranteed the legitimacy of the Phrygian ruler and the prosperity of the Phrygian State. Some sources associate with the Mother the performance of secret initiations rites, a fascinating but still poorly-understood and much-debated aspect of her worship.[8]

Arslankaya (or “lion rock”) monument of the early 6th century BC, near Afyon in Turkey. This is a shrine of Cybele, carved onto a freestanding, natural rock formation, depicting the architectural façade of a building. In the triangular pediment are presented two sphinxes (winged lions with human heads) opposite each other; within the niche is carved the figure of the goddess.

The Mother on the western coast of the Black Sea

Cybele had a significant following in the cities on the western Black Sea coast, from the foundation of colonies in the sixth century BC to the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD. If we compare the abundance of archaeological evidence for Cybele with material that attests to the worship of other deities, the Mother of Gods was one of the most important divinities in the region. Evidently the first Greek colonists brought her worship over from their own mother cities.

The story however becomes even more complex and interesting in light of archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources, all of which testify that a prominent female deity dominated the religious landscape of ancient Thrace (the region that included approximately what are now northern Greece, European Turkey, Bulgaria, south-eastern Romania). She was worshiped in rock-cut sanctuaries; her local names often evoke those of mountains. Her image appears on exquisite gold and silver objects originating from different parts of Thrace, as well as on paintings in the tombs of Thracian aristocrats.

Gold ring of the late 5th or early 4th century BC found in Brezovo, Bulgaria. A Horseman is moving towards a female figure, who extends towards him a rhyton.

The meaning of these images remains an object of intense scholarly debate but it seems likely that the Thracian goddess was seen as the protector of Thracian dynasts or aristocrats, just as Matar was associated with the rulers in Phrygia. The Phrygian and Thracian goddesses seem to have several features in common, including worship in open-air rock sanctuaries, representations on monuments accompanied by wild animals (lions and birds of prey such as hawks and falcons); and connections with Phrygian and Thracian ruling elite respectively.

Marble relief from the territory of Tomis (modern Constanța in Romania). The Thracian Rider approaches an altar, a snake coils itself round a tree, and a goddess with the iconography of Cybele sits on a throne flanked by two lions. Dated to the Roman period (reproduced from Margarita Tacheva-Hitova’s Eastern Cults in Moesia Inferior and Thracia (Brill, Leiden, 1983) II,55 a.)

The Goddess and the Rider

A series of monuments found in the western Black Sea colonies depict the famous Thracian deity known as the “Thracian Rider” together with a goddess. This figure looks in many ways like Cybele but must instead be interpreted as the local Thracian goddess. The “Thracian Rider” appears on more than 4,000 dedicatory monuments found in the wider context of ancient Thrace, but remains an enigmatic figure and object of numerous interpretations.[9]

Scene of the 3rd century BC painted on the lunette of the funerary chamber in a tumulus tomb near Sveshtari, Bulgaria. A female figure is crowning the Thracian (Getian) aristocrat (reproduced with permission from Malvina Rousseva’s Thracian Cult Architecture (NOUS, Iambol, 2000) 142).

The fact that the goddess appearing on monuments of the Thracian Rider found in the west Black Sea area adopted the iconographic traits of Cybele, suggests that the Thracians living in the colonies and their surroundings recognized the continuum between a Thracian Goddess and the Greek Mother of Gods. However, they also perceived a distinction. Hints in this direction are provided by the variations in the portrayal of the goddess facing the Rider on some monuments, compared to the typical one of Cybele.

The Thracian Rider approaching a female figure, Roman period, perhaps of the 2nd or 3rd century AD (Madara Museum, Bulgaria).

The phenomenon of what could tentatively be called “double vision” or a “dual mode” of worship can be traced in numerous other instances of cultural contacts across the ancient Mediterranean. One such example comes from the Aegean island of Kos and reveals the blending of Greek and Phoenician traditions in the worship of the pair Aphrodite Pandemos (“Aphrodite of all People”) and Aphrodite Pontia/Astarte (Aphrodite in her role as protector of mariners, identified as the Phoenician Astarte in a bilingual inscription) – in identical adjacent temples, with two treasuries and two altars but only one priestess in charge of both cults.

The Thracian Rider approaching an altar and a tree with an intertwined snake. The female figure represented on some images in front of the Rider is replaced here by a herm. Perhaps of the 2nd or 3rd century AD. (Histria Archaeological Museum, Romania).

A comparable dynamic seems to be at play as well in the worship of the Thracian goddess Bendis in Athens described in the famous beginning of Plato’s Republic. Socrates mentions the new celebration of the Bendideia – the festival in honor of Bendis – in the Athenian harbour of Piraeus, and he comments on two separate processions, for the same deity, at the same festival, one of the locals and one of the Thracians.[10] A potential explanation for this division would be the difference in status between citizens and resident foreigners, which didn’t allow for a single procession to take place. It is likely, however, that the existence of two processions was also due to traditional, ritual distinctions, which was natural for the Greek and Thracian participants to uphold.

A third-century BC inscription from Piraeus may be suggestive in this regard: it is a decree of the Athenian Assembly pertaining to the formation of a new Thracian religious association. The decree states that the immigrant group (ἔθνος, ethnos) will sacrifice and conduct the ritual both in accordance with their ancestral traditions – κατά τε τὰ πάτρια τῶν Θραικῶν, and in accordance with the laws of the city – κατὰ τοὺς τῆς πόλ[εως νόμου]|ς. [11]

The Thracian goddess Bendis and a group of worshipers: votive stele from Piraeus, 400-370 BC, and thus roughly contemporary with Plato’s Republic (British Museum, London).

Sameness and difference in the forms of the Mother

The epigraphic and archaeological evidence which has come to light in the western Black Sea cities and their surroundings demonstrates the preeminence of Cybele as protector of the civic communities and their sea travelers. On the other hand, a Mother Goddess, related to the Phrygian Matar, was worshiped in Thrace and on the Thracian coast of the Black Sea before the arrival of the Greek settlers (or apoikoi, “people who had separated from their homeland”) in the seventh century BC. The Greeks had brought along their own Hellenized version of the Phrygian Mother. Both they and the Thracians, who weren’t always friendly or peaceful towards one another throughout their centuries of living side by side, were able to recognize both the commonalities and the distinct traditions of this complex divinity. It is indeed remarkable that religion, although one of the most important markers of cultural identity in the ancient world, was at the same time an essential pathway to recognizing familiarity and closeness, and to building cultural bridges between communities.

Dobrinka Chiekova teaches Ancient History at The College of New Jersey. Her research focuses on various aspects of the history and epigraphy of the Greek city-states on the ancient Black Sea. Her monograph Cultes et vie religieuse des cités grecques du Pont Gauche explores the religious traditions and cultural interactions in the region.

Further Reading

For an in-depth study of the various traditions in the worship of the Mother in the ancient Mediterranean world from prehistory to the Roman period see: Lynn Roller, In Search of God the Mother. The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999) and Philippe Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, MD/London, 2004; translated by Lysa Hochroth of La mère des Dieux, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1996.)

On the iconography of Cybele see Friederike Naumann, Die Ikonographie der Kybele in der Phrygischen und der Griechischen Kunst (E. Wasmuth. Tübingen, 1983).

On the temple of the Mother in Balchik, see Igor Lazarenko, Elina Mircheva, Radostina Encheva, Daniela Stoyanova and Nicolay Sharankov, The Temple of the Pontic Mother of Gods in Dionysopolis (Slavena, Varna, 2013) which can be read here.

On the religion of the western Black Sea, see my Cultes et vie religieuse des cités grecques du Pont Gauche (VIIe-Ier siècle av. J.-C.) (Peter Lang, Bern/Oxford, 2008).

For a new in-depth study of goddesses on the northern coast of the Black Sea, see David Braund, Greek Religion and Cults in the Black Sea region. Goddesses in the Bosporan Kingdom from the Archaic Period to the Byzantine Era (Cambridge UP, 2018).

On the interactions of Greek and Phoenician religious traditions in the Hellenistic period, see Corinne Bonnet, Les enfants de Cadmos. Le paysage religieux de la Phénicie hellénistique (Editions de Boccard, Paris, 2015).

On the double temple of Aphrodite in Kos, see Robert Parker, “The cult of Aphrodite Pandemos and Pontia on Cos,” in H.F.J. Horstmanshoff, H.W Singor, F.T. Van Straten and J.H.M. Strubbe (edd.), Kykeon: Studies in Honor of H.S. Versnel (Brill, Leiden, 2002) 143–60.

On the iconography of the Thracian Rider, see Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae VI.1-2 (1992), s.v. Heros Equitans.


1 This piece is based on my article “The Great Mother Goddess on the Thracian Coast of Pontos Euxeinos,” forthcoming in Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia (Brill, Leiden).
2 In 1972, near the lake next to the Bulgarian seaport Varna (ancient Odessos), an unsuspecting tractor-driver hit upon a golden scepter and gold bracelets, which turned out to be part of a splendid trove of burial gifts, dating back to the fifth millennium BC. These beautifully fashioned golden ornaments were used to adorn the bodies of prehistoric potentates. For more about the extraordinary Varna Necropolis see here.
3 Honorific decrees are an important category of Ancient Greek inscriptions: they record the honors which the city-states granted to various benefactors of the community, and constitute an invaluable resource for the study of Greek political culture.
4 ἀγαθῆι τύχηι·/ Μητρὶ θεῶν Πον-/ τίαι Μαμασισις Ἕλλη-/ νος θυγάτηρ, γυνὴ δὲ/ Μητροδώρου τοῦ Ἀν-/ δρικίωνος, ἱερωμένη/ ἠνθολογήσεν τῇ θεῷ,/ θυσίας τε καὶ πομπὰς/ ἐπισήμους παρέστη-/ σεν, εὐώχησεν τε καὶ/ ἐγλύκισεν πάσας/ πολείτιδας ἀξίως/ κα[ὶ π]ρεπόντως (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 60, 775). “To good fortune. To the Pontic Mother of Gods (dedicated) Mamasisis, daughter of Hellen, wife of Metrodoros son of Andrikion. As priestess she collected flowers for the Goddess, offered noteworthy sacrifices and processions, sumptuously entertained and treated with sweet wine all female citizens in dignified and befitting way.”
5 Herodotus, Histories, 4.76.2–3, the Greek text of which can be read here. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 1.1092–1152 relates the myth of Jason and the Argonauts establishing the worship of the Mother Goddess on Mount Dindymon near Kyzikos, in order to propitiate the deity and obtain fair sailing conditions: the text can be read in Greek here and English here. Vergil’s Aeneid (2.5–6) has Aeneas acquire the timber to build his ships from the pine trees sacred to Magna Mater on the Trojan Mount Ida: you can explore the Latin and English here.
6 Primarily Herodotus, Histories, 1.73 and 8.138, and Strabo, Geographica 7.3.2, 14.5.29 and 12.8.3.
7 The epithet is connected with Mount Ida in the region of ancient Troy, homonymous with Mount Ida in Crete, which was sacred to the goddess Rhea.
8 One of the most famous references appears in Catullus 63, a poem that associates Cybele’s tambourine (tympanum) with initia – the word designating secret initiation rites or objects in their celebration.
9 The reliefs of the Rider can be divided into two functional groups, votive and funerary, which are united by a pattern embracing several variants. The main elements are: the Rider is hunting or coming back from the hunt; usually he carries a spear in his hand; he is sometimes accompanied by a dog; the hunted animal is generally a boar. Typically the representation is limited on the right side by a tree with an intertwined snake and/or by an altar. On several monuments the Rider is moving toward a standing female figure whose hand is raised in a gesture of benediction or salutation. On monuments from the Black Sea the figure is sitting.
10 Plato Republic 1.1 = 327a, which can be read in Greek and English here.
11 IG (Inscriptiones Graecae) II2 1283: see here, and the translation here.