Maia (and Maiesta)

Category: Gods > Chthonic Gods

1 Introduction

Near my hometown of Regensburg, castra Regina in Latin, there was once a little sanctuary of Mercury and Maia, with an altar “to the god Mercury and (his) mother Maia” dedicated by a Roman centurio, C. Servandius Serotinus and his son Servandius Serotinus.* Mercury, or Hermes in Greek, is of course well-known; but who is this goddess Maia, and why was she worshipped by Roman soldiers in what is now the south of Germany?

*There are images of the altar on Ubi erat lupa (off-site link).

2 Mythology

The obvious answer, already contained in the altar inscription, would be genealogical. In the words of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, “Maia, a Nymph of beautiful hair, bore him after mingling in love with Zeus” (ll. 3–4), and it is as mother of Hermes that she is most famous. This is one reason why she received sacrifices with him, in the same way that Leto was most often venerated in connection with her children Apollon and Artemis.

However, unlike other Nymphs* who seem to be little more than a name in someone’s genealogy, Maia has a mythical genealogy of her own. She and her six sisters, the Pleiades, are the daughters of Plēïonē and the Titan Atlas. Each of the seven sisters has their own offspring, according to the myths, and they are immortalized as the seven stars of the constellation Pleiades. Servius says that Maia is called “bright” (candida Maia) by the poet Vergil because “among the Pleiades, she is especially luminous” (On the Aeneid 8.138; the same claim in Ovid, Fasti 5.85).

*Note that Maia is only rarely called a Nymph,
more usually simply a goddess.

3 Maia’s worship : two separate traditions

Of course, we cannot say whether the Servandii knew any of this Greek mythical lore (beyond the obvious fact of her being Hermes/Mercury’s mother) when they dedicated the altar. What they surely were aware of, however, was the Roman tradition of worshipping Maia, which, like many customs of the capital, soldiers took with them to the provinces. The most important source here is Macrobius’ Saturnalia, where of several possible origins for the name of the month of May (Maius), one is that it is derived from the goddess Maia, or at least a goddess Maia.

One opinion, attributed to Cingius, is that “the month is named after Maia, whom he calls the wife of Vulcan; and he uses as his argument that the flamen Vulcanalis” – an important priest of Vulcan at Rome – makes a sacrifice (res divina) to this goddess on the Kalends of May (May 1st)”. A problem with this theory is that, according to another authority, Cornelius Piso, “the wife of Vulcan is called Maiesta, not Maia” (ibid. 1.12.18). However, Aulus Gellius records that in certain Roman priestly books, the goddess Maia Volcani, ‘Maia of Vulcan’, is mentioned (Attic Nights 13.23.2).

Unnamed “others contend that Maia, the mother of Mercury, gave the month its name, and they argue this especially because in this month, all merchants sacrifice to Maia equally with Mercury” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.12.19). Specifically, a pregnant sow would be offered to her (ibid. 1.12.20)

These two deities – Maia Volcani (or Maiesta) and Maia the mother of Mercury/Hermes – seem to have little connection beyond their names. At any rate, Macrobius differentiates them (the scholars who say he conflates them have not read attentively), and their rituals also appear to have been entirely separate, the former being celebrated only by the flamen of Vulcan, the latter by a large part of the population of Rome. It must be this latter custom, of sacrificing to Maia and Mercury equally on some occasions, which is behind the dedication of one altar to both deities by the Servandii.

(If there is a convergence, it is only in the name: ordinarily, Greek Μαῖα should have been Latinized as Maea, but instead we have Maia or Maiia. This seems etymologically connected to the divine name Maiesta and the common noun maiestas, ‘greatness’.)

Outside of the Roman context, evidence of the goddess’ worship is much sparser. I have only been able to find out that “the priestesses of Maia assign the ringdove (or ‘wild pigeon’, phatta) to her” (Porphyry, On Abstinence 4.16), meaning the bird was sacred to her. Presumably, it also served as a sacrificial victim.

4 Interpreting Maia

But mythology and ritual are not all there is to know about a deity. It remains to consider the nature of Maia. The Platonic philosopher Porphyry says that “Maia is the same as Persephone”, and also Demeter, a “chthonic goddess” who is a “nurse (maia) and rearer” (On Abstinence 4.16).

Cornelus Labeo goes even further, making her not only a chthonic (‘earthly’) deity, but claiming “that this Maia, whose sacrifice is observed (res divina celebratur) in the month of May, is the Earth.” Referring to the similarity between Maia and words like maiestas and maior (‘greater’), Labeo argued “that she received this name from ‘magnitude’, just as (the Earth) is also called Mater Magna (‘Great Mother’) in the sacrifices (sacra), and he adds this to the satement of his opinion that a pregnant sow is sacrificed (mactatur) to her, which is the proper victim for the Earth. And they say that Mercury is joined to her in the sacrifices because the voice is giving to the humans growing up by contact with the Earth – and we know that Mercury has power over voice and speech” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.12.20). He adds to this that the foundation of the temple of Bona Dea, whom he again considers to be the Earth, was celebrated on May 1st.

(Despite this example of Earth and Maia being identified with each other,’s article on Maia is wrong to claim that Aeschylus already equated them in The Libation Bears 44. The phrase iō Gaia maia found there simply means “O mother Earth!” (ō Gē mētēr), as the ancient scholia rightly explain.)

Lydus 4.80: Νουμήνιος δὲ ὁ Ῥωμαῖος τὸν Ἑρμῆν τὸν προχωρητικὸν λόγον εἶναι βούλεται· οὐδὲ γάρ, φησι, πρότερον βρέφος φθέγξαιτο, πρὶν ἂν τῆς γῆς ἐφάψαιτο, ὥστε Μαῖαν εἰς γῆν καλῶς ἐξελάμβανον οἱ πολλοί. καὶ καθ‘ ἕτερον δὲ ἱερὸν λόγον ὁ Φοντήϊος χρῆναι τιμᾶσθαι τὴν γῆν ἐν ταῖς Καλένδαις Μαΐαις λέγει, ὅτι τὴν ἔμφυτον θέρμην ἐπὶ τὴν ἐπιφάνειαν ἡ γῆ ἀναβράζουσα γαυριᾶν ὥσπερ καὶ σκιρτᾶν ἐξαγομένη σάλους ἐμποιεῖ ὡς ἐπίπαν κατὰ τὸν Μάϊον μῆνα. τιμῶσιν οὖν κατὰ τοῦτον τὴν Μαῖαν, τουτέστι τὴν γῆν θεραπεύοντες. μαϊουμίζειν τὸ ἑορτάζειν ὀνομάζουσιν, ἐξ οὗ καὶ Μαϊουμᾶν· πανήγυρις <γὰρ> ἤγετο ἐν τῇ Ῥώμῃ κατὰ τὸν Μάϊον μῆνα. τὴν παράλιον καταλαμβάνοντες πόλιν τὴν λεγομένην Ὀστίαν οἱ τὰ πρῶτα τῆς Ῥώμης τελοῦντες ἡδυπαθεῖν ἠνείχοντο ἐν τοῖς θαλαττίοις ὕδασιν ἀλλήλους ἐμβάλλοντες· ὅθεν καὶ Μαϊουμᾶς ὁ τῆς τοιαύτης ἑορτῆς καιρὸς ὠνομάζετο. ἀρχὴ γενέσεως σελήνη.

4.80: ηὔχοντο δὲ Μαίᾳ τε καὶ Ἑρμῇ οἱ πραγματευταὶ ἀκίνδυνα τὰ τῶν κερδῶν εἶναι. πάντα δὲ ἄρα τὰ κέρδη ἐν τῇ ὕλῃ καὶ ἐξ αὐτῆς ἀναφύεται, καὶ ἐν αὐτῇ ὡσανεὶ Ἕρμαια εὑρίσκεται καὶ ἐπιδίδοται, ὥς φασι, κατ‘ ἀξίαν.

Lydus 4.76: οἱ δὲ ἀπὸ τῆς Μαίας τῆς Ἄτλαντος τῆς Ἑρμοῦ <μητρὸς> ἀξιοῦντες ὀνομασθῆναι τὸν Μάϊον πρὸς ἕτερον βλέποντες οὕτω φασίν, ἀλλὰ μὴν καὶ διὰ τὸ ἱερὸν αὐτῆς, ὅτι κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν μῆνα ἱερωθῆναι λέγεται. περὶ δὲ <αὐτῆς> ὁ Πρόκλος φησὶν οὕτως· ‘ἡ Μαῖά ἐστιν ἡ τὰ ἐν ἀφανεῖ κεκρυμμένα εἰς τὸ ἐμφανὲς προάγουσα παραπλησίως ταῖς τῇδε μαίαις, Ἑρμῆς δὲ ἐκείνης παῖς ὁ λόγος ἥκων διὰ πάντων, ὃς τὴν ἐν τῷ ἀφανεῖ τῶν ὄντων περιοχὴν ἐν διαστάσει καὶ προνοίᾳ λόγων ἀϊδίως πρώτως ἐξέφηνεν, εἱρμὸν καὶ συνέχειαν καὶ ἀλληλουχίαν ποιήσας ὡς ἐκ- φαντικὸς τῶν παρ‘ ἡμῖν τῆς ψυχῆς ἀδήλων παθημάτων.’ ὁ δὲ Ἀκυλῖνος ἐν τῷ ὑπομνήματι τῶν ἀριθ- μῶν οὕτω φησίν· ‘ἡ Μαῖα ἀντὶ τῆς εἰς τοὐμφανὲς προόδου ἐστὶ, κυρίου μὲν τοῦ λόγου τοῦ διὰ πάντων πεφυκότος διατακτικοῦ τῶν ὄντων, διὸ δὴ καὶ Ἑρμοῦ μητέρα φασί. τοιαύτη δὲ ἡ νοητὴ ὕλη, τὸ κατακοσμεῖν τὴν εἰς τὸ ἐμφανὲς πρόοδον καὶ γένεσιν ἀπεργάζεσθαι τῶν ὄντων· ἐκ γὰρ ὕλης καὶ εἴδους τὰ ὄντα.’
οὕτως μὲν κατὰ θεολογίαν, κατὰ δὲ τὸν τῆς φυσιολο- γίας τρόπον τὴν Μαῖαν οἱ πολλοὶ τὸ ὕδωρ εἶναι βού- λονται· καὶ γὰρ παρὰ τοῖς Σύροις βαρβαρίζουσιν οὕτως ἔτι καὶ νῦν τὸ ὕδωρ προσαγορεύεται, ὡς καὶ μηΐουρι τὰ ὑδροφόρα καλεῖσθαι. καὶ οὐκ ἔξω λόγου ὁ Βάρρων φαίνεται ὡς καὶ μῆνα ἀναθέμενος αὐτῇ· κινήσει γὰρ τοῦ ὑποβρυχίου ὕδατος γίνεσθαι σάλον τοῖς φιλοσόφοις δοκεῖ· πρώτη δὲ ἑορτὴ τοῦ Μαΐου 4.76.55 παρὰ Ῥωμαίοις αἱ περὶ σεισμῶν ἱκεσίαι. ταύτῃ γὰρ Ἄτλαντος παῖδα τὴν Μαῖαν οἱ μυθικοὶ ποιοῦσι, καὶ ἔφορον δὲ τῶν ὑδάτων τὸν Ἑρμῆν εἶναι παραλαμβά- νομεν, καὶ διὰ ταύτην τὴν αἰτίαν ἐν τοῖς αὐτοῦ πηγαὶ ἀνατίθενται ἢ φρέατα ὀρύττεται.
εἰσὶ δὲ οἵ φασιν 4.76.60 Διὸς καὶ Μαίας τὸν Ἑρμῆν εἶναι ἀλληγορικῶς υἱόν, νοῦν μὲν εἶναι τὸν Δία, Μαῖαν δὲ τὴν φρόνησιν, παῖδα δὲ ἐξ ἀμφοῖν Ἑρμῆν λόγιον αἰνιττόμενοι. πάν- των δὲ νεώτατον εἰργάσαντο, ἅτε δὴ μὴ γηράσκοντος τοῦ λόγου· ἔτι μὴν ὠκύτατον πεποίηνται τοῦτον ταρ- 4.76.65 σώσαντες πτεροῖς, νοῦ ὀξύτητα καὶ τάχος λόγου διὰ τῆς τοιᾶσδε τέχνης αἰνιττόμενοι. ὁ γοῦν ποιητής φησιν· ἔπεα πτερόεντα, καὶ ὡσεὶ πτερὸν ἠὲ νόημα 4.76.70 εἶτα δὲ τετράγωνον σχήματι Ἕλληνες ἀναπλάττουσι τοῦτον, τεκμήριον μέγιστον παρεχόμενοι λόγον εἶναι τοῦτον, καὶ λόγον ἀληθῆ. ἔστι γὰρ καὶ λόγου σχή- ματα, ὁ μὲν ψευδὴς λόγος …., ὁ δὲ ἀπατηλὸς πολυγωνό- τερος, ὁ δὲ ἀληθὴς αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ἐκ πάντων μερῶν 4.76.75 ἶσος, ὅπου δὲ στρέφοιτο πάσαις βάσεσιν ἀορίστως στηρίζεται, ὃ δὴ τετραγωνικὸν σχῆμα τυγχάνει. εἰ τοίνυν νοῦς καὶ λόγος εἶναι δέδεικται, τούτῳ τὸν κέρκωπα εἰδωλοποιοῦσιν Αἰγύπτιοι, ἐπεὶ παρὰ πάντα τὰ ζῶα νοήμων τυγχάνει, συνέσεως δὲ καὶ ἐπιστήμης ἐστὶ 4.76.80 δεκτικός. ἀλλὰ μὴν καὶ τὴν Αἰγυπτίαν ἶβιν, τὸ ὄρνεον, ἴσμεν ἀνακειμένην αὐτῷ· καρδίᾳ γὰρ ἔοικε λευκαινό- μενον μὲν τὸ σῶμα, ἐξ ἀμφοῖν δὲ τῶν μερῶν μελαινο- μένη, ὅπερ ἐστὶ τοῦ κατὰ διάνοιαν λόγου σχῆμα· πρὶν μὲν γὰρ λεχθῆναι σκότιος, λεγόμενος δὲ φωτίζεται, καὶ 4.76.85 ῥηθεὶς εἰς ἀφανὲς οἴχεται. τρέφεται δὲ τὸ ζῶον παρὰ τοῖς ὕδασι, καθάπερ ἐν ἡμῖν ἡ καρδία ἐξ ὑγρᾶς οὐ- σίας τὴν δύναμιν λαμβάνει· μόνη δὲ πτηνῶν πάντων νεῖν ἡ ἶβις οὐκ ἐπίσταται, ἀδρανεστάτη δὲ εἰς μεῖζον βάθος καθελκομένη. τὸ δ‘ αὐτὸ καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς καρδίας 4.76.90 παρατηρητέον· τῆς γὰρ ὑγρᾶς πόσεως συμμέτρως προς- αχθείσης ῥώννυσθαί τε καὶ τοῖς λογισμοῖς διεστηρίχ- θαι πέφυκε, καὶ τῆς μὲν οἰκείας ἕδρας, ἥνπερ φρένα καλοῦσιν, οὐκ ἐξίστασθαι νηφαλέαν τε εἶναι, ὑποβλυ- σθεῖσαν δὲ τοῖς παλμοῖς τὸν ἴδιον σάλον δι‘ ὅλου τοῦ 4.76.95 σώματος ἐξεργάζεσθαι. πάσχουσι δὲ ταῦτα ὑπὸ μέθης ἄνθρωποι τὸν ἄκρατον τῆς ἰδίας ἰσχύος προτετιμηκότες. καὶ τὴν ἶβιν δὲ καὶ τὸν κέρκωπα σελήνῃ συμπαθῆ εἶναι προσείκασται· ἡ μὲν ἶβις αὐτῷ τῷ σχήματι ἐμ- φερής, τὰ ἄκρα μὲν ὀμιχλαίνουσα, λευκαίνουσα δὲ τὰ 4.76.100 μέσα καθάπερ ἡ αἰθερία μήνη. ὅτε γὰρ οὐρανὸς ἀσέ- ληνος, οὐδὲ ἴβιδες ὁρῶσι, μύουσι δὲ τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον καὶ ἄσιτοι ἐγκαρτεροῦσι τὸ συγγε- νὲς στοιχεῖον ἀναμένουσαι. ὁ δὲ κέρκωψ δηλοτέρας ἔχει τὰς ἐνεργείας· ὅτε γὰρ αὔξει σελήνη, ὁ τῶν ὀφθαλ- 4.76.105 μῶν κύκλος τότε εὐρύνεται, ὅτε δὲ μειοῦται, τὸ τῶν ὀμμάτων περιφερὲς συστέλλεται.

Cornutus ἐκ δὲ Μαίας ἔφασαν γεγεννῆσθαι Διῒ τὸν Ἑρμῆν ὑποδηλοῦντες πάλιν διὰ τούτου θεωρίας καὶ ζητήσεως γέννημα εἶναι τὸν λόγον· καὶ γὰρ αἱ μαιούμεναι τὰς γυναῖκας ἐν- 23.10 τεῦθεν εἴρηνται μαῖαι τῷ ὡσὰν ἐξ ἐρεύνης προάγειν εἰς φῶς τὰ βρέφη.

Scholia Vetera on Theogony: 938.1 <Ἀτλαντὶς Μαίη τέκε ⌞κύδιμον Ἑρμῆν⌟:> 938.2 Μαῖα, ἡ θυγάτηρ τοῦ Ἄτλαντος, ἡ μετὰ καρτερίας ζήτησις, τὸν λόγον ἀπογεννᾷ. ὁ λόγος γὰρ δημοσιεύει τὰ θεῖα. LZX

Olympiodorus Alc.: 12.5 Τὸ δὲ μαιευτικόν ἐστιν ἐν ᾧ ὁ Σωκράτης διὰ τῶν προσφυῶν ἐρωτή- σεων ποιεῖ τὸν Ἀλκιβιάδην ἀποφήνασθαι ὅτι ψυχὴ ὁ ἄνθρωπος, ὥστε αὐτὸν ἑαυτοῦ διδάσκαλον εἶναι· δόγμα γάρ ἐστιν ἐνταῦθα, ὅτι ὁ ἀποκρι- νόμενός ἐστιν ὁ λέγων. τοιοῦτος γὰρ ὁ Σωκράτης, τὰς ψυχὰς μαιευόμε- νος ἀποτίκτειν τοὺς λόγους· διὸ καὶ Φαιναρέτης λέγουσιν αὐτὸν υἱόν, 12.10 μαίας οὔσης, καθάπερ ὁ Ἑρμῆς. ὥσπερ γὰρ ὁ ἰατρὸς τὰς λήμας ἀφαιρεῖ ἀπὸ τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν μόνον καὶ τὰ ἐμπόδια τῆς ὀπτικῆς ἐνεργείας, καὶ ὥσπερ αἱ μαῖαι φωσφοροῦσι μὲν τὰ ἔμβρυα, οὐκ ἐντιθέασι δὲ αὗται ταῦτα ταῖς τικτούσαις, οὕτω καὶ ὁ Σωκράτης τὰς ψυχὰς ἐμαιεύετο, οὐχ ὥσπερ ἐν ἀψύχοις ἀγγείοις ἐντιθεὶς τοῖς νέοις τὰ θεωρήματα. φησὶ δὲ 12.15 καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν Θεαιτήτῳ ὅτι <‘ὁ Θεὸς μαιεύεσθαι μὲν ἐμὲ ἐποίησεν, ἀπογεννᾶν δὲ κωλύει’.>

Ol. Alc.: διττὴ γὰρ ἡ γνῶσις, εἰς μάθησιν διαιρουμένη καὶ εὕρεσιν· ἑτεροκινήτως μὲν γὰρ μανθάνομεν, αὐτοκινήτως δὲ εὑρίσκομεν. οὕτω δὲ καὶ οἱ ποιηταὶ τὸν Ἑρμῆν γνώσεως ἔφορον ὄντα καὶ ἄγγελον 63.15 μυθεύουσιν εἶναι καὶ Μαίας υἱόν· ἄγγελον μὲν ὡς μανθάνοντα, ἃ γὰρ μανθάνει παρ‘ ἑτέρων ὁ ἄγγελος ἀπαγγέλλει· Μαίας δὲ υἱὸν ὡς 63.17 εὑρίσκοντα, ἡ γὰρ μαῖα οὐκ αὐτὴ ταῖς τικτούσαις ἐντίθησι τὰ βρέφη, ἀλλ‘ ὄντα φωσφορεῖ· οὕτως οὖν καὶ ὁ εὑρίσκων τοὺς ἐνόντας αὐτῷ λόγους ἀποτίκτει.

Proclus, On Cratylus: 25.1 Ὅτι τὸ μὲν ζητεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ μητρὸς 25.2 Μαίας ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἐνδίδοται, ἡ δὲ εὕρεσις ἀπὸ τῆς Ἑρμαϊκῆς σειρᾶς. καὶ γὰρ τὰ ὁλικώτερα γένη τῶν θεῶν καὶ πρὸ τῶν μερικωτέρων ἐνεργεῖ καὶ μετ‘ αὐτῶν καὶ ὕστερον· διὸ καὶ 25.5 ἀτελὴς ἡ ζήτησις καὶ ὡς εἰπεῖν ὕλην προπαρασκευαζομένην ὁρῶμεν ἐκ τῆς τῶν ὑψηλοτέρων αἰτίων διαδόσεως εἰς τὰ μετ- έχοντα, οἷον δὲ μορφὴν καὶ εἶδος ἐπιγινόμενον ἐκ τῶν ὑπο- δεεστέρων.

Proclus on Alcibiades: ἀλλ‘ ἡ ἀνθρωπίνη ψυχὴ πάντας μὲν ἐν ἑαυτῇ τοὺς λόγους 187.15 ἔχουσα, πάσας δὲ προλαβοῦσα τὰς ἐπιστήμας, ἐπιπροσθουμένη δὲ ἐκ τῆς γενέσεως περὶ τὴν θεωρίαν ὧν ἔχει, καὶ τῆς μαθήσεως δεῖται καὶ τῆς εὑρέσεως, ἵνα διὰ μὲν τῆς μαθήσεως ἀνακινήσῃ τὰς ἑαυτῆς νοήσεις, διὰ δὲ τῆς εὑρέσεως ἑαυτὴν εὕρῃ καὶ τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐν αὐτῇ λόγων. καὶ ἔστι ταῦτα τὰ δῶρα θεῶν εὐεργετούντων αὐτὴν πεσοῦσαν καὶ 187.20 ἐπανακαλουμένων εἰς τὴν νοερὰν ζωήν, ἄμφω μὲν ἐκ τῆς Ἑρμαϊκῆς ἥκοντα τάξεως, ἀλλ‘ ἡ μὲν καθ‘ ὅσον ἐστὶν ὁ θεὸς οὗτος Μαίας τῆς Ἄτλαντος υἱός, ἡ δὲ καθ‘ ὅσον ἐστὶν ἄγγελος τοῦ Διός. ἐκφαίνων μὲν 188.1 γὰρ τὴν <πατρικὴν βούλησιν> <μάθησιν> ἐνδίδωσι ταῖς ψυχαῖς· 188.2 ἐκ δὲ τῆς Μαίας προϊών, παρ‘ ᾗ κρυφίως ἡ ζήτησις, τὴν εὕρεσιν δωρεῖται τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ τροφίμοις. ἀλλ‘ ὅταν μὲν ἡ μάθησις ἄνωθεν ἀπὸ τῶν κρειτ- τόνων εἰς τὰς ψυχὰς προέρχηται, τῆς εὑρέσεώς ἐστι κρείττων· ὅταν δὲ 188.5 ἀπὸ τῶν συστοίχων, οἷον ἀνθρώπων ἀνακινούντων ἡμῶν τὴν γνωστικὴν δύναμιν, καταδεεστέρα ὑπάρχει τῆς εὑρέσεως.

Interpreting Maiesta(s)

Ovid, Fasti 5.11-52