Metroac Worship

Category: ?

1 Introduction

Metroac cult, that is, veneration of the Mother-of-Gods, is somewhat difficult to approach. For the purposes of basic worship, of course, one needs nothing but devotion and one of her many names, but how does one scale up from there, as it were? There are many references to her worship in ancient literature, be it in the context of the Roman festival calendar or in connection to her peculiar priesthood of eunuchs and trans women, but no ritual scripts along the lines of those collected in the Greek Magical Papyri, let alone like the systematic handbooks of astral magic which abound in post-antique tradition. This page will be an attempt to extract hieratic knowledge about the goddess (broadly in line with Proclus’ conception of the hieratic or priestly art) from ancient sources to fill that gap, insofar as possible. Naturally, the results are more in the realm of theology than historiography.

Proclian ritual theory is based on the basic assumption that “all things are full of gods”, and that the characteristics of each deity are scattered around us in natural substances, which preserve tokens or symbols of them. It is by bringing them together in cult statues, incenses and so on, and by using names and characters that are connected with the deity and its servants, that worshippers are enabled to invoke them and draw down divine powers to illuminate them.

As Sallustius 15.2 tells us: “The providence of the gods, by the same token, extends everywhere, and requires only some congruity for its reception. All congruity comes about by imitation and likeness, which is why the temples imitate heaven; altars, the earth; the cult statues, life – and for this reason, they are made to look like living beings; the prayers imitate the intellective; the symbols (kharaktêres), the ineffable powers above; plants and stones, matter; and the animals that are sacrificed, the irrational life within us.”

Proclus, in the text linked above, explains that each deity possesses a series or chain of their respective “angels, daemons, souls, animals, plants and stones”.

This Neoplatonic concept of a series is, of course, something of an abstraction. In practice, it will not always match up with the historical tradition, and should not become a straitjacket. It is easy to point to the iconography of her cult statues, to prayers (and hymns), to animals sacred to her or sacrificed to her, and to plants under her domain, even to specific daemons in her train. It will be more difficult to find stones, angels or characters (abstract symbols) associated with her; but even where an association is well-attested, it is not necessarily straightforwardly translatable into practice. Besides, it is not always evident whether her daemons should really be regarded as belonging to her “chain”, or as gods who might have their own series.

2 Associated materials and their uses

Perhaps most immediately relevant to practice is that, per Orphic Hymn 27, she is offered “various fumigation”, not some one specific incense but a mixture – and not a mixture of specific herbs (as Proclus’ theory would suggest), but just specifically a mixture.

The obvious Metroac plant is the pine tree (“For the pine tree is under the protection/in the domain [tutela] of the Mother-of-Gods”, Servius, On the Aeneid 9.84). But according to the scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 1.1117, a xoanon or cult statue carved from wood of the Mother-of-Gods should or at least can be of vine wood, “because the vine is sacred to Rhea as much (as to Dionysus)” (here, as usual, Rhea = Mother-of-Gods). In the same scene of the Argonautica, the worshippers crown themselves with wreathes of oak leaves, “because the oak is sacred to Rhea, as Apollodorus says in book 3 of On the Gods” (Scholia on Argonautica 1.1124). We will return to this scene, and to the specific uses attested for the pine, below. For the moment let it suffice to note that the pine is specifically connected to the myth of Attis. Since the oak is usually said to be sacred to Zeus, this means that the three plants happen to be mappable to the three demiurges of later Neoplatonism (although, to be clear, no ancient writer draws this connection):

Oak ↔ Zeus (first demiurge)
Vine ↔ Dionysus (second demiurge)
Pine ↔ Attis (third demiurge)

Of stones, I have so far only found mention of very localized phenomena: “Around Mt Sipylus, they say a stone very much like a cylinder can be found; when pious sons find one, they dedicate it in the temple of the Mother-of-Gods, and (in consequence) they never transgress out of impiety, but always remain friendly to their parents” (Pseudo-Aristotle, On Marvellous Things Heard 846b; also Pseudo-Plutarch, On Rivers and Mountains’ Names and the Things Found in Them 9.5). In the river Maeander, by contrast, “a stone is found which is antiphrastically called ‘prudent’ (sṓphrōn); if you throw it into someone’s lap, they became mad and kill one of their relatives; but if they propritiate the Mother-of-Gods, they are freed from this illness” (Pseudo-Plutarch, On Rivers 9.3). I do not know how either stone would be recognized, unless they are indeed abundant and peculiar to these places in Lydia (modern Turkey).

Alongside stone and plant, one must mention animals, and in the goddess’ case, the lion. Lions are a constant feature of her iconography, and many written sources also attest to the connection. Poignantly, there are coins which feature the Mother on one side, a lion on the other, as the proverb collection of Zenobius describes: “‘Coins of Cyzicus’: these were celebrated as well made. There was a woman’s face (on them), the image of the Mother-of-Gods; and on the reverse, a lion’s head” (Zenobius, Epitome of the Collections of Lucillius Tarrhaeus and Didymus 4.71). I will go into more details in the next section.

Additionally, Aelian mentions a kind of hawk or falcon sacred to her: “There are many kinds of hawks (hiérakes) […] and they are separately assigned to many gods: the ‘partridge-catching’ and ‘swift-winged’ hawk is, they say, a servant of Apollon; the phḗnē and hárpē they assign to Athena; they say that the ‘dove-killing’ hawk is the dotage of Hermes; the ‘long-winged’ hawk belongs to Hera, the so-called ‘three-testicled’ is said to be Artemis’. The mérmnos [words missing] to the Mother-of-Gods; and others to different gods” (Claudius Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 12.4). I do not think the mérmnos can now be identified.

Animals sacrificed to the goddess are discussed below.

3 Lions and the iconography of the Mother

According to Proclus, lions belong to the series of the Sun; but it is really not unusual for one animal to be sacred to multiple gods. It is more important how it is sacred to the Mother, since the role of the animal in relation to her is unlike its association with the Sun.

Manilius, Julian, Servius, Oppian; Lucretius, etc.

4 Pine

Servius, Ovid, coins, Epidaurus, etc.

Late Antique Symbols …

5 The ox-head, the ram’s head, and other symbols

Criobolium, Taurobolium?

6 Numbers, shapes, astrology

astrology: Hephaestion (also the other guy)
numbers (Photius, Martianus, Damascius, …) and shapes
(Proclus, Damascius)

7 …

Names; Roman abbreviations

symbola (Firmicus Maternus?)
Proclus: sphragida

Orphic Hymn; other? Hymns to Attis;
Hymns from Epidaurus!
Mother Antaia! Etc.? Poems.
Homeric Hymn


Names of the Corybants etc.
Clement of Alexandria on Damnameneus; Hesychius; PGM
Anonymi Hymnus in Dactylos Idaeos
SEG 29:731(15)
Inscrr.: Trax Tetrax Tetragos

Fasting; sequence of events in the Roman festivals

Vermaseren; many peculiarities in the Western evidence (taurobolic altars, different attributes, etc. – Asia Minor parallels)

Oracle in Eusebius, book 5

possibly useful paper:

Scholia on Argonautica pp. 100-104
(Theology: p. 97)

Scholia on Apollonius: Ἑρμογένης δὲ ἐν τῷ Περὶ Φρυγίας φησὶν Σάγγαν τινὰ ἀσεβήσαντα περὶ τὴν Ῥέαν μεταβαλεῖν εἰς τοῦτο τὸ ὕδωρ, καὶ ἀπ‘ αὐτοῦ τὸν ποταμὸν Σαγγάριον ὀνομασθῆναι. πλησίον δὲ αὐτοῦ Ὀρείας Μητρὸς ἱερόν ἐστιν, ὥς φησι Ξάνθος.

Applications I: creating cult statues and talismans

Applications II: ceremonious worship

Applications III: “miniaturized” holidays