By Helen Charlie Nellist - Volunteer Guide

One great unifying factor in many religions both ancient and contemporary is the belief the existence and power of a great mother goddess or a figure equivalent to her.  In this blog, I intend to draw attention to the festival of Megalesia which was celebrated in ancient Rome and use this as a steppingstone to look at other belief systems to compare their goddesses.  This is particularly important to me: as a pagan, I believe in my own patron goddess, which has led me to choose this topic for my blog.

Megalesia, also known as Megalenses Ludi, was a Phrygian festival that also has Greek roots.  It derives its name from the Greek words ‘megale', which means ‘great’ and ‘ludi', which denotes a game or some form of entertainment associated with a religious festival.  It was celebrated in ancient Rome between April 4th and April 10th to honour the goddess, Cybele also known as ‘Magna Mater (Great Mother)’ and at the height of its popularity it would have a grand spectacle to behold.

The festival is thought to have been started to commemorate the time in 204BC, when the cult of Cybele was allegedly brought to Rome from the city of Pessinus in Asia Minor along with the cults’ priests, known as Galli, in order to enlist her help with the war against Carthage. A magnificent procession, lectisternia (sacred feasts), games and offerings marked this occasion at the temporary Temple of Victory set up on Palantine Hill. She was promised a temple of her own in 203BC. In 193BC, games were celebrated and when the temple was finished in 191BC by Marcus Junius Brutus, Megalesia became a regular, annual celebration.

While rituals to the Magna Mater also took place through the month of March, the most spectacular part of the festivities commenced on the 4th of April in the form of ‘ludi scaenici'. Theseentertainments’ were played on the steps of Cybele's temple and religious plays were penned for the occasion by the most prestigious playwrights of the time.  The Magna Mater’s image was taken to Circus Maximus, by way of a public procession on April 10th to be sited outside the racetrack barrier where, symbolically, she could sit atop her lions back (depicted in her effigy) and witness the chariot races that would be held in her honour. The festival was said to be unabashedly Greek / Phrygian in nature by many Roman bystanders and it was mocked at the cusp of Rome’s transition into an Empire for being ‘fabulous clap-trap' whilst advocating for the more dignified Roman sacrifices and games to be associated with Megalesia. Furthermore, a religious law was passed forbidding Roman citizens' participation in the procession and slaves were banned from witnessing the entire affair. 

When Rome co-opted Megalesia for its own ends, the festival became a pageant associated with privilege. Nobles competed with each other to prove whose banquets were the most lavish, who could hire the best playwrights and put on the best plays. The wealthy sought to prove their superiority over their peers. In 161BC, the expenditure on meat and silverware had become so great in the higher echelons to show one man upmanship that a Senate decree had to be issued to limit the ridiculous spending. One episode became notorious, as it was talked about by the famous orartor Cicero. In the late Republican era, Cicero accused Clodius of indecency. This was part of a full on smear campaign- Cicero also believed, or wanted people to believe, that Clodius had incestuous relationships with his sister, as outlined in the Pro Caelio oration. However, this time Cicero accused Clodio to have (caused great upheaval during one Megalesian event when he hired slave gangs to forcibly take control of the festival in an attempt to undermine patrician privilege. 

Going back to the many faces of the Mother Goddess, it is worth noting that Cybele, purported to be a Trojan goddess of the Roman ruling cast has mythology partially assimilated from aspects of Gaia (the Greek mother goddess), Rhea (minoan) and also the Roman ‘harvest mother’ goddess, Demeter. The Romans were not alone in borrowing certain elements from other religions to bolster their belief system, in fact as humanity spread around the globe, they carried with them a number of mythologies that in turn influenced other budding cultures. For examples, some compare the Egyptian mother goddess, Isis, her son, Horus the sun god, with The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus and the closest approximation that Christianity has to a mother deity. Though this evidence is considered to be controversial it can be traced back to the 4th through to the 6th centuries when the old Egyptian beliefs were forced to give way to the Christian faith.

My own patron goddess is Yemanya also known as Yemaya, Yemanja and Yemoja, among other names. She is most likely to be depicted wearing blue and has been known to be pictured with a young boy, much like the Madonna and Son, which is prevalent in Christian iconography, and is synchronised with Our Lady of Regla (in Afro-Cuban diaspora). Yemanya's mythology originated in Africa and is predominantly worshipped in Brazil, Haiti and in areas of Cuba. She is associated with rivers and the ocean which is considered by her believers as the mother of us all. It is logical that water would be deemed most important in such arid countries. Therefore, a goddess was selected to bestow most emphasis on this life-giving element as our own mothers give us life.

The Vindolanda Trust museum has numerous examples of the importance that Romans placed on a mother figure. Our votive offering case proudly displays a beautiful sculpture of a mother goddess carrying a basket of plenty. She can be found dead centre next to the bronze band that was unearthed celebrating our own resident weather God, Jupiter Dolicanus, whose altar is on site. A dedication was also found by our water tanks to the Alpine, water goddess, Avardua, proving that the auxiliary soldiers who inhabited our site also placed great importance on their own water source.  One of our rings, now located in the jewellery cabinet in our museum bears the inscription ‘matri patri’ which translates to ‘mother father’ emphasising the relevance of the family unit.

The significance of The Mother is universally acknowledged as she is an element that holds all of humanity together. Wherever a person is born, their mother will always be a key factor of their lives, she brings them into this world in most cases is likely to be a key figure of their upbringing. Because of this a special goddess is selected to be shown most reverence in the pantheon of religion as a way of appreciating those mothers here on Earth. Megalesia was the Roman way of giving thanks to their Great Mother. Like all other systems of belief, they were very also thankful to the source of life. It seems appropriate therefore, that we should all take a moment to raise a toast to mothers everywhere- not only those who gave us life, but those who supported it through providing us with the resources we needed to grow and be successful and happy.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

 Online- Easy Access Sources

Scholarly sources

Roller, L. (2012).  Megalesia. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History,

Beard, M. (1994The Roman and the foreign: the cult of the “Great Mother” in imperial Rome. In N. Thomas and C. Humphrey, eds., Shamanism, history and the state164– 90Ann Arbor.

Roller, L. E. (1999In search of god the mother: the cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley.