The Great Mother co-reigns with Zeus-Helios as the Mother of the Gods. She is the Goddess who births the Intellective and creative Gods, co-reigning as both the mother and spouse of mighty Zeus-Helios. She is the forethought of the Intelligible Realm, and She is the one we pray to in perfecting theurgy. She is many named, also being called Hekate, Rhea, Gaia, and Deo.
Role in the cosmos
Like how Athene is the Forethought of Zeus-Helios and fills those with Intellect, the Great Mother is Forethought of Aion and fills those with Being (Ousia). She is the source of the Intellective and creative Gods, who in turn guide the Encosmic Gods. She is the mother and spouse of great Zeus-Helios, the Celestial Demiurge, being the great Goddess who came into being next to and in company with the great creator. She receives into Herself the causes of all Gods, Intelligible and Hypercosmic. In short, She is Aion’s dynamic aspect.
She animates the Phenomenal Cosmos with Soul through the World Soul. She is thus the principle of Aion that generates life.
She is often represented holding lions, or in cars drawn by them, which, properly understood, represents her husband Zeus-Helios, as the lions represent “the dwelling of Helios” (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymph 3. 2. 287).
The Chaldean Oracles describe Her as an intermediary between the Sensible World—the world of matter that we perceive with our senses—and the Intelligible Realm—the world of Ideas we perceive through pure reason. As such, she is the soul of the world, or World Soul, because the soul itself serves to link these two realms in the Psychic Realm. Thus through theurgic rites, She serves as a doorway into the Intelligible Realm, and with that is the one who grants us henosis.
The Myth of the Great Mother & Attis
The Mother of the Gods saw Attis lying by the river Gallus and fell in love with Him. She took him, crowned Him with Her cap of stars, and thereafter kept Him with Her. Attis, however, fell in love with a nymph and abandoned the Great Mother to live with the nymph in a cave. For this the Great Mother made Attis go mad, which caused him to castrate Himself. It is after this he regained sanity, leaving His castrated remains with the nymph and returning to dwell with the Great Mother.
Mind over matter – A Mixed interpretation
The myth of the Great Mother and Attis is known for its representation of “mind over matter.” By the very nature of the Gods, they dwell in a higher world, and do not desire to drag themselves down to our world; but rather they desire to lead the things of our earth up.
The Great Mother is also called the Mother of the Gods. The Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother. We can thus understand that as She is the principle that generates life; She can thus can be seen as the dynamic aspect of Aion. It is the Great Mother that creates soul, which are immortal and thus never die.
Attis, in contrast, is the creator of all things which are born and die; that is why He is said to have been found by the river Gallus; for the river Gallus signifies the Galaxy/Universe, the point at which corporeal/material existence (which is subject to passions) begins. Attis is a mediating principle between the Great Mother and material existence – an Intellective God who resembles solar rays, a divinity who participates in that world and orders it, and a Logoi through whose agency souls are enabled to ascend.
As the primary Gods make perfect the secondary, the Mother held a non-passionate love for Attis and gives Him a cap of stars. The cap of stars represents a gift of celestial powers, which first elevates Attis “to dance and leap” in the Intellective Realm.
Attis makes a descent into the visible world in order to give it order and fruitfulness, being a divinity who participates in that world and orders it. However, Attis descended to the lowest realm (the material realm, represented by the cave) and wedded a nymph. The nymph represents the dampness of matter, since all that is generated is fluid. This desertion of the Great Mother by Attis is symbolic of Attis overstepping His limit taking participation in matter.
The Great Mother, as the forethought of Aion, restrains Attis (the embodiment of intelligence, Logoi) from association with matter. His recalling and castration symbolizes the triumph of unity over multiformity; essentially of mind over matter, hence why He is called mad and insane before castration but only wise after. He castrates himself, literally giving up his passions, and leaves behind the remains in the Realm of Generation. This is because the process of generation must be stopped somewhere and not allowed to generate something worse than the worst, and thus Attis casts away His generative powers into the creation and is joined with the Gods again.
His restoration to the Great Mother symbolizes the escape of our souls from our corporeal bonds in the Realm of Generation to union with the One (henosis), which is only brought about by the Great Mother.
Seasonal – A Mixed interpretation
The myth also directly relates to the Great Mother’s festival of Hilaria, and shows why we have festivals imitating the cosmos:
- And at first we ourselves, having fallen from heaven and living with the nymph (who represents matter), are in despondency, and abstain from corn and all rich and unclean food, for both are hostile to the soul
- Foods that are hostile are fruits, vegetables, and roots that grow downwards into the earth or “creep along” it or fish that live in the deep. These are inappropriate foods at the time of a rite whose aim is the ascent of the soul.
- Foods that are appropriate are ones that rest high, such as apples; which are sacred and golden, being an image of the rewards of the Mysteries, and must be honored and worshiped for the sake of their archetype.
- Then comes the cutting of the tree and the fast, as though we also were cutting off the further process of generation.
- The cutting of the sacred tree is a ritual enactment of Cybele’s plucking of Attis from the reeds of the river Gallus that symbolizes the necessity for humans to pluck what is fairest – virtue and piety – to prepare for their elevation to the company of the Goddess.
- After that is the drinking of milk, as though we were being born again; after which come rejoicings and garlands and, as it were, a return up to the Gods.
- It applies well to spirits rising higher
- Furthermore, the Spring equinox is when the fruits of the earth are ceasing to be produced, and thus when we no longer partake in generation
- Since it takes place on the Spring Equinox day becomes longer than night; a limit being set to the course of the Sun, and so it recalls the mutilation of Attis
- As for the detail of the purificatory Mysteries associated with Hilaria, Julian does comment on it rather discreetly; but nonetheless alludes to the ritual image of the castrated Attis, divining its deeper meaning as symbolic of “the cutting away of all that is excessive and vain in the impulses and movements of the soul.”
“O Mother of Gods and men, thou that art the assessor of Zeus and sharest His throne, O source of the intellectual Gods, that pursuest thy course with the stainless substance of the intelligible Gods; that dost receive from them all the common cause of things and dost thyself bestow it on the intellectual Gods; O life-giving Goddess that art the counsel and the providence and the creator of our souls; O thou that lovest great Dionysos, and didst save Attis when exposed at birth, and didst lead Him back when he had descended into the cave of the nymph; O thou that givest all good things to the intellectual Gods and fillest with all things this sensible world, and with all the rest givest us all things good! Do thou grant to all men happiness, and that highest happiness of all, the knowledge of the Gods; and grant to the Roman people in general that they may cleanse themselves of the stain of impiety; grant them a blessed lot, and help them to guide their Empire for many thousands of years! And for myself, grant me as fruit of my worship of thee that I may have true knowledge in the doctrines about the Gods. Make me perfect in theurgy. And in all that I undertake, in the affairs of the state and the army, grant me virtue and good fortune, and that the close of my life may be painless and glorious, in the good hope that it is to you, the Gods, that I journey!”
-Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus / Julian the Philosopher
“O Goddess Mother, if I am pure follow me!”
Dunn, Patrick. The practical art of divine magic: contemporary & ancient techniques of Theurgy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2015.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Iamblichus, and Emma C. Clarke. Iamblichus on The mysteries. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, accessed July 19, 2017,http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf
Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the soul: the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Second ed. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014.
Smith, Rowland. Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate. London and New York: Routledge, 1995