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The Search for my sisters

Rev. Dr. Caillean McMahon

This is the story of a journey, an intellectual and spiritual journey that I made. It started as a spiteful exercise to humiliate others and ended as a loving search for my sisters who were lost in the mists of a clouded history. For an unworthy pursuit to yield a worthy goal is remarkable, but then, that is part of the mystery of following the voice of the Great Mother. We become better than we were.

I am a Cybeline Priestess. I was ordained by the High Priestess of the Maetreum of Cybele,  Cathryn and my sister  Marina in the summer of 2002. I had learned some of our history from the writings of others, and I knew of Cathryn's efforts to construct a community of womyn as well as her simultaneous efforts, along with Sue Davis', to nurture the ongoing re-birth of the faith of our sisters of the past. This led me to write to Cathryn early in the summer of 2002 offering financial support for the community project; Cathryn in turn generously extended an invitation for me to visit. Over the hours that I was with her on that visit, we shared our Pagan beliefs, compared notes on what we knew of Paganism and the Cybelines. It was a fruitful conversation.

One of the difficulties of our faith is the feeling that one can have of disconnectedness with our past. The temples of Cybele are gone. The site of the Roman temple exists in ruins but the black meteor that represented the Goddess present in all of creation and acting directly upon the earth was missing, believed by some Cybelines to be hidden somewhere in the Vatican.

Ahh--the Vatican....symbol of our past, our hopes, our sisters, our faith, and our history. Writer after writer proclaimed that the temple, the Maetreum of our Goddess, lay under the facade of the Basilica of St Peter as reconstructed by Bramante. This I learned was incorrect; St Peter's is on Vatican Hill, outside of what was the Imperial City. The Maetreum is on Palatine Hill, it's ruins barely visible on the hillside below the Imperial Palaces. What, then was atop the Mons Vaticanus?
The Phrygianum was located atop the hill, along with a Temple of Apollo and the Mithreaum, home of the followers of Mithrias. The Phrygianum was the home of the Mellissea, the  priestess of Cybele. So this was what was beneath St. Peter's!

On another trip to see my contemporary Cybeline sisters we discussed the lack of holy places of the past that remained to us. St Peters', it seemed occupied one particularly precious to us as we struggled to re-establish a Phrygianum.  As we talked about this, the thought occurred to a few of us that if the Basilica indeed occupied the site of the Phrygianum of Rome, then the body occupying the tomb of St Peters, ornamented in vestments as was known from the tomb being opened, was likely to be a Gallae, probably an archigalla or Battakes. This meant that the site venerated by Catholics, the faith that had exterminated our sisters of the past, contained one of those sisters, that they were honouring a transsexual of the first century.

The idea of proving this began to appeal to me, especially as I experienced a great deal of prejudice from Christians in my day to day life, acquaintances, colleagues , family and friends who were aghast that I was Pagan. So I began my search to prove that the tomb of Peter had to be an archigalla or Battakes. I believed that since the Phrygianum was present 'til about 405C.E., the Basilica was built upon it's ruins much later based upon legend of Peter being buried there . I was to be disappointed. Within 30 years of Peter's death, a church already existed at his tomb site. The Christians of the time certainly knew where they had laid Peter's body, and were highly unlikely to have mistaken the tomb of a Battakes for his. Constantine built a much larger Basilica upon the same site, higher than the level of the original church, in the 4th Century. The dates were telling. Not only was the body in the tomb Peter's, but a large Christian structure had occupied the site where the Phrygianum was written to have stood at the very same time. This was clearly not possible. If Peter was in Peter's tomb, and his church had been on the grounds since 30 years after his death, where was the Phrygianum?

The Catholic Church has excavated the area around and beneath the Basilica a number of times, for construction and historical purposes. The hillside of Mons Vaticanus has been drastically altered, making it hard to get a good idea of the original shape and geography of the hill. I was fortunate to come across a project that was devoted to making three dimensional projections of Vatican Hill to show just how much it had changed. Further reading and research provided information that  the Constantinian Basilica of the 4th Century had been built upon a necropolis, a city of the dead, made up of buildings, or mausoleuae, that contained corpses interred there. Constantine had filled this area in to provide an extended level area for the church as it was being constructed as it was far larger than the building that it replaced. This would have been just a footnote of history except that the walls of the enlarged structure built upon the fill proved to be unstable. This meant that when Bramante designed his Basilica during the Renaissance, the builders had to do even more extensive excavation to provide a sound foundation. Most of the Basilica rests above and upon Constantine's structure but outer walls required much digging as the new Basilica was larger. On the new southwest corner of the facade of the church, 16 ft below ground level, what was believed to be the Phrygianum was discovered as a pile of broken fourth century altars to various Gods and Goddesses, each dedicated or inscribed with the name and title of a Roman Senator. Given it's location, this meant that the Phrygianum was located less than 60 feet from the front entrance of Constantine's Basilica, which was very unlikely as they co-existed and the Christian theologians of the era, who had some sway with the Emperor, would never have permitted it's existence or would surely have written complainingly about the tomb of Peter being so very close to the home of what St Augustine referred to as "castrated perverts."

So what was this pile of 4th Century altars to Mithrias, Cybele, Hecate and Isis, described as the Phrygianum? It appears to have been one of the two Roman homes (the "Phrygianum" and the Mithraeum) of the Pagan restoration of the late 4th century.  The inscriptions on the altars list the religious offices held by the senators involved. As the actual Phrygianum was exclusively female, trans or natal, this was not the home of the Gallae. The place of our sisters was not under the site of St Peters, most of which was already a Church during the time when the residence of the Priestesses of Cybele was still standing and in use. The fact that the excavation for the Bramentian Basilica had produced no architectural ruins, only the altars, has given rise to the theory that the Senators had located their "Phryngianum" and their tarbolarium closely to the Basilica of Constantine as a provocation, a sort of ancient Roman "we're back" shouted to the Christians nearby.  The home of the Gallae, already standing for nearly 5 centuries, would have left traces of buildings. A hastily constructed, possibly wooden, senatorial affront to Christian sensitivities likely would not have.

This gave me a bit of pause. I was guilty of wanting to do what the senators did in my very recent  past. I meditated, and seriously looked within and gradually wiped away my antagonism toward those who subtly or overtly showed prejudice toward me for my faith.

But where were my sisters? The old spiteful desire to needle my Christian antagonists had been replaced with a loving longing to find my ancient sister Cybelines. They still eluded me. Sometimes in my mind  I could see them indistinctly, walking in mists in a stone courtyard, their location still a mystery. The mists would not part. They were not at the site that author after author had quoted as being their home.

I searched again. Reference after reference to the Phrygianum was looked at, many with the exact same paragraph, quoted from another author, that the Phrygianum was under St Peter's. This was already proven to be nearly impossible. I Had to find my sisters, it was fast becoming an obsession.

I poured over old maps, new maps,  medieval projects  and communicated with a few Ecclesiastical historians

The mists were still thick, the images remained indistinct. I discovered that the Temple of Artemis at Ephesius, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was originally dedicated to Cybele. I found the ruins of temples to Cybele in Germany, Greece, in France. The mosque site in Mecca was originally dedicated to Cybele, with it's own meteoric stone. I found that the stone from the Maetreum in Rome had been taken by Helagabulus and placed in his own sanctuary.  From  Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries by Rodolfo Lanciani  < published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company  Boston and New York, 1898  :
"The description left by Herodianus of the stone is absolutely identical with the description of the needle of Cybele. "The stone," he says, "is very large, shaped as a cone, and black in color. People think it a stone fallen from heaven, and believe also that some accidental irregularities in the surface represent the image of the sun, modelled by supernatural hands."
When this chapel was excavated in 1730 Monsignor Bianchini says: "I am sorry that no fragment of a statue, or bas-relief, or inscription has been found in the chapel, because this absence of any positive indication prevents us from ascertaining the name of the divinity to whom the place was principally dedicated. The only object which I discovered in it was a stone nearly three feet high, conical in shape, of a deep brown color, looking very much like a piece of lava, and ending in a sharp point. No attention was paid to it, and I know not what became of it."

So the famous meteor stone had survived the Christians and Barbarians, only to be unrecognized when it was found, and lost again.  The statue of Cybele from her temple sits under an arch near the palace of Tiberius, largely intact. The temple in Rome is in ruins, barely recognizable as any structure.  My sisters were still missing.

I read and re-read the history of the Papal courts. The popes fled to Avignon in the late middle ages, returned to Rome to find the Lateran Cathedral and Palace crumbling, and the Basilica of St Peter's structurally unsound. This led to the construction on Mons Vaticanus and the relocation of the administrative machinery of the church there.
The ground on the top of the hill was clay. It held water on the surface unless broken, and then anywhere that the clay surface was broken a swamp ensued. Pius IV found the situation around St Peters so distasteful that he had a summer residence constructed on the hill some distance from the Papal palace and the Basilica.  This is the Casina Pio IV. It is a series of "reconstructed ancient temples" and features a statue of Cybele said to have been located on the site originally.

Ancient temples? The only structures that I knew of any note on Mons Vaticanus were the Mithraeum and the Temple of Apollo, both located already. What was this? Was it possible........

It is a series of ancient style temples clustered around a central oval courtyard called the Nymphaea. Its central sculpture, that the goddess Cybele is a featured element, complemented by gorgeous mosaics and balustrades. It was built by Pirro Ligorio, the same engineer and garden architect who created Villa d'Este. The complex was built under the reign of Pope Pius IV, a member of the great Italian family of Medici. (from site on Vatican Gardens)  A friend communicated with a colleague of his at the Pontifical Academy. It was believed that Ligorio had reconstructed the site along the lines of it's ancient layout, using differing styles of architecture to represent the differing ages of the buildings that originally stood there and keeping the original courtyard.

It was close to the geographical center of the original hill. And it was gorgeous. An oval stone courtyard, also believed to have been original, a fountain, terraces, a feminine sense of proportion, the ancient statue of Cybele......

No other site came close. There were no other possible traces. This site pre-existed Christianity, was a complex of buildings on a hill with only one missing complex of buildings. The Roman church had not only not destroyed the site, they had inadvertently reconstructed it.

I looked at the pictures of the Nymphea, the courtyard with the fountain, flanked by the temples, the statue of the Goddess. The mists parted, sun shone in and garments of vivid colours appeared on the womyn in my mind. I had found my sisters, at long last. After 16 centuries, their home was known to their younger family.

I called my contemporary sisters to tell them, then sat back, meditated, rose, and lit a candle, a remembrance of those who went before us and first marked our path. The rancor of the beginning of my journey was long gone, what remained was a reflective and much gentler spirituality nurtured by my search and pursuit of the gallae of so many centuries past. They are my elder sisters and part of my family. In my mind, in finding them, I have come home to them.


The Phrygianum found? The Nymphaea of Casina Pio IV

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