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A Journey through Turkey

Like me, my friend Trish is a recovering Christian in her 20s, working on an M.A. in Women's Spirituality at New College. Together we rode a big blue tour bus through Turkey, along with 40 middle-aged women, the majority of whom were Christians — whose pilgrimage to the Divine Feminine started from such different places! — as well as three men. Our group was a study in contrasts, like the country itself.

On every street corner, modernity and antiquity played out in startling juxtaposition. An ice-cream stand did business in front of the Blue Mosque. At the Hagia Sophia, the ticket-taker wore headphones. A completely veiled woman walked by holding the hand of her son, who wore shorts and a Power Rangers shirt.

Our tour bus seemed out in the middle of nowhere as we began hiking through the mountains. I was excited to be on a hike, even in the almost unbearable heat of a Turkey summer. After winding up dusty trails, seemingly on our own, our group converged at the bottom of an enormous rock face with carvings in it.

We looked up and tried to decipher the symbols; the scholars on the trip pointed out remnants of Cybele worship. Cybele (pronounced Ki-bel-ee in Turkish) was the Great Goddess of the Phrygians (Europeans who settled in Anatolia) and the Mother Goddess of Anatolia. She symbolized fertility and was usually represented with lions, like the Great Mother [Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 161].

Carved on the rock was a symbol like the meander that Marija Gimbutas describes as being connected with the bird Goddess, the snake, and various goddess figures throughout the ancient world [Gimbutas 25-27]. At the bottom of the rock face was an indention in the stone where an altar of some sort probably stood. In his book, our tour guide, Resit, writes that "open air shrines to Cybele in Anatolia had a niche or a hole at the front, perhaps representing the cave, man's earliest shelter, or possibly the reproductive organ of the goddess" [Ergener 90]. I like to think of this huge opening at the bottom of the rock as representing Cybele's mighty vulva.

Our group continued climbing, and in this isolated spot, we ran into a camera crew. We intended to do a ritual — without being filmed — at the summit, mountain-top altarso we forged on, pausing at a gorge to say a few words to the water, finally reaching the gray rocks at the top of the mountain and soaking in the view. Then it was time to go to the most sacred site: the altar at the top of the mountain. Some women, including me, pulled out small drums we'd brought for the occasion and began playing to mark our approach. It was mysterious and beautiful: each walked alone and yet as a group, caught up in the ancient memory of all those who had made this pilgrimage before us.

When I got to the rock throne hidden at the top of the mountain, some women had already gathered.

We placed a cloth, incense, and other items on this obvious altar to Cybele, which current historians say is instead an altar to King Midas. woman sitting in lotus position near Cybele altarA couple from New Zealand, John and Sophia, had painted their faces in tribal Maori fashion. They led a ritual to Cybele in which John spun around an instrument on a string, making a beautiful whirring ring until the instrument flew off. John said Cybele was claiming it.

We were then instructed to take a bit of string to tie on a branch along with a wish. I identified with this ritual because it reminded me of ancient Celtic methods of praying to and thanking Brigid. Everyone seemed to wander off in a trance to a place that called her. I placed my drum on a rock shelf that appeared made for it and then went to the small tree hidden behind it. I hummed an unknown hymn to the goddess. tied my string to a little branch, and wished for peace and healing for the world. With tears in my eyes, I came back to lean on the large rock that housed my drum. large rock resembling mother and childI looked over and saw Trish in the lotus position on a slate rock at the edge of a cliff.

The official Cybele altar tour was over. But as we wound our way down the mountain, some of us were inexplicably drawn to another odd rock looming in the distance. I felt too much awe to approach it, but some women ran up and touched the stone, a presence that resembled a mother and child. We still were talking of it when we got back on the bus. One woman said, "That was the real Cybele altar." I felt she was right.

Cybele seems to have been worshiped in a sensual, powerful way. Priests of Cybele used music to induce a trance-like frenzy in which they would castrate themselves as a bodily sacrifice to the Goddess (Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 160). They would then paint their penises and give them as offerings to Cybele's temple. Our guide Resit mentioned that depictions of Cybele often showed worn genitals where no other area was worn, indicating that female devotees used to ritualistically rub her genitals to aid their fertility.

I wonder if it's this raw, fertile aspect of Cybele that drew me so much to her on the trip. She was fertility, and her worshippers seemed to have an embodied awareness of that. As a young, sensual, sexual woman in tune with her fertility, I stayed out late drinking, dancing, and having flirtations with men — in some way paralleling the ancients in my celebration of Cybele.

the ancient city of EphesusEphesus
My Christian heritage flooded over me at Ephesus, reminding me of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. The town is still largely in place, which made it incredibly easy to picture people in ancient times walking down the dusty paths to the still-standing hospital, library, or even public toilets. Mosaic sidewalks are intact in front of the houses of antiquity's rich families, and board games carved from rock can be seen in front of the old vendors' stands by the main road.

When we entered Ephesus's coliseum on the hill, a sojourner from our group took the stage and sang a hymn to Diana. Her words carried perfectly on the air, illustrating the amazing acoustics of old. Another newly acquired member of our group, an older British Anglican priest, felt the need to respond by taking the stage and singing a Christian hymn to "Our Lord and Saviour." This uncomfortable juxtaposition clearly expressed the tension between Christianity and the more ancient Goddess religions — in our group and in Turkey.

Women, Bathing
Near the end of the trip, we visited an authentic Turkish bath. I didn't know what to expect as I changed into a towel and musty flip flops, then was led into a large steamy room at the back of the building. A skylight brightly lit a huge circular stone platform in the middle of the room. Against the walls, a continuous stone bench ran, punctuated by small sinks and buckets.

The steam was almost suffocating. I had to take a few breaths to calm myself, as I sat down on the central platform with Trish and looked around. What a beautiful sight! All around us were the women we'd been traveling with — of all different ages, body types, and colorings, sitting naked in pairs or small groups chatting, singing, or bathing themselves and one another. I'd never seen so many nude women. The variety of body types glistening under water droplets in all of their boldness and authenticity was breathtaking.

I remarked how sad it was that young girls in our culture don't have the opportunity to see older women in all their glory. Another woman in her 50s joked about not believing the popular notion that the Great Mother is a young birthing woman. "It's like looking in the mirror," she said. We were surrounded by images of the Mother Goddess, with the saggy breasts, heavy middles, and strong thighs that older women know and embrace — statue of the seated Great Mother, from Catal Hoyukthat many young women turn from in fear and denial.

The room buzzed with loving, gentle community in a way I'd never experienced before. Trish, another friend, and I sat on the stone bench washing each other's hair. Then the women who worked at the spa came in the room, and we all lined up to lie on the stone platform to be exfoliated, buffered with a billowing pillow-like rag, and massaged. As we stood in the different lines, we chatted and poured cool water on one another, sisters of different generations.

Bronze Age statue of breast-feeding mother or goddessThe Goddess in the Museum
So many treasures from goddess cultures and religions are housed in Anatolian museums. One houses findings from Çatal Hoyuk, which contains strong evidence of matriarchy due to the incredible number of goddess figurines that have been excavated there.

One of the oldest figures of the Great Mother was there, weighty, rooted, and full of power.

The next small figure I saw brought tears to my eyes: a breastfeeding mama from the Bronze Age.

I couldn't believe the baby's hand reaching up — just like my son Gabriel while he was nursing. The other little hand is reaching around her middle. I was instantly connected to this woman from thousands of years ago. I imagined myself talking to her about our little nurslings and their breastfeeding idiosyncrasies.

Turkey was a grand opening: My senses and my worldview were cracked open to make way for new growth. It was earth, heat, and dust, fresh fruit and vegetables, closeness with women I never would have met elsewhere, deepening friendship with Trish, inspiration to study the veiled woman and the Evil Eye. I rest more comfortably in my skin after seeing the goddess figurines, and I practice gratitude now, every day at sunset


  • Bulkeley, Kelly, and Patricia Bulkley. Dreaming Beyond Death, Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
  • Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare and the Reclaiming Collective, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper, 1997.
  • Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey, eds. San Francisco: Harper, 1998.

Graphics Credits

  • all photos, © Trisha Cabeje and Christi Cook. All rights reserved.
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