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
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
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
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, so
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 that
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
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:
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of
Living and Dying. Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey, eds. San
Francisco: Harper, 1998.
- all photos, © Trisha Cabeje
and Christi Cook. All rights reserved.