The gaze of the goddess is lost on endless sea of asphalt, stone, and concrete. She is the ruler of the city, the one who silently and with dignity watches over its identity and past. Few know it. Hordes of tired tourists, relentlessly fast executives, and Madrid hipsters sick of routine and condemned never to see the veiled grandeur of their surroundings, look but don’t see the majesty of the Great Mother, Our Lady of Madrid – the goddess Cybele.
But there is the Lady: solitary, regal, strong, dominating the throne that proclaims her ruler over a stationary chariot, frozen in time, pulled by magnificent feline beasts. She observes all from the authority of frigid, masculine, almost pitiless eyes. Her tied-back hair is crowned with a wall of flint – a turreted stronghold capping her headdress, a herald of strength and emblem of eternal power over the land. In her right hand is the scepter of her power. In the left, with the might of a rightful owner, the imposing keys that open the gates – imaginary today – of the Town and Court of Madrid, the Magerit of the Muslims, the very remote Mantua of the Carpetani.
Scholars say that the Magna Mater of the Madrid people is in reality a foreigner, born during time immemorial in a faraway land, as are all the lands that have been fertile soil for universal mythology. In Eastern Phrygia, that land of Trojan echoes, the Great Mother Goddess was venerated by the name Kibele. Men and women of dark complexion worshipped her in the form of a black monolith. The most influential secret cult of the Middle East grew around that Black Stone. There in mystical Pessinus, the Kibele worshippers sang of the love of the Great Goddess and a minor god of nature – Attis, her son and lover – whose death and rebirth each year were based on the cycles of Life and Death imposed by the Black Lady. Even today, the stone Cybele of Madrid depicts at her feet in the front of the chariot a huge mask representing Attis, from whose half-opened mouth spouts one of the fountain’s jets. The face of Attis bears a tragic, pathetic, blank expression. It is the face of a doomed man, of a being destined for blood sacrifice. He seems to reflect his fateful death in his eyes, full of terror before the wrath of the Goddess; in an act of self-mutilation, he castrated himself to bleed to death. The goddess resurrected him from the dead, transforming him into a sacred and eternal tree: the Pine. Pinecones and pine branches in the lateral decorations of the chariot allude to the mystical metamorphosis, one that the priests of the goddess must have ritualized on many nights during the full moon of spring with unique liturgies of a mysterious dark religion.
The wheels of the chariot move ahead, powerful and mighty. Their tempo is solid and heavy. They are immobile circles enslaved. The spokes are shaped like stone lilies with a plump appearance and contradictory strength that can’t help but remind us of the power of the goddess over all of Nature and hence on the plant universe.
The sorrowful beasts that pull the chariot are two mighty lions that once were human: none other than the princess Atalanta and her husband Hippomenes. In his poem Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts that Atalanta, a huntress devoted to the virgin goddess Artemis, renounced all men. In order to maintain her chastity, she would challenge her suitors to a race, knowing her incomparable physical form made her invincible in those competitions. But the sly Hippomenes, following the instructions of Aphrodite, goddess of love, dropped three gold apples during the race, distracting Atalanta. She stopped to pick up the divine fruits, losing time that Hippomenes took advantage of to win the race. So he married the elusive woman. But the newlyweds made a tragic mistake – traveling towards the Arcadia of the husband’s birth and unable to contain their sexual impulses, they lay together in the temple of the goddess Cybele. She knows no mercy when aggravated, and she transformed them into matching lions (lionesses in other versions of the story), condemned to eternally pull her majestic vehicle.
Rome hijacked the Phrygian cult and cultivated it in its Capitol, the heart of the Eternal City from where the greatest empire was governed. And just as with its engineering, its laws, and its language, Rome exported its cults to all corners of its conquered territories. In few of these did the cult to the Magna Mater catch on as much as in Celtiberian Hispania. Thus Phrygian Kibele arrived, now the Roman Cybele, to Carpetania, the homeland of animistic nomads that survived between the cold mountains of Guadarrama and the winding Tagus River. The fertile environment was favorable to the Latin goddess; the Carpetani already worshipped a Great Mother similar in appearance and also represented on a chariot drawn by beasts. Fateful coincidence. Some called her Ataegina. Others Metragirta. The name mattered little. Rome rechristened a divine being as old as the planet. Thus on that inhospitable sacred hill overlooking the humble Manzanares, the Carpetani worshipped a goddess they called Cybele.
Time passed. And with it, ancient traditions were forgotten, the most arcane legends about the spirits of places and the magic that resides in all geographies. Until one day, the small Manchego town on the hill overlooking the Manzanares, a town which had been built over numerous hidden waterways and whose walls were said to be of fire, became the capital of the kingdom and the seat of the court. A few centuries later, after the proclamation of Madrid as the capital, an inspired queen, determined to dignify the city that aimed to be the head of the nation, began to research the identity of the place. The result was made a reality by her son, the so-called “best mayor of Madrid”, who would decorate its new plazas, avenues, boulevards, and monumental fountains with the most judicious iconography, knowledgeable as he was of the mythological characters to be displayed in those new spaces. And above them all: Cybele.
It was the prodigious architect Ventura Rodríguez who created on paper the graphic idea that would be sculpted in Montesclaros stone by Francisco Gutiérrez and Robert Michel. It was the end of the Age of Enlightenment when the Cybele Fountain was given to the people of Madrid. Upon completion of the project two new symbols flanking Cybele’s vehicle were added to what appears in the famous drawing maintained in the Municipal Museum of Madrid: a bear and a dragon. Presently uprooted from their original location, both mythological beings are hidden in the Museum/House of San Isidro courtyard in Plaza de San Andrés. In their jaws, they still show the opening that contained the water jet when they were part of the fountain. The Bear, terrestrial and holy to the Great Mother, in ancient times was one of the forms taken by Artemis, Magna Mater of Ephesus, Lady of Beasts. The Bear, who each winter returns to the Earth’s womb to sink into its matriarchal lethargy, is reborn each spring from the depths of the cavern along with her litter of cubs. As such, the Sacred Bear has always been for man a revelation of Mother Nature herself, extolling blessed fertility. Madrid is the domain of the Bear. It was a Bear who in the dark forests raised the androgynous Atalanta. It is the Bear of the Earth that cumbersomely climbs a fake strawberry shrub in the coat of arms of the Villa. To be clear, it is not a male bear. It is a she-bear! And she is the same as the one in the heavens, the one with seven stars that form the Madrid constellation par excellence: Ursa Major, named the “chariot constellation” by the Romans, that same celestial figure adored by the primitive Carpetani, original inhabitants of these lands. The same constellation in which the Greeks saw the nymph Calisto, servant of the bear-goddess Artemis. The circle closes.
The dragon that accompanies the Bear is a symbol of the subterranean waters of the Villa. Similarly, the sculpture of the Ocean (misnamed Neptune) wears its nakedness in a fountain not very far from that of Cybele, at the far end of what was once the Great Salon of the Prado. A dragon of protection and safekeeping. A dragon that defends and threatens. It is the dragon, a hybrid of elements that, like the Sphinx, knows a secret. After all, water is a symbol of wisdom, of knowledge, of profound experience. Let us not forget. Madrid is a city of hidden waters. Cybele is, and will always be, a source of living water. Water that pours from the very bowels of the Earth.
The day wanes, and the Goddess still fixes her eyes on the chaos that now lowers its guard. The circular river of thousands of vehicles that relentlessly surround her during the day, blocking her view of the pedestrians, abates its flow. The deafening sound of the accursed engines diminishes, and the jets of the fountain can be heard. Madrid water. The myth is reborn. The Magna Mater inhabits her figure. It is now, as dusk falls, that Cybele takes her place among confused mortals with greater presence, with all of her understated majesty. Her beasts continue to undertake the task of pushing the immovable, in the opposite direction.
Jaime Buhigas Tallon