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The Mother Goddess, Amazons and other female legends in Anatolian history

Anatolia is home to some of the world's most iconic historical and mythical female figures, many still celebrated today
The Seated Woman of Catalhoyuk is a clay sculpture dated to around 8,000 years old (Nevit Dilmen/Creative Commons)
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Adana, Turkey

A crossroads for countless cultures since the agricultural revolution in around 10,000 BCE, Anatolia, an area of land that now falls within modern Turkey, has provided archaeologists with deep insight into how human societies developed at the dawn of civilisation.

One important feature that reoccurs across the ages is the fundamental role women played in society from the late Stone Age, around 12,000 years ago, into the Bronze Age, an era marked by social and economic complexity and the increased use of complex metal alloys, around 5,000 years ago.

There is evidence of mother goddess cults in Anatolia dating back 9,000 years, but iconographic patterns support the idea that the worship of female deities was widely practised across Asia Minor much earlier. 

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While it is hard to determine conclusively what the prevailing attitudes were among people in the Bronze Age, respect for women was clearly not limited to the spiritual realm.  

Some 4,000 years ago, societies gave women marital rights, freedom to engage in business and opportunity to take up diplomatic office, as evidenced by the archaeological record.  

Once early studies of the post-agricultural revolution period in Anatolia began in the 19th century, academic debate focused on whether patriarchy or matriarchy constituted the default setting for human society.

In 1861, Swiss jurist and scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen surveyed matriarchy in primitive societies in his work Das Mutterrecht. He argued that the right of the mother, and therefore the woman, took precedence “over family and state”. 

The same year, Henry James Sumner Maine published his work Ancient Law, which claimed to the contrary that patriarchy was the “primeval condition of the human race”. This debate has raged ever since.

Given this backdrop, we take a look at some female figures from ancient Anatolia, both mythical and historic. From the sword-wielding Amazons to Cleopatra, the legendary ruler of the Egyptian kingdom, Anatolia has provided the backdrop for figures who are considered some of humanity’s most legendary women.

Great Mother (6000 BCE)

Bearing large breasts, an ample belly and wide hips, the Seated Woman of Catalhoyuk is considered evidence of the early and widespread belief in the Mother Goddess in Anatolia.

The world-famous baked clay sculpture was found in Turkey’s central Konya province in 1961 and dates back to around 6000 BCE. Its discovery in one of the oldest known human settlements has provided insight into the religious culture of some of the first settled societies in history. 

Seated woman catalhoyuk
The Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük is taken by many academics as evidence of belief in the Mother Goddess (Dennis Jarvis/Creative Commons)

Seated comfortably on a throne and closely guarded by two devoted felines, this depiction of a plump woman exudes power, even at the most cursory glance.  

The concept of the Great Mother of the Gods, the bringer of fertility and prosperity, is also traditionally associated with the much later idea of the Potnia theron - the mistress of wild animals and nature, ultimately life itself.

Manifestations of the Mother Goddess archetype appear in several more recent Middle Eastern and Balkan cultures. The Phrygians, who lived in Anatolia around 3,500 years ago, knew her as Kybele, while the Greeks used the names Rhea, Artemis and Aphrodite. The Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians worshipped Isis and Inanna, respectively.

To what extent the worship of the Mother Goddess archetype was evidence of a matriarchal societal order is subject to debate among anthropologists.

Kulsia (around 2000 BCE)

Kulsia and Saparashna got married around 4,000 years ago in what is today’s central Turkey. As part of the marital contract, the pair promised one another equal rights before three witnesses: an Assyrian visitor to the region and two locals.

A cuneiform tablet detailing the marriage was discovered during excavations at the Kultepe site in Turkey’s Kayseri region. Excavations began here in the 19th century under the auspices of European archaeologists, but they have since been replaced by local teams.

Kultepe
Excavations at Kultepe revealed a marriage contract from around 2000 BCE (Carole Raddato/Flickr)

The contract is notable for the equality it guarantees between the two parties. It reads: “Saparashna married Kulsia. The house shall belong to the two of them in case of lack and wealth. If Saparashna divorces his spouse Kulsia, the house shall be shared between the two of them.”

Further tablets found at the site detail the rights to divorce and to remarry, as well as a woman’s right to receive alimony from a former spouse.

The contracts are considered a reflection of Anatolian gender norms despite being written in an ancient Assyrian dialect, which was used in Anatolia by Assyrian traders visiting from what is now Iraq.

Queen Puduhepa (1289 to 1200 BCE)

Hanging on the walls of the UN headquarters in New York is a copper replica of a peace treaty signed more than 3,000 years ago. The Kadesh Treaty of 1259 BCE marked the end of hostilities between Egypt and the Anatolian-based Hittite empire. It is also notable for the fact one of its co-signatories is a woman, the Hittite Queen Puduhepa.

Born in the region of Kizzuwatna, which corresponds to today’s Adana, Puduhepa was the daughter of the chief priest at the Temple of Ishtar. Originally an Akkadian female deity, Ishtar was at times imbued with Mother Goddess qualities by ancient Near Eastern communities. 

The Seal of Puduhepa
The Seal of Queen Puduhepa welcomes visitors to the new Adana Museum in Turkey (Nimet Kirac/MEE)

The Hittite King Hattusili III was ordered to marry Puduhepa by Ishtar, who appeared to the monarch in a dream.

Puduhepa would go on to establish an influential role for herself in the Hittite government, corresponding with neighbours and securing alliances by arranging marriages between her offspring and political rivals.

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Her efforts helped to end the war between Egypt and the Hittites, the two great Near Eastern powers of the late Bronze Age. The eventual treaty was sealed with the marriage of Puduhepa’s daughter to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.

In a letter, Ramesses addresses the Hittite Queen: “May you Queen of Hatti land, my sister, also be well. May your houses, sons, horses and chariots and… country also be well.”

The original cuneiform clay tablet displaying the Kadesh Treaty was discovered in 1906 in the old Hittite capital of Hattusas, a heritage site categorised as having outstanding universal value by Unesco. Today it is located in Bogazkale in the Turkish region of Corum.

A seal featuring Puduhepa’s signature was excavated in Gozlukule in Tarsus and is on display at the Adana Museum.

Amazons

The famed female warriors of Greek legend may have had their origins in real life, according to some academics, who connect the emergence of legends about warrior women in various ancient cultures.

Stanford University historian and folklorist Professor Adrienne Mayor puts forward evidence that the female warrior race was more than just a myth in her 2014 book The Amazons. She suggests that they were a warrior race from Scythia, the vast region to the north of the Black Sea that stretched across the Eurasian steppes. An important Amazon settlement, Themiscyra, also existed in what is now modern-day Turkey’s mountainous northern province of Samsun on the Black Sea coast. 

Amazonian Queen Melanippe
A Byzantine mosaic on display at Sanliurfa's Haleplibahce Mosaic Museum portrays Amazonian Queen Melanippe attacking a lion on horseback (Sanliurfa Municipality)

According to Mayor, the harsh realities of the Scythian homeland brought about an egalitarian social structure, in which women were expected to contribute to social and collective structures just as much as men, including in warfare. 

The Scythians, who were famed for their horsemanship and use of the bow, had no written records. Knowledge about them emerged from the records of societies with which they interacted. In one instance, early ancient Greek sources identify a female deity worshipped by some Scythians and describe her as a version of their own goddess, Artemis.

According to legend, several mother goddess temples, including the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Izmir, were built by the Amazons. Mayor and other academics also emphasise this view.

It is said that some Amazon communities lived in female-only groups and remained isolated from men, except when mating once a year.

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Only the daughters of such unions were kept within their community, while the sons were sent to their fathers, or even killed.

According to Herodotus, the Amazons were called oiorpata, which meant “slaughterer of man”, by the Greeks.

This legendary race of female warriors appears in Homer’s Iliad, where they fought alongside the Trojans. Their queen, Penthesilea, was killed by Achilles, who backed the opposite side, the Achaeans. The mythological story dramatises the Trojan War, as the two warriors fall in love at the moment of Penthesilea’s death.

Cleopatra (69-30 BCE)

While Cleopatra was not from Anatolia, the region provided the location for one of the most fateful encounters in history: the Egyptian queen’s original meeting with Marcus Antonius in 41 BCE.

The Roman had come to Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia province, in order to lead the legions against the Parthian Empire, which controlled Iraq and Iran.

He had summoned Cleopatra, the head of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, to demand an alliance against the Iranians. Initially reluctant to attend the meeting, Cleopatra came down the Berdan River, laden with gifts and dressed as an alluring goddess - a fitting start to one of history’s most famed romances.

Tarsus Cleopatra gate
Cleopatra's Gate is located in the centre of modern Tarsus, a city in southern Turkey (Nimet Kirac/MEE)

In Egypt, Cleopatra would give birth to twins fathered by Antonius, but power struggles in Rome would call him back to the city. There he married Emperor Octavian’s sister, putting his relationship with Cleopatra on pause.

When the Roman general returned to his lover, Cleopatra, Emperor Octavian decided to act against him and his "foreign" queen. In the ensuing violence, in which the couple’s forces were thoroughly defeated by Rome, the pair separately decided to kill themselves.

The Anatolian city of Tarsus played a cameo – albeit a pivotal role – in this historic episode. The well-preserved remains of a gate, which Cleopatra is believed to have passed through, still stands to this day in Tarsus.

Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus (c. AD30)

The fate of Mary, the mother of Jesus, after her son's crucifixion is a subject of debate among both Christians and historians.

One theory holds that after Jesus entrusted the wellbeing of Mary to John the apostle, she went with John to the region of Ephesus, to a site near the Ionian settlement, where the Temple of Artemis stood – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The site is located in an area that corresponds roughly to the contemporary Turkish town of Selcuk in Izmir province. It consists of a house that is still standing and is believed to be the residence of Mary. 

House of the Virgin Mary
The House of the Virgin Mary near Selçuk in Turkey (Wikimedia Commons)

The notion that the building was once home to Mary emerged from visions of the Virgin experienced by a nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), who never physically visited the site. Nevertheless, a house matching the description Emmerich provided was discovered by priests at the site several decades later.

Local Muslims and Christians both revere the house – it is now considered an official sanctuary by the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Paul VI visited it in 1967. Pope John Paul II also visited in 1979, declaring the site a place of pilgrimage for Christians, and Pope Benedict XVI held a ceremony there in 2006.

Some experts say that the pre-Christian Anatolian Artemis and the concept of the Mother Goddess were eventually assimilated into the concept of Mary. Essentially deistic attributes, such as the ability to heal and to grant fertility, became associated with the sanctified persona of Mary.

Shahmaran (mythological figure)

Half woman, half snake, Shahmaran is a mythical character with roots believed to stretch back thousands of years.

One account of her origin story, which is still told today in parts of Turkey’s southern Adana, Mersin and Mardin provinces, is that the part serpent lived in a secret garden, away from the gaze of the public. That was until a man named Jamshah stumbled across her lair, which she shared with serpents she watched over.

Shahmeran
Plates featuring the half woman-half snake Shahmaran at a shop in Tarsus, Turkey (Nimet Kirac/MEE)

Shahmaran made Jamshah promise not to give away her whereabouts, as she knew it would lead to her being killed, but Jamshah was captured and forced to reveal her location. She was then killed, but the snakes she shared her cave with never found out.

Residents of Tarsus continue to pass down the story of Shahmaran’s assassination in what is now known as the Shahmaran Hamam. According to folklore, if the snakes learn that Shahmaran was murdered, they will set themselves loose upon the city. In the nearby province of Adana, Snake Castle (Yilankale) is also believed to have housed her.

The impact of the Shahmaran legend is still visible in the region today, with paintings and carvings serving not just as decoration, but as protection against evil spirits.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.