The modern Mother’s Day is celebrated on various days in many parts of the world, most commonly in May, though also in March, as a day to honor mothers and motherhood. In the UK and Ireland it follows the old traditions of Mothering Sunday.
Historians believe that this day emerged from a custom of mother worship in ancient Greece, which kept a festival to Cybele, a great mother of Greek gods. This festival was held around the Vernal Equinox around Asia Minor and eventually in Rome itself from the Ides of March (the 15th of March) to March 18th.
The ancient Romans also had another holiday, Matronalia, that was dedicated to Juno, though mothers were usually given gifts on this day. Juno was an ancient Roman goddess, the protector and special counselor of the state. She is a daughter of Saturn and sister (but also the wife) of the chief god Jupiter and the mother of Mars, Minerva and Vulcan. Her Greek equivalent is Hera (see my reference to Hera, and my fresco of her, below).
Following is a look at mothers of ancient times, mythical and real alike.
Penelope and Telemachus
A mythological figure, Penelope is known for being faithful to her husband, but she was also a courageous mother whose story is told in the Odyssey.
Penelope kept the suitors at bay until her son, Telemachus, was fully grown.
When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, his son was a baby. The war lasted a decade and Odysseus’ return lasted another decade. Meanwhile area men were trying to sin over Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. She didn’t want to marry any of them and when she was pressed to choose said she would do so after she had finished weaving the shroud of her father-in-law. Each day she wove and each night she undid her day’s work. In this way, she would have kept the suitors at bay (albeit eating her out of house and home), but one of her serving women told one of the suitors about Penelope’s ruse.
Medea and Her Children
Medea, known best from the story of the Golden Fleece, represents the worst in mothers.
Medea may have killed her brother after she betrayed her father. It therefore should not be too surprising that Medea, as the woman scorned, did not exhibit what we think of as motherly instincts. When the Argonauts arrived at Medea’s homeland of Colchis, Medea helped Jason steal her father’s golden fleece. She then fled with Jason and may have killed her brother in her escape. She lived together with Jason like a married couple long enough to have two children, but when Jason wanted to officially marry a more suitable woman, Medea committed the unthinkable and murdered their children.
Hephaistos was the god of fire and metalworking. His return to Olympus was a main topic with numerous red-figure vase painters. Here we see a besotted Hephaistos being helped up from a lounge by a small satyr. Also seated on the recliner is Dionysus, the god of wine. Dionysus coaxed Hephaistos back to Olympus by inebriating him. Hera, the sister and wife of Zeus, and the mother of Hephaistos, angrily sits on her thrown, holding a sceptre. Hera was the one responsible for banishing Hephaistos from Olympus when he was born. Behind her stands a siren with arms (unusual in Attic art) fanning her. A satyr with a torch and tongs marches from the lounge towards Hera, denoting the customary procession.
Cybele – Great Mother
The picture shows Cybele in a lion-drawn chariot, a votive sacrifice, and the sun God. It is from Bactria, in the 2nd century B.C.
Also known as Kybele and Magna Mater and the Mother of the Gods, the worship of this goddess spread throughout the Roman Empire. Originally Phrygian, she was a goddess of caverns, of the Earth in its primitive state; worshipped on mountain tops. She ruled over wild beasts, and was also a bee goddess. Her festival came first on the Roman calender. Along with her consort, the vegetation god Attis, Cybele was worshipped in wild, emotional, bloody, orgiastic, cathartic ceremonies.
Cybele was the goddess of nature and fertility. Because Cybele presided over mountains and fortresses, her crown was in the form of a city wall. The cult of Cybele was directed by eunuch priests, who led the faithful in orgiastic rites accompanied by wild cries and the frenzied music of flutes, drums, and cymbals. Her annual spring festival celebrated the death and resurrection of her beloved Attis.
Veturia with Coriolanus
Veturia was an early Roman mother known for her patriotic act in pleading with her son Coriolanus not to attack the Romans.
When Gnaeus Marcius (Coriolanus) was about to lead the Volsci against Rome, his mother — risking her own freedom and safety as well as those of his wife (Volumnia) and children — led a successful delegation to beg him to spare Rome.
After her husband died, the historical Cornelia (2nd century B.C.), known as the “mother of the Gracchi,” devoted her life to the upbringing of her children (Tiberius and Gaius) to serve Rome. Cornelia was counted an exemplary mother. Her sons, the Gracchi, were great reformers who started a period of turmoil in Republican Rome.
Agrippina the Younger – Mother of Nero
Agrippina the Younger, great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, married her uncle, Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49. She persuaded him to adopt her son Nero in 50. Agrippina was accused by early writers of murdering her husband. After Claudius’ death, Emperor Nero found his mother overbearing and plotted to kill her. Eventually, he succeeded.
St. Helena – Mother of Constantine
In the picture, the Virgin Mary wears a blue robe; St. Helena and Constantine are on the left.
St. Helena was the mother of the Emperor Constantine and may have influenced his conversion to Christianity.
Historians do not know if St. Helena was always a Christian, but if not, she did convert, and is credited with finding the cross on which Jesus was crucified, during her lengthy pilgrimage to Palestine in A.D. 327-8. During this trip Helena established Christian churches. Whether Helena encouraged Constantine to convert to Christianity or it was the other way round is not known for sure.
Galla Placidia – Mother of Emperor Valentinian III
Galla Placidia was an important figure in the Roman Empire in the first half of the 5th century. She was first taken hostage by the Goths, and then she married a Gothic king. Galla Placidia was made “augusta” or empress, and she served actively as regent for her young son when he was named emperor. Emperor Valentinian III (Placidus Valentinianus) was her son. Galla Placidia was the sister of Emperor Honorius and the aunt of Pulcheria and Emperor Theodosius II.
Empress Pulcheria was definitely not a mother, although she was a step-mother to her husband Emperor Marcian’s offspring by an earlier marriage. Pulcheria had sworn a vow of chastity probably to protect the interests of her brother, Emperor Theodosius II. Pulcheria married Marcian so he could be Theodosius II’s successor, but the marriage was in name only.
Historian Edward Gibbon says Pulcheria was the first woman accepted as ruler by the Eastern Roman Empire.
Julia Domna was the wife of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and the mother of Roman emperors Geta and Caracalla.
Syrian-born Julia Domna was a daughter of Julius Bassianus, who was a high priest of the sun god Heliogabalus. Julia Domna was the younger sister of Julia Maesa. She was the wife of Roman emperor Septimius Severus and the mother of Roman emperors Elagabalus (Lucius Septimius Bassianus) and Geta (Publius Septimius Geta). She received the titles Augusta and Mater castrorum et senatus et patriae ‘mother of the camp, senate, and country’. After her son Caracalla was assassinated, Julia Domna committed suicide. She was later deified.
Julia Soaemias was the daughter of Julia Maesa and Julius Avitus, wife of Sextus Varius Marcellus, and mother of Roman Emperor Elagabalus.
Julia Soaemias (180 – March 11, 222) was the cousin of the Roman emperor Caracalla. After Caracalla was assassinated, Macrinus claimed the imperial purple, but Julia Soaemias and her mother contrived to make her son Elagabalus (born Varius Avitus Bassianus) emperor by claiming that Caracalla had actually been the father. Julia Soaemias was given the title Augusta, and coins were minted showing her portrait. Elagabalus had her take a place in the Senate, at least according to the Historia Augusta. The Praetorian Guard killed both Julia Soaemias and Elagabalus in 222. Later, Julia Soaemias’ public record was erased (damnatio memoriae).