Royal Incest and Patriarchal Kingship Patterns: Narrative Thefts and Appropriations of the Sacred

A recent article reveals evidence of Early Neolithic brother/sister incest among elites within emergent hierarchical-patriarchal societies. “Ancient genetic material extracted from human bones buried in Ireland’s famous Newgrange tomb come from a Neolithic man, likely a king, whose parents were probably brother and sister, according to new research.” (https://www.livescience.com/king-born-of-incest-ireland-newgrange-tomb.html?fbclid=IwAR30aLMnmy3_lyHaLMiyaoiTQzV-jTd7jtYIaNLvLohukHbfQNYx26XSKIs)

Under the sub-heading: “Elite dynasty used incestuous marriage to distinguish themselves,” the article goes on to propose that royal incest was a status thing. “The discovery suggests Neolithic Ireland was ruled about 5,000 years ago by an elite dynasty that used incestuous marriage to distinguish themselves from ordinary society — like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and some Inca royalty in Mesoamerica.” But everything I know about the prehistoric world militates against the view that such a radical contravention of the most ancient societal taboo after the taboo against cannibalism was merely a ploy to elevate the family’s status.

It wasn’t that early kingship dynasties in Ireland, Egypt, Peru and elsewhere “used incestuous marriage to distinguish themselves from ordinary society” as proposed in this article. Royal incest occurred at the outset of patriarchy and the inception of kingship because the throne (deified birthing chair) could only be conferred and passed down through the female line, so a royal son would have to marry his sister to procure the throne in patriarchal kinship and societal patterns.

In Matrifocal kinship and societal patterns, there were no single, hierarchical ‘thrones’ of course. There were instead the many deified birthing chairs of the many Clan Mothers, and their many clans, in a horizontal webwork of relatedness. This social value can clearly be seen in the many circular patterns of small sculptures of female figures seated on ‘thrones’ encircling child figures and vessels or cauldrons, ritually buried in the sacralized earth beneath temples, family homes or fields as talismanic blessings or charms across Old Europe (Marija Gimbutas).

Marriage could only take place with members of other clans as incest is one of the earliest social taboos, part of a taboo system meant to protect against cannibalism and inter-tribal warfare through exogamy and the establishment of clan obligations and bonds. Matrifocal social systems are the human equivalent of the ‘female clan bonding systems’ established among certain other social animals.

The Original Royal Thrones as Birthing Chairs of the Clan Mothers

The spiritual and aesthetic standard of beauty and wellbeing for people constantly on the brink of starvation during the Ice Age was what Marija Gimbutas called ‘the Corpulent Goddess.’ These figurines also served as creative visualization sympathetic magic; if you could actually have a portly Clan Mother in your family or tribe, you were doing well and in lieu of their living forms, their representations boosted confidence and morale. They are abundance and fertility talismans for barren times or precarious seasons. The Paleolithic corpulent Goddess continued into the early Neolithic, with proto-Kybel/Cybele giving birth on Her lion throne, the first thrones having actually been birthing chairs.

Proto-Cybel 7,000 BC., Chatal Huyuk

In fact, the idea of the ‘throne,’ and thrones themselves, are ideational descendants of the birthing chair/lion throne of prototypical, primordial Cybele figures, unearthed from layers as early as 9,500 years ago, at Chatal Huyuk (pronounced cha-tel hoo-yek, or Çatalhöyük in Turkish) and other early Neolithic cities in Anatolia (ancient Turkey). Cybele is the Virgin Mother Fruits and Grain Goddess, venerated across Eurasia, with cult centres, statuary and shrines, since prehistoric times

Isis figure on her throne, which is actually a birthing chair

The image above shows the Isis figure, or Ancient Egyptian Clan Mother and Goddess of the Grain upon her throne, which is actually a birthing chair, like Cybele’s throne. She is depicted giving birth to Osiris/Horus (as the barley and the reborn sun) with Hathor-Ma’At aspects in attendance, as Cybele (the Earth Mother) gave birth to Attis (as the grain harvest) with lionesses in attendance.

Pharoah as Horus seated on Isis’ lap as the Throne of Egypt

Isis’ most reverent honorific and royal title was ‘The Throne of Egypt,’ which is to say that she was identified with the sacred birthing chair to the point of being symbolically interchangeable with it. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs were often depicted as Horus seated on Isis’ lap as the Throne of Egypt.

Proto Kybel/Cybele from Chatal Huyuk compared to Roman Cybele from the Roman colony of Asia Minor, shown seated upon the Lion Throne
Roman Cybele, from Asia Minor (Turkey), with City Crown, sieve, and lion throne.

The small statue of Proto Kybel/Cybele from Chatal Huyuk can be compared to the life-size statue of Cybele from the Roman colony in Asia Minor, in the same region of Anatolia or Ancient Turkey, in which She is shown seated upon the Lion Throne. She is portrayed holding a sieve for the winnowing of the grain, and wearing the ‘City Crown’ to signify Her role as Builder of Civilizations.

Roman version of Cybele with a ‘City’ crown
Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia, and mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 AD. Getty Museum

Here, Cybele is portrayed enthroned, with Her solar lion, a cornucopia spilling our fruits and vegetables to signify Earth’s providence and abundance, and wearing the ‘City Crown,’ also called the ‘mural crown,’ and veil.

Small Late Roman figurine, from the Roman colony in Asia Minor (Anatolia or Ancient Turkey)
Istanbul — Cybele, Istanbul Archaeological Museum

This small Cybele figurine is held in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, and dates from the Roman period. The Goddess is shown holding a sieve, bearing the City Crown and veil, seated on Her lion throne.

19th-century sketch of Rhea (or Cybele), after a marble, 1888
Statue of the Virgin (complete unto Herself) Mother Goddess, Cybele, with Her sieve, bowl of milk or honey, a solar lion on Her lap, seated on Her lion throne.

Roman Cybele was also often depicted as enthroned upon Her chariot, drawn by lions. She customarily holds the sieve and bears the City Crown as Her special sacred attributes in these depictions also.

Enthroned Cybele in her lion chariot, Roman. As ‘Mother of the Grain’ she holds a sieve.
Archaic Greek Kybel, Red Attic Ware c.500 BC

These attributes characterized depictions of Cybele throughout the Greek and Roman eras of the Goddess’ representation in everything from Archaic Greek Red Attic Ware pottery to Late Roman friezes and statuary.

The Roman frieze below depicts enthroned Cybele upon her chariot drawn by lions, holding a thresher and a sieve, bearing the City Crown.

Roman frieze of Cybele upon her chariot drawn by lions

Her Divine Child, the God of the Grain, the Fruit, and the Vine, Attis, is shown leaning against the Tree of Life as the Date Palm. He bears the so-called ‘Phrygian Cap’ and a diadem, denoting him as also being a royal Persian god-form, cousin to and cognate with the Zoroastrian light god, Mithras. The Roman altar frieze below also depicts Attis, this time as the central figure of an altar dedicated to the Grain Mother and Her Magical or Divine child of the Harvest. The frieze depicts Cybele bearing the City Crown and a veil, with Her sieve, lion and Light Spear. She faces Her Divine Son, Attis, who is central to the tableaux. She is mirrored and confronted in the composition by the figures of two female worshippers, likely meant to signify a mother and daughter.

295 A.D. Altar dedicated to Cybele and Attis

Early Christianity absorbed and assimilated the sacrificial Rites of Attis as the premier Harvest God, Grain God, God of the Vine, or Year King of Roman Asia Minor. And effigy of Attis was sacrificed, buried, kept interred for three days, then disinterred and declared ‘Arisen!’ or ‘resurrected.’ On the third day after his burial, ‘Resurrection Day,’ he was carried through the streets in procession (in effigy), held aloft and celebrated as the New Life of spring and the early harvest. Small cakes were baked in his honour, marked with small equal-armed crosses (solar or sun-wheel symbols), the ancient equivalent of ‘hot-cross buns.’ This happened each Spring Equinox across the Roman world for centuries.

Celto-Romano frieze showing the death of Attis

To the left is part of a frieze showing the death of Attis. He is portrayed as lying supine beneath a fruit laden Tree of Life, ready to be resurrected and harvested.

Below is part of a frieze showing an effigy of the harvest deity being erected, or ‘resurrected,’ by priests for the Spring Equinox harvest renewal festival.

Effigy of Attis being ‘resurrected’ by priests in Celto-Romano frieze
Gallic priest making an offering of fruits and grains at a Celto-Romano altar of Cybele and Attis, Museo Ostiense (Ostia Antica)

To the left is an Ancient Roman frieze showing a Gallic priest making an offering of fruits and grains at an altar of Cybelle and her Divine Son, Attis in the Museo Ostiense (Ostia Antica).

In the Northwest of Roman Europe, these rites merged with those of Oestre, the ovulation/fertility and spring lunar and star goddess, celebrated with her avatar of the ever fertile rabbit or Moon Hare, decorated eggs, and other traditional Rites of Spring. Oestre’s festival was celebrated at the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, which was appropriated and assimilated in the Early Church, but altered and made solar instead of lunar, with the moon’s many associations with goddess worship. So, Easter (adaptation of Oestre, Eostre, Ostara, Aster, Esther, Ester, etc., all words for ‘star,’ ovulation or fertility, oestrogen/estrogen, spring, and Venus as the Morning Star) is today celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, with Church astrologer/astronomers determining this each year as to date in the Gregorian calendar, making it a ‘moveable feast.’

The Zoroastrian religious narratives of the sacrificial ‘Divine Son,’ Mithras — also adopted by Roman civilization with enthusiasm, especially by the elite Roman soldiery and the centurians — celebrated the god’s birth at December 25th, in common with a plethora of other solar, fire or light gods of the ancient world. To the Christian myth, Mithraism added the nativity elements and motifs of the presence of animals, shepherds, a brilliant guiding star as one of Mithras’ avatars, and the Three Magi, ‘magi’ being the name for priests in the Zoroastrian/Mithraic religion, and the origin for our word for wizard, wise man, sage, or ceremonial ‘magician.’

The allocation of (‘Good’) Friday as the day upon which Christ was crucified or sacrificed is culturally constructed, stemming from custom, beliefs and extant religious observances, having to do with the sacrificed Harvest Deity, a messianic saviour god figure who ‘dies that others may live,’ popularly and universally followed in the Roman world at the time of the early beginnings of the Christian cultic practices. It is myth, sacred narrative, a transformation story, wonder tale, and/or legend. Evidence for this also lies in the fact that the birth of Attis, from his Virgin Mother (as in ‘complete within Herself’) also occurred at the midwinter festival, around the Winter Solstice, observed on December 25th of the Roman Julian Calendar.

The wider populace, whether Pagan, Jewish, or fledgling Christian, experienced the sacred time of spring as the zone of early harvest fertility, the season of spring renewal and rebirth. After millennia of sacred narrative, ritual observance, ceremony, celebration and religious practice, the messianic sacrifice, or ‘gift’ of new life, couldn’t be understood or internalized in any other way. Below is an Ancient Roman statue of the god Attis found at Ostia, now in the Lateran Museum.

Roman statue of the god Attis found at Ostia, now in the Lateran Museum.

The establishment of kingship and patriarchal dynastic male rule took various creative forms. Appropriation of the Clan Mothers’ social preeminence and spiritual authority was effected by such adaptive male sovereignty rituals as the presumptive king having to ‘marry’ the land by virtue of mating with the Earth Mother Goddess by copulating with a hole in the ground, with a holy woman or priestess as Her representative, or with one of Her animal avatars. In Ireland, this was Epona, the manifestation of the Goddess as a white mare. For Vedic tribesmen it was also a divine mare, while for others it was a deified ewe or cow.

The story of the king, the sun’s path through the sky, and forbidden incest recounted in the article on brother/sister incest at Newgrange is actually an account of the taboo theft and usurpation of the throne of clan sovereignty from the Clan Mothers, through the incestuous marriage of the aspiring king to his sister, and the moral of the tale is one of condemnation for attempting to lock down power and interfere with Nature and Time. Our prehistoric ancestors and their storytellers were sophisticated folk, with specific intentions in the spinning of their visionary shamanic journey chronicles, their sacred narratives, tutelary stories and wonder tales. These meta-narratives have a role to play now, as the sanctity of the Earth and new/old, expanded concepts of kinship patterns and the universal Clan Mothers take on increased importance. In the age of environmental degradation, widespread food insecurity, increased nomadism and the needs of those seeking sanctuary and asylum in the face of extreme weather and Climate Change.

Visions of the feminine faces of divine providence in their many guises, Kybel, Cybele, Demeter, Rhea, Semele — by their many sacred names — are reassuring and guide the reverence patterns necessary to prioritize the planet as Gaia — conscious mater, creatrix and matrix of the life force on Earth. The enthroned Clan Mothers as sacred Earth, fertility and abundance thought-forms — their divine offspring: Kore, Persephone, Attis, Adonis, Dionysos, Osiris — the produce of the fields, the orchards, the oceans and the sacred vine — are vital concepts we need now.

No renewed thefts of their significance and preeminence, no vestiges of patriarchal misogyny disguised as Holy Writ, can be permitted. The Indigenous concepts embracing the Earth and Her progeny as ‘All My Relations’ must be reverenced once again and internalized, for the good of all.

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I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.

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Yvonne Owens, PhD

Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.

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