This is from James Scully's translation of Philoktetes (also known as Philoctetes), in The Complete Plays of Sophocles, translated by Robert Bagg & James Scully. After Neoptolemos tells Philoktetes how Odysseus took Achilles' armor and explains this is why he (Neoptolemos) is going home, the chorus says:

Goddess of Mountains,
Bountiful Earth,
Mother of Zeus himself,
you through whom flows
Paktolos' great rush
of gold dust

Wondrous Mother
there too I called on you
that day the sons of Atreus
puffed up with arrogance
piled insults on this man,
giving his father's revered armor
to that son of Laertes

I prayed to you then—now
hear me
Dread Mother who rides
lions that slaughter bulls

"Goddess of Mountains, / Bountiful Earth, / Mother of Zeus himself" seems to be Rhea, and that is made explicit in this free translation by George Theodoridis. But why is the chorus praying to her? I also can't figure out what they're praying to her for, which would probably help figure out why she is the goddess of choice for this prayer; answering that as well would be appreciated. What about Rhea makes her the goddess that they call on in this moment?

1 Answer 1


Richard Jebb has a note that explains this.

391–402 Mindful of their young chief’s precept—πειρῶ τὸ παρὸν θεραπεύειν (149)1—the Chorus seize this moment in order to deepen the impression left on the mind of Philoctetes. It was in the land of the Trojans—often called ‘Phrygians’—that Neoptolemus was wronged by the Atreidae. ‘Then and there’—say the Chorus—‘we invoked the most awful deity of the land, the great Earth Mother, the Phrygian Cybele—to punish our prince’s wrong.’ The interposition of the Chorus is admirably effective for the purpose of making their master’s indignation appear genuine. […]

From a mythological point of view the verses are of singular interest. The attributes given to the goddess belong to three groups, (1) παμβῶτι Γᾶ2 recognises her in the primary character of an Elemental power. (2) μᾶτερ … Διός3 identifies her with Rhea. (3) ὀρεστέρα, λεόντων ἔφεδρε,4 and the mention of the Pactolus,5 present her as the specially Phrygian Cybele. But these three characters are completely fused in the unity of the μᾶτερ πότνι᾽.6

Richard C. Jebb (1885). Philoctetes, p. 70. Cambridge University Press.

1. “try to help as the moment may require” 2. “all-fertile Earth” 3. “mother of Zeus” 4. “of the mountains”, “rider of lions” 5. a river near the Aegean coast of Asia Minor 6. “sacred mother”

Neoptolemus’ story was that when he went to Troy the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus) gave the armour of his father Achilles, that should have been his inheritance, to Odysseus. This is a fiction intended to gain the trust of Philoktetes, who hates the Atreidae for abandoning him on Lemnos. So in this song, the chorus backs up Neoptolemus’ story by adding that when it took place, they called on the local deity, Cybele, the earth-mother goddess of Phrygia (western Asia Minor, on whose coast Troy lies).

The equivalence of Greek Rhea with Phrygian Cybele is an example of syncretism common to the ancient world. Jebb says:

The name Rhea (probably connected with ἔρα, earth) was doubtless older than Cybele, and in Crete the ancient cult of Rhea seems never to have passed into that of Cybele, while in Asia Minor Rhea and Cybele came to be identified.

Jebb, p. 71.

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