The winter Dionysia

The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.

The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.

The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.

The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the 'Phallophorai' enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the ‘Phallophorai’ enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh  may be behind this opinion.

Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.

Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:

The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.

The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.

It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:

“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”

Plutarch  observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.

Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…

The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.

This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.

Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.

A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.

The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.

Sabazios – the ‘other’ Thracian god.

The Thracian/Phrygian god Sabazios is well-attested in ancient Europe, but little – if any – mythology is known about him, not in the least because Thrace (modern Bulgaria) was not a literate culture before its Hellenisation, Romanisation and later Christianisation. Another fact might be because his worship (where it is attested outside of Thrace) appears to have been part of a ‘mystery cult’ where mythology was imparted as secrets to initiates and was not – in common with the greater part of the more ancient Greek, Italic, Celtic and Pontic/Phrygian traditions – part of a common orally-transmitted mythical corpus of knowledge.

We know that the cult of Sabazios was popular in late archaic and Classical Greece, and that it was later to spread throughout the Roman empire. We also know that it showed a good deal of syncretism with the cult of Dionysus/Bacchus, and that two were sometimes considered to be the same god, albeit that the connection of Dionysus/Bacchus to wine was more explicit among the Greeks and Romans while the cult of Sabazios appears to have emphasized the fertility aspects common to the two.

Dionysus/Bacchus and Sabazios were both gods whose cultic worship and festivals typically surrounded the event of the ‘arrival’ (epiphany) of the god and his band of animalistic male and wild human female attendants among the people, associated with ritual cries announcing the god’s coming. In fact, in the Attic cult of Dionysus (practiced at Athens and Delphi) the ‘Bacchic cries’ to the god and his retinue, according to the great 4thC BCE Athenian statesman-author Demosthenes (in his book ‘The Crown’), appear to refer to a ‘foreign’ Sabazios as well as the Phrygian consort-god Attis, suggesting that the cult was considered as something ‘other’ or ‘alien’, at least to men like Demosthenes, who was seeking to denigrate an opponent when he said:

“… On attaining manhood you abetted your mother in her initiations and the other rituals, and read aloud from the cultic writings …You rubbed the fat-cheeked snakes and swung them above your head, crying Euoi saboi and hues attes, attes hues… ”

The cry was called ‘Sabasmos‘ according to the 10thC CE Byzantine encylopedia known as the Suda, which stated (perhaps echoing earlier observations by Clement of Alexandria) that the cults of Sabazios, Bacchus and Dionysus were effectively the same.

Demosthenes’ ancient account refers to a cult of women that involved the carrying of snakes as part of its rituals. Another important part of the ritual or cult was intoxication: the placing of a krater of wine was a part of the ritual of arrival demonstrated on ancient Greek illustrations. The ritual ecstasy of the female band of celebrant-priestesses known as the Maenads who accompanied the god may have been due to factors other than alcohol-intoxication, however. Foremost among these were the group hysteria of the event, heightened by dance and chanting, but perhaps another important factor in the excitement was blood – from the ritual slaughter of an animal or animals, said in some accounts to have been ritually (and primally) rended physically apart by the Maenads in sacrifice to the god. All of these events typically preceded the showpiece ‘arrival’ of the god’s image and his accompanying band of Maenads and disguised male performers dressed as animals, satyrs etc. This would have been followed by feasting and jollity, after which the Dionysia were typified (in the Greek world, at least) by the production of great plays and dramas – a hallmark of Attic culture, from which we have the plays of Aristophanes and other greats of classical drama.

The 'Vix Krater' - an equisite Greek bronze krater buried in the grave of a Gaulish noblewoman c.500BCE. Elaborate kraters were a central symbol of Dionysiac and Sabazian cult worship.

The ‘Vix Krater’ – an exquisite Greek bronze krater buried in the grave of a Gaulish noblewoman c.500BCE. Elaborate kraters were a central symbol of Dionysiac and Sabazian cult worship.

The Thracian and Phrygian (ie – Anatolian) Sabazios emerged from a slightly different religious tradition, but appears to a have merged successfully with the Greek and Roman traditions of Dionysus-Bacchus. In fact, the Dionysiac religion in the Greek cultural world has (rightly or wrongly) generally been considered somewhat ‘different’ to the Olympian traditions, being considered much more of a ‘barbaric’ form of ‘mystery cult’ and generally felt to be somewhat alien and exotic – under the influence of more eastern traditions. This may be a typically ‘Hellenic’ view, however: Greeks of this era (5thC BCE > early Common Era) had a tendency to deride their own ‘primitive’ past and consign such aspects of their indigenous cultural history to the ‘barbaric’ world of Thrace, Phrygia and (of course) the ‘Celts’. The explosion of Hellenic influence and the rise of the Roman Republic on its coat-tails exposed the Greco-Roman world to a plethora of exotic influences, the most favourable of which they found in the Near East. For this reason, these cultures began to ‘orientalise’ and absorb the religious cultures of Thrace and Phrygia, which after the 3rdC BCE were a melting pot also incorporating Celtic and Eastern beliefs. The official acceptance of the Phrygian cults of Attis and the Magna Mater, Cybele, were a prime example of this process, but the older mystery-cults of Orphism and Sabazios-Dionysus had a longer history of influence, which along with the chthonic mystery cult at Eleusis and on the island of Samothrace were testament to the diverse interactions occurring in European paganism. The exoticism and potential for disorder of the Bacchic rites in Rome were accompanied during the late Roman Republic by no small degree of official anxiety, perhaps due to the fact that the state exercised little control over such matters. The adoption of Phrygian Cybele into the official cult of Rome marked the end of the second Punic War, and was perhaps a useful buffer against the more chaotic but no less exotic Bacchanalia. It was following this that the Romans increasingly appear to have shown an interest in the cult of Sabazios (Rome had a temple of ‘Jupiter Sabazios’), which perhaps offered a more conservative aspect of the Dionysiac-Bacchic cult. Rome’s ambitions by the 3rdC BCE lay in the East and her strategy of expansion was achieved as much through cultural incorporation and franchise as by military might.

Thracian/Phrygian Sabazios:

Having mentioned the apparent syncretism of Sabazios with Dionysus during the Hellenic era, it is worth noting the indigenous Thracian and Phrygian aspects of the cult to draw a distinction. As this was (on the whole) a mystery cult and was not written about by indigenous authors, we only have limited epigraphic and artistic (sculptural) evidence to call upon, and most of this during the period of Roman influence following the 2nC BCE. The most common Phrygian and Thracian imagery associated with Sabazios are stone stelae depicting him as a horseman – not a feature seen in Dionysian imagery, except where we see the god’s accomplice Silenus mounted on an Ass. The ‘Thracian Horseman’ is depicted as active and young, and usually shown wearing a billowing cloak and armed with a lance. His image is usually accompanied by some adversarial animals: most often a snake twined around a tree, and sometimes by lions and other wild beasts. Apart from his mount and his weapon, the imagery correlates strongly with that often seen with the archetypal Greek mythical Hero, Hercules. The serpent-slaying hero-role is also seen with Greek Apollo, and it appears that the syncretism between these characters as well as the Centaur Chiron and the god Hermes was a strong feature stamped upon Thracian and Phrygian religion, as well as that of the Celts whose ideas had mingled with theirs during the ‘La Téne’ cultural period. Indeed, when the Romans invaded the Balkans and pushed for Anatolia they were met by combined Thracian, Dacian and ‘Celtic’ forces, whose cavalry was a remarkable and obviously elite part of their fighting style and source of much success until Rome finally defeated and incorporated them into their own armies. The regional prowess of cavalry warfare was at its greatest with the Macedonian Hero-King Alexander, whose father bore the name ‘Phillip’ (‘lover of horses’) and whose cavalry swept aside all opposition in his great surge of conquest during the 4th and 3rdC’s BCE. This was perhaps the spiritual origin of Europe’s medieval mounted warrior elites, and the image of the mounted Thracian Sabazios was used for that of Christianity’s interloper ‘St. George’:

A typical 'Thracian Horseman' image of Sabazios

A typical ‘Thracian Horseman’ image of Sabazios, here hunting a boar – yet another ‘fanged’ chthonic creature representing plenty and growth. The board was a particularly ‘celtic’ image, whereas the serpent was more ‘Greek’ or ‘Eastern’…

The Thracian Horseman image obviously relates to a hero-god, and the name ‘Thracian Heros’ is also applied to the icon-image, one of which is inscribed to ‘Heros Karabazmos’, which name incorporates the ‘-baz-‘ of ‘Sabazios’. To the Thracians, Phrygians and Celts (who used the horse imagery extensively in their otherworldly coins after the 4thC BCE) the ‘Heros’ character represented fertility through the closeness of death: similar to the ancient Etruscan/Roman Mars as well as the all-popular Hercules. In fact, it is worth comparing the iconography of Hercules with that of the Thracian Heros:

Armed Hercules confronts the Serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (Roman Hispania)

Armed Hercules confronts the Serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides (Roman Hispania)

And now, here’s the Thracian ‘Heros’ to compare. Note the ‘phallic Herma’ to the right of the tree – these were a feature of Dionysiac and Sabazian worship:


The mythology regarding the ‘horseman’ must have incorporated much of that common to the Herculaean and Apollonian myths as well as the Dionysian aspects of Sabazios. not to mention the martial aspects of gods such as Mars. The icon of the galloping helpful horseman ‘coming from’ the underworld where it has been victorious over the serpents and demons incorporates all of these in a more simplified and much more fundamental and portable manner.

Chiron the hunter - teacher of Greek heros. Are him and Sabazios one and the same? Perhaps the Minotaur too?

Chiron the hunter – teacher of Greek heros. Are him and Sabazios one and the same? Perhaps the Minotaur too?

The coins of Celtic tribes in the Balkans such as the Scordisci and Bastarnae demonstrate a syncretic incorporation of such imagery in their appropriations and modification of Greek designs, and this propagated throughout the Celtic world as far as Britain by the 1stC CE. Often the warlike rider is female in the Celtic numismatic images – particularly so during times of conflict with Rome. It finally seems to have been mollified into the form of the benign ‘Epona’ by the early common era when Rome had broken the fanatical and wizardly backbone of wild Celtic culture:

Cuddly mother Epona - the original Celtic form would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original Celtic form would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Sabazios in Rome:

As previously mentioned, the cult of the Thracian-Phrygian god Sabazios met with some degree of popularity in the Roman Empire. Apart from a few religious stelae, the most prominent artefacts from the cult are the bronze-alloy votive ‘hands’ discovered in places such as Herculaneum and even as far north as modern Belgium. These hands are know as the ‘Hand of Sabazios’, and generally display a gesture which appears to have been adopted by the early Christian church, and is still used by priests in blessings to this day. Here are some examples:

Hand of Sabazios (British Museum)

Hand of Sabazios (British Museum)

The hands take a variety of forms, with some common elements:

1. Most depict the fingers in the gesture shown in the image.

2. All have a pine-cone (or possibly even a hop-flower) either balanced upon the thumb or grasped between thumb and forefinger. In a few cases, these appears to be more explicitly depicted as the Orphic Egg, in one case holding the image of the Thracian Heros with his horse, lance and serpent adversary within. Although Thrace was a beer-drinking culture, hops were not known to have been used as a beer additive until after the medieval period.

3. All have a serpent or basilisk (serpent with a cock’s comb: lit. ‘king of serpents’) representing the chthonic ideal. Other ‘serpentae’ or ‘herpetae’ such as frogs, turtles and lizards frequently accompany this.

4. Most depict a mother lying with her child on the wrist part of the design. This may be an allusion to Ariadne, wife of Dionysus in the Cretan-Greek version of the myth. The birth and rebirth of ‘Dionysus’ were central parts of the Orphic mystery-legend, and Orphism was ascribec by the Greeks to Thrace.

5. Most depict the Dionysian Krater and bowls or cups.

6. Most depict a ram’s head, sometimes that of a bull, upon which the god places his foot in depictions. This is redolent of the sacrifice of animals at the Dionysia.

7. Many depict a miniature figure of Sabazios himself as a bearded man sat against the extended index and middle finger of the hand. He is sometimes crowned with lunar ‘horns’.

Other iconcography commonly associated with these hands include: The Caduceus or wand of the god Hermes/Mercury (think of the serpent on the tree in the Thracian Heros images), a set of scales, a perched eagle, vines and sometimes ritual objects such as a sacrificial knife and a lituus (ceremonial wand). One example of the hand has a bracelet to which human and animal penises are attached by chains! These hands were believed to have been mounted upon poles at ceremonies

Apart from the hands, the cult of Jupiter-Sabazios is also represented on a few ancient stelae recovered from the Roman world. Here is one particularly fine example from Roman Illyria (modern Albania) depicting what appears to be the Phrygian gods Cybele and Attis – maybe even Selene and Endymion or Artemis and Apollo – (who actually hold a pole with a hand on it!), as well as ploutic father Sabazios himself, as well as the usual icons found on the hands and ‘Thracian Heros’ stelae:


The overwhelming fertility aspects of the cult are well-demonstrated, and the warlike aspects of the Thracian god have been removed. Even Mercury appears at the base of the serpent-tree to grant his blessing! Observant readers might begin to see how Julius Caesar’s comments about ‘Dis Pater’ being worshipped by the Gauls point to a more ancient and once-widespread cult which emerged from Bronze Age Europe and had influence from far Britain and Ireland right through to the Near East. Just a peak over the common ‘barbarian’ yet mythologically sophisticated event-horizon of our ancient ancestors….