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 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.
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, 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)
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?
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!
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)
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….