Diving at Epiphany

Bulgarian men 'diving for the cross' at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Bulgarian men ‘diving for the cross’ at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

In Orthodox christianity, the ancient tradition of the Sanctification of the Waters at the festival of Epiphany (5th and 6th of January) is marked throughout the world by the popular custom of ‘diving for the cross’. The festival itself celebrates not just the ‘Theophany’ of Jesus to the gentiles but in particular among Orthodox Christians, his adult baptism by John the Baptist/the holy spirit (depending on which gospel tradition you go by).

Cross-diving usually follows the Epiphany mass and involves the priest casting a crucifix into a body of water, this being the cue for a crowd of eager young men to dive in, competing to retrieve it. It obviously echoes the baptismal theme of the Christian myth, but is there more to this tradition that predates Christianity?

As previously mentioned, there are many features which Christianity has borrowed from paganism for the festivities spanning from the winter solstice to Epiphany: the festivals of Saturnalia and the Dionysia being key donor traditions. Dionysia is the closest model for Epiphany, being the annual festival of the epiphany or theophany of Dionysus to the people. In western christianity, it is also remembered in the seemingly Dionysian celebration of the ‘Miracle at Cana’ at which Jesus supposedly turns water into wine. Diving into water, however is not a particular tradition of the Dionysia.

The Nativity of Aion:

We must look into the early 1st millennium Hellenistic world, and to Alexandria in Egypt to get more of a clue as to the origins of baptism at Epiphany. Christianity evolved in the Levant and Egypt among a seething sea of syncretistic pagan ideas, which under the influence of reductionist neoplatonic philosophy began to be intellectualised, combined and refined. At multi-ethnic Alexandria in the 1st-4th centuries CE, one of the chief gods worshipped among the Hellenised Egyptians was ‘Aion’ or ‘Aeon’ – seemingly a syncretistic youthful version of Kronos, compounded with Osiris, Dionysus and Apollo, and whose nativity festival was held on the 6th of January. The Alexandrian mythos claimed he was born to the virgin goddess Kore (also known as Persephone) on the night of 5th/6th of January. In gnosticism, Aion became the name or title of the series of historically repeating godhoods, one of whom was believed to be Jesus by some gnostics. The idea of the chain of prophets leading to the Messiah was of course originally a Judaic idea, and seems to be the root of the gnostic Aions. Aion, however, was originally a pagan idea:

Aion holding the 'wheel of the year' on a Roman mosaic.

Aion holding the ‘wheel of the year’ on a Roman mosaic.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403CE) wrote in his book Panarion:

“… Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day. This day the Greeks, I mean the Idolaters, celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December, a feast called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians. For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ (a thirtieth of an hour being added to each day), as the wise Ephraim among the Syrians bore witness by this inspired passage in his commentaries, where he says: ‘ The advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was thus appointed: His birth according to the flesh, then his perfect incarnation among men, which is called Epiphany, at a distance of thirteen days from the increase of the light; for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’

How many other things in the past and present support and bear witness to this proposition, I mean the Resurrection birth of Christ!  Indeed, the leaders of the idol-cults, filled with wiles to deceive the idol-worshippers who believe in them, in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany, so that they whose hopes are in error may not seek the truth.  For instance, at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter, with the seal of a cross made in gold on its forehead, and on either hand two other similar seals, and on both knees two others, all five seals being similarly made in gold. And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: ‘To-day at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.’

In the city of Petra also – the metropolis of Arabia which is called Edom in the Scriptures – the same is done, and they sing the praises of the Virgin in the Arab tongue, calling her in Arabic Chaamou, that is, Maiden, and the Virgin, and him who is born from her Dusares, that is, Alone-begotten of the Lord.  This also takes place in the city of Elousa on the same night just as at Petra and at Alexandria … “

Unfortunately Epiphanius was none the wiser as to what happened in the crypt of the Koreion, and it is for us to speculate that it may have involved some form of immersion in water. This ancient Alexandrian celebration of nativity and epiphany on the 5th/6th January survives still in the most ancient Christian denomination – the Armenian Church. The prime divinity among the pre-Christian Armenians was the Persian goddess Anahit (Anahita) who was analogous to the Hellenistic ‘Kore’ and therefore to Isis. She was also linked to Ishtar, Aphrodite and Artemis. Anahita was a mountain goddess representing waters – a theme of some importance in the pagan world.

The drowned god who came back to life:

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

The myth of Isis and Osiris is at the core of ancient Egyptian mythology, and became influential throughout the Roman Empire from the 1stC BCE, when Isis became one of the favourite goddesses of what I call the ‘syncretic era’. The myth of the death by drowning and the resurrection of her brother and lover Osiris is intimately tied up with water. The reborn Osiris – like Phrygian Cybele’s consort, Attis – was summoned from death by the goddess and the new era (Horus) conceived by an act of mystical intercourse. The descent of the statue of Kore into the basement of the temple at the Hellenistic ?gnostic nativity festival of Aion was obviously designed to reflect the Egyptian myth, and also its Eleusinian and Dionysian counterparts. Indeed, examination of this myth demonstrates that it was a theme with vast and far-reaching provenance in ancient paganism.

So … the mysteries of Epiphany are tied up in the many older pagan legends of a dying and reborn god. There is much more that I could say about this topic which involves the Celts of Atlantic Europe, but I will save this for another post for now, except to quote from Florus’ Epitome of Roman History which suggest that the cross-diving tradition may have an older provenance in Bulgaria…

”  … After the Macedonians (heaven save the mark) the Thracians, former tributaries of the Macedonians, rebelled and, not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters. Throughout the period of their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to the gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mothers’ wombs by torture. The cruellest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci, and to their strength was added cunning as well; their haunts among the woods and mountains harmonized well with their fierce temper… ” Lucius Annaeus Florus – The Epitome of Roman History (Trans. E.S. Forster)

Aubrey Beardsley's beautiful depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of 'Dame Du Lac'. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.

Aubrey Beardsley’s evocative bookplate depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of the ‘Dame Du Lac’. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.





The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.


The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.

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….

Gebeleizis or Beleizis? Belenos among the Dacians

In one of the earliest accounts of Eastern Europe’s old gods, Herodotus (Histories Book IV, Chapters 93–96 – 5thC BCE) tells us that the Eastern, Danubian tribes of the Getae (also later known to the Romans as the Dacians – inhabiting what is now modern Romania), believed in reincarnation and worshipped a god called Zalmoxis or Salmoxis. Most standard translations into English come from manuscripts in which he appears to state that some of the Getae also called Zalmoxis by the name Gebeleizis’. For example:

93the Getae are the bravest of the Thracians and the most just. 94. They believe they are immortal in the following sense: they think they do not die and that the one who dies joins Zalmoxis, a divine being; some call this same divine being Gebeleizis. Every four years, they send a messenger to Zalmoxis, who is chosen by chance. They ask him to tell Zalmoxis what they want on that occasion. The mission is performed in the following way: men standing there for that purpose hold three spears; other people take the one who is sent to Zalmoxis by his hands and feet and fling him in the air on the spears. If he dies pierced, they think that the divinity is going to help them; if he does not die, it is he who is accused and they declare that he is a bad person. And, after he has been charged, they send another one. The messenger is told the requests while he is still alive. The same Thracians, on other occasions, when he thunders and lightens, shoot with arrows up in the air against the sky and menace the divinity because they think there is no god other than their own…

The alternative name for their chief afterlife-god given by Herodotus is supposed to be ‘Gebeleizis’, and it appears this way in most of the surviving manuscripts of the Histories, which were originally written in Greek. However, my attention was recently drawn to an opinion expressed by the late Prof Rhys Carpenter in his essay The Cult of the Sleeping Bear (1946), that the original word used by Herodotus was ‘Beleizis’ – the ‘ge-‘ being an ‘italicising’ part of the preceding word. In the most complete and earliest source manuscripts (known as A and B to Herodotus scholars) the ‘Ge’ is apparently absent! This opens up a whole new spectrum of possibilities: It is generally accepted that the use of ‘-zis’ in ther terminus of the name is just the Indo-European word for ‘god’, as seen in the words ‘Zeus’ and ‘Deus’. This means that (assuming both Rhys Carpenter and Herodotus were correct) that the god Thracian god Zalmoxis was known to some of the 5thC BCE Getae as ‘Belei’ or ‘Beli’ – in other words, Belenos! This would make it one of the earliest references to the god whose name was adopted by the European Celtic peoples later calling themselves ‘Belgae’.

This passage by Herodotus (dealing with the incursion upon ‘Scythia’ and Greece by the Persian Empire) has stimulated quite a lot of interest, as little is known about the actual religions of the East European peoples before Romanisation and Christianisation. The peoples of Eastern Europe were generally identified by Greeks such as Herodotus as ‘barbarians’ or more specifically as ‘Thracians’ (the most numerous culture, and that bordering Greece/Macedonia directly). By the 4th/3rdC BCE, however, Thrace, Dacia (northern Thrace) and Illyria had become a contributing part of the cultural movement which we identify further west as ‘Celtic’, albeit with an ‘Eastern’ slant: Celticists and archaeologists might, for example, recognise the significance of both the belief in reincarnation (mentioned by Julius Caesar 400 years later) and the sacrificial ritual of sending a man to the Otherworld through death, to which the Iron Age phenomenon of ‘bog bodies’ (found in northern and western Europe) seem also to attest.

The question now turns to the Thracian Salmoxis of whom Herodotus had more to say (trans. Godley):

…I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontus, that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave in Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus; then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own country. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people, but this Salmoxis knew Ionian ways and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian; for he had consorted with Greeks, and moreover with one of the greatest Greek teachers, Pythagoras; Therefore he made a hall, where he entertained and fed the leaders among his countrymen, and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead; then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him…

The text – following on from his account of the Getae and (Ge)Beleizis – appears to give Salmoxis a ‘euhemerized’ slant, even portraying him as a pupil of Pythagoras. This, however, must be examined from the perspective that Herodotus was a Greek (and therefore thought the Greeks to be the true originators of all philosophical doctrines worth their salt) and Pythagoras was legendary for his doctrine of metempsychosis. For the same reason, it was later supposed that Gaulish druids must also have had commerce with Pythagoras. The most important feature of the account (no doubt a garbled understanding of the true Thracian doctrines) is the association of Salmoxis with an underworld feast-hall for the dead and a periodicity of 4 years. The story is even somewhat similar to the later tales in the Christian bible about Jesus’ last supper and his resurrection. The Norse Valhalla also springs to mind, as do the fairy tales of the British and Irish Isles where people are entertained in great underground halls by the wise Fair Folk…

Another consideration for ‘Gebelezius’ is that the name incorporates the Celtic word for the horse – variously written as ‘Gebel’, ‘Cabbyl’, or ‘Capal’ and in a number of other ways. The word ‘Cavalier’ is derived from this Indo-European root-word.


Warband culture and the Celtic Iron Age

The dynamic stylistic and cultural impact of ‘celtic’ civilisation on Europe during the Iron Age was driven initially by trade among peoples with geocultural commonality as well as the emerging Greek and Phoenecian mercantile powers, and later by the highly mobile warfare practised by many of its peoples, which often led to permanent migration. A cultural shift at the advent of what became known as the La Tène period, from the 5thC BCE, saw a change in the habits of central Europe’s celtic peoples. It was marked by an increase of burials indicating a higher status of warrior elites and a change in attitudes towards warfare, and with this came a new excitingly fluid and dynamic style of decorative art that most of us today recognise as ‘typically celtic’. Use of iron swords, chainmail armour and better fighting horses all marked this shift from the former ‘Halstatt‘ styled cultures seen before the 5thC BCE. The La Tène period also marked that when Mediterranean people started to write things down about the Celts…

Although existing largely as loose tribal federations, from the 5thC these would occasionally organise en masse into highly organised war parties or armies, such as that led by Brennus of the Senones (Alpine Gaul) against Rome in the 4thC BCE. These would cause no end of trouble to the Roman Republic’s northern borders and interests.

The most notable of these massed military movements, however, was the invasions of a Gallic tribal confederacy through the Balkans in the 3rdC BCE, led by characters such as Bolgius, Brennus and Acichorius. It was directed at the unstable kingdom of Alexander’s recently dead successor Lysimachus, which included Macedonia, Thrace, Greece and Anatolia. The gains for those Gauls who invested their time and effort into this adventure were manifold – some returned home with plunder, some took land for themselves and settled in ethnic communities, some were paid off to desist from their attacks, and some found service as mercenaries in Macedonian empire’s internal disputes, of which there were many. Many, including Brennus, died: this was also acceptable outcome to Gauls, believers as they were in reincarnation, as having acquitted themselves in glorious battle, they could earn themselves better fortune in their next life.

The impact of such a well-organised campaign against an enemy with such an impressive empire would have sent cultural shockwaves through the Celtic world, and would have important implications. Rumours of vast wealth plundered from the 279BCE assault of Delphi in Greece became attached to the Tectosages tribe, based at what is now Toulouse. There was an explosion in the issue of coins throughout the Celtic world initially copying the style of those of Lysimachus, but which would eventually transform and incorporate indigenous designs with mysterious meanings, and a totemic power invoking military success. New tribes and confederations formed (eg – the Scordisci and the ‘Volcae’ – perhaps from Bolgius’ faction) and settled the Balkans, Thrace and Carpathia, and at least as far east as Anatolia (Galatians) as  well as returning to the more western Gallic heartlands.

How the waves of migration and invasion culminating in the invasion of Greece in 279 affected or interacted with Celtic religious ideology is hinted at in the coinage of the period which followed in its stead: This combined the image of the world’s most famous campaigning military leader with designs hinting at a complex view of spirituality, astronomy, the afterlife and reincarnation.

This organised mobile ‘warband culture’ of continental Celtic tribes was reflected to varying degrees among the Celtic peoples of the ‘Atlantic fringe’. Many of these were  coastal seafaring peoples and islanders perhaps not so much inclined towards such grand expeditions of conquest, and more likely engaged in commerce as a source of livelihood. The insular Celts were possibly something of an ‘old nobility’, slower to take up the manners and trappings of continental ‘La Tène’ culture. It is possible that they were religiously more conservative too with Britain and Ireland remaining to history as the last outposts of the Druid religion following the Romanisation of Celtic culture and religion from the 1stC BC…