The Phrygian and Thracian Cult of Sabazios in Ancient Greece
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Sabazios (alternatively, Sabadios) is the horseman and sky father god of the Phrygians and Thracians. In Indo-European languages, such as Phrygian, the -zios element in his name derives from dyeus, the common precursor of Latin deus (‘god’) and Greek Zeus. Though the Greeksinterpreted Phrygian Sabazios as both Zeus and Dionysus, representations of him, even into Roman times, show him always on horseback, as a nomadic horseman god, wielding his characteristic staff of power.
It seems likely that the migrating Phrygians brought Sabazios with them when they settled in Anatolia in the early first millennium BCE, and that the god’s origins are to be looked for in Macedonia and Thrace. The recently discovered ancient sanctuary of Perperikon in modern-day Bulgaria is believed to be that of Sabazios. The Macedonians were also noted horsemen, horse-breeders and horse-worshippers up to the time of Philip II, whose name signifies “lover of horses”.
Possible early conflict between Sabazios and his followers and the indigenous mother goddess of Phrygia (Cybele) may be reflected in Homer’s brief reference to the youthful feats of Priam, who aided the Phrygians in their battles with Amazons. An aspect of the compromise religious settlement, similar to the other such mythic adjustments throughout Aegean culture, can be read in the later Phrygian King Gordias’ adoption “with Cybele” of Midas.
One of the native religion’s creatures was the Lunar Bull. Sabazios’ relations with the goddess may be surmised in the way that his horse places a hoof on the head of the bull, in a Roman marble relief at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Though Roman in date, the iconic image appears to be much earlier.
God on Horseback
More “rider god” steles are at the Burdur Museum, in Turkey. Under the Roman Emperor Gordian III the god on horseback appears on coins minted at Tlos, in neighboring Lycia, and at Istrus, in the province of Lower Moesia, between Thrace and the Danube. It is generally thought that the young emperor’s grandfather came from an Anatolian family, because of his unusual cognomen, Gordianus. The iconic image of the god or hero on horseback battling the chthonic serpent, on which his horse tramples, appears on Celtic votive columns, and with the coming of Christianity it was easily transformed into the image of Saint George and the Dragon, whose earliest known depictions are from tenth- and eleventh-century Cappadocia and eleventh-century Georgia and Armenia.
Iconography, Depictions, and Hellenistic Associations
Among Roman inscriptions from Nicopolis ad Istrum, Sabazios is generally equated with Jove and mentioned alongside Mercury. Similarly in Hellenistic monuments, Sabazios is either explicitly (via inscriptions) or implicitly (via iconography) associated with Zeus. On a marble slab from Philippopolis, Sabazios is depicted as a curly-haired and bearded central deity among several gods and goddesses. Under his left foot is a ram’s head, and he holds in his left hand a sceptre tipped with a hand in the benedictio latina gesture. Sabazios is accompanied by busts on his right depicting Luna, Pan, and Mercury, and on his left by Sol, Fortuna, and Daphne. According to Macrobius, Liber and Helios were worshipped among the Thracians as Sabazios; this description fits other Classical accounts that identify Sabazios with Dionysos. Sabazios is also associated with a number of archeological finds depicting a bronze, right hand in the benedictio latina gesture.
The hand appears to have had ritual significance and may have been affixed to a sceptre (as the one carried by Sabazios on the Philippopolis slab). Although there are many variations, the hand of Sabazios is typically depicted with a pinecone on the thumb and with a serpent or pair of serpents encircling the wrist and surmounting the bent ring and pinky fingers. Additional symbols occasionally included on the hands of Sabazios include a lightning bolt over the index and middle fingers, a turtle and lizard on the back of the hand, an eagle, a ram, a leafless branch, the thyrsos, and the Mounted Heros.
Sabazios in Athens
The ecstatic Eastern rites practiced largely by women in Athens were thrown together for rhetorical purposes by Demosthenes in undermining his opponent Aeschines for participating in his mother’s cultic associations:
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.
Transformation to ‘Sabazius’
Transference of Sabazios to the Roman world appears to have been mediated in large part through Pergamum. The naturally syncretic approach of Greek religion blurred distinctions. Later Greek writers, like Strabo in the first century CE, linked Sabazios with Zagreus, among Phrygian ministers and attendants of the sacred rites of Rhea and Dionysos. Strabo’s Sicilian contemporary, Diodorus Siculus, conflated Sabazios with the secret ‘second’ Dionysus, born of Zeus and Persephone, a connection that is not borne out by surviving inscriptions, which are entirely to Zeus Sabazios. The Christian Clement of Alexandria had been informed that the secret mysteries of Sabazius, as practiced among the Romans, involved a serpent, a chthonic creature unconnected with the mounted skygod of Phrygia: “‘God in the bosom’ is a countersign of the mysteries of Sabazius to the adepts”. Clement reports: “This is a snake, passed through the bosom of the initiates”.
Much later, the Byzantine Greek encyclopedia, Suda (10th century?), flatly states
Sabazios … is the same as Dionysos. He acquired this form of address from the rite pertaining to him; for the barbarians call the bacchic cry “sabazein”. Hence some of the Greeks too follow suit and call the cry “sabasmos”; thereby Dionysos [becomes] Sabazios. They also used to call “saboi” those places that had been dedicated to him and his Bacchantes … Demosthenes [in the speech] “On Behalf of Ktesiphon” [mentions them]. Some say that Saboi is the term for those who are dedicated to Sabazios, that is to Dionysos, just as those [dedicated] to Bakkhos [are] Bakkhoi. They say that Sabazios and Dionysos are the same. Thus some also say that the Greeks call the Bakkhoi Saboi.
In Roman sites, though an inscription built into the wall of the abbey church of San Venanzio at Ceperana suggested to a Renaissance humanist it had been built upon the foundations of a temple to Jupiter Sabazius, according to modern scholars not a single temple consecrated to Sabazius, the rider god of the open air, has been located. Small votive hands, typically made of copper or bronze, are often associated with the cult of Sabazios. Many of these hands have a small perforation at the base which suggests they may have been attached to wooden poles and carried in processions. The symbolism of these objects is not well known.
The first Jews who settled in Rome were expelled in 139 BCE, along with Chaldaean astrologers by Cornelius Hispalus under a law which proscribed the propagation of the “corrupting” cult of “Jupiter Sabazius”, according to the epitome of a lost book of Valerius Maximus:
Gnaeus Cornelius Hispalus, praetor peregrinus in the year of the consulate of Marcus Popilius Laenas and Lucius Calpurnius, ordered the astrologers by an edict to leave Rome and Italy within ten days, since by a fallacious interpretation of the stars they perturbed fickle and silly minds, thereby making profit out of their lies. The same praetor compelled the Jews, who attempted to infect the Roman custom with the cult of Jupiter Sabazius, to return to their homes.
By this it is conjectured that the Romans identified the Jewish YHVH Tzevaot (“sa-ba-oth”, “of the Hosts”) as Jove Sabazius.
Plutarch maintained that the Jews worshipped Dionysus, and that the day of Sabbath was a festival of Sabazius. Plutarch also discusses the identification of the Jewish God with the “Egyptian” Typhon, an identification which he later rejects, however. The monotheistic Hypsistarians worshipped the Most High under this name, which may have been a form of the Jewish God.
- “British Museum Collection”. britishmuseum.org. Retrieved 2017-03-06.
- “British Museum Collection”. britishmuseum.org. Retrieved 2017-03-06.
- Jakobson, Roman (1985). “Linguistic Evidence in Comparative Mythology”. In Stephen Rudy (ed.). Roman Jakobson: Selected Writings. VII: Contributions to Comparative Mythology: Studies in Linguistics and Philology, 1972–1982. Walter de Gruyter.
- Variant spellings, like Sawadios in inscriptions, may prove diagnostic in establishing origins, Ken Dowden suggested in reviewing E.N. Lane, Corpus Cultis Jovis Sabazii 1989 for The Classical Review, 1991:125.
- See interpretatio Graeca.
- Later Greek mythographers reduced Cybele’s role to “wife” in this context; initially Gordias will have been ruling in the Goddess’s name, as her visible representative.
- “Zeus Sabazios at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston”. mfa.org. Retrieved 2017-03-06.
- “Sabazios on coins, illustrated in the M. Halkam collection”. Gordian III Lycia. mihalkam.ancients.info. Retrieved 2017-03-06.
- See Saint George and the Dragon
- Tacheva, M. (1983). Eastern Cults in Moesia Inferior and Thracia: (5th Century BC-4th Century AD). Brill. p. 183.
- Vermaseren, M. J. (1983). Corpus Cultus Iovis Sabazii (CCIS): the hands. Brill. p. 16.
- Demosthenes, De corona 260; Attis, serpent cult, Sabazios, Dionysus (Aeschines is characterised as “ivy-bearer” and “liknos-carrier”), and “cultic writings”, which may have insinuated Orphic connections as well, are not otherwise linked in cult, save in their foreignness in fifth-century Athens.
- Lane 1989.
- Strabo, Geography, 10.3.15.
- Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.1.
- E.N. Lane has taken pains to dismiss this widespread conflation: Lane, “Towards a definition of the iconography of Sabazios”, Numen 27 (1980:9-33), and Corpus Cultis Jovis Sabazii:, in Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain: Conclusions 100.3 (Leiden, etc: Brill) 1989.
- Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, 1, 2, 16.
- Sudas, under “Sabazios”, “saboi”; Sider, David. “Notes on Two Epigrams of Philodemus”. The American Journal of Philology, 103.2 (Summer 1982:208–213) pp. 209f.
- Antonio Ivani, writing to his fellow humanist Antonio Medusei, 15 July 1473; noted in Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity, 1969:116.
- Lane, E. N. “Corpus Cultis Jovis Sabazii”, in Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain 100.3 Conclusions (Leiden, etc: Brill) 1989:48.
- M. J. Vermaseren, “Corpus Cultis Jovis Sabazii”, in Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain 100.1 (Leiden, etc: Brill) 1983 assembles the corpus of these hands.
- (Valerius Maximus), epitome of Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, i. 3, 2, see EXEMPLUM 3. [Par.]
- Plutarch. Symposiacs, iv, 6.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 09.11.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.