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IMAGES OF THRACO-DACIANS DEITIES

Translated by Fantalov Alex


The Thraco-Dacians left no written sources about their religious beliefs or practices. For knowledge of it we are compelled to scower the few written ancient sources and draw heavily upon surviving Thracian art. Adrian Dalicovitchin writes,
"It was a polytheistic religion, the main deities being Zalmoxis (a chthonic deity), Hebeleyzis (a heavenly deity), Bendis (the goddess like Greek Artemis) and a deity like Roman Mars. According to Jordanes, the Dacians suspended sacrifices to the god of war".
From another source, "the Greeks of Istria and Odessa where Greek-Thracian connections were close, recognized the Supreme Thracian 'the Great god' The tribal ancestor-hero-protector could be the highest personal concept in Thracian religion" (Hoddinott, 1981). According to the Greek sources, the Thracians shots areas at thunder storm clouds to attack the enemies of their God. Hoddinott writes that this connects this God with the Sun and cites as an example, a coin from the 6th century BC where, a person in a horned helmet is represented> He rides in a chariot that is harnessed to a bull. Between them a solar disk is placed.
The listed Gods were of different types. About Hebeleyzis it is impossible to write with any certainty . It is not clear whether he was God of Thunder or the God of Clear Sky. As for Zalmoxis we have some information. Herodotus speaks about him as the divine defender of people. The Greek sources affirmed that Zalmoxis was a Thracian, who was servent of Pithagor, and followed his ideas. After coming home he started to preach to his fellow tribesmen the idea of personal immortality, but met with mistrust. Having invited omportant people of Thrace to a feast, Zalmoxis predicted future troubles. When these troubles came they searched for the wise man, but could not find him, for he had left to hide. Zalmoxis again came to his fellow tribesmen some years later and who, having tested his wisdom, accepted his doctrine and began to worship him as the god. The source is typical of Greek writings which, tried to attribute the majority of achievements of nearby peoples to their influence. Within this story however, there is important information. The idea of personal immortality of the individual, achievable through the help of the divine defender and the connection of Zalmoxis with the chthonic type of the dying and reviving god. It also includes information on the mythical character in which, it is possible to see features of the Cultural Hero. "According to Iliad to us the most ancient Thracian hero-ancestor is known Rhesus. The late version (Philostratos, Heroica 691) talks of him as still living, riding the horses, wearing amour and hunting. Wood animals offered themselves to him in a victim. About Rhesus also it was spoke, that he protected his country from epidemics" (Hoddinott, 1981). More or less clearly, Zalmoxis and so-called Thracian Mars or the God of Earth Powers and the Cultural Hero, or both represent the Hero (a difference is not important in this case). The Thracians shot from bows at clouds with the purpose to save the hero from the God of Thunder, recognized by them as hostile force. So, despite of originality of the similar fact, from our point of view it is quite explained.
As for Bendis her role is very clear. Her attributes as a healer goddess, connections with a cult of three Thracian nymphs and an identification with the Greek Goddess Artemis (who was esteemed in the classical period a a maiden but patron of birth) are known. There are other features of the Great Goddess. A study of Thracian art deepens our knowledge of their myths.. From 10-7th centuries BC bronze objects were kept, often the edges of axes decorated with bull heads or sculptures of dears speaking about agrarian, chthonic cults. Their style is typical of the Bronze age. Later centuries, particularly the 4-5th centuries BC, were rich in arts and crafts, mostly found in the Danube region. These include decorated gold helmets where, men gallop on horses or unknown animals are represented, battling with the snakes, sitting with a horn for drink in a hand. These are precious cups and vessels where, images of West Asian art are fancifully combined with the Greek and Scythian ones: the goddess holding the paws of two predators; horses with wings and a human head; eastern types of griffins (with the ram horns); bulls; images of torment. There are the separate images of the Great Goddess. We can also see them in northern Thracians art. In one of the Sarmizegetusa sanctuaries the terracotta medallion on which, the image of Diana with Roman coins dated a 80BC is reproduced, was found. It connects with the cult of goddess Bendis. In general the Dacian's seldom represented human figures. The small bronze masks representing the woman, presumably Bendis, are exceptions.
By contrast the southern Thracians have a rich history of figurative art. As mentioned before Persian and Greek influences were reflected in it. Thrace however, had finally developed its own original 'barbarous' style which, in its bright visuals became an image of 'the Thracian Hero' Rich products of arts and crafts especially silver plaques with gilding were kept in storehouses in Letnitsa. On one of them there a struggle between the hero and a three-headed serpent is depicted. Some features of the image specify influence of Greek images of Hercules and Hydras. But the plot goes back to an ancient Indo-European myth about a victory of the hero over a three-headed dragon (it will be in consider later in detail in connection with the Scythian-Sarmatians). The Hercules images are typical of the Thracians. In the centre of the silver phalar from Old Zagora we see a person struggling with a lion whilst on the perimeter there griffons and hydras (in what has had an effect, the mixed Greek-Persian influence). The silver plate from Panagyurishte shows Hercules with club, a certain animal holding for a nape. It is uncertain whether it is a lion or Cerberus (it has already been mentioned that these monsters go back to a uniform prototype).
The Hercules's type - the person, for the feats and superhuman works of the reached divine status becoming an ancestor of Thracian people has merged with type of the national Hero.
A more complete Thracian understanding of the Hero was expressed on a series of plaques from the same Letnitsa. In a series pf plaques the Hero is shown galloping on a horse (not a typical Greek representation). On the first plaque he is represented at a drinking feast with a bowl in his hand and with wild boars in the background. On other plaques the Hero is shown with a spear. On the third, a horse head behind the back of the horseman testifies to his riches and authority above the horses. The fourth and fifth plates show the hero, accordingly, with man and female heads behind his back that indicates his role as primogenitor of a tribe. One more plaque testifies to same role from Letnitsa in which, the Hero embraces a woman. Itself same it is shown and separately, sitting on hyppocampa.
Other plaques with the horse hero were also kept. One of them shows similar composition to those mentioned in chapters devoted to the Celtics and Germanics, Vendel helmets. The Thracian variant represents the Hero aiming with a spear at one predatory animal and a horse trampling down another with its hoofs. The similar composition can be traced to Etruscan art. Other plaques (Lukovit, 4th century BC) represent iconography amongst which, is a prototype Saint George. Lastly, using as a prototype the real Roman aristocrat in the epoch of Emperor Diocletian, the image has moved to combining a dying and a reviving agrarian deity with features of the hero, a victorious dragon or wolf.
In the Hellenistic period and especially after the Roman conquest of Thrace, the image of the Hero or the horseman was canonized in art. "The most widespread kind were carved relieves on stones, is usual 30 - 40 on 20 - 30 see. G. Katsarov identified three main groups with many sub-divisions. In one horse hero rides, slowly coming nearer to a woman, an altar or a tree around which are twisted snakes. The second group includes the plates representing the hero with a dog attacking a wild boar appearing from for a tree, (as it happens it is replaced with an altar). On plates of the third group the hero comes back from hunting, carrying a dead deer. Sometimes there are also other figures; instead of a wild boar the lion (Hoddinott, 1981) can be shown. Hoddinott believes, that iconography relieves of the first group had Greek roots whilst the second stem from Persian myths (occurring from stele 400BC in the Thracian province of the Persian Empire). "The wild boar was heroic game in eyes of Greeks with associations to Hercules. It was also devoted to Artemis and had a reputation of a general chthonic beast among the Indo-European peoples. The tree is the tree of lives and a symbol of fertility. The snake can symbolize immortality as it is not attacked by the hero and to personify apostrophic aspects which, irrespective of healer associations, appeared on sacred vessels. The woman represents the goddess, but in the opinion of the Thracians, she can symbolize the return of the hero. The Hero can be identified as Apollo the healer, or with Dionysus. When the genre of funeral steles had extended into Southern Thrace (during Roman rule), the dead person was frequently represented as the hero rising up, symbolizing immortality. The majority of these steles can be dated to the 2nd-3rd centuries AD., but those found in Rescript in Thessaloniki date to 380AD After the acceptance of Christianity and arrival of the Slavs, many relieves began to be made with the image of Saint George and Saint Demetrius. In 1907 peasants still made some kind of pilgrimage to a tomb of the Hero on Saint George's day to recover. One of relieves served as an icon in Plovdiv, another was built in the church of Saint George in Izvorovo (Katsarov, 1958), the third is fixed into a wall near to the main gate of a medieval citadel in Ainos (the Casson, 1926, figs. 98). Whether as Marco-Kralevitsh argues, that in Saint George, the horse hero continued to be represented, both Byzantium and old Slavic church have brought this image into the new Russian church" (Hoddinott, 1981).
Considering the limitations of Thraco-Dacian and Illyrian mythological sources, in comparison with Celtic and Germanic-Scandinavian, there is some difficulty in reaching any definite conclusions . For example it is not clear, whether they were worshiped within the common framework of the cults of the gods of Thunder and the Clear Sky, though separate hints on their cult are present. It is impossible to identify with full confidence who the God of Earth Powers was (it is possible it was Zalmoxis). About Bendis - the Great Goddess we also have very small amount of information. All of them were eclipsed by the Cultural Hero who, was characteristically represented as a horseman. It is possible to trace this phenomenon to the very early development of centralized imperial authority in Thraco-Dacian and Illyrian traditions. The influence of the image of the Cultural Hero on the mass consciousness was so great, that in later periods it determined the character of relations with advanced religions (this is shown in the of recognition of Mithraism by the Illyrians and Christianity by Thraco-Dacians)