Sabazios is the nomadic horseman sky and father god of the Phrygians. In Indo-European languages, such as Phrygian, the '-zios' element in his name goes back to Dyeus, the common precursor of 'deus' (god) and Zeus. Though the Greeks associated Phrygian Sabazios with Zeus, 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 (ca. 1200 BC?) and that the god's origins are to be looked for in Macedonia and western Thrace. The Macedonians were noted horseman, horse-breeders and horse-worshippers into the time of Philip II.
Early conflict between Sabazios and his followers and the indigenous Mother Goddess of Phrygia (Cybele) is 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. Later Greek mythographers reduced Cybele's role to 'wife,' but initially Gordias will have been ruling in the Goddess's name, as her visible representative.
One of the Mother Goddess'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.
The 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.
Sabazios on coins, illustrated in M. Halkam collection.
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.
Transformation to Sabazius
The naturally syncretic approach of Greek religion blurred distinctions. Later Greek writers, like Strabo, 1st century AD, linked Sabazios with Zagreos, among Phrygian ministers and attendants of the sacred rites of Rhea and Dionysos. (Strabo, 10.3.15). Strabo's Sicilian contemporary, Diodorus Siculus, conflates Sabazios with the secret 'second' Dionysus, born of Zeus and Persephone (Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.1). The 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 (Protrepticus, 1, 2, 16). "This is a snake, passed through the bosom of the initiates”.
Much later, the Greek encyclopedia, Sudas (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." (Suidas, under 'Sabazios,' 'saboi') 'Barbarian' is instructive here: a non-Greek-speaking Phrygian was considered a barbarian, but no Greek ever referred to a Cretan as a 'barbarian'.
The Jewish connection
The first Jews who settled in Rome were expelled by virtue of a law which proscribed the propagation of the cult of "Jupiter Sabazius," according to Valerius Maximus (i. 3, 2). It is conjectured that the Romans identified the Jewish Yahveh Sabaoth ("of the Hosts") as Sabazius:
"Cnaeus 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."
— Valerius Maximus, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings i.3, 2
The date corresponds to 139 BC.
This mistaken connection of Sabazios and Sabaoth has often been repeated. In a similar vein, Plutarch (Symposium. iv. 6) naively maintained that the Jews worshipped Dionysus, and that the day of Sabbath was a festival of Sabazius. No modern reader would confuse Yahweh with Dionysus or Sabazius. Plutarch also discusses the identification of the Jewish god with the "Egyptian" (actually archaic Greek) Typhon, an identification which he later rejects, however.
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Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire