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Sabazios is the nomadic 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 'deus' (god) and Zeus. Though the Greeks interpreted Phrygian Sabazios with 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.

Thracian/Phrygian Sabazios

It seems likely that the migrating Phrygians brought Sabazios with them when they settled in Anatoliamarker in the early first millennium BCE, and that the god's origins are to be looked for in Macedonia and western Thrace. The Macedonians remained 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 Artsmarker. 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 Turkeymarker. 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.

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, 1st century AD, linked Sabazios with Zagreus, among Phrygian ministers and attendants of the sacred rites of Rhea and Dionysos. Strabo's Sicilian contemporary, Diodorus Siculus, conflates 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 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."

In Roman sites, though 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.

Jewish connection

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:
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."

By this it is conjectured that the Romans identified the Jewish Yahveh Sabaoth ("of the Hosts") as Sabazius.

This mistaken connection of Sabazios and Sabaoth has often been repeated. In a similar vein, Plutarch 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. The monotheistic Hypsistarians worshipped the Jewish god under this name.

Modern literature

In Robert Harris' novel Pompeii, a sybil active in the city of Pompeiimarker before its destruction "sacrifices snakes to Sabazius, skins them for their meaning, and utters prophecies".

Sabassus, a fictional demon in the fifth season of the television show Angel , may have been named after Sabazios. Sabazius is the name of a British drone/doom metal band named after the god Sabazios.


  1. Variant spellings, like Sawadios in inscriptions, may prove diagnostic in establishing origins, Ken Dowden suggested in reviewing Lane 1989 for The Classical Review 1991:125.
  2. See interpretatio Graeca.
  3. 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.
  4. Sabazios on coins, illustrated in M. Halkam collection.
  5. 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.
  6. Lane 1989.
  7. Strabo. Geography, 10.3.15.
  8. Diodorus Siculus, 4.4.1.
  9. 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.
  10. Clement of Alexandria. Protrepticus, 1, 2, 16.
  11. Sudas, under 'Sabazios,' 'saboi'; Sider, David. "Notes on Two Epigrams of Philodemus". The American Journal of Philology, 103.2 (Summer 1982:208-213) pp209f.
  12. 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.
  13. Vermasaren, 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.
  14. (Valerius Maximus), epitome of Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, i. 3, 2.
  15. Plutarch. Symposiacs, iv, 6.

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