Geto-Dacian Religion

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GETO-DACIAN RELIGION . The Getae and the Dacians were ancient Thracian peoples who lived in Moesia, on the northern plain of the river Danube, and in the Carpathian Mountains, approximately in the territory of modern-day Romania and Moldova. Although the religion of the Getae and the Dacians escapes complete reconstruction, it forms, nevertheless, like the religion of the ancient Celts, one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Indo-European religions outside the Greco-Roman world. Despite the rationalistic tendency of some scholars to diminish the importance of religion among these peoples, evidence indicates that the foundation of the state consisting of the Getae and the Dacians was a result of theocratic ideas. These ideas stemmed from the worship of Zalmoxis, possibly an ancient religious reformer to whom the beginnings of Getic kingship are also related. Later on, Zalmoxis was divinized, a process that has frequent parallels in ancient Greece.

As for the Dacians, testimonies explicitly relate their name to the Phrygian word daos ("wolf"). Paul Kretschmer's etymology, which derives dakoi from the Indo-European *dhawo-s ("wolf"), has been supported by Vladimir Georgiev and has received an exhaustive historico-religious comment from Mircea Eliade (1972). Eliade claims that the Dacians, like several other Indo-European peoples, formed a Männerbund based on the idea of ritual lycanthropy. Young Dacian warriors were probably trained to imitate the behavior of ferocious wolves. This has nothing to do with the Getae's legendary contempt for death, however, as that was based on the Zalmoxean promise of immortality. In all probability the message of Zalmoxis referred to a paradise in which valiant warriors would survive after death in a state of perpetual happiness.

Greek evidence, starting with Herodotos, establishes a close relationship between Zalmoxis and Pythagoras. The set of religious ideas whose origin is attributed to Zalmoxis indeed presents resemblances with Pythagoreanism. Besides immortality, Zalmoxis is said to have also taught a highly praised form of psychosomatic medicine based on charms, whose purpose was to heal the soul together with the body. Plato gives a vivid and enthusiastic account of Zalmoxean medicine in the dialogue Charmides (156d157c). This medical tradition was apparently long-lived: Late in the third century ce forty-seven Dacian names of medicinal plants were inserted in the famous Materia medica of the Greek physician Dioscurides and in De herbis, attributed to Apuleius.

Zalmoxean Priesthood

The cult of Zalmoxis had strong connections with kingship. Plato, in fact, reports that Zalmoxis was king of the Getae (Charmides 156d), but Strabo (Geography 7.35) says that Zalmoxis was priest of the most important god of the Getae, that he became associated with kingship, and that he later was himself worshiped as a god; he was supposed to live in a cave on the sacred mountain Kogaionon, where only the king and his messengers could visit him. Sacred priesthood continued down to Strabo's time (first century bce). The sacred cave must have been the most ancient place where the god was worshiped and his priests dwelled. In Herodotos's time (fifth century bce) a sanctuary of Zalmoxis must have existed, for Herodotos (Histories 4.95) relates the legend that Zalmoxis had had an underground chamber built and that he hid himself there for three years, after which he reappeared. Such a sanctuary, with a vast underground complex, has been found at Sarmizegetusa Regia (modern-day Gradiştea Muncelului, Romania).

Jordanes, the historian of the Goths, born in Moesia in the sixth century, mingled the traditions of the Goths with those of the Getae in order to give the former the prestige of an ancient and superior population. He composed a list of Zalmoxean priests from the epoch of Burebista (c. 8044 bce) to the time of the Dacian king Decebalus (d. 106 ce). The series opens with the well-known Decaeneus (Dicineus), Burebista's counselor, who may have decisively contributed to the latter's power and to the origin of his kingship. Decaeneus taught the Getae philosophy, physics, ethics, logic, and astronomy. In particular he introduced them to the secrets of astrology, planetary revolutions, phases of the moon, measurement of the sun's size, and cosmic revolutions. Jordanes's testimony has been too lightly dismissed in the past. Decaeneus actually taught the Getae cosmology, astrology, and astronomy as well as introducing them to one of the most intriguing of ancient calendars, whose mystery has not been yet convincingly explained. Decaeneus's successors were the priests Comosicus and Coryllus, both of them kings, the latter in Dacia. Probably this Coryllus (sometimes called Cocrilus or Scorilus) was the immediate predecessor of Decebalus, who was the last king of the Daco-Getae and was finally defeated by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106 ce.

This list of Zalmoxean priests seems to contradict a second list also furnished by Jordanes (De origine actibusque Getarum 39), according to which the king Zalmoxis came after Decaeneus. In fact, Jordanes is obviously not referring here to chronology; he says only that among the Getae the most important thinkers were first (prius ) a certain Zeutas, then (post etiam ) Decaeneus, and then again (tertium ) Zalmoxis. One should infer from this that the predecessor of Decaeneus was Zeutas, not that Decaeneus was followed by Zalmoxis, who is simply the legendary founder of the Geto-Dacian priesthood; in fact, Decaeneus was followed by Comosicus. The name Zeutas is related to the southern Thracian name Seuthes and further to the Avestan term haotar, signifying an Iranian priest. Therefore, zeutas may simply be a generic term signifying Thracian priests.

Pythagorean Patterns

The geographer Strabo, quoting the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, was the first to give precious, but confused, information about the ktistai living in continence and abstinence, and the abioi (lit., "lifeless," i.e., strangers to normal life conditions) of whom Homer tells (Iliad 8.57). Strabo (7.3.5) also reports that Zalmoxis introduced vegetarianism among the Getae.

The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (first century) compares the life of the ascetic Essenes with that of "those among the Dacians who are called pleistoi " (Jewish Antiquities 18.22). It seems that this text should be left without emendation. Following Posidonius and Strabo, the deep religious concern of the Geto-Dacians (spoude, theosebeia, pietas ) was a commonplace of antiquity.

The word pleistoi has received different interpretations, but it seems to be connected with the Thracian god Pleistoros (Herodotos, 9.119). Gheorghe Muşu has sought its etymology in the Indo-European root *ple (is ), meaning "to be full"; hence pleistoi would mean "bearers of fullness" (Muşu, in Vulpe, 1980). In a rather obscure article, Mihai Nasta has accepted the emendation pleistois in polistais, from polizein, meaning "to instruct in the spirit of the city [polis ]; to polish" (Nasta, in Vulpe, 1980). The most probable etymology, however, is that proposed by Eugen Lozovan (1968), who reads pleistoi as a paronomasia of the Thracian *pleiskoi, from the Indo-European *pleus-, meaning "hair, lock." Hence, the pleistoi would be "hair bearers," that is, bearers, or wearers, of a woolen bonnet.

This explanation receives further confirmation from Jordanes (71), who reports that the headgear of the noble and wise priests of the Getae, called pilleati, was a tiara (pilleus). The rest of the people had no pilleus; thus they were capillati, or "bareheaded." Scholars have claimed that Jordanes's report was based on a misinterpretation of Dacian nobles as priests, because traditionally the pilleus was the distinctive sign of Geto-Dacian aristocracy. This observation is wholly irrelevant, however, because Geto-Dacian kingship had many of the characteristics of a theocracy, and the religious initiation of nobles was probably different from that of the common people. Thus, the pilleati could very well have been trained as priests. As often as not, Geto-Dacian high priesthood coincided with kingship.

The Calendar Temple at Sarmizegetusa Regia

In chapter 70 of his De origine actibusque Getarum, Jordanes presents a portrait of Getic warriors that has met only skepticism among modern scholars. According to Jordanes, the Getic warriors used the short time between battles to study the properties of plants and the secrets of the starry heavens. An astonishing confirmation of this picture has been provided by the decipherment of the meaning of the calendar temple discovered among the monumental ruins of Sarmizegetusa Regia, an impressive stronghold in the Carpathian Mountains that was the center of the Daco-Getic priesthood before the Roman conquest. The first hypotheses, put forward by D. M. Teodorescu, Constantin Daicoviciu, G. Charrière, and Hadrian Daicoviciu, have been recently replaced by an improved interpretation based on algorithms, proposed by Serban Bobancu, Cornel Samoilă, and Emil Poenaru (1980).

The calendar temple is composed of two circular sanctuaries made of pillars and slabs of stone and andesite and of wooden pillars plated with terra-cotta, disposed in regular patterns. The forms and materials correspond to different units of the Dacian calendar. According to the demonstration of Bobancu, Samoilă, and Poenaru, the Dacians used as their principal time measure a fluctuating week consisting of from 6 to 8 solar days. A Dacian year was composed of 47 such measures and had, accordingly, from 364 to 367 days. After one 13-year cycle the calendar needed a one-day correction, which was marked separately on a series of pillars indicating such cycles. After one "century" of 104 years, or 8 cycles of 13 years each, a new one-day correction was needed and marked. On a larger rectangular calendar, a 520-year time quantum could be measured, that is, a cycle of five Dacian centuries, after which a one-day correction was needed again. Besides the 104-year "centuries," the Dacian calendar also worked with 91-year "centuries," that is, 7 cycles of 13 years each.

Besides this "civilian" calendar, the Dacians also used a religious calendar, composed of 60 weeks of six days each. A 68-day correction, marked on a circle composed of 68 pillars, was exactly the astronomical operation needed after the passage of a 13-year cycle. Sophisticated and precise as it was, the Dacian calendar had a simple and effective method of use. After termination of each time quantum (week, year, 13-year cycle, 91-year and 104-year "centuries," 520-year period), a successive unit, represented by an architectural element (e.g., a pillar, a slab), was marked; this unit had another form and/or was made of a material different from that used for the preceding unit. The system of correspondences consists of distinguishing the different values of the circles of the sanctuaries and the different regular units of which each circle is composed. Once this is known, the whole pattern becomes predictable, and even a child or a modern scholar could be easily trained to keep the periodic marking.

Easy as it might seem in practice, such a calendar would be based on very complex mathematical principles. It would reach such a remarkable precision that after 2,275 years, corresponding to 175 cycles of 13 years, the time as given by the calendar would differ from the astronomical time by only 38.88 seconds. This is much too precise to be true.

The calendar temple at Sarmizegetusa Regia was not built before Decebalus, but it must have been based on a system discovered by Decaeneus. It provides perhaps a confirmation of Jordanes's characterization of the religious life of the Geto-Dacians.

See Also



The written sources on the religion of the Geto-Dacians are contained in Fontes historiae Dacoromanae, 2 vols., edited by Virgil C. Popescu et al. (Bucharest, 19641970). On Thracian religion in general, Gawrill I. Kazarow's article, "Thrake (Religion)," in Realencyclopädie der Altertumswissenschaft, vol. 6 (Stuttgart, 1937), can still be profitably consulted, and an extensive bibliography can be found in Mircea Eliade's Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God: Comparative Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe (Chicago, 1972).

For detailed study of the northern Thracians, the following works are recommended. In Romanian, Hadrian Daicoviciu's Dacii, 2d ed. (Bucharest, 1972), and I. I. Russu's article in Anuarul Institutului de Studii Clasice 5 (19441948): 61137 are both essential works. Ion Horaţiu Crişan's Burebista and His Time, Bibliotheca Historica Romaniae Monographs, no. 20 (Bucharest, 1978), translated into English from his second edition, is useful for its description of the old sanctuary at Sarmizegetusa Regia. Radu Vulpe's Studia Thracologica, in French, contains important articles on Burebista and Decaeneus, and the Actes du Deuxième Congrès International de Thracologie, vol. 3, Linguistique, ethnologie, anthropologie, edited by Vulpe (Bucharest, 1980), contains several interesting articles by Ioan Coman, Gheorghe Muşu, Mihai Nasta, and others. A still useful survey of some problems connected with the religion of the Geto-Dacians is Eugen Lozovan's "Dacia Sacra," History of Religions 7 (February 1968): 209243. The best interpretation of the calendar temple at Sarmizegetusa Regia and a discussion of earlier hypotheses are presented by Serban Bobancu, Cornel Samoilă, and Emil Poenaru in Caldendarul de la Sarmizegetusa Regia (Bucharest, 1980), which includes a useful English summary on pages 183190.

New Sources

Alexandrescu, Petre. "Zalmoxis şi cercetările lui Mircea Eliade (Zalmoxis and Eliade researches)." Pontica 11 (1970): 5158.

Avram, Alexandru. "Gadanken über den thrakisch-geto-dakischen Adel." Studii clasice 26 (1988): 1125. Prudence concerning Eliade's hypothesis of Männerbunde in Dacia.

Barbulescu, Mihai. "La religione nella Dacia romana." Atti Accademia Peloritana 68 (1992): 145159. A useful compendium.

Bianchi, Ugo. "Dualistic Aspects of Thracian Religion." History of Religions. 10, no. 3 (1971): 228233. Concerning Zalmoxis and the notice by Posidonius.

Bodor, Andreas. "Die griechisch-römischen Kulte in der Provinz Dacia und das Nachwirken der einheimischen Traditionen." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2, 18, 2. Berlin, New York, 1989, pp. 10781164. The most thorough survey, including eight plates, though the bibliography is outdated.

Casadio, Giovanni. "Non desiderare la donna d'altri: la famiglia secondo naura dei barbari." In Civiltà classica e mondo dei barbari, edited by Lidia de Finis. Trento, Italy, 1991, pp. 103135. Dealing with the ascetic and mystic traditions of the Dacian tribes mentioned by Posidonius.

Dorcey Peter F. "The Cult of Silvanus in Dacia." Athenaeum 66 (1988): 131140.

Hampartümian, Nicolae. "Child-Burials and Superstition in the Roman Cemetery of Sucidava (Dacia)." In Hommages à M. J. Vermaseren. Leiden, 1978, pp. 473477.

Marghitan, L., and C. C. Petolescu. "Les cultes orientaux à Micia (Dacia superior). " In Hommages à M. J. Vermaseren. Leiden, 1978, pp. 718731.

Nemeti, Sorin. "Eine donauländische ikonographische Variante der Göttin Nantosuelta." Latomus 60 (2001): 160166.

Nemeti, Sorin. "Le dieu à l'anguipède dans la Dacie romaine." Ollodagos 17 (2003): 201211. A study of magic gems.

Ramon Carbó, Juan. "El culto imperial en la Dacia romana. Consideraciones sobre la presencia de aspectos análogos en la religiosidad de los pueblos daco-getas." Ilu 6 (2001): 732. A comparison between the indigenous religion and the Roman acculturation.

Sirbu, Valeriu. "Rituels et pratiques funéraires des Géto-Daces, 2e siècle av. n. è-1er siècle de n. è." Dacia 30 (1986): 91108. Incineration is the dominating funerary practice. In the case of inhumation, there is evidence for human sacrifices, a custom which is supported by literary tradition and comparison with Celtic data.

Ioan Petru Culianu (1987)

Cicerone Poghirc (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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