Thracian Religion

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THRACIAN RELIGION . In ancient Greece the name Thrakes referred to most of the inhabitants of the northeastern Balkan Peninsula. Their neighbors to the east were the Scythians; to the west the Pannonians, Dalmatians, and Illyrians; to the north the Balts and the Celts. The name seems to have initially belonged only to the Thracian tribes in close proximity to Greece. Later on, it was extended to related tribes to the north, just as the name Graeci, which originally belonged only to a western Greek tribe, was later given by the Romans to all the Hellenes. Nevertheless, the location of the land called Thrake was always restricted to the area south of the Balkan Mountains, principally to the Chalcidice Peninsula.

Thracian Peoples

Nearly two hundred tribes are known under the generic name of Thrakes, of which the most important were the Odrysi, who lived in what is today southeastern Bulgaria; the Dentheleti, north of Macedonia; the Serdi, in Serdica, today the region of Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria; the Bessi, west of Serdica; the Moesi, between the Balkan Mountains and the river Danube; and the Daco-Getae, who occupied a northern territory approximating modern-day Romania. Other Thracian tribesthe Thyni and Bithynisettled in Asia Minor. The Phrygians and the Armenians, who originated in the Balkans, were related to them.


In the ancient world, the Thracians were, according to Herodotos (fifth century bce), the most numerous people after the Indians. Thracians are attested in connection with the Trojan War, and they seem to have had a share in the foundation of Troy (in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey). Only occasionally did they form larger unions of tribes: the only known confederations are the kingdom of the Odrysi (fifth-fourth centuries bce), the Geto-Dacian kingdom of Burebista (c. 8044 bce), and the Daco-Getic kingdom of Decebalus (87106 ce). Nonetheless, a certain material and spiritual unity of the Thracians (though not without important inner distinctions) was preserved by several tribes, despite their frequent displacements. Herodotus (Histories 5.3) notes that most of the Thracians had kindred customs, with the exception of the Getae, the Trausi, and those living beyond the tribe of the Crestonians.

According to the Greek geographer Strabo (first century bce), the Getae spoke the same dialect as the other Thracians. Subsequent scholarship has shown, however, that both the culture and the language of the Getae, whom Herodotus calls "the most religious and valiant among the Thracians," were distinct from those of the southern Thracians. Scholars such as Vladimir Georgiev, Ivan Duridanov, and Cicerone Poghirc have established a clear distinction between two linguistic areas: the Thracian area, in which toponyms ending in -para, -bria, and -diza are dominant, and the Daco-Getic area, in which these endings are replaced by -dava and -sara. Anthroponyms and phonetic transformation both confirm this distinction. Culturally, the southern Thracians were related to the Iranians, to the Pelasgians, and to some peoples of Asia Minor. They exerted a certain spiritual influence on the Greeks, but they felt, in turn, the decisive impact of Greek civilization. The northern Thracians, the Daco-Getae, were, however, culturally closer to the Illyrians, the Celts, and the Balts. Before the Roman epoch, Greek influence north of the Danube was minimal: in Dacia only thirty Greek inscriptions have been found, representing 1 percent of the more than three thousand Roman inscriptions. In the northern territories the passage from the Hallstatt culture to the La Tène culture was determined by the Celtic invasions during the fourth and third centuries bce.


The Thracians may be attested in documents written in Linear B, a form of writing used in Mycenaean records dating from the fifteenth to the twelfth century bce. They are mentioned by Homer and by numerous later Greek and Roman authors. In the fourth century ce, the language of the Thracian tribe of the Bessi was still in use in Christian liturgy. A difficult question is whether any of the Thracian tribes ever used writing. It seems that they did, but only a few records have survived. At least the Geto-Dacians, who formed an impressive theocracy in the first century bce, seem to have used the Greek and Roman alphabets to transcribe their own language. No document is attested, however, apart from some mysterious inscriptions, each composed of three Greek letters, on stone slabs from the ruins of sanctuaries at Sarmizegetusa Regia (modern-day Gradiştea Muncelului, Romania). In all probability these inscriptions are not marks used by the Greek builders of the sanctuaries but are, instead, numbers related to the complicated astronomical computations of the Dacian priests. Because the slabs were scattered, it has so far been impossible to reconstruct the pattern by which the series of numbers can be read.

The basic sources on Thracian religion are Greek and Roman authors, including Herodotos, Plato, Strabo, the geographer Pomponius Mela, and the Moesian-born Gothic historian Jordanes (sixth century ce). Other sources usually depend on these authors and only occasionally provide important information; a notable exception is the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry (third century), who wrote on Zalmoxis. For southern Thrace, Greek votive inscriptions are particularly important; the collection edited by Georgi Mikhailov (19551956) contains about 160 names of divinities, together with epithets.

The Thracian regions bordering the Aegean Sea were completely hellenized. The province south of the Balkan Mountains remained under Greek influence even during Roman occupation. The northern regions were decisively influenced by the Romans after being subdued by them: Moesia Superior in 15 ce; Moesia Inferior, along with the Greek Pontic colonies, on the western shore of the Black Sea, in 46 ce; and Dacia in 106 ce. The last speakers of Thracian dialects disappeared from the region south of the Balkan Mountains after the invasion of the Slavs in the sixth century.

Thracian Religion: Some General Features

Religion among the southern Thracians developed along different lines from that of the northern Thracians (the Daco-Getae) owing to what could be called the religious reformation of Zalmoxis in the north. Whether Zalmoxis was a god or a human is an open question, but it can safely be stated that his priests, forming an uninterrupted line of succession that was at times indistinguishable from Daco-Getic kingship, introduced among the northern Thracians religious principles and, later on, scientific speculations that conferred upon their religion a peculiar character. Different sources inform us of the penetration of these ideas among southern Thracians in early times, but Zalmoxis is uncontroversially known as a Gete. It is difficult to speak of a common religious heritage in regard to all Thracian peoples, for different beliefs and customs are attributed to various groups in various sources, but it is easy to recognize in the sources features pertaining to the cult of Zalmoxis. With the exception of Zalmoxis, whose influence extended from the north to the south, all Thracian divinities known in Greece from the fifth century bce (e.g., Sabazios, Bendis, and Cotys) and the mythic characters to whom the Greeks attributed a Thracian background (e.g., Orpheus and Dionysos) originated among the southern Thracians.

According to Herodotos (5.7) the Thracians worshiped three divinities, corresponding to the Greek Ares, Dionysos, and Artemis, and their kings worshiped a fourth divinity, corresponding to Hermes, to whose posterity they were believed to belong.

As for Ares-Mars, the god of war, Jordanes (De origine actibusque Getarum 4041) confirms his importance among the Getae, in whose land he was supposed to have been born ("apud eos exortum") and to have reigned (cf. Vergil, Aeneid 3.35). Prisoners of war were sacrificed to him, and his devotional cults were particularly intense in their affective tones.

Whether Herodotos in his mention of Dionysos was referring to Sabazios is a controversial point, since he could have directly mentioned the name of Sabazios. The same argument applies as well to the goddesses Bendis and Cotys, who are usually identified with Artemis. At the time of Herodotos both of them were known at Athens, and yet the historian did not mention their names in connection with the Thracian Artemis.

Ancient authors attributed to Dionysos himself a Thracian background. In the myth of Dionysos, a Thracian episode, mentioned by Homer (Iliad 5.130ff.), is particularly interesting. In numerous variants, it is recounted that the Thracian king Lykurgos (lit., "wolf's anger") pursues Dionysos, who, in his turn, brings down madness upon the king. The king then either kills himself or is eventually killed by Dionysos. The symbolism of this myth is very complicated. It refers, in all probability, to the cosmic effects of a battle between opposite principles represented by Apollo and Dionysos. As a matter of fact, the wolf is related to Apollo, who is often called Apollo Lukeios, a name referring both to the wolf (Gr., lukos ) and to light (Gr., lukē, "dawn"; Lat., lux, "light").

In several variants of the myth, Lykurgos tries to cut down a vine with an ax. Dionysos confuses him so that instead he kills his own son and cuts off one of his own legs. The mythologist Nonnus of Panopolis (fifth century) reports that Lykurgos, an Arab king who pursues Dionysos with an ax in order to kill him, hits one of the Maenads, Ambrosia, who is then changed into a vine. It is difficult to unravel the implications of this myth: while Lykurgos appears to be a vine hater, an enemy of Dionysos, his action may instead simply represent a viticulturist's pruning of his vines. There is nothing typically Thracian in all this, except perhaps the contradictory characterization of Thracians as either vine lovers or vine haters. Strangely enough, the calendar temple in the stronghold at Sarmizegetusa Regia seems to indicate that the Daco-Getic priests under Decebalus were concerned with the vegetative period of the vine, and that this concern was a major element in their culture; yet King Burebista is said to have ordered all vines in his kingdom to be cut down. Is the latter, perhaps, only a wrong assumption on the part of Strabo (Geography 7.711), who mistakenly expects wine hatred from the spiritualistic, Pythagorean features of Getic religion? This hypothesis deserves further investigation.

As for the Thracian Artemis, both Bendis and Cotys have been identified with this goddess. Bendis appears to be a goddess of marriage, while Cotys, or Kotyto, is an orgiastic Thracian divinity in whose cult men wore women's garments. Her name has been related to the Indo-European *kot-u- ("avenger"; cf. the Greek koteo, "I am angry") and has thus been taken to mean "angry [goddess]" or "[goddess] of fight." Gheorghe Mus,u prefers the etymology "[goddess] energy," from the Indo-European *kued -, kuod - ("stimulate, urge on"). Both Bendis and Cotys were known at Athens from the fifth century bce onward.

Neither worship of a heavenly god nor the institution of sacred kingship was confined to the northern Thracians. The military historian Polyaenos (second century) reported that the priests of Hera were kings of the tribes of the Kebrenoi and Sykaiboai. One of them, Kosingas, gathered many wooden ladders with the intent, he said, of climbing to heaven in order to indict the Thracians before Hera for their disobedience. Impressed, the Thracians swore to obey his orders.

Two practices that were general among the Thracians rested, in all probability, on religious bases: tattooing and the burial or cremation of living wives together with their dead husbands. Among the Getae, tattooing was probably related to the story of the sufferings once inflicted upon Zalmoxis, and was thus applied to members of certain social categories (e.g., women and slaves) as a sign of suffering. Among the southern Thracians, where only the nobles were tattooed, it must have had another symbolic meaning.

As for the burial or cremation of living widows, archaeological finds confirm the rather puzzling written evidence that the Thracians practiced either one or the other, and sometimes both in the same place. No reasons for this variation are given. Two works based on the findings at several necropolises in Dacia (Protase, 1971; Nicolaescu-Plopsor and Wolski, 1975) have confirmed the concurrent existence of both ritual practices, although cremation prevailed. Wives, sometimes accompanied by their infant children, were sacrificed at the death of their husbands and were buried or cremated in the same tomb. Both Herodotos and Pomponius Mela (De situ orbis 2.2.1920) report that among polygamous Thracians the wives of the deceased vied for the great honor of being killed and buried together with the corpse of their husbands.

Herodotos also reports a three-day exposure of the corpse, followed by animal sacrifices, feasting, mourning, and burial or cremation. To the historian Hellanicus (fifth century bce) is attributed the information that the animal sacrifices and the banqueting were based on a belief that the deceased would return to the human world to participate in the feast. Pomponius Mela (2.2.18) affirms that some Thracians mourned a child's birth and rejoiced over death. Therefore the feasts following one's death were an expression of collective participation in the happy destiny of the dead. The Getae were not the only Thracians to believe in immortality, but their beliefs, which relate to the cult of Zalmoxis, are better known, for they impressed the Greek authors who came in contact with them after the fifth century bce.

Strabo (7.3.3) reports that, according to the Stoic Posidonius of Apamea, the Mysians (whom Strabo correctly identifies as the Moesi, i. e., inhabitants of Moesia) practiced vegetarianism, feeding themselves on honey, milk, and cheese. These are called theosebeis ("worshipers of the gods") and kapnobatai ("walkers on smoke"). Some among the Thracians lived in continence and are recorded as ktistai (lit., "founders"). To the latter applies the Homeric epithet abioi (lit., "lifeless," i.e., poor), which was attributed to some of the inhabitants of Thrace. The epithet kapnobatai may refer to a practice mentioned by Pomponius Mela (2.2.21), according to which some Thracians did not use wine as an intoxicating liquor but instead inhaled smoke from fires upon which had been thrown seeds whose scent provoked exhilaration. The Lexicon of Hesychius of Alexandria (fifth or sixth century ce) reports under the word kanabis ("hemp") that hemp seeds were burned, and so Cannabis sativa may be a plausible identification of the intoxicating plant referred to by Pomponius.

See Also

Geto-Dacian Religion; Zalmoxis.


The written sources on the religion of the Thracians 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. On Greek votive inscriptions from southern Thrace, Georgi Mikhailov's Inscriptiones Grecae in Bulgaria repertae, 4 vols. (Sofia, 19561966), is particularly important. On the names of Thracian divinities, see Vladimir Georgiev's "Die thrakischen Götternamen: Ein Beitrag zur Religion der alten Thraker," Linguistique balkanique 18 (1975): 556. On Thracian funerary practices, see Dumitru Protase's Riturile funerare la Daci şi Daco-Romani (Bucharest, 1971), which includes a French summary on pages 183214, and Dardu Nicolaescu-Plopşor and Wanda Wolski's Elemente de demografie şi ritual funerar la populaţiile vechi din România (Bucharest, 1975), which has an English summary on pages 273292. 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).

New Sources

Gergova, Diana. "The Find from Rogozen and One Religious Feast in the Thracian Lands. " Klio 71 (1989): 3650.

Gočeva, Zlatozara. "Die Religion der Thraker." Klio 68 (1986): 8491.

Mihailov, Georgi. "Some Problems of Thracian Mythology and Religion." Journal of Indo-European Studies 11 (1983): 241248.

Najderova, Varbinka. "Thracian Paganism and Roman Religions on the Lower Danubian Limes." In Roman Frontier Studies 1989: Proceedings of the 15th International Cong ress of Roman Frontier Studies, ed. by Valerie A. Maxfield and Michael J. Dobson, pp. 291294. Exeter, U.K., 1991.

Ioan Petru Culianu (1987)

Cicerone Poghirc (1987)

Revised Bibliography