WARNING: The author of this article is NOT a scholar of any kind. Any and all opinions expressed within are his own, and should not be mistaken for being authoritative in the least. He remains as perplexed as he was when he first encountered the Danubian / Thracian Rider votives, and as perplexed as ever regarding Thracian religion. Despite that, he hopes that some day he won't feel like a total idiot when attempting to parse these matters.
Heroized Gods and Great Goddesses
As individuals that follow me on other social media sites are probably aware: in recent months, I've been digging through the Campbell-Bonner magical gem database. Partially, this is to see what amulets correspond to spells and rituals in the Greek Magical Papyri, and how the voces magicae were applied to gems.
But while digging through them, I encountered a few carved gemstones, similar to other magical gemstones and amulets from late antiquity, that I want to comment on. They correspond to votives and images found in Rome and Eastern Europe, often featuring a Hero or Deity on horseback, or a pair of Horsemen facing what may be called a 'Great Goddess.' If this interpretation seems a little hazy, it is because there is no scholarly consensus as to who either the Horsemen (or Horseman) or the Goddess specifically represent. As if this was not complicated enough, there appears to be multiple disagreements over which cultures they belong to. However, they include symbolism and motifs that can be found in votives and reliefs, among other things, from Asia Minor, or Anatolia (modern day Turkey), Eastern, Central, and Western Europe. And at the very least, we can get a glimpse of those parallels.
In this entry, though I have few over-reaching conclusions. I can only point to the images themselves, and what I feel is evident in some of them, and to relevant articles on the subject.
Images and possible amulets of a lone Rider
Images of the Thracian and Danubian horseman by himself can be found in and on Thracian tombs, such as these two images of the Riders in combat (or in a ritual dance emulating combat, depending on the interpretation) such as those found at the tomb discovered near Alexandrovo in the year 2000, and believed to have been closed and turned into a tomb (possibly after being a mystery cult site) between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE. The image from the Southern wall is too damaged to be useful for our purposes, however the images over the Northern wall and Central Chamber are definitely worth taking a look at:
|(Alexandrovo: Northern wall painting feating Thracian Horseman in combat or ritual. Source.)|
|(Alexandrovo: Wall painting over the central chamber. Source.)|
Additionally, the Alexandrovo kurgan contains an image of the Thracian horseman, and a nude figure bearing a double-axe, in a hunting scene similar to those found on reliefs elsewhere:
|(Alexandrovo: Central chamber fresco, depicting the Thracian horseman hunting a boar and possibly Zalmoxis wielding the Double-Axe. Source.)|
One might compare it to a marble votive of the Thracian horseman, spear raised in the same position, dated to the 2nd or 3rd century (of the common era, I think?):
|(Marble votive from Bulgaria. Source.)|
|(Apollo figurine from Perperikon.)|
A number of those images I've consulted outside the gems have yielded inscriptions to Apollo, and sometimes even Asklepios (which we'll return to in a bit), and one cannot help but admire this relief made to Apollo-Sozon from about C.E. 225 – 250, from Anatolia / Asia Minor. In it, he bears both the Phrygian cap, and a Double-Axe similar to the nude figure from the Alexandrovo kurgan:
One might compare it to the relief / frieze found at the Felix Romuliana in Serbia, in which the Horseman again appears to be carrying a Double-Axe:
|(Felix Romuliana frieze. Source.)|
(Gemstone: Rider on rearing horse spearing a female figure being trampled by his horse. 4th century CE. Source.)
(Gemstone: Pretty much the same as above, minus inscription on the back. 4Th - 5th century CE. Source.)
While I have limited myself to two images, there are at least a dozen of them in the depths of the database, all variously named, but all similar in images and motifs. I cannot prove in any form or fashion that they are linked to the others, but I strongly suspect that they are.
While the single rider can often be found hunting or in a ritual or battle, he can also sometimes simply be shown riding and making a gesture known as the Benedictio latino:
(Thracian rider from the Burgas museum in Bulgaria. 2nd century CE. Source.)
This gesture is important to note for later amulets and images, as it will appear again, but it is also seemingly associated with the Thracian cult of Sabazios specifically, and the votive hands that have been left behind and been called “the Hand of Sabazios,” such as this one from the British Museum:
|(Hand of Sabazios from the British Museum. Source.)|
Another of the above reliefs, this one from the 1st or 2nd century CE, is a grave relief featuring the Thracian Rider making the benedictio latina as he faces what I think is a tree with a giant snake wrapped around it:
|(Thracian Rider. Source.)|
Two Riders & a Great Goddess
There are also reliefs depicting two riders. One relief, found near Krupac, Yugoslavia, features two riders with what appears to be an altar featuring a coiled snake:
|(Krupac figure. Source.)|
Nora Demitrova comments that it is:
“[...] a late-2nd century A.D. dedication to Apollo and Asklepios found in Krupac, in eastern Yugoslavia. The relief depicts two horseman facing each other […].”
Based on the inscription (which, frankly, I don't care to transcribe – see the PDF link above or view the article on the JSTOR link) she indicates:
“Thus one horseman is presumably Apollo, and the other Asklepios. The relief is most easily understood if we explain the rider as a convention for divinity of some kind, personalized by the inscription.”
It is particularly compelling because it contains both horsemen, which we begin to see in the votives for the Danubian Riders:
|(Lead Danubian Rider votive. Belgrade museum. Source.)|
These votives seem to include themes seen above in the Thracian and Danubian Rider images, as well as a central Goddess figure who has been variously argued to be the Celtic Goddess Epona, Artemis, Magna Mater, and probably at least four other Goddesses I don't even remember. The arguments back and forth seem to be somewhat furious, but it there does seem to be some overlap between the images of Epona feeding horses, and the Danubian Rider votives.
Take, for example, this relief image from Augustae, featuring both the Rider in a hunting position and the Goddess beneath, flanked by horses:
|(Augustae relief. Source.)|
And this image of Epona, enthroned, flanked by Horses:
|(Epona relief. Source.)|
Obviously, I do not intend to imply that the Goddess in the votives and reliefs and amulets is always Epona. I strongly suspect that she is always a 'Great Goddess,' that is a Goddess who rules the entire Sublunar realm, and that Epona is one of the syncretic strands the votives tie in to.
(Lead votive plaque for the Cult of the Danubian Rider. 1st century CE. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source.)
|(Lead icon of the Danubian Horsemen. Belgrade museum. Source.)|
Finally, we come to the gemstones I encountered. Each of these has been interpreted as involving the Danubian / Thracian Riders, and Magna Mater. The riders, as on the votives above, flank and often make the Benedictio latina gesture to the Goddess. However they are also, as the single rider gems seen far above, show with their horses standing atop human bodies.
(Danubian Riders and Goddess. Venus Victrix on the reverse side. 2nd century CE. Source.)
(Goddess flanked by Riders wearing Phrygian caps. 3rd century CE. Source.)
(Danubian Riders, Goddess, animals, and busts of Selene and Helios. 2Nd - 3rd century CE. Source.)
And while I had hoped to make a few more comments and show a few more images, working on this entry has tired me out. So, at least if there is interest, I will have to return to writing about the subject and flashing images another day.
While I doubt anyone learned anything, I hope they at least appreciate the images.
Be seeing you,