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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 has a common root with 'deus' (god) or 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.

Table of contents
1 Thracian/Phrygian Sabazios
2 The God on Horseback
3 Transformation to Sabazius

Thracian/Phrygian Sabazios

It seems likely that the migrating Phrygians brought Sabazios with them when they settled in Anatolia (ca. 1200 BCE?) 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 Burdur Museum, 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.

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 CE, 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)

Much later, the Greek encyclopia writer Suidas (10 Century CE?) 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'

Note: The transformed career of Sabazius/Zagreus/Dionysus in Greece and later in Rome, as merely an alternative name for Bacchus is described under Sabazius.