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These copper alloy Roman hands of Sabazios were used in ritual worship and few remain in collections today

David Goran

Many religions were syncretistic, meaning that as they grew and came into contact with other religions, they adopted new beliefs and modified their practices to reflect their changing environment. Both Greek and Roman religious beliefs were deeply influenced by the so-called mystery religions of the East, including the Egyptian cult of Isis, which revealed beliefs and practices to the initiated that remained unexplained, or mysterious, to the uninitiated. Most popular Roman cults had associations with these mystery religions and included the prospect of an afterlife. Sabazius was an eastern god of fertility and vegetation, who in Roman times was worshiped in association with other deities, particularly Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was generally known to the Romans). The cult of the Thracian-Phrygian god Sabazios met with some degree of popularity in the Roman Empire. Apart from a few religious stelae, the most prominent artefacts from the cult are the bronze-alloy votive ‘hands’ discovered in places such as Herculaneum and even as far north as modern Belgium.

Bronze hand used in the worship of Sabazios (British Museum). Roman 1st-2nd century CE. Hands decorated with religious symbols were designed to stand in sanctuaries or, like this one, were attached to poles for processional use. Another similar bronze hand found in the 16th/17th century in Tournai, Belgium, is also in the British Museum. source

Bronze hand used in the worship of Sabazios (British Museum). Roman 1st-2nd century CE. Hands decorated with religious symbols were designed to stand in sanctuaries or, like this one, were attached to poles for processional use. Another similar bronze hand found in the 16th/17th century in Tournai, Belgium, is also in the British Museum. source

 

Larger examples of the Hand of Sabazius often bear a pinecone on the tip of the snake-nose “thumb,” and occasionally a miniature Sabazius cradled between the palm and fingers. source

Larger examples of the Hand of Sabazius often bear a pinecone on the tip of the snake-nose “thumb,” and occasionally a miniature Sabazius cradled between the palm and fingers. source

 

Hand of Sabazios, an eastern god of fertility and vegetation associated with Dionysus Roman 3rd century CE. source

Hand of Sabazios, an eastern god of fertility and vegetation associated with Dionysus Roman 3rd century CE. source

These hands, typically made of copper or bronze, are known as the ‘Hands of Sabazios’, and generally display a gesture which appears to have been adopted by the early Christian church, and is still used by priests in blessings to this day. 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.

This copper alloy Roman hand of Sabazios was used in ritual worship. Few hands remain in collections today. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. source

This copper alloy Roman hand of Sabazios was used in ritual worship. Few hands remain in collections today. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. source

 

Sabazios Hand is part of the worship of a Thracian/Anatolian deity connected with Jupiter. source

Sabazios Hand is part of the worship of a Thracian/Anatolian deity connected with Jupiter. source

 

A snake is coiled around the wrist and stretches across the back of the hand. source

A snake is coiled around the wrist and stretches across the back of the hand. source

 

Also on the back of the hand are a frog and a lizard, as well as several inanimate objects. source

Also on the back of the hand are a frog and a lizard, as well as several inanimate objects. source

 

Hands like these stood in sanctuaries attached to poles and were carried in processions. source

Hands like these stood in sanctuaries attached to poles and were carried in processions. source

On one of the hands, there is a small figure of Sabazius himself, who was typically seated in the palm of the hand above the ram’s head. Around him are his major cult symbols, including a snake, a lizard, and the heads of a lion, a ram, and a bull. On the tip of the thumb is the pinecone of Dionysus. The opening in the wrist, shaped like a temple, had a hinged door that revealed an unknown, lost object, perhaps a reclining mother and child, as seen in other examples.