A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
An introduction to the Thracians
It has been an unexpectedly full month, and so I am behind in my writing. I had intended to have this posted two weeks ago, with a second coming up right around now, but life got a hold of my day-planner and fed it to some horses...
When I left off in my last entry, I promised to share a little bit about the Thracians. As a Thracian Polytheist, I am frequently asked “Huh?” or “Who?”, when introducing my religious practices, beliefs and foundations. Here I’ll share just a little bit to help any not yet “in the know” understand who these influential ancestors were. The writing and addressing of this is somewhat conflictual for me, personally, for at least some reasons entirely my own, which I will address in my next column. For now, though…
The word “Thracian” refers to a collective of Indo-European tribes, cultures and nations from the Balkans whose history in the region, and influence on the surrounding civilizations, has been massively underestimated in scholarship over the centuries. In short, the Thracians – also known as the Thrakes, Thraikes, Threkes, Threikes and Thraces – are the indigenous people of the Balkan region of South-Eastern Europe, the immediate northerly neighbors to the Greek world and the western neighbors to the Scythian expanse into the Eurasian Steppe. These enigmatic tribal people stand as the earliest known established European society, foundational innovators in metallurgy and art, and a major military and religious cultural influence on what we have come to refer today as the Western World.
In the 20th century, archaeologists working in Bulgaria and Romania made a number of discovers so profound that they have stirred dissent in academia's long-standing views of the pre-history of Europe and the ancient world. Thracians, frequently thought of through the biases of classic writers as drunken, orgiastic, blood-thirsty savages, represent the oldest ethno-culture group in all of Europe, as master artisans, and Europe's first class-stratified civilization. Far from savages, these paradoxical people whose Balkan territory ranged through Hungary to the Ukraine, from the Black Sea to the Aegean, and into parts of Turkey, played a wildly important role in the shaping of the ancient civilized world in Europe, the Mediterranean, parts of North Africa and Asia Minor. The native population of modern Lake Varna, Bulgaria, mastered the craft of working gold at an unbelievable level of sophistication twenty-five hundred years before the Egyptians. This neolithic “Varna Culture”, is considered to be either a proto-Thracian group within ancient Thrace, or the earliest stages of the Thracian civilization itself. The discovery and dating of these important archeological sites present revelations that fit interestingly into several of the dominant and popular theories of the spread of Indo-European culture, including the Kurgan Hypothesis of Marija Gimbutas.
With an organized society whose history dates as far back as 5000 BCE – at which point it had already a complex system of social stratification, developed arts and industry, religion and trade – it's wealth and prestige rivaled all of the most ancient world powers. However, our accounts of the Thracians from the ancient sources are themselves not necessarily supportive of these assessments, as they were written through the heavy bias of the urbanized, post-literary paradigms. The peoples of the Thracian tribes were a pre-literary, oral-tradition based culture, with no written language of their own. The ancient (Greek and later Roman) sources do tell us several important things: Thracians were a polytheistic people who were known in the age of Herodotus as “the most numerous and powerful people in all the world, save the Indians”, with a dominant military tradition and a deep rooted cultural association with horses, gold and alcohol. This same author describes them as primarily a warring people, with lives of plunder and conquest being held in higher esteem and glory than any other vocations.
Homer's Iliad brings us the earliest written account of these ancient people in the 8th century BCE, in his bronze-age epic set in the Trojan War. Within, the Thracians were allies of Priam and Hector, expected to lend their might in the war. The Thracian King Rhesus – one of seven sacred paragons of the Thracian religious tradition within my House – appears late to the theater, having been delayed for ten full years in a war with the neighboring Scythians which erupted while they were on their way to lend aid to the besieged Troy. Rhesus' part in the epic is short-lived, as he is assassinated his first night in camp by Odysseus and Diomedes a deed guided and sanctioned – according to the play Rhesus, attributed to Euripides – by Athena herself. Homer’s doomed wolfen character, Dolon, announce the arrival of the Thracian king as such: “He has the tallest, finest horses I ever saw, whiter than snow and fast as the wind. His chariot is finely worked in gold and silver, and he brought his gold armour with him, huge and wondrous to look on. It is armour fit for a deathless god, not a mere mortal.”
Thracian religion also had an enormous influence on the Greek world, with a number of deities, ritual constructs and cultural expressions having their supposed origins in Thrace. Greek Orphism, an initiatory cult and huge influence on later religious ideas, was itself based upon Thracian Orphism, which modern Thracologists have written on extensively. Ares, god of war, was said to call Thrace home, and is counted amongst the list of deities Herodotus attributes to the Thracians (albeit through interpretatio graeca) and Dionysos and Nyx are also given a Thracian origin in some sources. Hekate is linked to the Thracians as well, and the Phrygians – a Thracian people living in Asia Minor – alongside specifically Thracian deities such as Sabazios, Kotys, and Bendis. Thracian religion – far less restrained and “proper” than the Greek religion of the polis – was very popular amongst certain circles of Greek class and society, with Thracian-styled cults (such as those of Bendis and Orpheus) being commonplace by 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Thracian worship in the Greek world was notable for nocturnal rites and orgiastic revelries.
A quasi-nomadic people, at least some of the Thracian tribes were closely linked through the Eastern cultures through the Scythians, into the Eurasian Steppe, from which their ancestors likely came, in earlier days. As mercenaries and traders both, Thracians were known for their mastery of horsemanship and excellent equine breeding lineages, with many mythologies in the ancient world dealing specifically with the horses of Thrace. This transience and freedom of movement made them ideal soldiers in the armies of neighboring nations, who paid highly for the advantage of having Thracian mercenaries amongst their forces in times of war. In this way, Thracians found their way throughout all of the lands of the known world.
As a lifelong spirit-worker I did not originally know who the gods, goddesses and ancestral spirits were who had been showing up to guard, guide, and goad me through life from my earliest childhood years. My relationships, devotions and practices developed early under Their instruction, and eventually – through a combination of rigorous interdisciplinary study and persistent oracular divination – I came to know them as Thracian. In this way, I came also to know myself in a deeper way than ever before. I did not choose to walk this tradition, nor to follow these gods; in a very real and direct way, They chose me. It has been my attempt in my religious and spiritual pursuits to build for Them a living tradition here in this world, to honor both my deities and the blessed dead whose blood and spirit guide me forward.
My next topic will explore an important topic within the pursuit of ancestral religious, living traditions in the 21st century.
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