These Eerie Bronze Hands Were Tokens of a Mysterious Ancient Cult - Atlas Obscura
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These Eerie Bronze Hands Were Tokens of a Mysterious Ancient Cult

The Hand of Sabazius is one of the last artifacts of this lost religion.

This creepy hand from the third century once belonged to a follower of an ancient Greek and Roman cult. (Photo: Walters Art Museum/CC BY-SA 3.0

Thousands of years ago, some Greeks and Romans walked around carrying disembodied, twisted, corpse-like hands. Sometimes they propped them onto wooden poles and paraded them in processions. Adorned with snakes and sporting a secret compartment in the wrist hidden behind a hinged door, they were the sign of a religious cult that worshipped the mysterious Sabazius.

Each ornate bronze and copper motif, called the Hand of Sabazius, was a sacred symbol of the god Sabazius, a deity of fertility and vegetation who was worshipped alongside other gods—particularly Zeus and Dionysus, the god of wine. Scholars are still digging for clues on the exact significance of the hand, but regardless of its particular meaning, it shows that Romans were influenced by outside religions and formed their own cults.

This well preserved bronze votive at Musée romain d’Avenches shows the pinecone on the thumb and Sabazius. (Photo: Fanny Schertzer/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Records of the god Sabazius date back as early as the first century. Many societies of the era practiced syncretistic religions, which are religions that are open to change and were often influenced by outside religions as people were exposed to them. The Indo-European people of Phrygia or Thrace, now modern-day Turkey, popularized the Sabazius cult and spread their practices to other parts of the Roman Empire. This cult became an amalgam of religions, with scholars noting influences from Eastern and Egyptian religions such as believing in the afterlife. However, the variability makes it difficult to identify the religion’s characteristics.

Eugene Lane, a late professor of classical studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia, wrote in 1980 that there are several representations of the god Sabazius: he is shown sitting on a throne holding a spear and libation, riding a horse and wearing a diadem-style crown, and surrounded by snakes and eagles. Lane and other scholars found that among these variations, the votive hand was the one feature commonly associated with the Sabazius cult.

Hands “which have the hand in the position of the ‘benedictio Latina’ are to be connected with Sabazius,” wrote Lane. The benedictio Latina position is when the right hand’s thumb, index, and middle fingers are extended out, while the ring and pinky fingers are tucked into the palm. It’s a typical gesture of blessing in Western religions, and is commonly known in early Christian imagery as “God’s Hand.”

This bronze Hand of Sabazius is an example of one that would be attached to a wooden pole for religious ceremonies and processions. (Photo: Mike Young/Public Domain)

Curators at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland report that the hands usually feature Sabazius himself seated in the palm. The cult’s various symbols are engraved over the entire hand. Sabazius is often surrounded by a snake, lizard, lion, ram, bull, frog, eagle and turtle, among a myriad of different animals. A pinecone—a sign of divinity, fertility, or immortality—typically rests on the thumb.

Some hands also had a small hinged door on the wrist that locked away a lost object, such as a mother and child. The hand and the symbols were believed to hold healing and protecting powers, according to the editors of the book Representation in Religion: Studies in Honour of Moshe Barasch.  

Scholars today have not found any temples devoted to Sabazius, and many questions remain unanswered about the god, the hand’s significance, and the cult’s practices. While other religions have used the hand to resemble many different gods, the Hand of Sabazius may be one of the only remaining artifacts that proves this cult existed. The editors of Representation in Religion conclude: “As an icon, the hand was an essential part of the mental and material imagery of late antique pagan culture, particularly of its religion.”

 

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