Belintash Thracian rock shrine
The Thracians inhabited the Balkans for millennia, but they were reluctant chroniclers and didn't develop their own writing, leaving us next to nothing about their political history, their oral culture, their beliefs and religion. Even non-written sources are hard to come by as the Thracians began depicting deities and heroes on tombs, vessels, clothes ornamentation, weapons and harnesses only after the 6th Century BC, following the Greek example.
This is why much of what we know about them comes from outside, often unreliable sources: ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine authors. Even when they were trying to be as objective as they could (which was not always the case), these historians, chroniclers, poets and scribes were the products of different cultures, and sometimes lived centuries after the events and the people they wrote about. This resulted in inevitable losses in translation, literal and figurative; a fact which makes it difficult to tell truth from fable in texts concerning the Thracians.
Another obstacle for deciphering Thracian history and religion is the notorious disunity of this people – the Thracian tribes were too numerous and too independent, and there was hardly a consistent religious system among them. In all probability, each of the tribes had its own set of beliefs, rituals and even deities.
This gold earring with the Goddess Nike in a chariot was buried together with her owner, possibly a Thracian priestess, in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC in a mound near modern Sinemorets, on the southern Black Sea coast. It was discovered in 2006 and is now in the National Museum of History in Sofia
Yet, the Thracians have left something related to their religion which modern historians could try to "read": their shrines and the artefacts found in them. But doing so poses another danger. Enchanted by the beauty of the Thracian shrines, historians with hyperactive imagination often forget to exercise healthy scientifc scepticism and start to "see" non-existent faces of imaginary deities, "nuptial beds" and "devil's throats" everywhere. The Thracian religious sites that have suffered from such overinterpretation are a legion, including Tatul and Perperikon in the Rhodope, and Begliktash in the Strandzha. Even natural phenomena like the rocks at Buzovgrad are now promoted in the media as the deeds of the ancient Thracians. Any oddly shaped rock all over the Rhodope may get advertised as an actual, larger-than-life, sacred sculpture of turtles, snakes and even sharks.
But the lack of written sources and the difficulties with dealing with actual sites does not mean that historians are completely at a loss as to the Thracian religious heritage. In fact, Bulgaria is rich in marvellous and interesting Thracian shrines, which are at once a feat and a delight to see and explore.
The most significant Thracian shrines appeared in the Late Bronze Age (16th to 12th centuries BC), sometimes at places with strong traces of previous religious activity, like Belintash and Perperikon in the Rhodope. These sanctuaries thrived through the 1st Millennium BC, and many were abandoned only when Christianity slowly prevailed between the 4th and 6th centuries.
Asara rock shrine occupies a rocky, overgrown height over Angel Voyvoda village, near Haskovo, and boasts several rock tombs. It was well preserved until the early 1990s, but treasure-hunters have taken over, destroying a significant portion of the site
As a rule, these early shrines were built on naked, precipitous rocks, mainly in the Strandzha, the Sakar and the Rhodope mountains. Even today, one can see why. They stand out against the landscape, imposing a sense of incredibility, and are clearly visible from afar. The list of the most signifcant sanctuaries of this type includes Perperikon, Tatul, Gluhite Kamani, Harmankaya, Belintash, Madzharovo and Orlovi Skali, all in the Rhodope.
Many of these rock shrines are covered with countless canals, basins, pads, stairs and niches. They all represent the Thracian idea that the universe was created in the stone uterus of the Great Goddess when she was impregnated by the Great God, her son and lover, who also symbolises the sun. This hypothesis is backed by the almost anatomically correct features of natural rocks found in these shrines – vulva-shaped caves and rocks resembling erect phalluses.
The ancient authors have preserved, in their stories, the existence of a major and widely respected Thracian sanctuary. The Oracle of Dionysus resided in the lands of the Bessi, and its priestesses predicted the future with great accuracy, including the rise to power of men like Alexander the Great and the Roman emperor Augustus. The whereabouts of the oracle, however, remain a mystery.
The deities worshipped in Thracian shrines are also difficult to identify. We know from Greek sources the names of some of the Thracian gods and goddesses – Zalmoxis, Cotyto, Bendis – and are told that the Thracians also venerated Dionysos, Artemis, Apollo and Hermes. The anonymous Thracian God Rider Ppopular is also popular, mainly in votive tablets. But it is still unclear whether these deities weren't in fact just the multiple manifestations of the Great Goddess and the Great God. If you explore Thracian art, you will discover the recurring figure of a female deity. This was probably the Thracian Great Goddess, the one who created the universe and ruled it. Her presence can be seen everywhere: in the jugs and bowls of the Rogozen Treasure, in the frescoes and sculptures of the Sveshtari Tomb, on the paintings of the Kazanlak Tomb, on gold rings and elsewhere.
A double rock tomb takes the highest place at the Tatul rock shrine, a symbolic representation of the idea that whoever is buried inside the man-made womb of the Great Goddess will be close to the sun, the element of the Great God
The Great Goddess was also the one who sanctioned the political power of Thracian kings. In the Thracian society, the monarch or the chief of the tribe was also its main priest. He was seen as the earthly incarnation of the Great God, and would perform rituals of symbolical marriage to the Great Goddess.
The ancient Greeks believed that after death all people were doomed to a gloomy existence as shadows in the sad kingdom of Hades. But the Thracians believed in life after death, and according to Herodotus, some tribes would rejoice so much when a person died that his wives would begin to quarrel for the honour to be killed and buried with him.
Noble Thracians, supposedly the followers of the mystic teachings of Orpheus, were even deified after their death. This is why many shrines feature some sort of a grave or a tomb: dolmens, rock tombs, monumental tombs. These were more than sepulchres: they were also places for worship to the deified people buried in them.
Sometimes, monumental tombs were also used as shrines, and there are numerous signs pointing to this interpretation. The monumental tombs all have corridors, implying frequent visitations, and sometimes had elaborate façades, as if they were built to be eye feast for the living, who would perform mysterious rites at the chambers. The stone thresholds of such tombs are found much worn out by the feet of countless visitors. In and around the tombs are preserved the remains of regular sacrifices.
In spite of centuries of worship, the barren, hard terrain of rock sanctuaries – combined with yet more centuries of treasure hunting – has left few artefacts for the archaeologists to study. The most common finds from Thracian shrines include pottery (whole or in shards), tools and weapons, animal bones, burned clay from the light buildings for the priests and the pilgrims. Some of these were made especially for the rituals: amulets and scaled models of tools, idols and tokens for ritual games. Yet more were objects for daily use: sickles and knives, pins and loom weights, millstones and coins, jewellery and weapons. Some of these offerings were ritually broken or disfigured, as if they, too, should be killed to please the gods.
The Great Goddess of the Thracians is depicted seated in a chariot drawn by gryphons on a jug from the Rogozen Treasure from the second half or the beginning of the 3rd Century BC. This Thracian deity was sometimes associated with the Greek Artemis (note the bow she is holding) and was seen as the ruler of wild beasts
Temples are an important part of any shrine, but if you don't count the ones found in the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast, few such buildings have been positively identified in the Thracian heartland. Thracian temples have been discovered on Nebet Tepe Hill, in Plovdiv; the sunken city of Seuthopolis, near Kazanlak; Cabyle, near Yambol; and elsewhere. According to an inscription at Seuthopolis, the city had a shrine of Dionysus and a temple of the Great Gods, and in Cabyle there used to be a temple of Artemis Phosphoros, or Light-Bearer, as a manifestation of the Great Goddess of the Thracians.
But it is quite possible that more temples existed, and a regular find from across inland Thrace would back such a proposition. It's about the altars, in the form of rectangular or square pads made of clay and decorated with rich geometrical motifs.
These have been found in cities (Seuthopolis, Pistiros, Cabyle, Philippopolis) and shrines (Demir Baba tekke in Sboryanovo, Tatul), but also in the mounds of monumental tombs (Buzovgrad, Sveshtari) and graves (northeastern Thrace).
Between the 6th and the 1st centuries BC, another type of shrines appeared: the sanctuaries of pits dug in the ground. These became the preferred form of religious sites in inland Thrace. The pits had various shapes – conical and cylindrical, shaped as pears, beehives and casks. Most often 1-2 metres deep, they were filled with broken pottery, animal bones, ashes and embers. In about 1-2 percent of these, parts and even full human skeletons have been found. Some of the people in the pits were alive when they were thrown in, which gives credibility to the suggestion that they were sacrificed to the Thracian gods.
The Great Goddess is depicted on this silver and gold greave from the 4th Century BC. It was discovered buried alongside its owner in a mound in Vratsa, northwestern Bulgaria. The fact that only one greave was in the grave of a young woman suggests it has it was a part of some ritual. The stripes on the goddess's face are interpreted as ritual tattoos. According to Herodotus, the Thracians did tattoo themselves
Again Herodotus sheds light on the archaeological finds. By his account, when some Thracian tribes felt that their prayers needed more attention from the God Zalmoxis, they would stick spears in the ground, choose the best man among them, and throw him on the blades. While he was dying, they would sent their messages to the deities.
Most researchers believe that the pit shrines were devoted to the cult of the Great Goddess. The holes symbolised her womb and provided connection with the spirits of the underworld and fecundity.
The Thracians also venerated running waters and springs. Unfortunately, most of the shrines they erected near water have been lost mainly in the 20th Century when reservoirs and dams were being built. These include the sites at Bratsigovo and Ognyanovo, near Pazardzhik. Scant Thracian artefacts are preserved in later, Roman shrines by sacred springs – for example, the temple of the nymphs at Kasnakovo, near Dimitrovgrad. The only consistently researched Thracian shrine by a sacred spring is the one under the Ottoman Demir Baba tekke, in Sboryanovo.
Demir Baba tekke was built on the site of an ancient Thracian shrine
The Thracian gods and their shrines started to fade from memory and life when Christianity took over the Balkans. But they never quite disappeared. Churches rose on the remains of a number of pagan shrines – for example, in Pliska, Madara and Montana – and many Thracian shrines are now venerated by Christians and Muslims alike (Perperikon, Gluhite Kamani, Demir Baba tekke, the Eski Mosque in Stara Zagora, which now houses a museum of religions). The ancient deities transformed, too, entering local folklore and even influencing the pantheon of Christian saints.
Some ancient Thracian shrines were forgotten when Christianity arrived in the 4th Century, but others remained active, used by generations of people who devoted them to their gods and saints. The Strandzha mountain, for example, abounds with cave springs which were sacred to the Thracians and were later turned into chapels to Christian saints.
One such place in the Strandzha (supposedly, as archaeological research is yet to be conducted) is in the area of Indipasha. The spring in the shallow cave is believed to have healing powers. Indipasha gets crowded with pilgrims on the Sunday after Easter, suggesting a connection between paganism and Christianity.
The secret of solar circles
You can see them everywhere in the Rhodope, the Strandzha, the Sakar and the southeast – circles hewn in the rock, often at places identified as Thracian shrines. These circles are sometimes deeply cut but sometimes their outlines are barely visible. Some stand alone, others form big clusters.
One of the most interesting groups is in the Strandzha, in the Kamaka, or The Stone, locality, about 10 km from Malko Tarnovo on the road to Tsarevo. Other sites of interest are the groups at Paleokastro and Melnitsa, in the Sakar.
Ancient Thracian solar circles?
According to the most popular explanation, these circles were made by the Thracians in rituals celebrating their sun-and-rock cult. But recent research has established that the origin of the "solar" circles is more mundane. They are the remains of mill stones production, and date to the Ottoman period or to modern times.