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The Hand of Sabazios

Alexander J. Ford

Spring, 2023


Origins of Sabazios


Ancient authors inform us that the cult of Sabazios was well-known in Thrace from an early date. Although, the paucity of physical evidence for that claim led academic consensus to assume for a time, that those accounts were mistaken. What archaeological evidence for the cult does exist is of Hellenistic, or Roman origination; it comes later, and in the form of complex votive hands—often cast in bronze, and lavishly ornamented with all manner of mystifying symbols. Beyond that, there is sparse relief, and arguments drawn from the texts.


What’s well-known is that those later cults in Attica and Rome were viewed as foreign in character; they were imported into the metropolitan environment from elsewhere, and therefore, we might say perhaps provided form to a reactionary force in those places—which for one reason or another, assumed the vestments of the mysterious Sabazia. For decades scholars tended to consider Sabazios to be of exclusively Phrygian origin. According to the rationale, the cult was introduced then, from Phrygia into mainland Greece later, and thereafter into Rome. A competing theory, though one that’s since lost credence, is that the cult’s origin was Semitic, and must have been absorbed by syncretic mechanism into the Greco-Roman zeitgeist. We’ll examine that strange hypothesis briefly, for the simple reason that in some circles it still inexplicably persists. Cornelius Hispalus is recorded to have ordered the exclusion of several groups from Rome in 139 BC, in the following edict:


Cn. Cornelius Hispalus praetor peregrinus, M. Popilio Laenate, L. Calpurnio consulibus, edicto Chaldaeos citra decimum diem abire ex urbe atque Italia iussit, levibus et ineptis ingeniis fallaci siderum interpretatione quaestuosam mendaciis suis caliginem inicientes. Idem ludaeos, qui Sabazi lovis cultu Romanos inficere mores conati erant, repetere domos suas coegit.


"Gnaeus Corenlius Hispanus, praetor peregrinus in the year of the consulate of Marcus Popilius Laenas and Lucius Calpurnius, ordered the Chaldeans, by edict, to depart from Rome and Italy within ten days, since by fallacious interpretations of the stars they clouded capricious and silly minds, thereby profiting out of their lies. The same praetor, [also] forced the Jews, who attempted to infect the Roman mores with the cult of Jupiter-Sabazius, to return to their native country."


(Translation courtesy of Morgan P. Stevens)


The above passage is the sole source of the misconception that Sabazios was perhaps a god of Semitic origin. Later authors pointed out, however, that the passage in question is, itself, reproduced from an epitome of an original volume by Valerius Maximus, which was lost. That is to say, that what survives was copied and summarized after the fact, and that the author of this passage almost certainly conflated two items mentioned separately in the original, by mistake: The one being the expulsion of the Sabazios cult from the city, and the other being the expulsion of the Jews from the city. Both groups were expelled simultaneously, but individually, by one edict. The resulting notion of a Hebrew cult of Sabazios is therefore a mistake. There is nothing further to support the theory of Semitic syncretism, and so it ought to be abandoned.


Aside from the matter of origin, very little work has been done toward deciphering the intent of the symbols, present on the votive hands. That is the task we set for ourselves here—at least, the major fixtures. Namely, the form of the gesture itself, the eagle and/or fulmen atop the upright digits, and the drake or serpent atop the downturned digits. The pinecone or yew ‘berry’ over the thumb will figure in to a later study, concerning the thumb itself. While there is considerable overlap in the iconography from one hand to another, from one cult to another—which suggests a deeply held, and rigorous symbolic rationale—these particular adornments appear to be essential, and are present on nearly every example. Before we scrutinize the votive hands, however, some effort ought to be spared toward the question of Thracian or Phrygian source, and toward the character of Sabazios himself. As we will see, he was certainly known to both the Phrygians and the Thracians, and therefore, was most likely carried into both of those regions by the common ancestral culture(s) earlier in history, responsible for siring them both. If that were the case, we would expect to see significant overlap between Sabazios, his cult and iconography, and well-established archetypes of the Proto-Indo-European religion. Naturally, we do.


It’s hard to justify ignoring the structure of a word or of a name, especially when the object is to interrogate the esoteric intentions of an otherwise hidden subject. Such things are never arbitrary for the ancients, are often idiomatic the further back we can discern their roots, and are seldom categorical. Understanding the literal meaning of a word or a name is invaluable, then, because it reveals what things the ancients who employed those words used, to stand-in for the concepts or ideas they were naming. All are, to some degree, analogies.


Thus our inquiry begins with the name itself, Σαβάζιος. There is no accepted etymology for this configuration. As well, the name has enjoyed innumerable transliterations across time—owing no doubt to the popularity of the Sabazian mysteries. For the Romans, it was formed as Sebazius, or Sebadius. In the original Greek there are several alternative forms beyond Σαβάζιος, one being (transliterated) Savadios or Sava-(th)eos, another is nearer to Sa'azios. What we notice immediately is that all of the secondary phonemes are cognate with that of Zeus; Dyeus, Theos, or Deus. “Zeus Sabazios” then, as he was known to the Greeks can perhaps be recognized as a tautological form: Zeus Saba-zeus. In other words, Sabazios appears to have been periodically reincorporated by the Greeks, later, as a version or versions of Zeus.


We turn our attention to the preceding root, then. A passage in Demosthenes describes the ritual cry of Sabazian initiates:


"In day-time you marshalled your gallant throng of bacchanals through the public streets, their heads garlanded with fennel and white poplar; and, as you went, you squeezed the fat-cheeked snakes, or brandished them above your head, now shouting your Euoi Saboi!"


The chanted word Saboi is surely related to the name Sabazios, though little is accepted beyond that it’s a foreign word, and of Thracian source. In the rest, Seba, Sava, Saua, Sa’a, we find that scholars tentatively suggest the source to be two-fold. First a Proto-Indo-European root meaning, ‘to take liquid', whence the English word sup, and second, an ending construction from that same tongue, meaning literally 'that which waters [the ground]'. Another related branch on this tree worth drawing into the confluence is the Ancient Greek Σάος, meaning something like ‘safe’ in the sense of alive.


Perhaps in light of all this, the name Sabazios could be rendered, ‘Deus, the pourer of libations,’ or ‘Deus, who waters.’ In a forthcoming column dealing with the mystical connections between the thumb, the libation, and the spondee for the Greeks, we will clarify this aspect of the sky-father archetype, although to manage the focus at-present we’ll restrict our comment only to this: There flows a river called "saoua" or "sava" in Thrace, and although it’s difficult to say if there is any categorical relation between the two, it should be noted that similar structures are being employed nevertheless.


To clarify, then, it appears that Sabazios came down broadly from the north in successive migrations with those Pontic Caspian peoples in one form or another, and was known to them as an iteration of the sky-father. The cult of Sabazios then, if it was at that time in a recognizable form, likely split around the Aegean, as they did, to follow the waterways either into Thrace in the west, or into Anatolia in the east. It’s the eastern branch which is attested earlier, in the material record, and gave rise to the attitude among scholars that Sabazios somehow sprang into existence among the Phrygians, and that the authors of antiquity who noted his Thracian presence as well were mistaken; that his obvious position in the continuum of Proto-Indo-European cultures was something at which to frown. But bear in mind, as if to agree with the picture we’ve just illustrated, that Herodotus tells us the Phrygians themselves originally lived in the Balkans. From both sources, at different times, then came versions of that forerunner-god into Greece, until finally we see a degenerated cult of Sabazios re-establish itself in metropolitan 5th century Athens, recognized again to be Zeus, and so provided the epithet Zeus Sabazios.


In 2011, Professor Nikolay Ovcharov of the New Bulgarian University, and the Slavic University in Moscow presented finds from his excavations at the Thracian site Perperikon in modern-day Bulgaria. Episodes detailing a famous temple to Sabazios appear in the writings of Herodotus, and those of Suetonius; both accounts as we’ve said were long-considered to be incorrect by consensus. Nevertheless, that temple now seems to have entered the material record at last. Note that the Greeks typically identified the later, foreign cult of Sabazios with the more familiar cult of Dionysos, on account of the similarity of their orgiastic rites.


First, a relevant passage from Suetonius on the subject:


"...When Octavian, father of Augustus, at the head of his army, came upon the Holy Mount of Dionysus, he consulted the oracle about his son, and the prophets said to him that his son was to rule the world, for as the wine was spilt onto the altar, the smoke rose up above the top of the shrine and even unto heavens, as had happened when Alexander the Great himself had sacrificed upon that same altar".


And an excerpt from a report on the field work of Prof. Ovchavov:


“The latest finds are from a sanctuary in the Thracian settlement which Prof. Ovchavov considers may have links with the sanctuary on the acropolis. On the basis of the finds from recent excavations Prof. Ovchavov believes that he has discovered the Thracian temple of Dionysos mentioned by ancient writers such as Herodotus and Suetonius, but not so far located. The temple was famed in the ancient world, and was a major sanctuary, but its location remains a mystery. The local deity called Sabazios, came to be associated with the Greek god Dionysos over time. The sanctuary was a oracular shrine due to this particular aspect of Sabazios. A representation of Sabazios may be seen on an ivory from the tomb of Alexander IV at Vergina, perhaps because of the time spent by Roxane and Alexander IV in Thrace.”




Right Handedness


Of the votive Sabazian hands themselves, we notice first that all are right hands—none left. The idea that the right hand is a ‘healing’ hand, or in other words its association with healing arts and traditions is quite common. In previous work I have elucidated the healing aspects of the Hyperborean sky-father deities, if you will. To summarize the Greek mentality as it’s relevant here—an open right hand was, broadly, a healing gesture. A closed right hand, or, the left hand was the opposite—a symbol of imparting wounds, or disaster. While there’s a clear correspondence between physical handedness, and the notion of one sacred and the other profane, there’s also a connection between the healing/wounding hands of the god, and the dioskouroi—the Indo-European horse-twins, one of whom was, of legend, a healer, and the other a warrior. We find several depictions of Sabazios in relief, in which he is accompanied by the dioskouroi as well as a serpent and an eagle, often riding a horse himself and carrying a spear.


The Greek notion of right-handedness is well-developed and lent to the epithet—hyperdexios, or beyond the right hand. Zeus, Apollo, and Athena all were provided this epithet at one time or another. Hunting for the root word of dexios to gain a clearer sense of the meaning of that term, we find a philologist called Stuber who suggests that the origin is the Proto-Indo-European construction dekos (that which is proper) from dek- (to take or perceive). Curiously, following on through derivations of dekos, we find endless words descended therefrom, in multiple Indo-European tongues, which cover meanings like honor, pride, worship, veneration, offering, and so on and so forth. From the root dek- we find derivatives spanning meanings like order, arrangement, worship, honor, reverence, attendance, dedication, etc.


All of which is to say, that these sacred ideas appear to have all in-turn been associated idiomatically with the notion of right-handedness.


There is no specific word for the left hand evidenced in the Proto-Indo-European; only the right. Anatoly Lieberman has studied the linguistic roots of the notions of rightwardness and leftwardness. He notes that both words in their Latin forms, dexter and sinister, contain a suffix denoting the comparison of degrees, though the meaning is murky. Surveying Indo-European words for left, one finds applied connotations of awkwardness, bent or crookedness, deficiency, crippling, lameness, weakness, worthlessness, and so on. Upon reflection, however, it isn’t particularly difficult to understand why the ancients would ascribe deficiency or weakness to the left hand (or side). The simple fact is that most people are right-handed. Most people can feel, for themselves, the comparative weakness in trying to use their left hand to perform the same functions as their right. There is even an arguably ‘ambient’ weakness one can feel in the non-dominant hand by taking a moment to simply be cognizant of it. It’s not that weakness is associated with the left, it’s that the left is self-evidently weak. Hence, left-handed people are called corky-handed, not because they’re deficient themselves, but simply because they are predisposed to making use of the hand which the vast majority finds to be the weaker. They’re weak-handed, in name, not in value.


It’s been pointed out as well, that orienting the right hand or healing hand toward the newborn sun means one faces north, toward the celestial center. And, therefore the left hand or wounding hand lies in the west with the passage of the sun into the underworld. This is likely the reason for why “Occident” or West, comes from the Latin meaning to fall, to set, or to die. Occidere was a word employed for grief and ruin. One is reminded of the profusion of myths in the Indo-European corpus that locates the land of the dead beyond the western horizon. It would surely not have been lost on man of antiquity that facing the center of the great wheel aligned his hands to the apparent nature of the diurnal heirophany.




The Benediction


The particular gesture formed by the hand of Sabazios is common to a variety of traditions in history. Evidenced at least so early as the proto-Thracian mysteries of Sabazios, the gesture came to be called the benedictio (literally “the good word”) and often occupies the hands of Christ in Christian iconography. It’s been applied as both a healing gesture to numerous deities, as well as employed as an oratory gesture by man and god alike. Previously I have discussed the connection between oration and healing magic, through the symbolism of the forefinger specifically. What’s important to recall is that the chant, or spoken word, is deeply entwined with the sense we have of a Hyperborean, Jupiterian healing cult—focused as it was, on the agnatic nature of the blood-inside; the patrilineal line ending ultimately in Jove himself. It’s in this context that we can situate Sabazios as another, albeit Thracio-Phrygian, incarnation of that particular mode of Dyeus Patir.


We will restrain our survey of the benediction to its most general aspects, for the simple reason that more detailed studies of the features of the hand must be offered before describing the way the gesture effects those features. All ancient kheiromantic practices hold the thumb apart from the four fingers or digits, considering it to be a separate entity, so to speak. In light of this we can view the orientation of the four dactyls as split equally down the center of the palm in-line with the arm, two apportioned upward toward the heavens; the first and second finger or Jovial and Saturnine respectively, and two appointed downward toward the chthonic realms; the third and fourth fingers, or the Solar and Mercurial respectively. What’s at work here, then, in the most elementary sense, is the esoteric doctrine of consequence rendered in terms of the hand. It would perhaps be as-correct to view a symbolic representation of the gates of Cancer and Capricorn in the gesture, as it would be to equate it to the chalice and the pinnacle: An even division, signifying the higher and lower realms.


Left extended, then, are the first and second fingers, together with the thumb—either at it’s natural angle splayed away from the palm, or in some instances, held gently pressed alongside the palm in-line with the fingers or held upright and isolated, it makes no apparent difference. It is not by chance that these three together represent the agnatic line in the kheiromantic tradition: Kronos, the grandfather, Zeus, the father, and the Self—the son—the will, or eros in the most ancient sense. Thus the benedictio demonstrates the underlying patrilineal blood-principle of the healing art, while at the same time holding the thumb apart from the higher and lower planes; either literally, or by nature of its kheiromantic association alone.

There is the Mercurial matter, as well. The vast majority of the votive Sabazian hands include fixtures at the wrist (nail holes, etc.), which allowed them to be attached to the top of a staff and carried in ritual procession. Recall that Sabazios was often identified with Dionysus, who as well, carried the sacred thyrsus staff, topped with a pine cone or yew berry. The essential reasoning for this is somewhat evident. It's been pointed out by numerous authors that the benedictio seems to be an 'oratory' gesture, and carry a connotation of instruction, teaching, or mastery in one form or another. Consider the Mercurial staff in-tandem. It's quite common for the psychopomp figure to carry just such an item. Mercury is frequently depicted with the benedictio occupying his hands as well. In other words, the nature of initiation for any given mystery cult is the acquiring of divine gnosis. The same gnosis one acquires on death; which in fact defines death—no different from that gained by the alchemist, seeking the symbolic passage—the ego death, at work in his tower. So the priests of antiquity ascended the Ziggurat in imitation of their soul's ascent back into the realm of the divine. It's no surprise that the Sabazia would contain a concoction of all these symbols—the gesture of a teacher, affixed to a staff, shepherding as they did, their initiates to some 'higher' knowledge. The priest assumes the role of the psychopomp, then, and the benedictio—the Indo-European doctrine of vitality writ in-terms of the hand—persists throughout history.


Some scholars have noted in appraising the iconography of the benedictio that the entire forearm seems to be important to the gesture in some cases. We would be remiss not to observe, too, that it's important for the second finger to remain extended—for the most important metric, or rule, of the human body is the cubit; measured from the elbow to the tip of the longest, or Saturnine finger. Thus, presenting the benedictio is often synonymous with presenting the human  ‘ἀναλογία’ (analogia). In the interest of convenience, and in order not to belabor the point, we'll remind the reader in-passing that a prior article (Architectural Symbolism of the Scepter, Edition 3), treats this issue in more detail. 




Fulmen, and Serpent


Commonly situated atop the extended first and second fingers on the Hand of Sabazios, there is placed a symbolic fulmen—occasionally gripped, as well, by a pair of eagle’s talons. One hardly needs to point out that the bolt and eagle are identified with Jove, but what does merit our attention is the relation between the fulmen; the spear, and the form of the gesture itself. It’s been noted in-passing by other observers that the Thracian horsemen were well-known for making use of a particular tool for increasing leverage over spear-throwing, called the amentum in Latin, or the ἀγκύλος (ankúlos) in Greek. We will pause here very briefly to note several curiosities, to which we will return momentarily.


The word ἀγκύλος also refers to the joints or bend in the arm/wrist, and also idiomatically extends to the stiffening of those joints by disease. Additionally, a construction of the same word ἀγκύλαι χρυσόστροφοι denotes the bowstring.


Now, the ankúlos was a thong of leather, wrapped around the arm and extended to loop over the first and second fingers. When loosed, the additional leverage provided the javelin with much greater distance. The soldier or athlete was free to adjust, to taste, the precise position along the shaft of the spear relative to its center of gravity, where the ankúlos was wrapped, negotiating between the gain of distance proportional to a loss of accuracy, and vice versa. When thrown, the ankúlos slipped free from the two extended fingers and released the javelin, gripped with the thumb; the third and fourth dactyls being curled into the palm. In other words, the two extended dactyls provide the leverage to the javelin, and together with the thumb, grip the weapon—and when loosed, the hand forms the shape of the benedictio. Thus the position of the symbolic fulmen atop those two fingers in the Hand of Sabazios is clarified.


Considering the two downturned digits, we find perhaps the single most persistent symbol in all the iconography of Sabazios: The serpent. Although broadly presented in esoteric study as a symbol of femininity—the serpent apparently gives birth to itself in the form of its shed skin, exits the old body as if wet from the womb, and thus neatly symbolizes both the immaculate conception, and the Indo-European idea that the provision of the bodily clay was the sexual dominion of the woman—we would nevertheless do well to recognize, for example, its more central position in the Orphic tradition. Seeing, as we do, that in the farther reaches of antiquity there is a clear and companion sense of the serpent as a masculine archetype as well.


In Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, we find the following version of the story of Alexander the Great’s conception, wherein Zeus impregnates the queen Olympia having taken the form of a serpent, and Philip, witnessing the event with one eye through the door, is destined to be blinded in that eye:


“Once Philip found his wife asleep, with a large tame snake stretched beside her; and this, it is said, quite put an end to his passion for her, and made him avoid her society … We are told that Philip after this portent sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi, to consult the god there, and that he delivered an oracular response bidding him sacrifice to Zeus Ammon, and to pay especial reverence to that god: warning him, moreover, that he would some day lose the sight of that eye with which, through the chink of the half-opened door, he had seen the god consorting with his wife in the form of a serpent.”


In 1963, D.J.A. Ross remarked off-hand (in an article titled Olympias and the Serpent) on the possibility that this particular episode is a reference to Sabazios, and the enigmatic initiation rites comprising the mysteries of that cult. In-hand with that notion, we might also produce a survey by Dunstan Lowe, over the passage in the Aeneid wherein Allecto drives Amata to madness. Lowe argues that the serpentine device in this episode is most surely intended to recall the Sabazian initiation rite, as well. The passage in question:


Straightway Alecto, through whose body flows

the Gorgon poison, took her viewless way

to Latium and the lofty walls and towers

of the Laurentian King. Crouching she sate

in silence on the threshold of the bower

where Queen Amata in her fevered soul

pondered, with all a woman's wrath and fear,

upon the Trojans and the marriage-suit

of Turnus. From her Stygian hair the fiend

a single serpent flung, which stole its way

to the Queen's very heart, that, frenzy-driven,

she might on her whole house confusion pour.

Betwixt her smooth breast and her robe it wound

unfelt, unseen, and in her wrathful mind

instilled its viper soul. Like golden chain

around her neck it twined, or stretched along

the fillets on her brow, or with her hair

enwrithing coiled; then on from limb to limb

slipped tortuous. Yet though the venom strong

thrilled with its first infection every vein,

and touched her bones with fire, she knew it not …


During initiation into the Sabazia, an artificial snake was passed down the neophyte’s chest underneath the tunic, so that it lay against the skin. Two such iron snakes have been uncovered in the so-called “Complex of the Magic Rites” in Pompeii. It has been suggested that a certain erotic effect may have been achieved by blinding the initiate, resulting in uncertainty over whether or not the snake was real. Perhaps on some occasions a live snake was in-fact used. The snake was passed, then, through the neck of the tunic, against the chest, downward and retrieved from underneath the hem of the garment at a suggestible location. There is undoubtedly a theurgic aspect central to this particular ritual; a notion of sexual union with the god—preserved as a device of myth in the story of Alexander’s conception.


Rebirth, then, is the crucial aspect of the symbolic mechanism—however, not necessarily in the ‘feminine’ light, for, just as the woman was believed to provide the bodily clay, inanimate, it was the man who provided the spark of life according to the Indo-European traditions. Thus was Orestes found innocent of the murder of a family member; he argued that his mother Klytemnestra, whom he killed in order to avenge the killing of his father, was not of his blood, being only his mother. The blood relation was, for the un-diluted Indo-European mind, exclusive to the father. Hence, we can understand the Jupiterian aspect of the Sabazian snake ritual, in the sense that it represents the living principle descending from the head, along the spine, and rendered in the form of sexual consummation (a doctrine expounded in Plato’s Timaeus, and its analog in the East, the image of the kundalini)—as the serpent passes down the body and is extracted at the genitals. The spinal fluid was long considered one and the same as the seminal fluid in both Pythagorean and Orphic traditions, among others. Equating the snake to the spine, in this sexual and essentially masculine form, then, we can come to understand just the same, the esoteric importance of a different commonly-held Indo-European belief, that being, the idea that after death the spine of the deceased occasions to be transformed into a snake.


Now perhaps it’s somewhat clearer, the reasons for why priests of Sabazios are presented by ancient authors as snake-keepers; why snake-sleeping rituals among women—being shut up in the temple overnight alone but for a serpent—are associated with Sabazios, with Zeus, and with Dionysos alike, all of whom have been conflated at one point or another. This confluence of myth and ritual calls to mind, as well, a certain medieval epistle penned by the Christian John Meletius to George Sabine, detailing the practice of keeping snakes by the local Prussian pagans. He writes:


“Moreover, the Lithuanians and Samogitae keep snakes warm under the stove, or in a corner of the steam-room where the table stands. These snakes they worship as they would a divine being; and at a regular season of the year the sacrificers summon them forth to share the meal. But they come out and climb up over a clean cloth and sit on the table. When they have there tasted the several dishes, they go down again and hide themselves in their holes. When the snakes have gone away the men gladly eat up the dishes of which they have had a first taste, and expect that for that year all things will turn out happily for them. If, however, the snakes have not come out in answer to the prayers of the sacrificer, or have refused to taste the dishes placed on the table, then they believe that in that year they will suffer some great calamity. …”


Rather than dwell on the point, it serves only to call to attention the fact that there was most likely among these peoples a tradition of great antiquity, which comprised the overlap between the notion of a household deity; the fatherly ancestral spirit (penates in the Latin, domovoi in the Slavic, etc.) and the serpent—for related reasons.




Further Considerations


To draw the present treatment of the Hands of Sabazios to a close then, it remains to discuss one further, albeit material, aspect of the serpentine symbolism. Why is the serpent consistently positioned over the two downturned digits in the benedictio, in the iconography of the cult?


In addition to the symbolic observations offered thus far it should be presented, too, that the benedictio shares its form—to a certain degree—with a medical affliction of the hand that was apparently well known to the ancients. The ‘ulnar claw’ has gone by many names; Celtic Hand, or Viking’s Hand. The Curse of the MacCrimmons, after the famous clan of pipers who suffered the genetic deformity and were doomed to lose the ability to play their instruments as they aged. As well, the Hand of Benediction, and more recently this condition was settled in the medical field under the name of the distinguished physician who first set down the underlying mechanism of the deformity in those terms: Guillaume Dupuytren; called “Dupuytren’s Contracture.” The affliction was originally thought to be unique to those of Nordic descent (hence ‘Viking’s Hand,’) although in more recent times it was recognized to have been prevalent among, strikingly, both Thracian and Phrygian populations historically—predating then, the medieval Nordic or Celtic associations.


The contracture is characterized by a thickening, and therefore contracting, of the tendons in the hand which control the third finger, and to a somewhat lesser extent the fourth finger as well. Protruding from the palm with more and more clarity, these tendons take on an unmistakably serpentine character, and render both smaller fingers unable to extend over time, thus slowly closing the hand permanently into the benedictio gesture.


Dupuytren’s contracture is not the only cause of this peculiar manual deformity, either. Leprosy typically presented earliest as a discoloration of the ring finger, followed on next by nerve damage in the forearm that resulted in the same ulnar-claw, in the hand. The tradition of Leper Knights in the Crusading epoch comes to mind. Further, a break in the elbow can commonly lead to the same nerve damage, and the same disfiguration of the hand. For these reasons (in addition to the symbolic reasons which underlie the apparent material concord of the hand with the doctrine) it’s not quite so convincing to claim that Dupuytren’s contracture is the source of the benedictio. But rather, that it’s presentation would of course have been seen as commensurate with a larger bodily cosmography, which was accepted by the Indo-European mentality—and by which the hand was taken for a microcosm of the body, and the body in-turn of the cosmos.


The contracture disproportionately affects men, rarely women. As well, it’s a genetic condition—and therefore would for man of antiquity have evidently passed from father to son, bolstering its association with the agnatic principle, and thereby have been perhaps understandably provisioned to the sky-father deities. Further, the contracture does not present in the hand until the 7th decade on average. While many approximations can be set down for the typical life span of a man in any given period of antiquity, the 5th generation is a reasonable estimate by any methodology. Which is to say, one would have to exceed the expected life span by twenty years, on average, in order to present the condition—and for this reason, would very likely have meant that the contracture was associated with uncommon longevity, or in other words, with health, or a significant constitution. Positioning the serpent then over the two ‘poisoned’ digits of such a hand again appears to follow rationally.


One final piece worth consideration would have us return to a curiosity presented earlier: the Greek word ἀγκύλος (ankúlos). Recall that in addition to the bowstring, this was the name given to the javelin thong, as well as the bend or joints in the arms, and, crucially, was lent to the deformities or deficiencies of the joints. In the ancient Greek the name for the bow, τόξον (toxon), is also the source of the word ‘toxic.’ The connotation of poison, and therefore a latent serpentine quality is to be found in the most common material from which the bow was made—the yew tree. The yew tree was known to the ancients for its longevity, and for its toxicity. The longevity of the tree is down to its slow growth, and as its capacity to regenerate from within. While the tree ages, its heartwood decays, and through that material as a humus, new roots grow down in the center the tree and a new trunk emerges outward from the center. Hollow yew trees are taken to be very ancient, indeed. It’s unlikely that the ancients were ignorant the draconic character of this process. We are left to wonder if the fact that an archer’s hand, loosing an arrow, typically forms the benedictio as well is a matter of simple coincidence.




Editorial Note:

The passages above, which detail the Mercurial

aspects of the Sabazian ritual staff, its relationship

to the benedictio, and to proportion, have been

appended to this paper shortly following 

publication. I would like to acknowledge 

Mr. Gálvez Caballero, and thank him

for the conversation that resulted in

those additional insights. 


Alexander J. Ford


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