Pantheistic votive hand of Sabazios
Place of origin uncertain, 3rd-4th century
Bronze, 20.5 cm
The St. Louis Art Museum
Hollow-cast hands like this one have been associated with the Phrygian nature god, Sabazios, whose mixed cult spread from Thrace westward during the Roman Empire. Although their meaning and use remain uncertain, such hands were probably dedicated in cult centers otherwise identified by reliefs inscribed with the name of the god; the hands suggest both the god's power to help and his commitment to do so. The position of the fingers in the benedictio Latina is a characteristic attribute of Sabazios. The central figure enthroned within the shelter of the great hand also represents Sabazios, in Phrygian costume of sleeved tunic, softly peaked cap, loose trousers, and boots. Both of his hands were originally raised in the same gesture of benediction as the hand that surrounds him, perhaps the best preserved of all such votive hands. It is a classic instance of Late Antique syncretism, fusing the powers of various divinities, especially Zeus above and Dionysos below. The complex iconography encompasses the entire cosmos, beginning at the bottom with the fertile earth. On the back, a whole repertory of earthly creatures has been assembled: a grasshopper on a serpent, another smaller serpent, a scorpion (?), turtle, lizard or salamander, toad or frog, a rabbit (?). A table with votive cake (?), a basket of flowers, and other objects also appear. On the front, beneath the feet of the Phrygian god, are represented a ram's head, an offertory table (?) with pinecone, and below, in a cavelike opening, a mother bending over an infant. Surrounding the god, the large fingers bear attributes of the god's potency: the fifth finger has a grasshopper (head lost), while the two upraised fingers, as if reaching up into heaven, support a thunderbolt with snakes, held in turn by the talons of an eagle, which carries on its back a human figure (headless), possibly Hermes or Ganymede. This pantheistic, ecumenical image testifies to the power of signs in late Roman religion. Although the cult of Sabazios was snuffed out by Christianity, the transcendent gesture itself lived on as a sign of divine benediction in Christian ritual, while the omnipotent hand survived in the form of bronze hands holding crosses cast in early Byzantine times.