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Illyrian mythology includes the reconstructed religious beliefs and practices of the Illyrian peoples, a group of tribes who spoke the Illyrian languages and inhabited part of the western Balkans before the 8th century BC until the 7th century AD. The sources available are very tenuous. It consists largely of personal and place names, and a few glosses from Classical sources. Still insufficiently studied, the most numerous traces of religious practices of the pre-Roman era are those relating to religious symbolism. Symbols are depicted in every variety of ornament and reveal that the chief object of the prehistoric cult of the Illyrians was the sun, worshipped in a widespread and complex religious system. Illyrian deities were mentioned in inscriptions on statues, monuments, and coins of the Roman period, and some interpreted by Ancient writers through comparative religion. To these can be added a larger body of inscriptions from the south-eastern Italian region of Apulia written in the Messapian language, which is generally considered to be Illyrian, although this has been debated as mostly speculative. There appears to be no single most prominent god for all the Illyrian tribes, and a number of deities evidently appear only in specific regions.
It is thought that the Illyrians did not develop a uniform cosmology on which to center their religious practices. As pagans, Illyrians believed in supernatural powers and they attributed to the deities qualities that were reflected in everyday life, health and disease, natural abundance and natural disaster. A number of Illyrian toponyms and anthroponyms derived from animal names and reflected the beliefs in animals as mythological ancestors and protectors. The serpent was one of the most important animal totems. Illyrians believed in the force of spells and the evil eye, in the magic power of protective and beneficial amulets which could avert the evil eye or the bad intentions of enemies. The rich spectrum in religious beliefs and burial rituals that emerged in Illyria, especially during the Roman period, may reflect the variation in cultural identities in this region.
Some Illyrian gods and beliefs ultimately stem from the Proto-Indo-European mythology. Alongside the Thracian and Dacian beliefs, it constitutes part of the Paleo-Balkan mythologies. Albanians preserved traces of Illyrian religious symbolism and ancient Illyrian religion is most likely one of the underlying sources from which Albanian folk beliefs have drawn nourishment. One can find several traces of Illyrian cults in the religious and superstitious beliefs among Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Montenegrins today.
It seems that the Illyrians did not develop a uniform cosmology on which to center their religious practices. In the early Iron Age, the Illyrian art was geometric and non-representational, with the combination of concentric circles, rhomboids, triangles and broken lines. It was a severe type of art devoid of phantasy, intended for farmers and cattle breeders or warriors. The absence of figured ornament may reflect an apparent lack of mythology or anthropomorphic cults during the early Iron Age. The geometric art of the period, which reached its climax in the 8th century BC, seems to be the only common feature between the different Illyrian areas, as artistic ornaments found after the 6th century BC rather show an outside influence, mainly from archaic Greece and Etruscan Italy.
During the late 6th and early 5th century BC, the increase in cremation graves in the Glasinac culture has been interpreted as a possible collapse of the tribal structure which led to changes in the prevailing religious beliefs. The shift from inhumation to cremation is thought to be an evidence of the arrival of new people from the north. Indeed, cremation became a more common rite among northern Illyrians, while inhumation persisted as the dominant rite in the south. The gradual transition from the rite of cremation to that of inhumation during the Roman period can be interpreted as a sign of greater concern for the afterlife. The rich spectrum in religious beliefs and burial rituals that emerged in Illyria, especially during the Roman period, is an indicator of the variation in cultural identities in this region.
Archaeological evidence demonstrate the existence of two main cults based upon two roughly defined geographic criteria: the cult of the serpent appears to have occurred principally in the southern regions of Illyria, while the waterfowl and solar symbols predominated in the north. The serpent as the symbol of fertility, protector of the hearth and a chthonic animal, could also be connected with the cult of the sun. A number of Illyrian toponyms and anthroponyms derived from animal names and reflected the beliefs in animals as mythological ancestors and protector totems. It may translate the ancient social relationships and religious conceptions held by Illyrians and their predecessors, a set of traditions that was still alive during the Roman period. As recorded by ancient Roman writers, Illyrians believed in the force of spells and the evil eye. Many examples of objects with the shape of phallus, hand, leg, and animal teeth are indicators of a belief in the protective and beneficial force of amulets.
Many of the symbols found throughout Illyria were associated with the Sun, suggesting that the Sun worship was a cult common to Illyrian tribes. The solar deity was depicted as an animal figure the likes of the birds, serpents and horses, or as a geometrical figure such as the spiral, the concentric circle and the swastika. The latter, moving clockwise (卐), portrayed the solar movement.
Several bronze pendants widespread in the region have the shape of solar symbols such as a simple disk without rays, with four rays which form a cross, and with more rays. There are pendants that have more circles placed concentrically from the center to the periphery. Maximus of Tyre (2nd century AD) reported that the Paeonians worshipped the sun in the form of a small round disk fixed on the top of a pole. The sun-disk fixed on the top of a pole is also depicted in the coins of the Illyrian city of Damastion. Among the Liburnians and the Veneti, the sun-disk is depicted as a sun-boat borne across the firmament.
The waterfowl are among the most frequent solar symbols of the Illyrians, especially in the north. A great number of pendants with waterfowl shapes have been found in the Glasinac plateau, in the regions of the Japodes in Lika, in Liburnia and in the Illyrian regions of present day Albania and North Macedonia. At Noricum were found two Illyrian temples with sacrificial altars associated with the sun-cult and erected on mountain peaks. Evidence of a widespread cult of the sun among Thracians suggests a common ancient Balkan religious practice. Archaeological findings have shown that Illyrians and Thracians practiced ritual sacrifices to the sun in round temples built in high places. Among Illyrians, the deer was an important sun symbol as it was considered a main sacrificial animal offered to the Sun.
Remnants of the cult of the sun have been preserved among the Albanians until the 20th century in agricultural and livestock cults, in craftsmanship, in calendar rituals, in the oral folk traditions and in art. The solar deity was worshipped in the family life cycle, in the cult of hearth and fire, of water and the mountains; in oath swearing but also as a source of livelihood, of health and fertility, or simply as a useful protective object. A significant element of the sun-worship are the "fires of the year" (zjarret e vitit). Bonfires took place in Albania on the peaks of mountains, on hills and near homes, on Summer Day (beginning of March) or on June 24, sometimes in July, August or December 24. In the Albanian Songs of the Frontier Warriors, different events are influenced by the sun. The "Mountains of the Sun" (Bjeshkët e Diellit) are the places where the heroes (Kreshnikët) operate. The sun symbols are found in Albania in many decorative ornaments, and until the 20th century, the cult of the sun was displayed on tattoos practiced among northern Albanians and Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The serpent cult was widespread among Illyrians, especially in the south. The image of the serpent was a symbol of potency and fertility, and the protector of the domestic hearth. This mystic animal was connected with the cult of the ancestors and with the magical-religious complex of the fertility of the earth and of the woman. The Illyrian cult of the serpent is documented in ancient sources. An example is the famous ancient Greek mythological legend of the Phoenician prince and king of Thebes, Cadmus, and his wife Harmonia, who, having come to the Illyrians and died in their homeland, continued to live after their death in the form of serpents. Their son Illyrios, the eponymous hero of the Illyrian lineage, also had the form of a serpent, and as such he can be considered as the supreme totem of the Illyrians.
The importance of the serpent in the symbolic and religious system of the Illyrians is reflected in numerous archaeological discoveries in their settlements and necropolises, especially in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia. The serpent was used as a common terminal ornament for decorative items. A 3rd century BC silvered bronze belt buckle found inside the Illyrian Tombs of Selça e Poshtme near the Lake Ohrid shows a scene of warriors and horsemen in combat, with a giant serpent as a protector totem of one of the horsemen; a very similar belt was found also in the necropolis of Gostilj near the Lake Scutari. A Roman era statue of a local goddess of abundance was found in the locality of Qesarat; the goddess holds in her left hand a basket around which a snake is twisted. The serpent is also depicted in the Illyrian ships on the coins of the Labeates found in the town of Çinamak, near Kukës. Other representations of the serpent are found in the Greek-Illyrian coins of Byllis, Apollonia, Dyrrhachion, Olympe and Amantia. In Dardania there were dedicated altars to the serpentine pair Dracon and Dracaena. In later times, the serpent was considered an obstacle to the Christian spiritual life.
The cult of the serpent has survived among Albanians throughout the Middle Ages and to the present days. All the beliefs, rites, and practices of magic associated with this cult have been well preserved in rural settlements by the elders until the last decades of the 20th century. The serpent is worshiped as a chthonic and water deity. It is also considered a healer and a totem protector of the family and the house. In Albania, the serpent appears in many decorative symbols, in toponyms and anthroponyms. In southern Dalmatia in particular, the serpent is found in carving, heraldry and anthroponyms. The cult of the serpent left traces in numerous similar ritual manifestations within Slavic mythology.
The study in the field of Illyrian religion is in several cases insufficient for a description even at the level of basic attributes of individual deities. The main source of information are the monuments of the Roman period, and some of the deities are named by Roman and Greek writers in equation with the classical pantheon which they were familiar with. Based on the available list of deities, there seems to be no single or prominent god shared by all the Illyrian tribes, and a number of deities evidently appear only in specific regions. On the other hand, some derivatives and epithets of gods were more widespread among the different tribes: a lot of Illyrian personal names are similar to the Dardanian deity Andinus, and certain Illyrian and Messapian goddesses (some of them borrowed from Greek) shared the title Ana or Anna, which is plausibly interpreted as "Mother".
The Illyrian names of the gods were not different in grammatical structures from the personal names reserved for humans. The onomastic evidence demonstrates a general division between several cultural provinces, which can sometimes overlap: the southern region of Illyris, the middle Pannonian and Dalmatian provinces, and the northwestern regions of Liburnia and Istria. Other Illyrian gods are more scarcely attested in Moesia Superior (present-day North Macedonia), and the pantheon may be extended to the Iapygian beliefs if one follows the generally accepted Illyro-Messapic theory that postulates an Illyrian migration towards southeastern Italy (present-day Apulia) during the early first millennium BC.
The lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria (fifth or sixth century AD) recorded Dei-pátrous, a god worshiped in Tymphaea as the Sky Father (*Dyēus-Ph₂tḗr), a cognate of the Vedic Dyáuṣ Pitṛ́, Greek Zeus Patēr and Roman Jupiter. The northwestern Greek region of Tymphaea was inhabited by an ancient Illyrian population that may have influenced the Doric form copied by Hesychius as "Deipáturos" (Δειπάτυροϛ). The tribe of the Parthini worshiped Jupiter Parthinus as a chief deity, identified with the chief Roman god Jupiter. Hesychius recorded that the Illyrians believed in satyr-like creatures called Deuadai, which has been interpreted as a diminutive of the inherited Indo-European word for a "god" (*deywós). Krahe also argued that Satyros (Σάτυρος) may be of Illyrian origin.
The name Redon appears in inscriptions found in Santa Maria di Leuca (present-day Lecce), and on coins minted by the Illyrian city of Lissos, suggesting that he was worshipped as the guardian deity of the city, and probably as a sea god. The fact that Redon was always depicted on coins wearing a petasos demonstrates a connection with travelling and sailing, which led historians to the conclusion that Redon was the deity protector of travellers and sailors. Indeed, the inscriptions of Santa Maria di Leuca were carved by the crews of two Roman merchant ships manned by Illyrians. Inscriptions mentioning Redon were also found on coins from the Illyrian cities of Daorson and Scodra, and even in archaeological findings from Dyrrhachium after the establishment of a Roman colony there. His name keeps on being used in the Albanian Kepi i Rodonit ("Cape of Rodon"), a headland located near Durrës which could be analysed as an Illyrian sanctuary dedicated to the god of the sailors in the past.
Prende was the Illyrian love-goddess and the consort of the sky and thunder-god Perëndi. The name Per-en-di is a possible cognate of the Proto-Indo-European weather god *Perkwunos, deriving from the root *per- ("to strike"), and attached to the suffixes -en- and -di/dei, the Illyrian sky-god.[note 1] The fire was deified as En (or *Enji), which has been interpreted as a cognate of the Vedic fire god Agni, descending from the root *Hₓn̩gʷnis, the Proto-Indo-European divinised fire. En, Perendi and Prende were worshiped by Illyrians until the spread of Christianity in the region, after which En was demoted to demonic status, although his name survived in the Albanian language to refer to Thursday (enjte). Prende was similarly inherited as a root for Friday (premte) and Saint Venera (Shënepremte), while Perëndi was retained as the Name of God.
An Illyrian god named Medaurus is mentioned in a dedication at Lambaesis in Numidia by a Roman legatus native of the Illyrian city of Risinium (present-day Montenegro). The name is more scarcely attested on another inscription found in Risinium, engraved by the Peripolarchoi, the border guards of the city; and also in Santa Maria di Leuca, where Medaurus is the divine name given to a merchant ship. Portrayed as riding on horseback and carrying a lance, Medaurus was the protector of Risinium, with a monumental equestrian statue dominating the city from the acropolis. He was also possibly regarded as a war god among Illyrian soldiers fighting in the Roman legions along the limes, especially during the Marcomannic Wars (166–180 CE).
Dalmatia and Pannonia were ruled by the Roman Empire and grouped together within the province of Illyricum from the creation of the empire in 27 BC until the reign of Vespasian in 69–79 AD, during which they got separated into two different provinces. From the beginning of the reign of Septimius Severus in 193, Pannonians began to adopt Roman deities or put emphasis on local gods compatible with Roman cults. Sedatus, Epona, Mars Latobius, Jupiter Optimus Maximus Teutanus, and other non-Illyrian deities were thus introduced by Roman and Celtic foreigners in the region, and local religion is hardly traceable before the Severan period.
The cult of Silvanus, the Roman tutelary deity of the wild, woods and fields, was one of the most popular ritual traditions in Dalmatia and Pannonia during the Roman period. Silvanus was so familiar in the region that his name was often abbreviated on inscriptions. The way he was portrayed in Dalmatia differed from the rest of the Roman Empire, with various elements common only with Pannonia. Silvanus was depicted with attributes generally related to Pan, such as goat legs, horns, syrinx, pedum, grapes or other fruits, and he was escorted by a goat and female companions (Diana and the Nymphs). Several cognomina were attributed to Silvanus in particular, such as Domesticus when he was portrayed as a bearded countryman with his watch-dog, holding the knife of a wine-grower or gardener. Under Silvanus Messor, he was the protector of the harvest, while the epithet Silvestris, often paired with Diana and the Nymphs, depicted the hunter and the rural woodland identity.
Some scholars have interpreted those peculiarities from the point of the view that Silvanus was an indigenous deity resembling Pan, but recognized by Classical writers as 'Silvanus' through the eyes of interpretatio romana. They generally link the representations of Silvanus with an erect phallus to pre-Roman fertility cults found earlier in the region, especially local ithyphallic depictions of the Iron Age. The cult of Silvanus was also more frequent in the towns of the Dalmatian heartlands such as Vrlika than in the coastal Graeco-Roman colonies like Narona. An opposing view regards the cult of Silvanus in Dalmatia and Pannonia as a tradition of Italian origin eventually adopted by Balkanic populations living in romanized areas during the second century CE. The association of Silvanus with the Phrygian deity Attis also appears in Dalmatia and further north in Aquileia (Italia).
The Silvanae, a feminine plural of Silvanus, were featured on many dedications across Pannonia. As most of them were found in the western Balkans rather than in Italy, they may have represented Illyrian nymphs. In the hot springs of Topusko (Pannonia Superior), sacrificial altars were dedicated to Thana and Vidasus, whose names invariably stand side by side as companions. Vidasus is identified with Silvanus. His name derives from the PIE root *widʰu- ("tree, forest"), with a possible cognate in the Norse god Víðarr, who is said to live amid long grass and brushwood. Thana, compared with the Roman goddess Diana, was the deity of forestry and hunting and can be traced today in the image of "mother Yana" within Serbian folklore.
In Dalmatia, the Roman deity of wine, fertility and freedom Liber was worshipped with the attributes of Silvanus and those of Terminus, the god protector of boundaries. His cult was more widespread in the Balkanic province than in Italy, with prominent centres of cult in Salona and Narona. On the islands of Brattia and Corcyra Nigra, Liber was venerated under the epithet Torcle(n)sis as a god of the wine press. Certainly due to a mix of local traditions and hellenistic influence, he was often associated with the Greek god of wine, fertility and religious ecstasy Dyonisus. In Tragurium was erected a statue of Liber-Dionysus-Bacchus, and a relief from Omiš depicts him as an effeminate Dionysus wearing vine branches and holding a thyrsus. Another relief from Livno portrays him with a thyrsus and serpent, or with a vase and a dog, a possible syncretism with the Roman god of medicine Asclepius. A feminine version named Libera was also discovered in inscriptions from Hvar, Bihać, Zenica, Zemun and Humac.
Tadenus was a Dalmatian deity bearing the identity or epithet of Apollo in inscriptions found near the source of the Bosna river. His identity is not known and the name may be of Thracian origin. A local ruler named Ionios appears on inscriptions carved on Dalmatian coins. His mythic dimensions have been highlighted by scholars, and it seems likely that he received his name from a mythical predecessor. The Delmatae also had Armatus as a war god in Delminium. Two altars were dedicated to him under the name Armatus Augustus in Dalmatia, and while he was recorded under a Latin name, the deity was likely of native origin.
Aecorna (or Arquornia) was a goddess worshipped exclusively in the Emona Basin, in the cities of Nauportus and Emona (Pannonia Superior), where she was the most important divinity next to Jupiter. The earlier testimony of her cult appears in inscriptions dated 50–30 BC, and she is most likely of native origin. Aecorna has been interpreted as a lake goddess, or as a patroness of the river traffic along the Ljubjanica. Laburus was also a local deity worshipped in Emona. His name was found on an altar erected at Fuzine, in a dangerous site for navigation near the rapids of the Ljubjanica river. Laburus may thus have been a deity protecting the boatmen sailing through those perilous rapids. Oriental Mithraic mysteries became also widespread in Pannonia during the Roman period, with an important centre of cult in Poetovio.
Iutossica and Anzotica, the latter identified with Venus, were worshipped in Liburnia. Some deities are known exclusively from Istria, such as Eia, Nebres, Malesocus, Iria, or Boria, a mountain-god (from Illyrian *bora, "mountain"). Other local theonyms include Latra, Sentona, and the nymph Ica. In honour of Ica a monument was erected in the vicinity of a spring in Flanona, which still bears her name. Bindus, identified with Neptune, was worshiped among the Japodes as the guardian deity of springs and seas. Altars were dedicated to him by tribal leaders at the Privilica spring sources near Bihać.
The region of Moesia Superior shows a great variety of cultural beliefs, as it lied on the cultural frontier between the Latin West and the Greek East. The debated identity of tribes such as the Dardanians, interpreted as Illyrian or Thracian, or the Paeonians, likewise dwelling between the Dardanians and the Macedonians, comes from the fact that they inhabited an Illyrian-Thracian contact zone where both cultures intertwined over a long period.
The Dardanian deity Andinus was worshipped in a region dominated by Thracian gods. The only trace left is a name carved on an altar dedicated by a beneficiarus ("a foreigner"). Variants like Andia or Andio were also common among the Dardanians, and a lot of Illyrian personal names are found under the forms Andes, Andueia or Andena. The Paeonians worshiped a god named Dualos, the equivalent of Dionysus. His name has been compared with Albanian dej ("drunk") and Gothic dwals ("a madman"), reinforcing the association of the Paeonian deity with wine and intoxication.
Iapygian tribes (the Messapians, Daunians and Peucetians) all shared Messapian as a common language until the Roman conquest of Apulia from the late 4th century BC onwards. Messapian was probably related to the Illyrian languages spoken on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, as both ancient sources and modern scholars have described an Illyrian migration into Italy early in the first millennium BC. The pre-Roman religion of Iapygians appears as a substrate of indigenous elements mixed with Greek mythology. Indeed, the Roman conquest probably accelerated the hellenisation of a region already influenced by contacts with Magna Grecia, a set of colonies Greeks had founded in southeastern Italy by the 8th century BC (Tarentum in particular), after first incursions centuries earlier during the Mycenaean period. Aphrodite, Venus and Athena were thus worshiped in Apulia as Aprodita, Venas and Athana, respectively.
Indigenous Iapygian beliefs featured the curative powers of the waters at the herõon of the god Podalirius and the fulfilling of oracles for anyone who slept wrapped in the skin of a sacrificed ewe. Menzanas was a local Messapian deity whose name literally translates as "Lord of Horses". He was often worshipped under the epithet Juppiter Menzanas, and horses were sacrificed to him by being thrown alive into a fire. Originally formed as *mendyo-no-, the name Menzanas derives from the root *mendyo- ("foal"),[note 2] attached to the PIE suffix -nos ("controller of, lord of"). The cult of Juppiter Menzanas, known at least since Verrius Flaccus (c. 55 BC–20 AD), was most likely of native origin, as Zis (or Dis), the sky god of the Messapians, was likewise worshipped under the aspect of Zis Menzanas. Rather than a borrowing from the Greek Zeus, the deity is probably a parallel inheritance from the Proto-Indo-European sky-god *Dyēus, and other cognates appear in Vedic Dyáuṣ, Roman Jovis (*Djous) and Illyrian Dei.
The Messapian goddess Damatura (or Damatira) could be of Illyrian origin rather than a borrowing from the Greek Demeter, with a form dā- ("earth", compare with Albanian: dhe) attached to -matura ("mother") akin to the form Dei-pátrous (dei-, "sky", attached to -pátrous, "father"). This theory was supported by Pisani (1935) and Georgiev (1937), rejected by Kretschmer (1939), and more recently supported by Çabej, Demiraj, and West (2007). The latter further notes that "the formal parallelism between [Damatura and Deipaturos] may favour their having been a pair, but evidence of the liaison is lacking." Lahona was the name of a Messapian deity worshipped as an epithet attached to Aphrodite: ana aprodita lahona. She was featured in votive inscriptions found in Ceglie Messapica, and the dedication has been translated either as "To the goddess Aphrodite Lahona", or as "Mother Aphrodite Lahona".