Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Last year in Athens, I came upon the tomb stele of Dexileos, an Athenian cavalryman who died in the Corinthian War in 394 B.C. The relief carving showed Dexileos on horseback fighting a Peloponnesian hoplite on foot. The image struck me as obviously similar to the Eastern Orthodox depiction of St. George and other warrior saints, such as St. George on a white horse spearing a dragon and St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki on a red horse striking down an enemy. I posted photos of the stele and an icon of St. George side by side on Facebook, suggesting that one was descended from the other.
Well, I was wrong.
I had no occasion to revisit my conviction in the relationship between Dexileos and St. George and St. Demetrius until recently when I returned to Bulgaria. Long before Bulgarians settled in what became Bulgaria in the 7th century, this corner of Europe was Thrace.
The Thracians were a somewhat mysterious lot. They were a part of the ancient Greek world but very much on its periphery. The Thracian language was barely attested in ancient sources. Greek mythology said that the Thracians were descended from Ares, the god of war. In the Iliad, the Thracians are allies of Troy against the Greeks. Ancient Greeks and Romans considered the Thracians barbarians.
As I type this, I happen to be in Varna, ancient Odessos, which was a center of Thracian culture. So here the motif of the “Thracian horseman” has been impressed upon me. In the Hellenistic and Roman eras, Thracian reliefs commonly depicted a rider called “Heros.” This Heros wasn’t just any horseman but appeared to be a divine figure, said to be a “savior” and an “answerer of prayers,” likely drawn from the ancient religion of the Thracians.
And the iconography of St. George and St. Demetrius, not to mention St. Theodore — scholars with actual expertise in this area instead of me have shown — is a continuation of this Heros instead of Dexileos. Possibly as early as the 6th or 7th century, a Balkan depiction of St. Theodore shows him as the horseman. In the cave churches of Goreme in Cappadocia, now in Turkey, in the 10th century, artists first made St. George the star of his own movie, giving us the now all-too-familiar “St. George and the Dragon” motif. Hence St. George is sometimes said to be “of Cappadocia.”
So the resemblance between Dexileos and the iconography of warrior saints is coincidental, and I was entirely mistaken to link the two. Such are the hazards of being an amateur historian.
Well, I never promised always to know the correct answers. I only promise always to be interested in the questions.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."