Bulgarian Archaeologists Figure Out Ancient Odessos Thracians Worshiped Greek Goddess Aphrodite, Not Thracian Goddess Bendis

Part of the Small Roman Thermae of ancient Odessus (Odessos) built on top of an Ancient Thracian temple or sanctuary honoring Apollo and Aphrodite, Ancient Greek deities, in Bulgaria's Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

Part of the Small Roman Thermae of ancient Odessus (Odessos) built on top of an Ancient Thracian temple or sanctuary honoring Apollo and Aphrodite, Ancient Greek deities, in Bulgaria’s Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

Archaeologists from the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna are said to have figured out that the Ancient Thracians who inhabited its precursor, Odessos, worshipped Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite, rather than Thracian goddess Bendis, as previously believed.

It is important to note that the Thracians, who lived right next door to the Ancient Greeks, often worshipped some of the Ancient Greek gods as well as the deities from the Thracian mythology, and sometimes the reverse was also true.

The new interpretation of the local cult of the Thracians in ancient Odessos comes after reconsidering of evidence from a Thracian temple located underneath the ruins of the so called Small (or South) Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna, local news site Top Novini has reported.

The Small (South) Roman Thermae were built in the 5th-6th century AD; they must not be confused with the Large Roman Thermae built in the 2nd century AD, even though both of these archaeological sites are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna, close to the entrance of Port Varna East.

Ancient Odessos, first a Thracian settlement, and then a Greek colony, became part of the Roman Empire under the name Odessus in 15 AD as the main port of the Roman province of Moesia. It was heavily influenced by Roman culture as testified by the Thermae, i.e. the public baths, with the ruins of both the Small and the Large Thermae being relatively well preserved.

Аfter the city of Odessus started experiencing decline, not unlike the entire Roman Empire, in the 3rd-4th century AD, the Large Thermae were abandoned, and partially destroyed, and the city built smaller public baths that required smaller resources to maintain. They were erected in the 5th-6th century AD on top of what used to be a Thracian sanctuary or temple that was used to worship Ancient Greek god Apollo as well as a female deity.

A view of part of the Small Roman Thermae located next ot a busy boulevard in Bulgaria's Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

A view of part of the Small Roman Thermae located next ot a busy boulevard in Bulgaria’s Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

According to archaeologist Dr. Alexander Minchev from the Varna Museum of Archaeology, the archaeologists thought that the Thracian temple underneath the Roman Thermae was partly dedicated to Thracian goddess Bendis (who was the “equivalent" of Ancient Greek goddess Artemis), and that they worshipped Bendis as the patron of the city of Odessos.

However, Minchev believes that there is undisputable evidence that it was Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite who was worshipped by the Thracians in Odessos as the city patron, and that the temple underneath the Small Roman thermae was dedicated to her.

The report says it is possible that the space behind one of the arches located in the northernmost corner of Varna’s Small Roman Thermae might hide additional information about the ancient cult of the local Thracians for the Ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, according to historians.

The Director of the Varna Museum of Archaeology (also known as Varna Regional Museum of History), Prof. Valentin Pletnyov, is quoted as saying during the excavations of the Small Roman Thermae back in the 1960s the local archaeologists found that a part of the former sanctuary underneath the public baths was dedicated to Ancient Greek god Apollo.

The entrance of the open-air museum of the Small Roman Thermae in Bulgaria's Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

The entrance of the open-air museum of the Small Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna. Photo: TV grab from BNT2

The new interpretation about Aphrodite, rather than Bendis, having been the patron of Odessos comes as the Varna Regional Museum of History, the Varna Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and several NGOs have undertaken an initiative for the clean-up of the Small Roman Thermae and the planting of trees, bushes, and flowers on the site.

On Tuesday, March 24, 2015, participants in the project including student volunteers cleaned up the site as phase one of their initiative, which is supposed to be completed by March 27, 2015.

Critics of the initiative for giving the Small Roman Thermae in Varna a more environmentally pleasing makeover, however, have been quick to declare that the planting of trees will do irreparable damage to the ancient site. They warn that as the tree roots grow, they can potentially affect the structures and as well as any additional excavations of the site in the future. It remains to be seen whether their worries are justified, which is doubtful considering the participation of the experts from the Varna Museum of Archaeology in the clean-up initiative.

Part of the ruins of the Ancient Roman Thermae in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. Photo by Extrawurst, Wikipedia

Part of the ruins of the Large Ancient Roman Thermae in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. Photo by Extrawurst, Wikipedia

Background Infonotes:

The dawn of Varnas history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Eneolithic Varna Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts dating back to the 5th millenium BC.

Ancient Odessos is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC. However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia. Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Romes successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century. It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos. The v(val) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing. Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna. It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.

Organization of the Large Roman Thermae in Ancient Odessos / Odessus, in Bulgaria's Varna. Photo by Varna Museum of Archaeology

Organization of the Large Roman Thermae in Ancient Odessos / Odessus, in Bulgaria’s Varna. Photo by Varna Museum of Archaeology

The Large (North) Ancient Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna are the ruins of the first and larger public baths that functioned in the Ancient Roman city of Odessus (known as Odessos in Thracian and Greek times). They are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna. With a total of area of 7000 square meters, and a height of 20-22 meters, the thermae in Varna are the largest public building from the Antiquity period unearthed in Bulgaria. The Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna are ranked as the fourth largest preserved Roman thermae in Europe after the Baths of Caracalla and Baths of Diocletian in the imperial capital Rome and the baths of Trier, and the largest in the Balkans. They were built in the 2nd century AD, after the previously Ancient Thracian town and then Greek colony of Odessos was made part of the Roman province of Moesia in 15 AD, and were in use for about 100 years. Coins of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211) have been found among their ruins. The Thermae featured facilities such as an apodyterium (changing room), a frigidarium (cold pool), a tepidarium (warm pool), and a caldarium (hot pool) as well as a palaestra (a space with social and athletic functions). They were heated with a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system of pipes. The Roman Thermae in Varna were first seen an archaeological site by Austro-Hungarian researcher E. Kalinka in 1906, and were later excavated by Czech-Bulgarian brothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, who are known as the founders of Bulgarian archaeology. They were also excavated in 1959-1971 by a team led by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. In 2013, Varna Municipality allocated BGN 150,000 (app. EUR 75,000) for the rehabilitation of the Large Roman Thermae.

The Small (South) Ancient Roman Thermane in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna are the ruins of the later and smaller public baths that functioned in the Ancient Roman city of Odessus (known as Odessos in Thracian and Greek times). They are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna but further south than the Large Roman Thermae. They were built in the 5th-6th century AD as the city of Odessus experienced a decline (at the time the entire Roman Empire was in decline), after the Large Thermae were abandoned and partly destroyed in the 3rd-4th century AD. The Small Roman Thermae were erected on top of an Ancient Thracian temple or sanctuary that honored Ancient Greek god Apollo as well as a female deity that the Varna achaeologists at first believed was Ancient Thracian goddess Bendis but have recently changed their interpretation to believe that it was in fact Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite that the Thracian had worshipped. In 2013, Varna Municipality allocated BGN 130,000 (app. EUR 65,000) for the rehabilitation of the Small Roman Thermae.

Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite, according to Greek mythology, is the goddess of love, beauty, and pleasure. Her Roman “equivalent" is the goddess Venus. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, she was born when Cronus cut off Uranus‘s genitals and threw them into the sea, and she arose from the sea foam. According to Homer’s Iliad, she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. According to Plato, these two origins were of entirely separate entities: Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos.

Ancient Thracian goddess Bendis, according to Thracian mythology, is the goddess of the moon and the hunt. Her Greek “equivalent" is Artemis. Bendis was a huntress, and was depicted accompanied by dancing satyrs and maenads. She was also celebrated in Ancient Athens in the Bendideia ceremonial, after her cult was brought to the city by Thracian immigrants.