The Illyrians were a group of tribes who spoke the Indo-European languages. They were one of the three main Paleo-Balkan populations, along with the Greek and the Thracians. During ancient times, Illyrians inhabited the western Balkan Peninsula. The territory later came to be called Illyria. Here, we’ll be exploring the nuances of the Illyrian religion.
The religious practices of the pre-Roman period are mostly studied through religious symbolism. In every variety of ornaments, there are symbols denoting that the main object of the prehistoric cult of the Illyrians was the sun. The sun was worshipped through a complex and widespread religious system.
Mentioned in the inscriptions of statues, coins and monuments from the Roman period, Illyrian deities were studied and interpreted by ancient writers. Among the Illyrian tribes, there appears to be no most prominent or single god. Rather, a number of deities were revered.
The Illyrians were pagans, and they believed in supernatural beings and powers. Qualities that reflect daily life, natural abundance, natural disaster and health and disease were attributed to the deities. Several Illyrian toponyms and anthroponyms were derived from the names of animals. This was a reflection of the beliefs in animal protectors and mythological ancestors. One of the most important animal totems was the serpent.
Illyrians believed in the evil eye, spells, and the magical, protective and beneficial qualities of amulets. Like many other cultures, the Illyrians believed that amulets could ward off the evil eye and keep away the bad intentions of rivals. The various cultural identities that later emerged in the region were more or less a reflection of the wide spectrum of religious beliefs of the Illyrians.
Cults in Illyrian religion
In the Western Balkans, cults, particularly those linked with agriculture and the fertility of the earth, thrived during the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. Cults include the cult of the sun, the cult of Mother Earth and the cult of the serpent.
Illyrian art during the early Iron Age was geometrical and non-representational. Illyrian art consisted of triangles, rhomboids, concentric circles and broken lines. It was art devoid of any imagination, intended for cattle breeders, farmers and warriors. The absence of such figures or ornaments may reflect the absence of anthropomorphic cults in the early Iron Age. Geometric art, which reached its peak in the 8th century BC, was the only common feature that united the different Illyrian regions.
Evidence collected through archaeological research shows that two main cults existed in Illyria. The cult of the serpent appears to be concentrated in the southern areas of Illyria. The solar and waterfowl symbols dominated the north. The serpent, which also stood for fertility, protector of the home and a chthonic animal, could also be linked to the cult of the sun.
Cult of the Sun
Several of the symbols that were found throughout Illyria were linked with the sun, denoting that the cult of the sun was common to all Illyrian tribes. The solar god was depicted as animal figures, like birds, horses and serpents. Geometrically, the deity was represented with a spiral, a swastika or concentric circle. The swastika, when moving clockwise, represented the solar system.
The sun god was revered in the family life cycle, in the cult of water, mountains, hearth and fire. The sun deity was responsible for livelihood, health, fertility or simply a protective object. One of the significant elements of sun worship is the fires of the year. In Albania, bonfires are burnt on hills, on mountain peaks and near peoples’ homes on Summer Day (early March) or in June, July, August or December.
Many of the bronze pendants that were used widely in the region were in the shape of solar symbols. These include a simple disk lacking rays, four rays that form a cross and a greater number of rays. Other pendants had circles placed concentrically, starting from the centre to the periphery. Coins from the Illyrian city, Damastion, also depict the sun disk fixed on a pole.
In the northern region of Illyria, the waterfowl is among the most frequent solar symbols. A large number of pendants in waterfowl shapes have been discovered in the Glasinac plateau, in Liburnia, Japodes in Lika and present-day Albania and North Macedonia (former Illyrian regions).
Two Illyrian temples were found in Noricum, with sacrificial altars connected with the cult of the sun. Evidence of the cult of the sun found among the Thracians shows that it was a common religious practice. Archaeological discoveries have depicted that Illyrians and Thracians performed ritual sacrifices to the sun in round temples built at high points, like mountain peaks. For the Illyrians, the deer was also an important solar symbol. The deer was one of the main animals offered as a sacrifice to the sun. Remnants of the cult of the sun can be seen preserved among the Albanians till the 20th century. The Albanians’ agricultural and livestock cults, rituals, craftsmanship, oral folklore and art all carry some semblance to the cult of the sun.
Cult of the Serpent
The cult of the serpent was widespread among the Illyrians, particularly in the south. The serpent was a symbol of fertility, potency and was also believed to be the protector of the hearth. Serpents were linked to the cult of the ancestors, the fertility of the earth and that of women.
Ancient sources document the cult of the serpent in the Illyrian religion. For example, the mythological legend of Cadmus and his wife Harmonia claims that they had come to the Illyrians and died there. They lived after their death in the form of serpents. Illyrois, their son and the eponymous hero of the Illyrian lineage, was also in serpent form. He is regarded as the supreme totem of the Illyrians.
The cult of the serpent has been kept alive by the Albanians to the present day. All of the beliefs, rituals and practices of magic linked with the serpent cult have been preserved in the rural settlements by the elders. Worshipped as a water and a chthonic deity, the serpent is also believed to be a healer and a totem protector of the household and family. In Albania, many decorative symbols, anthroponyms and toponyms depict the serpent. There are many traces of the cult of the serpent in Slavic mythology too. In Sutomore, Montenegro, the ‘snake’lizard’ is regarded as the protector of the household, thus making it a sin to kill it.
Archaeological discoveries in the settlements of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and North Macedonia reflect the importance of the serpent cult in the Illyrian religion. A silvered bronze belt buckle, dating back to the third century BC, was found in the Illyrian tombs of Selca e Poshtme. The buckle depicts warriors and horsemen in combat, while a giant serpent serves as a protector of one of the horsemen. A similar belt was discovered in the Gostilj necropolis, near Lake Scutari.
Labeatan coins and Greek-Illyrian coins of Apollonia, Olympe, Amantia, Dyrrhachion and Byllis carried depictions of serpents. In Dalmatia and Dardania, there were altars dedicated to the serpentine pair Dracon and Dracontilla. Serpents were also a terminal ornament for decorative items. During later times, the serpent was regarded as an obstacle to the spiritual life of Christianity.
Cult of the Horseman
The cult of the horseman was of Thracian origin. It spread from the eastern Balkans to the Illyrian regions during the Roman era. The horseman’s image was that of a hunter on horseback, riding from left to right. The horseman was portrayed on both funerary and votive monuments. The medallion was one of the less used types of monument that depicted the Thracian horseman. One such medallion was found at Sarajevo, in Dalmatia.
Deities in Illyrian religion
The main source of information regarding deities in the Illyrian religion is the monuments from the Roman Period. Based on the evidence, there seems to be no prominent or single deity shared by the Illyrian tribes. While some of the deities appear only in specific regions, others are more widespread.
The Parthini tribe (Illyrian tribe that inhabited southern Illyria) worshipped Jupiter Parthinus as the main deity. In Tymphaea, the Illyrian population worshipped a deity named Dei-pátrous as the Sky Father. The Illyrians also believed in satyr-like beings called Deuadai.
In the inscriptions of Santa Maria di Leuca and coins minted in Lissos, the name Redon appears repeatedly. This may suggest that he was revered as the guardian deity of the city. On the coins, Redon was always depicted wearing petasos, thus demonstrating a link with sailing and travelling. This led researchers to conclude that Redon was the protector of sailors.
Prende (Goddess of love), Perendi (consort to Pende and God of the sky and thunder) and En (God of fire) were worshipped by the Illyrians until Christianity was introduced to the region. Due to the influence of Christianity, En was demoted to a demonic status.
Dalmatia and Pannonia
When Dalmatia and Pannonia were under the Roman Empire, they were grouped together in the Illyricum province. Under the rule of Vespasian in 69-79 AD, the two regions were split. When Septimius Severus began ruling in 193, the Pannonians began adopting Roman deities. They placed emphasis on local gods who were compatible with Roman cults. Epona, Sedatus, Jupiter Optimus Maximus Teutanus, Mars Latobius, and many other non-Illyrian gods were thus adopted, mainly from the Celtic and Roman foreigners in the region.
Cult of Silvanus
During the Roman period, the cult of Silvanus was one of the most popular ritual traditions in Pannonia and Dalmatia. Silvanus was the Roman god of the wild, forest and fields. He was depicted with many characteristics similar to that of Pan, like horns, goat legs, syrinx, grapes or other fruits. Silvanus would always be escorted by a goat and some female companions, Diana and the Nymphs.
Scholars generally link the depictions of Silvanus with an erect phallus to fertility cults of the Pre-Roman era. The cult of Silvanus was more widespread in the Dalmatian heartland towns like Vrlika.
A feminine plural of Silvanus, the Silvanae, was depicted in several dedications across Pannonia. Most of these depictions were found in the western Balkans and may have depicted Illyrian nymphs. Sacrificial altars that were dedicated to Thana and Vidasus were discovered in the hot springs of Topusko.
Cult of Liber
In Dalmatia, Liber, the Roman deity of fertility, freedom and wine, was worshipped with similar attributes to Silvanus and Terminus (god protector of boundaries). The cult of Liber was widespread in Salona and Narona. In Brattia and Corcyra Nigra, Liber was worshipped as the god of the winepress. As a result of the mixing of local traditions and Hellenistic influences, Liber was associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, religious ecstasy and fertility.
Other deities of Illyrian religion
Tadenus was a deity worshipped in Dalmatia, bearing the identity of Apollo in various inscriptions found near the Bosna River. It is speculated that he originated among the Thracians.
On the inscriptions on Dalmatian coins, there appears a local ruler of the name Ionios. It is speculated that he was named after a mythical predecessor. Armatus was worshipped as a war god in Delminium. In Dalmatia, there were two altars dedicated to him under the name Armatus Augustus.
Aecorna was a goddess who was worshipped exclusively in the cities of Nauportus, Emona and the Emona Basin. She was most likely a lake goddess. Another deity who was worshipped in the Emona basin was Laburus. Inscriptions with his name were found on an altar built at Fuzine. Since Fuzine was a dangerous site for navigation near the Ljubjanica River, he could have been the protector of boatmen.
Liburnia and Istria
In Liburnia, Iutossica and Anzotica were the deities worshipped. Some deities were worshipped exclusively in Istria, like Nebres, Iria, Malesocus or Boria. Other local deities include Sentona, Latre and Ica the nymph. A monument was built near a spring in Flanona in Ica’s honour, which still bears her name.
Among the Japodes, Bindus, who was identified with Neptune, was worshipped as the protective deity of springs and seas. The tribal leaders at the Privilica spring built altars in his honour. Towards the early 1st century AD, Heia, the Istrian goddess, was revered on Pag island.
The Illyrian region, Moesia Superior, portrayed a wide variety of cultural beliefs. Andinus was a Dardanian deity who was revered in a region that was dominated by Thracian deities. The only trace of the worship of Andinus is a name inscribed on an altar.
The Paeonians worshipped Dualos, a god equivalent of Dionysus. His name is compared with ‘dej’ (drunk) and ‘dwals’ (a madman), thus reinforcing the connection between the Paeonian deity with drinking and intoxication.
Like most ancient civilizations, the Illyrians were polytheistic. They worshipped a number of gods and deities bearing the powers of nature. Symbols depicted on coins, monuments and altars have enabled researchers and scholars to study the Illyrian religion. Symbols represented on many of these show the prehistoric cult of the sun. Archaeological research has revealed many artefacts like ornaments, weapons, garments and clay vessels that prove this. The influence of the rich variety of religious beliefs that dominated Illyria can be seen in the region today.