Bendis—A Famous, Yet Mysterious, Thracian Goddess

Bendis was the name of a goddess of Thracian origin whose worship spread to Athens by the late 5th century BCE. Despite having a vibrant following, as well as a treasury in her honor, a formal order of priestesses serving her, a famous festival thrown in her name near Athens, and many references to her worship by renowned writers—such as Plato—Bendis nevertheless remains a relatively unexplained figure. The culprit is a lack of elaboration and context; even though there are existent artworks and written accounts that depict Bendis and her worshippers, no in-depth ancient description has survived that fully explained Bendis’ spiritual sphere of influence or the true aim of her followers. While Poseidon is known undisputedly as a sea god, and Aphrodite unquestioningly as a goddess of love, the commentary on Bendis is much more vague, with scholars musing over her perhaps being a huntress goddess, a lunar deity, or—more scandalous—a goddess whose followers held orgies. Whatever the case, here is the ancient evidence:

It is difficult to say how widespread the worship of Bendis was around the Mediterranean, and where the goddess’ main hubs of worship resided. One would imagine that if Bendis was a Thracian goddess, then her worship would have a center in Thrace. The learned but comical satirist, Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 CE), attested to this in a curious scene of satire where the writer envisioned Zeus complaining of the major temples or holy sites of other gods that were siphoning away worshippers from the high-god. Lucian, speaking as Zeus, wrote, “But ever since Apollo established his oracle at Delphi, and Asclepius his healing shrine in Pergamum, and the temple of Bendis was founded in Thrace, the temple of Anubis in Egypt, and the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, everyone goes flocking to these, and they hold their festivals there and set up their hecatombs and offer their gold ingots…” (Lucian, Icaromenippus / High Above the Clouds, section 24). Besides whatever was happening in Thrace, Bendis also found a welcoming home in Athens by around 430 or 429 BCE, right after the start of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). Around 413 or 412 BCE, Bendis obtained a formal order of priestesses in Athens, and it was about that same time that Athenians and Thracians began the tradition of hosting a great festival for Bendis (reportedly called the Bendideia) at the Athenian fortified port of Piraeus. Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), the ancient Athenian philosopher, wrote one of the most important descriptions Bendis’ worship in Athens and the festival held at the Piraeus. In his Republic, Plato, using his dialogue style, wrote:

“Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston to worship the goddess and also because I wanted to see how they would conduct the festival on this, its first performance. I was certainly impressed by the splendour of the procession made by the local people, but I have to say that the Thracians rose to the occasion just as well in their procession…Adeimantus added, ‘don’t you realize that there’s going to be a horseback torch-race this evening for the goddess?’ ‘Horseback?’ I said. ‘That’s unusual. Do you mean there’ll be a horse-race in which they’ll carry torches and pass them on to one another?’ ‘Precisely,’ Polemarchus said. ‘And they’re also putting on an all-night celebration, which should be worth seeing. We’re going to go out to watch it after dinner, and lots of young men will be there too, whom we shall be talking to” (Plato, Republic, Bekker numbers 327a-328a).

Plato’s passage contains most of the information that is known about Bendis’ worship in Athens. Namely, the passage provides the important details that the festival at the Piraeus consisted of two processions, one by local Athenians and another by Thracians, followed by some kind of horse event involving torch-wielding riders, and finally a celebration during the night. Not mentioned in Plato’s description, however, was anything about the sphere of life or nature Bendis was meant to oversee. As was stated earlier, no preserved clear statements on this matter has been found for modern audiences, but ancient artworks depicting the goddess do give clues about Bendis’ possible affinities. Most of the artistic renderings of the goddess depicted her as a rugged huntress, or perhaps a warrior, for she was usually shown wearing boots and carrying at least one spear. Athens’ horse and torch races at the Piraeus may have been linked in some way to Bendis’ ties to hunting, war, or athleticism, in general. Her own identity aside, Bendis’ huntress appearance naturally brought comparison and identification with the more prominent huntress deity, Artemis, and she was also likened to other Greek goddesses, particularly the lunar goddess Selene, the mysterious sorceress goddess Hecate, and sometimes the queen of the underworld, Persephone.

So far, nothing scandalous has been mentioned, but the addition of the scholar, Strabo (c. 64 BCE- 24 CE), to the list of sources causes the reputation of Bendis’ worshippers to take a turn. Strabo, in his brief mentioning of Bendis and her followers, lumped them into a description of the overarching category of Thracian religion. Strabo then went on to mainly comment on the most famous Thracian deity, Dionysus (known as Bacchus to the Romans), a nature god who was particularly associated with wine and everything, good and bad, that came from drink—including inebriation and drunken debauchery. Suffice it to say, the cults of Dionysus and Bacchus grew to have an infamous (but likely unwarranted) reputation, and even the Roman Empire tried to ban the most flamboyant festivals of the wine god. Therefore, any comparison with Dionysus’ worship brought extra baggage, as the saying goes. Nevertheless, the comparisons were made. Strabo wrote, “Sabazius belongs to the Phrygian rites, and may be considered the child as it were of the Mother. The Traditional ceremonies observed in his worship are those of Bacchus. The rites called Cotytia, and Bendideia, celebrated among the Thracians, resemble these” (Strabo, Geography, 10.3.16). This brief and indirect comment that the festivals of Bendis may have resembled the worship of Bacchus was enough to change impressions about what happened during the nightly celebrations thrown in the goddess’ honor. Some would claim that the night of partying at the Piraeus during the Bendideia would have been an orgy, but the celebration that Plato earlier described as “worth seeing” equally could have been an innocent fun night of music, feasting and dancing.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Limestone statue of Artemis Bendis, by a Cypriot artist c. 3rd century BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).


  • Republic by Plato, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 2008.
  • Strabo’s Geography, translated by H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer (1903 edition), republished in The Complete Works of Strabo (Delphi Classics, 2016).
  • Lucian, Selected Dialogues, translated by C. D. N. Costa. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World Classics), 2005, 2006, 2009.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, edited by Simon Price and Emily Kearns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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