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Festival of the river Tanais

2 (2008)
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It was an event of great importance in the life of the city. The festival gathered the representatives of all the religions and had its own traditions, symbols and ceremonies. Sacrifices, journeys, games, contests were an integral part of the festival.

Under the general heading «Classical past of Russia» we continue to talk about ancient monuments of the country, sports artifacts, that had been found during excavations, art masterpieces, which reflected the culture straightly or indirectly. In the framework of the next Olympic Games in Sochi we engage the readers in the discussion about the antique epoch potential of the country in demand of current educational and propagandist programs.

The Cossacks of village Nedvigovka found a marble stele when pulling down the walls of Ancient Tanais in the year of 1913. Since then it is exposed in the Don Cossacks Museum. The height of the stele is 74 cm; its width is more than 20 cm. In the upper part there is a relief: a horseman in front of the altar with a burning fire, a tree is situated behind the altar. The horseman has long hair and a beard. In the right hand he holds the rhyton, an accoutrement of power. Under the relief there are 25 lines in Greek: «During the rule of the king Tibery Savromat, a friend of Cesar and all the Romans, in 401 in Apelley celebrating Day of Tanais at the head of the priest Zenon, a son of Erot, the synagogue Hay, a son of Haritone, the philogat Nickostrat, a son of Nickostrat, Evpor, a son of Makar….» — and further on common participants of the religious alliance, celebrating the «Day of Tanais», are listed. 401 year of Bosporus era is 104 year AD. Apelley fell on the summer period: the end of July — the beginning of August. The solemnized day was dedicated to the God of the river Tanais, a son of the Ocean and titanidy Tetis. The monument is a rare one, unique for all Eastern Europe, mysterious in many aspects, though many scientific studies were carried out about it. The images of Tanais pantheon are an amazing mixture of a great number of cults of the Barbarian and Greek worlds.

Festival of the river Tanais was, obviously, the most significant event in the life of the city. From the text we know that it was celebrated for the 89th time; therefore, the festival had its traditions, symbols and ceremonies. The festival was held for the whole city: the social committee of high officials chose its program and procedure.

The representatives of all religions took part: as the features of Hellenic, Scytho-Sarmatian and Judaic presentations reflected in the image of Ens Supremum, portrayed on the stele. According to the Greek traditions the festival began with religious ceremonies — sacrifices: the illustration of this fact was the fire on the altar. Then solemn procession went from the temple towards the southern gates. In the centre of procession Tanais people carried a boat, a small copy of a trade boat. A coloured sail with the picture of the River Tanais God on the mast was made by the women of Tanais in one of the temples of the city. The inhabitants of Tanais district joined the procession outside the gate.

People descended a boat on the sand and then put the stern in the river waters. The priests said grace while they filled the boat with donations. At first common people donated: amphoras with wine and grain, baskets with dried fish, vegetables and fruits. The boat was loaded. Then the donations could be done by those who would like to receive the patronage of God in private affairs. Rich threw gold staters and obol pyxis round bone boxes with jewels. Poor people — put copper or drachma…

A city craftsman brought a silver bottle or glass. The incenses were in them. Peasants put round fresh bread crisps. The steppe rider sent a horse, pushing it to the boat. He took out the bridle and silver cup from the sack carelessly, slowly. He threw his donations on the amphoras with wine in the hold. Take, God! The priest ascended the last on the boat, sprinkling the altar on the stern with blood of the sacrificed sheep and recited the last prayers. Two rowers remain on the boat, direct the boat to the fairway and move slowly to the bay with stream. The procession of the inhabitants accompanied the boat along the bank. Where the river and the sea meet the rowers threw a stone anchor into the water. They opened hatches and swam to the bank. The boat with donations sunk into the water. Suddenly the sail was filled with the air and the image of God looked around and disappeared in the sunshine.

A steppe kite slowly hovered over the surface of the river and the sea. Auspice! The sacrifice was taken, the city will live calmly… The celebration continued with Tanais agons — sport games. Contests scarcely differed from those in cities of Greece and Bosporus: archery, javelin throwing, running, and horse racing. Every man of Tanais was to be ready to defeat the enemy by the arrow or spear from the walls of castle in case of danger, pursue him fully armed or fight on a horse. The main Tanais god sat on a horse. That is why the best means to retain god's attention was horse racing. The river festival implied ship contests for sure. One could watch them from the height of southwest tower and castle walls. The bank line curved to the city from the west making a big bay in front of the mouths of two rivers which fell into the sea. The bay was a convenient place for ships to start.

The celebration finished with theatre performance. The opening of theatre in Tanais by the archaeologists seems to take place in the nearest future. During excavations there have been found terra-cotta marionettes, theatre masks which represented heroes of cult mystery plays. The actor couldn't perform a god without mask, this could offend Olympic competitors and bring misfortune not only to the actor but also to the audience. I dare to suppose, the theatre themes were people' culture reflecting general beliefs about the world: «Who are we? Where are we from? Where we are going?» — eternal answers on eternal questions. When there was no written language only theatre, religion, festivals, performances, sport competitions altogether could keep, bring to perfection everything that the father of history Herodot heard and wrote in the steeps of Black Sea region.