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Samothrace – Sanctuary of the Great Gods

Aikaterinh Balla
Source: C.E.T.I.
© Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace
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On the north part of the island, at Palaiopolis, west of the ancient city lies the Sanctuary of the Great Gods that extends over an area of about 50 hectares. The Sanctuary was dedicated to the cult and the performance of the Mysteries of the Great Gods that were very renowned in Greek and Roman antiquity.

The fact that the Great Gods did not bear names makes it difficult to determine their nature and identity. However, many ancient writers often refer to them as Kabeiroi, a name that does not appear in any inscription in Samothrace, where these deities are called Gods or Great Gods. Yet, Kabeiroi were not known deities in the Greek Pantheon and their identification with the Great Gods is not certain. These deities were grouped around a major figure, the “Great Mother”. She was called Axieros and was related to Cybele for sharing similar features. Axieros was a mountain deity worshiped on sacred rocks and later, the Greeks identified her with the goddess Demeter. Attached to the Great Mother and possibly her subordinate spouse was a male ithyphallic fertility god called Kadmilos or Kasmilos identified with Hermes. The gods had two young attendants, represented as nude ithyphallic demons and identified with the Dioskouroi, who protected the faithful against the dangers in the sea. Two more deities, an Underworld god and his spouse, called Axiokersos and Axiokersa respectively were identified with Hades and Persephone; the cult of Aphrodite and Hekate who both bore the same name of Pre-Greek origin, “Zerynthia”, is also testified.

Unlike the Mysteries of Eleusis and other sanctuaries, the Mysteries of the Great Gods were open to all, to anyone who wished to obtain initiation, irrespective of age, sex, origin or social class.

The Mysteries of the Great Gods was a completely separate festival from the great, annual, possibly three-day summer festival that gathered many pilgrims of both neighbouring and remote places, while many Aegean cities where represented by ambassadors. A common feature in the ceremonies of both Eleusis and Samothrace was the existence of two degrees of initiation: myesis and epopteia. The initiation ceremonies took place at night by the light of torches and lamps. Originally, the aspirant mystes changed vestments and took part in a sort of a purification rite that, in later times, converted into the pouring of libations. Then, some ritual action was performed during which, the mystes were shown some sacred symbols and subsequently the myste, after a kind of purification baptism, would tie a purple belt around the underbelly and would wear an iron ring that signified the unification with the divine.

In Samothrace, the degree of the epopteia could be obtained immediately after the myesis. In that stage, the myste underwent a kind of confession and then a purification rite. During the two degrees of the myesis, a fast was probably imposed that was followed, at the end of the whole process, by a banquet in the hestiatoria by the light of torches and by drinking a lot of wine to the degree of intoxication. The myste would ensure protection against the dangers in the sea, hope for good luck and expectation of a happy afterlife.

Despite the fact that the archaeological excavations offer a picture of the sanctuary and its development, much evidence remains ambiguous. The ancient sources do not provide with any information on the essential content of the ceremonies and their instructions; therefore, the details concerning the rituals of the Mysteries remain vague and the knowledge extremely limited. Herodotus, king Lysandrus of Sparta, Aristophanes, Plato as well as Philip II and his spouse, Olympias were initiated in the Mysteries of the Great Gods.

The earliest religious activity is placed in the 7th century BC, while, in the 5th century BC, the Sanctuary and the Mysteries of the Great Gods became very famous. Yet, the erection of the monumental buildings and the permanent structures date as late as to the first half of the 4th century BC and mostly to the 3rd century BC until the first imperial times. In the late 4th century AD, the pagan cult is forced to extinction and the Sanctuary is gradually abandoned. Around the mid- 6th century AD, an earthquake completes the destruction of the monument, while the looting of the ruins persisted until the modern times.

The first excavations in the area were carried out by the French Consul M. Champoiseau in 1863 and led to the discovery of the Nike of Samothrace. Again, two more excavation surveys were conducted by the French in the Theatre’s cavea in 1866 and 1891; later on, the systematic excavations were directed by the Austrians (Á. Conze) in 1873-1873. The excavations carried out by the Americans (New York University) were more systematic; they began in 1938, paused during the Second World War and continued again in 1948. The construction of the Museum NW of the Sanctuary was initiated by the Americans, while the excavations were in progress. The museum opened to the public in 1955 and basically houses the finds unearthed in the excavations.

The archaeological site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods includes important monuments and architectural complexes: The Palace, or Anaktoron, in which the first grade of initiation to the Mysteries, Myesis, took place; the Rotunda of Arsinoe, which is the largest closed circular building known in ancient Greek architecture; the Hieron, in which induction to the higher degree of the mysteries, Epopteia, took place; the Temenos, which is the earliest and largest marble edifice in the archaeological site, the Altar Court; the Neorion, inside of which lied a military ship, probably dedicated to the sanctuary by Antigonus Gonatas; the Stoa dating to the first half of the 3rd century BC, in which the numerous pilgrims congregated; the Propylon of Ptolemy II; the Sacred Circle for the standing spectators who witnessed or participated in a sort of ceremonies; the Monument of the Nike with the still preserved foundation over which rested the marble, wavy-surfaced slabs supporting the prow of the ship that bore the famous statue of Nike of Samothrace (Victory); the Sacred Rock, the Building dedicated by Philip III and Alexander IV; the Doric Dome; the Building with the Orthostates; the Sacred House with marble slabs inserted into its walls recording lists of initiations; the Hall of the Votive Gifts served for the preservation of the movable votive offerings to the sanctuary; the Theatre; the Building dedicated by a Milesian woman bearing a dedicatory inscription on its epistyle.