SECRET RITES OF SAMOTHRACE
Archaeology|September/October 2021
Reimagining the experience of initiation into an ancient Greek mystery cult
Benjamin Leonard

DURING THE DAY, the rocky island of Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea is often veiled by clouds. Wind sweeps across the landscape, and the turbulent waters remain, as they were in antiquity, dangerous for seafarers. When the clouds clear at night, however, the peak of Mount Fengari at the island’s center, which reaches a mile into the sky, becomes visible. From the vantage point of the peak, Homer relates in the Iliad, the sea god Poseidon watched the Trojan War as it unfolded. Nestled in a deep ravine in the mountain’s shadow lie the remains of the Sanctuary of the Theoi Megaloi, or Great Gods. From at least the seventh century b.c., pilgrims walked under the cover of darkness from the nearby ancient city, now known as Palaeopolis, to the sanctuary to be inducted into a secret religious cult. As they passed through an immense marble gateway onto the sanctuary’s eastern hill, they might have heard the rush of water coursing through a channel beneath the entranceway. Amid the sounds of music and chanting emanating from farther within the sanctuary, the prospective initiates reached a sunken circular court. Here, ritual dancing and other performances might have taken place, surrounded by bronze statues that were likely dedicated by previous initiates. The noise and darkness, as well as the use of blindfolds, probably induced an altered state of mind that prepared participants for the forthcoming rituals and sacred revelations. By the flickering light of oil lamps and torches, they began the steep descent down the Sacred Way, to the sanctuary’s heart, to be initiated into the mysteries of the Great Gods.

Because initiates were bound to keep the details of the rites secret, ancient literary sources provide scant details about the cult. Those writers who do discuss the mysteries often give diverging accounts and differing identifications of the gods. Coins dating to the second-century b.c. unearthed at the sanctuary depict a great mother goddess. Some ancient writers associate this goddess with a group of gods called the Kabeiroi. “What we know most clearly about the initiation are its promises and benefits,” says archaeologist Bonna Wescoat of Emory University. “Ancient sources strongly state that the Great Gods are powerful and protective gods. Most say they offer protection at sea, while some say they offer protection in times of need. The benefits they confer could have meant different things to different people, depending on what an initiate most sought from the experience.” Some writers even claim that initiates experienced a moral transformation. According to the first-century b.c. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, initiates into the Samothracian mysteries became “more pious and more just and better in all ways than they had been before.”

Despite Samothrace’s remote location, the mystery cult of the Great Gods was well known in the ancient world, second in popularity to the mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, outside Athens. Pilgrims traveled by ship from across Greece, the Black Sea region, Asia Minor, and Rome for initiation, which was offered whenever a sufficient number of participants arrived on the island during the sailing season, from April through October.

Samothrace and the Sanctuary of the Great Gods reentered the popular and scholarly imagination during the Renaissance. In 1444, the antiquarian Cyriacus of Ancona visited the island and sketched some of the sanctuary’s reliefs and sculptures. In 1863, the French antiquarian Charles Champoiseau uncovered the famed marble statue of Nike, or Winged Victory, which in antiquity stood above the sanctuary’s theater on its western hill. In the following decades, French, German, Austrian, Czech, and Greek excavators explored the hillside. American-led excavations, which began in 1938 and continue to this day, have unearthed monuments on the sanctuary’s eastern hill, sacred buildings in its central valley, and entertainment and dining facilities on its western hill. Yet, even after more than 150 years of nearly continuous investigations, fundamental details about the sanctuary—including the rituals and administration of the cult, and even the functions of the sacred buildings—remain elusive.

Over the past decade, an interdisciplinary team led by Wescoat, who has directed the American excavations since 2012 with the cooperation of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Evros, has turned its attention back to the western hill. By considering the interaction between the natural landscape and built environment, examining small votive objects and other items initiates left behind, and through survey, excavation, archival research, and 3-D modeling, the archaeologists have begun to re-create the sensory, spiritual, and emotional experience of initiates as they were introduced to the rites of the Great Gods. “We want to explore the landscape, the connectedness of monuments, ancient initiates’ route through the sacred spaces, and the issues of what they could and could not see,” Wescoat says. “These aren’t questions that have been asked in the past.”

BEFORE THE GREEKS SETTLED on Samothrace in the sixth-century b.c., the Thracians, a group of tribes from the Balkans, settled its highlands between about 1100 and 900 b.c. After the Greeks’ arrival, the two groups seem to have coexisted peacefully. Fragments of sixth- through fourth-century b.c. pottery recovered from the island and from Zone, a Samothracian coastal outpost on the mainland, were inscribed in the ancient Thracian language using the Greek alphabet. “From these fragments and other considerations, it’s clear the Thracians kept using their language well into the Hellenistic period,” says epigrapher Kevin Clinton of Cornell University. Diodorus mentions that, at the time he was writing in the first-century b.c., the Samothracians still used a non-Greek ancient language, likely Thracian, during the initiation rites. Elements of the cult of the Great Gods may hearken back to a native Thracian cult, Clinton says, though it is unknown what this cult’s contribution was to the rites celebrated in later periods.

The earliest material traces of religious activity within the sanctuary are seventh-century b.c. tankards for ritual drinking and remains of structures dating to the late fifth or early fourth-century b.c. Reused blocks preserved in the foundations of these buildings and traces of monumental walls are vestiges of even earlier sacred structures.

By the mid-fourth century b.c., a few modest buildings had sprung up on the sanctuary’s eastern hill and in its central valley. Around this time, the Macedonian king Philip II (r. 359–336 b.c.) and his future wife Olympias, the parents of Alexander the Great, met on the island to negotiate their marriage and to be initiated into the cult. Their presence on Samothrace seems to have spurred elite patrons to invest in the sanctuary on an unprecedented level, beginning with the construction of a monumental marble building in the middle of the central valley around 340 b.c. This structure is now called the Hall of Choral Dancers after a frieze depicting more than 900 dancing young women that once wrapped around its exterior. The hall is the sanctuary’s oldest standing cult building and incorporated remnants of an earlier chamber into its core. Wescoat believes it may have been commissioned by Philip himself. “There was no gradual lead-up to this, just small buildings made of local materials and then—boom—this extraordinary structure built of imported marble,” she says. “It’s hard for me to see it as a project the Samothracians could have pulled off on their own.”

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