Visualizing the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace

The Samothrace Temple Complex, known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods , Greek Hieron ton Megalon Theon , is one of the principal Pan-Hellenic religious sanctuaries, located on the island of Samothrace within the larger Thrace. Built immediately to the west of the ramparts of the city of Samothrace, it was nonetheless independent, as attested to by the dispatch of city ambassadors during festivals.

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Hall of Choral Dancers to Hieron

It is celebrated throughout the world of Ancient Greece for its Mystery religion, a Chthonic cult which was no less renowned than that of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Numerous famous people were initiates, including: the historian Herodotus - one of very few authors to have left behind a few clues to the nature of the mysteries, the Spartan leader Lysander, and numerous Athenians - the cult is mentioned by Plato and Aristophanes.

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Hieron to Nike

A period of spectacular development occurred during the Hellenistic period, when it became, after the investiture of Phillip II, a type of Macedonian national sanctuary where the successors to Alexander the Great vied to outdo each other's munificence. It remained an important cult site through the end of the Roman period - the emperor Hadrian visited, and the writer Varro described part of the mysteries - before fading from history towards the end of Late Antiquity.

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Nike to Stoa

The whole of the sanctuary was open to all who wished to worship the Great Gods, although access to buildings consecrated to the mysteries was understood to be reserved for initiates.
The most common rituals were indistinguishable from practice at other Greek sanctuaries. Prayer and supplications accompanied by blood sacrifices of domestic animals {sheep and pigs} burnt in sacred hearths (ἐσχάραι / eschárai), as well as libations made to the chthonic deities in circular or rectangular ritual pits (βόθρος / bóthros). A large number of rock altars were used, the largest of which was surrounded by a monumental enclosure at the end of the 4th century BC (site number 11).

The major annual festival, which drew envoys to the island from throughout the Greek world, probably took place in mid-July. It consisted of the presentation of a sacred play, which entailed a ritual wedding (hieros gamos); this may have taken place in the building with the Dancer's Wall which was built in the 4th century BC. During this era the belief arose that the search for the missing maiden, followed by her marriage to the god of the underworld, represented the marriage of Cadmos and Harmony. The frieze (see photo below) on which the Temenos is indicated may be an allusion to this marriage. Around 200 BC a Dionysian competition was added to the festival, facilitated by the construction of a theatre (site plan number 10) opposite the great altar (site plan number 11). According to local myth, it is in this era that the city of Samothrace honoured a poet of Iasos in Caria for having composed the tragedy Dardanos and having effected other acts of good will around the island, the city, and the sanctuary.

Numerous votive offerings were made at the sanctuary, which were placed in a building made for the purpose next to the great altar (site plan number 12). Offerings could be statues of bronze, marble or clay, weapons, vases, etc. However, due to Samothraces location on busy maritime routes the cult was particularly popular and numerous often very modest offerings found their way there: excavations have turned up seashells and fish hooks offered by mariners or fishermen who were likely thanking the divinities for having protected them from the dangers of the sea.

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Propylon to Theatral Circle

A unique feature of the Samothracean mystery cult was its openness: as compared to the Eleusinian mysteries, the initiation had no prerequisites for age, gender, status or nationality. Everyone, men and women, adults and children, Greeks and non-Greeks, the free, the indentured, or the enslaved could participate. Nor was the initiation confined to a specific date and the initiate could on the same day attain two successive degrees of the mystery. The only condition, in fact, was to be present in the sanctuary.

The first stage of the initiation was the myèsis (μύησις). A sacred account and special symbols were revealed to the mystes (μύστης); that is to say the initiate. In this fashion, Herodotus was given a revelation concerning the significance of phallic images of Hermes-Kadmylos. According to Varro, the symbols revealed on this occasion symbolized heaven and earth. In return for this revelation, which was kept secret, the initiate was given the assurance of certain privileges: Hope for a better life, and more particularly protection at sea, and possibly, as at Eleusius, the promise of a happy after life. During the ceremony the initiate received a crimson sash knotted around the waist that was supposed to be a protective talisman. An iron ring exposed to the divine power of magnetic stones was probably another symbol of protection conferred during the initiation.

The preparation for the initiation took place in a small room south of the Anaktoron (site plan, number 16), a type of sacristy where the initiate was dressed in white and was given a lamp. The myèsis then took place in the Anaktoron (literally the House of the Lords), a large hall capable of accommodating numerous already initiated faithful, who would attend the ceremony seated on benches along the walls. The initiate carried out a ritual washing in a basin situated in the southeast corner and then made a libation to the gods in a circular pit. At the end of the ceremony, the initiate took his place seated on a round wooden platform facing the principal door while ritual dances took place around him. He was then taken to the north chamber, the sanctuary where he received the revelation proper. Access to this sanctuary was forbidden to non-initiates. The initiate was given a document attesting to his initiation in the mysteries and could, at least during the later period, pay to have his name engraved on a commemorative plaque.

The second degree of the initiation was called the épopteia (ἐποπτεία), literally, the "contemplation". Unlike the one year interval between degrees which was demanded at Eleusis, the second degree at Samothrace could be obtained immediately after the myèsis. In spite of this, it was only realized by a small number of initiates, which leads us to believe that it involved some difficult conditions, though it is unlikely that these conditions were financial or social. Lehman assessed that it concerned moral issues, as the candidate was auditioned and required to confess his sins. This audition took place overnight in front of the Hiéron (site plan, number 13). A foundation was recovered here which could have supported a giant torch; generally speaking, the discovery of numerous lamps and torch supports throughout this site confirms the nocturnal nature of the initiation rites. After the interrogation and the eventual absolution awarded by the priest or official the candidate was brought into the Hiéron, which also functioned as an épopteion, or "place of contemplation", where ritual cleansing took place and sacrifice was made into a sacred hearth located in the center of the "holy of holies". The initiate then went to an apse in the rear of the building, which was probably intended to resemble a grotto. The hiérophante (ἱεροφάντης / hierophántês), otherwise known as the initiator, took his place on a platform (bêma), in the apse where he recited the liturgy and displayed the symbols of the mysteries.

During the Roman era, towards 200 AD, the entrance to the Hiéron was modified to permit the entrance of live sacrificial offerings. A parapet was constructed in the interior to protect the spectators and a crypt was fitted into the apse. These modifications permitted the celebration of the Kriobolia and the Taurobolia of the Anatolian Magna Mater, which were introduced to the épopteia at this time. The new rites saw the initiate or possibly only the priest in by proxy, descend into a pit in the apse. The blood of the sacrificial animals then flowed over him or her in the fashion of a baptismal rite.

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Theatral Circle to Hall of Choral Dancers

The Pantheon of the Great Gods consists of numerous chthonic deities, primarily predating the arrival of Greek colonists on the island in the 7th century BC, and congregating around one central figure - the Great Mother.

The Great Mother, a goddess often depicted on Samothracian coinage as a seated woman, with a lion at her side. Her original secret name was Axiéros. She is associated with the Anatolian Great Mother, the Phrygian Cybele, and the Trojan Mother Goddess of Mount Ida. The Greeks associated her equally with the fertility goddess Demeter. The Great Mother is the all-powerful mistress of the wild world of the mountains, venerated on sacred rocks where sacrifices and offerings where made to her. In the sanctuary of Samothrace, these altars correspond to porphyry outcroppings of various colours (red, green, blue, or grey). For her faithful, her power also manifested itself in veins of magnetic iron, from which they fashioned rings that initiates wore as signs of recognition. A number of these rings were recovered from the tombs in the neighbouring necropolis.

Hecate, under the name of Zerynthia, and Aphrodite-Zerynthia, two important nature goddesses, are equally venerated at Samothrace, their cult having been distanced from that of the Great Mother and more closely identified with deities more familiar to the Greeks.

Kadmylos (Καδμῦλος), the spouse of Axiéros, is a fertility god identified by the Greeks as Hermes; a phallic deity whose sacred symbols were a ram's head and a baton {kerykeion}, which was obviously a phallic symbol and can be found on some currency.

Two other masculine deities accompany Kadmylos. These may correspond to the two legendary heroes who founded the Samothracean mysteries; the brothers Dardanos (Δάρδανος) and Éétion (Ηετίων). They are associated by the Greeks with the Dioscuri, divine twins popular as protectors of mariners in distress.

A pair of underworld deities, Axiokersos and Axiokersa, are identified to Hades and Persephone, but do not appear to be part of the original group of pre-Hellenic deities. The legend (familiar to the Greeks) of the rape of the goddess of fertility by the god of the underworld also plays a part in the sacred dramas celebrated at Samothrace; although less so than at Eleusis.

During a later period this same myth was associated with that of the marriage of Cadmos and Harmony, possibly due to a similarity of names to Kadmylos and Electra.



The Samothrace site may appear to be somewhat confusing at first glance; this is due to a combination of the unusual topography and the two century long period over which the site was developed. The sanctuary occupies three narrow terraces on the west slopes of mount Hagios Georgios, separated by two steep-banked torrents. The entrance is in the east through the Ptolemy II propylaeum, also known as the Ptolémaion (site plan number 20), which spans the eastern brook and functions as a bridge. Immediately to the West, on the first terrace, there is a somewhat circular paved depression, containing an altar in the centre, which was undoubtedly a sacrificial area; although the precise function of this place has not further been determined.

A winding path descends towards the main terrace, between two brooks, where the main monuments to the cult can be found. A large tholos, the Arsinoéion, or Arsinoé Rotunda (site plan number 15), the largest covered round space in the ancient Greek world (20 m in diameter), may have served to welcome the théores, sacred ambassadors delegated by cities and associations to attend the great festivals at the sanctuary. The decoration of rosettes and garlanded bull's heads leads some to believe that sacrifices may have also taken place here. The rotunda was built on an older building of which only the foundation has remained.

Right at the opening of the path leading to the sanctuary, one finds the largest building, the Building of the Dancer's Frieze (site plan number 14), sometimes called the Temenos, as it corresponds to a monumental enclosure marking a much older sacrificial area. There is a great deal of variance in reconstructed plans for this portion of the site (compare for example the different editions of Lehman's archeological guide — the plan used in this article reflects the 4th edition). It is in essence a simple court preceded by an ionic propylaeum decorated with the well-known dancer's frieze (photo below). The celebrated architect Scopas may have been the designer.

The most important building of the cult, the épopteion, is located to the South of the Temenos. This building bears the inscription of Hiéron (site plan number 13). It is not known who dedicated this building, but given the magnificence was likely a royal. It is some type of temple, but there is no periptery (surround of columns) and only a single prostyle. (partly restored - see photo above). The architectural ornamentation of the facade is noteworthy for its elegance. The interior boasts the largest unsupported span in the ancient Greek world - 11 metres. The South end of this building is an apse (fr: abside inscrite), which constitutes the most sacred portion. This apse may represent, according to R. Ginouvès a grotto for conducting chthonic rituals. The main altar, and the building for displaying votive offerings, are located to the West of the Hiéron (site plan numbers 11 & 12).

The Anaktoron, the building for greeting the myèsis is located North of the Arsinoé Rotunda, though the version currently visible dates to the imperial era.

The third and final terrace, West of the spiritual centre of the sanctuary, is primarily occupied by votive buildings such as the Miletean Building, so named as it was dedicated by a citizen of Miletus (sie plan number 5), and the Néôrion, or naval monument (site plan number 6). The banquet hall is also here (site plan number 7). Three other small Hellenistic treasures are not well known (site plan, numbers 1 to 3). Overlooking the central terrace, the space is above all dominated by a very large portico (104 m long; site plan number 8) which acts as a monumental backdrop to the sancutary, above the theatre.

It is in this area of the site that the most recent traces of occupation can be found: a square Byzantine fort in effect built of treasure; as it re-used building material from the original site.

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