Although unsigned, it is possible to navigate the rough tracks eastwards across country to the deserted hamlet of Aghios Aléxandros where you regain the asphalt road leading to the attractive site of the *Sanctuary of the Cabeiri, or ‘Cabeireion' (17 km from the Varos junction by the main, asphalted road), on the northeastern extremity of the Bay of Pourniá (Open daily, 8.30 am – 3.30 pm, except Monday). The road drops down and ends just above the entrance to the Sanctuary, at the foot of a flight of steps.
We are looking here at the site of a cult which is of pre-Greek origin, and at the ruins of buildings which are not temples as such, but a specific and unusual type of structure called a ‘telesterion' – a large, rectangular, covered, assembly-hall used for the (largely nocturnal) rituals of Mystery Cults. Such a building had few or no windows and was illuminated inside by torches: it was in the form of a hypostyle hall, with benches (sometimes in tiers) against the walls around the edge of a central space where liturgical ceremonies were enacted. The main space is always accompanied by small adjoining rooms. Unlike temples, telesteria do not appear to have required a specific, canonical orientation. At this site are the remains of three telesteria (two of which on the South terrace are superimposed) dating from the 7th century BC, the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD successively.
The cult, probably going back to the 8th century BC, predates the Greek presence on the island and was probably brought from Anatolia. It centred on a couple (or group, by some accounts) of divinities called ‘the Cabeiri' whose identity is fluid and hard to define with any certainty. Their cult is encountered principally in the Northern Aegean (especially Samothrace, Imbros and Lemnos) and its adjacent mainland, as well as in Boeotia, at Thebes and Anthedon. In Lemnos they appear as smiths, seen later as assistants to – and by some accounts, sons of – Hephaestus. Some scholars suggest their name is related to the Semitic root ‘kabir' (‘lord'); others to the Sumerian ‘cabar', meaning copper – which might seem more appropriate given the metallurgic traditions of the island of Lemnos.
From the foot of the steps you enter the wide, open north terrace, partially cut into the hill at the eastern end and almost completely occupied by the meticulous, isodomic foundations of the 2nd century BC, Hellenistic telesterion – the second of the three successive structures. The form of the large rectangular hall is clear, with the bases visible of the eight Ionic columns which supported its roof in two rows down the middle. To the western end (nearest the foot of the steps) the hall is bounded by a long corridor and then a series of four small rooms, the larger of which may have been used for ritual banquets. At the opposite end is a long peristyle of Doric columns against the slope of the hill finishing at its northern end in an alcove in the natural rock. This – the largest building on the site – may never have been completed and appears to have been violently destroyed in the 2nd century AD perhaps during the struggles between Rome and Philip V of Macedon.
From the southeast corner of the Hellenistic building it is possible to see the massive Archaic supporting wall beneath the terrace on the steep hillside to the south. On this second terrace was both the earliest and the latest telesterion on the site, with the remains of the Roman (latest) building most visible today built on top of the original Archaic version. In Antiquity the access was steep and winding from the shore below and entered the Sanctuary from the south. The design of the Roman telesterion mimics on a smaller scale that of its Hellenistic predecessor – this time with two rows of five columns (whose bases can be seen) supporting the roof, and with benches on both of the long sides. In similar fashion to the Hellenistic building, there is a lateral space and a series of small rooms at the far (north) end of the hall; these stand in relation to the main space as the sanctuary behind the iconostasis does to the body of an Orthodox church. The Roman structure must have been short lived, since the cult was destroyed in Early Christian times, less than 200 years later. In 1990 archaeologists brought to light the Archaic telesterion directly below: this possessed an entrance-portico on the (seaward) west side whose foundations were supported by the massive retaining wall, still visible below. At the south end of the hall the semicircular projection of stone functioned as a sacred hearth. Crucial for understanding the site was the discovery of a couple of storage areas at the foot of the terrace walls which yielded a wealth of sacred libation vessels, votive figurines and lamps, now mostly in the Museum in Myrina.
The choice of the site may be linked to an evocative cave on the shore below (access by the stairs beside the guardian's hut), known as the Cave of Philoctetes and linked to the story of the hapless Homeric archer.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)