Great Gods sanctuary (Samothrace) 21 Samothraki - Μεγάλων θεών ιερόν

Μεγάλων θεῶν ἱερὸν - Great Gods sanctuary, wealthy mystery cult site on Samothrace island, Thrace
Hits: 21
Works: 18
Latitude: 40.500800
Longitude: 25.530100
Confidence: High

Greek name: Μεγάλων θεῶν ἱερὸν
Place ID: 405255SMeg
Time period: ACHRL
Region: Thrace
Country: Greece
Department: Evros-Samothrace
Mod: Samothraki

- Pleiades
- IDAI gazetteer ID

Read summary reports on the recent excavations at Great Gods sanctuary in Chronique des fouilles en ligne – Archaeology in Greece Online.
Search for inscriptions mentioning Great Gods sanctuary (Μεγαλων θεων...) in the PHI Epigraphy database.

Modern Description: Open daily, except Monday. Site: 8.30 –3.30 in winter, and 8.30 am – 8.30 pm in summer. The site is dramatic, occupying a series of folds or ravines in the lower slopes of the prominent, northwest shoulder of the Saos massif. It looks north out to sea towards the Thracian coast; the summit of Aghios Giorgios (1455m) towers directly above. In its steep and rocky setting, the site is more reminiscent of Delphi than any of the other Greek sanctuaries. In earliest times the sanctuary was entered from the hill to the west; in the 3rd century BC Ptolemy II Philadelphus created a new monumental access from the east – the side of the town. Today, however, the usual access is directly from the north, passing first by the museum building: this means that we lose the element of surprise that the ancients had, who came upon the sacred centre of the Sanctuary hidden in a hollow, after the preparation of a calibrated arrival through a monumental entrance and ritual area. Both town and sanctuary were badly affected by earthquakes in the area of the Dardanelles in 287 BC, 50 AD, and – most catastrophically – around 200 AD: each time buildings were rebuilt or replaced. This means that, despite the antiquity of the cult and the sanctuary, much of the character of its buildings and lay-out is Hellenistic, dating from the period when the royal house of Macedon embellished the site and cultivated it as an important jewel in their territorial crown. The young Philip of Macedon is said to have first caught sight of the princess Olympias on the occasion of his initiation at Samothrace and to have fallen in love with her at first sight: their marriage gave birth to Alexander the Great. By the end of the 1st century BC the sanctuary must have been of considerable splendour both in sculpture and architecture. After 400 AD there was a steady process of destruction, natural and human. What is seen today is mostly the result of excavation and what stands above ground-level has been re-erected by archaeologists. Notwithstanding, the site is extensive and intriguing, and its wild setting among rocks, ravines and oak trees, with the mountain ever-present above, is unforgettable.
The discovery and subsequent removal of the famous ‘Victory of Samothrace' trophy by Charles Champoiseau, the French Vice-consul in Adrianople (modern Edirne) in 1863 excited the imagination of European classicists and antiquarians. The eventual display of the sculpture on the landing of the monumental Escalier Daru in the Louvre in Paris was a master-stroke, and went some way to evoke the piece's original, dramatic position. A French archaeological mission was the first to map the sanctuary; Austrian expeditions in 1873 and 1875 uncovered the Ptolemaion; a Swedish team worked on the site in 1923-5; but only in 1938 was systematic exploration begun by the University of New York under the direction of Karl and Phyllis Lehmann, resulting also in their excellent description of the site first published in 1954. Their work continues currently under James R. McCredie. A number of the finds made in the 19th century are divided between the archaeological collections in Paris, Vienna and Istanbul.
The historian Diodorus Siculus suggests that a cult of the Great Mother Goddess was first brought to the island by Myrina, the fearsome Queen of the Amazons (Bibliotheke, III. 55): “she also gave the island the name of Samothrace which means when translated into Greek, ‘sacred island'”. The Mother of Gods was well pleased with the island, he continues, and “she established the mysteries which are now celebrated [there]… and ordained by law that the sacred area should enjoy the right of sanctuary”. Throughout later history, the sanctuary continued to possess the extra-territorial character customarily accorded to sacred sites; it appears to have been separate from the city-state that adjoined it since it sent its own envoys, independent of the city, to the various important festivals in other parts of Greece. Its remarkable openness attracted pilgrims and aspiring initiates from a wide portion of the Mediterranean and Euxine area: contrary to the practice at Eleusis, attendance here was open to anyone, initiated or not, and initiation itself could not only be obtained at any time, but was also unusually democratic in nature making no distinction according to sex, age, social status or nationality. There appear to have been two degrees of initiation, termed ‘myesis' and ‘epopteia' which could, furthermore, be taken without an intervening interval. A certain moral standard seems to have been implicit in the second degree and some form of confession and absolution may have preceded it. The second degree of inititiation was not obligatory, but rather the exception. Initiates wore a finger-ring of iron and carried a purple scarf on their person as badge of their status. The iron may have been of local origin.
On Samothrace – as in Lemnos and at Thebes in Boeotia – the cult of the Great Gods has been linked traditionally to deities called ‘Cabeiri' (Strabo, Geog. X.3.20). Their name may derive from the Semitic root ‘kabir', meaning a ‘lord' or ‘almighty', and have come into the Greek world through the agency of the Phoenicians, suggesting that ‘Cabeiri', or ‘almighty ones', may just be another name for the Great Gods. Alternatively the word may derive from the Sumerian ‘cabar', meaning ‘copper'. Since there is no clear epigraphic reference to the name at the sanctuary, we do not necessarily need to consider them as separate from the Great Gods. They may have become associated with the island in the Greek mind, by conflation, as protectors of sea voyages as they were in Phoenician mythology: Samothrace could after all only be visited by making an often difficult journey through the island's famously unpredictable waters.
At Samothrace, the Earth Mother, Axieros, and the Hades/Demeter pair, Axiokersos and Axiokersa, are also accompanied by the ithyphallic Cadmilos, the spouse of the Earth Mother, who was later identified with the Olympian Hermes. Sexual generation, as expressed in the erect phallus was evidently a crucial part of the vision that the cult offered. Herodotus, in fact, confirms as much: in the Histories, Book II. 51, he explains that the origins of nearly all Greek religious practices were Egyptian – except, he says, the Greek custom of portraying Hermes with erect phallus, which he claims was of ‘Pelasgian' origin.
“Anyone will understand what I mean if he is familiar with the mysteries of the Cabeiri – rites which the Samothracians learned from the Pelasgians, who lived in that island before they moved to Attica, and communicated the mysteries to the Athenians. This is shown by the fact that the Athenians were the first Greeks to make statues of Hermes with erect phallus, and that they learned the practice from the Pelasgians, who explained it by a certain religious doctrine, the nature of which is made clear in the Samothracian mysteries.”
To be able to speak with such authority (“...those familiar with the mysteries” etc.), it seems likely that Herodotus was himself initiated into these mysteries, implying that it was perfectly natural for someone of his immense learning, intelligence and objectivity to go through such initiation rites.
Herodotus also refers to the mysteries as making certain things clear. In English we are ill-served by the associations of the word ‘mystery', which are with opacity and incomprehension. The Greek words ‘myesis' and ‘mystes' refer simply to teaching and initiation, or the joining of a select group: they have no link with incomprehension. So there is no irony or inconsistency in Herodotus's claim that the Samothracian mysteries made certain things ‘clear'.
The Central Sacred Area: As you ascend the hidden ravine in the fold of the foothills towards the site, many of the fragments of marble to left and right are very eroded because they were retrieved from the stream-bed below; others, left above ground, have suffered the milder erosion of the wind. To the right, across the stream bed, is the colossal base (20.2m in outside diameter) of the *Rotunda of Arsinöe – once the greatest of the circular buildings of Greek antiquity – dedicated to the Great Gods by Queen Arsinöe II, wife successively of Lysimachus of Thrace and of her own brother, Ptolemy II ‘Philadelphus'. It was probably begun after extensive damage was wrought on the pre-existing buildings by the earthquake of 287 BC. Built on a site historically dedicated to sacred libations and sacrifices, the rotunda must have continued this function, as well as serving as a focus for the solemn gatherings of envoys and officials for the sanctuary's festivals. Its symbolism was important: circular buildings, such as martyria and baptisteries in later times, were associated in Antiquity and Early Christian practice with the union of death and new life, one of the central themes of the Samothracian cult. The exterior presented a marble wall surmounted by an ornamental string-course, below a gallery of pilasters supporting a Doric entablature; the dark and spacious interior was vaulted with a low conical roof on a wooden armature. Since much of the sanctuary's ritual occurred at night by torch-light, there was no need for windows. What we see today is the vast ring of limestone foundations, surmounted by the steps in Thasian marble of the superstructure, which formerly rose nearly 13 m above.
In the centre of the rotunda (at a level once well beneath its floor) archaeologists have revealed the rectangular plan of the southern end of the early 4th century BC predecessor of the ‘anaktoron', referred to as the “orthostate structure”. Much more ancient and of primary ritual importance, immediately to the southwest of the perimeter of the rotunda, is the Sacred Rock – a small, natural outcropping of blue-green porphyritic rock separated by a narrow channel from a surrounding pavement of yellow-brown tuff. The pouring of sacred libations on outcrops of coloured rock has a history which goes back far in time and was a fundamental element in all varieties of Mother-goddess worship in Anatolia. More highly polished examples of this kind of coloured, sacred rock can be seen at the important Hittite cultic centres in Turkey (e.g. Boğazkale).
The central hall for the first degree of initiation into the Mysteries, referred to traditionally as the ‘Anaktoron' (meaning a ‘princely' or ‘divine residence') stretches to the northwest a little below the rotunda, cut partially into the slope of the hill: its rectangular plan of ashlar walls in polygonal limestone blocks are well-preserved to a considerable height. As a very sacred and ancient building, it was always rebuilt in the same manner when damaged; the present structure is faithful to its predecessors although it dates from the 1st century AD. The spacious, probably window-less, interior (27m x 11.5m) was entered from the long west side by three doors whose thresholds still remain. The roof beams were supported by the pilasters whose bases can be seen on the wall opposite, along which appears to have stretched a grandstand of low seats, facing a central, circular wooden platform. A wooden partition wall with doors – perhaps not dissimilar to a church iconostasis – raised on a low wall distinguished by a layer of red, porphyry-like stone, separated a zone at the north end: this appears to have been an inner sanctuary, whose entrances were marked by bronze statues and a stele (now in Museum, Hall A) forbidding entry by the uninitiated. At the opposite, south end of the building is a small ancillary room, designated a ‘sacristy'. Marble slabs recording initiations appear to have been immured here in the walls above low, stone benches.
The Anaktoron and the Rotunda define a central north/south axis of the sanctuary along the ridge: further to the south along this axis are found the other holy buildings of the sanctuary.
Of the 4th century BC, marble building which lies to the south of the Rotunda – known as the ‘Hall of the Choral Dancers' after the beautiful frieze of female dancers which adorned its entablature (Museum, Hall B) – little remains standing. Elements from it preserved in the museum show that the building was remarkable for the fineness and variety of its decoration; the coffers of its ceiling were carved with beautiful heads and faces, its monolithic columns embellished with delicately patterned collars, and it may have housed the famous group depicting Aphrodite and Pothos by Scopas, which is mentioned by Pliny (Nat. Hist. XXXVI. 25). Indeed, Karl Lehmann suggests that Scopas may have been the presiding designer of the building. The pedimented portico of the building would have been clearly visible out to sea.
Just to the south, at the heart of the sanctuary, are the re-erected Doric columns of the Hieron (‘sacred building') – a long rectangular, colonnaded structure which terminated in an apse at its south end, having much the appearance internally of a basilica. This was the place of initiation of the second and higher degree – of the ‘epopteia'. The building's roof-line, punctuated by the elaborate antefixes and acroteria which are now in the museum, and marked at the corners by the four beautiful winged victory-figures must have been singularly impressive. The interior, once again was windowless and roofed with a wooden, coffered ceiling: its walls were painted black and red and must have appeared solemn by torch light. Along the east and west walls were low stone benches with carved supports, and at the centre of the apsidal area – in the position corresponding to the altar in a Christian basilica, was a libation pit. Entry to the interior was explicitly forbidden by an inscribed stele to non-initiates of the second degree. The aspiring epoptes may have had to undergo some sacred preparation standing on the terracotta-tile framed stone slabs which are still visible in the ground outside the building, half way down the east side (now protected by glass) beside the stylobate. Lehmann suggests that priest and mystes faced one another here across a stone in the middle into which a torch was fixed to exchange a confession and absolution; but the interpretation remains purely conjectural.
The existing building was begun in c. 325 BC, was only finished in the middle of the 2nd century BC, and underwent several later restorations in antiquity. It, in turn, replaced earlier buildings – always with an apse – dating from the 6th and 5th centuries BC respectively. Today we see only its eroded, limestone core, inside a fine shell of Thasian marble in places. Five columns of the double porch were re-erected in 1956: the pedimental statuary is in Vienna.
As you walk south down the east side of the Hieron, directly ahead of you in the polygonal limestone wall is a boss with a faint cross carved on its surface. On the opposite, west side of the building is the main altar enclosure – a large, boxed-in structure, yet open to the skies so that the gods above could also be witness to their offerings. Fragments of the architrave bear a dedicatory inscription of (?)Arrhidaios, the half-brother of Alexander the Great. The building was entered from the west and any orands would have faced east. Next to the altar building, to the north is one of the oldest surviving structures of the sanctuary, the so-called ‘Hall of Votive Gifts', built originally around 540 BC, and subsequently only minimally modified. Normally votive gifts and offerings were stored in the naos or opisthodomos of a temple; but here, because of the liturgical function of the interior of the Hieron, they needed to be stored from earliest times, in a separate building.
Facing these two last buildings from the west is the cavea of the small theatre, fashioned from a declivity in the hillside and looking over the most sacred area of the sanctuary. Rising conspicuously above the southern extremity of the cavea, on the crown of the ridge once soared the sculptural complex we know as the Nike or ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace', which now dominates the grand Escalier Daru of the Louvre in Paris. The amorphous rubble of the open-fronted, rectangular terrace where it once stood – originally conceived to create the impression of billowing water through which the ship's prow on which the Nike hovered made headway, is all that remains to be seen on site. The sculpture was raised high above the ground on the carved prow, leaving the gilded palm frond or wreath which some suggest she may have held in her outstretched arm to catch the light.
The ridge to the west of the main sacred area was crowned at its southern end by a magnificent Stoa which must have dominated the sky-line, overlooked the principal sacred buildings and offered good views of the Winged Victory monument to its east. The building, erected in the first half of the 3rd century BC, was a sober structure with Doric columns and entablature, its limestone core faced with a marble-white stucco. In front of its long, east face stood honorific and votive statues, whose bases can still be seen; the best preserved is at the south end. The building's considerable length (c. 104 m) required the natural slope to be built up at the north end. This was the main public building of the sanctuary, designed on a scale to shelter and to provide a meeting space for the increasing numbers of pilgrims and visitors.
Directly below it on the eastern face of the ridge looking across towards the Hieron, is an area of problematic finds. The visitor sees amongst the trees the foundations and walls of a series of buildings and terraces forming deep, right-angle corners against the steep slope of the ridge. Above are walls in fine, rectangular isodomic masonry; while below are walls of much older-looking polygonal stone work. In the corner of the latter, is a massive lintel-block and relieving triangle over a rectangular entrance into the hillside, looking as though it were the doorway of a Mycenaean tomb or shrine. To the left of it the polygonal masonry of the retaining wall roughly frames two massive projections of blue-green natural rock similar in type to the Sacred Rock observed near the Rotunda. To the right the wall is strengthened with sandstone buttresses. Sources are silent and archaeologists reticent as to what this is and what purpose it served: Karl Lehmann implies that when the area was taken in hand in the late 3rd century BC, the wall and the portal were created intentionally with the impression of ‘venerable age' in conformity with some ‘Samothracian legend of the heroic age'. This is an interesting explanation: it recalls the similar nature of the ‘Antron' of Mt Kynthos on Delos, which appears also to have been constructed in a much later epoch, but in an deliberately archaising style which recalled a Bronze Age megalithic portal. It is not incompatible with the evidence, however, that the doorway and the two breaches of the blue-black ‘sacred rock' in the wall may genuinely be of a substantially earlier period, and might mark the site of an area that incorporated a now defunct spring in the hillside.
The continuation north of this area, below the eastern slope of the western ridge is marked by a series of three adjacent, rectangular rooms which were probably hestiatoria, or ritual banqueting rooms, with open porches on their eastern side looking onto the main sanctuary buildings. The marble-chip floor, probably of Imperial Roman times, is still preserved in parts. Such rooms are a common feature of sanctuaries and served for the public and priestly consumption of sacrificial offerings in honour of the deities. Just to the west of here, along the slope below the north end of the great stoa, is a long rectangular building in the form of a boat-shed or ‘neorion' for the display of a consecrated, victorious warship, dedicated possibly by the Macedonian King, Antigonus Gonatas, after his victory in the waters off Cos in 254 BC. The layout of the building is recognisable and a couple of seven marble supports which cradled the keel of the boat are still in place. The public viewing-aisle was along the north side. The immaculate masonry of the south wall, separated from the slope by a drainage channel, is well-preserved.
The sanctuary appears to have expanded into the large area to the north of the neorion, in late Hellenistic times, apparently in order to accommodate the construction of buildings dedicated by other Aegean city-states and their citizens. Ongoing archaeological work has clearly revealed the foundations of a number of distinct buildings. The two largest – in the centre and to the right – were never completed. An inscription pertaining to the eastern building indicates that it was the dedication of a rich lady from Miletus; the building may have been destined as another ritual hestiatorion. Even the individual architectural elements in Thasian marble are clearly unfinished: the large block at an oblique angle in the extreme southeast corner is an example. At the western edge beyond the base of the large central unfinished building are three small buildings of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, whose compact form with portico would suggest they may have functioned as treasuries for donor city-states. Superimposed over this whole area was a large Byzantine fortress (c. 36m x 38m), added at some point in the 10th or 11th century AD.
iv) The Eastern ridge: Sanctuaries such as this, visited by people from all over the Greek world and beyond, inevitably attracted philanthropic dedications of buildings that were often of a self-serving, propagandistic nature. The skyline of the Eastern Hill was in antiquity peopled by cenotaphs and monumental dedications of the great and powerful. Around 285 BC Ptolemy II Philadelphus created a new Monumental Propylon, sometimes called the ‘Ptolemaion', through which the sanctuary could now be entered from the east side, where the ancient city of Samothrace was located. (This marks the eastern extremity of the sanctuary area and is reached by the path which climbs east from the Hieron.)
Fragments of Ptolemy's dedicatory inscription on the architrave can be seen amongst the blocks collected by the archaeologists beside the base of the building; among the fragments is an eroded corner-stone with an elegant relief of a ship on two of its sides. The impressive substructure of the propylon built in isodomic limestone blocks is still well-preserved; it is perforated by a barrel-vaulted tunnel at the foundation level, which allowed a watercourse to pass under it. In the earth-moving required for the gateway's construction, the seasonal torrent which descends from the southeast was diverted through this tunnel and returned to its natural gulley further to the north: this was so as to allow a solid ramp to fill the gulley, joining the gateway to the sanctuary to its west. At some point in the 2nd century AD, an earthquake swept this away, returning the torrent to its natural course, and leaving the gateway isolated. After this time the gulley was probably crossed by a wooden bridge. The propylon had the appearance of an amphi-prostyle temple with two pedimented porticos of six columns to front and back – Ionic to the east, Corinthian to the west. The latter constitutes the earliest known example of the Corinthian order used in an exterior portico in Greek architecture.
The propylon led directly across to a small circular arena, encircled by shallow rising steps (reached by returning west back across the torrent gulley, and taking the path immediately to the north). Too shallow for seats, these steps allowed people to stand and watch some as yet unidentified ritual that took place here, perhaps before proceeding into the Sanctuary proper. There may well have been an altar positioned in the centre. The steps were constructed in the 5th century BC, and may have been enlarged at a later date. The circle is incomplete on the east side because of a landslip which has carried the masonry down into the gulley below; this probably occurred during the same earthquake which swept away the ramp joining the area to the propylon of Ptolemy and reinstated the torrent in its natural course once again. The same fate has befallen the large rectangular building at an oblique angle to the north of the steps, a good third of which has fallen into the gulley. This was a large structure, in different kinds of marble, with a hexastyle portico in the Doric order overlooking the steps. It was a commemorative dedication erected in honour of Philip III and Alexander IV of Macedon (successors to Alexander the Great) between 323 and 317 BC. At a later date, an Ionic portico was added on its north side for the display of statues. Following the path north through the trees down the west side of the slope brings you to the scant remains and site of a curious building – possibly a commemorative cenotaph – which had the form of a tall, Doric rotunda of the mid- to late- 4th century BC. Its narrow diameter (4.1m) and considerable height (perhaps c.7m) preclude its use as a ceremonial or meeting building, and suggest that it was always intended to be an adornment to the skyline.
Wikidata ID: Q1791563
Trismegistos Geo: 2082

Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands

(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)

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