Sanctuary of the Mysterious ‘Great Gods’ on the Island of Samothrace
One of the most enigmatic archaeological sites in all of Greece is that of the Samothrace Temple Complex. These impressive ruins are located on the island of Samothrace, also known as Samothraki, in the Aegean Sea. The ancient religious observances and ritual practised here were unusual and it was also a site of a mysterious religion. Samothrace offers visitors a unique insight into the Hellenic Civilization.
The History of Samothrace Temple Complex
There appears to have been shrines here from a very early date and the island is referenced by the Greek poet Homer, who was born sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries BC.
The island which was near ancient Thrace, was influenced by a variety of other cultures. Many of the deities that were worshipped here were the gods of the earth and underground. Although there is no conclusive evidence identifying all the deities that were honored, they were different from the Olympians worshipped elsewhere in Greece. What is known is that a Great Mother was worshipped and identified with other goddesses including a Trojan mother goddess.
Nike of Samothrace, goddess of victory, on display in the Louvre museum Paris (fiore26 / Adobe Stock)
Two of deities venerated at Samothrace were Axiokersos and Axiokersa, fertility gods, who are sometimes identified with Hades and Persephone. It is most likely that the shrines were not only a Pan-Hellenic place of worship but was also sacred to other cultures, likely the reason for the many unusual cults celebrated here. Anyone could worship at Samothrace after following the commands of a chief priestess or prophetess known as a Sibyl, a woman in ancient times who was thought to utter the prophecies of a god. An annual festival was held every year which featured a sacred parable of the soul's journey to the otherworld. Unlike other mystery religions which were elitist, this was open to everyone irrespective of ethnicity.
The mysterious religion practised at the site gave initiates secret knowledge that helped them secure the favor of the gods and even salvation. Very little is known about this ancient cult. Among the famous initiates was the historian Herodotus, who left behind a few clues to the nature of the mysteries.
The temple complex at Samothrace, known as Sanctuary of the Great Gods, was a self-governing political entity and was independent of the nearby city of Paleopoli. It even sent its ambassadors to other city-states in Greece.
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Foundation of the Arsinoé Rotunda and fragment of the dedication (Marsyas / CC BY-SA 3.0)
In the Hellenistic era, various Macedonian monarchs patronized the temples at Samothrace. They spent lavishly on the site and it greatly expanded during the Hellenistic era. According to some historians it became a Macedonian national shrine.
The island was the last stronghold of Perseus after his defeat by the Romans in the 2 nd century AD. The sanctuaries and temples continued to flourish under Rome rule until Theodosius the Great, Roman emperor from 379 to 395, had the complex closed in the 4 th century AD and it fell into disuse. The site fascinated historians because of its mysterious rituals and cults and it was first excavated in the 19 th century, during this time the famous statue of Nike of Samothrace was unearthed. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sanctuary of the Great Gods
The sanctuary is located on the slopes of Mount Hagios Georgios and was built on three terraces cut into the mountain. The entrance is via a gate built by Ptolemy II of Egypt and this bridges a torrent that divides the site. A depression is all that remains of an altar where it is thought sacrifices were made, but there is no concrete evidence to support the theory.
Dancer's Frieze from the Temenos, Samothrace (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A winding path leads to the main monuments in the complex and the Arsinoë Rotunda, a round structure that was used to greet ambassadors and kings, and possibly where more sacrifices were made. The largest building in the complex is the Temenos. This courtyard with a gateway (an ionic propylaeum) is adorned with the famous ‘dancers frieze’. Its exact role is unknown because of the many secretive traditions and practices.
The epopteion was situated on the second terrace and built in a most unusual and non-Greek design. This formed part of the temple and was the most important building of the cult. The facade is ornate but the large interior space contained an apse that was the sacred heart of the structure. It is located near a shrine possibly dedicate to the Greek goddess Hera.
Dating to the Roman era is the Anaktoron, where the mysteries and secret rituals of Samothrace were conducted. Several votive buildings, such as the Miletean Building, were constructed here as offering to the gods. To the east of the second terrace is a small Greek-style theatre and remains of a Byzantine-era fort have been found.
Visiting Samothrace in Greece
The island is accessible by ferry and accommodation is pentiful. A fee is charged to enter the complex and there are a great many remains from the Classical and Medieval World on the island.
Top image: Temple at Samothrace, Greece Source: Evgeni Dinev / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Dimitrova, N. M. (2008). Theoroi and initiates in Samothrace: the epigraphical evidence (Vol. 37). ASCSA
Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Khl1mWoMFsAC&oi=fnd&pg=PA113&dq=samothrace+museum&ots=3o41kn2d6U&sig=Eysd2NHl9h9WaPT8BHbLpNRvdXQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=samothrace%20museum&f=false.
Graham, A. J. (2002). The colonization of Samothrace. Hesperia, 231-260
Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3182027
Maniatis, Y., Tambakopoulos, D., Dotsika, E., Wescoat, B. D., & Matsas, D. (2012). The Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace, Greece: Proceedins of the IX ASMOSIA Conference (Tarragona, 2009). Istituto Català d’Arqueologia Clàssica, Tarragona (pp. 263-78)