The Aegean Edicts (2): Reconstructing the Samothrakian Mysteries

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The Argonauts sail towards the isle of Samothrake: Electra’s island grows larger, guarding the secret of the Thracian rites of the Kabeiroi and other gods… Thyotes the priest meets the Argonauts and bids them welcome to the land and to the temples, revealing their Mysteries to his guests. Thus much, Samothrace, has the poet proclaimed thee to the nations and the light of day; there stay, and let us keep our reverence for holy Mysteries. The Argonauts, rejoicing in the new light of the sun and full of their heavenly visions, seat themselves upon the thwarts and depart from the island 

Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica


O Samathraki, what a joy! Where have you been all my life. I got here via Thessalonika on an A/C coach for 30 euros to the port of Adrianopolous. Then it was a 14 euro ferry to the island, which on the approach really feels like you are crossing over to Arran. I’ve been staying at the municipal campsite for almost a fortnite: its like a musical festival in the woods by the sea, but without any music stages or stalls – its quite the young team but they all think I’m in my 30s so I’ve blended in well enough!

Samothraki is an island of oak trees, pebbly beaches & waterfalls; & in these twelve days I’ve managed to climb most of Mount Saos -the highest mountain in the Aegean – an eight hour mission, just halting shy of the 1.611 metres ‘Fengari’ (moon) summit, followed by some canyoning in the rocky gullies back to Therma. My favorite pasttime, tho, is the morning ritual of walking to Therma, having some coffees, then spending an hour in the hot sulphuric springs, from where I’d buy fresh bread & take the meandering back roads to the campsite. Very conducive for literary thought!

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My adhoc campsite ( a work in progress)

So why Samothraki? Well, I was drawn here by a profound personal identification with Orpheus – possibly the first poet AND musician in history. A pilgrimage to one of his old haunts should provide much materielle for an Aegean edict, & so it has proved. So let us begin with what we know about Orpehus, & with me being a bona fide euhmerist, that means he would have been most definitely real.

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He first came to prominence among the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace, now mostly in modern Bulgaria, strumming his magical creations on an equally magical lyre. Pindar called him the Father of Songs, his voice being so sweet and powerful that he could charm wild animals, divert rivers & even lull the rocks to sleep. He was also said to be one helluva wise king, accredited with teaching humankind a long list of subjects such as healing, prophecy & astrology. Diodorus Siculus gaves a good account of him;

Since we have mentioned Orpheus it will not be inappropriate for us in passing to speak briefly about him. He was the son of Oeagrus, a Thracian by birth, and in culture and son-music and poesy he far surpassed all men of whom we have a record; for he composed a poem which was an object of wonder and excelled in its melody when it was sung. And his fame grew to such a degree that men believed that with his music he held a spell over both the wild beasts and the trees.

And after he had devoted his entire time to his education and had learned whatever the myths had to say about the gods, he journeyed to Egypt, where he further increased his knowledge and so became the greatest man among the Greeks both for his knowledge of the gods and for their rites, as well as for his poems and songs.

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A single literary epitaph, attributed to the sophist Alcidamas, credits him with the invention of writing. He was also the official bard of Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece, & it is probably through him the story was recorded for posterity. A more positive literary accreditation comes thro’ Diogenes, who claims Orpheus to be the author of a cosmogony on the course of the sun and moon & a poem on the generation of animals and fruits. Then there are the Orphic hymns, of which Pausanius writes;

His hymns are known by those who have studied the poets to be both short & few in number. The Lycomedes, an Athenian family dedicated to sacred music, have them all by heart, & sing them at their solemn mysteries. They are but of the second class for elegance, being far excelled by Homer’s in that respect. But our religion has adopted the hymns of Orpheus, & has not done the same honour to the hymns of Homer.

At Dutch Bobs campsite, with Dylan from Dublin and the three Georges

With Orpheus as my inspiration, & Samothraki my base, let us search thro’ the annals for the moments which they tally, beginning with the following interesting passage by Diodorus Siculus;

Some historians, and Ephoros is one of them, record that the Daktyloi Idaioi were in fact born on the Mt Ide which is in Phrygia and passed over to Europe together with Mygdon; and since they were wizards, they practised charms and initiatory rites and mysteries, and in the course of a sojourn in Samothrake they amazed the natives of that island not a little by their skill in such matters. And it was at this time, we are further told, that Orpheus, who was endowed with an exceptional gift of poesy and song, also became a pupil of theirs, and he was subsequently the first to introduce initiatory rites and Mysteries to the Greeks.

We get the idea here of Orpheus being taught a series of ‘initiatory rites and mysteries’ which had come to Samothraki via Phrygia, in modern-day Turkey. It is the purpose of this Edict to attempt at least a partial reconstruction, or reimagining if you will, of the long-lost, highly secret Samothracian mysteries, of which Diodorus Siculus said;

The details of the initiatory rite are guarded among the matters not to be divulged and are communicated to the initiates alone; but the fame has travelled wide of how {the Kabeiroi} appear to mankind and bring unexpected aid to those initiates of their who call upon them in the midst of perils. The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.

The chief object of the Samothrakian mystery rite is to make somebody ‘more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.’ The initiate will also have some kind of protection laid on by the Kabeiroi whenever these dieties are summoned to help. We also learn from Diodorus that Orpheus was an initiate into the Samothrakian Mysteries, being taught it by the Kabeiroi themselves;

On top of Mount Saos with Bonb n Dylan

In the course of a sojourn in Samothrake they [the Kabeiroi] amazed the natives of that island not a little by their skill in such matters. And it was at this time, we are further told, that Orpheus, who was endowed with an exceptional gift of poesy and song, also became a pupil of theirs, and he was subsequently the first to introduce initiatory rites and mysteries to the Greeks.

What Orpheus learnt on Samothraki would form the basis of early Greek religion – so pretty seminal stuff really. There is a nice section in the third century BC ‘Argonautica’ by Apollonius Rhodius, which shows Orpehus in connection with the rites.

The Argonauts beached this ship at Samothrake . . . Orpheus wished them, by holy initiation, to learn something of the secret rites, and so sail on with greater confidence across the formidable sea. Of the rites I say no more, pausing only to salute the isle itself and the Powers [the Kabeiroi] that dwell in it, to whom belong the mysteries of which we must not sing.

Again we sense the superstitous fear of recanting the rites; some folk got struck by lightning & stuff, so, the fear was genuine. Luckily for me I’m in no position to retall the Mysteries as they were, but only as I conject. I’m relying on getting something wrong, or missing something out, to survive my personal sojurn on Samothraki. But anyway, without further ado, lets see if we can reconstuct at least some of the essence of what the Samothakian Mystery was all about.

The physical evidence of the Mystery ceremony can be found at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothraki, a sprawling religious pan-centurial site which contains the three sacred precincts which the initiate had to move through in order to complete the Mystery procession. These were the preliminary Myeses, the Telete & the Epopteia. One schol of thought states that after a prosective initiate had been prepared in the Sanctuary’s Sacristy, the Myesis took place in the Anaktoron’s main hall, followed by the Telete in the inner adyton at the building’s north end. Once this concluded, the mystai (initiates) could proceed to the Hieron where they acquired the higher degree, the epopteia. Another school of thought prefers to place the initiation in the recently excavated Hall of Choral Dancers.

I visited the Sanctuary this morning, getting there at 8 to have the place to myself & get into the zone. They key element to the visit was discovering teh theatrical circle of the entry complex that connected to the old city – Paleopili – whose cyclopean walls stretch up mount Saos – extremely beautiful. From here the initiates would descend along the paved sacred way into the holy valley for the Mystery itself. It was on such an occasion that Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, met his mother, Olympias. With the Mystery procession being divided into three seperate parts, we are looking for the general outline to three different aspects of the Samothrakian Mystery. These are actually findable, tho’ contained in scattered texts.


THE FRATRICIDE
Myeses

In his ‘Exhortation to the Greeks’ the second century AD Christian writer, Clement, pretty much divulges the theatrical contents of the first part of the mystery.

If you would like a vision of the Korybantian Orgies, this is the story. Two of the Korybantes (Kabeiroi) slew a third one, who was their brother, covered the head of the corpse with a purple cloak, and then wreathed and buried it, bearing it upon a brazen shield to the skirts of Olympus. Here we see what the Mysteries are, in one word, murders and burials! The priests of these Mysteries, whom such as are interested in them call ‘Anaktotelestes’, add a portent to the dismal tale. They forbid wild celery, root and all, to be placed on the table, for they actually believe that wild celery grows out of the blood that flowed from the murdered brother .

If we are to recreate a mystery, some people, a number undetermined, need to be presiding over proceedings & call themselves the Anaktotelestes. We also need to tell a stoy of two brothers turning on another brother, then carrying his head on a shield to Olympus – possibly in penitence or perhaps as a votive offering. I’m not so sure we need to include the celery, but there’s enough detail there to paint a good opening section of this intiatory tryptych.

THE PENIS of ZAGREUS
Telete

Its an interesting feature of the Greek language that if you rearrange the letters of EPOS – Epic of the testosterone-fuelled Illiad kind – you get PEOS. Continuing with the penis theme, the Cabeiri were famous for recovering the phallus of Zagreus, which had been dismembered by the Titans, & establishing it in the shrine of their Mysteries. This piece of theatre should then constitute the second sction of the tryptych – so where there was a head on a shield in the first part, there is a penis in a casket in the second, kinda thing. Its very much like the grail ceremonies ascribed to 12th & 13th century Templars, & there could very well be a connection.

Zagreus was worshipped by later followers of Orpheus & seems to be a Dionysian figure, born of the union between Zeus & Persephone. The story goes that he had his tackle hacked off by the Titans, only for it to grow back at a later date. Herodotus himselef gives us some great background.

The Korybantes are also called by the name Kabeiroi, which proclaims the Rite of the Kabeiroi. For this very pair of fratricides got possession of the chest in which the virilia of Dionysos [Zagreus] were deposited, and brought it to Tyrrhenia [i.e. Lemnos], traders in glorious wares! There they sojourned, being exiles, and communicated their precious teaching of peity, the virilia and the chest, to Tyrrhenians for purposes of worship.

So here we have an account of the Kabeiroi worshipping the penis of Zagreus/Dionysis which was placed in a chest. The second part of our mystery should tell the story of how they found the chest & the penis. Simple Mystery Play stuff, really, straight from the Towneley manuscript.

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HERMES & PERSEPHONE
Epopteia

The final part of the ceremony involves a story between Hermes & Persephone, which if we connect with the orgiastic nature of the Mysteries leads to only one workable plausablity. This would be something like Hermes & Persephone getting it on big time & then the initiates joining in the party. Herodotus tells us;

The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is set forth in the Samothrakian Mysteries

The Athenians received their phallic Hermae from the Pelasgians, and those who are initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiri will understand what I am saying; for the Pelasgians formerly inhabited Samothrace, and it is from them that the Samothracians received their orgies.

Looking elsewhere in the classical ouevre, we find a sacred legend spoken of by Cicero, which states that Hermes was the son of Coelus and Dies, and that Proserpine desired to embrace him. So we can now create a general outline of the entire Samothrakian Mystery.

Part 1: Two brothers – the Kabeiroi – kill a third & carry his head to Olympus on a shield.
Part 2: The Kabeiroi discover the castrated penis of Zagreus & place it in a chest.
Part 3: Persephone seduces Hermes & all the initiates join in & form an orgy.

This would the followed by the initiate becoming initiated, ie taken under the wing of the Kaberoi. Aristophanes intimates that the mysteries were particularly calculated to protect the lives of the initiated. Herales & Alexander the Great were both big fans & put their successes down in no small part to their initiations into the Samothrakian Mysteries. An example of the Kabeiroi protecting an initiate can be found in the vita of our very Orpheus;

There came on a great storm and the chieftains the Argonauts had given up hope of being saved, when Orpheus, they say, who was the only one on ship-board who had ever been initiated in the Mysteries of the deities of Samothrake, offered to these deities prayers for their salvation. And immediately the wind died down Diodorus Siculus

BOOZE

Alcohol is the definitive lubricant to orgiastic behaviour, & it seems the Samothrakian ritual orgy was no different. In the lost play, Cabiri, by Aeschylus, the two gods welcomed the Argonauts to their island and initiated them in a drunken orgy. So we’re gonna need booze, & lots of it!

CAST

Now then, who will be playing out the mystery for our initiates. Well, besides the presiders of things, the Anaktotelestes, we’re gonna need three Kabeiro & a three nymphs. The 5th Century BC mythographer Akousilaüs the Argive, calls Kadmilos the father of three Kabeiroi, who in turn are the fathers of the Nymphs called the Kabeirides. Pherecydes states that there were three Nymphai in total, and that sacred rites were instituted in honor of each triad.

According to Herodotus, the Cabeiri who were worshipped at Memphis in Egypt resembled the dwarf-gods (Pataïkoi) whom the Phoenicians fixed on the prows of their ships. So maybe that means our Kabeiri will need to be a little short, or even boys, which is gonna be a bit weird at an orgy, right? That the Kaberoi were boyish is suggested Pausanias.

The Amphisians also celebrate Mysteries in honour of the Boy Kings as they are called. Their accounts as to who of the gods the Boy Kings are do not agree; some say they are the Dioskouroi, and others, who pretend to have fuller knowledge, hold them to be the Kabeiroi.

The Korybantes

Pherecydes also tells us that the Kyrbantes/Corybantes had taken up their abode in Samothrake. Strabo has a lovely passage about the Korybantes

They poets invented some of the names by which to designate the ministers, choral dancers, and attendants upon the sacred rites, I mean Kabeiroi and Korybantes and Panes and Satyroi and Tityroi. 

The Tityroi, by the way, were flute-playing, rustic daimones in the train of the god Dionysos. A future director could chuck them in alongside some satyrs if they wished, but our main focus are the Korybantes, of whose activities at the sacred rites Strabo saying they were;

Subject to Bacchic frenzy, and, in the guise of ministers, as inspiring terror at the celebration of the sacred rites by means of war-dances, accompanied by uproar and noise and cymbals and drums and arms, and also by flute and outcry

We can now see the Korybantes as a backing band / dancing troupe. There is an ode said to have been composed by Orpheus himself which really brings the Korybantes to life;

‘Tis yours in glittering arms the earth to beat, with lightly leaping, rapid, sounding feet; then every beast the noise terrific flies, and the loud tumult wanders through the skies. The dust your feet excites, with matchless force flies to the clouds amidst their whirling course.

We also have accounts by later classical authors which any future director or choreographer of this recreated Mystery should get their head around. Nonnius provides some poetical & brilliant details, who is followed by Strabo, whose equally poetical description should also be taken into account.

The helmeted bands of desert-haunting Korybantes were beating on their shields in the Knossian dance, and leaping with rhythmic steps

The oxhides thudded under the blows of the iron as they whirled them about in rivalry, while the double pipe made music, and quickened the dancers with its rollicking tune in time to the bounding steps.

Lions with a roar from emulous throats mimicked the triumphant cry of the priests of the Kabeiroi Nonnius

The instruments… are mentioned by Aiskhylos for he says… ‘stringed instruments raise their shrill cry, and frightful mimickers from some place unseen bellow like bulls, and the semblance of drums, as of subterranean thunder, rolls along, a terrifying sound Strabo

DEMETER

It is now time to introduce the Earth Goddess, Demeter, into the mix. Pausanias tells us:

I must ask the curious to forgive me if I keep silence as to who the Kabeiroi are, and what is the nature of the ritual performed in honour of them and of the Meter (Mother).

Demeter is an interesting addition to the Mystery, & thro’ her we get a little more, tho quite garbled, information. Pausanius again;

Demeter came to know Prometheus, one of the Kabeiroi, and Aitnaios his son, and entrusted something to their keeping. What was entrusted to them, and what happened to it, seemed to me a sin to put into writing, but at any rate the rites are a gift of Demeter to the Kabeiroi.

Here the names are wrong – Prometheus & Aitnaios – but they are two males together like the Kabeiroi should be. From here we can ascertain that Demeter entrusts them with an object, which has to be the penis of Zagreus. It is also interesting that the rites are a gift, so we kinda have to mention that & have the Kabeiroi say thanks – probably in some kind of opening prologue.

So here’s the final outline of the Mystery, which Id like to actually compose while I was on the island.

Cast

Three Kabeiroi
Three Kabeirides
Demeter possibly, tho she may just be invoked
Persephone
Hermes

There will also be the presiding Anaktotelestes & nine Korybantes to provide the music, when, ‘subject to Bacchic frenzy, and, in the guise of ministers, as inspiring terror at the celebration of the sacred rites by means of war-dances, accompanied by uproar and noise and cymbals and drums and arms, and also by flute and outcry.’

Part 1: Demeter introduces the Mystery. Two brothers – the Kabeiroi kill a third & carry his head to Olympus on a shield.
Part 2: The Kabeiroi discover the castrated penis of Zagreus & place it in a chest. The wine starts to flow in the name of Zagreus/Dionysis.
Part 3: Persephone seduces Hermes & all the initiates join in & form an orgy. Demeter is thanked.

THE VENUE

To finish, where would be the best place to put on this Sweet Little Mystery. Well, Samothraki of course, & its famous site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. The most famous artifact ddiscovered there was the 2.5-metre headless marble statue of Nike, now known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, dating from about 190 BC.  It was discovered in pieces on the island in 1863 by the French archaeologist Charles Champoiseau, and is now in the Louvre in Paris. The Winged Victory is featured on the island’s municipal seal.

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The Sanctuary of the Great Gods is to be found at Palaeopoli (“old city”), the ruins of which are situated on the north coast of Samothraki. Considerable remains still exist of the ancient walls, which were built in massive Cyclopean style. The museum was closed when I went along, but I wondered if they still had the bowls mentioned by Diodorus Siculus

The Argonauts, they say, set forth from the Troad and arrived at Samothrake, where they again paid their vows to the Kabeiroi and dedicated in the sacred precinct the bowls which are preserved there even to this day

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