Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace
In antiquity, the fame of Samothrace emanated from its mystery cult of the Megaloi Theoi, the Great Gods, whose rites of initiation promised protection at sea and the opportunity to “become a better and more pious person in all ways” (Diodorus). The Sanctuary itself has the unmistakable aura of sacred ground. Within its sacred space events occurred that shaped both the mythic and historical ancient world. The island’s legendary family sired the Trojan race; here, the parents of Alexander the Great first met and the last Macedonian king held out against the Romans. The nature of the rites of initiation was held in silent trust by the community of initiated.
As in the Mysteria of Eleusis, first-time participants in the Samothracian Mysteries were called mystai (μύσται, derived from the verb μύω, “to close the eyes”) and second-time participants were called epoptai (?πόπται, from the future tense ?πόψομαι of the verb ?φοράω “oversee, observe, look upon, behold”). A kind of preliminary myesis (initiation) presumably took place at the Theatral Circle (25). After undergoing this preliminary rite, the initiates, blindfolded, wandered through the darkness in search of the goddess Harmonia, the daughter of Zeus and Electra, whom, according to the Samothracian legend, Kadmos had carried, presumably by sea, when, in the course of his quest for Europa, he sailed by Samothrace. Harmonia was saved and brought back to Samothrace by her brothers, Dardanus and Iasion/Eetion, figures closely associated with the mysteries and with (the well-known role of the Great Gods) saving people in peril at sea. The happy outcome of the search for Harmonia, taking the form of her epiphany and of a sacred marriage, the wedding of Kadmos and Harmonia, was represented in the rite of Samothrace, enacted within the great Hall of Choral Dancers (17) and reflected in the frieze which surrounded the building.