Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.06.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.54

Nora M. Dimitrova, Theoroi and Initiates in Samothrace: The Epigraphical Evidence. Hesperia Supplement, 37.   Princeton:  American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2008.  Pp. xiv, 280.  ISBN 9780876615379.  $55.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kirsten M. Bedigan, University of Glasgow (


This volume is the product of Dimitrova's doctoral dissertation which has subsequently been revised and expanded into the current format. It is made clear from the outset that the purpose of this volume is not the definitive discussion of the inscriptions relating to theoroi and initiates. Dimitrova presents this volume as a means to further the current discussions upon the epigraphical evidence from Samothrace and the information they provide on the cult, the sanctuary and the city between the fourth century B.C. and the third century A.D. All known inscriptions are gathered together, including those previously published as well as texts presented here for the first time.

The cult at Samothrace was possibly established before the colonisation of the island by Athenian settlers c.700 B.C. There is some evidence for non-Greek names associated with the deities; the 3rd c. B.C. author Mnaseas gives the names Axieros, Axiokersos and Axiokersa with the Greek equivalents Demeter, Hades and Persephone. To this list is frequently added Kasmilos or Kadmilos/Hermes. Although a significant part of the architecture of the site dates to the fourth century B.C. and later, rock-cut altars and other structures indicate an active and important sanctuary from an early date. Like Eleusis, the sanctuary of the Great Gods was a mystery cult, and initiation offered protection for those at sea. Many votives from the sanctuary and elsewhere in the Mediterranean testify to its importance for seafarers.

Both Eleusis and Samothrace appear to have a two-level initiation process, each affording the participants different levels of access at the cult. At Eleusis the first stage, or 'Little Mysteries', involved the sacrifice of a piglet and a purification ceremony, perhaps with some form of ritual consumption. The full initiation, 'Great Mysteries', took place at a fixed point in the calendar during the month of Boedromion (August/September). This involved a grand procession from Athens, purification in the sea (spread over several days), and finally the revelation of the sacred things to an audience of mystai (first-time attendees) and epoptai (those who had attended previously). The Samothracian cult operated in a similar manner, with one subtle difference, in that initiation at both levels (mystai and epoptai) could take place consecutively and was not limited to the festival period, unlike Eleusis which required preliminary initiation and then attendance at the festival during Boedromion. Various inscriptions indicate multiple level initiation within the space of a single day, (see Nos. 50 (IG XII 8.186), 56 ((IG XII 8.188), 671 and No. 89,2 however, Dimitrova argues that lines 16-19 in No.89 are a later addition). It has been suggested that in the Samothracian case, initiation into the higher level of mysteries was not obligatory, unlike Eleusis. Documentary evidence also suggests that admission to the level of epoptai was relatively rare, indicating that there may have been certain compulsory conditions.3

Theoroi had an official capacity during the festivals at the sanctuary, acting as sacred ambassadors from the Greek cities. They were essentially sent to observe the festivals. Inscriptions also refer to theoroi-proxenoi. These are again sacred ambassadors, but with the added function that they acted as official representatives of the Samothracian sanctuary upon their return to their home cities.

The volume is subdivided, Part I dealing with the theoroi and Part II with the initiates; supplementary appendices discuss additional inscriptions which may have some relevance to these two types of sanctuary guest. A clear and concise discussion of the etymology behind theoros/theoroi opens the introduction (Chapter One) of Part I and comes to the conclusion that the word is a compound of either θέα or θεός with ὀπάω. The opinion is reached that the latter combination is more apt as it explains the fact that both Ionic and Doric scripts use the same term, a usage unlikely in the Doric equivalent of θέα (θάα). Other related inscriptions are briefly introduced and non-Samothracian examples explained. A similar introduction is offered for Part II (Chapter Five). Modern (and inaccurate) perceptions on mystery cults are dismissed and the evidence from other mystery sanctuaries in the ancient world is highlighted and utilised as a foundation for elucidating the Samothracian mysteries. The μύσται being the 'closed ones', in the context of either mouths or eyes is interesting; especially when one considers iconographic evidence from other 'mystery' cults like those at Eleusis or Thebes.4 A summary of initiation based on this additional information completes the discussion of the context of the initiate records. Furthermore, the issues pertaining to these texts are briefly referenced, from the unknown nature of the unexcavated areas of the site (and the surrounding area) to the unfortunate dispersal of inscriptions in the nineteenth century across the island resulting in the subsequent loss of provenance for many of the examples provided in this catalogue.

A significant number of the theoroi inscriptions have near identical dimensions for the blocks on which they are recorded, c. 0.35m in height. This leads Dimitrova (in Chapter One) to propose the theory that they all belong to a single building which was used as a display receptacle for texts of this type, a practice which is known elsewhere in the Greek world, such as at Delphi and Thasos. However, none of the blocks correlate with currently known structures within the sanctuary. Without further excavation of the areas at present unexplored, Dimitrova can only hypothesise that this as-yet-undiscovered structure was erected in the city and not the sanctuary. A full catalogue of the theoroi inscriptions is provided in Chapters Two (wall blocks from the possible structure, dating to the second and second/first century B.C.) and Three (other stones, dating to the third-first centuries B.C.). There is one anomaly in the wall blocks, an inscription (No. 4, IG 8.168) recording theoroi and proxenoi, dates to the first/second century AD. This different date is based on the lettering but no further discussion is provided. Re-use of the structure for recording initiate lists during the Roman period is indicated in inscription No. 14 (IG XII 8.173). Other inscriptions from both chapters provide more information on the site, from non-Samothracian theoroi such as Attic colonists presumably from Lemnos or Imbros given the rarity of actual Athenian theoroi making the journey.5 Others are from Myrina, either the Asia Minor city or that of Lemnos (since the city referred to in the inscription is not provided with any geographical descriptor, No.9, IG XII 8.162) and other locations in the Greek world. Sometimes these origins can be seen in the names provided for the theoroi. The Thracian name in No. 19 (IG XII 8.177) is unsurprising given the relationship between Thrace and Samothrace. The city of Seuthopolis has the earliest foreign inscription referring to the Great Gods of Samothrace in the fourth/third century B.C.6

The openness of the cult is emphasised in Chapters Six (with ethnics) and Seven (without ethnics) given the frequency of freeborn, freedmen and slaves in the inscriptions. No. 36 is a good example, providing a clear and typical layout of the lists containing free and enslaved initiates.

Perhaps the most important, and certainly one of the most interesting inscriptions is No. 29.7 Although not Samothracian, lines 13-14 contain the only mention of κάβιρος at Samothrace as well as information on the initiates' experience -- 'the doubly sacred light of Kabiros'. It also refers to the opportunity for initiates to gain a better place in the afterlife, a benefit previously only ascribed to the Eleusinian mysteries. The identification of the Great Gods as Kabeiroi is a long standing debate in the study of ancient religion with the majority opting for the conclusion that the two groups are separate, albeit related. This confusion also extends to the ancient world. Herodotus (2.51) clearly states that the gods of Samothrace are called Kabeiroi. It is possible that this inscription, given its second/first century B.C. date follows Herodotus' misconception and that by this point in history the two groups had become conflated. Dimitrova does not explore this text as thoroughly as it deserves in the volume, (although additional research is available) and it is clear that further work is required. Its non-Samothracian origin also casts doubts on its relevance to the other texts within the volume, since other texts from outside the island are excluded.

Additional and related inscriptions (prohibitions, decrees, etc.) are included in Chapter Eight and Appendices I-II. Some relevant information on the location of specific inscriptions is provided and discussed (see Nos.168-169, SEG XII.395, XIX.593). Indices of Greek and Latin names are also included.

The Pan-Hellenic nature of the cult is also emphasised in the conclusions (Chapters Four and Nine) as both the theoroi and the initiates show a wide range of origins across the Greek world which are neatly illustrated by the maps in the introduction (Figures 1-2, pp. 2-3). The distribution patterns of attendees show trends which Dimitrova ascribes to the popularity of the Eleusinian mysteries in certain regions as compared with the Samothracian ones. The impact of other cults and the relevance of the Samothracian cult to these regions are not considered. Those cities which provided theoroi and initiates are predominantly coastal (although there are exceptions) and Samothrace's association with the gift of protection at sea is perhaps of more importance to these city-states than others. Dimitrova highlights central Greece as being a poor provider of visitors to Samothrace, but the nature of the region perhaps precludes it from attending an obviously marine-focused cult. Other areas also show limited attendance yet these are not mentioned. Other observations are also made, with further discussion on the roles of theoroi and the lack of Roman examples to the festival(s) which may have taken place at the cult centre.

Overall, Dimitrova offers a clear and systematic presentation of the known epigraphic evidence. The discussion of the possible interpretation and value of the texts is logical and justifiable. This volume provides an exceptionally useful resource for those interested in the Samothracian cult and also provides valuable evidence on access and initiation in the mystery cults of the ancient world. Its value will surely increase once the remaining volumes of the Samothrace excavation reports are completed. The importance of interpretation cannot be overestimated and this text will provide a useful companion to the forthcoming Samothrace 12: The Religion of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.


1.   Fraser, P.M. 1960, Samothrace: Excavations Conducted by the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University 2.1: The Inscriptions on Stone. New York. See No. 28.
2.   Fraser 1960, No. 36.
3.  Bedigan, K.M. 2008, Boeotian Kabeiric Ware: The Significance of the Ceramic Offerings at the Theban Kabeirion in Boeotia. University of Glasgow, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, p.45.
4.   Bedigan 2008, p.245-247, 346.
5.   Matsas, D. and Dimitrova, N. 2006, New Samothracian inscriptions found outside the sanctuary of the Great Gods, ZPE 155, pp.127-136. See pp.129-130.
6.   Guettel-Cole, S. 1984, Theoi Megaloi: The Cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace. Leiden: Brill, p.21.
7.   Karadima, C. and Dimitrova, N. 2003, An epitaph for an initiate at Samothrace and Eleusis, Chiron 33, pp.335-345.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010