In Search of Light: A Journey Through the Mysteries of the Great Gods

One of the things that fascinate me about the mystery traditions (ancient and modern) is the inherent, tremendous potentiality they have to light a spark of the divine within humanity and ultimately assist the initiate to unite the microcosm of the individual soul with the macrocosm of the higher self. In a few words, to achieve deeper self-knowledge and to unite with the cosmos and deity in accordance with the unique understanding we have of the latter. In order to do that, a medium is required: an element of connection, so to speak, and not just an idea, but an actual existent reality through which the initiate can progress his/her soul through and achieve that union of the microcosm with the macrocosm described above.

This element of connectivity has been perceived, understood, and described by various cultures and traditions across time, using different terms to describe it, but always alluding to the same idea. In the Western mystery schools, that element is represented by Fire, the divine spark, or as the philosopher Heraclitus beautifully referred to it as Logos (Gr: Λόγος, En: the Word). So what is that Fire- Logos and what is its relationship with the mystery traditions? In its elemental condition, Logos is pure Fire, everlasting and cathartic. In the philosophical thought of Heraclitus, it represents a conjunctive point between the soul and the mind, the progenitor of the sea, earth, and sky, as well as divine judgment (the thunder of Zeus).

In the context of the Orphic-Pythagorean-Platonic tradition (and in most mystery traditions) the elements of Water, Fire, and Ether are transmutable and equal to each other. The element of Earth (solid matter) is not. So when Water-Ether-Fire-Logos comes in contact with Earth, things get more philosophical based on each initiates experience. And it is that Fire that can warm up the Air in someone’s soul and lift it up in order to unite the microcosm of the person’s soul with the macrocosm of the universal and the divine.

One of the sublime expressions of the Fire doctrine was the celebrated Mysteries of the Great Gods of Samothrace that took place in Greece in early antiquity, also known today as the Cabeiric Rites or Cabeiric Mysteries. Information on the ancient origins of these mysteries is scarcely given to us by the Greek historian and geographer Pausanias (2nd century CE), an initiate in to the mysteries himself: “They say that once there was in this place a city, with inhabitants called Cabeiri; and that Demeter came to know Prometheus, one of the Cabeiri and Aetnaelis 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 Cabeiri” (Delphi Complete Works of Pausanias).

The Mysteries of the Great Gods

Historically speaking, the mysteries of the Great Gods (also known as the Cabeiric Mysteries) were the oldest organized mysteries native to Greece. According to local tradition, the Pelasgian builders from Thrace instituted them long before the 7th century BCE and they continued to flourish until their historic end during the 4th Century AD (“About the Expedition”). The people of Samothrace never used the name Cabeiri for their celebrated Great Gods, but researchers today such as Walter Burkert (see Greek Religion, 283) think that they are related. While the exact etymology and origin of the word is unknown, it is a possible derivative of the Greek Word καίειν which means, “burning” (Casavis 71). The Cabeiroi were deities worshiped mainly in the islands of Limnos and Samothrace (Liddel & Scott). According to Greek mythology, they were considered to be children of god Hephaestus “the first master builder who erected the house of the Olympian gods” and nymph Cabeirus. “They were represented as crabs, the claws of which had been connected with the pincers of the metallurgist” (“Mythology”). They represented “fire, the first substance” (Casavis 72), and they were honored as gods of the sea, fertility, and vine (“Mythology”). In Samothrace specifically, these deities were identified with the Greek Gr: Dioskouri Δάρδανος- Dardanos and Gr: Αετίων-Eetion (Iason) and were celebrated in popular local myths as heroes and cofounders of the Mysteries of the Great Gods. They were represented by a set of bronze ithyphallic statues of two naked, young brothers with their hands raised upwards in the position of admiration of the heavens and worship. Their symbols were two snakes (symbols of regeneration) and two stars (symbols of the soul and its place of origin).

The Sacred Way

According to Diodorus Siculus, participation in such mysteries promised the opportunity to “become a better and more pious person in all ways” (“Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies”). The Ritualistic Drama that those sacred mysteries were based upon was an allegory of death and resurrection. In an attempt to trace the path of the initiate and based solely on archeological evidence, the following conclusions were drawn: The mysteries of the great Gods included two major stages. The first was the “initiation” (myesis) and the second was the “viewing” (Gr: Εποπτεία-Epopteia) which was available only to the participants of the first degree (the initiates/mistai) (Harland 2013).

As detailed on Greece’s Ministry of Culture website:

After undergoing this preliminary rite, the initiates, blindfolded, wandered through the darkness [via the Sacred Way at the sanctuary] 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. (Matsas).

According to the Greek tradition, initiates were obliged to confess their worst deed. That was not aiming to make the initiate “elicit a confession of sins as to establish complicity, thereby securing unbreakable solidarity” (Burkert, 283). The events of the first degree, including stages of the drama described earlier, took place in a building called the Anaktoron (Gr: Ανακτορον).

It consisted of a large hall and was furnished with wooden benches (Harland 2013) that “lined the eastern and northern walls of the main chamber” (“Visualizing the Sanctuary”). “Torches and lamps likely added further mystery to the night-time ceremony” (Harland 2013). Most likely, the initiation ceremony included ritualistic dance and song in the main hall, after which followed the viewing of sacred symbols and a lecture that took place in a smaller room at the north end, which was accessible by two doors. “These two doors may have been flanked by the two ithyphallic statues (of the male Great Gods)…” (Harland 2013). One of the main excavators K. Lehmann, hypothesizes that “pilgrims were only allowed to enter after initiation. The evidence for this assertion is a marble stele found in the vicinity, bearing an inscription that prohibited the entry of the uninitiated” (“Visualizing the Sanctuary”).

After experiencing this unique blend of drama, myth, and allegory from a first person view, the initiate continued along the Sacred Way towards a building known as the “Hall of the Choral Dancers”. It is highly probable that a celebration of the sacred wedding, as described earlier, was held there concluding the first degree. A certificate of initiation, a purple belt and a ring made of magnetized iron where given to the initiates to commemorate the event as well as to offer the promise of protection from all dangers in life.

On the Secrecy of the Mysteries

In the ancient mysteries of the Great Gods, initiates gave an oath of utter secrecy, as indicated in the writings of Pausanias earlier. On the other hand “Non-initiates were forbidden entrance to the Sanctuary and disobedience was punished with death. Olympia, mother of Alexander the Great, is considered to be one of the most famous and powerful members of the Cabeiric mysteries” (“Mythology”).

The scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius tells us that the initiated wore a purple band (ταινία) round their waist (which reminds us of the Brahminical thread); that Agamemnon quelled a mutiny of the Greeks by wearing one; and that Odysseus, who wore a fillet for the band, was miraculously saved in shipwreck. Preservation in times of peril, and especially in perils on the sea, was the chief service that the Cabeiri were supposed to render to those who called on them by name, and none knew their names except the initiated. It was the electric fires of the Cabeiri that, according to the legend, lighted on the heads of the Dioscuri during the Argonautic voyage. (“Harry Thurston Peck”).

Further information on the secrecy of these mysteries and their relationship to the Argonautic expedition is evident in the writings of Apollodorus who appears to be unwilling to share any knowledge of esoteric nature about the ritual. Nevertheless, he allows himself to inform us that the members of the Argonautic expedition were initiates into the rights and light of the mysteries of the Great Gods of Samothrace. He says:

To Samothrace, Elektra’s
isle, they steer,
that there initiated in Rites divine,
Safe they might sale
The navigable brine.
But Muse, presume not
Of these Rights to tell:
Farewell dred isle!
Dire dieties, farewell!
Let not my verse these Mysteries explain:
The name is impious,
To reveal, profane.

Jason, who was the leader of the Argonauts in their eternal quest for that which was lost in the guise of the golden Fleece, lost one of his sandals while crossing the river Anausos, thus appearing in front of King Pelias of Iolkos, with one shoe, neither barefoot nor shod.

In our attempt to trace the scarce evidence of the final steps of the initiates, we can only speculate as to what took place during what appears to be either a second act of the first degree, or the legendary second degree of Epopteia. According to masonic author J. S. Casavis, a significant event took place. Three brothers conspired to murder Master Kasmilos (or Kadmilos), an impersonation of the Olympian god Hermes. Hermes was a chthonian deity who symbolized sublime light and darkness, as well as death and resurrection (Casavis 76). The names of the conspirators of that Drama “as revealed by Mnaseas of Patara and Dionysodorus, two historians of the Alexandrian Age” (“Harry Thurston Peck”) were Gr: Αξίερος-Axieros, Gr: Αξιόκερσος-Axiokersos, and Gr: Αξιόκερσα-Axiokersa and bear close resemblance to the deities of Gr:Ηλέκτρα-Elektra (goddess Demeter), Gr: Κάδμος-Kadmos (god Hades) and Gr:Αρμονία-Harmonia (Persephone). The dramatic enactment, which took place at the main building of the Sanctuary called Ιερόν-Hieron, became known as the “Cabeiric Death” (Casavis 76). “In the vicinity of this building, the Lehmanns found an inscription forbidding the uninitiated to enter ‘to hieron’ (“Visualizing the Sanctuary”). Additional findings during the excavations of 1939 at the Sanctuary brought to light a hexagonal silver ring baring the symbols of the Dioskouroi, two snakes and two stars. That piece of evidence offers an irresistible temptation to the researcher to assume that it was either given at the end of the second act of the first degree, or at the end of the second degree of Epopteia. Another finding worth mentioning is a votive bowl recovered during excavations which was “stamped in the interior center with the full word ΘΕΩΝ (theon)”, the Greek tetragrammaton (4 letter word) which signifies the item as a votive offering by the initiates and “an object as sacred property of the gods”.

The Mysteries of the Great Gods in essence represent a collective manifestation of great perception, which can retain its potency even after its people are gone and their temples forgotten in the sands of time. The ancestral memory of the eternal fire lives deep within each one of us and we can all recall that memory, if we understand fire not simply as flame, but as the invisible cause that gives life to it. And that fire is eternal…

Tony Crisos is a guitarist, educator, philosopher, and esoteric arts practitioner, born in Greece and now living in the USA.

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