The fame of the cult of the Mysteries at Samothrace was surpassed only by that at Eleusis
Cabeiria (ta kabeiria). The mysterious rites of the Pelasgic gods known as the
Cabeiri, celebrated in the islands lying between Euboea and the Hellespont, in
Lemnos, Imbros, and especially in Samothrace. This worship was also known on the
adjacent coasts of Europe and Asia Minor, at Thebes and Andania in Greece, and,
according to Strabo (iv.), in an island near Britannia. Like the Elensinia, an
almost complete secrecy had been maintained as to the ceremonies and teaching
of these mysteries. Yet we know the names of the gods; and, from an examination
of the various forms under which we find them, Lenormant has been able to discover
what he calls a Cabeiric group. They are four in number, thus differing essentially
from the Phoenician Kabirim, who, as their Semitic name shows, are also "great
gods", but are eight in number, representing the planets and the universe
formed from their union. The names of the Samothracian Cabeiri, as revealed by
Mnaseas of Patara and Dionysodorus, two historians of the Alexandrian Age, are
Axieros (=Demeter), Axiokersa (=Persephone), Axiokersos (=Hades), Casmilos (=Hermes).
Sometimes the two goddesses blend in one, viz. Earth (Varro, L. L. v. 58); sometimes
as Aphrodite and Venus; but to most of the Romans they represent Juno and Minerva
( Serv. ad Verg. Aen.iii. 12). Axiokersos appears further as Zeus, Uranus, Iupiter,
Apollo, Dionysus-Liber; and Casmilos as Mercurius or Eros. The group is a primal
mother goddess, whose issue are two divinities, a male and a female, from whom
again springs a fourth, Casmilos, the orderer of the universe.
Herodotus (ii. 51) is the first historian who mentions them. Though known while Athens was flourishing (Aristoph. Pax, 277), it was not till Alexandrian times that they really became famous. During this period Samothrace was a sort of sacred island, as it was under the Roman dominion, for the idea was prevalent that the Penates (Serv. ad Verg. Aen.ii. 325 Verg. Aen., iii. 12Verg. Aen., viii. 619) were identical with the gods of Samothrace. Legend told how that Dardanus, Eetion, or Iasion, and Harmonia, wife of Cadmus, were children of Electra and Zeus; that Iasion was given the mysteries by Zeus, married Cybele, and begat Corybas; and after Iasion was received among the gods, Dardanus, Cybele, and Corybas brought the mysteries to Asia. The legends vary in details, but almost all agree in making Dardanus and Iasion sons of Zeus and Electra, and connecting the Samothracian mysteries with them. It is to be remarked, in passing, that, while legend brought the mysteries from Samothrace to Asia, there can be hardly any doubt that the passage was the other way (cf. Strabo, x. 472); for the whole tenor of the worship is Asiatic. We have many inscriptions of Romans who were initiated (C. I. L. iii. 713-721), and we hear besides of other Romans of high position who were initiated, among them probably Cicero (Nat. Deor. i. 42, 119). Throughout the Roman period the Cabeiric mysteries were held in high estimation, second only to the Eleusinian, and they were still in existence in the time of Libanius.
From the earliest times, the Pelasgi are said to have sacrificed a tenth of their produce to the Cabeiri in order to be preserved from famine. The chief priest was probably the hierophantes mentioned by Galen (iii. 576); and the purifying priest koes or koies. The basileus of the inscriptions was the highest eponymous magistrate of Samothrace. As in all mysteries, the votary must be purified in body and mind before initiation; and thus we have some evidence of auricular confession. But, as far as we know, there was not any special preparatory intellectual training required. Women and children appear to have been admitted as well as men. Of the religious ceremonies themselves we may say we know nothing. They consisted of dromena kai legomena. We hear of dances by the pii Samothraces, and the priests who executed these dances were called Saoi (?). The Romans, who traced their Penates to Samothrace, referred their Salii to these Saoi. There were two classes of votaries-- the mustai and the mustai eusebeis, mystae pii--the latter being apparently those initiated for the first time. In the Samothracian mysteries, sacra accipere (paralambanein ta musteria), which is the regular phrase for primary initiation, seems to be applied to the higher grades. But the whole matter is quite obscure and unsettled.
The scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius tells us that the initiated wore a purple band (tainia) 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. Diodorus further says, in the course of an important discussion on the Cabeiri (v. 47-49), that those who were initiated became more pious, more righteous, and in every respect better than they were before. On the basis of this, Lenormant thinks it probable that the doctrine of rewards and punishments in a future life was inculcated, though, with Lobeck, we may well suppose that no more is necessarily implied than the impulse to virtue, which is always united with religious emotion excited by impressive and gracious ceremonies (Cf. Apoll. Rhod. i. 917).
The initiations at Samothrace took place at any time from May to September, in this differing from the Eleusinian and more resembling the Orphic Mysteries. There appears, however, to have been a specially great ceremony at the commencement of August ( Lucull. 13).
From the manner in which Cicero speaks of the Samothracian mysteries in the passage already cited, it is probable that he was initiated. He says of their ceremonies, quibus explicatis ad rationemque revocatis, rerum magis natura cognoscitur quam deorum. And the Cabeiri themselves do appear to be symbols of the creation of the world. From the primeval mother emanate or differentiate themselves two elements--matter (earth) and force (especially fire, celestial and terrestrial). Indeed, the name Cabeiri appears to mean "the Burners", from kaiein, and by the action of the former on the latter the ordered world is generated. The etymological identity of the Pelasgian with the Phoenician Cabeiri is doubted by Lenormant; the name of the latter being from a Semitic root, which in Arabic appears as kebir, "great". Many hold that all the ceremonies of the Cabeiri, and those of the other mysteries, were pure inventions of the priests, nothing more than mere stories about gods. The reader, with regard to this phase of the subject, is referred to the article Mysteria.
This text is from: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Cited Sep 2005 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
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