About 6km northeast of Kamariotissa, the Sanctuary of the Great Gods is one of Greece’s most mysterious archaeological sites. The Thracians built this temple to their fertility deities around 1000 BC. By the 5th century BC, the secret rites and sacrifices associated with the cult had attracted famous pilgrims, including Egyptian queen Arsinou, Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) and Greek historian Herodotus. Remarkably, the sanctuary operated until paganism was forbidden in the 4th century AD.
The principal deity, the fertility goddess Alceros Cybele (Great Mother), was later merged with the Olympian female deities Demeter, Aphrodite and Hecate. Other deities worshipped here were the Great Mother’s consort, the virile young Kadmilos (god of the phallus), later integrated with the Olympian god Hermes; and the demonic Kabeiroi twins, Dardanos and Aeton, the sons of Zeus and Leda. Samothraki’s great gods were venerated for their immense power – in comparison, the bickering Olympian gods were considered frivolous.
Little is known about what actually transpired here, though archaeological evidence points to two initiations, a lower and a higher. In the first, the great gods were invoked to grant the initiate a spiritual rebirth; in the second, the candidate was absolved of transgressions. This second confessional rite took place at the sacred Hieron, whose remaining columns are easily the most photographed ruin of the sanctuary.
We do know that the rituals at the sanctuary were open to all – men, women, citizens, servants and slaves – and since death was the penalty for revealing the secrets of the sanctuary, the main requirements seem to have been showing up and keeping quiet.
The Archaeological Museum at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods provides a helpful overview of the entire site. Pick up the free museum map before exploring the area. Museum exhibits include a striking marble frieze of dancing women, terracotta figurines and amphorae, jewellery, and clay lamps indicative of the nocturnal nature of the rituals. A plaster cast stands in for the celebrated Winged Victory of Samothrace (now in the Louvre), looted in 1863 by French diplomat and amateur archaeologist Charles Champoiseau.
About 75m south of the museum stands the Arisinoeion (rotunda), a gift from Queen Arisinou of Egypt. The sanctuary’s original rock altar was discovered nearby. Adjacent are the rectangular Anaktoron, where lower initiations took place; the Temenos, a hall where a celebratory feast was held; and the Hieron, site of higher initiations.
Opposite the Hieron stand remnants of a theatre. Nearby, a path ascends to the Nike monument (nike means 'victory' in Greek), where once stood the magnificent Winged Victory of Samothrace, which faced northward overlooking the sea – appropriate since it was likely dedicated to the gods following a victorious naval battle.