Sanctuary of the Great Gods

One of Greece’s most important and mysterious archaeological sites is on Samothraki

ONE OF THE world’s most celebrated marble sculptures is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, carved in about 190 B.C., which has been on display since 1884 at the Louvre in Paris. While the statue is famous, the details of its provenance are little-known: it comes, obviously, from the island of Samothraki in the northeast Aegean Sea, but specifically from the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, a place the 11th edition of Lonely Planet Greek Islands calls one of “the most important” and “most mysterious” archaeological sites in Greece.

Lonely Planet Greek Islands, 11th edition

The sanctuary, six kilometres northeast of Kamariotissa, the island’s main port and largest village, was built by Thracians around 1000 B.C. to honour not Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena and the rest—“the bickering Olympian gods were considered frivolous,” says the guidebook—but fertility deities “venerated for their immense power.”

Little is known about what actually transpired here, though archaeological evidence points to two inititiations.” The first brought a spiritual rebirth, the second absolved the candidate of all transgressions. The rituals “were open to all—men, women, citizens, servants and slaves.” The penalty for revealing the sanctuary’s secrets was death.

The second ceremony took place at the Hieron, “whose remaining columns are easily the most photgraphed ruin of the sanctuary.” Opposite the Hieron are the remnants of a theatre and nearby a path that rises to where the Winged Victory of Samothrace (thought to commemorate a naval battle) once looked north over the sea.

The sanctuary remained operating until the late fourth century A.D., when pagan worship was forbidden.