Modeling the mysteries: GIS technology, network models, and the cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace

Sandra Blakely (Emory)

Institute of Classical Studies Digital Seminar 2011

Friday July 22nd at 16:30, in Room 37, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

GIS technologies and network models offer two new avenues of investigation for the mystery cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace, one of the most prestigious mystery religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Samothrace promised its initiates neither a blessed afterlife, nor mystical union with divinity, but a pragmatic and economically powerful benefit: safety in travel at sea. I propose in this paper that initiation at Samothrace did ensure safe travel, through the human social networks created by the cult. Abundant epigraphical records show that Samothrace granted theoria and proxenia to representatives of city states along the Asia minor coast, the Black Sea, South Russia, and the islands. A GIS database of these materials provides the framework for the investigation of the social dynamics behind these civic institutions. Theoroi and proxenoi acted on behalf of Samothracian interests in their homes, and represented their cities at the island’s annual festival. The festival, in network terms, brought together all the nodes in the network for which the gods guaranteed safe travel. Historic and ethnographic data suggest that the festivals allowed the exchange of information vital to safe seafaring, built trust through shared ritual experience, and provided a context for the forging of business and political contacts which could ensure favorable treatment for ships as they moved through the ports of Samothracian affiliates. Civic institutions, laws and social structures impacted the success of sea voyages as directly as did the volatility of the Mediterranean winds and currents. Myths of cannibals and opiates, the history of maritime piracy, law codes and geography all affirm the dependence of the maritime community on stable resources and sympathetic social structures in ports around the Mediterranean. The human social networks created at Samothrace provided the land-based support for safe seafaring which the Dioskouroi, the gods of the cult who were popularly associated with St. Elmo’s Fire, were believed to provide to ships and sailors on the high seas.

Samothracian initiation thus joins a large category of ancient mechanisms for connecting city-states; mythic journeys and genealogies, political leagues and treaties, ties between colonies and mother cities were among the others. The GIS database allows the integration of the ancient evidence for these other types of networks into the system and so allows comparison between these various forms of networks. The data suggest that Samothrace may have functioned as a super-node joining together many smaller networks, exponentially increasing their effectiveness. The island, despite its geographically marginal position, thus functioned as a central node in a widespread cultural network, and its promise for safe travel was fulfilled by the initiates, theoroi and proxenoi themselves who traveled to the island to request such aid from the gods of the rites.


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.

Audio recording of seminar (MP3)

Presentation (PDF)