Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ancient Thracian tombs as mini-dungeons (Part 2)

The nature of Thracian religious beliefs concerning death and afterlife is subject to much scholarly discussion... What follows are a few snippets that can be used as inspirational material for a sword & sorcery-type game, especially in conjunction with the tombs from part 1! As illustrations I will just use some pictures of archaeological finds from Thrace.

The ancient historian Herodotus gives us information about one of the Thracian tribes, the Getae (who were also, by accounts of other authors, connected with the Dacians).

The gilded silver helmet from Agighiol. 5th century BC. Don't look in the eyes.

In Book 4 of his "Histories", Herodotus describes the Getae as warriors, "the bravest and most just of all Thracians", who "pretend to be immortal" [4.93].
"Their belief in their immortality is as follows: they believe that they do not die, but that one who perishes goes to the deity Salmoxis, or Gebeleïzis, as some of them call him. Once every five years they choose one of their people by lot and send him as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions to report their needs; and this is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men; others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and swing and toss him up on to the spear-points. If he is killed by the toss, they believe that the god regards them with favor; but if he is not killed, they blame the messenger himself, considering him a bad man, and send another messenger in place of him. It is while the man still lives that they give him the message. Furthermore, when there is thunder and lightning these same Thracians shoot arrows skyward as a threat to the god, believing in no other god but their own." [4.94]
In this one passage there are already plenty of ideas! The cult of Salmoxis (or Zalmoxis, or Gebeleïzis, etc.) is a cruel one, with human sacrifice (by lottery, none the less), but it is also a rewarding one, promising eternal life.

Deer-shaped rhyta, from Thracian tombs, 4th century BC

Who was this Salmoxis?

As told by the Hellespontian Greeks,
"...Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave in Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus; then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own country. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people, but this Salmoxis knew Ionian ways and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian; for he had consorted with Greeks, and moreover with one of the greatest Greek teachers, Pythagoras; therefore he made a hall, where he entertained and fed the leaders among his countrymen, and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead; then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them." [4.95]
What we have here is a mortal man, a former slave, trained in the Pythagorean way, who becomes immortal and is, therefore, worshiped as a god by his kin. Salmoxis' disappearance into an underground chamber can be interpreted as a rite of renewal or rebirth; his way of attaining immortality.

Strabo tells the same story, although with some variations and additions:
"...when [Salmoxis] came on back to his home-land he was eagerly courted by the rulers and the people of the tribe, because he could make predictions from the celestial signs; and at last he persuaded the king to take him as a partner in the government, on the ground that he was competent to report the will of the gods; and although at the outset he was only made a priest of the god who was most honored in their country, yet afterwards he was even addressed as god, and having taken possession of a certain cavernous place that was inaccessible to anyone else he spent his life there, only rarely meeting with any people outside except the king and his own attendants; and the king cooperated with him, because he saw that the people paid much more attention to himself than before, in the belief that the decrees which he promulgated were in accordance with the counsel of the gods. This custom persisted even down to our own time, because some man of that character was always to be found, who, though in fact only a counsellor to the king, was called god among the Getae." [7.3]

A coiled snake figure found at Seuthopolis

If you connect these stories about a man vanishing into an underground chamber and thus becoming a god with the peculiar features of the Thracian tombs described earlier, these "mini-dungeons" become small sanctuaries for attaining immortality or, at least, temporary renewal. It can also explain the various chambers of special shape or configuration inside the tomb. The king or noble warrior or tribe priest for whom it was built from time to time entered it and emerged reborn; and used it as a burial place after a long and fulfilling earthly life, when he moved on to a different plane of existence, practically as a god.

So... are the adventurers ready to face a chthonic warrior priest god for a couple of pieces of gilded armor? Or do they want to become immortal themselves?

James H. Wilson: Zalmoxis (from "Zalmoxis and Other Poems", 1892)

No comments:

Post a Comment