The ancient marbles were suffused with sunlight and the heat echoed on the stones as I stood at the edge of the Propylon (the original entrance) of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods (*), looking down towards the Theatral Complex. A group of tourists was gathered in the orchestra (the center of the theater), droning around their guide who was gesticulating emphatically. They were a poor mock-up of the initiates that used to stand at the same place thousands of years ago; yet, within the, otherwise, empty archaeological site, their appearance bespoke the importance of the human presence and restored part of the lost vividness amidst the surrounding ruins. My gaze stretched beyond them in search of the eminent columns of the Hieron (the temple), but only the verdant strip of the island, surrounded by the blue ring of the sea, could be seen. The clusters of buildings where the mystic initiation ceremonies took place in antiquity were lying at a lower plateau, invisible from the viewpoint of the entrance. To reach them, one should keep walking downhill, in a wisely designed symbolic movement towards another world – the world where the chthonic gods reside – or, more importantly, towards an inner part of the person’s psyche where something unknown is to be discovered or something forgotten is to be retrieved.
“Samothrace has a special energy,” everybody kept repeating when I announced my plans to visit the island. In Greece, such a phrase usually implies a feeling of peace, a healing force that reaches down to the very core of the being, bringing tears to the eyes and bliss to the heart. I was soon to be proven wrong.
Samothrace floats like a wild beast on the waters of the northern Aegean Sea: powerful, lofty, sacred, hostile, almost inhospitable. The visitor is not meant to find serenity in the deceptively idyllic landscape of plane-tree forests, time-worn oaks, thick carpets of ferns, frigid pools, and waterfalls. The ancient chthonic gods still reside on the island, having overpowered not only the much friendlier Greek pantheon that preferred the Olympus peak for its home but Christianity as well which, despite its apparent dominance, seems to hold just a secondary position. The Kabeiroi have managed to remain present, their sovereignty prominent even inside the small chapels that are scattered, like white pebbles, on the mountain’s slopes. Still, they remain elusive: their names mysterious, their faces unknown, their mandates undecipherable.
I was quickly intimidated by the acerbity of these gods. Their roughness, infused into the plants, the harsh mountain line, the people themselves, choked me as soon as we docked at the harbor: for a few hours, even swallowing was uncomfortable and talking was harsh.
Our group arrived late in the afternoon, our heavily stuffed backpacks strapped on our shoulders. We planned to live for a few days like a tribe in the primeval wilderness of Samothrace, hiking and camping through the pathless mountain, honing our basic survival skills, learning along the way how to converse with nature and interpret its messages. There was a promise of authenticity and a deeper connection with the earth, all leading to what I expected to be a spiritual process. Where we would travel outward, we would reach the center of our existence; where we would read the tracks of the animals, we would learn to translate the footprints of the human consciousness; and where we would think we were alone, we would be with all the world, reaching, through our understanding of our individual connections, a level of awakening. The answers though are not always to be found on the mountain, and, for the first time, I was not welcomed on its peaks. But I am rushing ahead.
The gods revealed their untamed nature early on our trip. Our first night unfolded ferocious and tempestuous, with the wind howling through the woods, our camp shaking, the tarps plummeting under the torrential rain, and thunderbolts – the manifestation of the divine energy pouring into the living world – tearing the sky apart, diving with vigor into the sea. Sleepless, I watched the celestial performance, hypnotized by its electrified intensity, choosing to remain oblivious to the potential danger we were facing lying under the trees, the displeasing soaking of our gear, or the insects crawling among the wet leaves that acted as a mattress for our sleeping bags. What I was witnessing was too strong: what W. Blake had identified as “portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” I was almost touching the substance of the demiurge – my own presence revealed too small and limited. The island was trembling under my body like a dinosaur I had reached by mistake: a lively being moaning and fuming and twisting amid a ritual in which I felt I was intruding rather than participating.
For the next few days, we settled on a remote beach that, in early June, was still uninhabited. The mountain’s mass towered over our heads, often displaying an unfriendly disposition. Poseidon might have once sat on its peak to observe the battles of the Trojan War, but even he was just a visitor, and nothing of his much more familiar temperament had remained on the island.
Our isolation was sometimes interrupted by a few dolphins that played close to the shore; a seal swam nearby observing us from afar like a gossipy old maid; the seagulls temporarily flew away, unwilling to interact with us, and the wild goats lingered perched on the rocks, waiting for our departure to indulge in the left-overs we collected for them in a pot. Only the aroma of the island – the body fragrance of a temptress – was offered generously. Everything was scented, pungent, and spicy: the woods, the bushes, the ground-crawling plants, the water, the rocks, the soil itself. The redolence was even permeating the pores of our bodies as if we were washed in myrrh and frankincense during a purification sacrament.
Days passed by and life felt uncomfortably fake, despite the tranquility of our camp. Our tribal faces around the camping hearth were hidden behind grotesque masks that everybody pretended not to see. The discussions were forced and artificial, pressing for confessions that were not meant to be made. The setup resembled a parody of a theatrical performance with roles of ambiguous importance and lines that were not part of any script. There seemed to be no theme, and time was just haphazardly spent under the shadow of the mountain – a shadow that was getting heavier and heavier to bear. I kept observing those masks, their forged traits intensified when monitored within the raw authenticity of the island: evasive eyes; covert scenarios; fear, indifference, and pain. Egos triumphed over the benefit of the community, goals became more important than the journey, the essence was lost behind appearances. There was no comradeship, and this took me by surprise. We were not ready to be a tribe. Maybe humanity in total is not ready yet to be a tribe. Looking back, I can see that, despite the opportunity given, we had quickly chosen to turn into a miniature replica of modern society, renouncing the core values of coexistence, not only distancing ourselves from each other but, also, defending the righteousness of this separation. Looking back, I can see how the gods had already started playing with us.
It was through the dancing cloaks of one of those nights, while I was feeling lost and puzzled, that I managed to detect for the first time the faces of the Kabeiroi flickering next to the fire. I was not familiar with them, and one cannot easily see what one does not know. Yet, they chose to reveal themselves; they looked me straight in the eyes asking, “What are you doing here?” and I had no reply to give because, by then, I knew it was not the mountain that had called me, nor was it the nature on the island, its people, or my temporary tribe. I was clueless and wished to be left in peace to contemplate the question. But it was not meant to be easy: I was pushed and bullied, driven to the edge, forced to look down into the void – a void I am so afraid of – the question reverberating again and again: “What are you doing here,” until the answer escaped almost on its own will through my lips: “I am here to retrieve something that is mine and has been forgotten.” And then, there was calmness and absolute silence for, at moments of truth, the whole universe pauses to listen.
By then, I was confident that what I was looking for was not to be found on the mountain – hence, traversing it (as per the original arrangement) was going to be for me an exercise in futility. The Samothrace gods had pushed me to a different series of tests: I had been asked to tell apart illusion from reality; I had been obliged to find the courage to remain loyal to myself even under peer pressure. I finally chose not to follow the rest of the group on the hiking trail, not because I could not cope with the challenge but because it would have been inappropriate for me to do so. Instead, I was trained on how to stand strong for what I believed, fighting, at the same time, my fear of becoming an outcast. I learned to face people and circumstances without ego but with a detached gaze, so that I could reach a level of inner peace and contentment I was not aware I could find within me. And, as I passed through my personal trials, I found myself sitting among those ancient initiated ones, not as a visitor but as equal.
This mystical catharsis allowed me to bring the learnings forward, making them available to all for the transfiguration of the cosmos. I had connected with the umbilical cord through which the energy of eternity streams back into time, unlocking and releasing the flow of life again into the body of the world. As a result, I saw the dynamics of the group, influenced by my own development, transforming in front of my eyes, reaching on the last day a level of unity I thought it would have been impossible to attain. And I was reminded that I might be small and limited, but, when in tune with what we call “true nature,” I can become the vehicle for changes much bigger than myself, without necessarily engaging in any difficult action or investing too much effort.
It was this path leading (downwards and inwards) to the Hieron of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods that had been calling me all along. Standing there now, I knew that my trip to Samothrace was completed. There is undoubtedly a strong energy on the island – something that is present, palpable, yet mysterious and unclear. Usually, I look forward to revisiting such places. In this case though, despite the unfinished business (as I never summited the Fengari peak), I do not feel like going back soon. Just because a soul can travel to Hades to retrieve something precious and then come back, it does not mean this process should be repeated many a time. Powers like these are to be treated with respect and humility. So, I bow in front of the chthonic gods, I give thanks and leave.
(*) The Sanctuary of the Great Gods is one of the principal Pan-Hellenic religious sanctuaries, located on the island of Samothrace. During the ancient times, the island was home to the Mystery Cult of the Great Gods (a chthonic religious practice), whose initiation rites promised divine protection at sea, and the opportunity to “become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.” The identity of the Samothracian Gods remains enigmatic. Ancient writers often referred to them as the Kabeiroi, but in Samothrace, they were simply called the Gods of the Great Gods.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
This post is part of a project temporarily called “Self-Portraits,” comprising of monthly dialogues with the inner and outer landscape in an attempt to document change over time. Complement this with the previous posts:
The Fragility of New Beginnings (November 2016)
A Libation to the Muse (December 2016)
There is Always Hope in the Beauty of Human Creations (January 2017)
Ode to Silence (February 2017)
Falling in Love Once Again (March 2017)
Pilgrimage (April 2017)
Growing Roots (May 2017)