How It Worked

Island Gods, Ancient Travelers, and Human Social Networks

In a mountainous inland area of Phrygia, near the source of the Maeander River, a man we know only as Strato the Archon set up an inscription honoring the Great Gods of Samothrace for having saved him on the sea:

Στράτων Ἄρχοντος σωθεὶς
Κατὰ θάλασσαν Θεοῖς Μεγάλοις Σαμὀθραιξιν χαιρεστήριον

Strato the Archon, because he has been rescued from danger on the waves,
offers his thanks to the Great Gods of Samothrace

We do not know the date of his inscription. The site, Apamea Kibotos, lies sufficiently far from the sea that the readers of this inscription may have thought of Odysseus’ altar to Poseidon, which he established in a place so far from the sea that locals thought the oar he carried on his shoulder was a winnowing fan (Odyssey 11.121-131). The city lies near the source of the Maeander river, and in the imperial age was second only to Ephesus as a market center: Strato’s inscription would have had numerous readers. (Strabo 12.8.15; Drew-Bear 2014). Some of Strato’s readers may have seen analogous offerings at Fasilar or at Koptos in Egypt. At Fasilar, an undated inscription honors the Dioskouroi of Samothrace for their epiphany which brought salvation (Lehmann 1969a: 252). At Koptos, in the third century BC, Apollonios of Thera, commander of the foreign troops, set up an offering to the Great Gods of Samothrace to thank them for saving him from peril on the Red Sea (Robert 1951: 132). Two centuries later, Diopeithes of Rhodes set up an inscription at his home thanking the Samothracian gods for having saved his trireme off the Libyan coast (Kontorini 1983: 3)

These inscriptions are a small sample of a rich corpus of inscriptions which attest the reputation and geospatial distribution of the Great Gods of Samothrace – an island positioned at the very edges of the Greek cultural and geographical world. Here a mystery cult, its procedures sealed by secrecy, was practiced for hundreds of years. While the rites were mysterious, the benefits of initiation were very well known: safety in travel at sea. Strato at Apamea Kibotos, Apollonios in Egypt, and Diopeithes on Rhodes were members of a very large club.

Our project explores the hypothesis that the mystery cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace worked: its initiates did travel more safely at sea. The mythological expression of this safety was the intervention of Dioskouroi, helpful daimones and well-disposed gods; the social reality which underlay these symbols was a human social network created and authorized by the rites. Safety at sea relied on human as well as meteorological factors. Cooperation, communication, and interstate treaties reduced the sociogenic risks associated with maritime travel. Samothrace is one of many ancient rituals which authorized and strengthen these human exchanges; its epigraphic record provides us with data regarding the individuals, civic offices, and geospatial locations which created the island’s social network. ArcGIS lets us positions these social networks in real space; Cytoscape provides a system for analyzing the complex data of the human social network itself. The data itself comes from inscriptions, both on and off the island.