ZALMOXIS was the founder, possibly legendary, of a priestly line of succession closely linked with kingship of the Getae and the Dacians, the northernmost Thracian peoples of the ancient world. Whether he is a figure of legend or of history is moot, as are questions of his religious functions. Associated both with priesthood and with kingship, he was divinized and became the object of a widespread cult among both northern and southern Thracian peoples.
The name Zalmoxis is attested by ancient authors from Herodotus and Plato (fifth-fourth centuries bce) to Diodoros of Tyre (second century ce) and Jordanes (sixth century ce). Herodotus spells the name Salmoxis; Strabo gives it as Zamolxis. The genuine form, however, is Zalmoxis, support for which is found in such Thracian names as Zalmodegikos and Zelmutas and in numerous composites formed with -zelmis, -zelmos, and -selmios. Zamolxis is only a metathesis, frequent since Strabo (first century bce), with no parallels in Thracian onomastics.
Porphyry (third century ce) explains the etymology of Zalmoxis through the Thracian word zalmos ("skin"; Gr., dora ), and in supporting this thesis he offers an etiologic legend that tells of the covering of Zalmoxis at birth with a bearskin (Life of Pythagoras 14–15). Dimiter Detschew (1957, p. 175) has proved that Indo-European correspondents of zalmos also mean "shield, protection," which is perfectly fitting to both a god and the highest priest. But Porphyry also gives another explanation of the meaning of the name: "foreigner" (Gr., xenos aner ). On this basis Paul Kretschmer compared the metathetical form Zamolxis with the Phrygian zemelen ("barbarian slave"; Gr., barbaron andrapodon ), with Zemelo, the name of a Thraco-Phrygian earth goddess (compare the Greek Semele ), and with the Slavic zemlja ("earth") and thus explained Zamolxis as meaning "lord of men" (for -xis, compare the Avestan xshaya-, "lord, king"). Hence was developed (mainly by I. I. Russu) the theory of the chthonic character of this god, which led to the ongoing dispute over his real functions.
According to Herodotos (Histories 4.94), some Getae also gave Zalmoxis the name Gebeleizis or Beleizis, which Kretschmer has related to the same Indo-European root, *gʾhem-el- ("earth"), that he traced in Zamolxis. Given that Herodotus spoke about a thundering god, Wilhelm Tomaschek corrected the name to Zibeleizis, meaning "thunder sender" (compare the Lithuanian žaibas, "thunderbolt," which has no clear etymology). More recently, Cicerone Poghirc (1983) has proposed, for reasons of textual criticism, the reading Nebeleizis, meaning "god of the [stormy] sky" (compare the Slavic nebo, "sky," and the Greek nephele, "cloud").
Herodotos (4.95) refers to a story told by the Greeks in the Pontic colonies (on the western shore of the Black Sea) according to which Zalmoxis was a Getic slave of the Greek Pythagoras, who lived in Samos. After Zalmoxis was freed, he became wealthy and went back to his native country, where he taught the northern Thracians the Greek way of life based on Pythagorean ideas about immortality, vegetarianism, and so forth (see Strabo, Geography 7.3–5). In his homeland Zalmoxis had an andreion built (a room for the exclusive use of men), where he received the chiefs of the Getae and taught them that neither they nor their posterity would die. This concept of immortality refers in all probability to a paradise where warriors would enjoy eternal life and everlasting pleasure after death. While he imparted this teaching of the afterlife, Zalmoxis had an underground chamber constructed. When it was finished, he retired to it for three years, during which the Thracians mourned his death, but in the fourth year he reappeared, showing that death is not irreversible.
With slight variations, this legend is repeated by several Greek and Latin writers. Herodotos, however, opines that Zalmoxis was not a slave of Pythagoras but did in fact live long before him. Strabo adds that Zalmoxis learned from Pythagoras and from the Egyptians, whom he visited. He says that Zalmoxis was a prophet who became a priest of the principal god of the Getae and an associate of the king; later he was divinized. He dwelled in a cave, on the holy mountain Kogaionon, where scarcely anyone but the king and his messengers could join him (7.3–5). The kingship of Zalmoxis and his teaching on immortality are confirmed by Plato (Charmides 156d–e), who adds further that Zalmoxis had taught a highly praised method of psychosomatic medicine based on charms (epoidai, 157a).
Another piece of basic information provided by Herodotus (4.94) concerns the principal rite of the Getae, which consisted of killing a messenger every four years (or five years, according to Greek computation). A man chosen by lot from among the warriors was given a message to be delivered to the god. Then he was cast on top of three spears. If he died instantly, this was interpreted as a good omen. If he failed to die, the sacrifice had to be repeated, and the first messenger was cursed. This cursing suggests that purity of some kind was required.
According to the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela (first century ce), Getic warriors were not afraid of death. Pomponius gives three different explanations for their contempt of life, each one believed by some among them: belief in metensomatosis (reincarnation); belief that the soul survives after death in a happy place; and belief that life is worse than death, although the soul is mortal. Of these interpretations, only the second refers to the genuine teaching of Zalmoxis according to Herodotus (4.95).
Herodotus's reference to Zalmoxis/Gebeleizis introduces the latter as a heavenly god. This description is supported by the claim that during thunderstorms the Getae shot arrows into the sky, thus threatening their god (4.94).
Decaeneus (also known as Dekaineous, Deceneus, and Dicineus), a high priest of Zalmoxis during the reign of the Getic king Burebista (c. 80–44 bce), is mentioned in an account by Strabo (7.3–5), his near contemporary. According to a Greek commonplace, Egypt was a land where wisdom could be acquired, and Strabo also says that Decaeneus wandered there and learned soothsaying (7.3–11). The story that he ordered grape vines cut down in the kingdom of Burebista and an allusion to the vegetarianism of the Getae may be based on actual facts. It is also not impossible that Decaeneus was acquainted with the idea of metensomatosis, which fits well in the Pythagorean pattern of the religion of the Getae. An authentic feature of Getic high priesthood was Decaeneus's dwelling in a cave on Mount Kogaionon (Strabo, 7.3–5).
The history of the interpretations of Zalmoxis is somewhat disappointing. Distinguished scholars have disagreed about whether Zalmoxis's cult was a form of monotheism or of polytheism (it was not more monotheistic than, say, the Cretan cult of Zeus Idaeus); about whether Zalmoxis was a god or a man, perhaps a religious reformer; and about whether he was connected with the earth or with the sky (in fact he was associated with both). Spiritualistic evolutionists have tried to show that the cult of Zalmoxis represented for the Daco-Roman population a sort of primordial revelation and a praeparatio evangelica. Rationalists and Marxist evolutionists have tried to demonstrate that it was, on the contrary, much more "primitive" than some testimonies indicate. Hadrian Daicoviciu, for instance, shared this last hypothesis even though it contradicted his own pertinent interpretation of the calendar temple of Sarmizegetusa Regia (modern-day Gradistea Muncelului, Romania), according to which the Dacian priests were steeped in sophisticated astronomical speculations (Dacii, 2d ed., Bucharest, 1972).
The excellent study Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God (Chicago, 1972) by Mircea Eliade put an end to these discussions by showing that the testimonies concerning the cult of Zalmoxis have to be trusted and interpreted on the basis of a close comparison with other religious materials. According to Eliade, Zalmoxis was a mystery god in whose cult the divinity's "occultation" and "epiphany" were celebrated. In his attempt to decipher the Greek interpretation of Zalmoxis in its genuine dimensions, Eliade established important links between Zalmoxis and Archaic Greek traditions concerning soothsayers and medicine men like Pythagoras himself.
Zalmoxis and the Greek Seers
In the most ancient testimonies, Zalmoxis is constantly related to Pythagoras. Pythagorean features of his cult are further specified until the times of Strabo and Pomponius. A corpus of these features can be established as follows: Zalmoxis has an underground chamber built, disappears for three years, and then reappears (katabasis, occultation, and epiphany); he makes prophecies; he and his priests and successors live in a mountain cave, practice psychosomatic medicine, and make astronomical computations; there is among the Getae a group of ascetics who live in poverty and continence, abstaining from animal food. The core of the Zalmoxean teaching is the doctrine of immortality of the soul, which should actually be interpreted as a promise to the brave warriors that they would survive in paradise. Later, some among the Getae may have been acquainted with the idea of metensomatosis. All this sounds so Pythagorean that the Greeks were even disposed to understand the less attractive practice of human sacrifice without much ethical comment.
One of the false problems connected with Zalmoxis that has received much attention from scholars is whether the god—if he was a god at all—ought to be interpreted as a chthonic or as a heavenly divinity. In fact, from the perspective of the history of religions, this is not a logical contradiction, since divinities of the sky can be strongly connected with the earth, and vice versa. Furthermore, even in Greek religion, which is usually the model according to which Zalmoxis is interpreted, such heavenly divinities as Zeus and Apollo were worshiped in caves, whereas such a typically chthonic divinity as Persephone was associated very early with heavenly immortality. Pythagoras himself, who was apparently connected with Apollo of Hyperborea, is also the character who descends to the underworld and who exhibits important features that establish his relationship with a chthonic goddess, or "great mother." Zalmoxis's "Pythagorean" structure connects him with both the earth and the sky.
Among the Greek characters belonging to the same class of seers, soothsayers, medicine men, and semidivinities as Pythagoras, the one who most closely resembles Zalmoxis is Epimenides of Crete, worshiped as a god in a local cult. Epimenides is said to have dwelled in the grotto of the infant Zeus on Mount Ida, where he slept for several decades. He avoided food and used only a plant called alimos, or hungerbane, to keep hunger in abeyance. He could foretell the future, he practiced purifications, and he was able to remember his previous existences as a human being. In one of these incarnations he was Aeacus, brother of Minos, who was a son of Zeus. Minos visited his godly father in the Idaean cave every eight years, and thus it is not surprising that Epimenides used this place for incubation. During his catalepsy, his soul was reported to be together with the gods, listening to their speeches.
According to another legend, once when Epimenides was about to dedicate a sanctuary to the nymphs a heavenly voice instructed him to dedicate it to Zeus instead. This could be interpreted as an indication that the Idaean cave did not belong to the sphere of influence of those divinities who normally preside over such places, that is, the nymphs, but to the heavenly god par excellence, Zeus. In fact, Epimenides was considered a "new infant" (neos kouros ), the Idaean Zeus reborn. It is, then, no surprise to learn that he was the guide of Pythagoras when the latter descended into the Idaean cave. Nor is it surprising that Epimenides, the author of oracles and theogonies, worshiped by the Cretans as a god, was nevertheless transformed by the Neoplatonic Iamblichus (c. 250–330 ce) into a pupil of Pythagoras in precisely the same way as this happened with Zalmoxis; among Greek seers of pre-Socratic times Pythagoras was simply more famous than Epimenides.
The chthonic side of Epimenides is revealed by his dwelling in a cave and by his relationship with the nymphs. In the legends of Pythagoras and Zalmoxis this chthonic side is revealed by a detail that has only recently received a consistent interpretation. Walter Burkert (1972) has shown that Pythagoras was probably viewed as a representative of the chthonic goddess Demeter, a hypothesis confirmed by the tradition that Pythagoras once exhibited a "golden thigh." This probably means that the legend attributed to Pythagoras a tattoo on his thigh, which was the mark, or seal, of the Anatolian great goddess. At the same time it was an indication that Pythagoras could travel to Hades (Burkert, 1972, pp. 160–161).
In his Life of Pythagoras (15), the Neoplatonist Porphyry reports a strange legend according to which Zalmoxis was a disciple of Pythagoras; at the time of the revolt of the citizens of Croton against Pythagoras, Zalmoxis was captured by bandits who tattooed him on his face, which he kept covered ever after. This brief account seems to be extremely important, since tattooing among southern Thracian nobles is attested as early as Herodotus (5.6) and confirmed by several testimonies, and yet Artemidorus of Ephesus (fl. 100 bce) reports that, whereas the southern Thracian nobles had their children tattooed, the Getae tattooed only the children of their slaves. From a fragment attributed to Clearchus of Soloi (sixth century bce) one could infer that Getic women were tattooed over the whole body. The rhetorician Dio Chrysostom (first century ce) specifies that only the wives of Thracian nobles were tattooed, with red-hot irons.
Tattooing among the Thracians was probably a religious mark; among the northern Thracians, the Getae and the Dacians, it could have been associated with the pain once inflicted upon Zalmoxis by his captors. Since tattooing among the Getae is twice mentioned in relationship to slavery, one could infer that the ancient legend making Zalmoxis a slave was based on this character's genuine myth, which might have originally included suffering and imprisonment. Plutarch of Chaeronea (first century ce) reports that the Thracians tattooed their women in order to avenge the sufferings inflicted by Thracian women upon Orpheus. Plutarch, who was far better acquainted with Orpheus than with Zalmoxis, could have misinterpreted here an actual tradition connected with Zalmoxis. It is possible to a certain extent to state that the Getae tattooed their slaves and perhaps their wives as a religious record and possibly as revenge for the mark impressed upon Zalmoxis while he was a captive.
Much less convincing is the interpretation of Rhys Carpenter in his Folk-Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Berkeley, Calif., 1946), which is based on the testimony of Porphyry (Life of Pythagoras 14), according to which a bearskin was put on Zalmoxis at his birth. According to Carpenter, Zalmoxis actually was a bear, whose hibernation (i.e., occultation) was taken by the Getae as a religious model.
God or man, possibly also a religious reformer of the Getae, Zalmoxis fits almost perfectly into the Pythagorean pattern of a Greek seer and medicine man such as Epimenides, who was also worshiped as a god. His myth is scarcely known, but it could have contained an episode of captivity and, possibly, suffering. Ritual tattooing among the Getae was related to this episode, and might have been inflicted upon slaves and women as an expiation of a mythical sin. Zalmoxis probably taught immortality for valiant warriors. He was worshiped in a grotto, which might have played an important part in the initiation of priests and warriors. A chief priest, his representative in the grotto, was considered a prophet, and he gained such influence in political matters that the state of Burebista could be properly called a theocracy. A sanctuary, possibly the old sanctuary with an underground chamber at Sarmizegetusa Regia, described by Ion Horaţiu Crişan in Burebista and His Time (Bucharest, 1977), was provided with a subterranean room, a substitute for the grotto. This indicates that the legend of the occultation of Zalmoxis referred to by Herodotus was connected with the existence of such an ancient sanctuary.
The bibliography relating to the etymology of the name Zalmoxis is discussed by Dimiter Detschew in Die thrakischen Sprachreste (Vienna, 1957) and by Cicerone Poghirc in "Considérations philologiques et linguistiques sur Gebeleizis," which appears in Poghirc's Philologica et Linguistica (Bochum, 1983), pp. 169–172. All Greek and Latin testimonies concerning Zalmoxis are reported and translated in Fontes Historiae Dacoromanae, 2 vols., edited by Virgil C. Popescu et al. (Bucharest, 1964–1970).
The widest historico-religious interpretation of this divinity of the Geto-Dacians, together with an impressive bibliography, is to be found in Mircea Eliade's Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God (Chicago, 1972). For alternative interpretations, see Walter Burkert's Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (Cambridge, Mass., 1972) and Ioan Petru Culianu's "Iatroi kai manteis," Studi storico-religiosi (Rome) 4 (1980): 287–303. In a more recent book, Psychanodia, vol. 1 (Leiden, 1983), pp. 24–39, Culianu has examined the historico-religious context in which the testimonies connected with Zalmoxis are to be placed. See also, by the same author, Expériences de l'extase (Paris, 1984), pp. 25–43.
Alexandrescu, Petru. "La nature de Zalmoxis selon Hérodote." Dialogues d'histoire ancienne 6 (1980): 113–122.
Dana, Dan. "Zalmoxis in Antonius Diogenes' Wonders Beyond Thule. " Studii clasice 34–36 (1998–2000): 79–119. Basing on the study of various literary traditions he criticizes Eliade's and Culianu's strictly religious interpretations.
Pippidi, D. M. "Réflexions d'hier et d'aujourd'hui sur le culte de Zalmoxis." StudClas 14 (1972): 205–210.
Ioan Petru Culianu (1987)
Cicerone Poghirc (1987)