Getians: Hellanikos and others on Zamolxis (fifth century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Getians: Hellanikos and others on Zamolxis (fifth century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2024,

Ancient author: Hellanikos (fifth century BCE) and Mnaseas (third century BCE), as cited by the Suda under “Zamolxis” (link); Herodotos, Histories 4.94-96 (link).

Comments: At times it seems that Greeks evaluated peoples through the lens of chosen legendary figures, in this case Zamolxis (or: Samolxis). The stories that circulated regarding Zamolxis are evidently varied, but both Hellanikos and Herodotos have him active among Getians (a subset of “Thracians” in Greek terms). Hellanikos is briefly cited by the compiler of the Suda lexicon. If this is a full summary of Hellanikos’ passage, then it seems that, unlike Herodotos, Hellanikos identifies Zamolxis as a Greek and does not focus on supposed barbarous practices of human sacrifice, but instead focusses on tales about a belief in the return of Zamolxis. This would fit with other signs that Hellanikos was more inclined to a less negative depiction of barbarian peoples, as he also attributes inventions to them (link coming soon), much like Ephoros. For a discussion of Herodotos’ account of Getians and Thracians, go to this link.


Hellanikos, Herodotos and Mnaseas in the Suda

Zamolxis [or: Samolxis]: He had been enslaved to Pythagoras, as Herodotos [late fifth century BCE] reports in the fourth book. He was a Scythian who, after returning, taught that the soul is immortal. But Mnaseas [ca. late third century BCE] says that Kronos was worshipped by the Getians and called Zamolxis. Now in the Barbarian Customs, Hellanikos [fifth century BCE] says that, having been born a Greek, Zamolxis introduced initiatory rites (teletai) to the Getians who were in Thrace and that Zamolxis said that neither he nor those with him would die, but that they would have every good thing. After saying these things, he built an underground chamber. Disappearing suddenly from among the Thracians, he then lived in this, but the Getians were longing for him. After four years, he appeared again, and the Thracians believed him completely.

However, some say that Zamolxis was a slave to Pythagoras the son of Mnesarchos from Samos and that, after he was freed, he cleverly devised these things. But Zamolxis appears to have lived much earlier than Pythagoras.

The Terizians (Terizoi) and the Krobyzians (Krobyzoi) also consider themselves deathless and they say that those who have died go away like Zamolxis, but will return again. And they always consider these things to be true. Now they also sacrifice and feast, so that the person who has died will return.

Ζάμολξις: Πυθαγόρᾳ δουλεύσας, ὡς Ἡρόδοτος δ. Σκύθης: ὃς ἐπανελθὼν ἐδίδασκε περὶ τοῦ ἀθάνατον εἶναι τὴν ψυχήν. Μνασέας δὲ παρὰ Γέταις τὸν Κρόνον τιμᾶσθαι καὶ καλεῖσθαι Ζάμολξιν. Ἑλλάνικος δὲ ἐν τοῖς Βαρβαρικοῖς νόμοις φησίν, ὅτι Ἑλληνικός τε γεγονὼς τελετὰς κατέδειξε Γέταις τοῖς ἐν Θρᾴκῃ καὶ ἔλεγεν, ὅτι οὔτ’ ἂν αὐτὸς ἀποθάνοι οὔθ’ οἱ μετὰ τούτου, ἀλλ’ ἕξουσι πάντα ἀγαθά. ἅμα δὲ ταῦτα λέγων ᾠκοδόμει οἴκημα κατάγαιον. ἔπειτα ἀφανισθεὶς αἰφνίδιον ἐκ Θρᾳκῶν ἐν τούτῳ διῃτᾶτο. οἱ δὲ Γέται ἐπόθουν αὐτόν. τετάρτῳ δὲ ἔτει πάλιν φαίνεται, καὶ οἱ Θρᾷκες αὐτῷ πάντα ἐπίστευσαν. λέγουσι δέ τινες, ὡς ὁ Ζάμολξις ἐδούλευσε Πυθαγόρᾳ Μνησάρχου Σαμίῳ καὶ ἐλευθερωθεὶς ταῦτα ἐσοφίζετο. ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρότερος δοκεῖ ὁ Ζάμολξις Πυθαγόρου γενέσθαι. ἀθανατίζουσι δὲ καὶ Τέριζοι καὶ Κρόβυζοι καὶ τοὺς ἀποθανοῦντας ὡς Ζάμολξίν φασιν οἴχεσθαι, ἥξειν δὲ αὖθις: καὶ ταῦτα ἀεὶ νομίζουσιν ἀληθεύειν. θύουσι δὲ καὶ εὐωχοῦνται, ὡς αὖθις ἥξοντος τοῦ ἀποθανόντος.


Herodotos (fifth century BCE)

[Getian customs related to death and the god Salmoxis]

(4.94-96) 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 Gebeleizis, 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. This is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men, while others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and then 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 favour; 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 towards the sky as a threat to the god, believing in no other god but their own.

[Greek theories regarding Salmoxis]

I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontos [Black Sea] that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave on the island of Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchos. Then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own land. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people. However, this Salmoxis knew Ionian Greek habits and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian way of life because he had consorted with Greeks and, mainly, with one of the greatest Greek teachers: Pythagoras. Therefore he built a feasting-hall where he entertained and fed the leaders among his fellow-inhabitants, and taught them that neither he, 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. Meanwhile the Thracians wished he was back and mourned him as though he was dead. Then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and this is the way they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him. Now I neither disbelieve nor entirely believe the tale about Salmoxis and his underground chamber. However, I do think that he lived many years before Pythagoras. Regarding the question of whether there was a man called Salmoxis or this is some deity native to the Getians, let the question be dismissed.


Source of translation: Suda passage translated by Harland; A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

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