“They were gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshiped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead” – H.L. Mencken
If even immortal deities die, what chance do we have at avoiding eventual oblivion? That’s the sort of existential question my weekends start with. Consequently, I don’t get invited to a lot of parties. The story of the Great God Zalmoxis is particularly tragic as he was still being worshiped when the first Western historians started taking notes. Of course, he was already being sneered at by the Ancient Greeks, but who wasn’t really? Pro tip: if you intend to time travel and have a pleasant conversation with Herodotus, you better brush up on your accent in the Ionian dialect of Greek, or he’ll consider you an uncultured savage (don’t be talking none of the Theban jive or he’ll be slandering you in his Histories – just ask Plutarch, who felt he was such a jerk that he wrote On the Malice of Herodotus). Oh, I almost forgot. Zalmoxis. See how easy that is?
About 400 B.C., Zalmoxis was busy being worshipped by the Getae and Dacian peoples of the lower Danube, at least according to Greek historian Herodotus (who himself lived in the 5th Century B.C. and was referred to as the “Father of History” by subsequent Roman historians trying to pin down the origins of their discipline). The Getae were a Thracian tribe that inhabited the region between modern Bulgaria and Romania, and the Dacians were their related western neighbors. The Ancient Greeks seemed to use the names interchangeably, although the extent to which this was true is a still a matter of some controversy. The Getae and/or Dacians seemed to exist from about the 7th Century B.C. until the Romans subjugated the entire Balkan Peninsula about the turn of the Common Era. Whether the Dacians were the Getae, or a distinct people, they shared a common god…what was his name? Oh, yeah. Zalmoxis. Even in the time of Herodotus there was some question as to whether Zalmoxis was an actual person, a legendary Getae king, a human elevated to godhood, or a garden variety deity. Our earliest mention of Zalmoxis is in Herodotus’ Histories, where he suggests the Getae are the noblest of the Thracian tribes, high praise coming from him.
The belief of the Getae: in respect of immortality is the following. They think that they do not really die, but that when they depart this life they go to Zalmoxis, who is called also Gebeleizis by some among them. To this god every ﬁve years they send a messenger, who is chosen by lot out of the whole nation, and charged to hear him their several requests. Their mode of sending him is this. A number of them stand in order, each holding in his hand three darts; others take the man who is to be sent to Zalmoxis, and swinging him by his hands and feet, toss him into the air so that he falls upon the points of the weapons. If he is pierced and dies, they think that the god is propitious to them; but if not, they lay the fault on the messenger, who (they say) is a wicked man: and so they choose another to send away. The messages are given while the man is still alive. This same people, when it lightens and thunders, aim their arrows at the sky, uttering threats against the god; and they do not believe that there is any god but their own (Herodotus, Histories, Book 4:94).
Clearly, the Greeks thought Zalmoxis was kind of cool, although a little demanding on the sacrifice side of things. They were probably getting sick of carving all those statues and propitiating the whole pantheon of Greek gods. That’s a lot of worshipping. Maybe they were pining for a nice aniconic (where you’re not allowed to display a physical image of your preferred celestial critter) monotheism. And like all good things in the Ancient Greek world, they assumed its origin had to ultimately be Greek.
I am told by the Greeks who dwell on the shores of the Hellespont and the Pontus, that this Zalmoxis was in reality a man, that he lived at Samos, and while there was the slave of Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus. After obtaining his freedom he grew rich, and leaving Samos, returned to his own country. The Thracians at that time lived in a wretched way, and were a poor ignorant race; Zalmoxis, therefore, who by his commerce with the Greeks, and especially with one who was by no means their most contemptible philosopher, Pythagoras to wit, was acquainted with the Ionic mode of life and with manners more reﬁned than those current among his countrymen, had a chamber built, in which from time to time he received and feasted all the principal Thracians, using the occasion to teach them that neither he, nor they, his boon companions, nor any of their posterity would ever perish, but that they would all go to a place where they would live forever in the enjoyment of every conceivable good. While he was acting in this way, and holding this kind of discourse, he was constructing an apartment underground, into which, when it was completed, he withdrew, vanishing suddenly from the eyes of the Thracians, who greatly regretted his loss, and mourned over him as one dead. He meanwhile abode in his secret chamber three full years, after which he came forth from his concealment, and showed himself once more to his countrymen, who were thus brought to believe in the truth of what he had taught them (Herodotus, Histories, Book 4: 95).
Now, this whole scenario may be starting to sound a little familiar. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Jesus. Scholar of religions Mircea Eliade had a few theories as to what Zalmoxis might have been all about: (1) a rite of passage enacted by the Getae, involving ritual rebirth (2) an offshoot of the Pythagorean mystical cult, or (3) yet another in a long string of deities with a death and resurrection myth, pointing at a retelling of an archaic Indo-European proto-religious story that got incorporated into lots of different religions. Dying and being reborn is a pretty popular oeuvre among the celestial set. After Herodotus, Zalmoxis is mentioned here and there by classical philosophers and historians (Strabo, Iamblichus, Aristotle, Plato), but fades into obscurity as the Roman province of Lower Moesia (Romania) started to feel the effects of the expansion of Christianity, where some say it found fertile ground precisely because the death-resurrection theme figured so prominently in the Zalmoxis biography.
So, nobody has spent much time worshiping Zalmoxis (or a few thousand other gods) for about two millennia. About the best you can hope for is to get a local dinosaur (Zalmoxes robustus, first found in Transylvania) or album (70’s Romanian rock band Sfinx’s Zalmoxe) named after you. Such is the sad fate of both dead gods and hair-metal bands. And sadly, it seems every deity can eventually expect this sort of ignoble treatment, although religion in general can breathe easy since in its countless variations it will likely soldier on regardless, for as Pearl S. Buck observed, “When men destroy their old gods they will find new ones to take their place”. At any rate, next time you’re playing darts at the bar and somebody loses an eye, raise a little toast to that Getaean god…darn it, what was his name? Oh, yeah. Zalmoxis.
Eliade, Mircea. Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God, University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. [Olympic ed.] New York: Tandy-Thomas, 1909.