According to the currently accepted opinion (although some dispute it) the Thracian tribes arrived in the Balkans during the great migrations of the Indo-European people 3,000-4,000 years ago, and settled in the areas that are now Bulgaria, northeastern Greece and the European part of Turkey. In the regions of Romania and northern Bulgaria, Getae tribes, close to the Thracians, settled. In the past, these tribes were considered barbarians, and this is how the Greeks saw them, but archaeological findings discovered in recent years show that they actually had an advanced material culture, developed religion and deep spiritual teachings, the Thracian culture reached a historical peak in the 4th-5th centuries BC and influenced Greek culture and the creation of the School of the Orphic mystery.
The Thracians are named after Thrax, the son of Ares the war God who lived in Thrace. They flourished at the same time as the Mycenaean culture in the Peloponnese, the Minoan culture in Crete, Troy and the cultures in Anatolia in the 2nd millennium BC. In the classical period (4th-6th centuries BC) they constitute an independent and powerful entity that exists at the same time as Athens and Sparta and adopt some of the elements of Greek culture. Until recently it was thought that the Thracians did not have writing, but excavations show that they had writing that has not yet been deciphered (a long inscription in large and clear letters was discovered at a sacred rock site in the Rhodope Mountains called Sitovo Inscription).
The Greek writers describe the religion of the Thracians, and this is what emerges from the descriptions: the Thracians despised death, used to mourn the birth of a baby and buried the dead with joy, hence the amazing courage they showed in battle. They had a religious value for death, they were people poor in material wealth, but rich in spirit, immortality was achieved while alive through a ritual of initiation.
They were known for their excessive drinking ability, and all the treasures found in the Thracian tombs are mostly wine goblets. As such the traditions of Dionysus found a home in Thrace and some say they originated in the forests of Thrace. According to Herodotus, the Thracians worshiped Dionysus, Artemis, and Ares, but the king believed he was the son of Hermes.
The Thracian earth Goddess had a son who was associated first with the son, and than with vegetation, in all his manifestations he used to die every year and get reborn. Later he was associated with Dionysus, or with a God named Sabazios, and the center of his worship was in Perperikon in the Rhodope Mountains. The remains of his cult appear to this day in the Folklore traditions of Bulgaria by walking on fire and the Kukeri masks.
The Thracians adopted the holy places in the Mountains dedicated by the Goddess culture people and cultivated them. Some of them were in the form of a gate or a womb where they were reborn in their annual celebrations; the sacred sites were connected to the forces of the sun and the moon and the energies of the earth. Eliade argues that the Thracians had a myth of sacred marriage between the God of the storm and the sky and mother earth, which is corroborated by the traditions of the sacred center in Samothrace.
Thracian society was ruled by an aristocracy of priest-kings who were somewhat similar to the Celtic Druids, deeply involved in religion and mysticism and seeking eternal life. The prophet and teacher of the Thracians was Orpheus, the legendary musician from Greek mythology.
The Spirituality of the Indo-Europeans had several characteristic features: first, history was seen as circular, based on cycles, and so did the life and death cycles. Time was not perceived as linear leading from creation to redemption, as in the case of the Semite people spirituality. In addition to this, the indo Europeans believed in an ancient struggle between good and evil, they believed that this world is only an illusion, a screen, and that there are other worlds beyond this world of matter which are the real worlds.
Indo-European culture was to some extent a culture of magic, but unlike Egyptian magic it was closer to nature. They brought with them new religious concepts to the Balkans, Spirituality based on a male sky God, a cyclical concept of life and an aspiration for eternal life. The Indo-European excelled in the use of iron and domestication of horses, they had superb war skills, tribal organization, new mythologies and language. They were organized according to hierarchical social classes and brought with them advanced mental and religious concepts, a spirit of initiative and action, a drive for fulfillment and self-improvement.
According to Professor Salman, the source of the spirituality of the Indo-European peoples was the northern School of Atlantis that found a home in Central Asia in the area of the Trim basin, starting from the 8th millennium BC. From there spiritual teachers were sent to establish study centers and encourage the creation of new communities all over the world. These developed into the nomadic people, farmers, builders of Megaliths. Together with the worshipers of the Goddess, the population of Europe was fused and created. The spiritual teachers established spiritual Schools and centers of prophecy throughout Europe. This was the network of knowledge dissemination that influenced the development of human culture; and so, when the last waves of emigrants came to the Balkans and Europe, the nations of Europe were formed, such as the Slavs, Celts, Thracians and Baltic peoples, they were influenced by these centers of learning and initiation.
One of the spiritual centers of the Slavs was in Kiev, where the enlightened Scythians kept the wisdom of Atlantis. They called it “Mysteries of the Hyperboreans”. The Hyperboreans were mythological people who lived beyond the source of the North Wind. The Greeks thought that the areas north of Thrace were the land of Hyperborea. Later, Scythianus became the teacher of the Scythian cavalry tribes that ruled the plains of Eurasia in the 8th to 2nd centuries BC. According to Salman’s version, the spiritual center of the Thracian tribes was on the island of Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea.
According to the classical Greek version, Orpheus was the son of the Muse Calliope and the God Apollo, according to most sources he was born in Thrace or Peira in northern Greece. Orpheus was a favorite of the muses, who received from his father a miraculous lyre (an ancient musical instrument) as a gift and already as a child he proved to be a talented musician. What he loved most of all was to play, when Orpheus played the birds stopped flying and gathered around him to listen, people stopped their work and came to hear the wonderful melody, everyone suddenly saw their friend in a different, positive light, and the world seemed a good place to live in. Even the trees listened intently and the feeling was that the entire universe was stopping in its tracks and listening. Orpheus was a wonderful musician like no other and it seemed that when he played he was in other worlds, day and night Orpheus amazed with his playing, it was his passion, his love, his life, and only one thing in the world he loved more – the nymph Eurydice who also loved him.
Life seemed perfect for Orpheus: he had a profession which loved more than anything, he had uniqueness, a vocation, a destiny, and most importantly – he had love. He intended to marry Eurydice and live happily and richly ever after. But life had other plans for him. Life has surprising turns and in every great joy there is a kernel of destruction. And so, on the appointed day of wedding, Eurydice was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. Orpheus was overcome with grief, he decided to take advantage of his wonderful musical skills and do something that no one had done before – go down to the underworld and rescue his beloved from the grip of death.
Many difficulties awaited him on the way: slippery and dark slopes, unexplored abysses, the three-headed dog Cerberus that threatened to devour him and the terrible River Styx. He overcame all difficulties with the help of his lyre and courage. Finally he stood before the ruler of the underworld – Hades and played before him a sad song about the fate of human beings who hardly touch upon happiness, immediately it is taken from them.
The music and song was so touching that even the hardened Hades shed a tear and agreed to release Eurydice from the underworld, on the condition that on their way up Orpheus would walk forward and not look back. A seemingly simple condition, but it turns out that everyone fails in it.
On their way up, when Orpheus saw the light at the end of the tunnel, he was suddenly overcome by a desire, a spirit of madness that took hold of him, and glanced back to see if Eurydice was still with him. That was enough: Eurydice was there but immediately she was dragged back to the underworld and the rocks closed in on her forever. All she managed to say was: “farewell”.
Orpheus was overcome with grief: not enough that his beloved had been taken from him forever, not enough that he had made this entire long and difficult journey in vain, but that it was his entire fault, and moreover, his fault arose from a spirit of folly that possessed him for one brief moment. Orpheus could not contain the sorrow, the guilt and the consequences of his actions, and went out of his mind. He spent the rest of his life as a madman in the forests of Thrace, until he accidentally stumbled upon an ecstatic ritual of the priestesses of Dionysus (Bacchian) – women who would get drunk and go wild in the Mountains. They tore him to pieces and that’s how his life ended. The enraged Dionysus sent the Maenads against him, the Lyre was shattered and his limbs were scattered everywhere, his head thrown into the water floated singing as far as the island of Lesbos, where a temple was erected in his honor.
This is the Greek version. According to Greek sources Orpheus lived in the 8th century AD and is related to Homer and Hesiod (he was their spiritual father), but it turns out that the story of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld had another version that was common among the Thracians, according to this version of the story Orpheus had a different ending, he lived to very old age and was a king, priest and teacher and prophet. Some Bulgarians believe to this day that Orpheus lived many years before the Greek era and his place of birth and burial is in the Rhodope Mountains.
According to Professor Alexander Fol, who was the “father” of Thracology (the study of the history, religion and culture of the ancient Thracians) in Bulgaria, the Thracian aristocracy had a belief in an original local Orphism that was learned in small and secret circles of followers. There are two Orpheus: the Greek is the singer, the poet and the musician, and in contrast the Thracian Orpheus is a divine figure who leads people to spiritual knowledge. The Thracian Orpheus is a kind of combination of king – priest – musician and teacher of wisdom, to whom even the forces of nature and the world beyond are no secret.
According to the Thracian version, after losing Eurydice, Orpheus wandered around the woods maddened and in pain, until one night, towards dawn; he climbed a high Mountain (some identify it on the site of Tatul in Rhodope Mountains and others on Mount Pangaion in Greece) and got to see the sunrise from there. At that moment he realized that everything that dies is resurrected, life is a cycle of life and death, and his attempt to preserve Eurydice in her physical form was a vain attempt doomed in to failure. Death cannot be overcome, but it is possible to be resurrected in a different way, to be reborn as an eternal soul in the spiritual world. He understood that as long as Eurydice lived in his thoughts and in his love they are both united forever. Orpheus discovered the secret of eternal life and spent the rest of his life teaching this discovery to others through sacred music and dance expressing universal truths, the teachings included spiritual initiation, interpretation of sacred texts and direction towards a life of purity in spiritual communities. Thus was founded what later became known as the School of the “Orphic Mysteries”.
According to this version, Orpheus was an enlightened teacher who received his knowledge in Egypt and the East (Persia, India), he was declared the founder of the initiations – the ways of initiation that prepare a person to connect to the spiritual element within himself. The prerequisites of Orphism were: vegetarianism, celibacy, purification, study of the holy books, belief in reincarnation and the immortality of the soul.
Orpheus is described as a musician and healer, charmer and tamer of beasts of prey. According to Professor Martin Litchfield West, there is a connection between Orphism and shamanic practices that came to Greece from the north in the 6th-7th centuries BC and included a new understanding of death and birth, dissolution and reconnection, transformations and journeys in the spirit. All of these entered into Orphic literature. And so, the severed head of Orpheus was preserved and used as an oracle, as the heads of Siberian shamans were used until the 9th century and as appears in the ancient Celtic tradition.
Greek mythology tells us that Orpheus participated in the Argonauts’ journey of the Golden Fleece and brought all his boat friends to the island of Samothrace to be initiated there. According to Professor Bremer Orpheus gives the rhythm to the rowers on the Argonauts’ ship, musicians are outside the normal social order, as they have a special connection with the muses. Orpheus was associated with initiation and secret societies, especially of young people, he is the founder of the mystery tradition, poet and prophet, Homer and Hesiod are his descendants, physical or spiritual, and Orpheus is the first and oldest of the poets.
In the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria you can find the cave from which Orpheus descended to the underworld and the place from were he saw the sunrise and was enlightened. Later, he was buried in the same place at the top of which is an impressive Megalithic complex called Tatul. Other places associated with Orpheus in Bulgaria are the City of Plovdiv, the Seven Lakes in the Rila Mountains, and the village of Gela where he was born. The Bulgarian people preserved this image and memory in the remote Mountains, where people who consider themselves as his followers still live, they know how to talk to animals as Orpheus did and use music and dance to reach ecstatic and spiritually pure states as he taught them.
The Thracian aristocracy adopted, as mentioned earlier, the doctrine of Orphism and created Orphic societies open only to initiates, they practiced mystical rituals with an emphasis on dance and music and had allegorical interpretation of the mythological stories. The Orphics were vegetarians, lived a life of purity, dealt with the worlds of energy and the afterlife. Some say they believed in ten different energies that make up the world, as in Kabala.
Orphism was widespread among the Thracians and among the Greeks and later also throughout the classical world. Those sanctified in the way of Orpheus (the Orphians) refused to eat meat. The practical meaning of vegetarianism was the avoidance of blood sacrifices; eating meat was linked in ancient times to myths about the Gods, the deed of Prometheus and the religious life of the Greek City, eating meat was part of a covenant that was renewed between Gods and humans and a religious ceremony. The vegetarianism of the Orphic life distinguished a person from the Greek urban culture and mythology. From a religious point of view, “the turn to vegetarianism indicates both the decision to atone for the original sin and the hope to return, at least partially, to the state of the Helian happiness” (Eliade). The deep meaning of choosing vegetarianism was liberation from the general Greek cultural karma.
According to Eliade, a number passages from Plato’s writings hint at the main Orphic concept regarding immortality: “The soul is imprisoned in the body (Soma) as the body is in the grave (Sama), hence the physical existence is more like death and the death of the body is therefore the beginning of life. However, this “true life” is not achieved automatically, but only with the efforts of a life of purity and initiation. The soul is judged according to its achievements and failures, and after a while it is reincarnated. Similar to what appears in the Indian Upanishads, the Orphic believes in the indestructible existence of the soul, which causes it to reincarnate again and again, until her final redemption.” The essence of Orphism is refinement and development, and these were achieved, among through music, dance, poetry, healing, interpretation, community life and prophecy.
According to the Orphic myth of Dionysus Zagreus, before the current cycle of Gods and men there existed instinctive deities, twisted giants called Titans. When they heard that a divine child was born – Dionysus – they became jealous and tore the body of the young Dionysus to pieces and swallowed his parts, but the Goddess Athena managed to save his heart and bring it to his father Zeus, who swallowed the heart and gave birth to a second Dionysus, Zeus fought in the titans and burned them. The human race was created from the ashes of the Titans, and therefore man has a Dionysian-divine character and Titan-monstrous nature at the same time, because the ashes of the titans contained the body of the child Dionysus. By purification, initiation rites and maintaining an Orphic life, it is possible to eliminate the titanic part in oneself and become a Bacchus, reach a Dionysian divine state.
Apparently the Orphic initiation included repetition of prayers, mantras, fasting, rituals of purification and bathing, the presentation of a drama of death and rebirth, and perhaps also a ritual meal. At the end of the process, one received grace and was able to be freed from the wheel of life – an endless cycle of death and rebirths, during which a person goes through the suffering of birth and life in order to purify the titanic element in him.
The Orphic teachings were based on sacred writings. Franz Cumont, a world expert on classical period religions, describes Orphism as a religion of salvation based on books. Indeed, the oldest text in Europe found in the Museum in Thessaloniki is the Papyrus Devrani which dates to the end of the 5th century BC. In this scroll the author takes one of the Orphic hymns and explains that in fact everything is an allegory. A hint of this can be seen in the first verse: “You the apprentice close the door.” The author relies on the theories of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who argued that the stories of the Gods represent forces of nature and the act of creation.
According to Eliade, “Papyrus Devrani reveals a new Orphic Theogony that focuses on Zeus. In Orphism there is a dualism of body and soul close to Platonic dualism, and on the other hand – a series of myths, beliefs, and rules of conduct and initiation that ensure the separation of the “Orphic” from the rest of humans – and that leads to the separation of the soul from the universe.”
Some claim that Orphism was merely a literary and ideological stream of thought, while others see it as a way of life that was fulfilled within the framework of spiritual communities such as the one established by Pythagoras in Crotone in Sicily. The discovery of the connection of the Thracian aristocracy to advanced and independent Orphism ideology strengthens the understanding that it was a way of life, that Orphic life was not just a one-time initiation, but a kind of religious way of life that was practiced whilst being part of a spiritual community.
Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian, had a lost play in which he described the Orphic cult, just as the Greek dramatist Euripides described the cult of Dionysus in the play “The Bacchides”. According to this play Orpheus would go up every morning to a Mountain called Pangaion to bow to the sun which symbolized for him the possibility of being reborn into the eternal world.
The Orphic doctrine was also recognized and appreciated by the Jews of Alexandria. Aristobulus, a Jewish philosopher from the 2nd century BC, claimed that Orpheus learned from Moses and that there was wisdom common to all mankind. Professor Guy Strumza of the Hebrew University expands on the connection between Orphism and Judaism, and claims that it was the first appearance of a modern religion that promotes personal redemption, social life and morality, instead of priestly worship ceremonies and sacrifices in temples.
It can be said that Orphism was actually a spiritual School, where the mysteries of the heavenly spheres were taught through dance and music, the secret of eternal life and the way of reaching enlightenment. Orpheus’ music brought calm and order to the soul and expressed the structure of the divine worlds. The descent of Orpheus to underworld symbolizes the entry of divine light and order into the depths of the subconscious, calming the passions and urges to allow a new awareness to be born. Orpheus is the only person who went down to underworld and returned from it, meaning he visited the world beyond and can tell us about it. Thus, the School of the Orphic mysteries taught a way of reaching eternal life, self-perfection and purity.
Many people studied at the Orphic School. One of the most famous was Pythagoras, who later opened his own spiritual School and spiritual community in Crotona, Sicily. One of the most famous of Pythagoras’ students was the slave Zalmoxis, who became enlightened, and following that returned to Thrace and Dacia (Romania) and opened there a spiritual School of his own.
Zalmoxis was a slave of Pythagoras from Thracian or Dacian (Romanian) origin, he learned the secrets of the spiritual path from his master and was initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis in Greece. after he got enlightened, he returned to Thrace (according to the Eliade, he returned to Romania – the land of the ancient Dacians) with a distinguished retinue, and built a banqueting hall, where he taught the people about the possibility of living forever.
Be that as it may, Zalmoxis was one of the Gods of the Thracians, and in the tomb of the Thracian temple of Aleksandrovo in central Bulgaria there is a painting of a naked adult man holding a double ax (a symbol of divinity), which is considered to be a representation of Zalmoxis.
According to the legend, after a few years of teaching, Zalmoxis asked to be buried alive, but prepared an escape tunnel at the bottom of the grave beforehand, and so after being “dead” for several years he reappeared and claimed to be resurrected, in this way he made people believe in his Divinity. After several more years he killed himself once more, but this time for real. This time he threw himself on daggers stuck in the ground, but the faithful disciples who were privileged to see the first “miraculous resurrection” refused to accept his death and believed that he would return from the dead once more, and that in the meantime he rules over the world beyond.
Eliade argues that in the regions of Dacian Romania there existed a kind of religion of Zalmoxis that involved rites of passage and came close to monotheism. A priest named Deceneus established the rules of the “sect”, among them the avoidance of excessive drinking of wine. Every four years the Dacians sent a messenger to Zalmoxis, a man who volunteered to fall on bayonets in order to pass to the next world. The cult of Zalmoxis was close to the Greek and Thracian Mysteries, it seems to be a mythical ritual script of death and rebirth, in which a person becomes immortal. The characteristic of the cult was hiding in underground caves, followed by an apparition accompanied by a ceremonial celebration, emphasizing the immortalization of the soul and belief in a blissful existence in another world.
According to Strabo, a Roman historian, Zalmoxis learned from Pythagoras the way of the celestial bodies, astrology and the art of divination. He went to Egypt, where he studied magic, and became a prophet and magician. Zalmoxis became the high priest of the most respected God in Thrace, close to the king, but finally he retired to a cave on the summit of the holy Mountain Kogainon, “where no one was welcomed except the king and his servants, and later he was considered a God.” He established a divine decree that meat should not be eaten, he preached purity and refinement. His worship had a Pythagorean character and was led by hermits and holy men.
Plato says that Zalmoxis was a healer with a holistic approach, who healed the body and mind; he was a priest king of the Dacian tribes.
The Thracians had two spiritual paths; one was that of Orpheus, and the other – of a God named Sabazios, who was later identified with Dionysus. The first is related to ascension, sanctification, connecting with the higher part of man, while the second chooses first to go down low, to the instinct and the body, and there to discover the impulse of life – the Eros.
According to Greek mythology, Dionysus was born to a woman (princesses Semela) and the sky God Zeus. His mother died before he was born and his father gave him up for adoption to shepherds in Mount Nisa. Already from a young age his life was surrounded by suffering and sorrow. He didn’t know who he was and from where his powers came from and what to do with them, so he became a violent child and unloaded every burden. When he grew up to be a teenager things got worse, he would get drunk become violent and lose his mind, wandering madly around the world, following the crises he experienced he decided to embark on a journey to the east to find the source of his restlessness, he went all the way to India, where he learned that there was God within him and reached enlightenment.
When he returned from the East he was already a God, but not an Olympian and distant sky God like Apollo, but a compassionate earth God who understands the pain and suffering of humans. And so, first thing he did is to rescue his mother Semela from the underworld, and then he married Ariadne, who wanted to commit suicide after the hero Theseus abandoned her.
He taught the Greeks the Dionysian mysteries which included drinking wine, unburdening the yoke, connecting to the human subconscious and releasing the tangle of passions and desires in him, and from that finding the divine within us. Those who did not agree to the strange and new rituals found themselves torn to pieces by the followers of God, or in an allegorical way – by the uncontrollable impulses of their subconscious.
Eliade describes the worship to Dionysus Sabazios as follows: “The ceremony was held at night in the Mountains by the light of torches, rhythmic music, banging on bronze bowls, cymbals and flutes. The faithful gave shouts of joy and began a stormy and furious circular dance. The women indulged in the wild dances and wore strange, long and fluttering clothes, sewn from skins of foxes with doe skins on them; they may have even worn horns. They held in their hands snakes dedicated to Sabazios and daggers. When they reached ecstasy, they would seize animals intended for sacrifice and tear them to pieces, eating the raw meat, thus completing their identification with God.” According to Eliade, the wild ecstatic experience was an inspiration for a religious vocation, for healing and the gift of divination.
As mentioned earlier, the Thracian Sabazios was identified with Dionysus; his worship was similar to that of the Bacchae (priestesses of Dionysus who would go out into the forests and Mountains). The prophecy was connected with the cult of Dionysus Sabazios, and the Thracian tribe of the Bessi was in charge of its oracle in Perperikon. But the Thracian Sabazios also had identification as a “rider God” represented in art by a rider on a horse.
Sabazios the “Rider” is said to have brought religion to Thrace from Phrygia and taught the Thracians to believe in the afterlife and the secrets of the spiritual worlds. Phrygia was an ancient kingdom in today’s Turkey, their capital was called Gordion and it is 85 km southwest of Ankara. The Phrygian king was called Gordias or Medias (general name), he was considered a friend of Dionysus. Sabazios, who according to the Greeks is the embodiment of Dionysus and Zeus together. The spirituality of the Phrygians was advanced and refined and they were said to have mastered the secrets of magic.
The Phrygians invented music and the two-reed flute that the satyrs played (from which the brass instrument and the Bulgarian flute probably evolved), they had a Phoenician script, and they wore a bonnet (which appears as the symbol of the French Revolution and in the seal of the United States Senate). Many of the spiritual traditions of the classical world came from Phrygia, but on the way they probably passed through Thrace.
Burial and initiation temples
So far we have seen that an important element in the spiritual life of the Thracians was the belief in the afterlife, and therefore burial places (temples) were of great importance. The tombs of the Thracian aristocracy were built according to the initiation principles of the Orphic way and according to the understanding of the worlds beyond.
Thousands of tombs of the Thracian aristocracy were discovered throughout Bulgaria in the last 40 years. Usually these are huge mounds surrounded by a circular wall. The circle symbolizes the sun. The Thracians believed in the holy fire (spiritual light) and the sun, their traditions included everything related to fire, and at the same time everything related to light, including star observatories and places of sunrise. Sun worship was associated with horse racing, walking on fire, and wearing masks, all of which were preserved in Balkan Folklore.
A typical Thracian burial mound structure has a corridor leading to an inner room which is a kind of “womb”. In front of the corridor, which usually faces south, there is a platform where the Orphic ceremonies that included music and dance were probably performed. Many times on the back, northern side of the mound, there is a place for the worship of Dionysus (wine press). The entrance corridor leads in most cases to a middle room that resembles a tomb, and after that there is a door or a door frame leading to the inner room which is usually round, so that a three stage structure is created starting from an entrance of a corridor (sometimes long), continuing into an intermediate room and ending in an inner room.
It is interesting to note that some of the “tombs” were discovered without the remains of human bones in them, even though they were sealed, and hence they were not graves in the usual sense of the word, but rather symbolic tombs, and probably initiation temples of the person represented buried in them. The “tombs” differ in size from each other; they have sacred architectural proportions and relationships that tie them to sacred number systems such as that of the numbers 6 and 12, or the decimal system. In some of them paintings were found and in some glyphs and reliefs on columns of one or another type. Some of the symbols are geometric and some are shapes or figures.
The “tombs” – the Thracian temples are one of the most wonderful things that Bulgaria has to offer. The “tombs” – temples were built starting from the 5th century BC, and in terms of size and power they are no less impressive than the other monumental structures in the ancient world. Some of them have large carved stones weighing hundreds of tons that were brought from far away and it is not clear how they were fitted together. In some places the stones are of a special type and are usually connected to each other with iron strips.
Inside the Thracian “tombs” temples there is a reverberating sound effect, and it seems that they were built for this purpose. This fact strengthens the argument that these were places of initiation. The proportions of the buildings reflect the human body, and it is possible that the size of each “tomb” is related to the person who was initiated in it. According to my understanding of the Orphic way, these were places where a person was “buried” for three days, perhaps after eating hallucinating plants, and certainly after participating in ecstatic ceremonies of dance and music held in front of the “tomb”, in which he probably also got drunk. The sharp transition from excess to insensibility resulted in the departure of the soul from the body and experiences of astral journeys (as happens with the shamans). The person would die to himself and experience the spiritual worlds for several days, after which the door would be opened and he would be reborn into the world, but in a different way than before.
The proportions of the room where the person was “buried” and the type of stone from which it was built helped to intensify the energetic experience. The Orphic conception was that as space echoes sound, so it can echo thoughts and feelings. Different shapes had a connection to one or other cosmic principles, and the ball or the egg symbolized the cosmic egg from which the world was created. The “tomb” inside the mound symbolized the cosmic womb from which the world was born, and it replaced the vaginal cave inside the Mountain that had previously served this role. The opening of the “tomb” was often directed towards the sun on a special day of the year so that it would light it up, and there are silver plates showing that inside the “tombs” they performed the sacred marriage ceremony, Kama Sutra-style plates that could awaken the dead.
At the entrance to the “tombs” – the Thracian temples, we usually find a doorway with three different decorations on three staggered lintels: in the outer lintel meanders (windings) of a River symbolizing the River Styx; in the middle frame an egg symbolizing rebirth; In the inner frame are pearls that may symbolize the moon, the treasure, the eternity they were looking for.
Inside the inner room gifts related to a person’s life in this world and the next were put, and this is how we find gold and silver treasures in the tombs including: masks, trophies, helmets and symbolic shields, horse harnesses (a horse is considered an animal that knows the way to the world of the dead) and more. Objects related to the head such as a helmet or crown were placed in the north, while objects related to the legs such as knee pads were placed in the south, which shows that the temple referred to the human body.
Sometimes, the deceased was burned or torn to pieces, the large bones that survived the fire were placed in urns, and the urns were placed in six places around the tumulus – the burial temple. This is a possible explanation for the absence of skeletons in the inner chambers. The remains of man’s ashes recalled the myth of Dionysus Zagros and the creation of man from the ashes of the Titans. In this case the inner chamber of the empty “tomb” is related to the process of purification of the divine element in man from the titanic ashes towards the possibility of eternal life.
Various researchers tried to explain the meaning of the objects found in the “tombs” – temples and the principles of their sacred architecture, and some Thracologists came to the conclusion that they had a kind of mystical numerology, as appears in the teaching of Pythagoras. It should be noted that the Thracians dealt with the worlds of energy and the afterlife. In Dunov’s “White Brotherhood” they claim that the Thracians believed in ten different energies that make up the world, as in Kabala, this belief is also shared by Georgi Kitov the leading archeologist on Thracian sites.
In addition to the importance of numbers, proportions and spaces in the Thracian tomb temples, colors also had a meaning: blue – symbolizes the sky, both physical and spiritual. Black symbolizes the underworld, and red the earthly world. If you mix the three colors, you get the eternal color of dark purple (Orphninus), and therefore these are the three colors that appear in the decorations of the Thracian tomb temples throughout Bulgaria.
In the “tombs” many small figurines of human images associated with the Orphic cult were also discovered, as well as representations of geometric bodies such as: triangles representing fire (according to the Pythagorean), cubes representing the earth, and a sphere represent the cosmic egg from which the universe was created.
In many “graves” a mirror is found, it was one of the sacred objects of Thracian Orphism. According to the Orphic myth, Dionysus Zagros was scattered into many parts whilst looking in a mirror, and this reflects the perception that there is a hidden reality, which is a reflection of the chaotic physical reality, and in which there is a divine order.
As mentioned earlier, Indo-European peoples arrived in the Balkans, probably already in the 3rd millennium BC, they mix with the local population and created the ancient “proto-Thracian” tribes and kingdoms. We don’t know much about this period.
In the 2nd millennium BC, the Mycenaean culture develops in Greece, the Minoan in Crete, and the Thracians appear as part of the ancient world and as allies of the City of Troy. The new Greek tribes (the Dorians and the Greeks) go to war with the existing order and the old forces, as reflected in the stories about the Trojan War which was actually a civil war .The Thracians supported the Trojan side, indicating that they were part of the ancient golden order of the Bronze Age, which lost its hegemony to the Greek warriors of the Iron Age.
The Trojan War dates back to the 12th-13th century BC. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is told about various Thracian tribes such as the Kikones or the Paiones – who fight against the Greek heroes and receive praise for their courage. At that time, the Thracians had legendary leaders such as Rhesus, the king who was murdered in his sleep but will be resurrected, Eumolpos who was one of the six kings of Eleusis who founded the Greek mystery tradition (he may have brought it from Thrace), Diomedes of Thrace, to whom Hercules was sent to perform his eighth labor because he had man-eating horses, and more.
In other words, Greek mythology is full of stories about legendary Thracian kings, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Orpheus. Presumably the legends were based on the existence of some type of loose Thracian kingdoms (tribal confederations) that stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Dardanelles north to Romania and Serbia.
In the 8th century BC the settlements of Greeks and Phoenicians begins to be established on the shores of Mediterranean and the black sea, and this includes Thrace. Cities – polis are built such as Amphipolis or Avdra and Maronia (today in northeastern Greece). Thrace is the place where there is a meeting between East and West, north and south, and in the archaic period between the Phoenicians and the emerging Greek cities. This brings about cultural fertilization and allows the transfer of the Phoenician alphabet and writing system to Greece. In the classical period (5th century BC) the Spartans and the Athenians fight for control over the Thracian coastal colonies and the islands, and first and foremost over the rich gold and silver mines on Mount Pangaion.
At that time, the Thracians formed into several unions or kingdoms: the bessi tribes was considered to be a kind of sect of Thracian Brahmin priests who engaged in prophecy and were connected to the center of the God Dionysus which was probably in Perperikon in the Rhodope Mountains. The Bessi lived in these Mountains, but also in the central part of the Maritza River bed and in the Balkan Mountains. In the 6th century they developed military capabilities and began to establish a sort of independent kingdom in the area of the Rhodope and Rila Mountains and resisted the Persian occupation of Thrace, and centuries later also the Roman occupation.
The Ordisian tribes lived in the lower plain of the Maritza River and their ancient capital was probably Edirne in Turkey. After the loss of the Persians to the Greeks, a union of Thracian tribes began to form around this center, which controlled most of the territory of today’s Bulgaria and also parts of the neighboring countries. It was a kingdom that had no fixed capital or urban culture, and was ruled by a spiritual aristocracy, they are the ones who built the wondrous tomb temples. Over time, the center of the kingdom shifted to the Starosel region in the Sredna Gora Mountains and the Rose Valley at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. One of the last kings of the kingdom built a permanent capital near the City of Kazanlak which was named after him – Seuthopolis. At this same time the Thracians adopted the Greek script and some of their cultural customs.
North of the Balkan Mountains there were two more important and powerful tribal unions, independent for some time. In the northeast and on both sides of the Danube, these were the Getae, who were considered by the Greeks to be noble among the Thracians, and whom the Romanians consider to be part of their heritage. In the northwest, these were the Triballi tribes – daring warriors who lived in the territories of eastern Serbia, northern Macedonia, northwestern Bulgaria, and were influenced by the Celts and the Illyrians.
The end of the Thracian period
In the 4th century BC, a king named Philip comes to power in Macedonia. He grew up as a young man in Thebes, which was the leading City of Greece at the time, and came to admire the Greek culture, learned its ways and brought them back with him to his home country: he established cities, organized an efficient system of government, reformed the army and taught it Greek ways of fighting (the phalanx), and educated the youth in the spirit of Greek philosophy, freedom and research. To this end, he brought to his Palace in Vergina the best pedagogues, chief among them the philosopher Aristotle, who was the personal tutor of his son Alexander the Great for several years, from the age of thirteen.
Philip succeeded in implementing the Greek system on a large scale, he created a sort of a first modern state of its kind with a road network, large irrigation systems (canals), and silver and gold mines that brought a lot of income to the state treasury. The land of Macedonia is fertile and it is able to support a large population compared to the arid lands of Greece. Philip managed to reach a critical mass of people, money and army. He founded a standing army and added the Thessalian cavalry to the classical Greek combat system of the phalanx. With the help of the new army, he conquered Thrace, all of Greece and large parts of the Balkans at the end of the 4th century BC.
The Macedonian occupation meant that a large part of the sacred Thracian sites in the Mountains were hidden or abandoned and the spiritual Thracian tradition partially forgotten and the rest of it went underground. Like many ancient peoples before them, the Thracians chose to hide their spiritual sacred places and seal it, so that they would not be visible to robbers and despised by invaders. This is the period when a large part of the tomb temples in the Valley of the Kings and the nearby Mountains were covered with earth and sealed.
From this time onwards Thrace (Bulgaria) becomes part of the Hellenic-Roman world. Philip establishes cities throughout the country, the first and largest of which is Plovdiv, which at the same time was named after him – Philipopolis. He continues with the sanctification of some of the Thracian sites, especially the temple of Dionysus Sabazios in Perperikon.
It should be remembered in the context of Thracian spirituality that Alexander the Great mother, Olympia, met his father Philip at the mystery center of the Thracians in the island of Samothrace; In fact they were the ritually consecrated couple, and thus the conception that summoned Alexander’s spirit into the world took place during the initiation rites of Samothrace.
Alexander’s journey to the East was not only a journey of conquest, but a quest for wisdom, meaning, and an attempt to merge all cultures, religions and spiritual paths into a common human guest. The campaign of conquest was probably the most influential in history and the most significant meeting between the East and the West. When Alexander conquered the East, Eastern spiritual elements such as belief in the Redeemer (Suter) merged with Greek religion and spirituality, and a mixture of Greek polis culture with Macedonian, Thracian and Eastern cultural elements was created, which is called the Hellenism.
Following the conquests of Philip and Alexander, Thrace (Bulgaria) was under Hellenic rule and influence for nearly 200 years, until the Romans arrived, defeated the Macedonian phalanx at the battle of Fydna and established their rule over this part of the world as well. We will read about Roman Bulgaria in the next part of the book, but before that, let’s go on a route following the ancient Civilizations of Bulgaria from prehistory until the end of the Thracian period, and visiting the most impressive sites from these times