Fresco of the Aleksandrovo kurgan. The right figure with the double axe is identified with Zalmoxis.

Zalmoxis (Greek Ζάλμοξις, also known as Salmoxis, Σάλμοξις, Zamolxis, Ζάμολξις, or Samolxis Σάμολξις) * was a semi-mythical social and religious reformer, regarded as the only true God by the Thracian Dacians (also known in the Greek records as Getae Γέται). According to Herodotus (IV. 95 sq.), the Getae, who believed in the immortality of the soul, looked upon death merely as going to Zalmoxis, as they knew the way to become immortals.

*(original wikipedia uses Zamolxis, Ζάμοξλις, or Samolxis Σάμοξλις, i.e. ξλ instead λξ )


A number of etymologies have been given for the name. Diogenes Laertius (3rd century-4th century ad) claimed that Zalmoxis meant "bear skin". In his Vita Pythagorae, Porphyrius (3rd century) says that zalmon is the Thracian word for "hide" (τὴν γὰρ δορὰν οἱ Θρᾷκες ζαλμὸν καλοῦσιν). Hesychius (ca. 5th century) has zemelen (ζέμελεν) as a Phrygian word for "foreign slave".

The correct spelling of the name is also uncertain. Manuscripts of Herodotus' Historiae have all four spellings, viz. Zalmoxis, Salmoxis, Zamolxis, Samolxis, with a majority of manuscripts favouring Salmoxis. Later authors show a preference for Zamolxis. Hesychius quotes Herodotus, using Zalmoxis.

The -m-l- variant is favoured by those wishing to derive the name from a conjectured Thracian word for "earth", *zamol. Comparisons have also been made with the name of Zemelo, the Phrygian goddess of the earth, and with the Lithuanian chthonic god Zjameluks. However, this etymology is probably incorrect.

The -l-m- variant is admitted to be the older form and the correct form by the majority of Thracologists, as this is the form found in the older Herodotus manuscripts and other ancient sources. The -l-m- form is further attested in Daco-Thracian in Zalmodegikos, the name of a Getic King; and in Thracian zalmon, 'hide', and zelmis, 'hide' (PIE *kel-, 'to cover'; cf. English helm).

The man

Herodotus was told by the euhemeristic Pontic Greeks that Zalmoxis was really a man, formerly a slave (or disciple) of Pythagoras, who taught him the "sciences of the skies" at Samos. Zalmoxis was manumitted and amassed great wealth, returned to his country and instructed his people, the Getae, about the immortality of the soul. Zenon also records that Zamolxis was Pythagoras' slave.

At one point, Zalmoxis traveled to Egypt and brought the people mystic knowledge about the immortality of the soul, teaching them that they would pass at death to a certain place where they would enjoy all possible blessings for all eternity.

Zalmoxis then had a subterranean chamber constructed (other accounts say that it was a natural cave) on the holy mountain of Kogainon, to which he withdrew for three years (some other accounts considered he actually lived in Hades for these three years). The cave is located in the Bucegi Mountains of Romania and named the Ialomicioara Cave. After his disappearance, he was considered dead and mourned by his people, but after the three years had passed, he shown himself once more to the Getae, who were thus convinced about his teachings; an episode that some considered to be a resurrection (Thus he can be seen a life-death-rebirth deity, parallel to Tammuz or Jesus.)

Herodotus, who declines to commit himself as to the existence of Zamolxis, expresses the opinion that in any case Zalmoxis must have lived long before the time of Pythagoras.

Plato says in the Charmides dialogue that Zamolxis was also a great medic who took a holistic approach to healing body and mind, not just the body as was the Greek practice.

The god

After the death of Zamolxis, his cult grew into a henotheistic religion. During the rule of Burebista, the traditional year of his birth, 713 BC, was to be considered the first year of the Dacian calendar.

Aristotle equates Zamolxis with Phoenician Okhon and Lybian Atlas.

It is possible that Zamolxis is Sabazius, the Thracian Dionysus or Zeus. Mnaseas of Patrae identified him with Cronos (Hesychius also has Σάλμοξις· ὁ Κρόνος). In Plato he is mentioned as skilled in the arts of incantation.

His realm as a god is not very clear, as some considered him to be a sky-god, a god of the dead or a god of the Mysteries.

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 bear 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.

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 for aye 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. Such is the account of the Greeks.

I for my part neither put entire faith in this story of Zalmoxis and his underground chamber, nor do I altogether discredit it: but I believe Zalmoxis to have lived long before the time of Pythagoras. Whether there was ever really a man of the name, or whether Zalmoxis is nothing but a native god of the Getae, I now bid him farewell. As for the Getae themselves, the people who observe the practices described above, they were now reduced by the Persians, and accompanied the army of Darius.

Herodotus Book 4



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