The Thracian Oracle: Has the Famous Sanctuary of Dionysus Been Found?

The Thracians were an ancient people inhabiting parts of modern day Bulgaria and Greece. The lands of the Thracian tribes were home to several significant ancient cities, important landmarks and treasures. Perhaps one of the most spiritually significant ancient Thracian sites at the time was the Sanctuary of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine-making, fertility, and ritual madness. There is no modern consensus as to the location of the site, but a new paper suggests the sanctuary may have been found at last.

Ancient Evidence for the Sanctuary

This sanctuary was first mentioned by  Herodotus, who places it on Mount Pangea, belonging to the Thracian ‘Satri’ tribe. The priests were ‘Bessi’, from a tribe adjacent to the Satri. The sanctuary was huge, second only to the renowned Oracle of  Delphi, and visited for predictions of the future by powerful men such as Alexander the Great. Guy Octavius, the father of Emperor Octavian  Augustus, visited the sanctuary and it was foretold that his son would rule the world. The mention of these two colossal historical figures speaks of the huge role of this Thracian sanctuary in the ancient world.

Dionysus ( Public Domain )

A number of hypotheses have been made about its location, without much material evidence so far. The question is too difficult due to the small amount of ancient information, which allows a number of authors to build biased hypotheses which favor some evidence and discount other information. Still, the prevailing opinion is that this famous sanctuary was located somewhere in southwestern Thrace and the southwestern part of the Rhodope Mountains, which was probably once known by the common name of Pangea.

A New Hypothesis

In his publication in  STUDIA ACADEMICA ŠUMENENSIA  Todor Uzunov offers a convincing hypothesis that this sanctuary is located in the Southwestern Rhodopes,  Bulgaria. In his support, he proposed for discussion an archaeological site discovered by him in 2007, and which is being reconsidered in the context of an ancient Pseudo-Aristotle account. (Pseudo-Aristotle is an ancient author who contributed to the collection “On the Heard miracles”. Modern academics define these passages in the collection in this way because they possibly come from  Aristotle).

The object is called “Prav Kamen”, in translation “an upright stone”. The site itself has a complex structure with a cult character, the first evidence being provided by the dolmen that serves as an entrance. This entrance leads to a large round, stone platform, on the north side of which stands a large stone block. It is oriented to the east and has the shape of a human head. It is visibly charred from a height of 70 cm (28”) from its base, indicating that a tripod was probably used here to light a fire.  Sacrifices made in this fashion were popular in antiquity.


 
The rock argued by the author to be the altar of the sanctuary of Dionysus.  Photo; FiPrav Kamen, 2007, and drawing by Todor Uzunov. (Todor Uzunov)

Unlike most bizarre stone blocks in the  Balkans, it is deliberately crafted, resembling eyes, mouth, nose, and Phrygian hat. This makes this site the only known deliberately sculpted ancient altar in Thrace. Here is the information of Pseudo-Aristotle, who describes apparently the same object according to Todor Uzunov.

 ‘It is said that in Crestonia, near the lands of the Bisalti, the captured rabbits have two livers, and that there is a place there, one plantar long (about 33 m, 108 ft), in which whatever animal enters, it dies. They also have a large and beautiful sanctuary of Dionysos, where, they say, the feast of sacrifice was held. When God intends to give a fertile year, a great light of fire appears and this is seen by all who dwell around the sanctuary. If God decides to send a barren year, this light does not appear, and darkness covers the place, as in other nights’.

The text describes a ritual location where priests make prophecies. It had an entrance and a place for predictions. The whole altar structure was “one pleter” long – an ancient measure of length corresponding to 33 meters (108 ft). According to T. Uzunov, the object “Prav Kamen” is exactly the same.

Rituals to Dionysus

On the Day of  Sacrifice, the priests lit  wine and predicted by the size of the flames whether the year would be good or bad. According to the author, the meaning of the word “satri”, which until recently was considered an ethnonym, can also now be clarified. Under this new hypothesis it is actually a word from Sanskrit and means – “people who perform sacrifices”. Furthermore it seems this is more a collective name to define a group of tribes associated with the altar, such as the Sialetti, Carbilessi, and Diobessi. These were described in detail by the Roman author  Pliny the Elder , and were previously considered unreliable descriptions due to lack of corroborating evidence.

The stone head – a natural phenomenon, from the Thracian sanctuary “Grasishte”, southwestern Bulgaria. (Todor Uzunov)

The Pseudo-Aristotle texts give a very accurate description of the objects, mentioning that in addition to the place of prophecy (Straight Stone) there is also a “sanctuary”. This is probably the archaeological site “Gradishte”, located 200 meters south of “Prav Kamen”. Here there is also a huge stone head, however unlike the first this is a completely natural phenomenon and is not the result of human intervention. The sanctuary is a huge and beautiful stone ridge, with bizarre stone shapes made by the wind. 

A divination device called an eshara was found in the middle of the archaeological site. Made of clay, it has a quadratic shape, and images of ancient symbols associated with  divination can be seen on its surface. This artifact is especially important because it clearly confirms that the site is indeed a Thracian sanctuary.

Clay “eshara” associated with divination from the Thracian site “Gradishte”. (Credit: Todor Uzunov)

In ancient times, these oracles with a complex hierarchical structure were called “fortune tellers”. This is what the eschara was used for. People who wanted to know more about their future went there and asked questions to fortune tellers. Evidence from other historical sources suggests that for their time, these oracles were influential and profitable, with the larger oracles attracting supplicants even from other neighboring nations.

Found at Last?

In conclusion, Todor Uzunov asserts that the Pseudo-Aristotle texts, regardless of their true authorship, are describing these two archaeological sites, and places the Thracian Altar of Dionysus at Prav Kamen. Furthermore, for the first time the meaning of the word “Satri” may have been confirmed, which sheds a whole new light on the political and religious history of ancient Thracians. This, according to the author, will not end the debate over the “Great Sanctuary of Dionysus”, but with its concrete data it is a good step for science, and anyone looking to refute this hypothesis in the future may find it harder than they think.

Top image: Statue of Dionysus Bacchus. Source:  Ruslan Gilmanshin  / Adobe Stock

By Todor Uzunov 

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