Mystic divinities who occur in various parts of the ancient world. The obscurity that hangs over them, and the contradictions respecting them in the accounts of the ancients themselves, have opened a wide field for speculation to modern writers on mythology, each of whom has been tempted to propound a theory of his own.
The meaning of the name Cabeiri is quite uncertain, and has been traced to nearly all the languages of the East, and even to those of the North; but one etymology seems as plausible as another, and etymology in this instance is a real ignis fatuus to the inquirer. The character and nature of the Cabeiri are as obscure as the meaning of their name. All that we can attempt to do here is to trace and explain the various opinions of the ancients themselves, as they are presented to us in chronological succession. We chiefly follow Lobeck, who has collected all the passages of the ancients upon this subject, and who appears to us the most sober among those who have written upon it.1
The earliest mention of the Cabeiri, so far as we know, was in a drama of Aeschylus, entitled Κάβειροι, in which the poet brought them into contact with the Argonauts in Lemnos. The Cabeiri promised the Argonauts plenty of Lemnian wine.2 The opinion of Welcker,3 who infers from Dionysius4 that the Cabeiri had been spoken of by Arctinus, has been satisfactorily refuted by Lobeck and others. From the passage of Aeschylus here alluded to, it appears that he regarded the Cabeiri as original Lemnian divinities, who had power over everything that contributed to the good of the inhabitants, and especially over the vineyards. The fruits of the field, too, seem to have been under their protection, for the Pelasgians once in a time of scarcity made vows to Zeus, Apollo, and the Cabeiri.5
Strabo in his discussion about the Curetes, Dactyls, etc.,6 speaks of the origin of the Cabeiri, deriving his statements from ancient authorities, and from him we learn, that Acusilaus called Cadmilus a son of Cabeiro and Hephaestus, and that he made the three Cabeiri the sons, and the Cabeirian nymphs the daughters, of Cadmilus.
According to Pherecydes, Apollo and Rhytia were the parents of the nine Corybantes who dwelled in Samothrace, and the three Cabeiri and the three Cabeirian nymphs were the children of Cabeiro, the daughter of Proteus, by Hephaestus. Sacrifices were offered to the Corybantes as well as the Cabeiri in Lemnos and Imbros, and also in the towns of Troas.
The Greek logographers, and perhaps Aeschylus too, thus considered the Cabeiri as the grandchildren of Proteus and as the sons of Hephaestus, and consequently as inferior in dignity to the great gods on account of their origin. Their inferiority is also implied in their jocose conversation with the Argonauts, and their being repeatedly mentioned along with the Curetes, Dactyls, Corybantes, and other beings of inferior rank.
Herodotus7 says, that the Cabeiri were worshiped at Memphis as the sons of Hephaestus, and that they resembled the Phoenician dwarf-gods (Παταϊκοί, Pataikoi) whom the Phoenicians fixed on the prows of their ships. As the Dioscuri were then yet unknown to the Egyptians,8 the Cabeiri cannot have been identified with them at that time. Herodotus proceeds to say, "the Athenians received their phallic Hermae from the Pelasgians, and those who are initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiri will understand what I am saying; for the Pelasgians formerly inhabited Samothrace, and it is from them that the Samothracians received their orgies. But the Samothracians had a sacred legend about Hermes, which is explained in their mysteries. This sacred legend is perhaps no other than the one spoken of by Cicero,9 that Hermes was the son of Coelus and Dies, and that Persephone desired to embrace him.
The same is perhaps alluded to by Propertius,10 when he says, that Mercury (Hermes) had connexions with Brimo, who is probably the goddess of Pherae worshiped at Athens, Sicyon, and Argos, whom some identified with Proserpine (Persephone), and others with Hecate or Artemis.11 We generally find this goddess worshiped in places which had the worship of the Cabeiri, and a Lemnian Artemis is mentioned by Galen.12 The Tyrrhenians, too, are said to have taken away the statue of Artemis at Brauron, and to have carried it to Lemnos. Aristophanes, in his Lemnian Women, had mentioned Bendis along with the Brauronian Artemis and the great goddess, and Nonnus13 states that the Cabeirus Alcon brandished Ἑκάτης Διασώδεα πυρσόν (Hekatēs Diasōdea pyrson), so that we may draw the conclusion, that the Samothracians and Lemnians worshiped a goddess akin to Hecate, Artemis, Bendis, or Persephone, who had some sexual connexion with Hermes, which revelation was made in the mysteries of Samothrace.
The writer next to Herodotus, who speaks about the Cabeiri, and whose statements we possess in Strabo,14 though brief and obscure, is Stesimbrotus. The meaning of the passage in Strabo is, according to Lobeck, as follows: Some persons think that the Corybantes are the sons of Cronus, others that they are the sons of Zeus and Calliope, that they (the Corybantes) went to Samothrace and were the same as the beings who were there called Cabeiri. But as the doings of the Corybantes are generally known, whereas nothing is known of the Samothracian Corybantes, those persons are obliged to have recourse to saying, that the doings of the latter Corybantes are kept secret or are mystic. This opinion, however, is contested by Demetrius, who states, that nothing was revealed in the mysteries either of the deeds of the Cabeiri or of their having accompanied Rhea or of their having brought up Zeus and Dionysus. Demetrius also mentions the opinion of Stesimbrotus, that the ἱερά (hiera) were performed in Samothrace to the Cabeiri, who derived their name from Mount Cabeirus in Berecyntia. But here again opinions differed very much, for while some believed that the ἱερὰ Καβείρων (hiera Kabeirōn) were thus called from their having been instituted and conducted by the Cabeiri, others thought that they were celebrated ill honor of the Cabeiri, and that the Cabeiri belonged to the great gods.
The Attic writers of this period offer nothing of importance concerning the Cabeiri, but they intimate that their mysteries were particularly calculated to protect the lives of the initiated.15 Later writers in making the same remark do not mention the name Cabeiri, but speak of the Samothracian gods generally.16 There are several instances mentioned of lovers swearing by the Cabeiri in promising fidelity to one another;17 and Suidas18 mentions a case of a girl invoking the Cabeiri as her avengers against a lover who had broken his oath. But from these oaths we can no more draw any inference as to the real character of the Cabeiri, than from the fact of their protecting the lives of the initiated; for these are features which they have in common with various other divinities.
From the account which the Scholiast of Apollonius Rhodius19 has borrowed from Athenion, who had written a comedy called The Samothracians,20 we learn only that he spoke of two Cabeiri, Dardanus, and Iasion, whom he called sons of Zeus and Electra. They derived their name from Mount Cabeirus in Phrygia, from whence they had been introduced into Samothrace.
A more ample source of information respecting the Cabeiri is opened to us in the writers of the Alexandrine period. The two scholia on Apollonius Rhodius21 contain in substance the following statement: Mnaseas mentions the names of three Cabeiri in Samothrace, viz. Axieros, Axiocersa, and Axiocersus; the first is Demeter, the second Persephone, and the third Hades. Others add a fourth, Cadmilus, who according to Dionysodorus is identical with Hermes. It thus appears these accounts agreed with that of Stesimbrotus, who reckoned the Cabeiri among the great gods, and that Mnaseas only added their names. Herodotus, as we have seen, had already connected Hermes with Persephone; the worship of the latter as connected with that of Demeter in Samothrace is attested by Artemidorus;22 and there was also a port in Samothrace which derived its name, Demetrium, from Demeter.23
According to the authors used by Dionysius,24 the worship of Samothrace was introduced there from Arcadia; for according to them Dardanus, together with his brother Iasion or Iasus and his sister Harmonia, left Arcadia and went to Samothrace, taking with them the Palladium from the temple of Pallas. Cadmus, however, who appears in this tradition, is king of Samothrace: he made Dardanus his friend, and sent him to Teucer in Troas. Dardanus himself, again, is sometimes described as a Cretan,25 sometimes as an Asiatic,26 while Arrian27 makes him come originally from Samothrace.
Respecting Dardanus' brother Iasion or Iasus, the accounts likewise differ very much; for while some writers describe him as going to Samothrace either from Parrhasia in Arcadia or from Crete, a third account28 stated, that he was killed by lightning for having entertained improper desires for Demeter; and Arrian29 says that Jasion, being inspired by Demeter and Cora, went to Sicily and many other places, and there established the mysteries of these goddesses, for which Demeter rewarded him by yielding to his embraces, and became the mother of Parius, the founder of Paros.
All writers of this class appear to consider Dardanus as the founder of the Samothracian mysteries, and the mysteries themselves as solemnized in honor of Demeter.
Another set of authorities, on the other hand, regards them as belonging to Rhea,30 and suggests the identity of the Samothracian and Phrygian mysteries. Pherecydes too, who placed the Corybantes, the companions of the great mother of the gods, in Samothrace, and Stesimbrotus who derived the Cabeiri from Mount Cabeirus in Phrygia, and all those writers who describe Dardanus as the founder of the Samothracian mysteries, naturally ascribed the Samothracian mysteries to Rhea. To Demeter, on the other hand, they were ascribed by Mnaseas, Artemidorus, and even by Herodotus, since he mentions Hermes and Persephone in connexion with these mysteries, and Persephone has nothing to do with Rhea. Now, as Demeter and Rhea have many attributes in common — both are μεγάλοι Δεοί (megaloi Deoi), and the festivals of each were celebrated with the same kind of enthusiasm; and as peculiar features of the one are occasionally transferred to the other,31 it is not difficult to see how it might happen, that the Samothracian goddess was sometimes called Demeter and sometimes Rhea. The difficulty is, however, increased by the fact of Venus (Aphrodite) too being worshiped in Samothrace.32 This Venus may be either the Thracian Bendis or Cybele, or may have been one of the Cabeiri themselves, for we know that Thebes possessed three ancient statues of Aphrodite, which Harmonia had taken from the ships of Cadmus, and which may have been the Παταϊκοί who resembled the Cabeiri.33 In connexion with this Aphrodite we may mention that, according to some accounts, the Phoenician Aphrodite (Astarte) had commonly the epithet kabar or kabor, an Arabic word which signifies "the great," and that Lobeck considers Astarte as identical with the Selene Cabeiria (Σελήνη Καβειρία), which name P. Ligorius saw on a gem.
There are also writers who transfer all that is said about the Samothracian gods to the Dioscuri, who were indeed different from the Cabeiri of Acusilaus, Pherecydes, and Aeschylus, but yet might easily be confounded with them; first, because the Dioscuri are also called great gods, and secondly, because they were also regarded as the protectors of persons in danger either by land or water. Hence we find that in some places where the ἄνακες (anakes) were worshiped, it was uncertain whether they were the Dioscuri or the Cabeiri.34 Nay, even the Roman Di Penates were sometimes considered as identical with the Dioscuri and Cabeiri;35 and Varro thought that the Penates were carried by Dardanus from the Arcadian town Pheneos to Samothrace, and that Aeneas brought them from thence to Italy.36 But the authorities for this opinion are all of a late period.
According to one set of accounts, the Samothracian gods were two male divinities of the same age, which applies to Zeus and Dionysus, or Dardanus and Jasion, but not to Demeter, Rhea, or Persephone. When people, in the course of time, had become accustomed to regard the Penates and Cabeiri as identical, and yet did not know exactly the name of each separate divinity comprised under those common names, some divinities are mentioned among the Penates who belonged to the Cabeiri, and vice versa. Thus Servius37 represents Zeus, Pallas, and Hermes as introduced from Samothrace; and, in another passage,39 he says that, according to the Samothracians, these three were the great gods, of whom Hermes, and perhaps Zeus also, might be reckoned among the Cabeiri. Varro39 says, that Heaven and Earth were the great Samothracian gods; while in another place40 he stated, that there were three Samothracian gods, Jupiter or Heaven, Juno or Earth, and Minerva or the prototype of things, — the ideas of Plato. This is, of course, only the view Varro himself took, and not a tradition.
If we now look back upon the various statements we have gathered, for the purpose of arriving at some definite conclusion, it is manifest, that the earliest writers regard the Cabeiri as descended from inferior divinities, Proteus and Hephaestus: they have their seats on earth, in Samothrace, Lemnos, and Imbros. Those early writers cannot possibly have conceived them to be Demeter, Persephone or Rhea. It is true those early authorities are not numerous in comparison with the later ones; but Demetrius, who wrote on the subject, may have had more and very good ones, since it is with reference to him that Strabo repeats the assertion, that the Cabeiri, like the Corybantes and Curetes, were only ministers of the great gods. We may therefore suppose, that the Samothracian Cabeiri were originally such inferior beings; and as the notion of the Cabeiri was from the first not fixed and distinct, it became less so in later times; and as the ideas of mystery and Demeter came to be looked upon as inseparable, it cannot occasion surprise that the mysteries, which were next in importance to those of Eleusis, the most celebrated in antiquity, were at length completely transferred to this goddess. The opinion that the Samothracian gods were the same as the Roman Penates, seems to have arisen with those writers who endeavored to trace every ancient Roman institution to Troy, and thence to Samothrace.
The places where the worship of the Cabeiri occurs, are chiefly Samothrace, Lemnos, and Imbros. Some writers have maintained, that the Samothracian and Lemnian Cabeiri were distinct; but the contrary is asserted by Strabo.41 Besides the Cabeiri of these three islands, we read of Boeotian Cabeiri. Near the Neïtian gate of Thebes there was a grove of Demeter Cabeiria and Cora, which none but the initiated were allowed to enter; and at a distance of seven stadia from it there was a sanctuary of the Cabeiri.42 Here mysteries were celebrated, and the sanctity of the temple was great as late as the time of Pausanias.43 The account of Pausanias about the origin of the Boeotian Cabeiri savors of rationalism, and is, as Lobeck justly remarks, a mere fiction. It must further not be supposed that there existed any connexion between the Samothracian Cadmilus or Cadmus and the Theban Cadmus; for tradition clearly describes them as beings of different origin, race and dignity. Pausanias44 further mentions another sanctuary of the Cabeiri, with a grove, in the Boeotian town of Anthedon; and a Boeotian Cabeirus, who possessed the power of averting dangers and increasing man's prosperity, is mentioned in an epigram of Diodorus.45
A Macedonian Cabeirus occurs in Lactantius.46 The reverence paid by the Macedonians to the Cabeiri may be inferred from the fact of Philip and Olympias being initiated in the Samothracian mysteries, and of Alexander erecting altars to the Cabeiri at the close of his Eastern expedition.47 The Pergamenian Cabeiri are mentioned by Pausanias,48 and those of Berytus by Sanchoniathon49 and Damascius.50
- Aglaophamus, pp. 1202-1281.
- Plutarch. Symposiacs ii, 1; Pollux, vi, 23; Bekker. Anecdota Graeca, p. 115.
- Die Aeschylische Trilogie, p. 236.
- i, 68 ff.
- Myrsilus, ap. Dionysius, i, 23.
- x, p. 466.
- iii, 37.
- Herodotus. Histories ii, 51.
- On the Nature of the Gods iii, 22.
- ii, 2.11.
- Spanheim, on Callimachus' Hymn to Artemis, 259.
- De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis et Facultatibus ix, 2. p. 246 (ed. Chart.)
- Dionysius, xxx, 45.
- p. 472.
- Aristophanes. Peace, 298; comp. Etymol. Gud., p. 289.
- Diodorus Siculus, iv, 43, 49; Aelian. Fragment, p. 320; Callimachus. Epigrams. 36; Lucian. Epigrams. 15; Plutarch. Marcellus, 30.
- Juvenal, iii, 144; Himerius. Oratio i, 12.
- s.v. Διαλαμδάνει.
- i, 913.
- Athenaeus, xiv, p. 661.
- ap. Strabo. Geography iv, p. 198.
- Livy. History of Rome xlv, 6.
- i, 68.
- Servius on Virgil's Aeneid iii, 167.
- Stephanus of Byzantium, s.v. Δάρδανος; Eustathius on Dionysius Periegetes, 391.
- ap. Eustathius, p. 351.
- Dionysius, i, 61.
- Diodorus Siculus, v, 51; Scholiast on Aristides, p. 106; Strabo. Excerpt. lib. vii, p. 511, ed. Almelov.; Lucian. De Dea Syria, 97.
- e.g. Euripides. Helen, 1304.
- Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia v, 6.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ix, 16.2; Herodotus. Histories iii, 37.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece x, 38.3.
- Dionysius, i, 67 ff.
- Macrobius. Saturnalia iii, 4; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid i, 378; iii, 148.
- on Aeneid viii, 619.
- on Aeneid iii, 264.
- De Lingua Latina, v, 58 (ed. Muller).
- ap. Augustus' De Civitate Dei vii, 18.
- x, p. 466.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ix, 25.5.
- Comp. iv, 1.5.
- Description of Greece ix, 22.5.
- Brunck, R. F. P. Analecta Veterum Poetarum Graecorum ii, p. 185.
- i, 15, 8; comp. Firmicus. Liber de Errore Profanarum Religionum, p. 23; Clement of Alexandria. Protrepticus, p. 16.
- Plutarch. Alexander, 2; Philostratus. de Vita Apollonii ii, 43.
- Description of Greece i, 4.6.
- ap. Eusebius' Praeparatio Evangelica, p. 31.
- Vita Isodori cclii, 573.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.