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Zalmoxis[pronunciation?] (Greek Ζάλμοξις),[1] is a divinity of the Getae (a people of the lower Danube), mentioned by Herodotus in his Histories IV, 93–96. In later interpretations, which begin with Jordanes (6th century AC) and have proliferated during the 19th and 20th century, mainly in Romania, he was regarded as the sole god of the Getae or as a legendary social and religious reformer who, according to Herodotus, taught the Getae a belief in immortality, so that they considered dying merely as going to Zalmoxis. Herodotus states that Zalmoxis was also called by some of the Getae Gebeleizis, which made some searchers conclude that Getae were actually henotheists or even polytheists. Another discussion exists about the chthonic (infernal) or uranian (heavenly) character of Zalmoxis.


Herodotus writes about Zalmoxis in book 4 of his Histories:

93. ...the Getae are the bravest of the Thracians and the most just. 94. They believe they are immortal in the following sense: they think they do not die and that the one who dies joins Zalmoxis, a divine being; some call this same divine being Gebeleizis. Every four years, they send a messenger to Zalmoxis, who is chosen by chance. They ask him to tell Zalmoxis what they want on that occasion. The mission is performed in the following way: men standing there for that purpose hold three spears; other people take the one who is sent to Zalmoxis by his hands and feet and fling him in the air on the spears. If he dies pierced, they think that the divinity is going to help them; if he does not die, it is he who is accused and they declare that he is a bad person. And, after he has been charged, they send another one. The messenger is told the requests while he is still alive. The same Thracians, on other occasions, when he thunders and lightens, shoot with arrows up in the air against the sky and menace the divinity because they think there is no god other than their own.

According to Herodotus the Greeks of the Hellespont and the Black Sea tell that Zalmoxis was a slave on Samos of Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchos. After being liberated, he gathered huge wealth and, once rich, went back to his homeland. Thracians lived simple hard lives. Zalmoxis having lived amongst the wisest of Greeks - Pythagoras and had been initiated to the Ionian life and Eleusinian Mysteries. Building a banquet hall, he received the chiefs and his fellow countrymen at a banquet, he taught that neither his guests nor their descendants would ever die, but instead they would go to a place where they would live forever in a complete happiness. He then dug an underground residence and, once finished, he disappeared from the Thracians going down to his underground residence, where he lived for three years. The Thracians missed him and wept fearing him dead. The fourth year, he came back amongst them and thus they believed what Zalmoxis had told them.

Zalmoxis may have lived much earlier than Pythagoras and was rumored either to be a divine being or from the country of the Getae.

There are different theories about the disappearance and return of Zalmoxis:

  • Some authors believe that Herodotus is mocking the Getae's barbarian beliefs;
  • Some take the passage seriously, and consider Zalmoxis to have created a ritual of passage; this theory is mainly supported by Mircea Eliade, who was the first to write a coherent interpretation of the Zalmoxis myth;
  • Some authors insist on Zalmoxis' relation with Pythagoras, stating that he has founded a mystical cult; partly this theory may be found in Eliade's work;
  • Some see in Zalmoxis a Christ figure who dies and resurrects; this position was also defended by Jean (Ioan) Coman, a professor of patristics and an orthodox priest, who was a friend of Mircea Eliade and published in Eliade's journal "Zalmoxis," which appeared in the 1930s.

This belief precisely parallels the belief about the universal king Frode given in both Ynglingsaga and Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum; particularly, Ynglingsaga 12 and Saxo 5.16.3, in which Frode disappears into the earth for three years after his death.

It is difficult to define the time when a cult to Zalmoxis may have existed. It is just sure that it antecedes Herodotus' work. It seems that some people have considered that the archaism of Zalmoxis's doctrine points out to an heritage from before the times of Indo-Europeans, which is nevertheless quite difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate.[2]

Plato says in the Charmides dialogue 156 D - 157 B that Zalmoxis was also a great physician who took a holistic approach to healing body and soul (psyche), being thus used by Platon for his own philosophical conceptions.

Getae's religion[edit]

Strabo in his Geography, book 7, 3, 1-11, mentions a certain Deceneus (Dékainéos) whom he calls a γόητα "magician". According to Strabo, king Burebista (82 BC - 44 BC) hired Deceneus, who had been in Egypt, to "tame" his people. As a sign of the people's obedience, they consented to destroy all their wines as ordered by Deceneus. The "reform of Deceneus" is the interpretation by the 6th century bishop and historian Jordanes who includes the Getae in his history of the Goths (as assumed ancestors of the Goths): Jordanes describes how Deceneus teaches the Getae people philosophy and physics. Even if it is far more probable that Jordanes just introduced his own philosophical knowledge in the text, many modern Romanian authors consider that Deceneus was a priest who reformed the Getae's religion, changing Zalmoxis' worship into a popular religion and imposing strict religious rules, such as the restriction of wine consumption. Jean Coman deems this prohibition as the origin of the modern food restrictions by the modern Orthodox Christian Church during Lent.

Iamblichus (280-333 AD): "For instructing the Getae in these things, and for having written laws for them, Zalmoxis was by them considered as the greatest of the gods."[3]

Aristotle is said, in a brief epitome of his Magicus given by Diogenes Laertes, to have compared Zalmoxis with the Phoenician Okhon and Libyan Atlas. Some authors assume Zalmoxis was another name of Sabazius, the Thracian Dionysus, or Zeus. Sabazius appears in Jordanes as Gebelezis. Without the suffixes -zius/-zis, the root Saba- = Gebele-, suggesting a relationship of the name of the goddess Cybele, as "Cybele's Zeus". Mnaseas of Patrae identified him with Cronos (Hesychius also has Σάλμοξις ὁ Κρόνος).

In Plato's writings, Zalmoxis is mentioned as skilled in the arts of incantation. Zalmoxis gave his name to a particular type of singing and dancing (Hesych)[4] 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.

Lactantius (an early Christian author 240 – 320 AD), referring to Getae's faith, provide an approximate translation of Julian the Apostate writing, who put these words in [emperor] Traian's mouth:[contradiction]

We have conquered even these Getai (Dacians), the most warlike of all people that have ever existed, not only because of the strength in their bodies, but, also due to the teachings of Zalmoxis who is among their most hailed. He has told them that in their hearts they do not die, but change their location and, due to this, they go to their deaths happier than on any other journey."

Zalmoxian religion[edit]

A tomb painting at the Aleksandrovo Kurgan (Bulgaria), depicting Zalmoxis.

The "Zalmoxian religion" is a debate dating from the beginning of the 20th century and which has lasted till today. It included very known searchers as Nicolae Densușianu, Vasile Pârvan, Giurescu father and son, Jean (Ioan) Coman, Constantin Daicoviciu, and Mircea Eliade. The most complete summary existing about these debates which often take a political (e.g. communist) or religious (e.g. Orthodox) character is Dan Dana, Zalmoxis de la Herodot la Mircea Eliade. Istorii despre un zeu al pretextului, Iași, 2008, work which was only partly published in French and not in English.

The "Zalmoxian religion" would be the Getae (often named jointly with their Dacian relatives, Daco-Getae) monotheist belief in Zalmoxis, which would be the predecessor of the Christian faith in Romania. This has created a debate between the monotheist, the henotheist and the polytheist position.

According to some authors, ancient sources do not present any other god of Getae-Dacians than Zalmoxis.[2] In fact, the only author who states that Getae have only one divinity is Herodotus. Among others, Vasile Pârvan, Jean Coman, R. Pettazzon, E. Rohde and Sorin Paliga consider that Getae-Dacians religion was monotheistic.

Others consider it henotheistic, that is, Zalmoxis would have been the supreme god at whose side exist minor divinities closely associated with him.

Finally, a third group of authors believe that Getae actually had a polytheist religion, like all the other Indo-European peoples. This would be confirmed e.g. by Diodorus Siculus who states that the Getae worship Hestia, following the teachings of Zalmoxis.[5]

Not all the ancient sources consider that Zalmoxis was a god.[6] In fact, there were even some researchers at the beginning of the communist era in Romania, who thought Getae were actually atheists, as shown by Constantin Balmuș in a short article O apreciere a lui Herodot asupra geţilor, ignoring all the ancient sources stating that Zalmoxis was a divinity.

There also have been discussions about the belief in immortality, due to Herodotus affirmation that the Getae "think that they do not really die, but that when they depart this life they go to Zalmoxis".[7] Orthodox authors, like Jean Coman, considered this to be the proof that the ancestors of the Romanians, the Daco-Getae, had a proto-Christian belief and that, with the Christianisation of Romania, they very easily were able to accept the Christian faith. This idea even entered in Mircea Păcurariu's history of the Romanian Orthodox Church, a work which is deemed as an authority by his Church.

The sending of a messenger to Zalmoxis and the fact that Getae shot arrows towards the sky prompted some authors believe Zalmoxis was a uranian, heavenly, god, whereas his journey in a cavern made others write he was a chthonic, infernal divinity.

The most coherent and perhaps also original interpretation about Zalmoxis was made by Mircea Eliade who thought Getae actually had a religion based on a ritual of passage, where ritual death was symbolized by the disappearance in a cavern, and was followed by a ritual rebirth, symbolized by the leaving of the cavern. Zalmoxis was a constant in Eliade's life. His most complete work treating this subject seems to be From Zalmoxis to Genghis Khan, Paris, 1970 (its 1st edition).

Music and dance[edit]

Music and dance were an important part of Zalmoxis' teachings and this corresponds to the special importance given by Getae-Dacians to the music. According to Hesychius, Zalmoxis gave his name to a particular type of singing and dancing.[citation needed]


A number of etymologies have been given for the name. In his Vita Pythagorae, Porphyrius (3rd century) says that he was so named because he had been wrapped in a bearskin at birth, and 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 and Žemelė, the Phrygian and Lithuanian goddess of the earth, and with the Lithuanian chthonic god Žemeliūkštis. Lithuanian word Želmuo means corn shoot or fresh grass. Žalmokšnis is only another possible form of it.

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 other name for Zalmoxis, Gebeleizis, is also spelled Belaizis and Belaixis in Herodotus manuscripts.

Since the Getae-Dacian religious system was monotheistic aniconism centered around the God Zalmoxis, it is less likely that the believers in his resurrection would use a name meaning "hide" / "foreign slave", as the hostile ancient Greek non-believers related about him.

Popular culture[edit]

Romanian rock band Sfinx worked from around 1975 through 1978 on what became one of the most appreciated Romanian progressive rock LPs, Zalmoxe. It was based on lyrics by poet Alexandru Basarab (actually a pen name for Adrian Hoajă), which retold the story of Zalmoxis's existence. However, the album was banned on being released for about three years and was eventually shortened drastically by political censorship with the Communist regime.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ also known as Salmoxis (Σάλμοξις), Zalmoxes (Ζάλμοξες), Zamolxis (Ζάμολξις), Samolxis (Σάμολξις), Zamolxes (Ζάμολξες), or Zamolxe (Ζάμολξε)
  2. ^ a b Dialogues d’histoire ancienne (Persée revue) La divinité suprême des Thraco-Daces by Ph D Historian Sorin Paliga
  3. ^ The Complete Pythagoras Edited by Patrick Rousell for the World Wide Web, A full-text, public domain edition for the generalist & specialist
  4. ^ Shamanism by Andrei A. Znamenski
  5. ^ Diodorus Siculus, Book 1, c. 94: "...among the people known as the Getae who represent themselves to be immortal, Zalmoxis asserted the same of their common goddess Hestia;..."
  6. ^ E.g. Hippolytus, Refutation of all heresies, c.2, 24; Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, Jordanes. Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, c.30 says he was a man who became a god.
  7. ^ The History of Herodotus by Herodotus, 440 BC. Translated by George Rawlinson


Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Dan Dana. Zalmoxis de la Herodot la Mircea Eliade. Istorii despre un zeu al pretextului, Polirom, Iași, 2008
  • Eliade, Mircea. "Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God", Univ of Chicago Press, 1972, 1986
  • Kernbach, Victor. Miturile Esenţiale, Editura Ştiinţifică şi Enciclopedică, Bucharest, 1978
  • Popov, Dimitar. Bogat s mnogoto imena (The God with Multiple Names), Sofia, 1995
  • Venedikov, Ivan. Mitove na bulgarskata zemya: Mednoto Gumno (Myths of the Bulgarian Land: The Copper Threshing Floor), Sofia, 1982

External links[edit]