You can live your whole life hearing a story and yet be unsure of its details. Every Romanian knows the name of Zalmoxis, the name appears everywhere, in magazines, on merchandise, around tourist attractions, yet it’s tricky to figure out what exactly this name refers to. Was Zalmoxis an ancient Dacian king? A god? A slave? A magician? A high-priest? I have been confused for a long time and I have been confused for a reason, because ancient Dacians tended to conflate all those roles, turning a living man who preached about the mysteries beyond this world into a god while he was still alive.
When did Zalmoxis live, if he lived at all? In history or in mythic time? The oldest sources about Zalmoxis are in The Histories of Herodotus (circa 484–425 BCE).
“4.94 As to immortality, the Getai believe that they do not really die, but that when one of them passes away, he goes to Salmoxis, a sort of divinity whom some of them also call Gebeleizis. Every fifth year they send one of their number, who has been selected by lot to serve as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions as to what they want at that particular time. This is how they dispatch him. Three men who are appointed to the task each hold a javelin, while others seize the hands and feet of the man being sent to Salmoxis, swing him up in the air, and throw him onto the points of the javelins. If the man dies from being impaled, they believe that the god is well disposed toward them; but if he does not die, they blame the messenger himself, accusing him of being a bad man, and seek another to send in his place. They give the messenger instructions while he is still alive.
These same Thracians shoot their arrows up into the sky, aiming at thunder and lightning as they shout threats at the god, and they believe that no other god exists but their own.
4. 95 I have heard that this Salmoxis was actually a human being who had been enslaved and served Pythagoras [570–495 BCE] son of Mnesarchos on Samos. (… ) And so he had a banqueting hall built where he hosted and entertained the leading men of the town, and he taught them that neither he nor they, his drinking companions, nor their descendants would die, but that they would come to a place where they would live on and have all good things. And as he was composing these lessons and relating them to his guests, he was also constructing an underground chamber. When it was completely finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, by descending into the chamber and spending three years there. The Thracians missed him and grieved for him as though he had died, but in the fourth year he appeared to them, and thus what Salmoxis had taught them became credible. That, at least, is what they say he did.
4. 96 I myself do not believe this story about him and the underground chamber, although I do not discount it completely.”
There you have it, an account that doesn’t spell the name of the god right, that confuses Dacians and Getai (north of Danube) with Thracians (south of Danube), and that says that the whole story is not even credible.
In From Zalmoxis to Genghis Khan, Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) looks at all the historical sources he could find, and lists pros and cons for each scenario about Zalmoxis’ identity. Eliade is adamant that Zalmoxis was not an earth god, fertility god, or storm god, nor a god of the Underworld. He thinks Zalmoxis was the principal god of the Dacians (referenced as Getai and Thracians by Herodotus), but not their only god. The episode with the arrows shot up into the sky, Eliade thinks, is an instance of the Dacians imitating and helping the god of storm and thunder—Gebeleizis—in his fight against the demons of gloom and darkness. Gebeleizis and Zalmoxis are two different things, it seems.
From Eliade, I learned that Zalmoxis was a man who brought wisdom to his people from his travels to Egypt and Greece sometime before the 6th century BCE. He was a medicine man and a king who claimed to offer immortality of the soul to those who believed in him. He preached moral principles and self-denial. He was also the master of the initiation ritual that conferred immortality. He was a messiah and a savior.
The most recent sources about Zalmoxis date from the times of the historian Jordanes (6th century CE) who takes all the sources written before him and rewrites the history he would’ve liked his ancestors to have. And in the process he confuses the Getai with the Goths, but does get right the name of Dacia, though not its location on the map.
For centuries, Zalmoxis disappeared from Romanian lore, but has been present in other nations’ written and oral traditions, from Spain to Denmark, before being resurrected in the 19th century by the descendants of the Dacians. Now every Romanian knows the name of Zalmoxis and revels in its mystique.
“The best and simplest explanation for the vanishing of Zalmoxis and his cult should be searched for in the early Christianization of Dacia (before 270 CE). Unfortunately, we know very little about the early phases of Christianity in Dacia; consequently we don’t know if certain aspects of Zalmoxis’ religion survived in a new form during the first Christian centuries.” – Eliade, page 78.
We do know that Gebeleizis, Dacian god of storm and thunder, morphed into Prophet Ilie (Elijah) in Romanian religious tradition. And the story of Zalmoxis himself doesn’t need much of an introduction. A man of wisdom who offered immortality and a better life beyond death to those who believed in him. He died and came back to life after a multiple of three units of time.
New social and religious norms incorporate and repurpose older beliefs and imagery all throughout history. In Alexander the Great, an episode of Smithsonian Channel’s Mystery Files, researchers put forward the hypothesis that the tomb of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), last mentioned in writing in 390 CE, was repurposed, bones and all, in 392 CE as the tomb of St. Mark (who died in 68 CE). The same body was then stolen from the Muslim city of Alexandria, Egypt in the 9th century and brought to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where it is still buried. If only DNA testing of the remains were allowed.
At the end of the day, I’m still astounded by the story of the chosen messenger sent to Zalmoxis. He was one of his initiates, Eliade explains, not a slave or a prisoner of war. He took part in the drawing of lots by his own accord. He didn’t put himself through drug-induced travels like a shaman, but thoroughly trusted that he would make it to the other side, where his spirit, surviving the death of his body, would meet his god Zalmoxis.