Toward an Archaeology of Secrecy: Power, Paradox, and the Great Gods of Samothrace



The mystery cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace offers productive material for theory building with respect to the archaeology of secrecy in ritual contexts. The social practice of secrecy builds political power and relies on communicative strategies that simultaneously conceal and reveal, employing culturally specific codes involving abstraction, ambiguity, metaphor, and allusion. Samothrace increased its secrecy as it grew in prestige: archaeological materialization of this secrecy includes euphemistic inscriptions and magnetized iron rings used as tokens of initiation. The rings use myth, philosophy, and ritual practice to communicate the initiate's status while emphasizing the rites’ resistance to disclosure.