Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Whether the celebrated isle of Samothrace be at the mouth of the river Hebrus, as it is said to be in almost all the geographical dictionaries, or whether it be twenty miles distant from it, which is in fact the case, is not what I am now investigating.

This isle was for a long time the most famous in the whole archipelago, and even in the whole world. Its deities called Cabiri, its hierophants, and its mysteries, conferred upon it as much reputation as was obtained not long since by St. Patrick’s cave in Ireland.

This Samothrace, the modern name of which is Samandrachi, is a rock covered with a very thin and barren soil, and inhabited by poor fishermen. They would be extremely surprised at being told of the glory which was formerly connected with their island; and they would probably ask, What is glory?

I inquire, what were these hierophants, these holy free masons, who celebrated their ancient mysteries in Samothrace, and whence did they and their gods Cabiri come?

It is not probable that these poor people came from Phœnicia, as Bochart infers by a long train of Hebrew etymologies, and as the Abbé Barrier, after him, is of opinion also. It is not in this manner that gods gain establishments in the world. They are like conquerors who subjugate nations, not all at once, but one after another. The distance from Phœnicia to this wretched island is too great to admit of the supposition that the gods of the wealthy Sidon and the proud Tyre should come to coop themselves up in this hermitage. Hierophants are not such fools.

The fact is, that there were gods of the Cabiri, priests of the Cabiri, and mysteries of the Cabiri, in this contemptible and miserable island. Not only does Herodotus mention them, but the Phœnician historian Sanchoniathon, who lived long before Herodotus, speaks of them in those fragments which have been so fortunately preserved by Eusebius. What is worse still, this Sanchoniathon, who certainly lived before the period in which Moses flourished, cites the great Thaut, the first Hermes, the first Mercury of Egypt; and this same great Thaut lived eight hundred years before Sanchoniathon, as that Phœnician acknowledges himself.

The Cabiri were therefore in estimation and honor two thousand and three or four hundred years before the Christian era.

Now, if you are desirous of knowing whence those gods of the Cabiri, established in Samothrace, came, does it not seem probable that they came from Thrace, the country nearest to that island, and that that small island was granted them as a theatre on which to act their farces, and pick up a little money? Orpheus might very possibly be the prime minstrel of these gods.

But who were these gods? They were what all the gods of antiquity were, phantoms invented by coarse and vulgar knaves, sculptured by artisans coarser still, and adored by brutes having the name of men.

There were three sorts of Cabiri; for, as we have already observed, everything in antiquity was done by threes. Orpheus could not have made his appearance in the world until long after the invention of these three gods; for he admits only one in his mysteries. I am much disposed to consider Orpheus as having been a strict Socinian.

I regard the ancient gods Cabiri as having been the first gods of Thrace, whatever Greek names may have been afterwards given to them.

There is something, however, still more curious, respecting the history of Samothrace. We know that Greece and Thrace were formerly afflicted by many inundations. We have read of the deluges of Deucaleon and Ogyges. The isle of Samothrace boasted of a yet more ancient deluge; and its deluge corresponds, in point of time, with the period in which it is contended that the ancient king of Thrace, Xixuter, lived, whom we have spoken of under the article on “Ararat.”

You may probably recollect that the gods of Xixuter, or Xissuter, who were in all probability the Cabiri, commanded him to build a vessel about thirty thousand feet long, and a hundred and twelve wide; that this vessel sailed for a long time over the mountains of Armenia during the deluge; that, having taken on board with him some pigeons and many other domestic animals, he let loose his pigeons to ascertain whether the waters had withdrawn; and that they returned covered with dirt and slime, which induced Xixuter to resolve on disembarking from his immense vessel.

You will say that it is a most extraordinary circumstance that Sanchoniathon does not make any mention of this curious adventure. I reply, that it is impossible for us to decide whether it was mentioned in his history or not, as Eusebius, who has only transmitted to us some fragments of this very ancient historian, had no particular inducement to quote any passage that might have existed in his work respecting the ship and pigeons. Berosus, however, relates the case, and he connects it with the marvellous, according to the general practice of the ancients. The inhabitants of Samothrace had erected monuments of this deluge.

What is more extraordinary and astonishing still is, as indeed we have already partly remarked, that neither Greece nor Thrace, nor the people of any other country, ever knew anything of the real and great deluge, the deluge of Noah.

How could it be possible, we once more ask, that an event so awful and appalling as that of the submersion of the whole earth should be unknown by the survivors? How could the name of our common father, Noah, who re-peopled the world, be unknown to all those who were indebted to him for life? It is the most prodigious of all progidies, that, of so many grandchildren, not one should have ever spoken of his grandfather!

I have applied to all the learned men that I have seen, and said, Have you ever met with any old work in Greek, Tuscan, Arabian, Egyptian, Chaldæan, Indian, Persian, or Chinese, in which the name of Noah is to be found? They have all replied in the negative. This is a fact that perpetually perplexes and confounds me.

But that the history of this universal inundation should be found in a single page of a book written in the wilderness by fugitives, and that this page should have been unknown to all the rest of the world till about nine hundred years after the foundation of Rome — this perfectly petrifies me. I cannot recover from its impression. The effect is completely overpowering. My worthy reader, let us both together exclaim: “O altitudo ignorantiarum!”

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25