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Detail of the main fresco of the Aleksandrovo kurgan. The figure is identified with Zalmoxis.

Zalmoxis (Greek Ζάλμοξις, also known as Salmoxis, Σάλμοξις, Zamolxis, Ζάμοξλις, or Samolxis Σάμοξλις) was a semi-mythical social and religious reformer, regarded as the only true God by the Thracian Dacians (also known in the Greek records as Getae Γέται). According to Herodotus (IV. 95 sq.), the Getae, who believed in the immortality of the soul, looked upon death merely as going to Zalmoxis, as they knew the way to become immortals.



A number of etymologies have been given for the name, yet none have been unanimously accepted. Diogenes Laertius (3rd century-4th century ad) claimed that Zalmoxis meant "bear skin". In his Vita Pythagorae, Porphyrius (3rd century) says that 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 clear preference for Zamolxis. Hesychius quotes Herodotus, using Zalmoxis.

The later but more common -m-l- variant is favoured by those wishing to derive the name from a conjectured Thracian word for "earth", *zamol (c.f. Russian zemlya).

The man

Herodotus was told by the euhemeristic Pontic Greeks that Zalmoxis was really a man, formerly a slave (or disciple) of Pythagoras, who taught him the "sciences of the skies" at Samos. Zalmoxis was manumitted and amassed great wealth, returned to his country and instructed his people, the Getae, about the immortality of the soul. Zenon also records that Zamolxis was Pythagoras' slave.

At one point, Zalmoxis traveled to Egypt and brought the people mystic knowledge about the immortality of the soul, teaching them that they would pass at death to a certain place where they would enjoy all possible blessings for all eternity.

Zalmoxis then had a subterranean chamber constructed (other accounts say that it was a natural cave) on the holy mountain of Kogainon, to which he withdrew for three years (some other accounts considered he actually lived in Hades for these three years). The cave is located in the Bucegi Mountains of Romania and named the Ialomicioara Cave. After his disappearance, he was considered dead and mourned by his people, but after the three years had passed, he shown himself once more to the Getae, who were thus convinced about his teachings; an episode that some considered to be a resurrection (Thus he can be seen a life-death-rebirth deity, parallel to Tammuz or Jesus.)

Herodotus, who declines to commit himself as to the existence of Zamolxis, expresses the opinion that in any case Zalmoxis must have lived long before the time of Pythagoras.

Plato says in the Charmides dialogue that Zamolxis was also a great medic who took a holistic approach to healing body and mind, not just the body as was the Greek practice.

The god

After the death of Zamolxis, his cult grew into a henotheistic religion. During the rule of Burebista, the traditional year of his birth, 713 BC, was to be considered the first year of the Dacian calendar.

Aristotle equates Zamolxis with Phoenician Okhon and Lybian Atlas.

It is possible that Zamolxis is Sabazius, the Thracian Dionysus or Zeus. Mnaseas of Patrae identified him with Cronos (Hesychius also has Σάλμοξις· ὁ Κρόνος). In Plato he is mentioned as skilled in the arts of incantation.

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.

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