Thracian Mythology as a Basis for “Sleep Escapes Us”

December 31, 2011 at 5:17 am (writing)

Sleep Escapes Us grew from an idea of zombie armies tied to some lesser known mythological figure, the latter to allow it to follow Elements of Genocide in my Darker Myths theme for NaNoWriMo. Despite the fact that it is an “alternate history” dark fantasy/ horror novel, I wanted to adhere to an existing pantheon to give it a sense of realism and a historical flavour. I needed an obscure god of death that lore reported as dying and being reborn, one to match the storyline I had in mind. I wanted the tale to be something set with an ancient civilization backdrop, so I could bring in elements of culture and tradition.

My research brought me to Zalmoxis, a Thracian god with whom I was not familiar and who had a very detailed legendary existence – that of a mortal who became a god, as outlined in Mircea Elidae’s “Zalmoxis, The Vanishing, God”. The myth fit very well with what I had planned and as I further researched the Thracian culture and the other gods they worshipped, everything seemed to fit together like carefully constructed puzzle pieces. It was easy to interweave Hecate into the tale, because of her influence over witchcraft and midwifery amongst many other things, and Bendis also proved to be a welcome find for the story, giving my characters cause to venture out into the wilderness for a fertility ritual and thereby encountering more wild zombies and avoiding the armies searching for them. Lastly came Zagreus, a god born of mortal womb for the finishing touch.

Here is a sample of what my research uncovered about each of these deities of the Thracian mythos and how they were essential to the story.

Zalmoxis: Zalmoxis was regarded as the sole god of the Getae people to which he would have taught the belief in immortality so that they considered dying merely as going to Zalmoxis. Legend had it that Zalmoxis was once a slave on Samos of Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchos. After being liberated, he gathered a huge wealth and once rich, went back to his homeland, a regular man before he became a god. Once home, he built himself a hall and those he received there he taught that none of 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.

Supposedly, Zalmoxis then dug an underground residence in Kagaion (also referred to as Kogainon and other variants) and, once finished, he disappeared from the Thracians going down to his underground residence. The Thracians missed him and feared him dead. Then he came back amongst them and upon his return, Thracians became in the immortality of the soul, which explained their reverence of the dead and the belief in their ascension to a better place where they would be gifted with god-like powers. Death was not to be feared, and past and present were not separate in time, but coexisted as one. Caves were considered by the Thracians as symbolic entrances to the womb of the earth. This is likely where the notion of Ialomicroaia (also referred to as Ialomicioara and other variants) Cave and Kagaion, Zalmoxis’s subterranean chamber in the Bucagi (also referred to as Bucegi) Mountains, came from.

Human sacrifice was sometimes practised by the Thracians. I based the lottery for the sacrifice to Zalmoxis on the writings Herodotus, in his “Historiae,” who spoke of sending a messenger to the god every few years (some references say four years, other say five) by means of a death ritual.

Zalmoxis was a fairly enigmatic god, so I was comfortable manipulating the myth slightly to work within my “alternate history” for ancient Thrace and Gatae. He was associated with bear skin so I incorporated into the ritual required for birthing his replacement and he was also linked to spears and the number three in his rituals, so I used that in his death scene. Because of the necessity of translation, there are variants of the name, Zalmoxis and the locations associated with his rebirth as a god.

Hecate: Goddess of the crossroads, this deity was one of multiple forms and faces, her personifications sometimes varying to a significant degree. She was the “Mysterious One”, not understood by those who did not worship her and often feared for that reason. She had both a negative persona, associated with magic, poisonous plants, witchcraft, the restless dead, necromancy, darkness, lunar lore, snakes and crossroads, and a positive persona associated with healing plants, childbirth, nurturing the young, gates and walls, doorways, torches and dogs.

Hecate had a number of depictions in art and religious iconography. Sometimes she was depicted as a singular maiden, virginal and demure, other times she was a three-faced crone or an angry, gigantic woman with snakes for feet and hair, wielding a torch and a sword, surrounded by thunder, shrieks, yells, and the barking of dogs. She was even presented as an invisible figure, appearing only as a glimpse of light. These depictions are referenced in Lewis Richard Farnell’s “The Cults of the Greek States” from Clarendon Press and “Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome: Hecate” from Anno Urbis – The Roman Empire Online.

Hecate’s mysterious nature allowed her seers in the story to be more intimidating and their hidden lairs in the catacombs beneath Lagina and her temple seemed like an appropriate home for her favoured followers in my tale. This followed with information also drawn from my research, from Strabo’s “Geography”, which stated regarding Hecate: “The place of origin of her following is uncertain, but it is thought that she had popular followings in Thrace. Her most important sanctuary was Lagina, a theocratic city-state in which the goddess was served by eunuchs. Lagina, where the famous temple of Hecate drew great festal assemblies every year … where she was the city’s patroness.”

In addition to witchcraft and midwifery, Hecate was closely associated with plant lore and the concoction of medicines and poisons. In particular she was thought to give instruction in these closely related arts. This association allowed Kerza to possess the skills she used to help Sur and Alina when they needed medical attention.

One of my sources, the Oxford Classic Dictionary, described her as: “Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.” It was because of her varied forms and supposed assorted spheres of influence that when she made an appearance in the story, I described her as shifting and indefinable.

Bendis: The Thracians revered nature and believed in a “Great Mother”. She was goddess of wild nature. It is believed she encompassed influences from the strong fertility goddess cults which thrived in the Balkan lands during the earlier Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods (per A Spell in Time/Professor Ronald Hutton’s “Bulgarian Myth and Folklore”.)

As great mother she initiated creation, bringing forth from herself her son, who was both the sun in the daytime and the fire god at night. She united with him in divine marriage so that the cosmic cycle could be fulfilled and fertility renewed.

She supposedly had temples hidden away deep in the wilderness, a formidable location for a fertility ritual required for the conception of a new god. I felt this scene and setting were an appropriate bridge from the introduction of the story and the main characters into the centre of the action and the plot. It also allowed for a different kind of zombie battle.

Zagreus: Zagreus was the name used for Dionysus in Thrace. He was considered to be twice born, a dying and reborn god who was born of a mortal woman, one who met a premature death. He was tied to Zalmoxis in some instances and appeared to be a suitable “replacement” for the living god.


Just as with Elements of Genocide, the mythology integrated into Sleep Escapes Us blended fairly seamlessly with the story and I’m hoping that my plans for next year’s NaNo, Wearers of Skin, will combine as smoothly with Scandinavian mythology as well.


1 Comment

  1. theleagueofelder said,

    Cool stuff, Chantal!

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