5.11.2006

An Indian at Eleusis

The importance of fire in the rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries is illustrated by an episode from Roman history.

In 20 BC Augustus was wintering on Salamis when an embassy of king Poros arrived from India. One of the ambassadors expressed on interest in the Mysteries, so the Eleusinia held out of season to dazzle them.

Zarmaros (or Zarmanochegas) the Indian was so unimpressed that the following day, to make the point, he oiled himself and leapt onto a pyre on the altar of Demeter. He committed suttee.

Some details are clearly missing from the story, but it is clear that fire played a major role in the Mysteries at Eleusis. The Hindus saw self-sacrifice on pyres as a way of reaching the gods directly, which was also the point of the Eleusinian mysteries. Zarmaros’ act would have achieved the same aim, far more directly.

The story is in Dio Cassius (54.9.10), and in Strabo (15.1.4):
'But from India, from one place and from one king, I mean Pandion, or another Porus, there came to Caesar Augustus presents and gifts of honour and the Indian sophist who burnt himself up at Athens, as Calanus had done, who made a similar spectacular display of himself before Alexander.'

He was buried at Eleusis, where Strabo saw his tomb with the inscription (15.1.73):
'Here lies Zarmanochegas, an Indian from Bargosa, who immortalised himself in accordance with the ancestral customs of the Indians.'

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