Kabeirion of Thebes

The Kabeirion, sanctuary dedicated to Kabeiros and Pais and situated about 6 km west of Thebes, had a long life (9th-4th c. AD) during which it underwent several changes. Initially dedications were clrearly made to Kabeiros and Pais, whereas in the classical period cultic features indicated a proximity to the cult of Dionysus. Probably, the rituals already included mysteries at that time. The archaeological and written sources of the Hellenistic and Roman period, however, more clearly point to the existence of secret mysteries.


Perhaps the Kabeirion was founded at this spot due to the natural amphiteatrical formation. Then, in 1970 a test trench in the western area revealed a wall and a pebble pavement that date to the Bronze Age; but further excavations are needed to clarify its function and exact date. When cult activity started around 800 BC prehistoric remains might have been still standing upright marking the place as a very ancient site.

For about 300 years worshippers mainly dedicated bronze and lead figurines to Kabeiros and Pais as attested by several specimens inscribed with the name of either the one or the other. On the whole, the excavators unearthed more than 550 statuettes, mostly bulls which presumably represented a substitute for sacrificial animals or expressed the dedicators’ request directed to Kabeiros and Pais to guard their herds.
Scholars generally assume that no cultic buildings had been erected on the site before the 5th century BC, however some remains might belong to a preceding phase: the apsidal building , due to its typical Geometric ground plan and stratigraphical position; an angled wall  below the Late Archaic Middle Tholos that belonged to a hearth; and the curved ‘polygonal-wall’ that had been incorporated in the Hellenistic temple . Almost all metal figurines were found densely packed at its inner side, placed there at the latest during the early Hellenistic period.

No built altar has been found yet, only a widespread layer of ash below the ‘Hellenistic fill’ that covered a large area east and north of the later temple . As most of the pre-Hellenistic votives came to light there, an ash altar very likely stood nearby.

Quite suddenly around 500 BC crucial changes occurred: worshippers were leaving more and more black glazed pottery in the Kabeirion, particularly kantharoi. In Boeotia this vase type was not only deemed Dionysus’ attribute, it had a chief significance as status symbol representing male virtues. Between 480 and 430 BC a prominent array of head vases came into use, in the shape of rams, mules, satyrs and maenads – all members of Dionysus’ entourage. In regard to the future development of the Kabeirion extraordinary vase types must have been an essential trait of the cult.
From the end of the 6th century BC on, worshippers also offered glass bead necklaces. Based on literary sources and vase images of women and children wearing a talisman necklace it can be assumed that the dedicators wanted their children to be protected by the gods or wanted a smooth birth guaranteed. From around 500 BC onwards votive figurines were chiefly made of clay but various new types emerged: standing boys, reclined men, squatted children, satyrs and several kinds of animals – about 3000 fully preserved figurines and fragments had been unearthed.

At the same time the Middle Tholos  was erected and close by at least three other oval and round buildings  that only partly survived. Next to the entrance of the Tholos a louterion for purification was found in situ. A circular bench ran along the interior wall and a hearth was placed in the center, which indicates that the Middle Tholos probably accommodated banqueters.

Two ‘sacrificial’ pits were found in the western part of the precinct, filled with black glazed pottery of the early 5th century BC. There is no firm evidence for a continuous use but it is striking that the later Roman ‘bothros’ altar was placed exactly above them.

Also during the 5th century BC two stone semi-circles were laid out in the western part of the Kabeirion (. In its center a libation altar, a large tapered pot, was lowered into the ground that was inscribed with the name of Thamakos (ΤΟ ΘΑΜΑΚΟ). Around 400 BC a ring of stone blocks was raised above it. The round shape of these buildings derived from enclosed burial mounds. Thus, the Lower Tholos seems to have been a shrine of an otherwise unknown hero, named Thamakos.

Around 430 BC a rectangular banquet house was built  and sometime during the 4th century BC, another one was set in the southern hillside . Other indefinite remains of classical buildings were discovered all over the central area.
Cultic life changed yet again around 430 BC. While the head vases slowly disappeared, an exceptional local ware was introduced: the Kabeiric vases. They were exclusive-y made for the sanctuary until Alexander the Great destroyed Thebes in 335 BC and the entire cult came to a sudden halt.
The black-figured Kabeiric vases depict deformed figures in a wide range of comical or grotesque scenes. Similar to some of the dancing scenes several images refer to the cult festival in the Kabeirion. They show men reclining on the ground as it is also known from festivals for Demeter and Dionysus. Other images depict white bearded men, perhaps priests, and some show worshippers – families and couples – approaching the reclined Kabeiros or a bearded herm. Kabeiros resembles Dionysus, Pais appears as his cup bearer. For understanding the Classical cult of the Kabeirion it is significant to note that the worshippers appeared with an ugly body on the vases – making them comical and thus transforming them into “others” and a thiasos of the Kabeiric gods.

The majority of Kabeiric vases preserved were small and decorated with ivy sprays and garlands between the handles. Presumably, they imitate wreaths laid around the vases, as known from the Athenian Anthesteria for Dionysus.

From 400 BC onwards mainly terracotta figurines of young men were dedicated in the Kabeirion, but black-glazed pottery was still in use. During the Classical period a noticeable amount of Panathenaic prize amphorae was offered possibly by the athletes themselves who can be associated with the wealthy Boeotian middle class, like the Thespian hoplites who fell at the Battle of Delion in 424 BC and were bestowed with Kabeiric vases in their mass grave.

Around 450 BC small bells and spintops made of clay (about 7 cm high) and bronze (about 1 cm high) were offered to Kabeiros and Pais. Both items were often found in children’s graves.

Since the Archaic period dedications were inscribed with votive inscriptions, one of them calling Pais Kabeiros’ son. At least a quarter of the dedicators’ names are female – so both, men and women worshipped Kabeiros and Pais, as also shown on some Kabeiric vases.

Apparently, the classical Kabeirion housed a Dionysiac cult within a rude comical setting. Thinking of Pausanias who mentions the Roman cult to be a secret mystery cult the Classical festival could have included ecstatic revels and banquettes on the ground. But indeed neither all bacchic groups performed secret rites nor do we now about a sanctuary for such rituals. The cultic ecstasy brought a short-termed relief from everyday life. On the other hand, the strong presence of boys and families in the Kabeirion indicates that Kabeiros and Pais, father and son, were probably venerated to watch over the young ones. But there is no evidence – as some scholars stated – and there are no parallels known for secret rites of passage from childhood to manhood.

At the beginning of the 3rd century BC, perhaps along with the refoundation of Thebes in 315 BC, the classical Kabeirion was buried under a vast earth fill – retained by an oval wall – and the sanctuary was completely rebuilt. Early construction works included the installation of a water supply system and a canal that was later connected to the Eastern Reservoir. A short time later, this double cistern was put out of service and perhaps replaced by the Western Reservoir.

Over the course of the 3rd century BC the first doric temple was erected; and between 150 and 100 BC, a pronaos and an annex room with two side doors were added. In the annex the excavators unearthed two sacrificial pits lined with stone slabs (nowadays lost). The southern one held thighbones of sheep and goats, the northern one contained earth that perhaps derived from deposited meat. There is also no open-air altar preserved.

At the temple’s southeast corner a colonnade closed up the forecourt and lined the way to a stairway. During the same construction process a flat podium was laid out in the orchestra but no traces of ash or bones were found pointing to a sacrificial use. Still during the 3rd century BC two stone-semicircles were laid out above the theatre enclosing three pits . When the sanctuary was re-structured large nests of Kabeiric vases were “buried” alongside them. Based on some curved stone blocks that were found nearby the excavators re-constructed an Upper Tholos  on top of the semicircles. However, two east-west-aligned walls would interrupt the alleged round foundation; and after all, this area hasn’t been fully excavated yet.

The entrance of the sanctuary was now closed up by an array of rooms, unfortunately, many of them had been cleared away in the meantime. From there the temple court could be approached via a stairway no longer extant. The southern stairway led uphill: this path was lined by the Western Stoa  and ended in a court closed up by another stoa to the south. At this spot the orchestra – about 7 m below – was well visible; perhaps, the area served as a theatre.

During the second half of the 3rd century BC earth was banked up and retained by long walls in order to extend the natural theater. In the 1st century BC the theater was re-built in stone and parts of an unknown Doric temple were transferred into the Kabeirion. Finally the sanctuary was enclosed by a wall. In the east a passageway led from the Southern Stoa towards the Roman theater.

Since the beginning of the Hellenistic period the dedication of terracotta figurines ceased. Now Homeric and Megarian bowls and unguentaria came into use. This large amount of unguentaria, however, dedicated to the Kabeirion may indicate that the cult had developed a strong chthonic character in the Hellenistic period, since this pottery type was found all around the Mediterraneanoften in graves. In Roman times also glass balsamaria were dedicated, and worshippers left a considerable amount of drinking vessels made of very delicate glass.

Several inscriptions on stone are preserved, the earliest dating back to the beginning of the 3rd century BC. This one lists the cult personnel for the mysteries: four “Kabeiriarchai”, later reduced to three and then two, and twelve “Paragogoeies” who probably introduced the adepts into the cult. In the 2nd century BC members of renowned Theban families held the priestly offices. A late 3rd century inventory of very valuable votives emphasizes the sanctuary’s prosperity at that time. The cult finally ceased in the 4th century AD.

Still in the Roman period Kabeiros and Pais appeared separately in inscriptions; only Pausanias used the plural name Kabeiroi (9.25.5). He describes a complex foundation myth of the Kabeiric mysteries: Prometheus and his son Aitnaios of the Kabeiroi-people founded the cult after they had received the secret mysteries from Meter. The goddess and her daughter Kore were venerated nearby (their sanctuary has not been detected yet). Later the Argives drove out the Kabeiroi but Pelarge, daughter of Potnieus, established the mysteries again, at a place called Alexiarus. Then Telondes of the Kabeiroi according to an oracle from Dodona established a cult for Pelarge and returned to the former site of the Kabeirion. Pelarge’s father was the eponymous hero of the Boiotian town Potniai. It seems that at the time of Pausanias a mythical explanation of the mysteries had been construed, but so far none of the mentioned gods and heroes is known from the archaeological record.


The sanctuary of the Kabeiroi is situated 8 km west of Thebes. It was devoted to 2 deities, Kabeiros and Pais, both of unknown origin, to which Demeter revealed mysteries aiming at reinforcing the fertility of nature animals and human beings. 
The Kabeiroi were worshiped as protectors of wineyards and animal fertility; associated are 1400 representations of bulls found at the site. The cult in the sanctuary began in the archaic period (700-500 B.C.) and continued unil late antiquity (4th c. A.D.). The pots on the sanctuary bear typical decoration with grotesque carucaturated figures. Some neolithic (6000-3000 B.C.) sherds from beneath the temple attest an earlier occupation of the site, before its use as a religious center.
In 1887 small bull figurines had turned up on the Athenian art market that were inscribed and dedicated to Kabeiros. Soon afterwards the Theban antiquity service discovered the Kabeirion. Until then the sanctuary of the “Kabeiroi” was only known from the 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias (9.25.5-10), who revealed its location close to a grove of Demeter and Kore and gave an account of the Roman foundation myth (section 3.3) yet remaining silent about the cult.
Still in 1887 and 1888 the German Archaeological Institute at Athens excavated the central area of the sanctuary – the temple and its adjacent structures. Work resumed 70 years later, in 1959. By then numerous stone blocks had been removed, entire buildings had vanished. The excavations proceeded until 1970 but have never been completed; parts of the sanctuary and its ancient boundaries are still unknown.

Statuette of a bull

 Archaic, late 6th century b.c. Greek, Boeotian; from the Kabeirion at Thebes
Bronze; H. 1 13/16 in. (4.6 cm), W. 2 13/16 in. (7.1 cm)
Inscribed in Greek: Thaletas dedicated me to the Kabeiroi
Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.210)

The first FIRESENSE pilot site located in Kabeirion, Boeotia, Greece. Two other archaeological sites of ancient Boeotia were initially also considered as candidates.
The site  was chosen because it is frequently threatened by wildfire: Kabeirion was burnt in the summer 2007 and this caused flooding during the winter.

 Book online :
1. The Use of Masks on the Ceramics from the Theban Kabeirion in Greece pdf
2. Boeotian Kabeiric ware: the significance of the ceramic offerings at the Theban Kabeirion in Boeotia

Site Monuments

 The most important monuments of Kabireion are:
The Temple : devoted to the gods called Kabeiroi. It is a rectangular building the oldest remains of which are dated at the 6th c. B.C. onwards. The preserved foundations are from the end of the 4th c. B.C., but later renovations involving annexe on W. of the temple were in the 2nd and 1st c. B.C. The temple was supplied with pronaos, cella and a courtyard with two rectangular sacrificial pits. It was enclosed by a circuit wall.
The Theatre : it was built during the hellenistic period (3rd-1st c. B.C.) in the same axis as the temple. It had no front scene, but had 10 sectors in the cavea and en altar in the middle of the orchestra. It was used for the attendance of religous ceremonies concerning the initiation of the pilgrims.

  • The Stoa : long-narrow building, (length 40 m.) on the S.E. of the theatre. It may possibly have been used in the cult. It was built in the 1st c. B.C.
  • The circular and elliptical buildings : were found everywhere in the sanctuary. They contained sacrificial pits and benches along the walls for the practices of initiation. The largest one from the end of the 5th c. B.C., between the temple and the stoa, was probably a plain unroofed enclosure wall. It came out of use in the beginning of the 1st c. B.C.
  • The circuit wall : before 300 B.C. it enclosed the temple and an open-air area in front of it. In the 2nd c. B.C. it extended to the east in order to include the cavea of the theatre.

Sources / Bibliography / Photos

Bequignon Y. 1976, "KABIRION Boiotia, Greece" στο The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites. Stillwell, Richard. MacDonald, William L. McAlister, Marian Holland. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press.
 Bruns Gerda 1964, "Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben", Arch.Anz. 231-65MIP; (1967) 228-73MIP.
Kerenyi Carl 1997, Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence, Princeton University Press.
http://www.gtp.gr/ www.thiva.grWolters P. & Gerda Bruns 1940, Das Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben I, Walter de Gruyter.

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