Aurora Festival and the Sacred Rituals of Samothraki: Past, Present... What Future?

Chiara Baldini

Independent researcher


It is the summer of 2011 and I am travelling to the 4th edition of the Aurora Festival, taking place for the first time on the island of Samothraki, Greece. I have been invited to give a presentation on the ancient initiation rituals native to this remote island for many centuries. This is my second visit to Samothraki; my first visit was to attend the Samothraki Dance Festival in 2002. While I knew little about psytrance back then, I grew to like this scene more than anything I had experienced before. Two years later, under the geodesic dome at Boom Festival 2004, I started considering the possibility that these events were a spontaneous resurfacing of ancient ecstatic practices and subsequently researched the Western traditions of such practices, which appear to have included the so-called “Mysteries of Samothraki”. Today, I’m thrilled to return to this island and thankful to the “Aurorians” for reviving a trance party at this magic location after a police raid led to the dramatic end of the Samothraki Dance Festival in 2003.

With my travel companion, I board the boat in Alexandropolis one week before the festival begins. For hundreds of years this port has been the gateway for thousands of pilgrims who came to be initiated in the cult of the mysterious Kabeiroi, or Great Gods, of Samothraki. As we arrive at the ticket office, I can’t help thinking about all those who have made this journey before us: men and women, the free and the enslaved, Greek and foreigners, as testified by the preserved lists of initiates engraved on marble. They came from far away, maybe travelling for the first and only time in their lives, full of expectations and excitement. For these travellers, to be initiated gave them the chance to meet the Kabeiroi personally, and to be reborn among the glorious ranks of Samothraki initiates, respected and honored all around the ancient world as exceptionally trustworthy, fearless, helpful and generous people.

The man at the ticket office asks for our names and types them in the computer. Considering what we are led to expect on the island— “a colorful initiation into the cosmic secrets of the sacred island of Samothraki” (Aurora Festival 2011)—I feel that we are now part of those lists. These modern times are crazy indeed if I feel entitled to compare one of the most revered and sacred Greek rituals, where Alexander the Great was said to have been conceived, to a “rave”!

Samothraki (2011). Photo: Chiara Baldini.

From afar, the island, a volcano of 1,611m, looks like an old Grandma who knows a lot. The mountain was the home of the Great Goddess, The Lady of the Mountain, the mother of the Kabeiroi, and after all these years it seems like she’s still there, welcoming those who visit her, guarding her secrets from some while revealing them to the chosen ones...

Once on the island, we arrive at the party site a short drive along the coast. We drive in to the camping ground without being checked: the men at the door appear to observe a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. We comply. The whole site is still under construction: big fluoro shapes are yet to be hung from the beautiful shady trees, cables are still to be laid, workers and campers mingle. Between the trees I can see a pebble beach and the deep blue of the Aegean Sea. I’m happy to notice that this site—where the festival was held ten years prior—remains a paradise.

We meet our friends Amala, Pedro and Leo, who are building the Temple of Gnosis where, according to the festival’s website, “philosophers, thinkers, academics, practitioners and wise men will merge knowledge from different parts of the world and scientifically explore the mystical and sacred relationship between the human being as a creator and its environment, Mother Gaia”. It’s a very optimistic name for an ambitious project, and I feel proud that my presentation will be given here.

The area looks spectacular. There are natural decorations of carefully piled stones, wooden sculptures of dragons and butterflies and other leafy installations, which show that much love was involved in the setting up of this place. But this picture of beauty and harmony soon fades with revelations of the disorganized state of production: no food for the workers, nor the tools and materials promised. Yet, despite the quite tense situation, the island is marvellous and the workers seem to be giving their best, in Her honor.

Dance floor (2011). Photo: Chiara Baldini.

We continue exploring, walking on the pebbled beach and soon reach a blaze of black, orange and yellow lycra—the dance floor. This brightly colored plastic fabric seems to me a bit out of place between the green trees and the blue sea, even if the original idea, as stated on the website, was to create a beehive-like structure in homage to the “sacred hexagon, nature’s perfect shape”.

Here, we meet Greek Maria, the area manager of the Temple of Gnosis, who tells us about the organiser’s optimistic expectations to host 7,000 people. She introduces us to Teo, the main promoter of the festival, a Greek in his late twenties with a ponytail and long, almost Asian, eyes, which gives him the appearance of an ancient Minoan from Crete. While on the phone, he lifts his long eyes and whispers “welcome to Greece”, quickly returning to his own language and worries. The Minoan eyes are sad. It seems like he wishes to be anywhere else but where he is and I feel sympathetic, since event production is doubtlessly a multidimensional responsibility. He must be sitting on hot coals. I hope he knows what he’s doing.

In the following days, we take time out to visit the Sanctuary of the Great Gods where the ancient initiations were celebrated.[1] The Sanctuary is strategically located between two (now dry) rivers and consists of many marble buildings built in phases starting from the Sixth Century BC: the Hall of Choral Dances, where the sacred dances were performed; the Rotunda, the biggest circular building in ancient Greece whose purpose remains unknown; the Hall of Votive Gifts, where those who sought special protection left offerings to the gods; the Stoa, where initiates slept; the theatre; the dining rooms... Today, very little remains.

The Sanctuary (2011). Photo: Chiara Baldini.

Earthquakes, a series of wars, looting and human misery have turned the site into a pile of stones now painstakingly examined by Greek archaeologists financed by the EU. But what happened here was so uncommon and epoch-making that even today the place is spellbinding and attracts a varied crowd of visitors among whom you can find the casual tourist, the school teacher of classic letters and the expert esotericist, walking side by side and scrutinising the piles of stones.

The forest (2011). Photo: Chiara Baldini.

Actually, besides the Sanctuary, the whole island is rich with sites of mystery and magnetism: fairy-tale scenarios of green waterfalls surrounded by huge sycamore trees with volcanic stones embedded in their roots, mythological rock landscapes dotted with wild goats, ancient fountains with enigmatic symbols, hidden Neolithic sites... As my friend tells me: “Here the Goddess is full power!”

Finally the day comes and the gates, now efficiently patrolled by the Mega Sprint Guards, open and people start to flow in. I sit down to look at them, the new “initiates”: dusty rastas, giggling young girls, psy-cyber-techno-nerds, plain Greek couples enjoying an alternative end of summer, seventh generation German freaks with way-too-cool caravans, hardcore Eastern guys with their backpacks full of alcohol, and mysterious unidentifiable types (always my favorite). Being the end of August, many arrive from a full season of parties, their arms encrusted with wristbands. While most are Greek, many come from Eastern and Western Europe, and there are a few Americans, Japanese and Brazilians.

While observing these new arrivals, the different stages of initiation in ancient times come to mind. The first stage is open to everyone while the second and third stages are only accessible to those who had reached a higher level of self-realisation and are proven to possess high moral standards. I imagine the team of priests and priestesses in the Sanctuary, who had developed an “eye” to see those who could go further in the initiation and had devised a ritualised experience, the initiation, allowing a real development in the personalities of the initiates, so that they could go back home “better in every respect” (an often quoted passage by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus) to function as models, sources of inspiration, mature enough within themselves to offer a support to others.

This concept has fired my imagination. In the psytrance scene, I have always found exceptionally good hearted, “connected” or “evolved” people, who have motivated my return to parties over the years, inspiring my participation in the scene. Is a similar kind of “selection” now occurring without the interventions of a class of priests? After all, isn’t it “Grandma” (i.e. Nature) who selects?

I indulge these thoughts as excited partygoers greet old friends, hug strangers, and share food and drinks among one another. Happiness is palpable and highly contagious while Greek TV channels report stories on the opening of the infamous gathering of drug abusers and perverts. When I am exposed to the derogatory clichés used by media reporting on electronic music gatherings, I often think of the strictly observed ancient tradition, which forbade any disclosure to the uninitiated regarding what happened during the initiation.

Finally the music starts and a hand made Bulgarian sound system plays powerfully stirring rhythm patterns, while big plastic bees and huge drops of plastic honey hover above blissed-out dancers. The line-up is actually impressive, mainly progressive and full on, with some good old Goa. Sometimes it sounds even a bit too slow for the night, but still, for me, it is much better than the ultra dark necro-trance often played at night in many parties. Too bad that, even in Aurora, the female presence behind the decks is depressingly non-existent. Among over 80 acts performing on the main stage the only female DJ is Brazilian Ekanta. It is sad to notice that, after 20 years of European psytrance festivals, it is still very difficult for women to break the “glass ceiling” separating the dance floor from the DJ booth. I don’t think Grandma would appreciate this.

DJ with his daughter (2011). Photo: Robsen.

Even back in the day music seemed to have been a major element in the ancient rituals. Music and wine mixed with herbs were used to induce a state of divine possession, which was seen as a means to get in touch with the Kabeiroi and with the Goddess. And it is on the dance floor where I feel we find the link with the past. For it is in this space where people genuinely release repressed energy, break physical boundaries, embark on multidimensional travels and have their own mostly un-coded, un-deciphered encounters with the mysterious powers of nature, even if they very rarely describe it in these terms. Rather, they will declare with bright eyes that it was “fucking awesome”, and you will see them cry in desperation when the music stops. Yet, this enthusiasmos, this willingness to let go of one’s self and to venture into the mysterious realms and the irrational forces of nature is what remains, 2,000 years later, compelling thousands of people to come from the farthest lands to dance at the feet of the sacred mountain—likely feeling Her healing presence at a deeper level than many of those who today live on Samothraki

Breaking physical boundaries (2011). Photo: Murdoc.

Enthusiastic dancer (2011). Photo: Robsen.

Transcending (2011). Photo: Murdoc.

Actually, talking about numbers, I begin to realize that, even though it is pumping, the dance floor seems to be... half empty. The next day there are rumors that only 2,000 tickets had been sold and by the third night, the “big DJs” stop coming and the most updated line up ceases to have any connection to reality. As a result, Greek DJs start performing repeatedly, the same tracks are heard over and over again and the quality of the music lowers significantly.

As I take in other areas of the festival I gain a better picture of what is happening. The chill out space never really takes off: despite the blue balls hanging from the trees, the area is unwelcoming, uncomfortable, and for the most part empty. Meanwhile, in the Temple of Gnosis, the program is drastically reduced to a few workshops and talks by those speakers (like me) who have managed to reach the island independently—as it turns out, most of these guests have been sent false flight reservations! Even if no one from management communicates it to me, it is now clear that the promised reimbursement for my travelling expenses will not materialize. The situation is getting heated. Those who have spent weeks working their asses off to build the festival (including the British team who created the dance floor and our friends of the Gnosis area), those who have been contracted to shoot videos of the party, or to make projections in the different areas, all become nervous about getting paid. In many cases, this money is needed for workers to return home! By day three, Teo is nowhere to be found. He only answers the phone to his Greek collaborators and refuses to meet anyone, even if only to admit that he doesn’t have the money and to deal with the situation responsibly. Rumors circulate about unpaid workers and DJs at previous Aurora editions, rumors now matching the many negative comments I had read about the “Aurorians” in online trance forums. Back in the glorious days of Samothraki, those with such dubious ethics were unlikely to have occupied such a paramount position in the ceremony!

My presentation is repeatedly postponed, but after three days, it finally happens. Before a crowd of about 30–40 people, I explain how a prehistoric cult of nature worship arriving from the near east and involving shamanic practices of ecstasy has managed to survive through the millennia, adapting to cultural transformations without losing its integrity and power. This was possible thanks to an always honored connection to the roots of the cult; to its integration within the more intellectually evolved Hellenic culture, and to the exceptional honesty and trustworthiness of those celebrating the initiations. And of course thanks to an extraordinary location, whose magic cannot be described, only experienced directly.

On the festival website, I read that the Aurora production team consider themselves “loyal followers of the psychedelic trance scene”, while, amidst the avalanche of criticism on a thread on the Isratrance forum, I read Max-K’s (2011) comment that “the organizers are fully committed to the tribe’s spiritual experience”. I ponder the meaning of these statements, for they reveal an awareness that organizing a psytrance party involves much more than logistics. But if being part of this scene is simply about liking a specific kind of music, then psytrance is destined to have an expiry date like any other fashion. If this scene is about creating spaces to evolve into higher levels of awareness, which inherently involves acting with integrity and honor, as it used to be for the Samothraki initiates, then perhaps there is hope for psytrance to survive and mature, as the Mysteries did for many centuries... But in this case, the Minoan promoter and his crew will have to engage in a good talk with Grandma.

Author Biography

Chiara Baldini graduated from the University of Florence, Italy, in English Linguistics. She has been attending psytrance parties since the late 1990s, joining festivals all around the world. Since 2004, she has conducted independent research on the historical and mythological roots of psytrance parties and the evolution of the “cult of ecstasy”. She has participated in the Boom Festival as a guest speaker both in 2008 (as part of the “What is Trance?” panel, highlighting the parallels between trance parties and Greek Mystery Cults), and in 2010 with a presentation focusing on a comparison between the Boom Festival and the Mysteries of Eleusis. She writes for the Boom Festival website and is a contributor to the anthology The Local Scenes and Global Culture of Psytrance (Routledge 2010) edited by Graham St John. Email: chiara_baldini AT yahoo DOT com


Aurora Festival. 2011. <> (accessed 15 December 2011).

Max-K. 2011. “Aurora Festival 2011-Samothraki Island”. Isratrance. 26 August <> (accessed 20 January 2012).

Lehmann, K. 1966. Samothrace: A Guide to the Excavations and the Museum. New York University Press: New York.


[1] For a detailed description of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, see Lehmann (1966).