September 16, 2008
September 16, 2008
Mount Olympus exists both as a physical mountain and a metaphorical place. Greek and Roman mythology imagined it as the home of their 12 primary gods and goddesses, and throughout history, several peaks in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have been named Olympus. Today, the mountain most widely linked to that ancient religion is located 100 kilometers southwest of the city of Thessaloniki on the northeastern coast of Greece. Mount Olympus currently faces environmental pressures including tourism development and illegal logging. However, it retains the same awesome presence as it had for the ancient Greeks, who saw in it the power of forces greater than human beings.
The Land and Its People
Mount Olympus was one of many mountains endowed with spiritual power in the pre-Christian era of Greece and Rome. Its name means “the luminous one” in Greek, perhaps referring to its typical dusting of snow from November to May. Its highest peak, Mytikas, is 9,570 feet, making Olympus the tallest mountain in Greece and the tallest in a mountain chain that runs north into Bulgaria and south into Turkey. Mytikas has a round shape that is marked by sharp peaks, deep ravines and the Enippeas River. A Mediterranean climate prevails in the lower levels of the mountain, supporting white rock, scrub vegetation and laurel, pine, and fruit trees; above 6,500 feet, the ecology turns alpine.
Mount Olympus was significant in Greek mythology as a zone of great power, the meeting place of heaven and earth. Ancient Greeks believed that Zeus, king of the gods, and his family of deities dwelt on Mount Olympus, but they regarded the mountain more as a figurative space for these gods and goddesses than an actual location on earth. Zeus conquered the territory in his battle with the Titans by gathering clouds and hurling thunderbolts. The clouds that envelop the mountain are continual reminders of the connection between earth and sky.
In the Greco-Roman tradition, natural elements were seen as ancestors of the more personified gods and goddesses. In addition to awe of mountains—a combination of reverence and a little fear—people also saw manifestations of the divine in caves, the headwaters of major rivers, and hot springs. Sacred groves were common during Greek and Roman times, and travelers would make offerings at these spots along their journey. Many such spots existed in the foothills and lower level of Mount Olympus. The highest sacrificial place was the peak of Profitis Ilias, at an elevation of 9,196 feet. Hermits and monks resided for longer periods of time in caves and forests located throughout the lower elevations of the mountain.
Mountains have been central to Greek society since Neolithic times. Dozens of villages arose in the foothills of Mount Olympus during the Iron Age (approximately the 12th century to the eighth century B.C.), before the classical era of Greece. The isolation of mountain villages has helped to preserve language and folklore over centuries of political changes. One of the most notable is Dion, on the northern side. From the fifth to the second century B.C., the town hosted a nine-day festival celebrating Zeus. Known as Olympia of Zeus, the nine days honored each of his nine daughters, the Muses, with theatrical performances and athletic competitions. Alexander the Great, from Macedonia—the modern political region that includes Mount Olympus on its southern border—is said to have gone to Dion to make sacrifices to Zeus before he set out on his campaign to expand the Macedonian empire.
With the coming of Christianity, many of the older religious and cultural practices associated with Mount Olympus were hidden or incorporated into the new religion. The Christian effacement of “pagan” religion was illustrated dramatically in 2006, when archaeologists excavating at Dion discovered a 2,200-year-old statue of Hera that had been used as filling for the city walls built by early Christians. However, the lower levels of the mountain were still used for spiritual contemplation. In the 11th century, St. Dionysius of Halicarnassus built a shrine on one of the lower peaks, Hagios Ilias. As in many European places, local culture still carries traces of the pagan sacred landscape, even though in the case of Mount Olympus, recreational appreciation has largely replaced spiritual veneration.
While its significance has altered, Mount Olympus has remained an important geographical location and symbol to Greeks. Waves of invaders during the Roman and Byzantine periods passed by it, but with all the political changes that surrounded it, the mountain itself remained relatively untouched. Its rugged terrain provided safe harbor for village residents, renegade soldiers, and criminals alike. However, Greece’s mountain-village culture changed dramatically after the Greek Civil War, which ended in 1949. Many people left their remote villages for coastal cities, a migration that included the villages around Mount Olympus. Such migration was encouraged by the growing economies in major cities and by overcultivation of mountainous areas, which led to soil erosion and deforestation.
As the permanent settlements around Mount Olympus emptied out, the mountain became more of a destination for adventure tourists. The first known climbers to reach the highest peak of Mytikas were Swiss climbers Fred Boissonas and Daniel Baud Bovy and their local guide Christos Kakkalos in 1913. Since then, the mountain has become a common one- or two-day hike for young travelers. Most hikers begin their climb in the town of Litochoro on the eastern side of the mountain in the region of Macedonia, a destination along the trans-Europe E4 hiking trail.
The other major human activity around Mount Olympus is archaeology; Dion and other ancient villages have been extensively excavated since the 1920s. One spectacular find was an ancient cemetery discovered in 1985 at the base of Mount Olympus, 2.5 miles southwest of Dion. Dion and other excavated villages have also given much information about urban planning, fortifications and temples from the classical Greek through the early Christian period. There are important Byzantine churches and monasteries as well as pagan sacred sites. However, the mountain itself has been untouched by professional archaeologists. Climbers regularly report seeing traces of temples and altars, ceramic plates, and coins at lower levels. The higher levels never saw human construction because of the challenge involved in climbing.
While for the vast majority of Greeks today, Mount Olympus is important for its ecological value or as a travel destination, a small number of people are reviving its spiritual association. Greece’s population is 95 percent Christian Orthodox, but since the mid-1990s, there has been an increase of people drawn to pre-Christian Greek philosophy or to practicing neo-paganism. The “religion of the 12 gods,” also known as Dodecatheon or the Hellenes movement, was illegal in Greece until 2006. Every year, several hundred people (700 in 2004) gather on Mount Olympus to participate in prayer and rituals including marriages and baptisms. While some literally believe in the ancient gods, others are rationalists who advocate a return to principles of critical thinking that derive from ancient Greek thought and that they see as lacking in contemporary Greek life. For these individuals, investigating ancient Greek religion is one avenue to reconnect the Greek people to their heritage.
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
Mount Olympus is a high priority for Greek conservation due to its significant biodiversity. It became the first of Greece’s 10 national parks in 1938. In 1981, UNESCO designated the Olympus National Park as a Biosphere Reserve. As do other Greek mountains, Mount Olympus has a high rate of endemic species because of its geographic isolation and because Greece is situated at the intersection of three continental land masses. The mountain contains 138 rare plant species and is an important nesting region for birds of prey. Greek national parks have a core area, in which only research and mild recreational activities are allowed. In the surrounding area, roads, hunting, and infrastructure for camping and hiking are permitted. While its natural riches are already protected via its status as a National Park and Biosphere Reserve, the Greek government has recently asserted its cultural value by submitting the “broader region of Mount Olympus” for consideration as a World Heritage site.
The main threats to the area are tourism and recreational climbing. With many villages abandoned or with aging populations, there are few residents to provide local knowledge of the landscape. Most people who explore the mountain are adventure travelers; they rock-climb, ski or raft but do not have local guides. The lack of permanent residents is a barrier to developing environmentally conscious tourism and conservation guidelines because there are few people who have a stake in the long-term care of the land. Those who do remain often see government laws as intrusive and unhelpful economically.
Despite the protected area status of the core zone, illegal hunting (often using poisonous baits) and logging continue to strip the mountain of its natural resources. Predator birds such as eagles and vultures have been particularly impacted. The park lacks the proper staffing levels and expertise to prevent such activities. Forest fires are also a danger in these mountainous regions; Mount Olympus suffered a severe one in 1998. Finally, a firing range at the base of the mountain disturbs those who seek recreational or spiritual experiences on the mountain.
In 2005, officials considered paving a dirt road that leads to a military training center at Vrysopoules, on the mountain. Conservation groups feared that this road was the first step towards erecting a ski resort at Vrysopoules, and their opposition put the plan on hold. However, there are other pavement projects in the works, and the more paved roads, the easier the access for loggers, hunters, developers and tourists. Together, these projects would create a high-traffic mountain landscape in which even visitors with the best of intentions would disturb wildlife and plants.
The federal government is considering a Joint Ministerial Decision that would establish new park boundaries. Based on a Special Environmental Study, completed in 2003, the Olympus National Park’s boundaries would be expanded and officially marked in three zones: the core, buffer, and outer areas, with differing activities permitted in each zone. While this new legislation will be an important step in protecting Mount Olympus, more work also needs to be done to engage local residents in conservation efforts. Currently, they have no legal say in regulation or enforcement, while tourism and development play a large role in their economy. So residents do have a stake in conservation, but they need to feel invested in the process. More community support will also help park managers control illegal activity by fostering a climate of respect and enlisting locals in protection activities.
Bernbaum, Edwin. Sacred Mountains of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Gray, Martin. “Mount Olympus.” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power.
Kostopoulou, S. and I. Kyritsis. “Local People’s Perceptions of Sustainable Tourism Development in Protected Mountain Areas: The Case of Mount Olympus, Greece.” In Sustainable Planning and Development (Proceedings of the First International Conference on Sustainable Planning and Development, Skiathos Island, Greece, 1-3 Oct 2003), edited by E. Beriatos, et al, 47-58. Boston: WIT Press, 2003.
Mandrakou, Alexandra. “Mount Olympus under threat.” Kathimerini, March 24, 2005.
Miller, Jon. “The Return of the Hellenes.” Worlds of Difference (report with audio and text), 2004.
Rives, James B. Religion in the Roman Empire. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2007.
Smith, Helena. “By Zeus!” The Guardian (London), February 1, 2007.
Smith, Helena. “Greek Gods Prepare for Comeback.” The Guardian (London), May 5, 2006.
Tzikas, George. “Olympus 2001.” Oreivatein.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “The broader region of Mount Olympus.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Mount Olympus.” MAB Biospheres Reserve Directory.
Valaoras, Georgia. “Conservation and Development in Greek Mountain Areas.” In Tourism and Development in Mountain Regions, edited by P. Godde, Martin F. Price and Friedrich M. Zimmermann, 69-83. Wallingford, Oxon, U.K. & New York, N.Y.: CABI Publishers, 2000.