Olym­pus as a spir­i­tual home

Meet the Greeks who wor­ship the an­cient gods with an an­nual pil­grim­age and rites

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY DEREK GATOPOULOS

MOUNT OLYM­PUS – Sil­ver-haired and soft-spo­ken, Ge­orge Klo­nis worked as a bus driver into his 60s but found his life’s pur­pose at the foot of Mount Olym­pus.

With his arms out­stretched and his toes touch­ing cold spring wa­ter, Klo­nis of­fers his de­vo­tion to the an­cient gods that Greek mythol­ogy says made Olym­pus their home: “Eter­nal and almighty Zeus, we call on you ... we praise you, and we will al­ways honor your strength.”

About 50 men and women, some with wreaths of branches on their heads, some wear­ing an­cient-style tu­nics, stand in si­lence be­hind him with their eyes closed.

Sev­eral hun­dred more Greeks, all devo­tees of an­cient Greece’s re­li­gion and tra­di­tions, come to wor­ship, revel in rit­u­als and take part in a range of events ev­ery July by the mythic moun­tain, the coun­try’s high­est peak at just un­der 3,000 me­ters (9,600 feet).

The yearly pil­grim­age , started in 1996, draws a di­verse fol­low­ing in­clud­ing his­tory en­thu­si­asts, marathon run­ners, fan­tasy gamers, na­tion­al­ists and young peo­ple seek­ing a taste of coun­ter­cul­ture.

They min­gle while jump­ing into a freez­ing river pool and par­tic­i­pat­ing in rit­u­als that in­clude bless­ing cer­e­monies for civil wed­dings and the sym­bolic adop­tion of an an­cient name. Over a long week­end, they can take part in craft and the­ater work­shops and dis­cus­sions on as­pects of an­cient life rang­ing from cook­ing to sex­u­al­ity.

The events are held at vil­lages or camps at the foot of the moun­tain.

For Klo­nis, who comes from the nearby city of Thes­sa­loniki, be­ing close to na­ture was a ma­jor rea­son for his par­tic­i­pa­tion. Hes been go­ing to Olym­pus for 14 years after hear­ing about the events in the news.

“We con­sider these places to be sa­cred, spe­cial. Peo­ple visit there and are in awe of this place. To fol­low the foot­steps of the an­cients, it makes them happy. For me, some­thing clicked. A door opened,” he said.

An­cient Greece’s epic myths of cre­ation and ce­les­tial power are R-rated, su­per­nat­u­ral tales of hero­ism, vi­o­lence, lust, jeal­ousy, mon­sters, and magic. The 12 main god­desses and gods held their strong­hold on Olym­pus, from where Zeus, the king of the gods, fired light­ning bolts in anger down the moun­tain.

A small group of ath­letes kicks off the an­nual Olym­pus events with a run from the an­cient ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Dion to the nearby moun­tain town of Li­to­horo. Many of the run­ners dress as an­cient war­riors, wear­ing cos­tumes once on sale as novelty items to tourists and now held to­gether with sta­ples and duct tape.

Re­tired telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions worker Dim­itrios Kalantzis brought his bright blue tu­nic and mock torso ar­mor, and car­ries a round shield.

“What is most im­por­tant is not the dress but the an­cient ideals. Be­cause that’s what Greece re­ally is. Ev­ery­thing else is sec­ondary,” he said be­fore set­ting off un­der a bak­ing hot sun.

In Li­to­horo, the run­ners are greeted by sev­eral hun­dred more devo­tees who hold a somber torch-lit pro­ces­sion to the slow beat­ing of drums and tunes played on a recorder.

Ex­cited chil­dren run around them dur­ing the hour-long rally, while older res­i­dents look on, some with dis­creet amuse­ment.

Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity has been the dom­i­nant re­li­gion in Greece for cen­turies, but re­minders of the coun­try’s an­cient past are ev­ery­where – from street names and coins to the tem­ples and stat­ues that sur­vived mil­len­nia.

Chil­dren learn mythol­ogy in ele­men­tary school. After cen­turies of Ot­toman rule ended nearly 200 years ago, an­cient Greek his­tory helped the emerg­ing mod­ern coun­try re­build a na­tional iden­tity.

An­cient Greece’s pan­the­is­tic re­li­gion is not of­fi­cially rec­og­nized by the state, and its few thou­sand ad­her­ents have cre­ated so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions to or­ga­nize their event – most met with muted dis­ap­proval by the church.

Res­i­dents of the vil­lages near Olym­pus say they have be­come ac­cus­tomed to the an­nual vis­i­tors.

“(We) were cau­tious in the be­gin­ning. Peo­ple were try­ing to un­der­stand what it was all about. Was it just some­thing charm­ing, or some­thing col­or­ful, or what?“said As­te­rios Far­makis a for­mer pub­lic hos­pi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tor who lives in Li­to­horo.

“But in the end we em­braced it,” Far­makis said. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to see is­sues that con­cern hu­man­ity, cul­ture, and the arts in a dif­fer­ent way: A win­dow into the world view of the an­cient Greeks.”

Peo­ple at­tend a cer­e­mony hon­or­ing an­cient Greek gods on the banks of the Enipeus River on Olym­pus, on July 8.

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