Mountains, Magic and Myths

Let me paint you a picture…

A mountain road, green flecked mountains rearing up on the left, to the right a gorge that drops hundreds of metres to a raging river valley, before rising again as mountains on the other side. The road circles and climbs, hugging the rocky slopes, like a baby in the arms of its mother, almost clinging on for dear life so as to not descend into the abyss below. In the distance it continues its snaking ascent, always up, upwards to where the gods must surely live. The colour slowly fades from the rocks, changing from green to brown to grey, progressively more barren, parched and dry. The mountain is scored with fissures, huge cracks called bassai in Ancient Greek, which gives the place its name – Bassae, or Vasses in English.

It’s 4pm – the afternoon sun sits in the sky surrounded by a sea of perfect blue, not a cloud in sight, beating down and baking the road, the heat rising and shimmering above the surface. A lone figure, pounding the floor rhythmically with his walking stick, trudges wearily in the heat, upwards, always up. The higher he climbs, the more it seems that civilisation has been left behind, the feeling that here there is nothing but nature…and the gods! It’s a figment of his imagination however, because every now and then a car passes by, or a motor bike, shattering the perfect image in his mind. But apart from that the only sound comes from the eagles which are disturbed by his passage. They launch from their solitary meditation, soaring on the warm eddies, swooping and diving, their shrieks breaking the deafening silence.

Now the only thing in his mind is his destination. He’s been on the road since 7.30am, stopping only for food and water along the way, fuelling the ascent. Up, always upwards. Body aching, he counts down each kilometre doggedly – some kind soul has marked the final 5 kilometres for a bike race with messages of encouragement. Step by step his journey’s end moves closer.

Finally, rounding a bend, a huge white tent appears on the mountainside, like a ghostly mirage standing proudly, but strikingly out of place, framed by distant snow capped-peaks. But inside the canvas frame he knows is a hidden treasure, the days grail, which has enticed him to such a desolate place. It’s the last stretch, the final kilometre, which breathes fresh life into tired bones. Upwards, ever up, a final circle of the mountain, a last straight stretch of road, the messages on the ground talking as if they were meant for him.

A gate, a path upwards (always up!), surrounded by ancient rocks of grey local limestone, sculpted and worked, lying on the grassy hillock as if some giant child has just finished playing with them. He can feel life in the mountain, an invisible electricity which silently crackles and infuses everything. There is a magic here, a silence and peacefulness which covers everything like a warm blanket, filling his shattered body with life. The traveller sits, taking it all in, a moment of meditation, breathing the feeling of achievement, looking out over the landscape, a 360 degree panoramic view of peaks and ridges, as if he is enclosed within the centre of an enormous ring, which Zeus and his fellow Olympians have crafted out of rock. To the south one mountain stands out strikingly, a flat top shrouded in misty pink clouds and mystery, some magic akin to his present location. It is almost calling to him, beckoning him, and it’s image will stay in his mind for many weeks afterwards, emblazoned like a vision from the gods.

But for now he stands, feeling his shaky legs straining under the effort, and steps towards his goal…

The temple of Apollo Epicurius, the “Parthenon of the Peloponnese”, designed by Iktinos, the creator of the Parthenon in Athens. It stands at 1,130 metres in a place of perfect serenity and beauty.


 

The Temple of Epicurius Apollo

The guardian had passed me on the road around 1pm – I had met him the day before and he told me that he would wait for me before closing for the day. When I arrived he gave a shout of greeting and welcomed me with free entry. I’m guessing there are not too many people who make the exhausting climb by foot!

Pulling back the tent door I was greeted by a haunting, other-worldly ambient music, somehow completely fitting despite the fact that the sound was coming from a video which explained the archaeological restoration that had taken place. Huge limestone columns, 6×15, stand in perfect symmetry, surrounding a walled inner sanctuary where they would have performed the ceremonies to Apollo. It’s just a shame that it’s all under a huge tent, and you can’t get a proper sense of it and the landscape around. Despite this, I felt utterly privileged, and standing there, surrounded by breathtaking vistas of the mountainous landscape, you begin to understand the connection the ancient Greeks made between the gods and nature. How can you not be inspired in such a place?

The Temple of Apollo Epicurius on the inside
The Temple of Apollo Epicurius on the inside

(If you want to read more on the temple and see some old photos, check out this excellent article: http://newlinearperspectives.wordpress.com/travel-2/the-apollo-at-bassae/)

The original temple was built in the 7th century BC, by the people of Phigaleia, after an oracle from the God at Delphi. With the help of their neighbours, the Oresthasians, they defeated the Spartans in battle and retrieved their land. To honour Apollo they erected the temple and worshipped him as Epikourios, which means assistant in evils of war.  In the Iliad, Apollo is both healer and bringer of disease and death with his arrows, and therefore the god who sends a disease can also prevent it! In the 420’s BC, when the temple which we see today was constructed, he was honoured as the God of healing, because the Phigalians believed he had protected them from the Plague.

I camped that night outside the temple grounds in the light of a full moon, and in the late morning I descended, walking to ancient Phigaleia, about 13km away by the main road, but longer on the smaller, more difficult country paths. I was out of water and stopped at the first place I could, a tiny village on the mountainside called Dragogi, where I met Alexandros the Albanian. He filled my water bottle, offered me a coffee and then invited me to stay for lunch as if I were an old friend. I sat at the kitchen table in a room with 4 beds crammed in next to each other, a television showing MTV behind me, while he bustled around preparing the food. We chatted in a mix of Greek, English and Italian and he told me that he has family in Albania, sons and a wife, but he lives there in a simple house with his 19 year old nephew. They work for €30 per day when they can, picking olives, building houses and doing odd jobs, but life was not easy. He smiled and then placed an array of simple but delicious dishes on the table, and filled my glass with wine. “Kali Orexi” he said – enjoy your meal.

A few hours later, energy renewed, I decided to try to follow the old paths, hoping I wouldn’t end up lost, and in the beautiful late afternoon sunshine, I found myself once again in paradise. Below me the roaring of a river, and around me the scents and sounds of spring, as I wandered a meandering path through the richly coloured slopes. It was once said that all roads lead to Rome but I think that should actually read all roads lead to aromas! As I walked during these days, I could feel nature waking up after the winter, in a way that I never had. The intensity of fragrances can be overwhelming, breathing in the heady scents of the flowers, which often hit me like a wave, bringing a smile to my face as I inhaled everything from head to toe. I had been reading Gerald Durrell’s my family and other animals which he wrote about life on the island of Corfu. At one point he describes this change from winter to spring and how the tortoises are waking up and crawling out from hibernation. And what do they do? The males have only one thing on their minds – it’s mating season! And so, as I walked along this blissful blossom mountain path, I turned a bend and heard the strangest sound…wheezing, rasping breaths, the banging of rock on rock…and as I looked up the slope I saw 2 tortoises in the middle of a passionate rendezvous, the shrivelled ancient face of the male bobbing up and down slowly, and the sound emanating from him like painful, difficult breathing. They spotted me after a moment, and as if in slow motion, the male slid off the shell of the indignant female.

The tortoises in the middle of the path, the male on the left and the female on the right, hiding her head inside her shell

They were not happy about my intrusion, especially the female who trundled off to the side of the path and sat with her head in her shell. Show over! But the poor affronted male was obviously not finished and desperately started to bash her shell with his, in the hope of reigniting her passion. Unfortunately for him she was clearly not into public displays of affection – this was no peep show – and she quite literally refused to come out of her shell! I left them to sort out their squabble and continued on my way with a huge grin. This is not a scene which you witness every day!

Alexandros had told me that there was an Englishman called Peter living in Figalia, the modern village of Ancient Phigaleia. In the early evening I arrived at an ancient 4th century fountain by a huge tree, my feet thanking me as I washed gratefully in the cool water. And then I set about trying to find “the Englishman”, following a little stone paved road into the most picturesque village you can imagine. As I walked down a broken rocky pathway to a beautiful stone house, a man walked out onto the terrace and looked at me in surprise. Full bearded, he had an air of study about him. “We have a visitor”, he declared, looking me over. “And who might you be?”. I explained and that was enough. Out of the purple doors walked Stella, all smiles and relaxed happiness. I was officially their first guest in the downstairs room, and they were warm, friendly and welcoming. “I was going to make liver, bacon and mash for dinner” added Stella, with a half smile, looking at me as my face lit up in anticipation. I accepted the invitation willingly!

The huge tree next to the Ancient Fountain in Figalia
The huge tree next to the Ancient Fountain in Figalia and the road leading into the village

This is the way my journey has unfolded here in Greece, and I am constantly amazed at the incredible hospitality I receive from strangers. As we sat by a roaring fire, sipping home brewed beer, we talked history, philosophy and exchanged stories. Peter and Stella are from Brighton and have been working on the house for 10 years and are only just nearing the end of the building process, which has not been without difficulties. This is in part because it is in a grade 1 archaeological zone, and every step of the way, every time they wanted to dig they had to be supervised. The other reason is due to the inherent problems of Greek builders (don’t shoot the messenger!), and so they have used Albanian builders instead, which didn’t go down well with the locals. But now they do have a beautiful house looking out over the valley. In the morning we sat having breakfast (which was a treat for me with tea in a pot and everything!) looking out at this wonderful view, and I decided to spend an extra day to enjoy the atmosphere of the Ancient sites.

Peter and Stella on the terrace with Breakfast - I was a very happy traveller!
Peter and Stella on the terrace with Breakfast – I was a very happy traveller!

There is a temple of Athena on a hillside, and I lay on a grassy, flower filled hillock, relaxing in the afternoon sunshine and listening to the sounds of the wind in the valley and the birds in the sky, and admiring the tableau of the village sitting comfortably on the mountainside.

The stones of the Temple of Athena of the village of Figalia which sits on the side of the mountain.
The stones of the Temple of Athena, with a view of the village of Figalia, sitting on the side of the mountain.

There is so much history in this area, and Peter is particularly interested in a local legend of the Goddess Demeter, and what he calls “the nightmare cave”. The tale of the nightmare comes in its original form from Pausanius, a Greek cultural traveler of the second century AD. It is a hugely complex mix of different Greek myths and I will attempt to explain a little here…

According to myth, Demeter, the Goddess of Agriculture, fled the amorous advances of Poseidon (a prodigious Casanova and also her brother!). She hid among the herds of Onkios in the shape of a horse, but Poseidon assumed the form of a stallion and coupled with her. In another story, Hades, God of the Underworld, fell in love with Persephone (the daughter of Demeter), abducted her, and carried her off to his layer where he raped her (the Rape of Persephone has been shown in numerous sculptures and paintings, most notably by Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini).

“Angry with Poseidon and grieved at the rape of Persephone, [Demeter] put on black apparel and shut herself up in a cave for a long time. But when all the fruits of the earth were perishing, and the human race dying through famine, no god, it seemed, knew where Demeter was in hiding. Pan, they say, visited Arcadia, and roaming from mountain to mountain as he hunted, he came at last to Mount Elaius and spied Demeter, the state she was in and the clothes she wore…For these reasons, the Phigalians say, they concluded that this cavern was sacred to Demeter and set up in it a wooden image.
The image, they say, was made after this fashion. It was seated on a rock, like to a woman in all respects save the head. She had the head and hair of a horse, and there grew out of her head images of serpents and other beasts”

(Pausanias, Description of Greece)

The Phigalians worshipped the Goddess as Black Demeter, and apparently at some point they allowed the cave to fall into disuse, the wooden statue burned in a fire and they neglected her. Then there was famine and the Oracle at Delphi said that unless all the people of the village appeased her with offerings, “soon will she make you eat each other and feed on your children”.

Demeter was the Goddess of agriculture, fertility, sacred law and the harvest, and Peter believes that it was in this cave, through these stories and the lessons that they gave, that the nightmare was born. I like the image of a hidden cave, still lying undiscovered somewhere in the mountains around Ancient Phigalia, a place where dreams, visions and nightmares were brought to life! Or perhaps the people of the modern village of Figalia still keep the secret, and have passed it down through generations. Well, I can dream no? In such a place myth, history and nature blend together, and mix with modern life. But you can feel there is something special in the air, in the land…in The Earth.

“You can imagine the ancient Greeks sitting and talking just like we are now” says Peter. “The nature and mountains inspire thought, meditation and discussion”. I completely agree.


10 thoughts on “Mountains, Magic and Myths

  1. Hi David
    I have just found your blog….I love it …all thanks to Uncle Tony.He has just spent a night with us and gone to Stephanies, as me and my husband, Jason have flown out to Portugal, for a wedding. I remember you when you were a little boy….all my family have so much in comman with you, so it is great to make virtual contact. You are welcome to stay with us in Newlyn anytime you are back in the UK! Happy smiley travels. : ) xx

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    1. Wow thanks Melissa. How great to hear from you! It’s funny that I’ve never been down to visit you guys but I’d love to the next time I’m back in the uk (not sure when that’s likely to be though!). All the best and very happy to be in contact – about time all us hirtensteins got in touch and organised a huge family gathering. Now that would be fun!!!! X x

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  2. David, you have brought back memories of my visit to Bassae twenty years ago, inspired by an old family friend, Ellie (Eleanor Deane Hill, a talented painter and poet), who travelled around Greece in the 1930’s – by donkey(!). Of course she would have to hand the palm to you for actually walking. Somewhere I have a copy of a picture she took at the time.

    Have you ever thought of travel writing? You have the talent.

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  3. What a lovely description of your journey to the village – I think you have captured the essence of the place perfectly. On one hand idyllic, sunny and peaceful – and on the other,provocative, dark and mysterious.

    I am sure Demeter would approve!

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