By Jason König
Usually if you work on ancient literature the summer is a time for lots of reading and writing, and the furthest you are likely to travel is to a conference or two. But one of the highlights of the last couple of months for me has been spending a few days in the mountains in Greece in June. One of my main research projects at the moment is a book on mountains in ancient Greek and Roman culture. The book is focused above all on literary representations, so climbing real mountains maybe isn’t crucial—I could probably just about write the book without it—but somehow it does feel important to know what these places are like.
The hills around Athens and two or three hours to the north are not at first sight the most beautiful mountains in Greek. Mt Hymettos, to the east of Athens, is covered with radar masts and crowded with cyclists (at least the west side; the east feels deserted by comparison); Mt Parnassos is covered with ski-lifts and the pastures above Delphi have some very angry sheepdogs (take a stick); there are wind turbines running all along the summit ridge of Mt Kithairon.
But I found a lot to enjoy too. The tiny ruined temple to Zeus on Hymettos is fascinating to see, tucked into a hollow on the wide summit ridge, although very hard to find—just by the roadside a few hundred metres before the road comes to an end, but without any signposting. We know from the offerings that have been found that the inhabitants of Attica came up here for many centuries to make dedications to Zeus, probably offerings for rain: Pausanias talks about an altar dedicated to Zeus Ombrios (‘Showery Zeus’) on Mt Hymettos. It’s exciting to walk up the track Pausanias describes from Delphi (‘easier for an active person than it is with mules and horses’—that’s certainly right), and then on several hours to the enormous Corycian cave, which has inscriptions cut into the rock walls from the Hellenistic period in honour of Pan and the Nymphs. And the route the Persians took across Mt Kallidromo behind Thermopylae is amazing to see. It’s a broad meadow, with wild horses, a couple of hundred metres across, right up on the mountain ridge at 1000 metres above sea level: it’s not hard to see why it was a good route for an army.
But the best thing of all was climbing Mt Helikon–or rather Motsara, the main peak of Zagaras, which is the mountain at the western end of the Helikon range. I got there from the Valley of the Muses, west of the village of Askri (near to the site of the ancient Askra, the village of Hesiod). Delphi, an hour away to the east, has two million visitors a year; the Valley of the Muses looked as though it might have two at the most. There’s almost no signposting to it, and the site itself is deserted. There are lots of columns scattered around the ground at the head of the valley, with goats wandering in and out. It takes an effort to imagine it as it used to be, but this was for many centuries an important site, the site of the great festival of the Muses with its musical competitions, which flourished in the Hellenistic and Roman periods under the control of the city of Thespiai (in the opening paragraphs of his dialogue the Amatorius Plutarch describes camping on the slopes of the mountain at festival time with his wife and with friends).
From there you go up along a wide track to the east, with beehives everywhere (you can hear the bees buzzing in the trees). And then after a couple of miles you turn uphill very steeply—about a 500-metre climb.
Just below the summit ridge is the Hippocrene spring, a gap in the rocks at the edge of a steeply sloping pasture, with water three or four metres below and clouds of flies buzzing just above it. Fixed to the rock is a rusty chain and a plastic bucket: you can throw it down so that it splashes into the water. Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Personal Helicon’ describes looking down into wells as a child: ‘One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top / I savoured the rich crash when a bucket / Plummeted down at the end of a rope’. I don’t know whether he knew about this bucket and chain on the real Helikon, but I guess probably not. I had a small sip for inspiration. I hadn’t realised how far up the spring would be. Pausanias describes coming up here: he must have climbed all the way up himself up the long slope, to see the spring; he tells us also that he was shown a lead tablet there with the Works and Days of Hesiod inscribed on it, so this was clearly a tourist/pilgrimage destination in some sense.
You can see also the remains of a small building on the summit (10 metres by 5 metres). It may have been originally an altar of Zeus and so a place of sacrifice like the many other summit altars on Greek mountains (most famously Mt Lykaion in Arkadia), although some think it’s more likely to have been a watch-post because of the roof tiles that have been found there. It was later converted into a Christian chapel, like many other mountain-top Zeus altars. A lot of these mountain-top sites are hardly visited—I didn’t see another walker anywhere on Mt Helikon, or on any of the other mountains I climbed—but I find it hard to think of any more memorable places of all the sites I have visited in Greece. And it was good to know that people had stood in that same place thousands of years ago, whether that was for sacrifice, after struggling up there for hours with their animals, or as soldiers watching the plains below.